Messin’ About On Boats: A Spontaneous Vacation

bahamas stirrup cay

I love surprises.  I love being spontaneous.  I love getting away.

Even when it’s to the neighborhood French bistro at 9:30 PM on a Sunday — that’s 2 hours where I forget it all, drink wine and stuff myself with truffled fries.  Or to the movie theatre on a Monday night followed by deep-dish pizza – that’s 3 hours where I pretend I’m having a staycation in the beginning of the week.

Point is.  I love being spontaneous and getting away.

So when that boy I’ve been hanging out with a lot told me five days before Thanksgiving that he’d booked a cruise to the Caribbean for this past weekend, I nodded and said:

I’ll go get my in-case-of-Caribbean-cruise-rolly-bag.

It’s already packed.

I was psyched.  All 3 aspects rolled into one.  What an incredible short, yet Awesome adventure.

I was beaming, but also kind of nervous.

Because I didn’t know what to expect.

Let me rephrase that.  I knew exactly what to expect.  I knew about the mountains of delicious food available to all passengers 24/7.  I knew about the on-board shows.  I knew about the endless photographs, Jacuzzis on the top deck, piña coladas, cheesy dance parties and the fact that they’ll deliver a pizza to your room at any time of day FREE.  I even knew about the safety drill (where you get to practice lining up like you did in elementary school).

But I didn’t know what to expect.

It’s been 6 years since my last cruise.

That one that my mom purchased for me – a last gift before she passed away – for my graduation from college.  I haven’t been on a cruise since then.

Similar ship.  Similar islands.  Similar environment.  Same desire to vacate.  Different time in my life.

What would it be like?

bahamas

atlantis

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The food was still there.  So were the hot tubs.  The stars still sparkled unlike anything I am able to see in the city.  The ocean’s turquoise colors still amazed me.  As did its blunt expansiveness.

We had fun.  We ate too much.  We drank one too many mimosas.  We tried Bahamian beer.  We went down the kiddie slide at the Atlantis resort.  We won some money in roulette.  We lost it all.  We ordered champagne and pizza at 3 in the morning.  We ordered the left side of the all-inclusive menu at dinner.

It was different, but it was the same.  Appropriately tweaked for this time in my life.

And it was spontaneous.

Which made it that much better.

Good weekend.

Awesome.

An Autumn Sail in July

chicago boat

The old saying goes: “it’s all how you look at it.”

Never is this truer than when your oldest friend in the world comes to visit and you plan to bop up and down with a bunch of other boats on Lake Michigan….

And it’s 61 degrees in July.

(Yes, this is a first world problem post)

Let me lay out the significance here.

My friendship with oldest friend was kind of pre-planned in the womb.  Back in Soviet times, when our parents were perfecting the art of homemade vodka distillation well-behaved model Soviet children, their entire high school class started to like one another.  And then married each other.  And then had some babies at the same time (it’s like a backwards Brady Bunch).  And then moved to America around the same time.  And then vacationed every year together.

We were basically destined to be besties.  Mostly because no one else was going to understand the trials and tribulations of having parents who started their life anew in a new country with small children and little knowledge of English … but I digress (I’ll save this enthralling sociological theory for another post).

Back to the significant problem at hand.

Months of preparation, one flight, one taxi, one night of serious dancing and too many hours of hype, we were ready for my promised day out on Lake Michigan (how else was I going to get her to move to Chicago?).

I told her to pack nothing but bathing suits and get ready for pool, beaches and BOATS.

Imagine my surprise when I woke up Saturday morning, felt around for my iPhone, found the weather app while squinting with one eye (daily morning routine) and was told by Yahoo! That it was winter.

I quickly checked the calendar app to make sure I hadn’t slept through July, August and September.

Nope.

It was 61 degrees in Chicago on July 27.

glass half full

The Mother Nature Gods were testing us.

Do we throw in the towel and… see a movie??  Go sight-seeing with sweatshirts and fall scarves??

NO.

