This post is not as fun as some, but I wanted to share practical travel-during-Covid info that took me awhile to pull together for our recent travels to Belgium (via the UK), France, Kenya and South Africa.
This year was a big birthday for me, so I was hoping we’d be able to do something special after last year’s pandemic isolation. We were thrilled when Europe opened up to (non-essential) American travelers again after we’d been banned for so long during the pandemic. When Antwerp friends asked us back for a favorite house- and cat-sit in September, we decided to launch my birthday trip there. I came up with a 2-month/4-trips-in-1 birthday trip that included Belgium, Paris, Kenya and South Africa. I made plans with the understanding that any portion of our travels could be canceled at any time given the vagaries of ever-changing Covid restrictions. I researched travel requirements throughout the summer, thinking early on that South Africa might be out when that country raised its Covid Level from 2 to 3 to 4. A ban on all alcohol sales and the closing of many venues would make our planned Garden Route exploration and wine tasting impossible. Fortunately, South Africa was back to Level 2 by the time we traveled there. When –just prior to our September 2 departure– the EU recommended member nations consider banning Americans as our Covid numbers spiked, we started to wonder if we’d even make it to our first stop in Belgium. I decided each and every step of the trip would be a gift. As each portion of our trip materialized, we counted ourselves lucky and crossed our fingers for the next. In the end, all four portions of our trip worked out and we had a wonderful time: We spent three weeks in Antwerp, two weeks in an apartment in my beloved Paris, a week on safari in Kenya, and 15 days in the Western Cape of South Africa.read more
We rent cars frequently when in Europe and elsewhere and have never needed an international driving permit. Just prior to our most recent roadtrip from Belgium, I came across information that really changes things. We’re in Antwerp house- and cat-sitting for a couple of months again and had some days away to do something with while the owners were home between their travels. I booked a rent car awhile back, but hadn’t settled on where we should go. We’d been thinking northern France and the Channel Islands, but were starting to lean more towards Switzerland since David had never been. A “why not” run to Lichtenstein had also piqued my interest so I began plotting out a drive south through France to Switzerland, factoring in a stop in Dinant, Belgium, that had been on my want-to-see list for some years.read more
We wanted to make the trip from Agra to Delhi on our own, so I began researching Indian trains. Right away, the relatively new Gatimaan Express train caught my eye. The Gatimaan Express makes the trip from Agra to Delhi (and vice versa) once per day in each direction. The Gatimaan actually goes beyond Agra to Gwalior and Jhansi, but it seems largely geared towards people in Delhi wanting to see Agra and the Taj Mahal on a day trip. The Gatimaan leaves Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin station at 8:10 am IST and returns from Agra in the evening at 5:50pm. read more
We got our first chance to try De Waterbus yesterday, the river bus that leaves from Antwerp’s Steenplein and makes a 30-minute run to nearby Hemiksem via Kruibeke. De Waterbus is new as of July 2017 so not yet in service when we were here last spring and not so appealing during the cold days when we were in Antwerp last October-November. Yesterday, however, was perfect: warm and sunny; just right for an explore.
The Waterbus leaves every 30 minutes on the hour and half-hour from Steenplein (the pier where the free cross-river ferry to Linkeroever docks, near Het Steen castle). The cost is €3 for a one-way trip or €5, round-trip. De Waterbus has plenty of room and racks for bikes and a nice, air-conditioned interior and public toilets.
It’s fun to watch the bustling water traffic on the Schelde while the banks are mostly high water reeds and grasses or industrial structures. Antwerp is the second largest port in Europe after all.
The Waterbus made a quick stop on the right bank at Kruibeke, but we stayed on to Hemiksem on the opposite bank where walked a short distance to De Veertoren Taverne a pub I’d spotted online for lunch. There’s nothing else near the dock save tidy new homes.
After a nice lunch of steak, frites, salad and ice cold Gouden Carolus Tripels, we hopped the free cross-river ferry to the Kruibeke side of the river. (This ferry runs every half hour on the 14 and 45.) I’d seen Castle Wissekerke in the village of Bezel online and wanted to visit, but had been discouraged in the past by the apparent need for a car. I was excited to realize we could actually walk from a Waterbus stop. Checking Google Maps, I saw it’s actually a much shorter walk to the castle from the bank opposite Hemiksem (2 km) than it is from the Kruibeke Waterbus stop (2.5 miles) even though Bezel is in the Kruibeke municipality. The ferry dropped us off at a small parking lot that gave way immediately to the bike trails of the Kruibeke Polder. “Polders” are manmade emergency flood plains that also serve as extensive biking trails connecting towns throughout Flanders and the Netherlands as well as being nature preserves and walking paths. We were the only pedestrians getting off the ferry and we would have loved to have bikes, but it’s still a nice walk and we enjoyed our stroll through wild wetlands and marshy forest. The bikes are routed away from the cobblestone walking path which is an added benefit for those on foot.
