Bend, TX 10-2016

This trip report is a bit different from the previous trips. It didn’t involve any airplanes or hotels nor miles or points; instead, a 4 cylinder engine and a tent were all that’s required. <shocking> 🙂

A couple of weeks ago, we took a 3 1/2 hour drive down to the Colorado Bend State Park for some fun in the wilderness. My sister and I left early Saturday morning to meet the group who’d been there since friday. Not surprisingly, after several hours of driving we were still in Texas. The views along the 3 plus hour drive were a pleasant change from the busy and congested Dallas city life. The last hour or so we drove through FM roads, small towns and ranches before finally arriving at the park entrance.

There are many different activities one can do at the Colorado Bend State Park. From hiking, mountain biking, fishing, waterfall gazing, to swimming and kayaking in the Colorado River. There are plenty of hiking trails to choose from with various levels of difficulty. Due to time constraint, I was only able to do 2 hikes during this trip: Gorman Falls and Spicewood Springs trail. Both were good, I liked the spicewood trail over the gorman falls though as it’s more scenic.

Our friends who organized the trip had yummy burgers, kababs, and sandwiches prepared. The only thing missing was s’mores by the campfire. :(((( Guess this calls for a re-do. My favorite part of being out in the wild was seeing the specks and twinkles in the sky. It felt so soothing and calming gazing at the stars with the sound of crackling fire in the background. It was also neat seeing wild deer roaming around at night. Least favorite part was having to use the waterless composing toilet, and not being able to shower. So, one night of camping is plenty enough for this amateur. 😛

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I could count how many times I’ve been camping with one hand – the magic number is 3. This time around I was somewhat prepared. I even got a new half-dome tent months before the trip and camped out in the living room to practice. This tent (northface storm break 2) was pretty easy to pitch and light enough to carry in a backpack if needed (and it’s carebear approved). Unfortunately I forgot to snap a pic at the campsite.

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Apart from being able to spend time with friends and getting back to nature, this trip actually helped my sister and I get our minds off of losing our 9 year-old parakeet who passed away 2 days prior. It’d been a really stressful and heart breaking time leading to his passing, we wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves had we stayed home.

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In loving memory of Bebe (7/2007 – 10/2016)

Anywayz! Want to end the post on a lighter note – there are so many wonderful places to see around us. All you have to do is go out and explore. It doesn’t have to be a long plane ride to a foreign country, or a fancy get away with expensive meals to go along. All you may need is a 4-cylinder engine, a tent/camping equipment, basic food items, good company, and you could be the richest person in the world in terms of memories and experiences.

Greece 9-2016

Trip duration: 9/15/16 to 9/24/2016
Route: Dallas => Philly => Athens; Athens => Philly => Dallas
Flying Method: Citi ThankYouPoints redemption (PHL->ATH); Cash Payment (DAL->PHL->DAL)


Planning and Itinerary

Greek mythology, the founding place of democracy, island hopping, baklava, souvlaki, anyone? Yes please! A few girlfriends and I embarked on our Greek adventure six months after the idea was formed during one of our random chitchats.

As with most trips, the 1st step of planning consists of where to go, how to get there, and where to stay. We knew we wanted to fly into and out of Athens. After comparing routes, prices, and schedules (I used ita matrix search), the Dallas -> Philly -> Athens route seemed to be more practical. There was also the option of Dallas -> Heathrow -> Athens, however it seemed to be more of a hassle connecting in a foreign country where you’d need to clear immigration / customs before getting onto your next flight. We chose the 1st option for obvious reason. Since getting the Citi Prestige card, I had over 50,000 citi thank you points waiting to be used (sign-on bonus). I used these points through the citi travel portal to purchase the roundtrip fare between Philly and Athens. These points had a 0.16 point to dollar conversion when you book an American Airlines flight. I was able to shaved off a little over $800 in airfare by doing so. The flights also earn miles as they are still considered revenue flights by the airline. The Dallas to/from Philly flights were bought separately using AA gift cards (saved from when I had the Amex Platinum card where you could get $200 in airline gift cards per calendar year.) 🙂

As far as where to go, we had a total of 9 days in Greece. Each of us pitched in our preferences and we ended up with Athens, Santorini (Thira), and Mykonos. We decided to fly from Athens to Santorini (booked directly via Aegean air), ferry to Mykonos from Santorini (bought online while we were in Greece, picked up ticket at the ticket office when we departed Santorini), then fly back to Athens from Mykonos (booked directly via Aegean air). The domestic flight was a lot more reliable and faster than ferry, although ferry was more budget friendly, however not 100% reliable. It would have taken at least 6 hours on the slow ferry (less choppy) from Athens to Santorini, whereas it only takes under 1 1/2 hour to fly. Our overall schedule looked like this: Athens (1 night) -> Santorini (3 nights) -> Mykonos (2 nights) -> Athens (2 nights).