We put bikinis on.  Bring hoodies.  Buy snacks.  Go anyway.

After all, having fun is really about whom you’re with and our history shows that we can basically tear it up under any circumstance.  Like when we were 10 and our parents took us to Lake Placid for New Years and we decided to make memory cups by dripping candle wax into wine cups and… set her hair on fire.  We danced all night anyway (tears were brief).

Lucky for our positive attitudes, the friends we were joining (on their boat) were in too.

The ride out to the location of said boat party induced a bit of sea sickness and it was cold but we indulged in the day anyway.

sail

Once anchored and tied to a row of boats (for boat hopping), adrenaline (and beer) took over and we jumped in the water, made friends, played with water toys, took  pictures, laughed, drank, danced and truly vacated.

Most of all, there was a lot of laughter and bonding.  I’m pretty sure that was the whole point anyway.

I’m really glad we got out of bed on July 27 and went out to sea.

It was Awesome.

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Finding Family Abroad

plaka beach naxos greece

One of the best parts of traveling abroad, for me, has always been tied to the connections you make.

The notion that somewhere across the ocean are people totally different than you and yet absolutely the same perplexes, fascinates and makes me giddy.

The second part of this week, we found ourselves on the Greek Isle Naxos, about a 2 hour ferry ride (cruise) from Ios.

Naxos is a small island known for local wines and a family atmosphere.  We figured that after the insanity of Mykonos, Santorini and Ios, we could use a few relaxing days.

By the time Tuesday came around and it was time to say goodbye to Ios though, we weren’t ready and even considered an extended stay.

After a quick mental pro and con list (over morning cocktails), we decided to press ahead as planned.

Today we’re pretty thrilled we did.

On Naxos we found an authenticity missing from the other more touristy islands.

Naxos isn’t the top beach party destination or the most well-known romantic spot on the Aegean so it draws a smaller crowd.

The old town has old passageways and stone streets with charming character.  The beaches are incredibly beautiful and the hotels, beach bars and restaurants are all family-run.  Food is fresh and goats roam the exterior of our hotel.  Travelers come from all around the world and have a habit of coming back year after year. The greetings between locals and visitors are akin to a family reunion.

Unfortunately for us, this time of year is still considered low season and beaches were largely empty.

It was time to adapt to this new atmosphere and plus…

We wanted in on the family fun.

Within an hour we had located the oldest beach bar and restaurant on Plaka beach and decided to grab a drink.

About 6 hours later we were still there, with local liquor shots, sangria and vodka drinks, laughing with the owners – two brothers -, their extended families and their friends (visitors to the island with whom they now spend every Christmas in England).

We talked and told stories as if we’d known each other for years.

It’s incredible to know that strangers with completely different lives, languages and backgrounds can come together uninhibited and laugh their asses off for an entire afternoon.

Also – the Ukrainian girl inside was thrilled for confirmation: vodka can bring anyone together.

Awesome.

Easy going on the Aegean Sea

ios greeece

Ios, Greece

Never does the term “go with the flow” apply more than when traveling abroad.

I’ve found that even the best planner can’t schedule around the inevitable surprises, oopsies and unforeseen adventures that the travel Gods have in store.

And for those of us whose daily lives revolve around outlook calendars, this can be daunting.

In order to ease into the reality shift, my travel friends and I have decided to just not.

plan that is.

Two of my best girls and I flew to Athens last week, booked our hotels and planned to unplug and see where a Greek Isles immersion would take us.

We’ve used wiki-travel for on-the-go recommendations, asked random locals for suggestions and followed the advice of friends’ texts from home.

Our easygoing attitude has led to some adventures:

– Accidentally seeing the entire island of Mykonos and doing some off-roading. On two ATVs that we rented on a whim after a 5 minute tutorial (the shop owner insisted on teaching us). We were busy laughing and enjoying bumping down the labyrinth of the two-way “highway,” big enough for one car, when we realized we were a bit off course. The promised 40 minute trip to the beach turned into 2 hours and 40 minutes. Woops.

