Prior to the Pandemic we had booked two cruises with Viking for 2020, one river cruise of the eastern Danube and one ocean cruise of the Mediterranean. Both cruises were cancelled as everything shutdown and we took cruise credits in hopes to reschedule. Well finally, cruising is restarting and we have rebooked our Mediterranean cruise for mid-October.
While COVID protocols for the cruise restart are a bit intimidating, we are ready and are so looking forward to getting back to traveling and cruising. We will start our cruise in Barcelona where we will embark on the brand new “Viking Venus”, launched earlier this year. This 13 day cruise will take us to ports on the French Riviera, Italy, Greece, and Croatia, ending in Venice. We opted for a 3-day post cruise extension to Lake Como, Italy.
Looking back at our past Viking Ocean Cruise experiences provides us with so many wonderful memories. It’s these past experiences that are fueling our excitement and eagerness to get back to cruising again.
This short video montage shows what we have missed about Viking Ocean Cruises and illustrates why we are so ready to get back onboard cruising again.
Check back to follow our Viking Venus Mediterranean Cruise
We arrived in Montevideo from Mendoza Argentina on February 13th, the 22nd day of our South American adventure. The first 21 days were with the Viking Ocean Cruise and Mendoza post-cruise extension, now we were “free-styling”, on our own for another week.
Why Montevideo? Back in the 1980’s Rick made many business trips to Uruguay and enjoyed the visits to Montevideo. The city had an interesting charm and culture and it’s fun to go back after all these years to see what changed and what stayed the same.
On our brief stop in Montevideo with the Viking Jupiter (our South America Cruise – Part 5 blog), we had a scheduled winery tour, so had very little free time to spend in Montevideo. Now we were on our own with several days to explore the city.
Then and Now
Montevideo has retained its charm and character. We stayed in the old town district, Ciudad Vieja, with its older colonial buildings as well as art deco architecture. This neighborhood, adjacent to the port, has several pedestrian-only streets that lead up to Plaza Independencia, the main square.
Most of the old town area hasn’t changed much since the last visit in the early 1980’s, but elsewhere there has certainly been big changes in Montevideo and Uruguay. Across the city, modern buildings can be seen and along the Rambla, a 13 mile long avenue that runs along the shoreline of the Rio e la Plate, high-rise apartments evoke a South Florida look.
Back in the 1980’s Uruguay was ruled by a military dictatorship. Anyone who spoke out against the government risked imprisonment or worse. Today Uruguay is a thriving democracy and Latin America’s most progressive country. Crime is very low, the standard of living is one of the best in South America. Uruguay has the highest literacy rate in Latin America, school is mandatory up to high school and the state run universities are free. Uruguay legalized the production, sale and consumption of cannabis.
Our hotel, the Don Boutique Hotel, located across the street from Mercado del Puerto or Port Market in the old town. This location was perfect as it was adjacent to one of the main pedestrian streets. We were able to walk to most old town attractions, restaurants and shops.
Our room was a front room on the second floor with a small balcony overlooking the street. Across the street was a small open air arena that was part of the Carnival Museum. Since this was in the middle of Carnival season (Mardi Gras), we had free (and loud) entertainment every night, so no early bedtime!
Apart from the late night entertainment, the Don Boutique Hotel was a nice place. The building is art-deco style, looks like it could be in South Beach. The roof-top bar was a great spot to enjoy a bottle of local Tannat wine while watching the sunset cast its golden glow over the city.
Sights & Sounds of Montevideo
Montevideo boasts the longest running Carnival celebrations which start in late January and goes on for 40 days. Local neighborhood dance and drum groups participate in various parades and events and we were fortunate that a couple of groups performed at the nearby Mercado del Puerto. The groups perform Candombe, a style of music and dance that immigrated to Uruguay with African slaves.
On Sunday February 16th, after a fun 3 days in Montevideo it was time to leave. Our next stop, Colonia del Sacramento, one of Uruguay’s oldest towns. We would stay in the cobble-stoned Barrio Histórico (historic quarter), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We got the last two seats (next to the toilet) on the 9:00AM bus to Colonia for the 2.5 hour ride. In our next post we will share the experiences in that historic town.
