Airbnb Pro Tips

Airbnb Pro Tips

Airbnb searchSeveral people have asked me recently for tips on staying at Airbnb homes, which by now I think we’re quite pros at doing! Realizing that this might be of interest to more people, I decided to write a post about it 🙂

Looking at our Airbnb profile and list of “trips”, I see that since March 2010 when we joined, we’ve stayed in 50 places in 8 countries, and by far most of them have been since we began our nomad lifestyle in October 2015. Among those, there have only been a couple that I really wouldn’t recommend… most have been great, and there have been a number of real gems!

Generally speaking, we almost always use Airbnb if we’re not staying with friends or house sitting. Not only are they often less expensive than a hotel in the same area, but we often stay for a week or more, so we want a kitchen and room to spread out.

The key to finding a good Airbnb is to use the filters on the site, and read through the reviews. For our searches, I always filter on: Entire place (as opposed to a private room or shared space), kitchen, wifi, and 1 actual bedroom (since I usually wake up earlier than Al). For longer stays, I also filter for a washing machine, and if we happen to have a car, I check for parking availability, especially important in cities.

I normally use the map view on Airbnb in conjunction with Google Maps to find homes in the location I want, and then I look at prices. If we’re staying long, we try to find something within walking distance of groceries, and better yet, also restaurants and coffee shops! Also, if we’re staying longer than a couple days – which is usually the case, unless we’re just traveling between stops – I look for weekly or monthly discounts, which can really help us stay within our housing budget.

There’s quite a variety in how the hosts manage their property. Sometimes we have to make arrangements to meet someone to be let in, but often there’s a lockbox, or better yet a keypad lock on the door (that’s what we installed when we rented our own home out while we waited for it to sell). Some hosts have a property manager as they’re not in the area (this is what we had done ourselves), sometimes the host is staying nearby, and sometimes the Airbnb is a separate portion of the property where the host lives. (And some are just a room in their house, though as I mentioned, we don’t normally choose those – though we have done so a couple of times).

Some places are quite sparse as to furnishings and supplies, and some are more like actual B&Bs. We’ve had everything from no salt in the kitchen, to a fully stocked fridge and bottle of wine. Those are things that often don’t show up in the property description, but sometimes people note them in the reviews (and I usually do so if it’s above average). We also really appreciate it when hosts leave a paper or folder with instructions for things and recommendations for local food and points of interest – that’s so helpful!

A couple of times we’ve had to alter our plans – change an arrival or leaving date – and that may or may not be possible depending on the host’s other plans or guests. It’s just something you need to consider which is different from staying at a hotel.

We also look carefully at all of the photos – of course the host tries to show the most flattering angles, but it’s good to look closely to see whether the rooms are laid out as they sound like in the description. For example, is the “kitchen” just a bit of countertop and a toaster oven? Is there a sofa or at least two comfy chairs, not just beds and wooden chairs? And sometimes location wins out over looks… I just booked one in Stockholm for early September which looks kind of small and cramped, but it’s right in the middle of the Old Town, and was a reasonable price in an expensive city (and it had good reviews). And it was only for 6 days – we’ve decided we can put up with just about anything for a week!

And finally, make sure to be a good guest: communicate with your host (if we’re not actually meeting the host to check in, I always send a message when we’ve arrived, and when we leave), and post a review after your stay! If you have problems during the stay, let the host know via the Airbnb messaging service – almost all the hosts we’ve encountered have been quite responsive.

Sometimes Airbnbs can be… quirky. But if you’re happy to make that part of the adventure, then we highly recommend it!!

PS – Here are some of the Airbnbs we’ve liked the most, in case you happen to be going to any of these places…

Driftwood EcoToursDriftwood Retreat in Blenheim NZ (December 2013), where the host arranged a winery tour and also led us on a kayak tour right from the house.

 

 

Loft in Cape Town2-story loft in Cape Town, South Africa (October 2016 – Sandy only), with a stunning view of the mountains. It was only 2 nights, but such an impressive place (and VERY inexpensive in US dollars).

 

 

Arcata bungalowBungalow in Arcata CA (December 2016), a cozy little house for a month’s stay, within walking distance of everything. The hosts were great, and we stayed at another of their properties this past winter.

 

 

 

Zagreb flatQuiet flat in Zagreb Croatia (July 2017) – we were only here one night, but were very sorry it wasn’t a lot longer. Next time we’re in Zagreb (and there will be a next time), this is where we’ll be…

 

 

Dovecote Sept 2017Renovated dovecote in Letcombe Regis, England (September 2017), a beautiful space, wonderful hosts in the manor house this belongs to (we didn’t need to buy any food for two days!), and very near the Ridgeway walking trail.

 

 

 

 

Mt Pleasant house July 2018Large home in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington DC (July 2018). This was perfect for our extended family to spend time together in, a nice quiet neighborhood within walking distance of the National Zoo and also lots of restaurants.

2017 in review

2017 in review

Ah, another year of travel and experiences, and only a few blog posts to show for it… sigh. Well, at least we’ll do another recap, so we know something actually did happen! (See here for the recap from 2016.) We do post a lot on Facebook, but just on our personal pages. Will try to do better in 2018…

Anyway, here’s this year’s Google map:

Or not. Grr, Google’s timeline feature has apparently changed since last winter, and now if I specify only 2017, it shows me “Trips” rather than all the places visited. And for some reason it only starts in mid-August. If I view ALL places visited (presumably since I began using this Google account on my phone), then I can see the places earlier in the year, but if I specify a year it only begins in August. I also use Swarm to check into places, but the map there is also “all-time”, and can’t show only 2017 (as far as I can tell). Guess I’ll have to create something myself!

… A week later…

So I took all the Google timeline data and put it into a spreadsheet, so here’s Al & Sandy’s 2017 in facts and figures:

Countries/States visited, shown by the number of days we spent there:

(Ireland and Texas were only me, for SharePoint events.) (Georgia the US state, not the country.) We also passed through Washington DC, North Carolina, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Slovenia, Austria, Iceland, and Minnesota in transit only.