In no time, we arrived at picturesque Castle Wissekerke surrounded by a little lake populated with swans, geese and ducks.
Entrance is €5/adult and happily included an English-language booklet with two paths through the castle, one for the nobility and one for servants. We were turned loose to explore the castle which we had almost entirely to ourselves. It was fun and refreshing to be allowed to look through documents, open secret doors, climb a bell turret, descend to the medieval cellar and kitchen, and generally wander and indulge our curiosity with minimal restraint. (There’s a children’s academy of some sort using a portion of the building and that was one of the few areas we weren’t encouraged to visit.)
The castle was the home of the family of Count Philippe Vilain XIII and is mostly decorated in restored Napoleonic glory. There are many original items as well as period pieces. Although the castle dates back to the middle ages, it’s current iteration is more a mansion than a fortification. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Wissekerke and are happy the Waterbus and ferry made it doable on foot from Antwerp.
We wandered through the terrace of a charming café called Bistro Den Duiventoren next door to the castle and peeked in a little “free museum” and bar across the street which is only open on the weekends before retracing our steps to the cross-river ferry and then catching De Waterbus back to Antwerp.
Our month cruise from Singapore to Italy was better than we could have hoped for, but now it was time to be back on our own and we were looking forward to it. Civitavecchia is the nearest port to Rome and most information about the port assumes people are going to Rome either to stay or to fly out of the airport. We’d used a driver in the past to get from the port to Rome, but this time we were skipping the Italian capital and heading north. I wanted to rent a car for the 2+ weeks we planned to tool around Umbria and Tuscany, but I had trouble finding clear info online. I knew the port was too big to walk out of and that passengers not wanting to rely on expensive cruise ship excursions and transfers needed to get out of the main port gate to get to other modes of transport–taxi, train, rent cars–but the info was vague. This short post is just to clarify transport options and the lay of the land at the Port of Civitavecchia.
The ship offered a free motor coach shuttle to an area just outside the port gates where other transportation is offered. Buses for the train station pick up here for €2 per person. Rent car pick up is just across the street. I’d booked us a Hertz rent car and emailed with them from the previous port. When we left the ship, I called them (Hooray again for T-Mobile international!) and a van arrived to pick us up shortly after we got off the ship’s shuttle. Another 5-minute drive and we were at the Hertz office in a nearby strip center where we did paperwork and were on our way in short order.
12-2019 NOTE: SEE COMMENT FROM MARTIN FOLLOWING THIS POST REGARDING CHANGES FOR THE WORSE AT THE MORMUGAO PORT.
I decided that Goa was the Indian port where we’d go it on our own. Researching ahead of the trip, I’d read warnings about Goa port taxis (the “taxi mafia”) and local newspapers decried the state of affairs at the port and the port authority’s slow pace at installing a promised taxi stand with fixed prices that cruise ship passengers could trust. Happily, we arrived to find that a taxi stand was now in place and the system works smoothly and cheaply. Goa turned out to be fun, cheap, and just what we wanted.
Immigration booths are set up on the dock just outside the ship’s ramps. Just beyond immigration is a money exchange that takes both cash and debit cards. Right next to the money exchange is the official taxi stand. Cash is required for the taxis. Eight tours are offered in guests’ choice of a compact car or SUV. Alternatively, you can create your own itinerary and rent either a car or SUV for 8 hours with either 100, 125 or 150 kilometers. Any overage is charged at a very reasonably 14 rupees/km to be paid directly to the driver. All vehicles are air-conditioned.
We opted for 8 hours with a compact taxi and 100 kilometers since I wanted to see Old Goa (“Velha Goa”) and then spend time on one of Goa’s famous beaches. (I calculated distance and drive time in advance using Google Maps: We’d basically be traveling a triangle with about 1 hour of driving on each leg.) Our total cost was 1700 rupees (just under $30), an awesome deal, especially when compared to the sky-high tour prices offered by Celebrity. (For example, Celebrity wanted $109.75 each–$219.50!–for transfer to and from a beach where we’d get 4 hours free time and lunch at a beach-side restaurant. And no Old Goa included in that excursion.)
We paid for our taxi, got a voucher in exchange with the license plate number of our taxi and the driver’s name and were directed to walk to the nearby port gate where someone would help us find our taxi.