When we first booked our cruise early last year we decided to do an add-on post-cruise extension and the one we chose was called “Vineyards & Vistas of Mendoza”. This was billed as a 4-day excursion that included round-trip air from Buenos Aires to Mendoza as well as 3-nights in a luxury Mendoza hotel. One day of visiting several vineyards for tours and tastings the second day a scenic drive to the high Andes mountains. Our paperwork also stated that breakfasts were included as well as 2-lunches and 1 dinner. To our surprise we were treated to 3 dinners at 3 amazing Mendoza restaurants which we will discuss more below.
What made this trip so amazing was that we had such a small group, only 6 signed up, and we had two wonderful tour guides, Ailin (Eileen) and Estefan, who stayed with us the whole trip as well as a great driver, Horacio, with a very comfortable Mercedes mini-bus.
Our Hotel – The Diplomatic Hotel
The hotel accommodations were very good. The Diplomatic Hotel is rated as a 5-star hotel located in the downtown area of Mendoza, very convenient to restaurants and shopping. The hotel is nicely appointed with a very elegant lobby area. Our room was large and comfortable and we were on the 15th floor with a great view. Every evening at 7:00 PM the hotel offered free wine tasting in the lobby and each night the wines were from a different, local vineyard.
Our second day in Mendoza was scheduled for three winery tours along with lunch. We drove about 30-minutes outside town where miles and miles of vineyards line the roads. Both our tour guides Ailin and Estefan told us about the history and make-up of the Mendoza wine industry. Our guides are extremely knowledgeable about wine making and wine culture.
Casarena Bodega & Vineyards
Our first vineyard was the Casarena Bodega y Viñedos located about 26km from downtown Mendoza. This was a picturesque vineyard with the grapes about ready for harvest. We noted that all the vines were covered with wire or plastic mesh. We assumed that this was to prevent birds from getting at the grapes, but it was to protect the grapes and vines from hail, apparently Mendoza gets lots of thunderstorms.
Our tasting included Malbec, which was excellent, we also tried Cabernet Franc, a very good red wine as well. The tour of the underground cellars was interesting, they had racks of different vintages (bottles) that they use for quality control. They will occasionally sample the various aged vintages to make sure they are aging properly.
Caelum Winery is s smaller boutique winery in the Mendoza valley, its 145 acres mainly produce the red Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon varieties, but they also offer a very nice Chardonnay as well as an interesting blush wine. The vineyard also produces pistachios from their small orchard.
Dominio del Plata Winery (Susana Balbo Wines)
Our third and final winery visit was to the Susana Balbo Winery. The winery has a restaurant called Osadía de Crear where we had a lunch that included wine pairings.
Susana Balbo is Argentina’s first women to receive a degree in enology (science and study of wine and wine-making) and has been a pioneering winemaker in Mendoza.
Andes Day Trip
On our second full day in Mendoza we were off at 7:30 AM from the hotel to start the long 3.5 – 4 hour drive. We would travel northwest on Highway 7 (road to Chile) along the Mendoza river valley as it climbed steadily through the foothills of the Andes. Our final destination was to drive up the old Uspallata Pass road to visit the famous Christ the Redeemer of the Andes monument which sits on the Argentine – Chile border at about 12,700-ft above sea level.
We had several stops along the way, the first stop was at a scenic overlook on Lake Potrerillos (man-made lake above Potrerillos hydro-electric dam). Our guides Ailin, Estefan and driver Horacio setup a small table and served us coffee and pastries with the scenic backdrop of Lake Potrerillos and surrounding mountains to enjoy.
A brief technical or “comfort” stop in the small town of Uspallata which is in a wide valley surrounded by larger, more rugged mountains leading to the high Andes.
Two additional stops before we reached our final destination. A stop at an observation point where we viewed Mount Aconcagua, at 22,837 ft., the highest mountain in the Americas and actually the highest outside of the Himalayas.
Another stop at Puente del Inca (Inca Bridge), a natural rock formation bridge at a mineral hot spring. The site is a bit touristy with many gift shops. The minerals from the hot springs have created colorful rock formations at the site. There is also an abandoned railroad station as well as ruins of a former hotel at the hot springs (hotel was demolished by an avalanche many years ago). The abandoned railroad station is part of a discontinued rail line that ran from Mendoza to Santiago Chile and much of the rail bed and infrastructure follows the Mendoza river and can be seen from Highway 7.
