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Flying over Georgia

August 12, 2011, 12:28:44 PM
(Not) Born on the Bayou: Big Apple Meets the Big Easy Intro - Pre-Trip
I donít remember how exactly I came up with the idea to go to New Orleans. If I recall correctly I was looking at the DDF Master Thread Of Master Threads: Links To 125+ Destination Threads! and I wanted to find somewhere different and more importantly not cold. I settled on NOLA (New Orleans -NO, Louisiana-LA) and then the research began.

I headed over to the NOLA thread and found a few small TRs but nothing big. I was planning on going Sunday-Thursday and the 2 TRs I saw were shorter than that so I headed to TripAdvisor to try and find other things to do.  I made a list and then the time came to start looking at flights and hotel options. I saw that AA doesnít fly direct from NYC to MSY so use of Avios was out of the question. I saw on UA they only fly out of EWR (a pain from Queens) and I looked at the ITA Matrix and saw that cash flights were relatively cheap. I found a DL flight in basic economy for only $177 R/T but with basic economy I wouldnít be able to upgrade to Delta Comfort or pick my seat in advance, which I planned on doing with my Ritz card. So I paid the extra $20 and booked a regular main cabin seat for $197 and use my Ritz card to upgrade to Delta Comfort.

This would be my first time sitting in Delta Comfort and let me tell you, for the extra $10 I paid, it was well worth it. The amount of legroom was huge. The entertainment system was a huge plus since I was having issues with my Kindle.

After booking and upgrading my flight it was time to look at hotels.  I looked at hotels, Hyatt, SPG, Marriott, Hilton and IHG, and nothing seemed to be really worth using points. The cash rates were either low enough or the points rates were way too high. I also figured that since I was going to be staying 4 nights I could use my Prestige and get the 4th night free. I was looking at the Citi ThankYou travel site (not realizing these werenít the same prices as the Prestige 4th night rates) and I saw the Hyatt Regency New Orleans for $411.85. Comparing that to the $204 a night pre-tax on I figured it was a mistake and I should book it immediately. I called the Prestige # only to find out that the ThankYou travel rates werenít the same as the Prestige :(.  Figuring I wouldnít be able to beat a rate of $103/night I booked the ThankYou Travel room.

Once I got the confirmation I called Hyatt to add it to my HGP account so I could earn points and hopefully apply a DSU. Apparently, 3rd party bookings arenít considered ďeligible ratesĒ and therefore arenít eligible for point accrual or DSU. They wouldnít even let me add it to my HGP account so that I could receive my Diamond benefits such as best (non-suite) room upon check-in and free breakfast. I tweeted at Hyatt and they confirmed that I should have been eligible for the benefits. Not wanting to fight with them I decided to let it go for now and Iíd either live without Kosher breakfast and hopefully be able to get the best room at check-in or deal with it later.

As it got closer to the trip I kept checking the rates at both the Hyatt Regency and the Hyatt Centric French Quarter (formerly Hyatt French Quarter). I saw they had a special rate, which required a minimum two day stay (not a problem for me since Iíd be there for four nights) and a first night deposit. That second part was an issue for me. I saw the rate on which means I should have been able to book it with the Prestige, but I didnít want to book it, pay for the first night and run into the 3rd party booking issues.  About a week before my trip, I saw that special rate drop to $129/night and I then remembered that I had the Hyatt Amex Offer which would save me $60 on every $200. Since with taxes the total would come out to just under $600 that meant that Iíd save $120 or about $30 less than Iíd save with the Prestige and I didnít have to worry about any 3rd party booking issues. I made the reservation, called Hyatt to apply the DSU and I was set with only a few days left until my trip. Thatís when I started to check the weather.  That made things interestingÖ.More on that later.

Don't worry, the rest of the TR is written, I just need to put the finishing touches on it. They'll be up soon.

December 13, 2016, 03:39:44 PM
Panama TR- a Hidden Family Gem (w/AWESOME restaurants)! Before I get into all the details of our trip that we took for mid-Winter break.  I just want to let you know that we were traveling with 3 kids from pre-school to middle school so I wanted somewhere where we could both relax and do excursions but at a low-key, non-stressful pace and in a comfortable environment that all my kids would enjoy.

With Panama, I basically found a place that has the ease of vacationing in Miami or Scottsdale but with the adventures you can get in the rainforest and beaches of Costa Rica and Brazil.  On United or Singapore it is also only 35k RT in Economy or 60K in J, with tons of flights out of NY, LA and other markets. Since there are no direct flights from where we live in Denver we booked the outbound through IAH and on the return we did a two night stopover in Cancun.  Because we knew we were going to Cancun we did not make the effort to visit some of the amazing beaches and islands they have in Panama, although I'll try to still provide info on them.

Ok here is it goes (and before I begin, thank you to @Yehuda for helping me with the pictures)...we arrived late on a Sunday and thanks to this AMAZING app called Kosher PTY we had awesome sushi and pasta waiting for us at our hotel!

The app is in spanish but a lot of the words are the same and y'all have google translate so you should be able to figure it out!  Also, they do NOT accept payment over the app, it is just for ordering so remember you need to be there at your delivery time (so you can't have food waiting at your hotel for you).

We stayed at the Hilton on Avenida Balboa, and I would HIGHLY recommend it!  Because hotels are so cheap, I actually decided not to waste any points and just paid for the room (Panama City would be a great place to spend less points by booking with your Sapphire Reserve although I will also have info later on one hotel that might be the best possible use of your Marriott 7 night cert in the whole system).  Since it cost less than two rooms, and I don't like being crammed with our kids into one room we booked an Executive Master Suite.  It was HUGE, over 1100sqft. with a full kitchen and 2 bathrooms.

Here are some pics:

Kitchen, Living and Dining Area

We had a huge bedroom and Master Bath and another full bathroom with shower although my pictures of those are loading her upside down so if someone wants to help me figure out how to post them correctly, I can add some pics of them too!  ;D

Most people don't know that Panama City has more skyscrapers than any city in Latin America (yep, more than Rio and Mexico City) and it has a truly stunning skyline...

The hotel lobby was also just gorgeous with stunning two story windows and views of the Pacific Ocean and Bay:

This is a picture take from our suite of the Waldorf Astoria, one block over (sorry it's showing landscape and not portrait).  You can see it is a row back so it doesn't have water views from most rooms or the pool.  The pool also looks really small.  Because of those reasons and also no breakfast or lounge, I decided to book instead at the Hilton and was very happy with my choice.  The Hilton, Waldorf Astoria, Le Meridian and InterContiental are all super close and in what I think is an excellent location.

Since it was a long day of outbound travel and we were there a full week, we decided to make the first day a lazy one.  That morning got up late and went to the Kosher Coffee Bean literally a block from the Hilton and enjoyed some awesome pastries and empanadas and they have beautiful salads and sandwiches too (and all those wrapped goods had a hecsher on each product, in addition to the teudah on the store). I have a picture from here but that one also is loading upside down so it's not included.

We then walked a few blocks more to the Multi-Centro Mall to the HUGE Deli K Supermarket.  My kids actually had fun picking out stuff from Israel and all over that we can't buy in Denver.  They also have a sit down meat and dairy restaurants (we did not order from those though).  For those of you that keep CY, they even had shelf stable CY milk.  We didn't do any overnight or extreme excursions while we were there but if you were you wouldn't have to bring anything from the US and I would pick up everything here.  I regretted packing any snacks as they really do have everything!

After our little shopping trip and laden down with bags we decided to take a cab the almost mile back to the hotel and it was a whopping two bucks and I didn't even have to bargain (try that in Israel or Cancun where you better be ready to battle the cab drivers over fares)!

We then headed down to the gorgeous Hilton Pool, it's on their 12th floor, with great views.

Hope you enjoyed the beginning of my TR, my apologies for newbie photo or other errors and hopefully more is coming soon!

March 15, 2017, 01:52:28 PM
Private Island Paradise: Something Fishy's Anniversary Adventure

It was many years ago that I discovered the existence of Jade Mountain Resort on the island of St. Lucia. This was years before I discovered my true love of travel and the miles and points game which made it all possible; all I knew was that this incredible place existed and that I want to stay there, preferably to celebrate my tenth wedding anniversary. The fact that rooms are between $2000 and $3000 a night didn't faze me much; clearly, by the time I was married for ten years I'd be a millionaire (at least!) and able to afford it, no problem.

Well as the years went by my tenth anniversary inched ever closer, but the million dollars remained elusive. It was becoming clear that there is no way in the world that I am blowing ten grand on a few night's worth of Jade Mountain. While the resort has remained on my bucket list, for the last few years I've been vaguely looking for an alternative place to go.

While the Maldives or Bora Bora were the obvious candidates, we needed something closer as we couldn't leave our daughter for too long. My main objectives were privacy and incredible snorkeling; with that and the time constraints, the obvious answer was somewhere in the Caribbean.

And so I found myself a few months ago marching into the house, cold, wet, and exhausted. I had just finished shoveling three feet of snow off the driveway and I was sick of it. I plopped down on the couch with one goal: book a tropical vacation.

Looking through a collection of "top places to snorkel" type lists, one unlikely place kept on popping up: the Bay Islands of Honduras. I had never even heard of these islands, and yet here they were, touted as a snorkeling and diving mecca. Further research showed that this was indeed true - despite not exactly being on a typical tourist's radar, the underwater world here is absolutely beautiful and pristine.

Still sitting on my couch on that cold, cold, wet day, a magical word jumped out at me: cheap private island.

Cheap private island? If there was an oxymoron in the travel world, surely this is it. Private islands are for the likes of Richard Branson and I don't know... the Queen of England? No way that a schlub like me could ever afford to even rent one for a few nights.

But if the internet says that a cheap private island can be had in Honduras, it's gotta be true. Do I duly did some research, and lo, not only does it exist, but the reviews were numerous and positive!

A private island? Incredible snorkeling? Cheap, to boot? Sign me up! I immediately fired off an email to the owner and got the booking-ball rolling.

The first thing I needed to do is choose an island. Yes, it turns out that there are actually two  to choose from... Sandy Cay is the smaller one of the two, but offered more privacy and a better reef. Little Cay is a bit bigger (yes, I know...), has a larger and nicer house, and a protected swimming area great for kids. Considering that our priorities were privacy and snorkeling, Sandy Cay easily emerged as the winner.

And so, for the princely sum of $140 a night, we became the sole inhabitants of a private island in paradise.

And by private, I mean private. There is nothing on the island but sand, palm trees, and a single house. No neighbors, no staff, no yentas insistent on learning your entire family history. Just utter and complete privacy.

The reviews were invaluable for a number of reasons, most importantly for helping to set expectations. This was not a 5-star resort; if I had to quantify the house, I'd compare it to a bungalow in the Catskills. Large and decent, but not new or fancy by any stretch of the imagination (I'll expound on these details greatly further along in this TR). The pictures on their website were somewhat out of date; but recent reviews and trip reports more than made up for that.

Booking the island was somewhat of an adventure in and of itself. Honduras, being the third-world country that it is, is slow enough. Couple that with "island time" and every email took three days to get a response to. Eventually we learned to live with it; that's just how things are done there (we had the same exact experience with every Honduran we dealt with). Payment was by Money Gram only, and 50% up front was required to secure the reservation. Not something I'd normally be comfortable with, but reading many people's positive experiences sure helped. It took over a week, but eventually everything was all set.

