Friday, September 28, 2007

Final Trip Report Series (for awhile)

We just completed our last major trip here in Europe. I doubt we'll even have time for any day trips now, although I am interested in the Da Vinci Expo in Brussels, and there's an MWR trip going there in November. And I would still love to go to Den Haag to see one of my favorite paintings, Vermeer's "The Girl With the Pearl Earring".

Trip reports and photos are forthcoming (I used up nearly 2 memory cards). I've been to a couple of these places before: Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Venice, but there were a few new-to-me places: Berchtesgaden, Schwangau (Neuschwanstein Castle), Innsbruck, Vipiteno (Sterzing) and Bressanone (Brixen) Italy, and Oktoberfest (sadly, no actual sightseeing in Munich, as I couldn't care less about beer and that whole Oktoberfest thing).

Some parts of this trip were fraught with disaster (if you also read my Live Journal, you have seen some posts about this). But it's the kind of stuff that I can look on someday and laugh's all part of what makes travel so interesting. Of course, you can't expect everything to go smoothly. And you learn from all the things that go wrong. It only helps you become more organized and makes you a better traveler.

Before I get into the trip reports, just a run-down of a few companies we dealt with:

Germanwings and TUIfly: I've talked about them before briefly. All of these low-cost airlines are more or less the same (although I hear more complaints about Ryanair than anything else), but I very much liked the service we got from both of these airlines. TUIfly was the best of the two though. Even though our flight was delayed out of Venice on TUIfly (they had to change a tire on our jet prior to its departure for Venice), they offered the best service, and gave us free chocolates and gum on the flight. And we got a good laugh from the air sick bags that had a smiley face on them (the TUIfly logo) and the words "Take it with a smile." My sister-in-law took one for a souvenir. Hehe. If TUIfly is unfamiliar to you, it's because it's relatively new. It used to operate under the Hapag-Lloyd name.

Edelweiss Lodge and Resort: Of course, most GK-area folks who have been out to Garmisch have stayed here. If you haven't, it will serve your purposes just fine while you're in Garmisch. We stayed there mainly to take the day trips that they offer through Alpine Adventures (you can only take these trips if you're staying at Edelweiss). I thought the bed was horribly uncomfortable though (especially the pillows) and we could not control the temperature in our room and the room was too hot. The muzak in the hallways and public areas grated on my nerves (and was loud enough to hear in our room)...I heard other people complain about it too, so it wasn't just me.

I loved that Edelweiss had a laundry room (very important, considering the length of our stay), but it's usually very busy, so be prepared to wait! Also, Alpine Adventures has a nice store. My sunglasses broke the day we were in Innsbruck, and instead of buying another pair at the shop there, I managed to find an eyeglass repair kit that they had in stock. Sunglasses fixed!

As far as eating at the Edelweiss, I'd advise against it. Zuggy's Base Camp is merely average. We ate at the buffet on Bavarian night (why is that even necessary when the town is filled with Bavarian restaurants?) and the food was okay, but not nearly as good as the authentic stuff. Breakfast is not included in your room rate, so bring some extra can eat at the buffet or at the snack bar (the Starbucks place), but the costs add up quickly.

As far as the tours...these were actually pretty good. The tour guides were great (especially Andrea; she was AWESOME and so much fun...we had her twice as our tour guide) - knowledgeable and organized - and they also offer a bit of flexibility (we drove through Oberammergau on one tour, for example, just because it was wasn't part of the itinerary).

Edelweiss runs a special Oktoberfest shuttle - no tour guide, just dropping you off there and picking you up - which I would only recommend if you REALLY REALLY must go to Oktoberfest. Just be prepared to spend the trip home dealing with very drunk and possibly sick people (a preview to my Oktoberfest trip report).

Hotel Cristallo - Lido de Venezia: Staying on the Venetian island of Lido was about half the price of what we would pay to stay on the mainland. We just got 72-hour vaporetto (water bus) tickets in order to get around. The hotel is a 2 star - pretty basic. Very clean (beds and pillows are kind of firm though), friendly staff, nice breakfast spread (included in the price). Two nights in a spacious triple room (double bed and one trundle bed) was 240 euros. Split 3 ways, it's not bad at all. When we checked out, they allowed us to keep our luggage in the lobby for several hours while we went sightseeing, and since it was raining, they allowed me to borrow one of their umbrellas (which was destroyed by wind, but we bought a new one to replace it).

Lido is pretty touristy, but it has a beach you can enjoy in hot weather. Plenty of restaurants and shopping there too. Visit the bakery in the same building as Hotel Cristallo. Best. Tiramisu. Ever. Just try to look past the fact that the staff there is kind of rude.

By the way, I found this hotel via, which is a nice hotel booking service. I thought the reviews of Cristallo on the site were pretty spot on.

Vaporetto (ACTV): the cheapest way to get public transportation around Venice, as cars are not allowed in the city. If you get seasick, don't bother. The boats are old and rusty, although they seem to work well. They are kind of slow, and the crew will sometimes change routes on you without warning, which is how we ended up on our way to Murano one night when we were trying to get back to Lido from the mainland. So we were taken out of our way quite a bit and wasted a bit of time. I wouldn't advise you to ONLY stay on the mainland though...Venice's islands have a lot of offer. The routes are pretty easy to figure out, and unless you like pounding a lot of pavement, the vaporetto is a good way to get around the Grand Canal (although I still prefer walking).

Venice Walks & Tours (Avventure Bellissime): picked up a brochure for this in the lobby at our hotel. Apparently recommended by Rick Steves, Lonely Planet, and a variety of other reputable people and companies. Well, we didn't like it. Our tour guide was difficult to hear and his microphone kept crapping out. The tour occurred during high tide, which limited public access to St. Mark's Basilica (the highlight of the tour), so we couldn't even go in, even though the brochure advertises that the tour takes you past all the queues waiting to get in (we were given the option of waiting in a very long queue and doing the tour in there, or skipping it altogether...we all agreed to skip it and go back later on our own). The rest of the tour didn't really take us anywhere, except the square where Marco Polo lived and the Rialto Bridge (which can be easily found without a tour guide). Big thumbs down from me. There is a variety of other tour companies operating in Venice.

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