The drive to the top of Uspallata Pass was quite exciting. The dirt road has many sharp switchback curves as it winds its way up the the top. The road is barely wide enough for two vehicles, so it gets interesting when another car or bus is heading our way.
Our tour guide Estefan narrated the account of Argentina’s patriot, San Martin who led the Army of the Andes up this same pass to defeat Spanish forces in the early 19th Century and establish Argentina’s independence. Estefan is very passionate and knowledgeable about his country’s history and he likened San Martin to George Washington.
At the top we had time to explore, but it was extremely windy and a bit cold, so we huddled into one of the gift shops where Estefan had the vendors give us samples of some local drinks. It seemed both the cold drink and hot drink had some alcohol content, but don’t recall the local name of these drinks.
At this high altitude, we were a bit light headed and uncomfortable, so we didn’t stay too long before we started heading down to the base village where we would have lunch.
We got back down to the valley floor (a mere 7,000 ft above sea level) at the village of Las Cuevas where we had “hiker’s lunch” at Portezuelo del Viento, a hostel for backpackers and mountain climbers. The lunch was home cooked, Kathie had the chicken milanesa and I had the gnocchi. Of course, Malbec was the wine of choice.
Estefan introduced us to the owner, Juan Pablo Sarjanovich, who is a world class mountain climber, having climbed in the Himalayas and elsewhere. He is a guide who takes climbers up to nearby Mt. Aconcagua.
After this long day, we headed back to Mendoza and in the evening would have our farewell dinner.
Our tour itinerary included a group dinner each of the three nights we were in Mendoza. Our tour guides and Viking set up reservations at three premier restaurants of Mendoza.
On our first night in Mendoza our tour guides brought us to one of Mendoza’s best restaurants, Maria Antonieta for our welcome dinner. The restaurant was right next door to the Diplomatic Hotel, so a very quick walk to our table. This restaurant is owned by Chef Vanina Chimeno the wife and partner of Argentina’s most famous chef and restaurateur Francis Mallmann. Some may recognize Chef Mallmann who was featured on season 1 of the Netflix series Chef’s Table.
This restaurant is a small bistro with an open kitchen and apparently it is difficult to get reservations, but thanks to Viking we were able to get a table for eight for our group.
Sitting at the table next to us was a man and woman who had that “celebrity look”. Later our guides told us that the gentleman was “La Mona” a well known Argentine pop star. He and his wife were staying at the Diplomatic Hotel and we later saw lots of fans outside the hotel hoping for a glimpse or autograph.
We had a great meal at Maria Antonieta, most opting for the signature Rib Eye steak accompanied by an excellent Malbec. A great first night in Mendoza!
On our second night the group had dinner at Josefina Restó. This restaurant is on Avenue Arístides Villanueva, simply known as Aristides by the locals, and it is Mendoza’s main night life area. Plenty of restaurants and bars make this a lively neighborhood.
Another great choice, this restaurant is a large open space with floor to ceiling windows and we had a window table, taking in all the activity outside. The food was great and again we were served some excellent local wines.
On our last night in Mendoza a special farewell dinner was held at Azafran Restaurant, which was around the corner from our hotel. Our tour guides told us that they wanted this last dinner to be special and they did not disappoint.
The restaurant had a special wine cellar which was actually a large room in the front of the restaurant with a large window overlooking their side walk cafe area. The “cellar” had floor to ceiling wine racks and in the center of the room was a large round table where we would be seated for dinner. This room was cooled for the wine, so each chair had an alpaca shawl for those who were cold.
This was a great way to end our Viking cruise and tour. Everyone had an enjoyable time and we stayed very late (we had to get up for a 7am car to the airport). It was a bit sad to say goodbye to our travel companions, our waitress was kind to take a group picture to send us on our way.
After the farewell dinner we said goodbye to the rest of the group and our guide Estafan. While the others were scheduled to fly back to Buenos Aires Int’l airport at noon the next day for their trip home, we were to continue another week on our own with a visit to Uruguay. Our flight was earlier in the morning, so Ailin arranged a car to pick us up at 7am.
Ailin was waiting in the lobby at 7am to make sure we got off OK and we had a young man accompany us to the airport to help us check-in (part of Viking’s transfer service).