Now we had to figure out how to get there; this was by far easier said than done.

Getting to Honduras itself is easy; there are tons of flights to San Pedro Sula (SAP), which is the biggest city in the country and its main point of entry. UA, AV, and CM all fly there, so there was even decent *A award availability. The problem with that (of course there's a problem!) is that getting from there to the islands involves an overnight. With SAP holding the honorable distinction of the third most dangerous city in the world (recently downgraded from #1), that was not a particularly relishing thought.

Additionally, there were a few other wrinkles that complicated the flight planning tremendously. As per anecdotal accounts online, the mainland airports were far stricter at customs than on the islands; the flights to SAP mostly left between 1 and 3am, which was highly undesirable; and if I was going to Honduras, I really really wanted to fly in and out of TGU, which has been on my bucket list forever.

To top all that off, I had won a raffle recently for $600 worth of airfare which I wanted to use on this trip, which made me lean away from using only points. In any case, pretty much all the award availability was in J, which seemed like a waste on such relatively short flights.

And then came the internal flights... There are very few scheduled flights to the islands, none on "real" airlines, and most are on Shabbos anyway. But we could charter a plane for quite cheap... Or should we instead take a pair of ferries, which takes 4 hours but costs less...?

As you can imagine, adding all this up into a comprehensive itinerary resulted in the mother of all spreadsheets.

After weeks of looking, booking, and cancelling, I had an itinerary in place. On Sunday, we'd fly United to Houston and on to Roatan - the "big" airport on the islands. Overnight on Roatan. Monday morning we'd charter a plane to the next, smaller island, Utila. In Utila we'd meet the owner of our island and be taken over by boat, where we'd stay for three nights.

For the return, we'd take boat back to Utila early Thursday morning. We'll fly a hinky-dinky airline called Aerolineas Sosa to La Ceiba (on the mainland) and continue over to Tegucigalpa. From there we'd fly Copa to Panama City, have lunch in town, and fly home to JFK.

United: EWR-IAH-RTB; $436 x2, -$600 from the raffle. Booked in Y, got Y+ due to status, got upgraded to J on the second leg.
Private charter: RTB-UII; $278 for the plane.
Aerolineas Sosa: UII-LCE-TGU; $139 x2.
Copa: TGU-PTY-JFK; 30k UA x2, booked in J.

With an overnight on Roatan, only one thing was left: find a hotel. Luckily, this turned out to be a rather easy task: the top rated hotel on Trip Advisor was also the cheapest. $75 secured us a room in the lovely Seagrape Plantation Resort, which we ended up being extremely pleased with.

And so after a few weeks of planning, we were all set for an epic anniversary trip.

July 04, 2017, 01:16:04 AM
Re: Private Island Paradise: Something Fishy's Anniversary Adventure
where's the quote about every thread turning into a halachik argument?
( @TimT )
every thread is the halacha/Kashrus thread.
you have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used to start a religious discussion

July 10, 2017, 07:49:10 PM
Re: Israel & Bali: around the world in 17 days I'm glad you had lots to eat at all those breakfasts, because that Friday night dinner sounds pretty unsatisfying. :P ;D
July 21, 2017, 04:02:49 AM
Re: Israel & Bali: around the world in 17 days
Nice TR

What is the reason you went all the way to Bali?
What is unique about this place, beaches?
Thanks. Because it's pretty. We didn't go to any beaches.

July 26, 2017, 01:01:49 AM
Re: Israel & Bali: around the world in 17 days im really enjoying your TR and nice to see how much you can accomplish even with a little tagalong. though i would like to point out that your DW would probably appreciate DD to be in the Doona instead of herself...
July 26, 2017, 01:35:45 AM
Re: A Summer Trip to Morocco: Marrakech, Casablanca, Fes Day Nine: Fes

We started off the day by having breakfast in the rooftop restaurant. All riads offer a complimentary generous breakfast of which we were able to parcel out a couple of things, and supplemented with our own food.
We then made our way our over to Poterie de Fes, a pottery cooperative. It’s a fascinating place where you can see how the craftsmen mold, glaze, and paint all things ceramic like big fountains, tables, and dishes.

The oven where the pottery is baked:

Some of the items being sold:

I got a stern lecture from the Muslim worker when I dared to call this a menorah and not a chanukiah:

The zellige (mosaic tilework) is all done by hand:

Beautiful table getting ready to be shipped out:

Fes is famous for its leather products and is home to ancient tanneries, which is almost a thousand years old. There is a tannery in Marrakech too but it’s not worth visiting if you will be in Fes.
There are numerous vessels filled with a vast range of dyes and liquids spread out like a tray of watercolors. 
The best views of the tanneries can be found from the surrounding terraces where the leather shops are located. The salesperson from a shop will give you a rundown on what products are used (all natural) and how the process works.
The hides are soaked for a few days in vessels full of cow urine, quicklime, water, and salt before being picked at and dried. Next, they are sent to a different set of vessels filled with diluted pigeon poop and water to be softened. It’s really fascinating to stand on the rooftops and watch the tanners standing in the vessels using nothing but their bare hands and feet to dye the leather. They then turn the hides into high quality leather products such as bags, coats, shoes, and babouches.
There is a pungent smell so everyone gets handed sprigs of fresh mint to help overcome the odor.
Keep this in mind when purchasing any leather items (from any city), as it will have a rather strong smell for a while.

Hides being hung out to dry:

Some of the leather products being sold:

We made our way to the mellah of Fes, making a stop right outside at the king’s palace. The king, Mohammed VI, has several palaces located throughout the country, with the main residence in the capital, Rabat. In Marrakech there are 2, one for him and one for his family.
There are 7 golden gates to represent the 7 days of the week.

After walking through the mellah, we went to the home of the Rambam. It’s been completely renovated and is now a restaurant, but you can see the alley outside and exterior of the home.

Jewish cemetery:

One of the things we had been really excited about visiting in Fes was the grave of Sulika. This is considered an extremely holy site by Jews and Muslims alike and everyone there knew immediately what we were referring to.
You can read her story here:

We walked through the souks and spent some time shopping. After that we went back to the riad where we had dinner and cooled off for the rest of the evening.

Views from around Fes:

Day 10: Fes -> CMN -> NYC

We woke early, packed up our things, and had a quick breakfast. We warmed up our remaining Pomegranate meals to be eaten later that day and headed out.
The evening before we remembered that we had completely forgotten to go to the Jewish synagogue in the mellah, so we asked our driver to make a quick stop on our way to Casablanca.
There a few synagogues in Fes, one of the oldest being the Ibn Danan. It’s interesting to see, and they have a Torah from the 17th century. The caretaker is an elderly Muslim fellow, whose face literally lit up when he found out we were Jewish.

We were running a bit late by the time we reached CMN airport. The security is the most intense I’ve ever seen, with there being a security line just to enter the airport.
We went straight to the gate and boarded. By the time we took off and were ready to eat it was about 4 PM. We hadn’t eaten a thing since our meager breakfast at 7:30 AM and we were famished. To our chagrin, when we pulled out the Pomegranate meals, we saw that the wrapping and seals on all the meals were opened. I’m not sure what happened since the same riad had warmed up our food the previous 2 days and listened to our explicit instructions, but either way, we were out of food.
The airplane food was barely edible - a bottle of grape juice and some crackers. We had a couple of snacks with us, but NY pizza never tasted so good as it did 8 hours later!

With our unbelievable and incredible trip coming to a close, we all conclusively agreed that we wouldn't have changed a thing about our itinerary. If we’d been able to stay a couple days longer, that would’ve been ideal as we unfortunately didn't get to the Sahara, Essaouira, and Chefchaouen, all of which are supposed to be beautiful.

Morocco was an unreal experience and we are thrilled to be coming home with memories, gifts, and photos that will last a lifetime (or at least until our next excursion!)
If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.

September 28, 2017, 02:17:47 PM
Pura Vida in Costa Rica, by PBaruch (January 2018) Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet so naturally it was on my list of places to visit.  I mentioned it to DW several years ago but she wasn't interested, so it went on the back burner.  However, my friend's wife, who had dreamed of visiting Costa Rica for many years prodded us both into taking a trip together.  Neither of our families was disappointed by the decision to visit Costa Rica.  Some of you might wonder why we didn't go to Hawaii.  There were two reasons for this.  First, we were limited to only a week due to my kid's school schedule (older daughter had started high school, and they're pretty strict about taking extra time off), which I feel is not enough time to go to Hawaii from the east coast.  Second, we wanted to visit a new place.

Part I - Planning and Preparation

I used 5 x 25k UR and 4 x 26k UR through Chase Travel on UA for direct flights between EWR to SJO.  I looked into booking with miles on UA or JetBlue, but both options added hundreds of dollars in taxes and fees.  Thus, when I found availability for 25k-26k UR with no added charges and fees,  I grabbed it.  I booked in Y as there was no J lie flat availability and the flight was relatively short at about 5 hours.

For a rental car, we decided to rent a large 4x4 SUV, a Mitsubishi Montero, from Sixt.  I read good reviews about Sixt online, as opposed to some of the other car rental chains. 

We then started researching online to ascertain if we could bring in our own kosher food.  What we found was confusing.  Some folks posted that they had no issues bringing in their own food while others had some or all of their food confiscated.  One of my DDF friends put me in touch with a client of his, Levi, who lives in Costa Rica and imports kosher food into Costa Rica.  He suggested not bringing in too much food and ordering the rest from Super Kosher Costa Rica.  We received an email menu from them (containing groceries, frozen food, and prepared meals) and placed a large order, to be delivered on our arrival.  My friend's family, however, have a special diet so they brought much of their own food from home.  They also had a letter from their doctor translated into Spanish.

The proposed itinerary in Costa Rica was also a difficult decision.  There are so many nice national parks and reserves to visit and we only had one week.  Another friend, who had been to Costa Rica, suggested we visit Manuel Antonio National Park (located south of San Jose).  Although she had never been there, she met several folks that went and felt that she had missed out by not going there.  For the second part of our trip, DW wanted to visit Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve while my friend's wife wanted to go elsewhere.  We decided to split up for the second part of our trip and would meet up the night before our departure in the Sheraton near the airport.

We decided to rent a four bedroom/four bathroom villa through Airbnb for the first four nights of our stay in Quepos, a town near Manuel Antonio National Park (paid for with Barclay Arrival credits).  For the next two nights, we booked a deluxe three bedroom/three bathroom cottage at Cabanos Los Pinos in Monteverde (paid for in cash).   For the last night, we booked a room at the Sheraton near the airport in San Jose (4k SPG per night with no added charges or fees).

Part II - Flight to SJO

EWR - SJO by P Bryan, on Flickr

We took an early morning flight to SJO and arrived in the early afternoon.  By the time we packed out of the airplane, the passport control line was quite long.  Luckily for us, Ticos (native Costa Ricans) love children and  we were ushered through passport control without having to wait on the long general line.  We picked up our bags, cleared customs in no time (without them opening any of our bags), and walked to the airport exit, which was populated by a mix of locals waiting for loved ones, folks trying to sell tours, and grifters looking to take advantage of clueless gringos.  Almost immediately, a Tico approached me and asked where I was headed.  He wore a uniform of sorts and looked as if he worked at the airport in some capacity so I told him we were waiting to be picked up by Sixt.  He accompanied us to the pickup area and called Sixt to let them know we were waiting. 