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Sunset, Mykonos, Greece

– Unplanned hike through Santorini’s wine country. We made enough of a scene boarding the bus that asking for proper directions wasn’t in the cards. We got off on the last stop, asked a local for directions and promptly set out on what ended up being an hour walk up the scenic mountainous terrain. (The return trip was equally exciting when the same bus driver found us walking and picked us up between stops. Thanks friend!)

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Wine Country, Santorini, Greece

– Seasickness. We rented a catamaran with captain to do a private sail with six other new friends. We imagined a sail akin to a calm lake. Calm lake it was not. The Aegean Sea was so choppy that day, commercial ferries that shuttle hundreds of people between the islands were hiding out in calm coves. Our captains, on the other hand, thought riding the waves was a form of extreme sailing fun.

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Oia, Santorini Sunset

Our adventures on this trip have led to some great experiences thus far.

We saw the famous Oia sunset from the best seat in the house with tips from new friends and some dumb luck. We bonded with the sailing captains and spent the evening experiencing Santorini nightlife the local way. We took a tip and headed to town one night when our planned beach party fell through and met a fun group of guys we danced with all night. We tried the oldest family-owned restaurant in Mykonos where mama prepared fresh moussaka for us on request.

 

One thing has been emphasized:

Since life is largely unplanned (even with the outlook calendar), sometimes you have to hop on an ATV and see where the road takes you.

Looking forward to tomorrow.

Awesome.

Turquoise Waters, Sand and Heat Lamps

beach

Yesterday morning I found myself in Fort Lauderdale, dining on the boardwalk with my cousin, overlooking the ocean… under a heat lamp.

It was an unexpected turn of cold-er events.

We had tried planning for my visit to South Florida for months and given the fact that I’ve been enduring (complaining) about the Chicago winter for almost as long, I was really looking forward to some 80 degree sun-bathing and PIC (partner-in-crime) – ing with my one and only first cousin.

Family history: cousin and I were born 9 months apart in Kiev, Ukraine. Me first. Her second.  Certain personality traits were immediately evident as I struggled to share and she had trouble sitting still.  We were a handful right from the start and kept our “village” (two great grandmothers, two grandmas, one grandpa and two sets of parents) on their toes.  A few years later, my family moved to the states and hers followed about a year later.  We’ve been marching to the beat of our own drummer ever since.

Cut to present day and our brilliantly-planned rendezvous in Florida.

All was going to plan, except for the fact that we overlooked the weather situation when I impulsively booked a flight about three weeks ago and prompted the celebratory phone calls and emails in anticipation of warm-weather antics.

Not surprisingly, we were mildly taken aback (shockingly angry) upon stepping out of the house and finding our beach day to be a balmy 60-ish degrees.

A couple moments of reflection and we were back in the house.

Two cups of tea later we regrouped and laid out plan B.  I googled things to do in Fort Lauderdale/Miami while cousin did in-depth research on activity ideas in this month’s Cosmo (apparently dating ideas is applicable in all instances).

Some serious fits of laughter and discussion of ideas later, we were regrouped and ready to tackle the weekend.

After all, 60 is better than 20, the sun was shining and we were still hungry.

The last 48 hours consisted of the following:

  • Long walk along the beach (in pants) where we admired those brave enough to jump in
  • “Brunch” of tuna fish and veggie sandwiches (where we attempted to procure breakfast items circa 2pm)
  • Taking advantage of the “couches” on the veranda of the W Hotel (where we pretended we were guests and enjoyed beautiful views and amenities)
  • A visit to the Las Olas Art Fair (where we received unusual bouts of attention with the help of an adorable Pomeranian puppy)
  • Mani/Pedi’s at the spa (and some unfair but ultimately hilarious hostility from the manicurist)
  • Dinner on the boardwalk in South Beach (complete with two mojitos the size of my head)
  • Late night dancing at some Miami night clubs (with new interesting friends and an inspired photo-shoot complete with props found in the Delano hotel lobby)

miami beach

The last 48 hours did not include beach time, but we made the most of it.  We laughed constantly. Caught up on life.  Even made some new friends.