The main part of our trip, the Viking Ocean Cruise and post cruise excursion had ended, we were now heading to Montevideo Uruguay for some free style touring. Our flight to Montevideo was on time and the last phase of our long South American adventure was underway. Our next post will be about our Uruguay experiences.
As we cruised south along the Clilean coast, our first port of call was Puerto Montt in what’s called Chile’s lakes region. Since there was no large dock facilities, we anchored in the harbor and used the ship’s tender boats to get ashore.
The lakes region is a popular hiking and adventure area of Chile and most of our cruise’s optional excursions were focused on high activity. There were demanding hiking tours, white water rafting and horseback riding. We decided to do the included excursion, a coach tour of the town and a visit to the small town of Puerto Varas on the shore of Lake Llanquihue, one of Chile’s largest lakes.
Puerto Varas is a resort town that has summer activities such as boating, hiking, and water sports. There is also a winter influx because of skiing in nearby mountains.
We had an hour of free time to wander the town. The lakefront park and walkway offered some stunning views with two volcanoes in the background. The cone shaped Mt. Osorno looks very much like Japan’s Mt. Fuji.
There was a small artisan center where local handcrafted goods could be purchased. In this part of Chile many German immigrants settled in the mid 19th Century, so many of the buildings, homes and gardens maintain a German look. The local food still retains quite a bit of German influence as well.
After a few hours ashore we returned to the ship and our ship departed late afternoon to cruise south through the inner passage and Fjords, next stop, Amalia Glacier.
Amalia Glacier and beyond
Sailing south from Puerto Montt, we left the protection of the inland channel and headed out into the open Pacific. A gale force westerly wind greeted us with its accompanying 15-20ft waves which gave us a bit of a rough ride for the rest of the afternoon and overnight, but we were treated to another beautiful Pacific sunset.
The next morning we entered the shelter of another inland passage as we headed to the Amalia Glacier. This area reminds us so much of Alaska waters. The waterway is surrounded by big snow covered mountains with deep U- shaped glacial valleys and the occasional mountain Glacier. As we cruised deeper into the bay, the Amalia Glacier came into view. The Captain was able to maneuver the ship within a mile of the glacier and we hovered there for about an hour giving everyone a great view.
Leaving the glacier behind, we headed for our next destinations; Magellan Strait, Punta Arenas, Ushuaia Argentina and then around Cape Horn into the Atlantic Ocean.
Our long-anticipated Viking Ocean Cruise, “South America & the Chilean Fjords”, has begun. We left home on January 22nd departing Boston to Houston where we connected with an overnight flight to Santiago Chile.
Our airline of choice is United since we have elite status and we were able to upgrade to “Polaris” Business class. The amenities with Polaris are great, they have a special Polaris Lounge at Houston which had hot food, free drinks and very comfortable surroundings. The lay-flat seats onboard the Boeing 767 allowed us to get some sleep on the 9 hour overnight flight, arriving about 10AM local time on Jan 23rd.
Our cruise scheduled arrival date was Jan 24th, but we chose to arrive one day early, so we stayed overnight at the Holiday Inn Express Hotel right outside the baggage claim section of Santiago Int’l Airport.
We chose to arrive one day early as a contingency. Since we live in New England we must expect that winter storms could screw up travel itineraries, so adding a “safety day” gives us some piece of mind. As it turned out, the same United flight the following day, with about 70 Viking passengers onboard, had to return to Houston after several hours because of mechanical problems. Those folks had to sleep in the airport and the flight finally departed after more than 14 hours delay. Those folks didn’t get to Chile and onboard the ship until after midnight, missing the first days activities.
The morning of the 24th we checked out of the Holiday Inn after a good night’s sleep, walked across the street to the baggage claim and met the Viking greeters who got us on our bus for the ride to the ship in Valparaiso. We got to our ship, the Viking Jupiter, at about Noon, our room wouldn’t be ready until 2pm.
Lunch with a Chilean Friend
This free time was an opportunity for me to meet up with an old friend and work colleague Luis Torres. I have known Luis since my days at Raytheon in the early 1980’s when his company did service work on our radar and navigation systems. Several trips to Chile in those old days where I got to know Luis. In recent years we reconnected on Facebook.
Luis invited me for lunch at the Club Naval (Chilean Navy Officers Club). In addition to his past service business, he is a retired Naval Officer. We had a great time reminiscing.