Meanwhile, our friends were nowhere to be seen.  Ten minutes later they come out, explaining how the customs official went through all of their food, and was on the verge of throwing some in the trash (even with the medical letter).  Luckily, they talked him out of it.

Shortly after, the Sixt Shuttle arrived and we were taken to their location a mile from the airport.  Once we arrived, we were told that they only had one of the two Mitsubishi Montero 4x4 vehicles that we reserved because the other had been in an accident.  We were given a choice - one of us could upgrade to a BMW X5 at no added cost or get a special rate on a smaller Hyundai Tuscon 4x4.  Since we were five and our friend's family was four, they chose to save some money and took the smaller Hyundai Tuscon.  We stuck with the Mitsubishi Montero since it had high ground clearance and was a true 4x4.  Neither of us wanted the BMW X5 since it was not 4WD and, in addition, because we didn't want to attract unwanted attention by driving a fancy car in Costa Rica.

Mitsubishi Montero, San Jose, Costa Rica by P Bryan, on Flickr

After what seemed like an eternity, we were finally on our way.  Our first stop was at the Walmart near the airport.

Walmart, San Jose, Costa Rica by P Bryan, on Flickr

What immediately struck us about this Walmart was that it was gated and had a guard who constantly patrolled the parking lot on a scooter.  While I waited in the Montero with our luggage and my little one, DW and my older kids went shopping.  DW says that Walmart has an entirely different feel in Costa Rica than it does in the United States.  Although we had a list of kosher products (as most products there do not have a kosher certification printed on the label), it was in Spanish and difficult for us to understand.  As a result, it was quite difficult for us to navigate what products were kosher.

We also arranged for the food that we ordered from Super Kosher Costa Rica to be delivered to us at Walmart.  While we were at the airport, I received a telephone call from Christoph at Super Kosher Costa Rica asking us what time we wanted our kosher food delivered.  When we arrived at Walmart, I tried calling Christoph but he had left and no one else at Super Kosher Costa Rica spoke English.  I messaged Levi on Whatsapp and sent him a picture of our Montero showing where it was parked in the Walmart parking lot.  Levi then communicated with the folks at Super Kosher Costa Rica and not too long after a car arrived with our food delivery.

Part III - Quepos and Manuel Antonio National Park

After DW was done shopping and our food was delivered, we were off to Quepos, a town near Manuel Antonio National Park, where we would spend our first four nights. 

San Jose to Quepos by P Bryan, on Flickr

Before we left for the drive to Quepos, my friend gave me four Costa Rican 1 Mil bills and made a joke - now you're a millionaire.  I had no clue what they were worth but he said take them as you will need to pay tolls along the way to Quepos (I was planning to pay in dollars).  When we paid our first toll, I handed one of the 1 Mil bills to the toll collector and got back some coins.  DW then asked - wait, didn't that bill say it was 1 million, which we calculated to be worth about $1700 USD.  I couldn't imagine my friend gave me a bill worth $1700 USD but the doubt of potentially paying $1700 USD for a 50 cent toll gave me some concern to say the least.  To add to the confusion, the other three bills were slightly different.  DW decided to call a Costa Rican help line, and I'm sure the person on the other end was quite amused by our tale.  Of course we didn't pay with a 1 million Colones bill.  Rather, it was a 1000 Colones bill - mil is the Spanish word for thousand.

We arrived in Quepos after dark and met the proprietor of our Airbnb, Mandel, by the Marina Pez Vella.  We then followed Mandel to the villa where we would spend the next four nights.  From the outside, the villa looked like a compound from Narcos - high walls topped with barbed wire.  The inside, however, was gorgeous.   The villa was comprised of a swimming pool flanked by two buildings.  The main building, located directly behind the swimming pool contained the kitchen, dining room, living room and one bedroom and bathroom.  The second building, connected by an elevated covered walkway (you could also walk between the two buildings at ground level) had three floors, each with a bedroom and bathroom.  There was also a laundry room and gym.

Information about this Airbnb rental can be found here:

Photographs of the villa:

Our rented villa in Quepos, Costa Rica by P Bryan, on Flickr

Parking on the road outside the villa at an extreme angle:

Quepos, Costa Rica by P Bryan, on Flickr

After parking at this angle for the first time, my 10 year old opened the car door and promptly fell out.  Luckily she wasn't seriously hurt and we were very careful so this wouldn't happen again.  The villa itself also had multiple safety concerns including large step offs without handrails and gates.  It definitely wouldn't pass muster in the United States.

Red-crowned Woodpecker viewed from the porch:

Red -crowned Woodpecker (DSC_0213) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Agouti viewed from the porch:

Agouti, Quepos, Costa Rica (DSC_0233) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Before we left, DW had read online that Costa Rican toilets cannot accept any sort of sanitary products such as toilet paper.  That's what that little blue wastebasket next to the toilet is for:

MVIMG_20180127_213801 by P Bryan, on Flickr

Thanks to @SomethingFishy and that damn toucan picture he took in Panama (he didn't even realize he had photographed a toucan), DW insisted that we hire a guide for each Costa Rican National Park that we visit.  While looking for a guide for Manuel Antonio, Fodors Guidebook recommended Johan Chavez.  I emailed Johan but was told he was unavailable.  Johan, however, recommended Oscar Herrera and after several emails we were set.  We arranged to meet Oscar at 7:30 a.m. at the Joseth Supermarket right outside the entrance to Manuel Antonio.  The parking fee was 6-8 USD per car for the day.  After parking our cars, we purchased drinks at the supermarket and were off for a tour of Manuel Antonio. 

Information about Oscar Herrera can be found here:

Information about Manuel Antonio National Park can be found here:

Oscar was clearly enthusiastic about seeing various forms of wildlife, including bats, lizards, and frogs.  He'd say - look up at that tree - there is a frog there!  I said, what frog?  He responded, you see that dot on the leaf - that is a frog!  Then he'd say, look at that lizard!  You don't often get to see that species of lizard. 

DSC_0011 by P Bryan, on Flickr

As for myself, I couldn't care less about some lizard or frog dot on a leaf.  I wanted to see monkeys, toucans, macaws and other more interesting wildlife.  Suffice it to say, we didn't see much interesting wildlife on the tour except for some howler monkeys and sloths (two-toed and three-toed), located quite high up in the trees.

Howler Monkey (DSC_0029) by P Bryan, on Flickr

The tour with Oscar ended at the beach at Manuel Antonio, and this is where the action started. 

Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica by P Bryan, on Flickr

We saw a family of racoons trying to steal food from tourists at the beach, including from my friend's wife.

Manuel Antonio NP, Costa Rica by P Bryan, on Flickr

Then came the monkeys - lots of Capuchin Monkeys who were quite successful at stealing food from the tourists.  I saw a monkey steal food from the pants pocket of one tourist and another monkey steal a bag of food from some tourists sitting on the sand.  I was also told that monkeys would steal anything they could get their hands on, including cameras since they didn't know what contained food.  However, if they got their hands on a camera and realized it wasn't food, they would then throw it to the ground from whatever tree they had climbed.

Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica by P Bryan, on Flickr

Capuchin Monkey (DSC_0053) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Capuchin Monkey (DSC_0068) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Capuchin Monkey (DSC_0075) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Capuchin Monkey, Manuel Antonio NP, Costa Rica by P Bryan, on Flickr

My little one was completely enamored with the monkeys and was chasing after them.  He ran under the tree where one particular monkey was sitting just a few feet out of reach and kept saying "come, come" with outstretched hands. 

Manuel Antonio NP, Costa Rica by P Bryan, on Flickr

Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica by P Bryan, on Flickr

Sloth viewed from the beach:

Sloth (DSC_0089) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Playing at the beach:

Manuel Antonio NP, Costa Rica (DSC_0046) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Manuel Antonio NP, Costa Rica (DSC_0044) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Land Crab viewed on the way back from the beach:

Land Crab (DSC_0096) by P Bryan, on Flickr

After spending some time at the beach, we headed back to the villa in Quepos.  My friend's family wanted to visit the Rainmaker Conservation Project but DW didn't think the kids were up for another two hour hike.  Also, the kids wanted to go swimming in the pool.  I, however, decided to join my friend's family at Rainmaker hoping to see some wildlife.  Information about Rainmaker can be found here:

The road to Rainmaker was quite bad and the entry to the parking lot was very steep:

Rainmaker Conservation Project by P Bryan, on Flickr

Unfortunately we didn't see any wildlife but hiking the jungle trails and on the elevated suspension bridges was awesome.

MVIMG_20180125_152805 by P Bryan, on Flickr

Rainmaker Conservation Project, Costa Rica by P Bryan, on Flickr

Rainmaker Conservation Project, Costa Rica by P Bryan, on Flickr

Rainmaker Conservation Project, Costa Rica by P Bryan, on Flickr

Costa Rican Cows on the way back to the villa:

Costa Rican Cows by P Bryan, on Flickr

On the following day, we decided to take a Monkey Mangrove Boat Tour by Damas Island.  Information about this tour can be found here:

Photographs taken during the tour:

Monkey Mangrove Boat Tour, Costa Rica by P Bryan, on Flickr

Monkey Mangrove Tour by Damas Island, Costa Rica by P Bryan, on Flickr

Monkey Mangrove Boat Tour (DSC_0109) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Monkey Mangrove Boat Tour (DSC_0121) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Monkey Mangrove Boat Tour (DSC_0136) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Capuchin Monkey visiting our boat - peeking in from the roof:

Capuchin Monkey (DSC_0128) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Holding a mangrove seed:

Holding a Mangrove seed (DSC_0132) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Various birds:

DSC_0148 by P Bryan, on Flickr

King Fisher (DSC_0161) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Basilisk Lizard:

Basilisk Lizard (DSC_0183) by P Bryan, on Flickr

After the Monkey Mangrove boat tour, we returned to our villa and swam in the pool.  We then prepared for Shabbos.  About an hour before Shabbos, I drove with my 10 year old to the farmers market by the Marina Pez Vella.  Once we arrived at the marina, I found a parking spot directly across the street from the farmers market.  While attempting to park, a Tico came over and began giving me unwanted guidance to maneuver the Montero into the spot.  Once I got out of the car, he approached me and said he would watch the Montero for me.  We then went to the farmers market and were completely overwhelmed by the variety of produce being hawked there.  Since we felt rushed due to the late hour, I only bought a pineapple and some mandarins.  When we got back to the Montero, lo and behold the Tico was right there, watching our car like a hawk.  He was literally standing in front of the Montero and staring at it.  The Tico even stopped traffic by jumping into the middle of the road to let us cross the street safely (pedestrians generally do not have the right of way).  I figured these services were worth a mil so I gave the poor guy a 1 Mil Colones note.

Part IV  - Shabbos and Minyan with the Monkeys

We davened and ate together on Friday night.  After the meal, my friend and I enjoyed Costa Rican local beer, Imperial, while relaxing by the pool and gazing at the stars.  Afterwards, we all went to bed early as we were quite tired. 

On Shabbos morning, I decided to daven on one of the porches overlooking a garden of trees and the ocean in the background.  As I was finishing up davening, I heard rustling in the trees adjacent to the house.  DW had seen a troop of Capuchin monkeys jumping from tree to tree in that area the previous day, so I was on the lookout for the monkeys as well.  No sooner had I heard the rustling I spotted the monkeys.  "Monkeys, monkeys," I shouted.  Everyone came running.  My friend decided to cut up a banana and he stuck a piece of banana on a fork.  One monkey in particular began looking very intently at the banana.  Soon we had an entire troop of monkeys all over the villa.  The kids had an amazing time feeding and interacting with the monkeys.  Later that afternoon, we saw a pair of scarlet macaws flying near the villa and a multitude of other birds in the trees adjacent to the villa.  We also saw agouti foraging in the gardens below.