Cities and towns we visited (more than just passing through) or stayed in at least one night (in chronological order): Arcata CA, San Juan PR, Vieques PR, Naples FL, Rincon GA, Siesta Key FL, Philadelphia PA, Cranberry Twp PA, Austin TX, Bradford PA, Ambridge PA, Columbia MD, Copenhagen, Gedser (Denmark), Bad Oldesloe (Germany), Grossenkneten (Germany), Hannover, Split (Croatia), Komiza (on Island Vis, Croatia), Zagreb, Plitvicke Lakes (Croatia), Bremen, Hamburg, Rostock, LĂĽbeck, Berlin, Cambridge, Crick (England), Higham Ferrers (England), Stanwick (England), West Haddon (England), Oxford, Letcombe Regis (England), Avebury, Bristol, Bath, Perrysville PA, McKinleyville CA.

We stayed in 16 Airbnbs, 7 homes of friends and family (we keep warning people we’ll land on their doorsteps some day!), 9 hotels, 1 real estate rental, 1 condo, 3 house-sitting homes (caring for a total of 5 cats and 2 dogs), 2 guest houses, 2 pubs, and 1 B&B.

It’s no wonder we sometimes wake up unsure of where we are 🙂

We used a lot of different modes of transportation…

  • We traveled 17,400 miles by air together, and I did another 12,660 with my trips to Austin and Dublin. We flew on United, American, Southwest, Norwegian, Germanwings, Ryanair, WOW, Delta, and Aer Lingus. Not much particular loyalty here, I’m afraid, as we go for the best deal – but then don’t get much in the way of award miles.
  • We drove or were driven 7,300 miles by private car. We rented cars in Florida, England, and California, borrowed my sister’s car in Germany, and borrowed my car back in Pennsylvania.
  • We rode 2,700 miles by train, mainly in Germany (including a long trip by train from Zagreb, Croatia, to northern Germany). And 1,300 miles by bus, mainly from San Francisco to Arcata
  • We walked or hiked 460 miles.
  • We took Ubers or cabs for 142 miles, mainly in Puerto Rico.
  • And in addition: 196 miles on ferries, 78 miles by bike (in Germany), 57 miles by subway, 42 miles by boat (around Island Vis), 28 miles by sailboat (in Naples FL), and a couple miles by kayak (on Vis).

… For a grand total of 42,450 miles traveled in 2017.

Here’s a quick recap by month:

January – Flew from California to Puerto Rico for SharePoint Saturday Caribbean (which I spoke at and helped a bit with organization), and spent 3 weeks seeing San Juan and the island of Vieques – beautiful!! We got to liking the island life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

February – Flew from Puerto Rico to Miami and drove to Naples, where I did some consulting work for about 5 weeks. And got to visit with my sister a lot! That’s where the sailboat came in.

 

 

 

March – Drove up to visit my sister near Savannah for a few days, hosted our son and his wife in Naples for a few days, and visited our daughter and her husband (and baby) when they came to Sarasota for a funeral. Flew to Philadelphia, stayed with our son one night, and drove my little Fiat back to Pittsburgh. Hung out in Cranberry Township PA (near Pittsburgh) the rest of the month waiting to hear about a consulting job for Al. We did blog about some of this, here.

April – I went to Austin for SPTechCon, while Al drove to Bradford PA for field work on his project – I joined him there after a week, and we were there for about 2 weeks. We got in some hiking up there in the northern woods of Pennsylvania. Drove to Ambridge, PA and stayed there for a couple weeks while Al wrapped up his project at the office.

May – We moved a few miles to Cranberry Twp, and were joined by our daughter and granddaughter for a week there before driving us all to Philadelphia for our son’s law school graduation. Stayed in Philadelphia for a couple weeks – and I drove down to Columbia, MD to speak at SharePoint Saturday Baltimore in there. Took trains to JFK and flew to Copenhagen (and actually blogged about it). Spent one night in Copenhagen (see this blog post), and 2 nights in a little Airbnb on the southern Danish coast. Took a ferry to Rostock, and trains to my sister’s house in Bad Oldesloe (near Hamburg).

June – Took trains to our very first house-sitting gig, in Grossenkneten, in rural northwestern Germany. Spent all of June tending their yard and garden while they were on holiday.

July – Flew to Croatia for 2 weeks. Flew into Split, took a ferry to Vis for a week. We’ve never seen such beautiful clear water. Back to Split, train to Zagreb, and a bus to Plivicke Lakes (photo), which were stunning. Hiked around there for a few days, bus back to Zagreb, and train back to my sister’s house.

August – Stayed at my sister’s house and cared for her cat for 4 weeks while she and her daughters made their annual visit to Pittsburgh. During that time I took trains to SharePoint user group meetings in Bremen and in Hannover, and we took day trips to LĂĽbeck, Hamburg, and Rostock, and a weekend trip to Berlin. Also, I began working again with Lightning Tools, this time as Global Partner Manager, which I’m very happy about!

September – Flew into Stansted airport, and rented a little white Fiat 500 like mine. Spent a couple days in Cambridge, then several days in Crick so I could go into the Lightning Tools office, then a week watching 3 cats in Stanwick. During that time I drove into Cambridge for a day to speak at the SharePoint Saturday there. Then I popped into the office another day, and then we drove down to the North Wessex Downs (stopping in Oxford for a tour), and spent a couple nights in a former manor house dovecote. Hiked a bit of the Ridgeway trail, which was very cool (photo). Drove to a friend’s house just outside of Bristol for a weekend visit, stopping at Avebury on the way to see the ancient stones(also very cool). Spent a day in Bath before flying back to Pittsburgh to a 3-week house-sitting gig for a friend of a friend, while we did some visiting with my mom.

