Europe in Winter: Barcelona, Spain (Day 2)

The bus mentioned in yesterday’s post was the Barcelona Bus Turistic.  It turned out to be a lot of fun and would have been an even better value if we’d had the time to book it for 2 days instead of one.  We purchased two tickets for the north-south route via Viator.  Our hotel was conveniently located just a short walk from one of the stops.  The route takes you past every attraction of note in Barcelona, and with the option to get on and off the buses at various points when desired, it’s possible to see a lot of Barcelona this way.  In addition to the bus tickets, we received large coupon books of discounts to a large number of the attractions the bus takes you past.  Another underrated benefit of the bus–good wireless internet access.

One such discount is for the Montjuic cable car, which takes passengers to and from Montjuic Castle.  The views of the city from a cable car are pretty amazing, and the castle at the top is a nice place to walk around a bit, or just sit and relax.  There are many other stops worth getting off to see that I’d like to visit on a return trip, including Camp Nou, the Gothic quarter, and some of the museums.

Tomorrow, we bid a too-soon farewell to Barcelona and fly to Nice, France.

Europe in Winter: Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona is the first stop on our trip to Europe (hotels courtesy of my lovely wife, flights courtesy of me). In our first 36 hours here, we’ve managed to recover from the change in time zones between DC and Barcelona, visit La Sagrada Familia, and visit Park Guell. Both were highly-recommended by the concierge at our hotel (Ritz-Carlton Barcelona, also known as Hotel Arts Barcelona).

Buying tickets ahead of time for La Sagrada Familia is highly-recommended also. We bought a tour with an English-speaking guide on ticketmaster.es for under 40 euros and probably saved ourselves 2-3 hours of waiting in line to get in. The guided portion of the tour was around an hour–the guide shared a wealth of historical information about the architect (Gaudi), the building, some of the sculptors, Catholicism, and the Bible itself. As someone who appreciates history and churches, the tour was excellent.

Park Guell was quite a bit of walking, but also fun. The monument zone of the park charges admission, which gives you access to some of Gaudi’s interesting outdoor works (along with some shops and restrooms). Once you leave the monument zone however, you can’t return without paying the same fee again. The best views of Barcelona are actually outside the monument zone anyway (if you don’t mind climbing a lot of stairs).

We got to and from both attractions and our hotel by metered cab. Ride costs ranged between 8-12 euros. Only one of the four cab drivers we’ve had so far spoke enough English for us to have a conversation.

Tomorrow, we’ll probably try the 1-day hop-on, hop-off bus and see as many attractions as we can.

My 2 Cents on SXSW 2013

Size

I hadn’t been to a conference so large (whether you’re counting people or land area covered) since Microsoft’s PDC in 2001–and that was held at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Sessions

Even though I only attended Interactive (they have Music and Film too), there were a ton of choices of sessions across a wide variety of technical, creative and other disciplines.  In addition the technical topics I was looking for, I got to learn about the quantified self movement, 3-D printing, wearable computing and entrepreneurship.

Swag

Between the vendors in the exhibit hall and all the companies there recruiting new people, I’ve never gotten so much free stuff in my entire life.

Keynotes

I’d attended keynote speeches at conferences before, but hadn’t seen keynote interviews before.  Elon Musk and Al Gore were both entertaining and thought-provoking.  While it wasn’t billed as a keynote, the best solo talk I heard during the entire conference was Phil Libin’s Chaotic Good.

Panels

Many sessions weren’t just a single person speaking, but a group speaking in front of an audience.  Making it Rain in Non-Techy Markets was the best panel I attended during the conference.  While I’m not an entrepreneur (yet), all four panelists gave really helpful advice.

People

I met people from all over the world at this conference.  Just on the rides to and from the convention center each morning and evening I met people from the Netherlands, Australia and Italy–as well as from all over the U.S.  In the airport on the way back, I met 3 people from a company that happens to be across the parking lot from mine!

Quite a few people I met were founders or co-founders of their own companies.  I heard a number of start-up pitches and met a venture capitalist who was in town looking for companies to invest in.

The locals who were brave enough to stay in town for South By were very friendly and helpful.  One guy even gave a couple of us a ride to the convention center when our shuttle was running late.