Part V - Monteverde

On Sunday, we parted ways with my friend's family and drove to Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve north of San Jose.  My little guy thought it was called Monkeyverde. 

Quepos to Monteverde by P Bryan, on Flickr

The drive up on Route 606 was absolutely horrendous and bone jarring.  It makes any road in Hawaii including the Road to Hana on Maui and the road to Polihale Beach in Kauai look like a walk in the park (I will never complain about any roads in Hawaii again).  Route 606 was unpaved with large potholes and uneven surfaces through tight mountain passes with multiple one lane bridges.  Further, the road was closed for 8 hours during the day for construction, but luckily we arrived right before a brief window opened to allow traffic through.  It was a good thing that we had the Montero.  Although I never had to engage 4WD, another car without high ground clearance would not have been able to make it through unscathed on this road.  Also, since the Montero was diesel powered it had great low end pulling power up the mountain roads.  Although we did see regular cars navigating this road, I cannot imagine that they fared well.  Supposedly they are working to pave this road but who knows when it will be completed.

We decided to stay at Cabanos Los Pinos due to the recommendation by one of the guidebooks and from reading online reviews.  We reserved a deluxe cabin containing three bedrooms and three bathrooms.  Information about Cabanos Los Pinos can be found here:

Photographs of our cabin:

Los Pinos Cabanes, Monteverde, Costa Rica by P Bryan, on Flickr

Los Pinos Cabanas, Monteverde, Costa Rica by P Bryan, on Flickr

Relaxing in the hammock on the porch:

Relaxing in Monteverde, Costa Rica by P Bryan, on Flickr

After settling into the cabin, we decided to visit the Monteverde Butterfly Gardens, information about which can be found here:

Photographs taken at the Monteverde Butterfly Gardens:

Monteverde Butterfly Gardens (DSC_0259) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Monteverde Butterfly Gardens (DSC_0272) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Monteverde Butterfly Gardens (DSC_0302) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Monteverde Butterfly Garden, Costa Rica by P Bryan, on Flickr

Monteverde Butterfly Garden (DSC_0332) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Leafcutter ants at the Monteverde Butterfly Gardens:

Leafcutter Ants (DSC_0342) by P Bryan, on Flickr

After visiting the Monteverde Butterfly Gardens, we returned to our hotel and went to bed early in anticipation of our visit to Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.  That night, we heard howling winds outside, which kept us awake.  I couldn't imagine what was going on.  Back home, it would be considered a wind storm and I was afraid we would have to cancel our tour of Monteverde on the following day.  I awoke early the following morning and went to the hotel office to inquire if we had to cancel the tour due to the high winds.  I was told, however, that high winds are quite normal in Monteverde in the winter and that the reserve was well sheltered so there was no need to cancel our tour. 

While getting ready to leave the hotel, we heard a scream from my 14 year old that there was a scorpion in her bedroom.  I ran into her bedroom and lo and behold there was a large black scorpion at the foot of her bed.  I swiped the thing with my shoe, which sent yellow goo flying everywhere.  And off we went to Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.

Information about the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve can be found here:

We arranged for a guide through the hotel for a tour beginning at 7:00 a.m., when the park opened.  For this particular park, a guide was indispensable.  We would definitely have missed out on some incredible wildlife without the guide.  We used Elberth Fuentes from Three Brothers Tours.  Information about Three Brothers Tours can be found here:

Photographs taken at Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve...

Hummingbird in a nest inside the jungle:

DSC_0356 by P Bryan, on Flickr

Bromeliads growing on trees in the jungle canopy:

Bromeliads (Air Plants) (DSC_0390) by P Bryan, on Flickr

The endangered Resplendent Quetzal:

Quetzal (DSC_0440) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (DSC_0566) by P Bryan, on Flickr

After our tour, we visited the Hummingbird Garden located next to the park entrance.  The owners of the garden placed a multitude of hummingbird feeders in this area, which attracts a great many hummingbirds:

Hummingbird (DSC_0484) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Notice how the coloration changes with the light:

 Hummingbird (DSC_0516) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Hummingbird (DSC_0535) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Hummingbird Gallery, Monteverde, Costa Rica by P Bryan, on Flickr

After visiting the Hummingbird Garden, we returned to the hotel while trying to decide where to visit next.  DW wasn't interested in visiting a coffee farm (which cost $30 pp!) as we have done that many times in Hawaii (the tours are free in Hawaii).  We ultimately decided to visit the Monteverde Sky Tram, information about which can be found here:

This tour takes you on a tram car to the top of a mountain through the clouds.  After reaching the top of the mountain, we were able to walk and hike around for a while. 

Photographs from the Monteverde Sky Tram tour:

Monteverde Sky Tram (DSC_0595) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Monteverde Sky Tram Tour (DSC_0601) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Monteverde Sky Tram Tour (DSC_0602) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Cloud Forest, Monteverde, Costa Rica (DSC_0617) by P Bryan, on Flickr

We saw a Coati in the parking lot:

Coati, Monteverde, Costa Rica by P Bryan, on Flickr

Coati, Monteverde, Costa Rica by P Bryan, on Flickr

After the Sky Tram Tour, we returned to the hotel, packed up, and went to bed early.  However, once again we couldn't sleep.  We kept hearing howling winds and pouring rain on the tin roof of the cottage.  Unused to these noises, we had difficulty sleeping.  Nevertheless, we made sure to get up early to avoid the road closures (the road was closed from 7:00 - 10:00 a.m.) and to not to waste the day.

Part VI - Carara National Park

On the following day, which was to be our last full day in Costa Rica, we decided to visit Carara National Park on the drive back to San Jose.

Monteverde to Carara by P Bryan, on Flickr

On the way to Carara, we saw a number of large black birds that appeared to be vultures sitting on the highway in the opposite direction.  As we drove closer, a number of vehicles including some large trucks approached the birds, causing them to fly over the highway and into our lane of travel.  One of these large birds struck our Montero above the windshield and left a small dent in the roof.  We were very fortunate that the bird did not crash through the windshield.  Although spooked by the collision with the bird, we continued on our way to Carara National Park.

Carara is another park where we would recommend a guide, as you are likely to miss the wildlife on your own.  We hired a guide at the entrance to the park.  Another guide approached me, saying "Shalom" and introducing himself as Yochanan.  Also at the entrance, iguanas, which would scurry into their holes when approached.  At this park, we saw scarlet macaws, spider monkeys, and toucans.

Photographs taken at Carara National Park:

Carara National Park, Costa Rica by P Bryan, on Flickr

Carara National Park, Costa Rica by P Bryan, on Flickr

Blue Crowned Motmot:

Blue Crowned Motmot (DSC_0622) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Costa Rican wild turkeys:

Costa Rican Wild Turkey, Carara NP, Costa Rica (DSC_0665) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Spider Monkeys, which swing through the jungle by their tail:

Spider Monkeys (DSC_0668) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Spider Monkey (DSC_0659) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Scarlet Macaws:

Scarlet Macaw (DSC_0760) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Scarlet Macaw, Carara NP, Costa Rica (DSC_0771) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Looking through the scope:

Carara National Park, Costa Rica by P Bryan, on Flickr

Toucan picture taken by cellphone through a scope:

Toucan, Carara NP, Costa Rica by P Bryan, on Flickr

After visiting Carara National Park, we drove to the nearby bridge over the Tarcoles River, to view the crocodiles:

Crocodiles (DSC_0792) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Crocodile (DSC_0798) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Crocodile (DSC_0802) by P Bryan, on Flickr

Part VII - San Jose and the Trip Home

After viewing the crocodiles, we made our way back to San Jose.

Carara National Park to San Jose by P Bryan, on Flickr

We arrived at the Sheraton in San Jose at around 3:00 p.m.  I went up to the front desk to check in and after hearing that we were a party of five, the front desk employee insisted that I take a second room at a reduced rate of $140 USD plus tax.  I tried explaining that I had two other rooms (reserved for my friend's family under my SPG account) and that we could put one of my kids in one of those rooms.  However, this particular employee either couldn't understand what I was saying or she simply didn't care.  After arguing with her for about 15 minutes, another employee came over and let me "put" one of my kids into my friend's room.  Aside from the problems with check in, the hotel was quite nice.  The rooms were decently sized, modern, and very clean.  Also, there was a full complimentary breakfast where we were able to get uncut fruit and awesome Costa Rican coffee.  The hotel had free parking and employed an armed guard to watch the perimeter of the hotel. 

The following morning we checked out of the Sheraton, drove to Sixt to return the Montero, and were shuttled to the airport for our flight home.  Despite only having 4.5 days to explore Costa Rica (not including Shabbos and the two travel days), we had a wonderful time.  We hope to return to Costa Rica in the future to visit some of the other national parks that we didn't have time to see on this trip.

Thanks for reading and we hope you enjoyed this trip report.

Pura Vida!

February 06, 2018, 10:04:40 PM
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December 12, 2018, 04:17:26 PM
Vietnam with a mix of Israel As a kid, I remember reading about faraway places in books my mother bought me. I recall being fascinated by the varied cultures across the globe and especially in Asia. My interest in world travel has brought me to some interesting place in search of learning cultures. Itís this curiosity that brought me to Vietnam this time. I am writing this en route to Vietnam and plan to start in Hoi An (central), work my way up to Hanoi (capital), and then finish it out on the Ha GIang loop (North) by myself for the next 2 weeks.

Being that Iíve ventured into solo travel in the past, I came across the subreddit dedicated to solo travel. When I first began planning a trip to Southeast Asia, I was looking for info on Thailand. I had heard good things about it and it had a nice amount of award hotel options. However, many people on Reddit strongly recommended Vietnam over Thailand. The more I read about Vietnam, the more I wanted to go there. Vietnam is a large country north to south and with a maximum of 12 days (including tavel), I knew I had to be selective in order to make it meaningful. Ha Giang province is in the northern tip of Vietnam bordering with China. It is a mountainous region with beautiful views and a motorbike loop that goes around the region. It takes 3 - 4 days to travel the loop where you have the opportunity to stay in small Vietnamese villages through the trip. The pictures I saw were surreal and I added this as the only must do for my trip. With it decided that Iíd spend my time in the north, I added Hanoi for the weekend. I was planning to do a 2 day trip to Ha Long Bay (the big tourist attraction in Vietnam) which looks beautiful too, but was convinced otherwise by the very touristy feel of it. I added Hoi An and an overnight train ride to my trip instead as a way to get to know the country when I get there (and the availability of Chabad there). Plus, Hoi An being the custom tailor capital of the world added it to the list

With my location wish list settled, I went to work on logistics. Vietnam currently has no non-stop flights to and from the US. The common options for the stopover from the US are in Tokyo & Hong Kong. I was hoping to fly in F (my first time) on either JAL or Cathay Pacific as I had heard incredible things about both. Another decent option I had found was Qatar via DOH where I could try the Qsuite. However, routing via DOH using AA miles would have required two tickets due to their routing rules, so I was back to choosing either JAL or Cathay. I wanted to one on the way there, and one back to try both, but that all changed due to CX (Cathay) F availability.