There’s a bit of a chaotic air outside the gate with lots of taxis and drivers milling about, but with the help of some of the drivers standing around, we quickly found our taxi.
I was a little worried at first when our driver brusquely shrugged off my first choice of a South Goa beach, saying he would take us to another just a bit farther on that was also on my list of 3 beaches I was interested in (provided by a native-Goan assistant waiter on the ship). Not absolutely wedded to my first choice, I went along with his suggestion. Our next point of contention came when we pulled out of the port and he seemed to disagree with David’s request to roll up the window and turn on the air conditioning. A crazy idea in the brutal heat! We told him we’d get out of the car if he didn’t turn on the air conditioning and he acceded. After those initial conflicts, I was worried we’d be stuck for the day with a surly driver, but he was fine after that and took good care of us for the rest of the day. His English was limited, so some of the subtleties were no doubted missed on all sides.
The main roads we traveled to Old Goa were in great shape and obviously newly paved and expanded. Still, it’s an hour drive from the port at Mormugao to Old Goa due to winding roads and small towns that we had to pass through. We drove through the city of Vasco da Gama, pausing for a quick visit at a Hindu temple before continuing to to Old Goa.
Our first stop in Old Goa was at the ruins of the Church of St. Augustine, built in 1602 by the Portuguese. The sole remaining tower belfry created a dramatic highlight to the extensive ruins of the church and adjoining convent.
Our driver waited while we wandered the ruins, then informed us that we would stop at 3 shops before continuing on to the churches that form the center of Old Goa. We weren’t thrilled about the all-too-common store detour, but quickly realized this was something our driver needed to do. We gamely looked around the first store, a glitzy place reminiscent of People’s Stores in China, offering high-priced trinkets, jewelry, furniture and more. There were some lovely things, but we had absolutely no interest. Heck, most of our belongings are in storage during this vagabond period of our life! I tried to talk our driver out of the second store, but had no luck so we made an even shorter stop. (We ran into a group cruise excursion at that 2nd store and we were more than happy to be free to leave as they were stuck until the last person had made a purchase or made their way through the long line for the toilets.) Back in the taxi, I told our driver we would go in the last shop, but only “for him.” No, he insisted, “for you.” We back-and-forthed that a couple of times, but all in good humor. David and I made one last, speedy stop in a nearly empty store–taking advantage of the clean, western-style toilets and no line–and finally we were on our way the few blocks to the center of Old Goa.
Our driver let us off near some souvenir stalls, pointed the way to the Bom Jesus Basilica and then indicated how we should proceed to the other sites and where to meet him when we were through. He left the length of our visit entirely up to us.
With the Indian school summer vacation (April-May) in full swing, most of the tourists to the basilica appeared to be Indian families, although we spotted some fellow cruise ship passengers inside. We joined a line to file to the right of the main altar and to a back section of the church that held a holy relic, a large excessively-bloody crucifix and other religious items. We circled an inner courtyard before exiting the basilica to head across the road to the main grounds of the Archeological Survey of India, which consists of a manicured lawn area surrounding seven churches, cathedrals, the basilica and an archeological museum. We opted to skip the museum, but took in the grand Se’ Cathedral and the smaller, but beautifully-painted Church of St. Francis of Assisi (both free-of-charge).
Walking the short distance back to the road, we met our driver and started off on the approximately 1-hour drive to Colva Beach. I’d originally wanted to visit the smaller, less-visited Betelbatim Beach which is adjacent to Colva, but at our driver’s suggestion/insistence, Colva it was. At first, I was worried that he’d steered us to an over-crowded, cheesy touristy beach, thinking that was what we Westerners must want. The area just around the main access to the beach is dotted with tourist shops and little dive-y cafes. Lots of people milled about, too. Hmm. Not looking great. At least they were locals and we weren’t stuck in a Western-style resort. We walked over a small footbridge to the beach and saw that a string of casual waterfront restaurants spread out to our left along a naturally wide white-sand beach.
Happily, we could see that the throng thinned out pretty quickly further away from the main access road. We took off our shoes and strolled through the delightfully warm water to the last restaurant, Luke’s Place, attracted by both the look of the place and the location in spite of the uninspiring and less-than-exotic name.
Noticing another Western couple on two of a string of otherwise-unoccupied lounge chairs under an umbrella in front of the restaurant, I asked if they spoke English and discovered they were English and had been staying near this beach and frequenting this restaurant for two weeks. The woman was wearing a bikini and assured me I’d get no odd looks or hassles for wearing my bathing suit at Colva, despite the fact that all the local women were wading into the ocean in full saris. (I couldn’t believe how casually they treated those gorgeous dresses!) We did have the usual people wanting to take photos with us pale-skinned foreigners. I told David that in our “skimpy” Western bathing suits, it must be for them like Victorian travelers posing with topless natives! The Brits also informed us that the restaurant made excellent food, the large (strong) Kingfisher beer was a good buy, and that the owner would watch our things if we used the lounge chairs and they’d had absolutely no problems. Proving their point, they wandered off for a long stroll, leaving their belongings. This sounded perfect and turned out to be just that.