Checking into our Stateroom
We checked into our stateroom on the Viking Jupiter by late afternoon on the 24th. This day was Rick’s birthday, and waiting in our stateroom was a chocolate cake smothered in fresh strawberries and blueberries along with a bottle of champagne and happy birthday card. Nice touch Viking Cruises!
The staterooms on these new Viking Ocean Cruise ships are spacious and very comfortable. All rooms have verandas, no inside cabins. The bathrooms are roomy with a large shower. Also plenty of storage. There are several AC outlets, both US and Europe style along with quite a few USB charging ports on each bedstand and the desk. A mini- frig is stocked with soft drinks, Toberlone chocolate bars and assorted nut mixes, all free and restocked everyday. There is free WiFi throughout the ship, albiet, not super high speed, but adequate for email, web and social media. I hope to do a separate blog about the ship and life onboard.
Tour of Valparaiso and Casas del Bosque Winery
We had one additional day in Valparaiso before the ship left and on that day we had a Valparaiso city tour and a visit to a local winery for a tour and wine tasting.
If you have been following recent events in Chile you will know that public protests against economic and political issues turned into full blown riots and violence. We saw the results first hand during the city tour. Most downtown shops were still boarded up, some burnt out and destroyed. Lots of political graffiti covers once beautiful architecture and public monuments. It’s a shame to see this damage.
We then drove about 45 minutes outside Valparaiso to the Casablanca Valley wine district. There we toured the Casas del Busque vineyards, a local boutique winery.
Our tour guide, a very knowledgeable young woman, walked us around one of the Pinot Noir vineyards, then into the production area and finally an aging cellar where we tasted several wines.
We tasted 3 wines; a white (Chardonnay) which was very good and 2 reds. One red, I believe was a Merlot and the second a Carménère. The Carménère was excellent and our guide explained that this grape was an old variety originally introduced into France’s Bordeaux region by the Romans in ancient times. Spanish missionaries brought the plants to Chile in the 16th Century where they have flourished since. The Carménère was all but wiped out in France by phylloxera plague in the mid-19th Century, but Chile’s climate and soil are resistant to phylloxera, so this dark red grape and wine is still produced. We enjoyed this variety so much, we bought a bottle to enjoy later.
Sailing out of Valparaiso
We left Valparaiso late on the 25th for the start of our long and exciting cruise. As we left Valparaiso, we watched the busy activity around the port, and watched the Harbor Pilot wave goodbye from the Pilot Boat. As we sailed south on the Pacific a beautiful sunset ended our first cruise day.
In this final post from our August 1 – 13, 2019 Montana vacation we will share the sights in and around Glacier National Park. We spent several days exploring the park and surrounding areas. The weather during our three days in the park area was clear and hot, but smoke from wild fires in Idaho and Washington did impact some of the photo opportunities.
Red Bus Tour
When we first planned this Montana trip several months ago we wanted to make sure we experienced the “Going to the Sun Road” but had some concerns about doing the drive ourselves. The person driving would need to concentrate on the challenging road and would miss out on the scenery.
In our research we found out about the Red Bus Tours that operate in the National Park. They offer several tour options, one a 4-5 hour tour and another all day tour. We opted for the 4-5 hour tour that goes up the “Going to the Sun Road” as far as Logan Pass, then returns. We made reservations online well in advance of our trip (reservations are highly recommended). These tours are narrated by knowledgeable drivers who provide both factual information plus many entertaining stories along the way. The drivers make many photo stops along the route and these buses have reserved parking at some critical stops, which avoids the crowded private vehicle parking areas. Our 4-5 hour tour was $64 per person and we felt it was money well spent.
Our tour started about 9:15am from the Apgar Visitor Center. The parking lot at Apgar Visitor’s Center fills up fast, so getting there early will assure a spot and not risk missing your tour time.
The Tour Route
The tour buses are restored, 1930’s vintage White motor coaches serving park visitors for 80 plus years. I ended up sitting in the front passenger seat, so had the opportunity to shoot some video along the way. The following is a compilation of clips from the bus tour.
The drive from Missoula to Columbia Falls would typically be about 2 hrs and 40 mins, with no stops. But along the way we stopped at two attractions. The first was the National Bison Range and then the Miracle of America Museum in Polson.