On Cathay First, their 777-300ER has a total of 6 seats making it pretty exclusive. Cathay used to release at least one award ticket when the schedule opened and then one at a time around 2 weeks prior to departure (at 10 PM eastern). Now ever since the Vietnam mistake F fare back in Jan, CX F has been very difficult to find (if not impossible). I began planning to find availability on JAL (excellent last minute availability) both ways in case this was my only option. Then I came across a couple of articles on how Cathay restricted awards  based on married segments so that searching HKG Ė JFK mights show no availability, but select other routes (e.g. HAN-HKG-JFK) might have availability. So I went about searching many routes in SE asia for CX F availability, but nothing showed. Back in 2017, Dan wrote a post about using only 70K Alaska miles for TLV-HKG-JFK with a free stopover in HKG. I put TLV Ė JFK into Qantas booking tool, and boom there it was: TLV-HKG in J on the A359 and F on the 777-300ER. I called Alaska and they had no trouble booking it with this timing:

8/20 Ė TLV Ė HKG 2:40 PM
8/29 Ė HKG Ė JFK 4:30 PM

Now all I had to do was book a ticket to TLV and a round trip to Vietnam from HKG. This would be my first trip round the world. I booked JFK Ė TLV on 8/17 using Qantas points on LY Y during the whole availability on LY debacle. I hoped that J would open prior to my departure.  I only had 16 hours on the ground in Israel, so I opted for only direct flights. With slim options, nothing opened prior to my trip.

SE asia flights are very cheap (especially on LCC) so I booked options that best fit my timing. On the way out, I got on HK express for ~$100 early morning. For the return, I selected Jetstar for the return using Qantas miles (6400) which includes checked baggage.

Iím a pretty last-minute traveler in that I like to wait to book anything even if I have a plan. The freedom of having options gets me. It has come to bite me at times (just ask my DW 😊). On this trip, I booked all accommodations day of the check-in. Iíll cover accommodations when I get to each part.

Packing and Food
I spent a bulk of my planning on packing, so I want to share this info for those who find it useful. If you want to go to the trip itself, go here.

Being that I was going to be traveling around to many placed, I learned early on that a standard carry on wouldnít do. I would take a backpack instead. This turned out to be difficult for me as I had to be very selective on what to bring. With this, I still overpacked. For my two week trip, I selected:

∑         Osprey Porter 46 medium size backpack
∑         Ebags packing cubes
∑         A messenger bag
∑         Luggage locks
∑         A backpack rain cover
∑         Electronics
o   HP Pavillion x360 11Ē laptop
o   3X 256 GB micro-SD cards (with shows & movies)
o   Amazon Kindle
o   Fire stick
o   Anker power brick
o   Power plug converter
o   Samsung buds

I packed enough clothes for a week without washing. After I got here, I found that getting laundry done here is VERY easy and cheap. I could have packed less.

I had been planning on bringing frozen food with me in my cooler bag. Being that there was a Chabad house / restaurant in both Hoi An & Hanoi, I decided to rely on this and leave the extra baggage at home. I picked up pastries & cold cuts in Israel for my time up i9n Ha Giang where there would be no food options. I also obtained tuna and rolls from the Chabad in Hanoi prior to my trip up north.

Part 1: Israel
LY8 8/17 23:50 departure, arrives TLV +1 1750 Boeing 787-9 seat 53A

Itís been 10 years since I was last in Israel. Even though this would be a short trip, I was excited. I arrived at JFKís T4 for my check-in to LY8 at 1.5 hours prior to departure. The check-in line was quite short and I was through El Al security and baggage check within 10 min. I was taking a bunch of supplies to the Chabad in Hanoi and had to check the bag. Since I didnít need it in Israel, I asked if my bag could be checked all the way to HKG on CX. They said that it could not being that it was a separate ticket. Iím not sure how legit that reason was. I headed to TSA security where my Pre-check status had no use on El Al. There was a short line at that late hour and I was through in 2 minutes I headed to the gate where the flight had already started boarding. I was ready to go and boarded the plane right away. I find it interesting that on domestic flights, people rush to board early where as here, most people simply wanted to sit at the gate for longer. I imagine it has to do with bin space and it running out on domestic flights. I had selected my seat via Whatsapp and noticed that many seats in the back of the plane were open. I hoped it would stay that way, but was doubtful on a summer sat night flight. As the plane filled, I was delighted to find that the seat next to me (middle seat) remained open! This was the best I could hope for in Y for my flight to TLV. At a few minutes before 11:50 (our departure time), the door was closed and we pushed back from the gate. After a short taxi, we were taking off. This would be my first ride on the 787 dreamliner and I was amazed by how quiet it was. I also played with the new window shade buttons which enable some cool photo opps. Shortly after takeoff, they came around for drinks where I ordered some wine and water. I started watching a movie and was dozing off within 20 minÖ

No line for security

Etihad A380 ready to depart for AUH

Empty JFK T4

My bird tonight

Nice new clean interior

Seat 54A

Decent legroom

Some Kosher wine (Barkan classic) to settle in


I woke up about 4 hours later, I had missed dinner which I was quite happy with. The El Al shachris was about to begin in the back of the plane, and I went to join. The flight attendants that occupy the back area were quite accommodating in having us all up in their space. They simply moved through the crowd to do their job.

Small side note about my feelings on El Al. They take a lot of heat for the way they operate an airline. While I do agree with some of the criticism, I also have an emotional admiration and appreciation for how authentic Israeli (and Jewish) it is. Their attitude, the davening, the basic kosher standards, the Hebrew is just a beautiful way to feel like you have entered Israel before even getting there.

I also got to get a peek at the crew resting quarters in the back. While I could not see what itís actually like in there, I found it fascinating to see the crew go to sleep there during the flight. First time Iíve seen such a thing. After davening, I used the wi-fi to find a place to stay in Jerusalem for the night using Chase points. At $20, itís a good value with good speed. I booked a boutique hotel right outside the old city and ben Yehuda called Villa Brown for 12,712 Chase UR points instead of $191 for the 1 night including breakfast.

I had breakfast about 2 hours before landing Ė which was ok Ė about what youíd expect from an airline meal. Soon enough, the pilot announced our decent into TLV. As we crossed the shores of the Mediterranean, a feeling of excitement came over me to be back in Israel. We taxied for a few minutes before parking at the gate. I headed to passport control, then to get my baggage and was out in about 30 minutes. Overall the travel experience was a perfect 10 in my book. Everything worked like clockwork from A-Z.

Davening Shachris




Shadow Dreamliner

BA 777 & DL A330

Welcome to Israel

The best lounge at TLV ;-)

More to come...

September 11, 2019, 09:13:18 PM
Re: Vietnam with a mix of Israel I exchanged $100 at the airport for the trip (I know, bad exchange rate but I needed it then). I tried to get a sim card, but they all wanted $20 for a few days and I didnít want to activate my Google Fi service since I was unsure about using it in Vietnam. I took a Sherut to my hotel (after doing some research about the train and being told to avoid it).

The Villa Brown hotel turned out to be perfect to my needs. Itís a nice very small boutique hotel right between Meah Shearim & The Ben Yehuda area. The room was small, but modern. Itís a 3.5 star hotel that Iíd rate 7.4/10. It was very comfortable for the night. The location was amazing being that I wanted to go to the Kotel for early Vasikin Shachris the next morning. I settled in and went to meetup with some friends in Machane Yehudah for some food. Got amazing fried fish at some random Fried fish place and some American fast food from Hatch. The food at Hatch was authentic with some of the best wings Iíve ever had. That said, I should have gone with a good Shwarma in Israel than American foodÖ After eating I went to the Kotel for an emotional Maariv before heading back to my hotel. I took the #2 bus back to my hotel. When I got on, I was told that Egged busses donít take cash anymore. You can only use a RavKav card which is very hard to find. At that point I was done and just went on anyways. I figured Iíd deal with this RavKav business tomorrow. More on this later.

I set my alarm for 5 to ensure I had time to get to the Kotel for the first Shachris (vasikin). The experience of davening at the wall and having all the minyanim come together for Shemonah Esrei is quite inspiring. I took a taxi at the early hour to the kotel and arrived right on time. After davening, there is a booth that opens to offer free coffee to everyone there. Itís another part of this experience (although the coffee itself, eh ??). After spending some time at the kotel, I walked back to my hotel for a good Israeli breakfast which was excellent! I packed my bags to be ready to head to the airport and went to the Machane Yehida shuk to pickup supplies for my trip to Vietnam and shop for a Rav Kav card.

Ok, so the Rav Kav system is quite the Balagan today. Iím sure some of you know more of the background here, but what a pain especially for tourists. The idea is to have a single rechargeable card that can work across all public transportation systems in Israel. The implementation is still lacking. First I had to buy a Rav Kav card. I went to 5 stores before I found one that carried them (a small cell phone store near Davidka Sq). Once I bought one, I paid to put 30 Shekel onto it. When I tried to use it for the train, I had to go to a kiosk to purchase a discounted ticket onto the card. I could not use the money stored on the card but had to add money for the ticket to be loaded onto my card. Huh? I captured the confusion of other Israelis experiencing similar issues.

I picked up some pastries, cold cuts, and bread for my upcoming trip. Had I known about the lack of kosher snacks in Vietnam, I would have picked up those too. I headed back to my hotel and then off to the airport.

For the way back to Ben Gurion, I decided to try the train. It seemed quite compelling on price and time if things went smooth. I caught the 18 bus right outside my hotel to the train station. At the train station I went through security, purchased my ticket, and made my way down to the train. There were 4 long escalators that take you down what must be around 300 - 400 feet underground. The train to Ben Gurion is quite fast. It takes something like 20 minutes from Jerusalem. We departed on time and very shortly arrived in the airport. The whole trip with the bus took 35 minutes of travel time and about 50 minutes with all the rest. It only cost me a total of 12 shekel (including the bus)!

I whisked through security, checked in my bag to HKG (which was a mistake Iíd realize later), immigration & carry on security (where my water was fine!) and headed to the Dan lounge contracted by Cathay Pacific. I had very low expectations thanks to reports Iíve read here and spent about 10 minutes before it was time to board. I headed over to my gate and spotted my beautiful ride for the next 10 hours.

This trip in the Sherut (shared taxi) was quite chaotic, but got me to Jerusalem within an hour

Hotel lobby restaurant

Hotel Lobby

Yaffo Street on a warm summer night

Veggie pizza thing in Machaneh Yehuda (5.6/10)

Fried fish Ní chips in Machaneh Yehuda (8.2/10)

Beer Bazar

Beer Bazar local beers

Dirty fries @ Hatch Machaneh Yehuda (7.2/10)

Short Rib Sandwich @ Hatch Machaneh Yehuda (4.6/10) although I could see this having better potential if it was hotter

Buffalo Wings @ Hatch Machaneh Yehuda (9.6/10) Ė best wings Iíve ever had!

Jerusalem before sunrise

Jerusalem before sunrise

Kotel Vasikin

Kotel sun coming up

Free coffee for the early risers

Notes in the Western Wall

Garden outside Old City

Garden in hotel entrance

Outdoor breakfast @ Villa Brown Hotel

Lavish Breakfast @ Villa Brown Hotel

Omelet @ Villa Brown Hotel (6.8/10)

Machaneh Yehuda market

Rav Kav madness

5 of these to get down to the train platform

High speed train in the Jerusalem station

Can you spot the design flaw?

