Sat, 24 Mar 2007

Digital SLR Camera

Astute readers of my blog will notice that my flickr image sidebar has some new photos in it.

This is because I recently invested in a digital SLR (a Canon Rebel XTI aka EOS 400D).

My favorite, by (and so) far, is this photo of a plum blossom in my back yard, followed by another shot of the same tree.

My friend Rus was instrumental in helping with my choice of camera. Initially I was lured by the relatively less expensive Olympus EVOLT E-500 particularly because it came with two lenses (or glass, as it is called) in the starter kit instead of one.

Rus made some very salient points in a way that really resonated with me, and they are compelling enough that I think anyone considering a Digital SLR (or film SLR for that matter) would benefit from it:
Get the best camera body that your budget will allow. Use the stock lens(es) until you have budget to buy better and go from there.
And if I was left with any shred of doubt about whether or not I was getting "more for my money" by getting a zoom lens with the Olympus kit vs. the Canon, he helped eliminate that doubt too:
Spread out over the decade (or more) that you use this camera, the difference in price is insignificant. In the future, you will regret not spending ... whatever nominal difference ... for the Canon.
This is, in general, good advice for nearly any durable good. In any case, here's the entire set of my favorites in the past week I've owned the camera.

Tue, 20 Mar 2007

European Excursions

As promised, here is some more information about the excursions we'll be taking on the cruise, and what I'm most looking forward to in each one.

Gothic Quarter City Walk... Barcelona was recently listed in Travelocity's top 10 destinations for epicurians, and I suspect one of the reasons this is so is the variety of excellent tapas served along las Ramblas.
Sights of Palermo... I've never been to Sicily, and I suspect that the highlight of this visit isn't the excursion but the combination of beautiful beaches only minutes away from ruins and monuments from civilizations thousands of years old.
Pompeii, Sorrento, and Capri... Without a doubt, I'm looking forward to Pompeii. The volcanic eruption essentially captured this city in time and preserved it for the ages. I've walked along ruins in some of the world's oldest cities (the Hittite capital of Hattusas, for example, some 4,000 years old), and some of the best-preserved (the amphitheater in Aspendos) but I doubt any other site will be able to reach as deeply on both historic interest and quality of preservation.
La Cinta Beach... This will probably be the beach highlight of our trip. I suspect not a lot of people make their way to Sardinia since it is, after all, an out-of-the-way island.
Jumping Back To Eternal Rome... I've never visited Rome as an adult, and am looking forward to a full day of sights and spectacles, including Vatican City. If I see the Pope, maybe I can get him to autograph my Flying Spaghetti Monster t-shirt :-).
Florence and Pisa... What else can I say. Florence is a testament to what patronage of the arts can do for a city, and Pisa is a similar testament to what poor engineering surveying can do for your tourism.
Marseille City Tour... The central attraction here for me is the Chateau d'If, of Alexander Dumas fame.
Scenic French Riviera... If anything is the LA of Europe, this is it. Cannes is Hollywood, Monaco is Beverly Hills, and Nice is Long Beach.

My next installment will cover some of our travel preparations...

Mon, 19 Mar 2007

European Vacation, Part Deux

Last time, dear readers, I left you in suspense over the train ride and the cruise. Before I come to that, however, my favorite chef, Alton Brown, brags that his kitchen contains only one unitasker (the fire extinguisher)... everything else fulfills at least two purposes.

I think, to whatever extent possible, this mantra should also be applied to travel. In my previous post, I talked about how we booked an "open-jaw" flight, which allows you to cover twice the terrain that you ordinarily would be able to if you had to return to the original port with a standard round trip ticket. Flexible travel while imposing a plan upon you to find your way from point A to point B to point C, rather than just point A to B and back again-- a classic travel multitasker.

And when you consider that the biggest bulk of nearly any travel budget are the transportation and lodging costs (as well as the bulk of the time you spend while vacationing), if you can combine these, you end up getting the most out of your time. Consider that a transatlantic flight (from the West coast) can take from 16-20 hours each way. On a two week trip, that's nearly 15% of your total time budget spent on a plane and various airports. Whatever is left over, assuming you get 8 hours of sleep a night (and that you never travel from destination to destination while sleeping), you're looking at ~50% of your vacation as non-productive downtime.

This is, of course, another reason why I think cruises make a ton of sense. Let me count the ways:
  1. It's simple (you book the itinerary, and just show up at the boat)
  2. It's predictable (they are more predictable than a German train conductor)
  3. It's cost-constrained (no surprise or unexpected costs-- outside of booze or other luxuries, most cruise services onboard are complimentary)
  4. It's home away from home (you only unpack and pack once during your trip)
  5. It's dependable lodging (no surprises when it comes to lodging compared to a hotel/motel you've never been to)
  6. It's guaranteed comfort (from a movie theater, to gourmet food, spa treatments, and access to a pool, time spent on the boat is relaxing)
  7. It's practical (while you're sleeping, the captain escorts you from point a to point b)
To wit, it would take an experienced traveller several days, if not weeks, to put together a trip commencing at Barcelona, and stopping off at places like Sicily, Naples, Sardinia, Rome, Florence/Pisa, Marseille, Cannes/Nice/Monte Carlo and back to Barcelona in ten days. You have to figure out how you'll get there, how long it will take, where you'll stay when you're there, how much it will cost, and whether the adventure of getting from point a to point b will sap your energy so much that you'll just want to crash at your motel when you do. When you consider that we're paying ~$3600 per person for the cruise itself, that's about $360/day which covers basically the transportation + lodging + up to 3 meals a day + entertainment on a 9 city mediterranean tour.