We enjoyed a good, made-to-order Indian food meal (only Indian rupees accepted) with a great view, then planted ourselves on the cushioned loungers to sunbathe a little before swimming in the ocean. I lost my sunglasses to some great body-surfing and stupidity, but oh well. It was high time I retired those anyway…and I felt pretty sure I could find a cheap pair in India to tide me over until I got back home where I had a good pair waiting.
The ride back to the ship was about another hour and we rolled into the port parking lot, using all but about a half a kilometer of the 100 km we’d paid for. Not bad!
As part of our 3-month around-the-world journey, we spent one month on the Celebrity ship Constellation. This was actually two 2-week, back-to-back (“B2B”) cruises. The first two weeks were more a traditional cruise with many stops: Phuket, Thailand; Colombo, Sri Lanka; Cochin, Goa and Mubai, India; Muscat, Oman; Dubai and Abu Dhabi, U.A.E. The second two weeks were more along the lines of a repositioning cruise, i.e., fewer stops and a bargain price as the ship moved from one region to another for a season. This cruise took us from Abu Dhabi back to Muscat, Oman, through the Suez Canal, to Piraeus (Athens) and Katakolon (ancient Olympia), Greece, and dropped us off at Civitavecchia, Italy (the port nearest Rome, although we did not go back to Rome on this trip, but rather picked up a rent car to spend a couple weeks in Umbria and Tuscany before flying from Florence to Belgium).
Upcoming posts covering the cruise period will have more information on ports, directed to cruisers, in addition to regular travelogues. [I’m not that into cruise ship activities and such, but tend to view ships as moving hotels and chose cruises based on itinerary, i.e., ports-of-call and transportation from one point to another. Click here for an earlier post on my philosophy on cruising as well as tips for finding the best deals.] I had some misgivings that a month might be too long on a ship, but we had an amazing time and my only regret is that I can’t do it all for the first time again!
With regards to Constellation, one of Celebrity’s Millennium class ships: I once again booked one of the “Sweet Sixteen” cabins about which I blogged when we sailed trans-Pacific on Constellation‘s sister ship Millennium. [Click here for that post.] These cabins offer a suite-type, double-sized balcony for the price of a regular balcony cabin. For some reason, the extra-large balconies do not appear on the ships’ diagrams and the cabins are categorized as regular balcony staterooms. I prefer the rear-most of these cabins because they offer extra privacy from the cabin just sternward and a more open view. (Both times I booked one of these staterooms, the booking agent had no idea that these cabins existed.)
Yesterday was the first Sunday of the month (December), which means Free First Sunday of the Month at the Louvre and many other Paris museums. (The Louvre and the Rodin Museum are free on first Sundays between Oct. 1 and March 31. Other museums offer Free First Sundays all year. See the bottom of this article for more info.) I’ve heard and read the horror stories about Free First Sunday hordes, so wanted to check it out myself so I could report what I found on Wanderwiles. I’ve been to the Louvre more times than I can remember and am a past member of Amis du Louvre, so I’ve always avoided these Sundays. Since we’re just in Paris for a month this time, David and I decided we’d give the Louvre a miss on this visit unless First Sunday surprised us…and it did!
First off, we decided NOT to be waiting when the museum first opens at 9am. Although I’ve seen recommendations to do that, I’ve also heard that there are huge lines waiting at the opening which thin over time. Also, we wanted to go to the first Sunday of Advent at the American Cathedral at 11am. So, we went to church, walked the pedestrian-only Champs-Elysées (another first Sunday of the month thing), then rode line 1 of the Métro to the Palais Royal-Musée du Louvre stop so we could enter the museum by the underground Carrousel du Louvre entrance (thereby hopefully avoiding any line at the above-ground pyramid…and the cold drizzle of the day).
