Charleston – August 2017

One random night in September 2016 (about 11 months prior to the trip), I was browsing the internet and reading random articles.  One on the great eclipse of 2017 caught my attention.  I thought it would be pretty neat to see a total eclipse being a bit of a physics/astronomy nerd…and look – the totality was passing right over Charleston.  My wheels were turning.

We had been wanting to go to Charleston for a while.  It just never worked out for various reasons.

Being way ahead of time, I checked for award flights.  Delta not only had available flights, but they were actually at a reduced rate of 9500 miles each way.  I also had Delta status at the time, so I could book and cancel award tickets without paying fees.

Flights were booked right at 11 months out.  I could always cancel if needed.

Next, I found award space at the Hyatt Place Charleston.  This is a category 4 Hyatt, so we were able to each use our annual category 1-4 award night from the Hyatt credit card.  I added on a 3rd day with points.

It seemed the stars were finally aligning for us to make it to Charleston – or should I say the sun and moon were aligning…I can’t resist the nerd jokes.

With nearly a year to go before the trip, I put it on the back burner.  In the meantime, we traveled to Spain and France, booked and canceled a trip to Spain and Portugal, and bought a major renovation project house.  Needless to say, I did not do much planning.

I booked this as an extremely quick trip to minimize time off of work.  And honestly, I was half expecting Alyce to bail on the quick trip when I booked it, but she never balked.

This trip would be just the two of us, and we’d leave Friday evening.  Our return flight departed at 5:00 p.m. on Monday, which left us enough time to watch the eclipse, hop on our flight, and get back Monday night.  With the tight schedule, we only had to take one day off of work.  Of course, if I had known that we wouldn’t be taking 3 weeks off for Spain/Portugal (or anywhere), I would have planned more time in Charleston.

We were all set.  And even though it was a quick trip, we had a great time.  Alyce chipped in with the research, and we ended up eating at some fantastic places by just waiting and eating at the bar (or late at night in the case of our first meal).

Day 1

Our flight did not depart until 4:30.  We each got in a pretty full day of work.  The late start combined with losing an hour to time changes left us not landing at CHS until 8:00 p.m.  The Delta flights again went off without any issue.  Both legs were pretty quick.

Catching an Uber to the hotel was easy enough and cost effective (~$15-$20).  Our driver was an Alabama fan, but he was a friendly guy – so I didn’t hold it against him.

By the time we checked in dropped off our bags and picked a place to eat, it was after 10:00.  Fortunately, our first choice of restaurant was open until 11:00 – Slightly North of Broad.

Alyce had read good things about it, and – even though it was late – we wanted to eat a good meal given our limited opportunities on this quick trip.  It did not disappoint.

We ordered a bunch of small plates and basically created our own tasting menu.  Everything was delicious, and I’d gladly go back for another meal.  That said, it may have been our least favorite of our three dinners…which speaks to the quality of our other two dinners as we had a very good meal at Slightly North of Broad.

One interesting close to the night was that both of our phones were completely out of batteries – something that rarely happens to either one of us.  But with the long day, all the Uber trips, and the fact that our phones were both 3 years old and on their last leg, we were out.  So we had to have the restaurant call us cab, which they didn’t even really seem sure of who to call.  After waiting 15 minutes, our ride finally arrived and took us back to the hotel.

Day 2

The Hyatt Place includes breakfast for all guests.  It is naturally not as nice a Park Hyatt breakfast, but it had multiple hot options and coffee.  We ate it every day and enjoyed it just fine.

After breakfast, we walked all the way down King Street from the Hyatt Place to White Point Garden.  We caught a Saturday morning market at Marion Square by luck on the way.  One thing was that it was pretty, pretty, pretty warm and humid being August and all…

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New York – May 2017

After cancelling our big Spain/Portugal trip, I still wanted to do something quick.  Being late May, our options were pretty open.  That is a good time to go many places.  I looked at several choices, but New York just made the most sense because we already had flights booked there (they would have been the first leg of our flights to Spain…we had to book the connecting flights to New York for Iberia).  Also, Alyce had two free nights to any Hyatt that were expiring soon, and the New York Park Hyatt is as good as any to use them.

