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Archive for July, 2010

Friday’s Friendly Funny

Fifth edition of our first-hand look at the Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise

View from the steps to the Cave of the Apocalypse

When I left you last I had boarded the Aquamarine after a morning in Kusadasi, Turkey. We were headed for the port of Skala on the island of Patmos.

This island is one of the original Dodecanese (meaning “12”) Greek islands. The earliest known temples on the island were the fourth century B.C. sanctuary of Diana. It’s believed that the name Patmos might come from Latmos, or Mt. Latmos of Turkey, where the goddess Diana was worshiped.

Patmos was populated beginning in about 500 B.C. by Dorians, then Ionians, and then the Romans in the second century B.C. It was during this time that the island fell into decline and was used as a place to banish “criminals and religious and political troublemakers.”

Not long after, according to some, Patmos makes its mark in the history books. The story has been subject to much scrutiny, but legend has it that John the Apostle (sometimes referred to as John of Patmos) received his first visions while living in exile on the island. These visions inspired the writings of the Book of Revelation, the last document of the New Testament.

It’s for this reason that Patmos is a frequent destination for Christian pilgrimage. So for obvious reasons, the shore excursion that takes Friendly Planeteers to the Monastery of the Apocalypse, Cave of the Apocalypse, and Monastery of St. John are very popular. This was the excursion my friends and I opted to go on, as did almost all of our tour group.

The port of Skala: View from the Monastery of St. John

We boarded buses in Skala that took us on a short drive up the hillside to the village of Chora where these three sites are located. The first stop was the Monastery and Cave (or Grotto) of the Apocalypse. The Monastery is small, beautiful, and peaceful with amazing views of Skala and the Aegean.

Next to the Monastery is a long stone staircase leading to the cave where St. John is believed to have written the Book of Revelation. We saw niches left in the wall marking the pillow where he rested his head and ledge used as a desk. Above your head is the crack in the rock said to be made by the voice of God honoring the Holy Trinity.

Further up the hill is the Monastery of St. John, built 900 years ago. The main church, still in use today, is known for its intricate frescoes and decoration. We were there the day before Palm Sunday, and leaves tied into delicate crosses were hung inside the building. Nearby is a small museum that houses priceless ecclesiastical treasures, books, manuscripts, mosaics, icons, splendid medieval textiles, vestments, and jewelery.

Drinking Ouzo on Patmos

After two hours of sightseeing, we headed back down to Skala to explore on our own. We went into the little white-washed shops to find gifts for our families, and sat outside of a cafe where we shared pastries — baklava and kataifi — and had our first tastes of ouzo.

Ouzo is typically mixed with water, which turns it from clear to cloudy. We forgot until about halfway through our drinks that we’d been warned about the drinking water on the islands. But luckily, we lived to tell the tale. 🙂 When we asked the waitress where we could get our own ouzo glasses to commemorate our day in Patmos, she said, “You can keep these!” It was the perfect souvenir to bring home with us.

As night fell, it was again time to head back to the ship for dinner. This was one of my favorite stops on the tour — very beautiful, peaceful, and seemingly untouched by the rest of the world. If I had to choose one place to spend the whole week, this would be it. The next morning we’d be arriving at Crete to make an 8 a.m. wine tasting appointment. More on that in my next post.

Advice on what you shouldn’t pack in your suitcase

Some people like to pick up every knickknack and souvenir they can get their hands on when they travel. From the hotel shampoo to the restaurant matchstick book, they shove it all into their luggage. I, on the other hand, do not. It weighs your luggage down, and you don’t need it!

If you’re a pack rat you should read Chris Elliott’s “Packing Tips: 4 Things to Take (or Leave Behind) When You Travel.”

Chris gives the best advice on what is worth saving and what can be left behind. I agree with almost every tip he gives. It appeared on Frommer’s last week and it got me thinking about what else I normally leave behind to save space in my suitcase. In addition to Chris’s tips, here is some other advice from me.

For every piece of paper that you pick up when you travel, just ask yourself, “Can I find this information online?” This goes for brochures, menus, coasters, etc. A majority of the time your answer will be yes. If it is, recycle it.

In a previous post, I mentioned that I carry travel sizes of my cosmetics. That includes lotions and face creams. But if I know that travel size won’t be enough during my trip, I leave it at home. Instead I’ll buy that product locally.

That way I also know it’s formulated for the local conditions. I typically do this with my body lotion. I use it regularly, so I always buy it in the country that I am visiting. If the bottle isn’t empty by the time I leave, I throw it away to save space in my bag.

Almost every hotel now offers shampoos and soap as amenities in its bathrooms, so avoid packing large bottles of those items. If you’re bringing your own travel sized toiletries, then don’t open what the hotel gives you. Leave the unopened bottles behind for the next guest to use. It also saves the hotel the cost of restocking it.

I know in some cases, people bring home hotel toiletries to donate to a shelter. If you actually do take these toiletries to a shelter when you get home, great. If, like me, a busy life gets in the way, leave the toiletries in the hotel. Then, when you get home, if you really want to make a contribution, why not just write a small check and designate it for purchase of personal items.