Two story

Ben Gurion station

Red carpet for taking the train?

Sad DAN lounge

Food DAN lounge (2.5/10)

Carlsberg beer DAN Lounge


More to come!!

September 22, 2019, 08:40:28 PM
Re: Vietnam with a mix of Israel Part 3 Travel TLV to DAD (Danang) Vietnam

CX676 8/19 14:40 departure TLV, arrives HKG +1 05:30 Airbus A350-900 17K
UO552 8/20 07:55 departure HKG, arrives DAD 08:50 Airbus A320 6D

Many firsts for me on this flight, First time on CX, first time on the A350, first time in J on an Asian carrier. Can I just say, the winglets on the A350 make the plane for me! I selected seat 17K on the right side of the plane since its next to the windows and has two of them. There are some rows that have misaligned widows on the plane in J so that youíll have 0, 1, or 2 depending on your seat. I was greeted by the cabin crew, and offered a pre departure beverage. I selected sparkling soda and settled in. At my seat were noise cancelling headphones and a nice amenity kit. The kit had a nice selction of everything I could use Ė earbuds, eye mask, moisturizer, etc. The bag (a soft cloth material served me quite well for the rest of my trip in Vietnam as it was small and versatile for stuffing into my bag.

Right before takeoff, I was offered the opportunity for the flight attendant to show me my kosher meals, not sure why. She came by and presented the meals for the flight. I buckled in as the door was closed. We were held at the gate for 25 minutes due to air traffic control before a quick taxi and takeoff from TLV. The airport is pretty quiet at that time of day.

The seat was quite roomy and spacious. I especially appreciated the large storage bin next to the seat for my smaller bag. It was decently comfortable, but not very plush. One negative is the wear on the seat is noticeable. With peeling leather on parts of the seat, itís not a good look. I read about this The screen and entertainment systems were superb! Big screen, great selection, live TV, interactive map on remote control, and wifi all made for an excellent experience. The bathroom had a window in it, which is pretty neat. Only other plane Iíve see that on is the A220 by Delta.

After settling in, drinks and the lunch meal was served. I had been expecting a decent meal (hoped for Hermolis) and had not eaten lunch prior to the flight. The meal was catered by Hamasbia and was very sparse. For example, my frilled vegetables had 1 slice of zucchini and one mini pepper. The main was the highlight being that it was a meat dish and tasted pretty good. The small meal meant that I was not full after eating the entire meal. All of the snacks had no kosher symbol so I had to Oh well. I did like that Cathay offers a kosher wine Ex-TLV which was soft as butter! After dinner, I got a scotch (chivas) and watched Kirsk for a bit. When I got tired, I got to setting my seat for bed. CX does not offer a mattress pad in business and the bedding is ok. This is about to be upgraded in the next few months so that should be a welcome change. The bed was ok and before long I was sleeping.

I woke with about 2 hours left in the flight and ready to get the day started. I had my breakfast (again, decent but small) and added fresh orange juice and coffee to it. I saw that my neighbor across the aisle had requested the Ben & Jerryís ice cream (offered for dinner earlier in the flight) for a breakfast desert and decided to do the same! (I got to schmoozing with him for a bit. He was headed to the Maldives on what sounded like a killer vacation using points. We were marveling at even with the points game changing so much over the past few years, itís still pretty cool. Iíd never consider paying for J or F if not for points.) The presentation of the small things (life coffee on a tray) on CX impressed me quite a bit. Itís the attention to detail that matters to me. When I go to a restaurant, I can usually get a feel for Itís authenticity by how the bathroom looks. Someone into the experience will spend on the bathroom style. I finished my breakfast, got comfortable and finished up the Kirsk movie. I liked the story and the political underpinnings of trying to save the trapped sailors.

As we came in for landing, I turned on the front facing plane camera (so cool) to get a front row seat to the landing. These outdoor cameras are all an AV Geek can hope for. The landing was smooth, we taxied for a while before reaching our gate. We arrived about 30 minutes late. I found the service to be quite good but nothing over the top. Much stronger than the US 3, but I was expecting more from my first business flight on an Asian carrier. I now had about 2 hours to get to my connecting flight to Danang. Plenty of time I thought, and then the trouble began. to be continued...

Didn't post map earlier, so here it is

Always board left


CX A350 Business Class seat

Worn out seat

Legroom: More than enough

CX Business Class amenity Kit

CX Business Class amenity Kit

Kosher wine on CX Business Class Ex-TLV

Iíll miss you Israel!

Cathay A359 Business Class cabin

CX Business Class dinner (Hamasbia)

CX Business Class meat dish (7.8/10)

Cathay Pacific Business Class bed

Chivas & Kursk movie in my comfy seat

Breakfast (5.2/10)

Window in the bathroom

Chunky Monkey ice cream

Flight map on remote

Coffee presentation

Approach to HKG

View of landing from front camera

Approach to HKG with mountains in the background and Tsing Ma Bridge

October 06, 2019, 06:04:02 PM
Re: Vietnam with a mix of Israel Thanks for all the feedback. Glad this is hitting the mark!

Part 3 continued

I had read conflicting reports about having luggage transferred to a second airline without clearing immigration at HKG. I was hoping the HK Express transfer desk would help. I made my way to the train in this early morning at HKG. The airport had an eerie empty feeling as it had been rocked by protests the week before. I arrived at the transfer desk and was told by a completely disinterested employee that Iíd need to clear immigration, pickup my bag and go through regular check in. Suddenly my decent layover was super tight! What I have since learned is that in order for this to work, it would have required CX to originally tag my bags for Danang on HK Express (which Iím not sure they would have done) in TLV. Once it was only tagged for HKG, it would come out on the belt and I had to go get it.

I raced through immigration (empty this early in the morning) and all the way to luggage belt 16 at the end of the row where my bag was going round the belt. I grabbed it and hurried all the way to T2 (20 minute walk) where HK express departs from. I get to the check-in area at 7 AM (55 minutes before my flight) to be greeted by a mob of about 200 people on line. Iím thinking there is no way Iím gonna make this flight. I ask an employee holding a sign that says last call what to do. He advises me to wait in line for 5 more minutes and they will open final call for my flight. Approx. 45 min before my flight is set to depart, they wave signs for my flight and direct me to separate empty counters where final call passengers can check bags and get boarding passes. Iím not sure why passengers wouldnít just show up 45 minutes before and never wait on lineÖ I prepaid for checked baggage (approx. $55 for 30 kg) before arriving at the airport since itís much cheaper to do so.

With my bag checked in, I hurry back through immigration, security and arrive at the gate a mere 20 minutes before departure. My backpack is really weighing on me and I begin to wonder if I have too much stuff to be lugging around with a backpack & messenger bag. HK Express uses buses to get from the gate to the plane. I board the packed bus which takes me to the A320 that will take me to Danang. The crowded bus was hot and smelly but was well worth getting an opportunity to board the plane via stairs from the tarmac. I got a great view of our A320 aircraft and got some excellent pictures #AVgeek. I boarded and got to my pre-selected seat @ 6D. The seat had adequate legroom for what was a quick 2-hour flight to Danang on a low cost carrier. We departed right on time and before long were airborne over the skies of Hong Kong. The cabin crew came around to sell meals. They delivered my pre-ordered water bottle. According to the airline, they check handbag weight (needs to be under 7 kg) and donít allow you to bring on your own food or water. In practice, I did not see them enforce these rules at all from what I could see. It was the beginning of what I learned about rules that donít get followed in Vietnam. I sat back for the quick trip and soon was descending into Danang airport for the beginning of my stay in Vietnam. Time to get out my VisaÖ

Empty HKG at 5:30 AM

HK Express Check in line

CX 777s lined up at HKG (can you find the one that doesnít belong?)

Boarding plane (A321) from the tarmac HKG

HK Express A320 HKG

Boarding UO552 HKG-DAD

Legroom in seat 6D HK Express A320

Ready to Jet

Canít imagine what this would taste like. Asian version of Greivin I guess

November 05, 2019, 07:54:27 PM
Alaska - 8 days - August 2019

We are fortunate that we have family in Alaska. My mother-in-law lives in Wasilla which is just outside of Anchorage and we visit every year. Wife and kids usually spend 2 - 3 weeks and I will visit for a week +/- and do some hiking and some fishing and hopefully bring home some fillets to dine on over the following year. This trip focused on Seward fishing trips, hiking, and some river fishing from shore not far from Wasilla.

Flights from RSW - ANC 50k AA miles in business booked 330 days out
3 nights in Seward Best Western using mix of Best Western points from CC signup and Citipoints. Best Western is only chain hotel in Seward and they match my Diamond status but hotel was fully booked so no upgrades.
Used family car, spent 4 nights with family
Used coupons from Northern Lights coupon book to cut cost of salmon trip in Seward.

Day 1 - Flight from RSW - DFW - ANC.Long layover in DFW so used United Club pass from United card and got some work done in the lounge. Arrived late but sun still up as it never really gets dark and that takes some getting used to. Wife picked me up and we did the 1 hour drive out to Wasilla. Not sure you can get much more different from flat, hot tropical SW Florida and Alaska. Love home, close to Sanibel, Naples is great, beaches on Marco Island are amazing but also love the contrast afforded by the snow covered mountains and rugged individualism / lack of pretentiousness that permeates Alaska when you get immersed in it.

Day 2 - Drove from Wasilla to Seward with stops along the way to enjoy the scenery and look for Beluga whales. Saw a accident where a truck with camper had just hit a large bull moose just outside of Anchorage. Moose was still alive and game warden has just arrived to put him down. There are multiple families and/or agencies on a call list that get a call to come out and harvest the meat when this happens so he didn't go to waste but always hate seeing an animal have to die like that. Timed our drive down so we could watch the surfers on the wave of the bore tide that forms when the incoming tide hits the outgoing flow from the all the glacial and snowmelt headed out Turnagain Arm. Walked around Seward, went out to the head of the bay to see if the silver salmon were incoming yet. The salmon here are hatchery raised so you are allowed to snag them using weighted treble hooks and keep up to 6 per person each day. Sadly, the silver salmon were not there to be found so we rode out Bear Creek Road looking for some wildlife. Struck out on the bear hunt (camera only) too but it was nice to be out of the 95 degree / 95% humidity weather. Saw a moose but she disappeared before I could get a good picture. Checked into our room at the Best Western and went and grabbed some pizza.

Day 3 - Full day (14 hours - 3.5 hour boat ride out, 7 hours fishing, 3.5 hour boat ride back) halibut fishing with my son. Got a great weather day with calm seas which is great for sightseeing but high pressure usually dampens fishing. Overfishing of halibut has also decreased chances of getting large fish (100 lb +) and although the captain tried hard we didn't have any success on the larger fish but we each got our limit of 2 (1 under 36", 1 over) and had a great day on the water taking in the scenery. Saw a few humpback whales at distance, a pod of orca's, some sea lions, and lots of puffins. Had fish cleaned and arranged for them to be processed and frozen. Ended up with 38 lbs of halibut fillets, vacuum sealed and frozen for pickup later. Wife took train from Anchorage to Seward (one of most scenic train rides out there, upgrade to the better cabin) and was waiting for us at the dock. Cleaned up, back to Apollo's for some fresh seafood, and then off to bed.

