Monthly Archives: July 2015

Gotta Split; I’ve Got Tickets to Wimbledon!

Wimbledon.  That holiest of holies.  I was enthralled by it before I ever even picked up a racquet.  And once I became a tennis player, it became even more attractive.  It is what the Louvre is to art lovers; the America’s Cup to sailors.  Loaded with history and tradition and pomp and pageantry, it has remained a constant in an ever-changing game.

Attending all four of tennis’ major tournaments (U.S. Open, Australian Open, Roland Garros, and Wimbledon) wasn’t a particular goal of mine until I decided that I wanted to go to Wimbledon for my 40th birthday, after having been to the U.S. Open several times (New York being an easy trip for us).  As it turned out, getting to the Australian Open in 2005 turned out to be more do-able than Wimbledon, mostly because of the expense.  Wimbledon would have to be put off for a while, if only to wrap our brain around the cost of obtaining guaranteed tickets (as opposed to flying across the Atlantic, queueing up and maybe getting in).  But with two down, and Wimbledon on the horizon, we decided to tag a trip to Paris and Roland Garros on to our barge trip last spring.  If all went according to plan, I would complete my spectator Grand Slam before my 50th birthday.

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At the US Open, the Australian Open, and Roland Garros.

Wimbledon was the raison d’etre of our trip to Europe this summer.  And once we’d committed to going to Europe, adding another dream trip of mine – sailing in Croatia – was an easy decision.  Having finished our sail and saying goodbye to Pat and Emily, who would luxuriate for a few more days at a beach resort, we spent a day in the historic city of Split before flying back to London for the main event.

Much of Split is an everyday business/industrial/port city.  But the old core of the city, where we stayed in the boutique Marmont Hotel, is extraordinary.

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Once we finally figured out how to get there, the Hotel Marmont was easy to find by looking for the red wall.

Perched along the Adriatic Sea, Split’s city center is a palace and military garrison built by Roman emperor Diocletian in the fourth century.

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Living spaces, hotels, shops (including the curiously omnipresent opticians’ shops), restaurants, churches, and bars are woven in and among the ruins of the palace.  It makes for a stunningly lovely scene, an oddly harmonious juxtaposition of past and present along the water.

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Like the rest of Croatia’s ancient towns that we visited, the narrow alleys and passages are NOT car friendly.

After flying back to London from Split via Zagreb, we said our farewells to Skip and Harriet.

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Hey guys!  What’s our next adventure?

And we settled into our hotel in Mayfair.

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Our hotel, the Athenaeum, had one of those cool “living walls.”

We used our convenient perch on Piccadilly Street to undertake more exploration of London on foot.

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Finally, on our last full day in London, we headed to Wimbledon, to enjoy the first day, via tube.  We were not alone, as there were crowds of people making their way to the grounds.  Luckily, we had upped our style game a bit – I was wearing a skirt and jacket – because people dress up for Wimbledon.  We saw many young women fully decked out in dresses or skirts with jackets, heels and – yes, most surprisingly because it was warm and sunny – panty hose (the Kate Middleton Effect?); many men wore blazers and ties.  This is the reverence this event seems to require.

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We made it!

One of Wimbledon’s traditions is that the prior year’s champion always plays on Centre Court on the first day.  Thus, by purchasing Day 1 tickets, we were guaranteed to see Novak Djokovic play.  And, he played masterfully, presaging the play that would win him the title this year.

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As a bonus, we also got to see former champion Maria Sharapova play.

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Aside from seeing some of the biggest names in the game on court, we gawked at the royal box (didn’t recognize anyone) and the players’ box (yes, that was Boris Becker), and marveled at the beauty and perfection of the lawn and the grounds.  As we wandered the grounds, we bumped into a few players leaving or going to their courts (Jelena Jankovic, Urszula Radwanska), as well as legends of the game (Mats Wilander).

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We had Pimm’s Cups, as one does.  The flowers on the grounds all hew to the Wimbledon color scheme of purple and green (as does the afghan I took to college, but that’s another story).

Now that I’ve completed my personal Grand Slam, I need to start plotting what’s next….

Pretty. Oh So Pretty: Croatia and England 2015

One of the reasons I love to travel is that it’s a feast for the senses, especially sight.  It’s not that I live somewhere ugly.  To the contrary.  Maryland is lovely – especially in the spring – and the Chesapeake Bay offers a beauty that is at turns calming and exhilarating.  But travel gives a change of scenery, and provides different kinds of pretty to gawk at.

And once we arrived in London on a Wednesday morning, it didn’t take us long to revive ourselves after quick naps to help ease the jet lag.  We were sharing a 2-bedroom apartment on Baker Street in the Marleybone section of London with Skip and Harriet, and were just a few blocks from Regent’s Park.  After a pub lunch, we lost ourselves in the park, among the acres and acres of flowers that comprised the Queen’s rose garden.

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There is indeed a benefit to those drizzly days in England, though we were lucky with weather during our stay.