Traffic

Speaking of shuttles, R & R Limousine and Bus (the exclusive shuttle provider between hotels and SXSW venues) did a pretty poor job serving my hotel (one of two close to the airport).  When we didn’t resort to bumming rides from strangers or calling cabs, we usually ended up waiting a long time for our to show up.  The traffic did us no favors either.  Between the construction on the roads and street closures, it took a long time to get in and out of downtown.

Overall

SXSW Interactive 2013 was a great (if tiring) time.  I really enjoyed Austin as a town.  It has a buzz, an energy to it unlike any city I’ve ever visited.  I hope to go back–if not for SXSW 2014, then a different time of year to enjoy the rest of Austin.

To Curacao and back

I spent the past 7 days vacationing in Curacao with my girlfriend Ebony and another couple we’re friends with.  In this post, I’ll talk about how it went, and how I might have done things differently if I were visiting again.

Why Curacao?

Ebony has wanted to go there for awhile, because of the beautiful water, sun, and beaches.

What to wear

Definitely wear light clothing.  Average high temperatures in Curacao are mid-to-upper 80s Fahrenheit year-round.  Don’t skimp on sunscreen, or you’ll regret it–even if your skin is already relatively dark.  My friends aren’t that much lighter than me, and all of them got burnt.  Don’t go easy on bug spray either.

Accommodations

We spent two nights at Renaissance Curacao Resort & Casino in Willemstad.  If you’re familiar with and/or a fan of Marriott properties, this one has everything you expect.  They also have plenty of outlets for appliances and electronics from the U.S., so you won’t need to use converters.  The only wi-fi access appeared to be in the lobby, and I never managed to connect with my iPhone.  There’s wired internet access from the rooms, so netbook and laptop users will have an alternative to the business center.  The private beach they talk about on their web page is man-made, and doesn’t connect directly to the ocean, but a large saltwater pool.

We spent the rest of the time at the Hyatt Regency Curacao Golf Resort, Spa, and Marina.  Parts of the property are still under construction, so we got the benefit of a grand opening rate, 4 nights for the price of 3, and free breakfast for the duration of our stay.  The service we received from every member of the staff was excellent.  Without exception, they were all incredibly courteous and polite, and went out of their way to accommodate our requests.  I thought the rooms were nice, but some of the balconies are much better for privacy than others.  The tub has a rather high edge, so it’s a bit of a challenge to get into unless you’re tall.  Strangely, the shower only has frosted glass on half the length of the tub–and no sliding door.

Food

Bistro Le Clochard was expensive, but the food was excellent.  It’s inside Rif Fort, a very short walk from the Renaissance.  We discovered that their kitchen accommodates vegetarians quite well.  It seems to be a quite popular place, so make reservations ahead of time, or you’ll have to eat elsewhere.  The restaurant within the Renaissance is ok.

The Hyatt has three restaurants: Medi, Shor, and Swim.  The food at all of them is quite good, though the serving times vary widely (Shor is the slowest, Swim is the fastest).  Swim will serve you poolside or at the beach.  Their plantain chips and fish tacos were especially good.

How to pay

U.S. currency was accepted everywhere we tried to use it, as were our credit cards.  I checked the tourist board website to get information ahead of time.

Activities, Attractions, & Shopping

Of the attractions available in Curacao, we got to the Kura Hulanda Museum and the Rif Fort in Willemstad.  At Kura Hulanda, the extra money for a tour guide was well worth it.  It provides a great history lesson of many cultures, as well as the slave trade.  With more time, I would have visited the Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue and the Maritime Museum as well.

During our time at the Hyatt, we went on a 3-hour cruise with some time for snorkeling.  I still regret my lack of underwater camera gear for this, because there were a lot of strange and beautiful fish to see.  There was even a small shipwreck close to where we snorkeled that we were able to see.  Ocean Encounters handled our tour, and they did an excellent job.  If we’d planned further in advance, we could have gone on the 7-hour cruise to and from Klein Curacao.  This trip made me wish I knew how to scuba dive.  A trip back for the sole purpose of getting PADI-certified would probably be worth it.

At least in Willemstad, there are tons of places to buy jewelry, electronics, clothes, and souvenirs.  Prices in downtown were pretty good from what I saw.  The street vendors just outside the Rif Fort offered the best prices, and we ended up getting a couple of very nice things in both places.