We had been to New York once before (see the 2010 retro review).  That trip was mostly focused on fancy dining and more traditional New York tourist stuff – see a couple shows, go to the top of a tall building, museums, etc.

This trip was more about relaxing, hanging out, walking around, and doing whatever we felt like.  Part of that was that we really only finalized the trip about a week or two out.  So, most of the fine dining places were out even if we had wanted to do one, as I doubt we could get a reservation.  Also, the whole saving money thing with the renovation project, two mortgages…

As a result, we decided where we’d eat dinner the day most days – and it worked out just fine.  I had done some minimal research into ideas, but we were mainly winging it based on how we felt.  Same thing for where to walk/what to see.

We settled on a duration of 4 nights.  That’s my preferred length for a quick domestic trip.  While not Spain and Portugal, New York was still a very welcomed trip.  We hadn’t been anywhere since our 2016 Spain/France trip and were anxious to get back on the road.  Plus, being that it was just Alyce and I on the trip, it gave us a nice break from day to day family living.

Day 1

Our flight to New York (JFK) left late morning/early afternoon and was booked with Delta miles.  As mentioned, the original plan was to connect on an Iberia flight to Spain.  It was a completely uneventful flight.  I barely remember it writing this a couple months later.  We were in economy and mostly watched TV shows the whole flight.

The arrival at JFK was smooth, and we were out in a no time as we didn’t check any bags.  I decided to Uber, which was an uncomplicated/smooth process.  The actual ride itself…not so much.

We left the airport around 3:30, and things were moving quickly for the first 20 minutes.  However, we were about to hit some rough traffic.  I knew it was bad when my phone said we had 45 minutes left, then 15 minutes later said we had 50 minutes left.  Overall it took us over an hour and 45 minutes to get to the Park Hyatt.  Neither one of us were really feeling the car ride and were thrilled to get out when we finally made it.

So back to the hotel…We had two free nights from Alyce’s Chase Hyatt sign up bonus.  That meant we still needed to pay or use points for the other two nights.  And with rates over $1000 a night, paying cash was not an option.  Points it is.

I’ve emailed back and forth with an online friend who is a Hyatt “Globalist” (aka the artist formerly known as Hyatt diamond…lame name – I know), and he had offered to book a guest of honor reservation for us if it was worthwhile.  So we did it for the first two nights and hoped the benefits would apply for the whole stay.

At check in…Jackpot!  We were upgraded to a suite for the whole stay, and we received free breakfast for all 4 nights.  It worked out great for our 4 night stay.

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The Trip That Wasn’t – Spain/Portugal 2017

Just about right after we returned from our Spain and France 2016 trip, I was right back into vacation planning mode.  Alyce submits her vacation requests for the year in October, so we had to think quickly.

We knew (or at least were pretty sure….) that James would be starting at St. Pius for pre-K3 in the fall of 2017.  Pulling him out of school for a 2-3 week vacation just as he was getting settled in a new school would not be a good idea.  I knew we would have to shift our Fall vacation timeline to late Spring/early Summer at some point, and it turned out that 2017 would be the year to do it.

I only seriously considered European destinations.  Southern hemisphere destinations were in the winter season and/or were too far away.  Asia was too far away as well.

Portugal has been on my radar for a while, and we had really enjoyed the parts of Spain we just visited.  It didn’t take too much research to narrow it down to those areas, but the actual itinerary involved a lot more planning.

But first, we had to settle on the length.  Initially, we were looking at two weeks.  Alyce was able to get 3 weeks off in a row again, but she was not yet convinced.  Fortunately, Samantha – who was very helpful on our last trip and James loves – was again available to join us.  That (plus the proposed itinerary) helped get Alyce on board with 3 weeks.

On what was to be our third international trip with James, I think I was finally getting pretty good at planning things that would keep everyone happy.  James loves parks and is turning into quite the beach bum.  As a result, Alyce likes places that are close to beaches/parks and that she feels comfortable walking too by just herself and James.

