Pinxos (small plates) are the thing to eat in northern Spain, so that was the plan. We were staying in Old Town, right next to Plaza Nueva, but our favorite pinxto bars turned out to be in the Moyua district.
It’s safe to say we love Spain with trips to Barcelona (1, 2), Madrid, and Granada & Malaga over the past eight years. When a good fare to Spain popped up again we decided to try Northern Spain for our 15th anniversary, eventually focusing on the Basque cities of Bilbao and San Sebastián.
To get between cities we found buses to be the easiest and most direct option. For both legs we choose Alsa due to price and timing. For one leg we got Alsa Premium which was extra nice, with 2 seats on one side of the row and 1 seat on the other side, plus USB power and snacks.
The Bilbao bus station was easy to connect to from the metro, but many buses weren’t listed on boards, so it was a bit confusing. The San Sebastian station was quite easy and well-located too.
In both cities we shopped, ate pintxos, drank wine, visited museums, walked on the beach, and viewed sunsets. It was a very happy 15th anniversary for us!
To get to Oman we flew through Doha, Qatar, on Qatar Airways. Qatar flies its newest jets from Philadelphia in the morning, so we’d flown up the night before on American. After a quick snack in the British Airways lounge they announced boarding and our adventure began.
Once on the plane, we were directed to the business class cabin and found our seats. The seat walls were lower than business class on Cathay, and the ceiling felt higher as there was no overhead luggage storage in the middle.
During boarding flight attendants were very busy. First, a flight attendant came by and offered us the choice of Jacquart Brut Mosaique or Drappier Rose champagne, and a hot or cold towel. Very civilized!
As we were exploring our seats pajamas and a toiletry kit were also handed out. Unfortunately, they only had a size L/XL — big on me, enormous on Leandra.
After takeoff we leaned our seats back to relax. Overall the seat was comfortable, though the foot area was a bit tight, making it better for lounging over sleeping. Like many carriers, the cabin was also quite warm, so the blanket was not needed.
Food and drink on board was quite good, definitely a step up compared to most business class offerings. About an hour after take off they served lunch that was quite tasty. I had the roasted butternut squash soup and chicken with sage sauce, then lime panna cotta for dessert. Leandra chose the smoked salmon app (of course) and the Paneer tikka masala for her main. Dessert was the cheese plate!
smoked salmon salad; paneer tikka masala
Midflight I tried the pastries, which were actually flaky, and for breakfast the granola with berries was good start to the day.
In addition, the wine list was quite impressive — the Yealans Estate Sauvignon Blanc was excellent, as was the Chateau Brane-Cantenac Margaux. A 2008 Chateau Dereszla Tokai afterwards was a special treat.
The entertainment selection was fairly good, with a variety of new releases and older movies and shows.
We arrived in Doha quite early in the morning to a remote stand, where a bus exclusively for business-class passengers was waiting. After a quick pass through transit security we made our way to the Al Mourjan lounge (which was a little confusing given some of the construction). Along the way we saw the famous airport bear, which disappointingly is not actually stuffed.
The business lounge was a little confusing – an attendant at the bottom of the escalator didn’t want to let us in based on our economy passes for the upcoming flight, but after a quick discussion and the production of our business class passes from the previous flight, he let us up. At the top of the escalator our passes were taken for ~10 minutes while we watched several other groups simply walk in. Lesson learned – just walk in and no one will bother you, but if you look lost you’ll end up waiting for someone to check you in for no apparent reason.
The lounge itself is massive with an upstairs restaurant and downstairs cafe that served soup and paninis. Seating was available everywhere and each seat had access to outlets. There were also lots of workers roaming the lounge cleaning, including the bathrooms where stalls and sinks were cleaned after each use.
After two hours in the lounge we walked to our gate for the flight to Muscat. The gate agents tried to get us to check our bags, we just said we had one world status and they let us through. Seats on this regional flight were rather tight, Eric’s knees just barely fit. Fine for 1-2 hrs, but wouldn’t want to fly much more than that on these jets.
Overall, we really enjoyed our long-haul flight with Qatar, and would gladly fly their business class again.
The Topkapi Palace grounds are immense, so we prepared to spend several hours exploring. Photos are not allowed inside many of the buildings, though rule enforcement varied from not at all to loud nagging depending on the guard. Many of the guards were glued to their mobile phones, so we did manage to sneak a few shots here and there.
