TRAVEL: Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia

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After a failed travel attempt a few years back, Croatia skyrocketed to the top of my list of must-visit places.  My initial desire to visit was largely driven by photos of these lakes which are regularly featured in travel articles.  The photos are unreal – the are is just so gorgeous with the lush greenery, and the multi-hued lakes.  And you know what?  They are just as beautiful in person, maybe even more so.

The national park consists of more than 70,000 acres of protected land.  There are several paths you can take to walk through the lakes – we chose one of the shorter routes which is said to feature all the highlights.  Beware – these lakes can get quite crowded, so you’ll want to try and get there early in the morning, or late in the afternoon to avoid the worst of it.  Otherwise you’ll get an excellent test in patience as you are forced to walk behind a large tour group walking at a snail’s pace.

The most amazing thing about the lakes (and really all the Croatian waters) is how clear they are.  I tend to avoid most bodies of water because I hate when I can’t see what’s swimming with me, but I wanted to dive right into these.  When the light would hit the water just right, these lakes would gleam in these gorgeous shades of blue.

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TRAVEL: Normandy, France – Remembering D-Day 70 Years Later

“Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers in arms on other fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world….” — Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower

 On June 6, 1944, after more than a year of planning and intricate deceptions, the British, Canadian, and American Allied force launched an invasion of Normandy with a single unified goal: defeat Nazi Germany.  About 156,000 troops were involved in the aerial and seaborne landings that day – 61,715 British, 21,400 Canadian, and 73,000 American troops.  It would be one of the bloodiest battles of the war, but this is the invasion whose victory would turn the tides of the war.  It was the beginning of the end for Hitler and the Nazis – a defeat from which they would never be able to recover.

We rose early and headed out to the Longues-sur-Mer Gun Batteries.  It was gray and drizzling out, which somehow seemed the perfect setting for the somber day ahead.  Most of the German defenses were torn down shortly after the war, long before anyone thought about the potential for those seeking to see a piece of history.  These survived intact.

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TRAVEL: Strasbourg, France and the Alsatian tour

We are still getting used to our new holidays out here.  While all the U.S. was grilling burgers and raising chugging beers in honor of the men and women who have fought for our country, Jared and I were toiling away at work.  But that’s alright – Thursday was Ascension Day which meant a four-day weekend for us.  So we packed up and drove south, landing in the Alsace region of France.  The Alsace region is a little bit french, a little bit German and 100% charming.  This little region has a long history of being conquered and traded back and forth between France and Germany – some folks may have seen their nationality change 5 or 6 times during their lifetime.  Everyone wanted to claim this land for their own and I can understand why.

The first stop on our little tour was the town of Strasbourg.  Strasbourg is the capital of the Alsace region and also the official seat of the European Parliament.  The main site in Strasbourg (at least according to us) is the beautiful Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg.   As one of the tallest churches in the world, it towers over this small town and is an absolute must-see.  Most of the stained glass windows date back to the 14th century, and some as far back as the 12th and 13th centuries.

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TRAVEL: London Calling

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Sometimes I forget how taxing it can be to live in a foreign city where the main language isn’t English.  Almost everyone we encounter in our city understands and can speak English, but Brussels is officially bi-lingual which means everything in Brussels must be posted in Flemish and French.  You can imagine that having two mandatory languages doesn’t leave much room for something optional like English.  I get it, and I don’t judge the city for it.  It is what it is and we’re getting used to it.  All the same, there is something refreshing about being in a city that speaks your language.

We had just 48 hours in London.  Most of our time in London was spent exploring the city, reveling in the glorious weather, and wishing our flip flops and shorts had made it into our hastily packed bags.  It was an easy going weekend and that suited us just fine.  We spent our nights grabbing dinner and drinks with friends.  Our days were spent visiting some historic landmarks (Tower of London, Westminster Abbey) and strolling through the gardens.

It could be the charming pubs where we spent a good portion of our time enjoying pint (after pint).  It could be the sprawling green parks we took long strolls through with sleeves rolled up basking in the unusually warm weather.  Or, it could be the friends – some new, some going way back – we were able to connect with while in town sharing drinks, dinner, and brunch.  But 48 hours was all it took for us to decide that we quite like this city—48 hours to decide that this will be the first of many weekends to come. Continue reading

TRAVEL: Thailand – Swimming with the Fish

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I obsessively checked the weather report every day the week leading up to our Thailand holiday.  I’m not sure if you guys are familiar with Belgian weather, but we see our fair share of rain here.  Well, maybe more than our fair share.  Simply put, we get a whole hell of a lot of rain.  So imagine my dismay when I saw that rain was forecasted for most of our time in Koh Lanta.  The beach time in Koh Lanta.  The time when you want sunshine and blue skies.  Turns out, I didn’t have too much to worry about.  Our days were mostly hot and sunny, and then as the evening would set in we would find ourselves watching these amazing thunderstorms.  Thunderstorms were one of the things that we missed most while living in Southern California, both of us having grown up in areas where summer storms meant gazing out the windows in amazement as the skies would light up and the house would rumble.  The storms on Koh Lanta made us feel a bit like kids again – staring at the sky in anticipation for the next strike and crying out in excitement when it was particularly bright or big.  Continue reading

TRAVEL: Koh Lanta, Thailand – Scenes from the Island

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In planning our trip, what island we wanted to go to was by far the most difficult decision.  For every person that raved about an island, another person hated on it.  After a lot of back and forth, we finally settled on Koh Lanta, a group of islands on the western side of Thailand.  It’s got a very relaxed vibe – you’re not going to find the crazy nightlife of Koh Phangan here – and a lot of the island still feels untouched and wild.  It truly is a beautiful island.