Of course we still love to eat out, walk around, try new wines, etc.  I think that I had found places that combined all the options we were looking for.

One complication remained: booking business class (preferably) award flights for 4 people 6 months from departure – aka not so early that you get the first award seats released, but generally too far out for closer to departure award seat releases.

I looked at a couple airlines, but ended up back with Iberia for the flight over.  Iberia uses married award segments, and flying to obscure airports like Santiago de Compostela (SCQ) actually helps your cause.  Iberia award availability can also vary day to day, so checking a time or two each day can increase your odds of finding space.  Eventually I did.

For the flight back, we just needed 3 seats because Sam would be meeting another of our cousins doing a law school summer semester abroad in Europe.  The brand new LHR-MSY route had 3 business class seats and we could get to London easily from Madrid.  Our first and last stops were set, now I just had to allocate days and pick the remaining stops.  My thought process and the itinerary ended up like this:

Spain-Portugal 2017 Itinerary

A’ Coruna – 4 Nights

I found A’ Coruna by just browsing the Northwestern coast of Spain on google maps.  Further research compared it to a lesser known San Sebastian, which we loved.  There was easy beach access, and plenty of Tapas bars and restaurants to try out.  I found a great vacation rental that overlooked one of the beaches for a very reasonable price.

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Spain and France 2016 Wrap Up

Our second big international trip with James.  The first one didn’t scare us off?  Are we crazy?  Probably.

Italy with a 15 month old was tough, but I was optimistic this trip would be easier for several reasons:

  • James was a different child one year later than Italy– though still very active and energetic.
  • We were bringing/meeting help in the form of our cousin Sam and James’s grandmother (Nonna).
  • We were more experienced travelling with a child.

You can go back and read my planning post (link) for more thoughts on that, as well as how we ended up at our final itinerary – after several changes (indecisive planning, terrorist concerns, etc.).  To summarize, we had a full 21 nights.  12 would be spent in Spain and 9 in France.Itinerary1

France and Spain are two pretty prominent countries for American tourists.  We had never been to Spain and had only been to Paris in France.  We were excited to get to both countries and – in our typical travel fashion – visit several places in each.

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Blog Update – Fall 2017

Anyone that still has our blog on your reader may have noticed that it has been over a year since our last post.  This isn’t for lack of things to write on – I’ve just been slow to get to the posts I’ve been needing to type up.

I had hoped to have my posts on Spain/France 2016 wrapped up by year end 2016.   That didn’t exactly pan out.  But, the good news is that I now have that typed up along with wrap ups for our other trips since then (New York and Charleston).

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France/Spain 2016 Itinerary and Planning

Another year, another trip…Italy with a 15 month old didn’t completely turn us off from traveling – though we did need a full year to get back on that horse.

Itinerary

We’ll be stopping at 6 different places and are spending a full 3 weeks in Europe.  A summary of the itinerary is below.  The full story of how we arrived at it follows…

  • San Sebastian, Spain – 4 nights
  • Saint Emilion (in the Bordeaux region), France – 3 nights
  • Dordogne countryside (outside of Daglan/Domme), France – 4 nights
  • Collioure, France – 2 nights
  • Barcelona, Spain – 4 nights
  • Madrid, Spain – 4 nights

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We’ll take a high speed train between Barcelona and Madrid, saving 6 hours of driving.

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Wine Country Advice/Suggestions

Let me start with this…I don’t claim to be a wine country expert by any means.  But I tend to get asked a lot about it, so I figured I’d type out a post as a primer.  That said, we have been out there 4 times now and actually had another stop planned that we had to cancel.  Hopefully, this post will help you get started with planning your own trip.

I’d also recommend reading my wrap ups/retro reviews from our Napa trips: 2016, 2013, 2012, 2010.

Sonoma Valley vs. Napa Valley

One of your first decisions is on where to go because there is a mountain range between the two regions that you don’t want to be traversing on a daily basis.  It depends on a couple things…

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What sort of wine do you like?  Cabernets – you’re much better off in Napa.  Pinots and Zinfandels – you’re probably better off in Sonoma.  These are gross generalizations, but they’re true more often than not. Continue reading