After entering through the gates we turned right and started with the kitchens. These turned out to be surprisingly interesting, as it must have taken a lot of work to feed the several thousand people that inhabited the palace grounds in its heydey. The imperial kitchen had first choice at the markets and docks, and they made everything from meals to medicines on the grounds. Serving the sultan was a big deal, and upwards of 14 servants attended him at each meal!
The imperial jewels were close by, but the line was long so we continued through the receiving room into the heart of the palace grounds, the third and forth courtyards. We explored the calligraphy museum which included the first word portraits we’ve experienced – a detailed description of Muhammad in beautiful calligraphy with gold overlay.
There was beautiful tile and woodwork everywhere and we enjoyed exploring many of the large decorated rooms.
After about two hours elsewhere we ended up back near the (still) long line for the jewels, so we joined it. The crowds made it hard to really enjoy each piece without getting jostled, but they had some amazing pieces. Just next door was a second room with other imperial accessories, and since it was uncrowded with no line, we gave it a try and really enjoyed the beautiful clocks and other timepieces.
The Harem was our last stop, which was recently included in the Museum pass. Unfortunately, several sections are under restoration. However, the rooms we did get to see were opulent and beautiful with amazing tile, wood, and carpet work; even the ceilings were gorgeous. This part was our favorite section of the palace, largely due to the reduced crowds.
Topkapi Palace is on the must-see list for good reason and we felt that four hours was enough time to see everything without rushing around.
Since we had never visited Sydney on our previous Australia trip, we took this opportunity to see as much as we could in our two nights and one very full day.
We arrived late Sunday evening, taking a taxi from the airport to our apartment. This evening was the Cricket World Cup Final between Australia and New Zealand, and we had hoped to watch some of the game in a local pub… unfortunately (for us), Australia had already won the match just as we got into our room. Undeterred we went out for a beer at Royal Albert Hotel which did have a few people celebrating the win. They had an interesting range of beer, and Eric went for the Black Dog Brewery Farm Dog saison while Leandra choose the ‘The Dopey One’ from Modus Operandi Brewing.
The Monday forecast called for midday rain, so we were up early for breakfast pastries at De La France with a ham and cheese croissant for Eric, and a bacon and cheese for Leandra. Good way to start the day! From there we walked to Hyde Park, then on to views of St. Marys and St. James churches.
Next we went down Macquarie St. past the library, then to the botanical garden, enjoying the various plantings. The ibis and cockatoos were also fun to watch, with a large gathering inexplicably under one tree.
From the northern tip of the botanical gardens we had our first view of the famous opera house.
Note the looming clouds? Yeah, we did too. So under threatening skies we hustled around the quay for more views, took one last panorama, then ducked under an awning just as the rain came down. Looking at the radar we saw that it wasn’t going to stop quickly, so we changed our plans to head indoors.
The Museum of Contemporary Art was closest, so we went there first, ducking under as many awnings and bridges as possible. As a bonus, entry and wifi were both free! We especially enjoyed several of the light installations.
Earlier we had noticed signs for an exhibition on Australian pulp fiction at the NSW Library so we headed there next. While interesting, even more entertaining was a set of portraits of shopkeepers in the Newtown suburb and the impressive reading room.
The rain had tapered off a bit, but it was still drizzling, so we ducked into the Rabbit Hole for a quick snack of chips and a cider for Eric, with the house white rabbit ale for Leandra. Inspired by the photos in the library we took the opportunity to research Newtown as our next destination. By the time we left the sun was back out so we headed north through a different part of the botanical gardens, then to Cahill walk across bridge for more photos.
At Circular Quay we purchased train tickets to Newtown, which was a bit confusing, including a transfer at Central station for $8 roundtrip. The video screen didn’t list the train we needed, so we had to deduce the track from the regular static listing next to the maps. The train in Sydney reminded us of Barcelona, where they seem to be more efficient for suburb connections then for getting around the CBD.
Once in Newtown it was a short walk to Young Henrys brewery, where Eric ordered the Newtowner (ale) which had a nice fruitiness to it, and is only distributed in the neighborhood area. Leandra got the darker specialty beer, a chocolate raspberry stout (Edna ale) – brewed by one of their female bartenders. The bartender was helpful with suggestions on what to try, and the overall space was fun with many interesting art pieces on the wall.