Day 4 - Another early rise, breakfast at hotel, and back to dock for a half day salmon trip in the bay with wife and son. Some silver salmon around but not real thick. Salmon fishing is all about timing. If you are there when they are it can be fast and furious but if the schools aren't in yet it can be frustrating. Either way, a day on the water in Alaska is always a good day to me. We got a total of 9 silver salmon (our limit for inside the bay fishing) which amounted to 32 pounds of fillets that we had processed with the same company. Son and I went down to the small inlet where the late run king salmon were still around and watched a few people successfully snag some of them. These hatchery raised fish go into a small stream with no spawning areas and eventually die off so harvesting them for food is encouraged hence snagging is allowed. Site was real busy so we passed on trying to shoulder our way in and enjoyed watching the locals and visitors from elsewhere in Alaska compete for the few fish making their way through the narrow mouth of the inlet. Went out and had a great seafood dinner and walked the shore watching the otters play. Not sure if there are any animals on the planet that appear to enjoy life more than a sea otter.

Day 5 - Checked out and drove the few miles to the base of Exit Glacier just outside of Seward and started our hike up to the Hubbard Ice Fields lookout. Had to wait for an hour + at the base of the trail due to a black bear with cubs that was spotted walking the trail. I am fine with dealing with bears but bears with cubs can be unpredictable and deadly and park rangers kept trail closed until they had confirmation she was well off the trail. Love the hike, lot of fireweed in August that adds color, 65 and sunny, everything was great except the chest cold that seem to be trying to drag me down. Hiked up to the top, met a couple form Poland that had spent several years traveling the planet driving across continents. They had started in Chile and were on the last part of their journey as they were headed up to Barrow. By the time we reached the top of the trail it was obvious to me that the cold was winning. Nothing to help a good chest cold get a good foothold like 4 hours of heavy deep breathing. Went back to the processing house and picked up our hard frozen fillets, load them all in the cooler, and set off for base camp at in-laws back in Wasilla. Son spotted some salmon in a stream that crossed under the road so we found a spot to park and worked our way down to the stream to find it full of pink salmon. Pinks are okay to eat if eaten fresh but not our favorite. We caught a few before w noticed that there was big brown bear that seemed to favor the fishing hole too so we made our way back to the car and continued along our trip back to Wasilla. By chance, we passed our polish friends we met on the trail earlier and we pulled over at a scenic view point and gave them some salmon fillets for their dinner that night. They were sincerely grateful and we were happy to share. By the time I got to Wasilla I felt like death and was hacking up a lung or two. Mother in law isn't young anymore so wife isolated me into a single room with attached bath and that was my isolation ward for the remainder of the trip.

Day 6 - Felt like crap but didn't want to stay in room all day so son and I drove the 30 miles to a trail head on the Little Susitna River where we could salmon fish without a boat. Weather was amazing, clear, 65 +/-, with just a light breeze. At this location the water is all snow melt and the river is 2 - 4 feet deep in most places with some deeper pools where the fish congregate between runs upstream. Finally patterned the fish and started catching some but they were all chum salmon, aka dog salmon, because they are the fish that the locals catch to feed the dogs. Not good eating but lot of fun to catch. We took fishing gear with us but no waders so son and I stood in knee deep water surrounded by amazing scenery catching and releasing fish. Felt like crud, got a great ab workout from all the coughing, but it was the best sick day ever. Returned back to my isolation ward, heavily medicated myself, and kept reminding myself I could be at home preparing to go to work the next day.

Day 7 - Repeat day 6, helped a 12 year old girl visiting Alaska the first time catch her first fish ever and that was awesome. I saw here and her Mom standing on the shore, could tell this was all new to them, convinced them to shed their shoes and roll up their pants and wade out to where i was until I hooked one and then handed the rod to her and with a little assistance she finally got it in. I have caught my fair share of fish before and that was one of the most satisfying ever. Saw 2 moose on the drive to the river but no good pic opportunity. Tried hard to get some fresh silver salmon but all we caught were more chum as the silvers just were not in yet; hard to complain though and was thankful to have the opportunity to share these experiences with my son. We had spotted an old abandoned boat surrounded by some reeds that line the bay and we stopped and snapped a picture or two with the light behind me. Not sure why but that old weathered boat is now one of my favorites.

Day 8 -  Spent the day relaxing at the house before heading to Walmart to buy some insulated fishboxes (cardboard with Styrofoam liner)and dry ice. Loaded the fish up and headed to the airport for the trip home. 35 pounds of fillets, 6 pounds of dry ice and it makes it home just fine as checked luggage. Benefit of flying first is no extra baggage charge and no crazy charges for shipping fish home. ANC - DFW - RSW. Wife dropped me off, no goodbye kiss for my sick, heavily medicated self. Checked in and went and got a nice half hour neck and shoulder massage, ate a nice meal and boarded the late night flight for home. Drank a couple of cocktails, tooka little something to help me sleep, and woke up not long before landing in Dallas.

Far from our best trip to Alaska but as I recant the story here I realized just how enjoyable it was and how fortunate I am. Alaska is an amazing place with so much to see and do but it is also so big. Cut Alaska in half and both halves would still be bigger than Texas. It isn't cheap since their season is only 3.5 - 4 months and it should be booked as far in advance as possible. We have never done the cruise thing so I am of no help there but we have used the Alaska ferry system to get from Seattle to Seward before we had kids and I had a digital camera. The ferry system allows one to spend more time in some of the smaller towns and experience the scenery along the way without breaking the bank. If flying into and out of Anchorage, I would recommend at least 2 weeks to visit if you want to do a land tour with some ocean time for wildlife viewing.

I like to say I take a vacation three times. Once while planning it, once while enjoying it, and once while reliving it by sharing it with others. Thank you for allowing me to share it with you. Somewhere I have a sample trip for 2.5 weeks land tour beginning and ending in Anchorage and if/when I find it I will add it to this post if anyone is interested. Forgive my appearance, didn't bother to shave the entire trip, and felt like death warmed over in the pics. One of the many things I love about Alaska is nobody cares what you look like or what you wear.

2015 Alaska album below that included a trip up to Brooks Falls (bucket list place for wildlife lover like me) and a rainy day in Denali that was pretty much a bust until a single wolf showed himself to give me my best wolf picture to date. Also was the first time we have witnessed humpback whales bubble net feeding while halibut fishing out of Seward. Had better luck that trip and got almost 80 pounds of halibut fillets and 60 pounds of silver salmon fillets the next day.

Coupon book options, best one depends on what you plan to do but lots of value to be had with lodging and excursions

November 20, 2019, 12:00:11 AM
Re: Alaska - 8 days - August 2019
Probably about two weeks or so.  Hard part is waiting for the ferry schedule.  They told me "sometime between October and March." The whole itinerary revolves around that schedule. :-(

With only two weeks you should consider limiting your itinerary to the southern portion of the ferry system from Seattle to Juneau or maybe just the segment between Whittier and Valdez so you can get all the good land tour stuff in your trip.

I put this together a while back for some friends and maybe it will be helpful for you. Most of it can be done via train with the exception of the Matanuska Glacier hike. This assumes 14 - 18 nights and was written with a driving tour in mind.

Fly into Anchorage, most flights arrive late so pick up rental car and overnight in Anchorage. Spend 1 - 3 nights here depending on how much of the items below you want to do. Do not souvenir shop in Anchorage.

Reserve your car tonight. Even if you have to change there is no charge but car rental rates are high and go higher after xmas.

Buy one of these two coupon books for lots of savings. Each hotel or operator only allows so many coupons per day/week/month so book the excursion you want and let them know you have the coupon. 2 for 1 on lots of great stuff.

Very well done Native History Museum in Anchorage

If budget allows and timing is right, take flightseeing trip out of Anchorage Lake Hood float plane airport to go see bears at Brooks Falls or Lake Clarke. this is bucket list stuff. 2015 album pictures are from Brooks Falls. This is on my repeat when possible list. If flying solo, you can sometimes find empty seat price on plane for discount if you are willing to negotiate and have flexibility.

If you like to bike ride, the Tony Knowles Trail is excellent paved trail along the bay where we have seen lots of moose

Pablo is our friend and they now have electric bikes.

Drive south to Seward. Make stops for scenery on way south as that will be right in right out. One of the most beautiful drives in the US.

Stop here for first glimpse of Alaska wildlife and to guarantee seeing the big ones (moose, bear, mountain goat) if so inclined. Kind of a zoo like setting but good for those that are not inclined to do the hiking to find wildlife elsewhere.

Detour on way to Seward to Coopers landing and either hike out to Russian River Falls (easy flat hike to river often full of salmon and chance to see brown bear fishing for salmon). can spend a night or two here and find lots to do. Smooth water float ride on the Kenai, drive the Skilak Lake Road for scenery and wildlife spotting.

Glacier cruise with whales, otters, and other forms of wildlife sighting possible. Take the longest cruise you can with whatever coupon they can get in the book you choose. The more time ont he water the greater chance of finding and watching whales. Dress warm, water is frigid and the wind can make being outside very cold. take gloves.  is one group. Look for coupons in coupon books.

Can Glacier kayak here too with the best trips requiring a shuttle out to the kayaking areas.

Halibut or salmon fish out of Seward if you want to fish. If that is on your agenda, let me know and I will give you names of better boats to go on. Hike up to Exit Glacier, hike up to Hubbard icefields if you are in decent shape to do a 7 mile hike with 3000' +/- in elevation gain. Black bear, grizzly bear, moose all in the area. Great hike that my 8 year old son did.

Best place to stay in Seward. Awesome cabins with outdoor firepit right on edge of Resurrection Bay

Best Western is another decent option but nothing like Angels rest cabins on the water. Rooms in Seward book up early so book way in advance.

two nights in Seward, three if you want to hike. You can do a glacier cruise and the short hike to Exit Glacier on the same day since it doesn't get  dark before midnight. The hike up to the Hubbard Icefields viewpoint is a solid half day for those in good shape or a casual full day if you want to pace yourself and enjoy the scenery but it is a great hike.

leave Seward drive north back to Anchorage, drive east to Matanuska Glacier and go for hike on glacier with these guys.

continue on to Valdez. This will be along day driving and the glacier hike is a nice halfway point. The hike out on the glacier is one of the things we have repeated over the years. Plan on 14 hour day or make reservations at the hotel near the glacier and go at a more casual pace. The drive from Anchorage to the Matanuska glacier is very scenic and the area right around Valdez is full of scenery. Two nights Valdez visiting local glacier and going sea kayaking. Our best kayaking has been out of Valdez.

Take the ferry from Valdez to Whittier and then drive to Girdwood for 1 night

take the lift to the top of the mountain at Alyeska if the weather is good. the views out over Turnagain Arm are great. If you enjoy adventure, there are paragliding tours where you run off the side of the mountain and then paraglide with a guide. On most days, the wind comes off the cold water of Turnagain Arm and blows up the face of the mountain and provides sufficient uplift to keep one aloft for quite awhile. I did this once a long time ago and it is on the list of things to do again.

There is an amazing restaurant in Girdwood called the Double Musky Inn. think Cajun cuisine meets Alaskan wildlife / seafood. this is our favorite restaurant in Alaska.

Drive north towards Denali, take Denali flight up and around Denali from Talkeetna if the weather is good. Several 2 for 1 coupons available.

If weather is not good or small planes are not your thing, take a jetboat tour with this operator. The flight up and around Denali and the glacier landing is a remarkable experience.