The drive took us along the east shore of Flathead Lake. Flathead Lake is the largest natural fresh water lake west of the Mississippi. The lake, surrounded by mountains, is glacier fed, so the waters have that turquoise color, just beautiful. Driving along there were many roadside stands selling fresh Flathead Lake cherries. We didn’t realize there were cherry orchards all around the area, apparently the micro-climate around the lake supports the growth of cherries. We stumbled into cherry season, so we bought a bag and they were big and delicious. It was also Huckleberry season and everywhere we went there were farm stands, shops and local establishments selling everything huckleberry. Huckleberry jams, huckleberry pastries, huckleberry flavored beers, even huckleberry martinis. We bought some jams along the way and that was our breakfast treat with toast or English muffins. Huckleberries are similar to blueberries, but maybe a bit more tart.
Bison National Range
Our first stop was at the National Bison Range in Charlo, MT. This is a National Wildlife Reserve that provides sanctuary for the American Bison. We arrived early, around 8am, so the visitors center was not open (opens at 9am). There is a $5 entrance fee (per vehicle), but our America The Beautiful Senior Pass is honored at this site. A quick note about the America The Beautiful pass, we purchase our Senior Pass a few years ago, $80 life pass, and it is honored at most National Park and other Federal recreational areas.
There are several driving trails through the reserve and we chose to take long loop road which is 19 miles long. This is a one-way, single lane gravel road that winds up the mountain with steep grades, lots of switchback curves and no guard rails. The first half of this road climbs up a mountain area reaching a summit at about 4800ft where there is a rest stop with portable toilets. The road continues down the other side with some very steep curves until it reaches an open range area, eventually returning to the starting point near the visitors center.
When we first started up the road, we saw another vehicle ahead of us stopped, then moving very slowly. We were a bit concerned about being stuck behind someone who seemed not in a hurry, with no way to pass. When we got closer, we saw the problem, a big, old, bull Bison was in the middle of the road walking at a very slow pace. We were stuck behind this beast for at least 20-minutes until an opening at a curve allowed enough room to rush past this big guy.
Stuck Behind a Bison
Along the road going toward the summit we saw a few solitary bull Bison’s as well as several Mule Deer. Once we came down the other side of the mountain onto the flat range area, we ran into quite a few Pronghorn Antelope as well as several herds of Bison.
Pronghorn Antelope Crossing
Miracle of America Museum
In the town of Polson, on the southern end of Flathead Lake we stopped at the “Miracle of America Museum“. This eclectic museum seems to have just about everything you can imagine. There is a large indoor space housing early native American artifacts, antique fashions and clothing, old toys, a collection of vintage Harley’s and Indian bikes and loads of military memorabilia from the Civil War up to the War on Terror.
The outside space is huge, I don’t know how many acres. You can find old cars and trucks, fire engines, tracked and wheeled military vehicles, signage from famous old America companies and brands, jet craft fuselages, a Huey helicopter, old farm equipment, even a tugboat, it goes on and on!
This place is crazy fun, but also interesting and informative, it represents the products of American ingenuity and industry of the last couple of hundred years. If you are familiar with the TV series American Pickers, this place would be a picker’s heaven.
We rented an AirBnB for the week that was located in the historical downtown section of Columbia Falls. This location was convenient to the Glacier National Park sites. The AirBnB had excellent accommodations for the three of us, with 2-bedrooms, 2-bathrooms, and a large open concept kitchen, dining and living space. The location was in the same block as several bars and restaurants and a cool bakery-coffee shop. The Gunsight Saloon, a block and a half across the street is a fun, local bar and restaurant.
Our AirBnB was clean, comfortable and well stocked. The hosts, Kim and David provided a complimentary bottle of Montana red wine as a welcome gift. If you’re interested you can check out this AirBnB by linking here to their listing.
This year our August vacation was to Northwest Montana. Our visit would include the towns of Missoula, Whitefish and Columbia Falls, touring Glacier National Park, the Bitterroot Mountain area and the Bison National Range.
Kathie and I met up with our daughter Jen, who flew in from DC. So this was a family vacation and during the week we celebrated both Kathie and Jen’s birthdays.
Our visit was during the first 2-weeks of August. The weather was good overall, albiet hot during the days (mid 90’s). At the very end of our visit there were some severe thunderstorms, but these didn’t interupt our plans in any significant way.