Getting there (and back)

We flew American Airlines from Reagan National Airport to Hato International via Miami.  Our friends flew to Miami from Philadelphia, then to Hato International.  During the time I researched flight costs, they ranged from $450/person to well over $600/person.  We ended up using frequent flier miles for the DCA-MIA leg of the trip to cut down our out-of-pocket costs.  If I had it to do over again, I’d have planned much further in advance.

One thing I noticed (to my annoyance) about flying into and out of Miami is that the gate personnel decided to pick on either Ebony or both of us about the size of our carry-on luggage.  To make sure you avoid that kind of harassment, make sure your packed carry-on fits in the stupid little cages they have near the gates.  Otherwise, you could end up having to check a bag you weren’t expecting and risk the airline losing it (like American Airlines nearly did with her bag).

The last thing I’ll say about flying to and from Curacao (at least in this post), is to avoid taking the last flight out of Curacao on whatever day you depart.  If there’s a problem with that flight (as there was in our case), you’ll be stuck at least one extra day.

Sometimes, I really love the web

I’m at the airport to pick up a couple of friends, just back from a week in Spain. Adam asked me last week if I could pick him and his fiancée up from the airport. Somehow, we didn’t exchange a flight number along with the airport and arrival time, so I had no easy way to see if anything changed. Thanks to the web, this was no problem.

A search for Dulles Airport brought up their website. A search for today’s arrivals from Spain revealed the flight number and scheduled arrival time (which turned out to be about 30 minutes later than Adam and I discussed last week). I put the flight number into flightstats.com, and not only did it give me both segments of the return flight, it updated the scheduled arrival time and provided a near real-time map of their flight as it approached.

So instead of showing up way too early, I got to Dulles just a few minutes before Adam called to let me know they’d landed. I was able to do all that (and write this post) with my iPhone 3G.

Antelope Canyon

This morning, we rode into Navajo Nation land to see Antelope Canyon. It’s one of a number of slot canyons in the area. Unlike other canyons, this one had very narrow openings at the top. This meant it was pretty dark (and cool, thankfully) even at midday.

Nate, our guide, grew up in the area and told us a lot about how the canyon formed (mostly water, a little wind). He also played some flute for us, and pointed out the best places to take photos from. Hopefully, my shots will turn out well.

One other interesting bit of trivia Nate shared was that Britney Spears shot a music video in the canyon.

Arches National Park

A couple of days ago, we left Torrey and headed for Castle Valley, UT. Our purpose there was to visit Arches National Park, especially the famous Delicate Arch.

Once we got to the park, we found not just beautiful arches, but balancing rocks as well. Some of them looked as if they were placed on top of the massive stone columns by giants. Getting to Delicate Arch was a long, steep hike. It took almost an hour to walk the 1.1 miles. We got there before sunset (when it is supposed to be the most beautiful) to avoid going back downhill in the dark.

We stayed at yet another great bed & breakfast there, the Castle Valley Inn. In addition to a main house, it has a number of cabins, all set in an apple orchard. It also has a big hot tub, which proved perfect for stargazing. We met a French couple there who are currently living in northern Virginia.

The next morning, we got to sample the apples in fresh apple juice and as spiced apples on our pancakes. We also had a nice conversation with one of our innkeepers. They turned out to be very experienced travelers, with multiple trips to South America, Europe, and Africa under their belts.

Bryce Canyon

After breakfast at the Spotted Dog Cafe, we bid farewell to Springdale, Utah (and an excellent hotel, the Desert Pearl Inn) and headed to Bryce Canyon. The biggest difference between our two canyon experiences so far was elevation. At the highest point we could drive today, we were over 8900 feet up. We spent three or four hours there, driving to different overlooks and stopping to take photos. After the tough hike yesterday, my travel companions and I opted for a much shorter one.

From Bryce, we drove to Torrey, Utah. It was a beautiful and terrifying drive. Beautiful because of the sandstone cliffs and trees. Terrifying because of the substantial number of hairpin turns, the rocks, trees (or really long fall) awaiting any misjudgment, and my pedal-to-the-metal friend that I was attempting to keep in sight.

After surviving that drive, and checking in at Skyridge Inn Bed & Breakfast, we had dinner at the Diablo Cafe. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen “free range rattler” on a menu (and no, I didn’t eat any). What we did order was very good. The dessert was excellent.

Even better than good food and great dessert, was having a hot tub outside my room to relax in and look at the stars before bed.