After a few days of non-stop action in Chiang Mai, Koh Lanta was just what we needed.  It took a late-night flight + a quick overnight in Phuket + an early morning ferry, but we finally made it.  We immediately got down to business: sun – check, books – check, drinks – check check.  Some days we found ourselves sticking close to the hotel enjoying the private beach, other days we would hail a tuk tuk and explore the island.

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TRAVEL: Chiang Mai, Oh My

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe first landed in Chiang Mai after traveling for almost 24 hours.  We have a jetlag theory.  If you pull an all-nighter before your morning flight, stay awake for as long as you can, and then try to sleep during the “night” on the plane you’ll adjust much more quickly.  We’re usually exhausted the first day, but ultimately we’ve found that we suffer less jetlag this way.  All the same, the name of the game for the first day was just keep moving.  And so, after dropping our bags off at the hotel we immediately headed out to explore the city.

First up on the list was the wats.  A wat is a monastery temple, and there are over two hundred of them in and around Chiang Mai.  Which means that you can’t turn a corner without stumbling across a wat.  Now I know I’m biased (how could I not be after all the amazing churches I’ve seen in Europe), but I kind of felt like once I’d seen one wat I’d pretty much seen them all.  Is that horrible?

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TRAVEL: Chiang Mai, Thailand – Hitching a Ride on Elephants

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We have had some friends who have made their way to Thailand in the last few years, and they were more than happy to provide recommendations when we asked.  We noticed some common themes in those recommendations, one of which was that we absolutely must ride the elephants in Chiang Mai.

To be honest, our elephant experience started off on a rocky foot.  We had booked our spots two months in advance, and come that morning we were up and in the lobby by 7:30AM as requested waiting for our pick-up.  8AM rolled by, then 8:30AM, and then it was 9AM.  At this point we had the hotel call the Elephant folks to see what the hold-up was.  Long story short, it turns out that they forgot about us, but they would send someone immediately to pick us up.  At this point I was pretty annoyed (jetlag + 5 hours of sleep + 1.5 hours waiting in a lobby twiddling my thumbs does not a happy Holly make), and well, disappointed and worried that my precious elephant bonding time would be cut short.  Turns out we had nothing to worry about: after a brief introduction we were up and on our way.  Mine was a sprightly 8-year-old elephant with a full head of hair and a penchant for spitting.  Jared’s was a 40-year-old lady who was 5 months deep into a two-year pregnancy and boy was she one large elephant.

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TRAVEL: Far, Far East

For years we have been wanting to go to Thailand.  All our really big vacations up until this point have been to European locales – trips to beautiful cities where you walk and walk until your feet feel like they are going to fall off.  You know the kind of vacations I am talking about – the ones where you feel you need a vacation to recover from your vacation.  Don’t get me wrong – I love exploring and seeing all that a city has to offer, but sometimes I just want to plop down on a beach and do nothing more than bicep curl fancy cocktails while I admire the ocean view.  That’s usually where I lose Jared – he’s much more the adventurer of our duo.  The thought of spending days laying on a beach is okay for a day or two until he’s itching to see/do/feel and experience, whereas I, being the lazy person that I am, could easily spend days lounging around in the sun catching up on my kindle backlog.  Needless to say, this trip became a bit of a negotiation (I’ll give you 3 beach days if you’ll spend one day hiking to a hidden pool) but in the end I think we arrived at a nice balance.  A little bit city, a little bit relaxation, and a whole lotta heat.  It would be impossible to cram it all into a single post, so we’ll be breaking it down into a few posts over the next couple of weeks.  While we work through the million plus one photos we took, we’ll leave you with these gems and teasers:

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BELGIUM: Gent/Ghent – Graffitistraat

This past weekend we found ourselves with a free Sunday.  Jared will be the first to tell you that I have an irrational need to fill up every weekend with travel.  It’s not that I don’t like Brussels.  I just want to make sure that I cross EVERYTHING off my list.  And let me tell you, it’s a big list.  We’ve definitely got our work cut out for us.

But anyways, back to this weekend: Gent.

Our first visit to Gent was about two and a half years ago.  Love at first sight may sound a little strong, but really, it was love at first sight.  Most people (okay fine, us too) wax poetic over Bruges, but Gent has much of the same charm just with a very city feel.  Plus the city’s motto is “1,000 years against the current.  Our city is stubborn and always will be. That will never change.”  Badass.  Without agenda, we wandered through the city on Sunday admiring the churches, drinking beers by the canal, and taking a million and one photos of the Graffitistraat.  I’m a sucker for color, and this, this is a color lover’s delight.

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