Lastly, you can buy products such as nail polish remover, toothpaste, mouthwash, hair spray, etc., in almost every city in the world. It’s not worth carrying large containers of these. So save yourself some space in your luggage by applying these tips and reading what Chris Elliott has to say. Have any more suggestions? Share your tips in a comment to this post.

Friday’s Friendly Funny

Friday’s Friendly Funny

Fourth edition of a first-hand look at the Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise

When I ended my last post in this series, recounting the Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise, my friends and I had just found our way out of the Mykonos maze.

A. Mykonos. B. Kusadasi.

We spent our first night aboard the Aquamarine and woke up to views of colorful Kusadasi, Turkey. The geographically challenged (myself included) might be wondering how we ended up in Turkey on a cruise in the Greek Isles.

If you pull out a map, like I had to, you’ll see that Turkey also borders the Aegean Sea, and isn’t far from Mykonos or Patmos, another island we’d soon visit.

First order of business in Kusadasi, according to our tour guide, Izzy: Learn how to pronounce the name of this town. It’s koo-SHAH-dah-suh, not KOOS-uh-DASS-see. The incorrect pronunciation translates to Bird Island. Saying that to a local would be pretty embarrassing.

Kusadasi, Turkey

Kusadasi was the first place where I opted in for a shore excursion — a visit to Ephesus. This is the second most well-preserved ancient site in the world (after Pompeii, the city that was buried in ash after Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D.). Ephesus is located near Selcuk, Turkey, a 30-minute drive from Kusadasi.

Ephesus was first an ancient Greek City, and then a major Roman city. In fact, in the first century B.C. it was the second largest city in the world with a population of 250,000.

Izzy, was in a BIG hurry to get us to the site of Ephesus that morning. Why? Because when you’re the first to enter the city, you have some incredible, unobstructed views (and photo opps) of the ruins and the valley. It’s pretty rare to get a shot like the one below that isn’t packed with tourists. Be jealous. 🙂

Tourist free Ephesus

We saw some incredible things at the archeological site. It’s actually the largest collection of Roman ruins in the eastern Mediterranean. Izzy’s descriptions of what the site once looked like brought the city to life.

We saw marks that carts made in the stone pathways more than a thousand years ago, beautiful Roman-style columns, intricate lettering carved in stone, and most notably, the Library of Celsus. It was once home to over 12,000 scrolls.

The library’s facade has been completely reconstructed from its original pieces, and the result is breathtaking.

Library of Celsus

We also saw the Grand Theater in Ephesus, which seats about 44,000 and is believed to have been the largest theater in the ancient world. It was used as recently as 2001, when Elton John played a concert there.

After our tour, we headed back to Kusadasi to get a taste of Turkish life. The first stop was a Turkish rug store. The owner was VERY intrigued that there was a New Yorker in our crew. He asked her about a million questions about “the best city in the world,” and had pretty much invited himself to come stay on her couch by the time we left.

We watched a woman do the back-breaking work of weaving a rug on a loom, which can take years for the most intricate designs. And we learned about the different styles of rugs while we sipped Raki (the Turkish version of Ouzo).

Hand-woven Turkish rug

After leaving the shop, we headed into the marketplace in Kusadasi. Now this was an experience I’ll never forget. Heather had warned us that the shop keepers were a little aggressive. That was the understatement of the century. These guys would probably drag you into their store if you let them.

In the Kusadasi marketplace, you’re expected to barter for the best price on handmade Turkish goods, such as beautiful (and real) pashminas, handmade jewelry, pottery, and much more. Bartering is something that most people don’t have much experience with, so here are a few tips:

  • Ask how much they want for something. Offer about 2/3 of that, or less if you really think that’s all you want to pay for it, and go from there.
  • If they won’t budge on a price, walk out. If they really want to make the sale, they’ll chase you down the street to give you the discount you asked for.
  • Be respectful of the fact that they do need to make a living, don’t offer them pennies for their goods.

I spent 30 minutes haggling with one jewelry maker over a silver bracelet. I walked out when he wouldn’t budge. He even got his dad on the phone before he’d agree to a lower price. But I did get it for about $50 less than he asked for at first. 🙂

If you can believe it, our tour of Ephesus, lesson in rug weaving, Raki drinking, and Turkish bartering all happened in one morning. We headed back to the Aquamarine for lunch, as the ship set a course toward Patmos. More on that in my next post.

Friday’s Friendly Funny

My most embarrassing makeup moment: Don’t let it happen to you

I happened to find myself in a funny predicament during one of my trips. When I told my staff the story, they laughed and encouraged me to share it with you. It’s especially applicable to the female readers, and you’ll soon see why.

Not too long ago, my husband, Ilan, and I traveled to Greece on business. I didn’t know it at the time, but rushing to leave my hotel in the morning, I forgot my makeup bag in my room.

I was heading out to a hectic day and I already felt like all the odds were stacked against me. I had caught a terrible cold and was feeling sick, exhausted, and to top it off, the weather was terrible.

Ilan and I were evaluating cruise ships to decide which ones to use in Friendly Planet tours, and we were meeting with our suppliers to talk about contracts and other items. I always try to look my best, especially at important meetings, who wouldn’t? But between arriving in Athens and inspecting the ships, I started to look like quite the mess.