Awesome.

Australian Lungfish, Green Moray Eels and River Otters

jelly fish

On Day 4 of Chicago Awesome it was time for a little new-resident sight-seeing.

A friend came to visit to see my friends and I (and our new city!) and brought with her energy, excitement and … a list of things to do.

While the rest of us nursed our hangovers and just straight exhaustion from the past couple of weeks… visiting friend outlined our options.

A poll was taken and (acting like children at) the aquarium was picked as the mid-afternoon activity of choice.

We plane/train/automobile-ed it to the east and found Shedd Aquarium.  This iconic cultural attraction stands next to Lake Michigan in an enormous and gorgeous building better suited to be our country’s embassy.

However, no president or political figure was found inside this gem.  Instead, we feasted our eyes on 25,000 fish and 5,000,000 gallons of water.

As a child I basically abhorred museums.  I may have mentioned this in a previous post but 18 years ago I would take in a giant open space with things on the wall and think…. dance studio.  The only thing I tolerated was the science museum (dad’s favorite) where I could be kept preoccupied with hands-on exhibits.

Hoping to be sufficiently entertained, I decided to throw myself into this experience.

Our first encounter with those that live in the sea was an enormous aquarium (shocker) with sharks and string-rays and a host of other strange species.

Being surrounded by a plethora of small people under the age of 10 really inspired some of that science museum reminiscing and some age-inappropriate behavior:

  1. The purchase of a chocolate milk before heading into the first exhibit (absolutely necessary)
  2. Pressing ourselves to the glass of giant aquarium to say hi to sting-ray (move it kid)
  3. Group shot against green screen (thankfully we left that work of art at Shedd)
  4. Spontaneous eruption of excitement (SEA-HORSES!!!!!)……….(move it kid)
  5. Finding Nemo (no really. we found him. and his dad.)

nemo

3 hours later, having seen some pretty wild underwater life (such as the group-named “Snooki Poof” fish), we were exhausted and sufficiently smarter as far as fish are concerned.

snooki

Experiencing a part of my new city with friends…. Awesome.

Hurricanes, New Friends and Cross Country Migrations

T-0 came and went.

On the fateful day that I prepared to say goodbye to New York City and head West, hurricane Sandy arrived and forced upon my life tuna fish sandwiches, PB&J, cheez-its and beer pong by candle light.

My roommate (moving also!) and I found ourselves in an empty apartment on the 27th floor with no power, one mattress, one flashlight, 3 small candles and entirely too much alcohol for two people leaving the state (evidence of a good 5 years).

There was one thing left to do.

Explore the building (dorm?), meet new friends (fellow gen-y-ers) and try to conserve precious iphone battery for instagram (call dad).

beer pong

5 games of pong, 2 parties, 3 new friends from our Alma-mater (what are the chances?!) and 2 days later we were ready to hit the road to finally move to Chicago (there were about 7 collective goodbye parties between the 2 of us after all…).

It was time to go.

I slept in my jeans.  She didn’t sleep.  We were ready to spring to action like firefighters.  Having moved all of our stuff into the dimly lit hallway the night before (generator = key), we were up at 5am prepared to use the one manually operated elevator to move a mountain of clothes, kitchen utensils and chick-books into a rented minivan before building management found out our escape plan (turns out moving apartments is not advisable or permitted in the dark)

moving

2 hours later, with the help of 4 doormen, we were able to fill ever crevice of that van.  And we were off…

The drive was about 15 hours long and took us through 5 states.  The drive would have taken 13 hours had we not made a pit stop for food every hour on the hour, including a completely out of the way scenic tour of a town called Milton, Pennsylvania (think town from Hocus Pocus) where we had an incredible breakfast omelet in the cutest café and acted like tourists.

omelet

The rest of the trip went smoothly.  The highlights:

  • Hours of singing on part of friend…
  • Trying to make friend’s cat “go” in the car (this activity could have gone on for hours)
  • Watching little trick-or-treaters in small town
  • Playing the “how do you feel about this state” game (not advisable)
  • Playing the “would you rather” game
  • Using the EZ Pass lane and then getting out of car to read the 482-digit serial number to attendant (great pastime)

15 hours later… we arrived in Chicago.