October – Still house-sitting, and then moved to a suites hotel in Cranberry for a week, before flying out to California toward the end of the month. Got to babysit our granddaughter for 4 days!

November/December – We stayed at 2 different Airbnbs in Arcata, each for a month, while driving back and forth to visit with our daughter pretty often. In November, I flew to Dublin for the European SharePoint Conference, which was a long trip, but a good one. Our granddaughter turned one year old, we took some hikes, had Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts, and enjoyed the mild weather.

Overall, another very good year!

A night in Copenhagen

A night in Copenhagen

When last we saw our intrepid travelers, they had just landed in Copenhagen after a 34-hour journey from Philadelphia. Upon entering the country through passport control, we had to explain that although we would be in Europe through the end of August, we were leaving the Schengen area for a couple weeks in July so as not to overstay our allotted 90 days. After collecting our bags and getting 500 Danish kroner (about $85) from an ATM, we next needed to get into the city. Luckily, there was a very helpful person standing near the train ticket kiosks, who helped us choose the correct train and ticket. In fact, we found that to be the case at the train station later as well – some sort of assistant staff (who spoke some English) to help clueless travelers figure out what to do.

Tivoli

I had booked an Airbnb flat in the old part of the city for one night (mainly because only one night was available), so we took the train all the way to the main train station. The famous Tivoli Gardens amusement park is right outside the train station. We had visited it once before, years ago, when we took a brief trip from Germany to Copenhagen with the kids.

Bikes parked outside the train station

 

 

We were struck immediately (again) by the number of bicycles in use here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beautiful stairway to the flat

We only needed to walk about half a mile to our flat, which was on the 3rd floor of an old building right on the main pedestrian street, Strøget. There was a small lift, but only one person could use it at a time, so other than taking Al’s roller bag upstairs, we used the stairs instead the rest of the time. Absolutely gorgeous 2-bedroom apartment… it was a shame we weren’t there long enough to even use the kitchen, dining room, or balcony.

Airbnb on Strøget

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After a brief rest and some client work on my part, we went outside to take a walk and find some food, since we actually hadn’t eaten anything but a few snacks since leaving New York the night before. Strøget is a very cool street, lined with shops and filled with stylish Danes. I love the beautiful buildings with their dormer windows, turret corners, and curlicue facades… Below are some photos from our walk before dinner of salmon on rye bread (quite typically Danish) in the Højbro Plads (plaza).

After dinner, we were pretty much ready to pass out for the evening, but as it happened, we’d arrived on the day before the Ascension Day holiday (unbeknownst to us), and it was apparently due to the Thursday being the beginning of a long weekend that there was loud music, fireworks, and general merriment going on in the street until nearly sunrise (4am). Yikes.

After sleeping a few hours, we went out around 8am to grab some breakfast at one of the many coffee shops we’d seen the evening before. But none were open, or not open yet anyway, apparently because it was the holiday (which we still didn’t realize). But we finally found one that was open, and how lucky we were that we hadn’t been able to stop at some chain coffee shop! CafĂ© Norden is a wonderfully elegant cafĂ© with delicious coffee and an outstanding menu. Al had the standard Danish rye bread (our new favorite bread), with egg, avocado, and pea shoots. I was intrigued by the sounds of øllebrød (ale bread), which turned out to be a huge bowl of porridge made mainly of whole rye, with the ale making it kind of sour, or perhaps the whole thing was fermented. At any rate, it was served with a large pot of whipped cream as well as milk and sugar, and was garnished with sorrel leaves. It was actually pretty tasty, especially when doctored up with the cream and sugar, but I couldn’t finish the whole large bowl. And of course we had coffees, very very good ones.

There was an elderly gentleman in the corner window seat who kept asking us things in Danish and then laughing loudly, but unfortunately we couldn’t understand him at all. Eventually, the waitress asked him to move along, as he was disrupting other customers as well, and he wasn’t eating or drinking anything.

After breakfast, we took a longer route back to the flat, along a canal. More pretty buildings, and a statue of the legendary founder of Copenhagen around the year 1200, Archbishop Absalon.

When we got back, I needed to deploy a Salesforce customization for a client before US working hours. There was a little mixup about the check-out time for the Airbnb… I thought it was 11, but the cleaning lady came at 10 so we asked her to come back in a bit. But it turned out the check-out was 10, so I had to apologize to our host for detaining his cleaner an extra hour. Luckily, we hadn’t really used much of the apartment, so it shouldn’t have taken her long at all to clean. But still, I felt bad.

So then we walked to the train station, and with the help of friendly ticket staff again, bought tickets which included both train and bus, to take us to our next destination, Gedser. At this point, we were looking forward to what looked like a very quiet couple of days there…

2016 in review

2016 in review

We’ve had a pretty exciting and eventful year, full of lots of family, friends, hikes, and SharePoint events! Big highlights were welcoming our new (first) grandchild in California, and selling our house near Pittsburgh. [I started writing this post in early January 2017, but am finishing it in March, as we’re recently finding we’re having trouble remembering when we did what last year 🙂 ]

Here’s where we’ve been during 2016, mapped by Google, which scarily knows everything about us:

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And Sandy went to South Africa also:

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2016 Timeline

January

– Rang in the new year with Sandy’s sister and family in Bad Oldesloe Germany… lots of fireworks and a birthday dinner for our niece in a cool restaurant in LĂĽbeck.

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– Returned (via Amsterdam) to our winter lodgings in Husbands Bosworth, a village in the Midlands of England. Took a weekend trip to the Cotswolds.

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– Sandy helped out at the UK Community Day (dev edition) in London.

February

– Took a weekend trip to Cornwall with friends, including lovely tea and scones.

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– Flew to Austin TX for SPTechCon (SharePoint Technical Conference) with a colleague from Lightning Tools, where we worked at the LT vendor booth.

[This is where I stopped writing in January. We’ll come back later and add photos to the rest (maybe). Or, who knows, maybe we’ll actually write posts about places!]