This “Part 1” blog will focus on our visit to the Missoula area. A “Part 2” will continue with our visit to Glacier National Park and the surrounding areas.
Arriving in Missoula, we spent the first weekend there. Missoula is a fun town, home to the University of Montana. We explored the Saturday Street Market and Farmer’s Market, which were very popular and lively.
The Missoula downtown has some interesting late 19th – early 20th Century building architecture, great area for walking and exploring.
Flying to Missoula
We flew United from Boston to Denver connecting with a United Express flight to Missoula, about a 2 hours flight from Denver. The window seat view flying into Missoula on a clear day is breathtaking as you follow the valley between mountains on final approach.
Walking around Missoula
Enjoying the street scenes and the riverfront area. This is Lewis and Clark country.
Saturday Morning Markets
Saturdays in Missoula feature an arts & crafts People’s Market on E. Pine St (closed to vehicle traffic) and a large Farmer’s Market on the riverfront next to Caras Park.
Food & Drink
Missoula offers plenty of food and drink options. There are many gourmet coffee shops and very good micro-breweries. The dining choices vary quite a bit from casual to upscale.
The Bayern Brewery was a real treat, serving excellent Bavarian style micro-brew beers and authentic German comfort food. The pilsner draft with a large, home made pretzel, bratwurst and warm German potato salad really hit the spot.
Our dinner choices included:
Plonk, a comfortable wine bar atmosphere featuring a wide selection of wines and a small plate menu ideal for sharing.
The Pearl Cafe, a French inspired menu with local ingredients. A very warm, cozy place and we had an excellent server, making it a very pleasant experience. My first Bison tenderloin experience, yum! Reservations are highly recommended.
On the site of Fort Missoula, originally established in the 1870’s during the Indian Wars. The fort served as a US Army training base during WW1, then a Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) camp in the 1930’s. During WW2 it was an Alien Detection Center housing Italian, German and Japanese foreign nationals and resident aliens.
Located outside Missoula, it was a few minutes from our hotel. Very interesting and informative, dedicated to the conservation of Elk herds. The exhibition area has life-like dioramas depicting Rocky Mountain wildlife in a natural habitat.
Garnet Ghost Town is about a 1-hour drive east of Missoula. The town is an abandoned gold mining site with preserved buildings and structures. There are volunteer guides on-site who provide historical information and stories.
When we started planning this year’s Christmas Market trip back in October, we were looking to visit somewhere new. Our daughter suggested that Vienna is a must-see Christmas Market, so we decided that would be a good choice. We didn’t want to limit the trip to Vienna, so with the help of our good friend Google, we saw that Zagreb’s Christmas Market was voted Europe’s best for three years running (that according to Croatia tourist website, anyway). We also viewed an number of VLOG’s from folks who visited Zagreb Christmas Market in recent years and these VLOG’s seemed to endorse Zagreb as a good choice. So we added Zagreb to the itinerary and what also helped with that choice is the fact that Zagreb is less than an hour plane trip from Vienna.
When we did our advanced planning, we booked round-trip air with Austrian Airlines and found a conveniently located hotel using Booking.com. Our hotel, the Palace Hotel, was about $300 for 3 nights, which seemed quite reasonable for a mid-city hotel. More about prices below.
After spending 5 days in Vienna, we flew to Zagreb on Monday December 3rd. Flight was on time, Zagreb airport was easy to navigate and we used Uber for the ride to the hotel. Our driver Boris spoke perfect English and he gave us lots of tips about foods to eat and things to do and see. The ride from the airport to downtown is about 16km (10 mi) and it took almost 30 min because of traffic. The Uber fare was $16, pretty cheap! By the way, Croatia does not use Euro’s, the local currency is the Kuna (HRK) and the exchange is about 6.5HRK to the dollar.
Welcome to Franjo Tuđman Airport Zagreb
I can’t say enough about our hotel choice. The Palace Hotel is a classic hotel in a Art Nouveau palace dating from 1891. The location is perfect, right across the street from Park Josipa Jurja Strossmayera and Park Zrinjevac, two of the Christmas Market venues and a 4-block walk to Ban Josip Jelačić square, the main Christmas Market and shopping area.