It was worth it.  For this.

chicago skyline view

(View from my new apartment!!)

Awesome.

Giant Statues and Pink Wallpaper

Day 47 commenced my official countdown to my move from New York City!

I know I’ve mentioned it in previous posts but here it is officially:

I’m leaving the big (crazy, yet fun) apple to head to the windy (more balanced and clean) city.

Friends, followers and random passerby’s, as of around 8pm on October 29, I will officially be a resident of the state of Illinois.

During these last 14 days, I am aiming to soak up the Awesome (what else) in my NYC life (no real complaints here).

I’m going to take this opportunity to count backwards…..

On day -14 I found myself in a living room.  6 flights of stairs up from the ground.  In the middle of one of NYC’s busiest intersections.  Sitting on a (very comfortable and purple) couch. Staring up at the room’s centerpiece:  the famous 70-foot statue built in 1892 of Christopher Columbus.

discovering columbus

I wouldn’t have believed it myself had I not accompanied a friend to the exhibit (one of our last outings!), complained and moaned the entire 6 flights of stairs and spent more time than was allowed in the “living room.”

“Discovering Columbus” is an exhibit created by Tatsu Nishi that allows visitors to experience the famous Columbus statue as if it were in their living room.  The room’s expansive space, covered in pink wallpaper, adorned with modern furniture and over-sized windows, is a surreal and a one-of-a-kind experience for several reasons.

1)       Seeing a 70-foot statue brought to life in touching distance is not an everyday sighting.  Sitting on the couch, I studied the details of the work.  Everything from his dress to his face are etched in a type of accurate precision I would never have suspected

2)      The sheer idea of something so large and grand that one would never see up close to be in a home setting is bewildering (not something you pick up while “antiquing”).  Not surprisingly, my jaw dropped when we turned the corner on the top floor.

3)      The exact views we saw can’t be replicated.  Out the fake living room windows was a sea of lights coming from cars speeding down Central Park West.  The top of buildings on the other side of the island were peeking over trees and Central Park was spread out before us.

central park west

On a personal note, Columbus Circle is one of my favorite parts of this city.  It’s the place where I ate my mac and cheese and sushi rolls during lunch as an intern.  It’s the place where I’ve gone to clear my head.  It’s the fountains my brother and I played in just a few weeks ago (errrr I mean watched the children play).

I loved experiencing this part of the city in a completely different way.

Awesome!

Fundraising, Walks and the Brooklyn Bridge

Brooklyn Bridge

On Day 42 of Awesome I found myself waking up at 7am on a Sunday to participate in the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation’s (JDRF) walk to cure diabetes (http://www.jdrf.org/).

This annual event raises money for research aimed at curing type 1 diabetes.

I was there to support a friend, participate in a great cause and walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Uncharacteristically hyper for a Sunday morning, having devoured two packages of cream cheese (and bagel?) and armed with a great group of participants, I was ready to walk across this national historic landmark.

The Brooklyn Bridge does not disappoint.

The views are spectacular.  The rush of cars under your feet is exciting.  The sheer size of the cables is awe-inspiring.

Walkers were pointing to the sights.  Kids were kneeling to see cars pass by underneath our feet.  Participants were getting to know each other.

About 40 minutes later, we were in Brooklyn, waving JDRF fingers (like a baseball game) and feeling a bit hungry (heckling non-walkers works up an appetite).

After a delicious brunch in Dumbo, Brooklyn, we made our way back across the bridge.

Turns out the views in the other direction are even better.

Awesome.