– Drove to Houston, and spent about a week with friends. Al got to brew beer for the first time in a while!

– Sandy went to Bad Oldesloe, Germany (via Charlotte/Frankfurt, then by train via Hamburg to Bad Oldesloe) for a few weeks with her sister, while Al flew to Philadelphia to hang out with our son and his wife.

March

– Sandy flew via Oslo to JFK, then by train to Philadelphia to meet back up with Al. We borrowed back our little Fiat 500 (Bianca) from our son, and drove to Pittsburgh for a long weekend to leave our “winter in England” duffel bag and get some warm-weather clothes from our storage unit.

We posted a bit of a recap of the year to date here, with photos.

– Drove back to Philly, spent a few more days there, and flew via Denver to Santa Cruz CA. Spent 3 delicious months in perfect weather. Stayed some of the time with our daughter and her husband, and some of the time in a couple of Airbnbs. Got to see whales, waves, and woods.

April/May

– More of Santa Cruz. See our Live Oak post. For Mother’s Day, I (Sandy) got my first tattoo, a little wave symbol on my ankle, in honor of the Santa Cruz ocean waves 🙂

June

– Al flew to Pittsburgh for a funeral, while Sandy attended SharePoint Saturday Silicon Valley near San Jose. We met back up at SFO, and flew via Calgary to Manchester, England.

– Stayed at a cool Airbnb apartment in Nottingham for about a week, where Sandy gave a presentation about Yammer at a UK Community Day event.

– Flew from Manchester via Munich to Hamburg to spend some more time with Sandy’s sister in Bad Oldesloe.

July

– Flew from Germany via back to England, and celebrated American Independence Day in Rugby 🙂 Rented a cute Fiat 500 for the month, almost like driving Bianca again, but on the wrong side of the road 🙂

– Worked in the LT office for 4 weeks, living 2 weeks in a hotel in Rugby, and 2 weeks in an Airbnb terrace house in Northampton.

The grand plan at that point was to find a house sitting job or two somewhere in the UK or Europe after that, staying on that side of the pond until it was time to go to South Africa in early October. But at the end of July, our house in Ellwood City finally sold after over a year on the market! So we had to quickly fly back to Pittsburgh (via Paris) to take care of divesting of the remainder of our furniture and stuff (which we had left at the house for our Airbnb guests). We had about 10 days to do that before the closing. I’ll try to write about that, because it was an exhausting but relief-filled time.

August

– In addition to clearing out our house, Sandy gave a presentation on PowerApps and Flow at SharePoint Saturday Pittsburgh.

– After the house closing, we decided to hang out in the city of Pittsburgh for the rest of August, partly because my sister and her daughters were on their summer visit to Pittsburgh from Germany, and partly because we’d never actually lived IN the city. We spent some time at a brand new apartment in the Strip District, and some time in a big old house on Observatory Hill – both pretty cool stays in different ways.

– Spent a weekend camping in the woods with friends, which was sorely needed.

September

– Went to a big family picnic on Labor Day weekend, and then flew from Pittsburgh via Atlanta to Fort Myers FL to spend the month in Naples near another of my sisters. Stayed in two Airbnb condos, both very nice. Went sailing a couple of times, and spent time on the beach.

– Al took a short trip to Missouri, to have meetings about a project there.

October

– Al flew to Missouri to work on the above-mentioned project for a month. Sandy was already booked to speak at SharePoint events in South Africa during October, so she flew there via Toronto and London, with a one-day stop in the LT office.

– I (Sandy) posted about the SharePoint events in South Africa on my blog, but I’ll try to write something here as well about South Africa in general, which was gorgeous and very interesting.

-Al was working in northern Missouri doing some commissioning work for Dyno Nobel, but managed to spent time in Hannibal and various other Mississippi River towns.  Quite a lot of history there!

October 7 marked 1 year since we started this adventure! I toted up the stats, and noted on Facebook:

One year ago today, Al and I left home with our 2 pieces of luggage and a desire to see and experience life in different places. We’ve flown about 60,000 miles on 15 different airlines, visited 30+ cities in 7 countries and 5 US states, lived in 15+ apartments/houses, tried a couple hundred new beers, and literally walked 500 miles. Looking forward to what the coming year as nomads will bring!

November

– Sandy flew back from South Africa via Frankfurt and San Francisco, to McKinleyville CA (in the far northern part of California), and Al arrived from Missouri a few days later. Our granddaughter was born on November 5, and it was so special to be able to be there!

– We stayed at a cute “tiny house” Airbnb in the redwoods, and did lots of hiking. But mainly spent time getting to know our granddaughter! Had a nice Thanksgiving dinner with friends of our daughter and her husband.

I lost my job with Lightning Tools early in November, due to a downturn in business. I was pretty sad about that because I loved my job and the people there, but on the other hand it gave me time to do that hiking and granddaughter cuddling. We also did some volunteer work at the McKinleyville Family Resource Center’s food pantry.

December

– I had already planned to attend SPTechCon in San Francisco since I’d be within driving distance, so I went anyway, but now to network rather than work at the LT booth. We spent the weekend in the city in a cute place near Haight-Ashbury, and then had a great time with SharePoint friends at and outside of SPTechCon.

– After driving back from SF, our friends from Houston visited for a long weekend, which was lots of fun!

– Our son and his wife flew out from Philly, so we could all spend Christmas and New Year together, along with our new addition 🙂 We stayed at a nice little house in Arcata, a great little walkable town. Took some more hikes and drives in the woods and seashore.

 

And that was 2016! We’re still loving our lifestyle, and the flexibility to go places on short notice.

Live Oak

Live Oak

Mural on the grocery store

Mural on the grocery store

We’ve just left the Live Oak neighborhood of Santa Cruz, California, where we’ve lived for the past 5 weeks, staying some of the time with our daughter and her husband, and at an Airbnb for 15 days. It’s a nice little neighborhood, and over the time we were there we got a pretty good feel for the lay of the land and how the streets related to each other. You learn a lot about a small area when you don’t have a car…

Live Oak is on the Eastern side of Santa Cruz. It was a bit disorienting at first, imagining a city on the west coast of the US having an East End and a West End. But if you look at a map, Santa Cruz’ beaches actually face about due south, on the huge expanse of Monterey Bay.