Consider the trip Christine, Richard and I took to Turkey in 1998. We ended up in Istanbul in a hotel room that was, to be kind, two stars, but cost $120/night. There were bugs in the beds cots (sweeping them to the floor was sufficient for a decent night's sleep but not very comforting to see), and when we ate at an unfortunate choice of a restaurant, we got sick with a bacterial intestinal infection. Now, to be fair, you can get sick on a cruise, and if you want to sample authentic local food, you're always taking a risk, but knowing you can come back to predictably clean rooms and clean hygenic food provides peace of mind. Then, the flight from Istanbul to Marmaris was $300/person, plus the $100, 3-hour cab ride from Dalaman to Marmaris... It's easy to see how transportation + lodging can cost easily $500+/day.

Meanwhile, a cruise, more frequently than every other day or so, allows you to just wake up, enjoy a buffet breakfast, and hop off the boat to the destination du jour in a completely different city or country.

Which allows me to backtrack and explain how we chose to travel from Paris to Barcelona. If you so choose, you can allow Disney to book your airline travel on your behalf. The average traveler who picks this option will probably be given a flight from their home city to some western european airport (via an east coast US airport, or if they're lucky, direct) which then has a connecting flight to the Barcelona airport. They will be given a transfer voucher from the Barcelona airport to the Barcelona cruise terminal, where they'll board the boat, until they disembark, and reverse the trip.

Instead, we obviously picked to fly into said western European airport, but to stick around a day or two and give us time to enjoy that particular city (gay Paris, in our case). But rather than stay (and incur the cost of) two nights, three days in Paris, plus a flight to Barcelona, we decided instead to stay one night at a hotel, enjoy two days in and around Paris, and then combine the second night stay with an overnight train to Barcelona.

This is brilliant (and I have to give Christine the credit for finding and booking it!) because for the cost of another night's hotel stay in Paris, we effectively get
  • (obviously) transportation from Paris to Barcelona,
  • a place to stay for the night,
  • and making effective use of the time we're asleep.
But lest you think we'll be sitting in uncomfortable seats or in some kind of open rack bunk, this is more like the "Bond, James Bond" cabin in "The Spy Who Loved Me" --sans the shiny toothed Richard Kiel (aka "Jaws"), one hopes-- where accomodations include a cabin, with a decent sized bed, sink, and many cabins have toilets and showers (although these were sold out so we'll have to make do with a private sink and communal toilet) for $154/person (double occupancy).

While I'm under no illusion that the train will be nearly as comfortable as the cruise cabin, it's beginning to appear that the only tedious part of our travel is likely to consist of the transatlantic flight to Europe and back again, which is how it should be. My next installment will talk about our excursions and our travel preparations.

Wed, 07 Mar 2007

European Vacation

Well the final details of our Disney Cruise are finally coming together.

The cruise departs and returns to Barcelona, and given that there are no direct flights to Barcelona from Seattle, we had a few choices of which airports for our arriving and departing flights.

A technique I like to use when travelling is to take advantage of open-jaw itineraries. The idea is that you can fly into one airport, and fly out of a different one, avoiding any kind of backtracking to places you've already been, and giving you the logistical ability to cover twice the geography in the same amount of time.

The flights don't cost much more than round trip, particularly if you know how to use sites like Expedia or Orbitz and their "multiple cities" features. You simply say you want to fly, say, from SEA to ORY, and then from MAD to SEA. Then it's up to you to figure out how you're going to get from Paris to Madrid along the way. The cost basically works out to (Round Trip tickets to City A + Round Trip tickets to City B) / 2.

A quick summary of our trip:

Day 1
9:00am - Notre-Dame and Sainte-Chapelle.
11:30am - Metro to the Arc de Triomphe.
12:00pm - Walk down the Champs-Élysées and through the Jardins du Tuileries.
1:30pm - Tour the Louvre.
7:00pm - Dinner along the Seine.
8:00pm - Metro to the Trocadéro, and a stroll to La Tour Eiffel
9:00pm - Metro to the hotel overnight.

Day 2
The following day we're off to Disneyland Paris (what, you didn't think I'd make it to within 20 miles of Monsieur Mickey without saying "Bonjour"?!). We'll spend the entire day here and at Walt Disney Studios Park and the Disney Village. Later that evening, we board a night train for Barcelona.

Day 3
This is the day our cruise departs, but the night train drops us off nice and early for the opportunity to walk around the city. We have about eight hours by ourselves before we need to board the boat, so we'll stroll along the Placa de Catalunya near Les Rambles, before exploring the Gothic Quarter and its cathedral, the Museu Picasso, and Gaudi's Sagrada Familia. Next, we'll stroll to the Montjuïc, overlooking the port where I'm hoping we'll be able to get a glimpse of The Disney Magic, which we were last aboard in October 2005 on our Western-turned-Eastern Carribean cruise (thanks to Hurricane Wilma). For lunch we'll hit a Tapas bar, and retreat to the boat later that evening. (But not before picking up my own authentic embroidered Barça jersey)

Day 4 - Day 12
The rest of the itinerary is the cruise itinerary. Thursday is a day at sea, Friday we're in Sicily (Palermo), Saturday in Napoli, Pompeii, Sorento and Capri, Sunday in Sardinia, Monday in and around Rome, Tuesday in Florence and Pisa, Wednesday in Marseille, Thursday in Cannes and Nice, Friday at Sea, and Saturday back in Barcelona where we board a train for Madrid.

Day 13
We spend most of the day in Madrid, taking in la Plaza Mayor and the Museo del Prado before boarding our afternoon flight to return home.

I'll blog more about the train ride from Paris and the cruise itself a bit later.

Name/Blog: Jason
Title: I'm Jealous
Comment/Excerpt: I want to go too!!! ;-)

Khan Klatt

Khan Klatt's photo