Next up was exploring some of the local street art in the area around the brewery.
As you know we LOVE street art and this area did not disappoint. There was a good variety of styles, paste-ups and sculptures.
Working up an appetite, we made it in the door just as Gigi’s Pizzeria opened for the evening. Drinks were served with a pile of roasted in-shell peanuts to munch on. We were surprised at how good our orders were – a really good thin crust pizza, along with a reasonably priced carafe of rose. Since we split the pizza we had room for dessert and went with the special, a mille feuille with figs. Everything was quite tasty.
Fairly tired we decided to head back our apartment to rest our feet and charge our phones. As one last hurrah, and since it was only two blocks away, we went out for pork dumplings from Din Tai Fung later that night. As usual, they were awesome!
After landing in Auckland and checking into our hotel, we took a 30 minute drive up to Babich Wines. Being a Wednesday afternoon it was not busy; in fact, the tasting room was empty! Once we figured out how to contact the wine taster (a small doorbell near the cash register), we had a fun tasting with some interesting wines. Many of them are available in the US, so we focused on the varietals that would be harder to get overseas. In general, I thought the wines were solid and reasonably priced. I would have bought more if we lived here – they only charge $5 case for shipment anywhere on the North Island.
We had enough time to visit another winery before closing, but our choice, Landmark Estates, didn’t seem to have a tasting room – at least we drove around and never found it!
Soljans Estate — a Croatian family-owned vineyard with a large tasting room. The young woman giving us the tasting didn’t seem to know that much about the wines but we liked their selection. The Pinotage, in particular, was a pleasant surprise. Eric’s favorite was the Kumeu Sauvignon Blanc.
Kumeu River Wines — Eric loved the Chardonnay here! Our pourer was friendly and had clearly just come in from picking grapes to talk about the wine in the small tasting room. I found their reds very drinkable and a great value. Definitely one of the top tastings we had in NZ, it was hard to leave with only a half bottle of the 2008 Hunting Hill Chardonnay. Next time!
Coopers Creek Vineyard — Our hostess didn’t normally do wine tastings so she was a bit flustered at our presence; oddly, she also didn’t want to pour the reds for me while Eric was trying the whites so we were there twice as long as we needed to be. On the upside, the winery dog, Molly, was VERY friendly. This place sources their grapes from several places all over the country and we both thought the wines were pretty ordinary.
West Brook Winery – Beautiful setting with a big lawn area around a pond, we were surprised to be the only tasters on Sunday morning. The reds were okay but the whites were quite good. Wine was not available by the glass (?!?) but our hostess poured us a big ‘sample’ of whatever we wanted and we enjoyed it down by the pond on a picnic bench. We also scored a local area wine map which helped us pick out two more places to visit.
On our way to Matua Valley Wines we stopped in at a tiny vineyard, Twin Totara, that only grows cab franc and merlot. We had the opportunity to taste a four-year vertical of the reds and two vintages of the roses. Very interesting wine, and the winemaker himself was pouring. We had to make space in the luggage for a 2007 – it was a crazy good value at ~$14! If we had been in the US we would have left with a whole case. Easy.
Matua Valley Wines were solid — they had a free tasting of four reds and four whites so we each took a side. I absolutely loved the 2010 Merlot so I spent the $16 and got a glass to go with the very last of my liver pate and enjoyed both on the wrap-around balcony out back. Eric got a glass of the Sauvignon Blanc and joined me with some caramel corn. The beautiful views were blocked for several minutes by a pop-up rainstorm but we were protected.
It was a wonderful way to end our time in New Zealand. Can’t wait to get back!
Many of the tourist guides tout Mt. Eden as a great view of Auckland, and an interesting way to see a volcano caldera. It’s a fairly easy drive up to a parking lot at the top, or you can park at the bottom and hike up. A nice enough view, but it didn’t have the photographic viewpoint we expected, and felt a bit overrated.
On our last morning we headed across the bay toward Devonport in search of a better city view, which we found in Stanley Bay Park and the top of Mount Victoria Reserve.
Obviously, it was sunnier on our second try but we both preferred the views looking south rather than north.