Santa Cruz map

Live Oak Airbnb

Live Oak Airbnb

The Airbnb we stayed at was a beautifully renovated old farm house on Chanticleer Road, just a few blocks from our daughter’s house. It came with a cat (which thankfully it seems Al is no longer allergic to), and young chickens (which we spent a few nervous days worrying about when the owners were away and the chickens learned how to escape from their coop in the middle of the night). Mauruuru

 

 

We learned from some brochures we got at the Live Oak library that this area used to be chicken farms, back when Santa Cruz wasn’t a bedroom community for people working “over the hill” in Silicon Valley. Hence the name of one of the main north-south streets, Chanticleer. Most of the older homes in the area are little one-story bungalow sort of houses, with small front yards. There’s a serious drought still in California, and I think it’s generally dry anyway, so many of the gardens and yards feature rocks heavily (ha) as well as succulents and draught-resistant native plants. Yard1We’ve seen some really creative yards on our walks…

I was of course working all day every weekday, but I did now and then work from Coffeetopia (a terrific little coffee shop about a 10-minute walk away), or a couple of times we took a walk to lunch, to Ferrell’s Donuts (which actually had very good sourdough sandwiches, as well as great donuts – but fairly awful coffee) and once to Aloha Island Grille (where they have a menu of traditional Hawaiian food like spam and Kona beer).

Other things we could walk to and did:

Discretion Brewing:

Meyer Lemon and pork belly risotto, with a dark rye saison

Discretion: Meyer Lemon and pork belly risotto, with a dark rye saison

– pretty much our hands-down favorite. I think it’s considered to be in Soquel actually, but it was a 25-minute walk for us (though not a very nice walk), and we went there 3 or 4 times, so I’m counting it. They have a very nice line-up of beers brewed there, usually about 12 on tap. And really terrific food! The photo is from one of our dinners there, where they had live music and were hosting an organization that helps people pay for live-saving surgeries for their pets if they can’t afford it.

East Cliff Brewery – about a 20-minute walk down 17th toward the beach. This is a new brewery, only open about 6 weeks I think they said, so they’re just getting up to speed. Their idea is to brew English-style ales and serve them on cask. They did a pretty good job with that actually, say we who are just back from 4 months drinking in pubs. But I wish they could have also tried even just a little bit to have a pub-like atmosphere. At this point the food all comes from the burger place next door, not sure if they have plans for their own kitchen. But wow, you should click on the link to their website just to see some of the famous Santa Cruz surf!

Salsa’s Tacos: For dinner one night we walked about 20 minutes down 17th to Salsa’s, a tiny taco bar which I’d read had the best carne asada around. They were out of that, unfortunately (apparently because it’s so good), but I had a salmon taco and Al had a steak taco, which were quite tasty as well. They don’t server beer there, though, and the Mexican pop was way too sweet for my taste. Then for dessert we went across the street to Peoples Coffee, which was a pretty cool little place with good coffee and cookies.

Sunny Cove beachSunny Cove Beach – about a 25-minute walk down 17th. Just a little cove, really, but crowded with sunbathers on nice days. To get to the beach, there are steep little pathways carved into the hillside amongst the tree roots. And these flowers are one of my favorite plants here; they grow everywhere along the shore, in pinks and yellows, and remind me of vegetable scrubbers. I wish I knew what they’re called, so I can call them something in my mind other than scrub brushes, but haven’t yet found a good source of information on that. One Sunday morning we walked down, found only a fisherman there, and spent a good deal of time sitting on a rock watching the surf, always a pleasant pastime in Santa Cruz.Sunny Cove rocks

Keta and friendThe dog park: A dog park is something we’d never had in Ellwood City – I’m not sure if there is one there even now, maybe because it’s easy enough to find open spaces to let your dog loose in. There was a dog park very near our Airbnb home in Live Oak, and so I went a couple of times with our daughter and our “granddoggie”, Keta, so she (the dog) could burn off some energy. The top of the picnic table seemed to be a favorite spot (Keta’s on the right).

Capitola Mall: It had been a while since we’d been to an American shopping mall, never that high on my list of places to go anyway. But it was convenient to be able to walk 15 minutes to get a haircut, buy some shorts (Al) and yoga pants (me), hit up Starbucks, Yogurtland, Zizzo’s coffee, and Target or Trader Joe’s for groceries. The Verizon store there is also where I got my new phone when my year-old one fell out of my pocket into the Pacific Ocean shortly after arriving in Santa Cruz. NB: The trick of soaking a salt-water-drowned phone in isopropyl alcohol didn’t work, at least not in my case.

Transformer artArt: Santa Cruz has quite a vibrant art community, so there’s art nearly everywhere. See, for example, the Live Oak mural at the top of this page. Even the transformers around Live Oak were all painted whimsically…

All in all, we enjoyed our stay in the Live Oak neighborhood… It was quiet in the neighborhoods, with a nice mix of house styles and ages. And there were enough shops and eateries within walking distance to make it a convenient place to live as well.

Sorry for the lack of info…

So it’s now the end of March 2016 and we haven’t written anything new for quite a while.  Sorry about that, though we have both been posting to Facebook regularly so have not been totally quiet.  I’ll just summarize what’s been going on to date and maybe we’ll fill in details later.

Last posting was about Crick, where we first landed in the UK Midlands.  At the beginning of December 2015 we moved to a house in Husbands Bosworth. It used to be the village blacksmith shop many years ago, was fixed up quite nice and had a full kitchen.  It was nice having additional room and a different village to explore, but was a longer drive for Sandy to work.  We stayed there until we left the UK at the end of February.

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Not our house but best thatched roof in the village!