Lodging wise, since there were 4 of us, we used airbnb mostly. We stayed in a hotel our 1st night in Athens by the Monastiraki Square (Attalos Hotel, review here). In Santorini we stayed in Oia in one of those picturesque cave houses on the cliff. In Mykonos we stayed near the town center so most places were accessible by foot. On our last 2 nights in Athens, we stayed near the Victoria Station (2 stations away from the city center).

Oh by the way, most of us never traveled together before. All of the plannings/bookings were done via email communication.  We rock! 🙂

Athens

Where do I even begin! This city is so eclectic. As we were leaving the airport on the train into the city center (12 euros per person each way; or 20 euros for 2 ppl), the scenery almost made me think I’m in California (it would’ve been funny if there was a Hollywood sign on the hill). There were hills, trees, highways, and somewhat of an open field. 15 mins or so in, the train then went underground; gradually we began to see the hustle and bustle of the city.

We had a private food walking tour scheduled the same afternoon upon arriving in Athens. Unfortunately only 2 of us made the tour as the other 2 girls’ flight was delayed and rerouted. 🙁 After a shower and a power nap, we met our guide by the Monastiraki Square. This tour was one of the best ones i’ve been on. Not only did we experience some authentic Helenic treats, we also got to see the city from a local’s perspective and away from the touristy spots. Who knew there were excavations preserved under the glass floor across the city (not just in the Acropolis Museum)?! There were noticeable graffitis all over the city. At first sight it may look like places were vandalized, but it’s actually a common sight. The graffiti more or less gives the city its quirkiness. Before coming to Athens, a friend mentioned the food tour. Initially I brushed it off as the one I did in Tokyo was a bit of a let down and expensive. Boy was I glad to come across this tour company (Athens Walks), we got to learn/see/eat so much and the price was reasonable too.

Pics from the tour, don’t remember what they all are. The coffee was from Mokka; the loukoumades/fried donut (bottom right) with goat ice cream was superb; we also got to sample freshly made Greek salad by the guide, savored awesome quality olive oil and vinegar’s nectar; and different pastries made from filo dough (different flavors stuffed w/ chicken, spinach and custard)

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Pic below: Inside the fish/meat market; some of the many outdoor markets selling fruit, nuts and olives; Miran spice and salami shop (we had the best hummus ever there. Interestingly it’s hard to find hummus while we were in Greece as tzatziki is more common).

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We saved the main Athens activities towards the end of the trip. Through viator, we booked an all day Athens’ tour where we saw the changing of the guards in front of the Syntama Square, the Acropolis, the Arch of Hadrian; had lunch in Plaka, went to Cape Sounion and saw the Temple of Poseidon. It was quite a busy day. At night we walked around the Syntama Square and had a fab dinner and desserts next door to wrap up the trip.

20161104_202252-collage  Santorini

As touristy and commercialized as Santorini sounds, I personally think it’s one of the places you’ve got to visit at least once while in Greece. The views are just simply amazing, especially the sunset. The cave house we stayed at in Oia faced the caldera/flooded crater on the cliff (pic below in the center). We actually had to hike down some steep and slippery steps to get there. But once there, you just wanna sit in the lawn chair and soak in everything around you (Well, for maybe 5 mins. It was still pretty hot and humid during the day). We didn’t have anything planned in Santorini. During our stay, we’d get up early in the morning, wander around the alleyways and see the sunrise. After breakfast/lunch, we’d take refuge inside the air conditioned villa and chitchat about anything and everything. At night we’d go out and explore some more. One night we took the bus to Fira and had dinner there (Fira is a bigger town on the island with lots of restaurants and shops).

On our 2nd day we went on a quest to find ferry tickets to Mykonos. After being turned around and sent off to different shops, we learned that in Oia there are no places that sell ferry tickets; we’d have to take the bus to Fira. During the said quest, we stumbled across a store selling sunset cruises. Let me tell you, if you don’t do anything else in Santorini, do the sunset cruise. We were able to get on a small group catamaran with a slight discount (hey if you don’t ask, you won’t receive). This was a great lesson that you don’t always have to pre-plan and pre-book everything. Sometimes you get better deal booking things on a whim, plus, you have more flexibility. The sunset cruise was amazeballs. We stopped and swam in the Hot Springs (uhhh lukewarm?), snorkeled near the White and the Red Beach. A delicious Greek dinner was also included with wine and beer. Toward the end, the catamaran, along with every other boat in sight, stopped near Old Fira as the sun was setting. It was the most amazing sunset I’ve ever seen. The rays sparkled and the sun looked like diamond in the sky. On our catamaran, one guy proposed to his girlfriend during the sunset (apparently this proposal scene happens a lot on the boat).

(Side note: We found out we could buy the ferry ticket online via Helenic Seaway and pick up at the port. We did exactly that and purchased VIP seats in case of sea sickness).