Our hotel room was ideal, large and roomy (for European standards) and my biggest measure of a hotel room is the size of the bathroom and shower, this one was spot on. Plenty of room in the shower and strong water pressure. Our room rate included breakfast and the breakfast buffet was huge. Plenty of hot and cold selections, fresh fruits, bread and pastries, it was an excellent spread.
The hotel Cafe/bar was a very comfortable space with elegant woodwork, high ceilings and cozy Christmas decorations. It was on the ground floor with large windows facing the park with stunning views of the Christmas Market lights and activities. We would have a glass of wine or cognac and the cost was less than $5.00 per glass!
The hotel had a health and wellness spa and I made an appointment for a one hour massage. That was very relaxing and the cost was equivalent to $38, quite a bit less than what we pay at home.
Getting Around Zagreb
The convenient location of our hotel made it easy to explore the city and Christmas Markets. Everything was within walking distance. Our first morning in Zagreb, we decided to take the Hop-on, Hop-off bus service. This gave us a good overview of the city, plus the audio narration provided some history and context.
We walked to the upper city, some steep roads and stairs to overcome, but we made it. We ended up taking the funicular back down to the lower city, didn’t plan that very well, would have been better going up on the funicular and walking down, let gravity be our friend!
Zagreb has an extensive street tram system, but we didn’t use the trams. There was also a Christmas tram that toured the sights and Santa was the conductor.
Ban Josip Jelačić Square
Zagreb Christmas Markets
The Zagreb Christmas Market is a bit different than what we saw in Vienna or from our previous trips to Germany, France and Switzerland. The vendor booths or stalls are different, all were white, in contrast to the German style which are chalet-like, dark wood. Another big difference is that the vast majority of vendor stalls were selling food and drinks. Not many crafts, clothing or other seasonal items like in Germany or Austria.
It seems that Zagreb is a party city, lots of people, many young adults, out for drinks and food. But there are also families, young and old. Everywhere you went, there was music playing, some Christmas music, as well as pop and rock. The main venues like Ban Josip Jelačić square had stages and bandstands set up where there was always some live entertainment, like local youth choirs, folk groups, traditional and contemporary musicians and artists. The Christmas Market scene in Zagreb is very lively, lots of energy.
Some general impressions and observations about Zagreb and Croatia.
Croatia is very affordable, the US dollar goes a long way. When dining out, even at a more upscale restaurant, we never paid more than $50 for the two of us, that incudes the drinks.
The people are very friendly, most speak good English.
Zagreb seems very safe, we did not feel uncomfortable or threatened even when walking around at night.
There are many smokers in Zagreb. It seems that smoking is very popular with younger people.
Overall, we really liked Zagreb and we look forward to visiting other parts of Croatia in 2020 when we do a Mediterranean cruise.
Our side trip to Bratislava was a last minute addition to our Christmas Market tour itinerary. After some online research we found that the train to Bratislava was a little over an hour from Vienna and the trains ran every hour. So off we went to Vienna’s main, bustling train station, Wien Hauptbahnhof. Our round-trip fare was very reasonable about EU10.00 each and it was open seating. We arrived at the main station in Bratislava around 1:30pm and took a street Tram into the city center. Our train ticket also covered city Tram and bus service in Bratislava, so this was a great deal. Train travel and public transportation in general in Europe are very convenient and the trains are comfortable and usually on time.
Bratislava is a quaint, charming small city. It had snowed the night before, a light (maybe 1-2 inches) covering on the roof tops added to the Christmas atmoshere. We left the tram at the city center but we didn’t know where to find the Christmas Market, so when in doubt, follow the crowd. The market was a couple of blocks from the city center at the city hall plaza complex.
The Bratislava Christmas Market was small but very festive, mostly locals attending, although we did see a couple of walking tour groups from nearby Danube river cruise boats. It was a fun Christmas Market, we sampled some of the local food like the palacinka, a crepe like treat with a sweet hazelnut filling. The pozsonyi kifli, or crescent shaped pastries, were delicious. These tasted like shortbread but had a center filling of nuts and spices. And yes, we did try the local version of Gluhwein, called Cierny Medved, or “black bear” which is a black currant mulled wine.
We stayed in Bratislava until after dark and were able to get the 7:30PM train back to Vienna. A fun day at a charming town and Christmas Market.
Enjoy a video recap of our “Saturday Afternoon in Bratislava”