For the holidays, we went to visit Sandy’s sister in Germany.  Stayed for Christmas and New Years.  Very nice visit!  Hamburg shopping trip with the nieces, Christmas eve mass in a very old church in Lubeck, quite amazing fireworks for New Year’s Eve celebration, and nice walks around the moor.

We took several more trips in the UK. First we went to the Cotswold area where we stayed in a flat right on the local stream (the apartment used to be the village wash house) and enjoyed walking in the countryside and visiting some new pubs! We hiked some on the 100 mile Cotswold Way hiking trail, which eventually ends in Bath on the coast

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In February we went with friends to the Cornwall area for a long weekend.  This area is along the southwest coast.  It was very stormy during our visit, the waves coming into the harbor at Polperro were quite impressive and the winds were fierce at times.  Had a nice high English tea complete with scones and clotted cream in a little shop as we sheltered from the weather.  Yumm!  I’m thankful that Brett did the driving as some of the roads were so narrow there were cutouts for cars to pass.

Polperro Harbour

Polperro Harbour

Cornwall

Cornwall

We were surprised while having a bite at the Red Lion pub in Sibbertoft to discover the owner, Andrew, was a huge Steelers fan!  It was during the playoffs so we had a serious discussion about Big Ben and their chances for going very far.  Apparently Andrew doesn’t really like soccer and found American football back in the 70’s, liked the DEFENSE oriented Steelers and has been a fan ever since!

On February 21 we left the UK and traveled back to the US.  It was a direct flight from Heathrow to Austin, 11 hours! Sandy had a conference in Austin, TX so that’s where we ended up.  Nice to see some warm weather again.  Didn’t take me too long to get comfortable driving on the left side of the road again!  Austin was having their annual beard competition festival.  Interesting to see guys with things woven into their face hair (like cans of beer!) or plaited into a football facemask.  Very bizarre!

After the conference we drove down to Houston to visit some friends.  On the way we stopped at Bone Spirits Distillery.  What an interesting experience! Got a tour by the owner and did a sampling.  I found out I really like aged gin, especially in a martini!  We picked up some aged gin and oak-aged bourbon as house gifts.  Needless to say, they both went over very well.

In Houston we did some local sightseeing (Thanks for the Harley shop tour, Alan!) and enjoyed the nice weather.

Texas Drag Bike

Texas Drag Bike

I ended up going to Philadelphia to visit our son and his wife, Sandy went back to Germany for a couple weeks for a visit with her sister and nieces.  I enjoyed the time in Philly, it really does have a lot to offer (said grudgingly by someone who grew up on the other side of the state).  Touring the Yards brewery was fun, as were the Italian Market, GreensGrow, and the Schuylkill River trail. FB_IMG_1458417733168

Schuylkill Trail

Schuylkill Trail

I did try a Philly Cheesesteak from Carvers.  Very tasty.

Philly Cheesesteaks

Philly Cheesesteaks

Once Sandy got back from Germany we borrowed back our car , Bianca (2012 Fiat 500) which the kids had been using, and drove across state to Pittsburgh.  We wanted to take the opportunity to check on our house and say hello to some old friends while in town.  The house appeared to be in fairly good condition so we changed out some clothes from our storage locker, had some needed maintenance done on Bianca, made some surprise visits to a few friends (what fun that was!) and headed back to Philly.

Next stop….sunny Santa Cruz, CA and a visit with our daughter and her husband!

 

 

 

Cotswolds

Looking around for some hiking to do beyond the canal footpaths around our village, I came across the National Trail site. I was excited to learn the UK (well, specifically, England and Wales) has 15 National Trails, comprising about 2500 miles of scenic trekking. The nearest to us appeared to be the northern end of the Cotswold Way… so after researching the area, printing out some trail maps, and making an Airbnb reservation in the village of Blockley, we drove down there for a weekend.

The sidewalk (pavement) was above the street here - I loved the plants growing on the wall!

The sidewalk (pavement) was above the street here – I loved the plants growing on the wall!

We left home Saturday morning about 8:00, and had an uneventful drive around Rugby and down the Fosse Way, which according to the signs is apparently one of the more dangerous roads in England. It seems it’s less expensive to put up a High Risk Crash Route sign every few miles, than to improve the intersections and shoulders 🙂  Or, maybe they can’t improve the road because it’s an ancient Roman highway – I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. We were a little surprised (though I’m not sure why) to find that Blockley was wedged tightly in a valley, with very narrow streets we could barely fit the car through. It reminded me a bit of West Virginia, actually, but more picturesque.

Blockley AirbnbOur Airbnb was down a little footpath, not on a road at all, which was pretty cool. It was a beautifully decorated former (as in a couple hundred years old) wash house for the village, situated as it was directly on a small babbling stream. It was a little one-room cottage on the property of the hosts’ home – it was nice to sit in the window nook and watch (and listen to) the brook just outside.Blockley Airbnb brook

 

 

Footpath to Broad Campden

Footpath to Broad Campden

Since it was only around lunchtime, and we’d just eaten brunch at the coffeeshop/grocery/post office, we asked our host for a suggestion of a nearby walk we could take. He suggested a footpath cross-country from Blockley to Broad Campden, and happened to mention there was a good pub there, so that sealed the deal and decided us against getting back into the car to drive to a walk. I screenshotted the local footpath map onto my phone while we were on the cottage’s wifi – not much mobile data coverage in this area – and off we tramped. It was about 3 miles, mainly across fields, partly along the “Heart of England Way”. Heart of England Way

 

 

Here the track (such as it was) ran along the edge of a field, with nice vistas.

Here the track (such as it was) ran along the edge of a field, with nice vistas.

Wishing we had Wellies...

Wishing we had Wellies…

The ideal end to a hike!

The ideal end to a hike!

We got a little off track at a couple points, but eventually made it to the cozy Bakers Arms, where we had a few pints of local ale.