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Mykonos

Our next island adventure brought us memories that will certainly be something we’ll laugh about for years to come. Our ferry from Santorini to Mykonos was a bit delayed. As we waited at the crowded gate with other passengers, we were excited when it finally pull up to port. The debark and embark process happened all so very quickly. We dropped off our bags and were ready to head upstairs to enjoy our VIP seats. The only problem – the guy who was checking tickets saw ours and yelled “NO MYKONOS”. Our mouths literally hung wide open, we were stunt and confused. While we stood speechless, he then proceeded to ask: Do you understand english? #@#$*&#@! We then tried to grab our bags and run for the gate, only to see the gate already being pulled up, and the ferry already left the port. Ughh, so much for VIP seats. The same guy came by and told us we should get off in an hour at the next island so we could catch the ferry to Mykonos. He was like “be very careful, if you don’t get off, you’ll be heading to Athens”. The rest of the journey went on fine, we got off at Ios and caught the ferry that we were supposed to be on, which was 15 mins behind. We were finally able to enjoy some much needed break in our VIP seats. lol.

Our perky airbnb host came to pick us up at the port. She showed us to the rental and gave us detailed directions, with drawings on the map and all, where all the main places are at. She recommended that we go to this beach club which plays some awesome EDM music. After seeing how excited she was about this place and the video snippets, we were sold. After a bit of rest and dinner, we set out to this beach club called “Scorpio”, which is located 20 mins south of the city center near the area called Paraga. So we finally got on the bus (delayed as always), all excited about this beach club, only to get off at a deserted bus station in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. There was a beach alright, but it was pitch black. We found the sign to Scorpio and it led to some dimly lit path (wooden planks) on the beach. We followed it for a few minutes and arrived at a resort/hotel like place. There was music playing, the area looked nicely decorated, all looked promising except we were the only people there. After talking with the people at the reception desk, we were told the party season had just ended the week before. OMG! Mykonos, what a day! Why you be playing us like that?!

The rest of our visit went along fine. Again we took things slow and just roamed around the city center for the next 2 days. This island has a completely different vibe from Santorini. The white buildings with blue/red shutters and the cute walkways are what strike me the most about Mykonos. And of course, the windmills. 🙂

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Here are some travel hacks, tips and info learned from this trip:

  • Bring a water bottle and refill with boiled water. Most lodgings have an electric kettle. It saves $$$ and is more environmentally friendly.
  • Take transportation into consideration when making lodging arrangements. The fares do add up. We tried to look for areas that are easily accessible by public transit. Also, taxis aren’t always the expensive option. In Athens, a taxi ride from the airport into the city (and vice versa) is around 35 euros per car (for a 4 door sedan that fits 4 passengers). Metro fare at 12 euros/pp (even at 20 euros/2 ppl) would’ve been more expensive for 4 ppl. There’s a 24hr bus from Syntama Square to the airport (X95) at 6 euros/pp each way. In Santorini, taxi/private transport costs 35 euros each way from the airport to Oia and vice versa. Had we stayed in Fira, bus would’ve been a cheaper option. But we chose Oia for the scenery and the quaintness. In Mykonos we chose a place where the airbnb host provided free transportation. 🙂
  • Take it slow! There is only so much you can do/see. For this trip, all we’d prebooked were the food walking tour as well as the Athens city tour. We left the rest of the itinerary open. It was a breath of fresh air not having to rush from one location to another. When we returned to Athens the 1st night, we decided to stay in. With bags of snacks in tow, we turned on the chrome cast and enjoyed a lighthearted chick flick.
  • If you checked in a bag, make sure to leave a set of clean clothes and essentials in the carryon. Our friends’ flight from Dallas to Philly was delayed, and they missed the flight to Athens. Even though AA was able to rebook them on a separate flight, their bags didn’t make it into Athens that same day. The bags had to be flown to Santorini the next afternoon (since we were going to Santorini the following day). Let’s just say it’s not fun to have to wear the same outfit for 2 days.
  • On a similar note, fortunately our friends’ flight to Athens, including the connecting flight, were on the same ticket. When one segment was delayed, AA was able to put them on a different route automatically. Had the delay happen to me, since my flights were all on separate tickets, I would’ve had to coordinate with AA on my own. It’s a risk I have to take, therefore I also make sure there’s plenty of time in between the 2 connecting flights in case of unexpected delays.
  • Found out the hard way that the Citi Prestige card does not treat the citi thank you points booking as part of the annual $250 travel reimbursement benefits (for example if you use point & cash to pay for a booking). Reason being that booking is done by 3rd party travel agency, therefore not eligible for travel reimbursement. 🙁

Efcharisto (thank you) Greece for a wonderful time with old and new friends alike. Can’t wait for a return visit in the future.

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(After a failed quest to find the beach club in Mykonos)