Lots of neat little shops in Talkeetna which is also a train stop.

continue drive up to Denali National Park, stay three nights.

take bus tour into park for next two days for best opportunities to see the most wildlife and the best chance of seeing the full mountain out on a clear day. take shuttle busses, not worth the extra $$ for the "tours", shuttle buses to interior of park do not begin until June 1. shorter trips begin May 20. Go at least to the Eielson Visitor Center. If mountain is out, go to Wonder Lake but be prepared for mosquitos.

Continue north to Fairbanks and do the Riverboat Tour and visit the Natural History museum. Downtown Fairbanks has lots of good local souvenir shops to get authentic items

Can do tour up to North Pole but we didn't enjoy that and thought it was waste of time and resources.

can fly home out of Fairbanks or do long drive/train back to Anchorage.

Alternative routing would be Anchorage to Seward (train possible but would eliminate Cooper Landing option)
Seward to Girdwood (train, shuttle or bus possible)
Girdwood to Whittier-ferry to Valdez (shuttle/ferry)
Valdez to Matanuska Glacier to Wasilla to Talkeetna to Denali (requires car, alternate is ferry back to Whittier and train to Anchorage, change trains to Talkeetna. misses drive from Valdez to Matanuska to Wasilla and Matanuska Glacier hike)
Denali to Fairbanks (car or train)

car just gives greatest flexibility and ability to set your own pace.

if you like hiking, great hike near Anchorage is at Lake Eklutna

can also rent bikes and ride 10 mile trail along lake to short hike up to base of another glacier at lake Eklutna. we like the twin peaks hike here but the first ahlf is rather strenous. There is a resident flock of big horn sheep at the top fo this hike that we have seen both times we made the hike

good Alaska hike search site here

We also really like the hike up to Upper Reed Lake at Hatcher Pass which isn't far from Anchorage.

will review this when I have time and update wtih other thoghts.

November 20, 2019, 05:55:12 PM
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September 29, 2020, 08:39:31 PM
Re: Phuket, Maldives, and London I've been sitting home long enough, not really any excuses not to finish this, so here goes. Protip for anyone writing long overdue trip reports, Google Timeline is your best friend.

Our Elal flight left Israel at 820pm on Monday night. We live in Jerusalem and took the train to the airport, which is my favorite way to go these days. Elal was more than happy to check our bags all the way through to Phuket, even though they were separate tickets. It was a bit of a bumpy ride but we got a decent sleep and landed on time in Bangkok. After clearing transit security, we used priority pass to access the Bangkok Airways lounge. The flight to Phuket was uneventful. I ordered a kosher meal for this flight, and was served a plastic wrapped apple.

Upon arrival in Phuket, we had a brief wait before our driver that I had booked on Klook ($50 round trip) showed up. We had also ordered sim cards ($5 each) which the driver provided us with.
If you've never been to Phuket, the Chabad is located in Patong Beach, which is definitely more of a run down area. There are some OK properties, but the nicer ones are mostly outside of this area. Our hotel, The Naka, was about a 15 minute drive north of Patong, in Kamala. It's a large, spread out resort with an impressive outdoor lobby area. Like a lot of the resorts in the area, you need to take a golf cart to your villa. The hotel has 24 hour service so you'll never get stuck hiking up to your villa. The villa itself is very spacious. We had booked the high bay room, and it had very impressive views from the private infinity pool and the bedroom. Due to the way that the villas are stacked on the hillside though, not all of the private pools are actually private, and judging from the shows our lower neighbors provided, it's not so obvious that the people above you can clearly see what's going on. They have a private beach for the resort as well, but it was very rocky and I saw lots of jellyfish floating around. If you plan to swim here, definitely bring water shoes for the rocks. We did not use any of the other amenities the hotel provides.

After a quick swim, we headed to Patong for dinner at Chabad. They have a meat restaurant, as well as a pizza store. Since my last visit, the pizza store added a cappuccino machine, which was so nice to have. The food is great, and very well priced. We didn't see him at all this trip, but Rabbi Mendy is an incredible man who really cares for everyone who walks through his doors. After dinner, we went to Teddy, an Israeli who lives in Phuket and provides the typical Phuket tourist attractions. I had previously done the full island tour, including Koh Phi Phi, and while I had an excellent time, I couldn't see myself making it through such a long day again. We ended up choosing a half day island tour for the next day.

One of the things that Patong is known for is its nightlife, which never disappoints. There's something for everyone, whether you want night markets, cheap drinks and loud music, or endless massages. It also has other things it is known for, and for that reason I would not recommend visiting if that is not something you want to be near. If you enjoy dance music, I'd highly recommend Illuzion. Just don't get there too early.

The next morning we slept late, and went right to the pizza store. They sell personal pies, but they are quite big and definitely enough for two people, if not more. We ended up taking half our pie with us on the boat tour which got a lot of laughs from the Thai ladies at the tour agency when we got picked up. The half day tour turned out to be incredible. The drive to the dock takes about an hour, including picking up other guests. Once you get to the dock, there's some refreshments, opportunity to buy things like waterproof bags for your phone and water shoes. After a safety presentation you finally get onto the boat. Since we only took the halfday tour, we only stopped on Koh Khai Nok and Khai Nai Island (thanks again Google Timeline). Having done both full day and half day options, I really think the half day is enough to get the idea of what's going on out there without leaving you completely wiped out. There's plenty of time to explore the islands, enjoy cheap drinks, and relax in the water.

We were dropped off at our hotel around 7pm. After a stop at Chabad for dinner, Teddy to book activities for the next day, and a visit to the Bob Marley bar around the corner, we spent another night enjoying the night markets, the fresh fruit, and the night life.

We had reserved an ATV tour and Zip Lining for Thursday afternoon, and after a morning of enjoying the hotel and the beach we were again picked up and driven to the zip lining course. It was good fun and the guides were funny. We had taken a shorter option but you can also do more stations if you want to spend more time on it. As with the island tour, I think it was enough to get the idea without overdoing it, and soon enough we were on our way to the ATV tour.

The ATV tour takes you through the forest on mud and dirt roads, at times alongside elephant tours, up to the Big Buddha (which you don't need to enter), and then back down.

As we had an early flight the next morning, and we planned to stay out late, I hadn't booked The Naka for that night. Instead I booked a cheap room closer to the action to leave our bags and get a couple hours of rest after another night enjoying the city. Friday morning at 4:15 we were off on the way to the Maldives, finally!

October 05, 2020, 09:58:19 AM
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November 12, 2020, 12:05:09 PM
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January 26, 2021, 02:49:43 PM
chase to broaden categories that are considered cash advances

i wonder if this will also include purchases from the mint like amex has started doing

January 27, 2021, 01:02:01 PM
Re: New Chassidish Community Being Planned in Tampa I hope this is the right forum, to vent all my ספיקות.
As I am looking already for quite sometime into the South Florida housing market, as an option to own a vacation house which should eventually cover itself through rentals over peak seasons. I found that North Miami Beach is out of the budget already.
Some background: I am Chasidish, with some strict values, for example i need a walking distance men mikva, especially for shabbos morning. Upto 1 hour walking should be good. I walked sometimes when I went on vacation, more than an hour per direction for טבילת עזרא.
Minyan I am ok with Chasidish, Chabad, Yeshivish/Sefard/Ashkenaz.
Food, I am not at the age anymore that I should have a must for real fancy restaurants. But I do need a supermarket with basic kosher food with heimeishe hechsheirim.
Since I live in Lakewood in a decent size house, I am not looking to go there Pesach/Succos. As of now I can't even go even I want, for many reasons.
So therefore i have no problem on counting on the rental income.
Over the Winter, in our current situation we won't go down more than once over the winter, kids are in school, young kids, etc.
Over the summer we are looking to spend there the Aug month, as we drove down over the last few years, and we really loved it. Yes in the hot weather, but the private pool and the quietness is very good.
I remember when some Chasidish people moved from NY to North Miami Beach about 15 years ago and houses were cheap. At that time approximately many chasidish people bought there for a vacation home, and they are really having a use of it now, and are able to rent it out for top money during season.
My question is, is there chances that Tampa might be in the same position? Some Chasidish people moving from NY, that will make it a nice size OOT Community with their local grocery etc.
I understand that I can't count on getting 400 a night during the whole winter, but how about 200 a night? Also for Pesach/Succos I believe I can count on 5000 each.
Now the pros and cons in my eyes for both options:
Miami PROs
Higher nightly rate and easier to rent out.
More kosher options which makes it cheaper for me when visiting.
Established, no risk, no worries not to have minyan, etc.
The Community is full fledged already and not dependent on vacationers.
They are in the middle of the stages to open chasidish schools. Hence I can see my kids live there when they marry.
TAMPA pros.
Cheaper upfront price, new construction.
Less exposure to Flooding, less risk even with global warming. (Remember I am planning to use it more in 40 years from now.)

Both options have cheap flight options.

Tampa Cons:
Risk if this will be working out, but I do believe if there will be 100 chasidish families that will guarantee it a mikva, kosher grocery.
As of now, there is no market for kosher villas there.

Here are some questions which I wonna have input from others who know answers.
How about the weather in the summer in Tampa, was never there, i was in Miami and it wasnt that bad as some are trying to portray it. In my eyes, על טעם וריח אין להתוכיח.

Many say that Miami metro is the main attraction the food. Since i am not a foodie guy, i can't real answer that. But I wonder why people don't go to Tampa/Sarasota/St. Petersburg areas for vacation, atleast on the same level as Cancun which also don't have many food options.

Now, I did spoke to the organizers, and they have no problem that some people should buy for vacation homes. I do believe it will only help them that some people should have vacation houses there. That will bring free advertising for their Community, all the home owners will have to advertise their houses for the heimeishe Community. It will also bring weekly new faces to the Community and more outside money into the local heimeishe economy.
Those visitors will also become ambassadors for the Community, back home in Tri State area.
Vacationers usually spend more money in Grocery for expensive items, that will make it more economically viable to bring it down those stuff.
Now if the demand would be more than supply, like for example Linden NJ,  I understand that it wouldn't be healthy to have outside investors to drive up prices. And I would never think of buying in such a climate, ואהבת לרעך כמוך and I am not even in the real estate industry to have a יצר הרע to do it.
Tampa is not that the case, they have a huge supply, about 700 houses in just that gated community. Plus many new communities are being build around that area.

Would you consider buying a vacation house in greater Tampa area, as an alternative to South Florida?

Do you think there is more chances that other areas in South Florida with low prices, should become more Chasidish friendly?
In my eyes is Hollywood the closest candidate to North Miami Beach in South Florida, but its also more expensive than Tampa, plus its older houses.
How about North Miami beach outskirts? Spoke to some house managers and they said I won't be able to rent it out as of now. Where are the younger chabad families moving as alternative to NMB?
Your input is appreciated.

February 16, 2021, 02:43:19 AM
Re: New Chassidish Community Being Planned in Tampa
I hope this is the right forum, to vent all my ספיקות.
I'm not going to weigh in, because I know nothing about Florida, but I just wanted to say that I love the way you write. So methodical, and you communicate your thoughts really well. It's rare that I enjoy reading such a long post, especially one that I know nothing about...

February 16, 2021, 07:05:53 AM
Re: New Chassidish Community Being Planned in Tampa
I'm not going to weigh in, because I know nothing about Florida, but I just wanted to say that I love the way you write. So methodical, and you communicate your thoughts really well. It's rare that I enjoy reading such a long post, especially one that I know nothing about...

I gave him another like for you.

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