To be continued…

The Village of Crick

Crick_paths

This is from a website that has footpath maps

As we’ve mentioned previously, our first stay in the UK was in the village of Crick (note that here in the UK historically a city is defined as having a cathedral, a town if it only has a market, a village if it only has a church and shops, and a hamlet if only houses), whose name comes from the celtic word for hill, cruc, and is located on the Northamptonshire Heights (see the plaque). We arrived at the beginning of November and stayed through the 30th at the Low Thatched B&B in the efficiency flat. A nice lodging with access to washer and dryer, small kitchen, and roomy bathroom with shower.

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Plaque on top of Crack’s Hill

Crick is located near to the M1 motorway, has a bus line through it, is walking distance to the Grand Canal, and is about 20 minutes drive to downtown Rugby, the nearest town where there are major stores, shopping markets, and the train. That’s where we go for groceries. So we’re in the sticks here, lots of farms and fields outside town, but an industrial park over near the M1 and only a short drive to town. Further to the west of Rugby is Birmingham (in the top three biggest cities in England), a large city with airport, trains, big industry (coal) and of course a cathedral. It’s about an hour from Crick. North of Crick up the M1 is the smaller city of Leicester (for non-Brits, that’s pronounced like “Lester”), maybe 30 minutes drive. London is south about an hour ride on the train from Rugby.

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From the top of Crack’s Hill

In Crick there are three nice pubs, one of which, The Wheatsheaf, we frequented regularly. There is also a co-op food store, small and kind of expensive, post office, hairdresser, a few other shops, two churches and plenty of foot, bridle and bicycle paths for tramping, including the canal towpath.

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One of Crick’s churches. The wreaths and crosses are for Remembrance Day. Some of the tombstones are so old they are illegible.

 

The architecture is a mix of very old to quite modern. Thatched roofs alongside tile, quite often with solar cells or hot water panels on them.

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One of my favorite examples of thatching

 

One problem we had once we were able to borrow a car was parking it. Only street parking was available, and that sort of blocked one entire lane of the road. Believe me when I say these roads were none too wide to begin with before losing half a lane. Also people parked in either direction on that side to make it more interesting. So getting through could be a headache if, for instance, the garbage truck, local delivery van, or a bus was trying to get through as well. Sometimes “reversing” was required, or use of the sidewalk. We did have an incident where our “pavement” (sidewalk) side mirror was broken off. We assume someone staggered into it, I was able to get a used assembly and some matching spray paint to replace it. Not too hard a job even with only my multi-tool but irritating. We made sure to keep the mirrors pulled in whenever we parked after that.

We found the people of Crick to be very pleasant, especially our hosts at the B&B where we stayed. Seems Brits will readily engage in conversation with little pretext. We found ourselves telling our story quite often. In between job hunting while Sandy was hard at work during the day, I made several hikes mostly along the canal towpath with excursions to the top of Crack’s Hill, a high point in the area with good views. Since the canal winds near to several towns within walking distance I used it to visit other local towns like Yelvertolf, where there was a great little Italian deli, Squisitos, that would custom make sandwiches to order. With fresh espresso! Best I’ve had since Italy.

All in all, a pleasant stay for our intro to the Midlands. Next we’re off to a rental house in Husbands Bosworth!

Some canal pics.

First week in England

First week in England

Wow, we’ve been here over a week already! Time has flown, though in some other ways it feels like we’ve settled in enough that we’ve been here a while.

I’ve been going in to the Lightning Tools office each day, and am very much enjoying the new offices and the company of my colleagues. On Monday, I tried taking the bus, which seemed convenient on paper… It’s only a 5-minute walk from our flat to the #96 stop across from the Crick Post Office, and then I only had to go one stop (about 2 miles) to the first West Haddon stop, and then walk about a mile to the office. What I hadn’t realized is that it costs ÂŁ2.50 to go those 2 miles, and that there’s no sidewalk (oops, “pavement”) between the bus stop and the office – so I arrived at work with soaking wet sneakers and socks, from walking in the long dewy grass along the road for a mile. Luckily, I had nice dry socks in our “England box” (the suitcase we shipped here before we left for Germany), which was stored in the office. And then I was able to get a ride home with someone from the office, since I was lugging the suitcase.

Pretty, but very wet, and not really a path.

Pretty, but very wet, and not really a path.

On Tuesday, I wised up and took dress shoes and socks with me in a bag, since I decided to try another route: I saw on the ordinance maps that there’s a footpath that cuts off having to walk along the busy main road and cuts out some of the distance, so I thought the 2-mile walk wouldn’t be bad (i.e. not bother with the bus at all). What I hadn’t realized is that this footpath was far less traveled than the ones I’d walked on around Lutterworth in January – it cut across horse pastures with long wet grass, and fields planted with some sort of kale-ish vegetable, so that by the time I reached the country lane, my sneakers were caked with mud, and I was soaked up to my knees. But at least I had dry socks and shoes to change into before entering the office door. Very luckily for me, arrangements were made that day for us to be able to borrow a friend’s car for the time we’ll be here, so I’m extremely grateful for that. The alternative would have been for us to either rent a car, or find one to buy cheaply and resell later, as my plans to live within walking/transport distance of work just didn’t work out :-/

Vauxhall AstraWe’ve found, despite my wishful thinking (and yes, I had been warned, but I’m a stubborn sort), that in this area there really isn’t a way to get around without having a car, much like rural Pennsylvania. So anyway, now we have a car to use, and that means we can look for a different (i.e. larger, and less head-bumping) place to rent at the end of November, as well as go to larger shops and more-distant points of interest. And by the end of the week, I was feeling pretty good about my left-side-of-the-road driving, though I still need lots of practice, and haven’t dared a highway yet. The villages are challenging enough for now, with their narrow streets and on-street parking.  Left-handed shifting is easier than we thought it would be, negotiating roundabouts takes concentration!