I wore jeans and sneakers, because I was walking around a ship that was being renovated. The wind and rain were whipping, which was anything but friendly to my naturally curly hair. Plus, my nose had turned a bright red from rubbing it with endless tissues, and my makeup, applied much earlier that day, was quickly eroding. I should have seen the signs then that things weren’t going to go my way that night.

Unfortunately, the cruise ship inspections lasted far longer than I anticipated. There was no way I could get back to the hotel to freshen up before the meeting with our suppliers. There was nothing I could do about my wardrobe, but I thought I could try to salvage the hair and makeup before our hosts arrived.

So I went into the ladies’ room at the restaurant where we were meeting, and began frantically digging through my purse for my makeup bag in order to fix up my makeup and hair. I quickly realized with horror that I had left it at the hotel, along with my hair brush, spray, and anything else I might have needed to make myself look decent.

I wanted to cry. How was I going to conduct a meeting looking like a monster with a red nose, black mascara under my eyes, and hair practically standing on end? Realizing there was nothing I could do to help myself, I went on with the meeting. At least I had a glass of dry Greek chardonnay to smooth out my despair.

You might think the story is over, but you haven’t heard the funny part yet. The next time I met with the suppliers, I was dressed properly, my makeup was done, and my hair was coiffed and in place. Remembering me from our previous meeting, they didn’t recognize me!

There was a moment of embarrassed silence when I shook their hands and they stood before me, clueless as to who I was. We all laughed when they remembered the story. But by their astounded faces, reflecting the evidently dramatic before and after images of me they now compared, I understood that I must never, ever leave my makeup anywhere. 😉

So from that day on I started to practice a few tips to make sure my makeup bag is always with me and convenient enough to tuck into the smallest purse.

Here’s how to pack your makeup:

  • Buy your makeup in travel sizes. Or, when you buy the full-sized products, ask for travel-size samples.
  • Pack your cosmetics in one bag and keep it with you in your purse.
  • Keep creams, lotions, and other items you won’t need for make-up repairs in a separate bag, in your carry-on case.
  • Carry Q-tips for smudging eyeliner and quick clean up jobs under eyes.

Here’s what to pack in your cosmetics bag:

  • Mineral powder and brush (better than foundation and easier to carry and apply or reapply)
  • Small blusher and brush
  • Lip gloss wand in a subtle color
  • Small eye pencil
  • An eye brush that will separate lashes, brush brows, etc.
  • A sample-size mascara

Do you have a funny story to tell? Please share it with us in a comment on this post.

Friday’s Friendly Funny

Should you carry cash, credit, or a traveler’s check when traveling?

A lot of us are accustomed to paying for most things with our credit or debit cards. It’s easy and convenient. But when you’re traveling, using a credit card might not always be the best option. So before you leave the U.S., be sure to determine whether you should be carrying cash, credit, or a traveler’s check.

A good starting point is this CreditCards.com article. It gives you best practices to find out which countries you should carry cash in, the safest way to do it, and more. Susan Ladika also featured some of my advice on this topic in her piece, so click over and read it.

But there’s more advice where that came from and I’m posting it here.

In today’s world, it’s hardly ever worth it to carry traveler’s checks. You can find ATM machines in many destinations, even those considered off the beaten track where you can get cash, in local currency, using your own credit or debit card.

Typically, the exchange rates charged by your credit card company or bank will be better than those charged by local banks, and the convenience goes without saying. You get money as you need it, without having to carry around lots of bills, and without having to pay commissions and fees to cash the traveler’s checks.

If you simply can’t imagine taking a trip abroad without traveler’s checks, by all means get the ones that are free. If you belong to AAA, or your bank offers free traveler’s checks to their depositors, get them.

But make sure you get them in small denominations because you pay fees based on the amount you’re changing. If you’re like me, you’ll bring them home with you again to redeposit into your own checking account. That is, of course, if you have anything left!

When I travel abroad, I usually bring about $300 in cash so I can quickly convert some dollars to local currency upon arrival. That gives me time to find out where the ATM machines are located, without having to stress about not having money in local currency.

I also carry enough $1 bills to take care of incidental tipping, too. Having $20 to $30 in single dollars buys me time to figure out what a good tip should be in local currency (and I can assure you that tips paid in dollars won’t be refused).

I use the hotel in-room safe to store extra cash, so I don’t need to walk around carrying a bundle of bills in my purse. I also take two different credit cards with ATM capabilities, but I only carry one at a time. I leave the second card tucked away in the room safe. If I ever lose my purse or if it gets stolen, I have another card on hand.

And remember, before you even depart the U.S., it’s a good idea to call your card companies and bank to let them know when and where you’re going. The last thing you want is to have your bank account frozen while you’re abroad.

In today’s security-conscious world, where identity and card theft is rampant, cards are often declined because the charge doesn’t fit a normal profile. If your credit card profile is annotated with your travel details, you’ll never face this embarrassing inconvenience.

Write to me or leave a comment on this post if you have any other questions about what form of money to bring abroad.