UPDATE: As of June 2018, the Porte des Lions entrance on the Seine side arm of the Louvre has re-opened to regular individual ticket holders. (It had been designated group-only for awhile.) This has always been my favorite every day entrance for quick access to La Grande Gallerie and the Mona Lisa (just up the stairs from this entrance and mid-way down the gallery on your left). However, the Porte des Lions entrance has previously been closed to all on free first Sunday and may still be so. Also, the Porte des Lions entrance is now only open to individuals who already have a ticket or museum pass. Buy Louvre tickets online here. (As mentioned below, this portion of the Louvre is more prone to excessive crowds on free first Sundays.)read more
I love paying for flights with points and miles and David and I try to maximize the points we earn on nearly every purchase we make. But, as anyone who’s tried to book awards flights knows, those “free” flights are often hard to find. Airlines tend to raise the amounts required for convenient times and schedules, offer less award seats on a flight than you need, or simply don’t offer award flights at all on certain flights. Taxes and fees on some airlines and at certain airports (I’m talking about you, Heathrow!) can turn a “free” flight into an expensive proposition. For flights to Asia from DFW, we think Korean Air is the ticket. (Our opinion holds even with all the saber-rattling currently going on between our government and North Korea, although we’ll definitely keep an eye on developments.)
It’s hard to beat Korean Air for both award availability and affordability …and we love their product, too. Last year, we flew Korean Air First Class from Bangkok to Dallas via Seoul for 95,000 Korean Air Skypass Miles plus $204.77 each, flights that would have cost us over $13,000. We only flew one-way because we used repositioning cruises to get to Asia. (Repositioning cruises are one of my favorite, most comfortable and cost-effective ways to cross an ocean without jet lag.) Being pampered with super-soft designer pajamas, a down mattress, duvet and big pillow, plus delicious food, high-end champagne and wine, and attentive service turned a miserably long flight into a pleasure.
We enjoyed our Korean Air experience so much, I searched their flights again when I started planning next spring’s around-the-world odyssey. This time, I was able to book First Class again (DFW-Seoul-Singapore) for the same 95,000 miles each, but taxes and fees were a shockingly low $34.30 apiece. If we’d paid cash, our two tickets would have totaled $18,681.60! We could have booked business class for 75,000 each or economy of 42,500 each. Award availability was wide open in all categories. (Korean Air is partnered with American, but it would take 120,000 AAdvantage miles to fly business class just from DFW to Seoul on the same day and there was no First Class availability.) Korean Air flies to more American cities than any other Asian airline and flies to Hong Kong, Sydney, Tokyo and more. Seoul itself is a fun, dynamic city and Korean Air offers free stopovers at ICN on award flights. (If you have enough time in Seoul ICN and are flying first class, stop by the first class lounge for custom engraved metal luggage tags, a free perk.) See my earlier post for details about combining Korean Air Skypass points with a spouse and family on Korean Air.
We’ve found Korean Air Skypass Miles easy to accumulate using Chase credit cards that generate Ultimate Rewards (UR) points and SPG Starwood points we get from Starwood Amex. Starwood points give a 25% bonus when transferred to their airline partners, but the card and points may soon be phased out with Marriott’s purchase of SPG. UR points are transferable 1:1 to Korean Air Skypass (and many other partners) and are especially easy to accumulate. Last year, Chase offered a whopping 100,000 sign up bonus for the Sapphire Reserve card and my husband and I both jumped on it. The Chase Sapphire Reserve is expensive at $450/year, but that is quickly offset for us by a very unrestricted $300 travel reimbursement that applies to a wide range of travel expenses: airlines, hotels, AirBnB, taxis, trains, rent cars, cruises, toll tags and more plus other valuable travel perks that more than make up for the remaining $150/year. The bonus for Sapphire Reserve is currently down to 50,000, which is still good, but I’d keep my eye open for another super bonus if you’re a frequent traveler, or get the same 50k bonus with the Chase Sapphire Preferred for $95/year without some of the other perks. We use Chase Ink to get 5X miles on office purchases (with includes gift cards from Office Depot for Shell gas, Whole Foods, Amazon and more) and Chase Freedom Unlimited to 1.5X points on everything else purchased in the U.S. (Note: The Freedom Unlimited card charges a foreign transaction fee, so Americans should leave it at home when traveling overseas.) Those points are then combinable with our main UR Reserve accounts. It adds up!
When your computer finds itself in a new country, Google will “helpfully” switch to the local version. Even when you type in “google.com,” Google will automatically switch to “google.xx” (e.g., in Belgium, it’s “google.be”). This can be really annoying when you don’t speak the local language and downright mystifying when the page is in an indecipherable alphabet. Often, you’ll see a link option for English or can click through to the U.S. “Google.com” at the bottom of the search page, but I’ve found those options are not always available (or findable). To solve the problem, just type in “google.com/ncr”. This will get you back to good ole google.com. If, like me, you’ve got your browser set to automatically open Google when you open a new tab, just make that default page “google.com/ncr” and you’ll automatically get the standard Google no matter where you are.