 

Here are some other things we’ve done this week:

  • At Lutterworth Golf Club

    Bonfire and fireworks at Lutterworth Golf Club

    We went to a bonfire night with friends last Sunday evening, at a local golf club… Although Guy Fawkes Night is November 5 (“Remember, remember, the 5th of November”, as I heard several times at the office this week), judging from the fireworks we saw and heard from our flat on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, it’s celebrated in various venues on various days, whenever it’s convenient. That’s different from the 4th of July, which is pretty much always celebrated on the 4th. Another difference is that since it’s November and it gets dark around 4:30, there’s none of this keeping the kids out until midnight to watch fireworks that can’t start until 10:30.

  • Al went for a 5 mile walk along the canal from Crick to Yelvertoft on Monday while I was at work.  There were a lot of canal boats moored at various points along the way.  Some obviously occupied as evidenced by the smoking chimneys. He’s also been talking to recruiters about engineering positions here in the Midlands. Seems to be some opportunities. Fingers crossed!
  • Wheatsheaf dinnerHad another delicious meal at the Wheatsheaf on Tuesday… It’s sausage week (who knew), so we each had a different type (with fried egg and “chips”), with pints of beer, in front of a roaring fire on a November evening in a village pub. It really doesn’t get much better than that!
  • Made our first real grocery shopping trip Wednesday evening… Since we now have use of a car, we were able to drive into Rugby (the nearest real town) and go to Aldi – where we bought 5 bags of groceries for the same price we paid for one bag at the Co-op store on our street (really more of a convenience store, we’ve found). So the rest of the week we cooked our own meals, which turned out pretty well, I think! It’s a little difficult cooking in this flat, though, as there’s very little worktop space in the kitchen area, and just a sort of glorified toaster-oven with two burners on top. It’s doable, though, at least for now.
  • Foxton Locks
    It's pretty here when it's not raining...

    It’s pretty here when it’s not raining…

    Visited Foxton Locks yesterday… I had been there when I was here in January, and thought Al would also like it, so after the rain cleared up a bit, we drove there (about 20 miles from Crick) after a stop at Husbands Bosworth for a pint at The Bell. Foxton Locks is a “stairway” of 10 locks on the Leicester Line of the Grand Union Canal, very cool. We watched a boat (apparently the last boat of the day, as the sign said at this time of year the last boat may enter the bottom lock at 2:45) negotiate the top lock, and then wandered down the locks and walked for about a mile along the canal, as it had turned into a lovely autumn day.

  • Today we drove up the A5 to a gas (oops, sorry, “petrol”) station we knew was there, and figured out how to fill up the car – not difficult, just different as we’re used to just sticking our credit card into the pump. And also we’re of course used to lower prices. Then we got the car hand-washed there, inside and out – they did a really nice job for ÂŁ12.
Vernazza

Vernazza

After leaving Manarola, we took the train to Vernazza, a town to which we hadn’t been yet. We were to meet our apartment’s host around 1:00, but we’d had to leave Manarola at 10:00, so even after coffees and pastries at Aristide, the 8-minute train ride left us with some time to kill. So we walked down Vernazza’s main street (much less steep than Manarola’s or Riomaggiore’s) to the harbor, and watched people in the piazza…

The piazza in Vernazza :-)

The piazza in Vernazza 🙂

 

We also explored a bit to try to locate the door of our apartment, which was not so easy, given the usual Cinque Terre network of stairs and alleys that are named streets. We did find our house, though, and met with the genial Luca (from Genoa), who showed us around the flat (after climbing the 30-some steps to the top floor). It seemed more spacious than the previous apartment, I think mainly because there was a sofa, so we had somewhere to relax. There was also a nice rooftop terrace, though not as private as the balcony in Manarola – here in the middle of town the houses are really all on top of each other.

Beer in the sunshine!

Beer in the sunshine!

After doing paperwork with Luca, we grabbed some focacce and beer and went down to sit in the sun by the harbor… just lovely! Then we took a short hike out toward Corniglia (see our hike post), came back and bought some groceries for the next few days, figured out the washing machine, and hung clothes all over the apartment, since by then it was too dark to hang them out on the clothesline we finally located below the windows. Then later we had a great dinner at Il Baretto, where we had a nice conversation with a self-described “itinerant dentist” and his wife, from Colorado.

On Sunday, we hiked to Monterosso, which is the most beach-resort-y of the 5terre towns. It was fun to see the different vibe there: rollerbladers, parasailers, beachfront pizza and beachwear shops, etc. Still on a small scale, though, nothing like a beach resort town in the US. I finally broke down and bought a pair of shorts, which was something I’d wished I had packed for this leg of the trip. I had figured jeans would be fine because the temps were supposed to be in the 60s, but in the sun, it’s felt really quite hot – the weather reminds us of Santa Cruz CA: mid to upper 60’s, so cool in the shade but hot in the sun. Then we took the train back to Vernazza, and cooked dinner ourselves that night, using the rest of the uncooked linguine nero and some melanzane (eggplant) caponata we bought at the store… yum! Of course with vino, and we had ventaglini from the store for dessert.

Beginning Monday, I was back to work – thankfully this apartment had its own wifi, so it was MUCH better than the apartment in Manarola. So Al did some exploring during the days, and we popped out for lunches and dinners (and breakfast one day). We really loved how we could just go out the door and walk a bit through the old narrow alleys to come out onto the main street with all the shops and restaurants. I made a video one day…

We had a couple more very good meals, surprise surprise, which we’ll mention in a ‘Food & Drink’ post. The weather turned rainy Tuesday night during dinner at Gianni Franzi (so we had to move our meal inside), when it really stormed all night long. We especially enjoyed talking to Massimo at Il Pirata, which we would not have found (it being way above the train station, so not in the main part of town), were it not for Rick Steves’ recommendation – we had lunch there one day, and breakfast another, and took home pastries for two more breakfasts.

On Thursday around 11 we left by train for the next phase of our journey, on our way to England! Ciao, Cinque Terre!

Vernazza