During our stay in London, Rick and I and Skip and Harriet took a guided gastronomical walking tour.  We started at Fortnum and Mason, a department store holding royal warrants and known for its decadent food hall.  The lower floors, with their glass cases, formally dressed staff, and chandeliers looked like a jewelry store, but on offer were gemlike sweets and preserved fruit.

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After our walking tour, we came back to Fortnum & Mason to buy dinner supplies.  If dollars equaled pounds, it wouldn’t have been too expensive.

We walked all over London, sampling microbrews (our guide had a master’s degree in anthropology with a focus on beer!), drinking chocolate, and cheese.

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We immersed ourselves in the delectable smells of Chinatown and the funky offerings of Soho (one purveyor of services offered a “Back, Crack and Sack” wax on a huge sign in its window.  Ouch!)  We made it to Pall Mall and St. James Square, Jermyn Street and Covent Garden.  Once on our own, we walked along the Thames near Big Ben, Whitehall, Westminster and St. James Park.  The city showed off its splendor in the perfect weather.

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Croatia would not be outdone.  Never having spent any time in the Mediterranean before, I didn’t know what to expect.  But like every other place I’ve ever been, it has comparables.  At times, the bold craggy shores, deep icy waters, and pine trees made me think of the Maine coast.  At others, the red roofs and palm trees made me think of St. Barth.  Almost always, my point of reference is North America, because that’s where I come from.

The first village we wandered around was the petite port of Maslinica on the island of Šolta, surrounding a tiny fjord-like bay, and holding anything we might need until our next port.  White stone buildings with red-tile roofs, a café or two, a small hotel, marina, and a Studenac market (not much bigger than the stores in the Bahamas Out Islands, but much better stocked).

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Tiny Maslinica is home to fewer than 300 people.

No less pretty was the village of Bobovišća on the island of Brač.  If anything, it is smaller than Maslinica.

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By our second day of sailing, we were catching on to the fact that Croatia is NOT a beach destination – at least not as we know beaches.  Here, any slab of rock or shingle, or even poured cement, that is relatively flat and provides access to the water counts.  Some have showers installed.  Many have ladders, because the entry into the water is generally not gradual.

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These pass for beaches….

Where there is gradual access to the water, and/or the rocks are more pebbly (though far coarser than what we think of as sand) you have a bona fide tourist attraction.  And it is likely to be crowded with people, chair-to-chair.

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A crowded beach in the Pakleni islands.

Spoiled by the Caribbean, I didn’t expect much, so I wasn’t too disappointed.  As it turned out, on the 3 occasions when we stopped for lunch and swimming, the waters were too cold for much more than quick dips.  After all, we were somewhat north of 43 degrees – the equivalent of New Hampshire or Maine (or Oregon) – not exactly ideally balmy waters in June.

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Our first chilling swim was off this pristine shore.

After all of these tiny villages, it was time for the “big cities” on the island of Hvar.  Hvar town (pop. 3,672), across the channel from Palmižana, is easily one of the most popular destinations in the Dalmatian islands, judging by the number of nightclubs, restaurants and – for some reason – opticians’ shops (everyone needs designer prescription shades?).

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The waterfront promenade in Hvar has everything a visitor could want.

But more beguiling, by far, is Stari Grad (pop. 2,817) on the opposite side of the island.  The name “Stari Grad” means Old Town, and they weren’t kidding when they named it.  Its origins go back to at least 3500 BC.  Most of the buildings are constructed from an creamy white stone indigenous to the area, much of it worn so smooth over centuries of use that the streets and squares are dangerous to traverse when wet.  (Parts of the White House were built using Croatian stone, from the island of Brač.)

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Beautiful Stari Grad.

As if that wasn’t enough, from Stari Grad Roko took us to another local restaurant.  An open-air affair up in the mountains of Hvar, Konoba Vrisnik offers a classic Croatian dish – PEKA – to those who know to pre-order it.  It takes 2 hours to prepare in a metal pan on an open hearth, covered by a metal bell under hot ashes.  The slow-cooked lamb and octopus we’d ordered were perfection.

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Octopus peka.

Our last night before heading back to the Sunsail marina was in the village of Stomorska.  The pretty village has a full-time population of about 250 souls, but most of the houses here are vacation homes.

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Day and night in Stomorska.

The visitors – mostly European – give the cafés, bars and restaurants a lively vibe.  And though they stay up well past dark, the atmosphere is festive and convivial, not clubby.  We were delighted with the pizza we had for dinner (Croatia is known for it, being as close to Italy as it is, and making its own wonderful cheeses and other toppings).  One of the best (relatively speaking) beaches in the region is on the edge of town.

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The only reason this pebbly beach wasn’t mobbed was because it was early in the morning.

Having completed our limited circuit of these islands, we didn’t find a single spot that wasn’t gorgeous.

More to come.

It’s All Relative: Croatia and England 2015

It’s All Relative – England/Croatia 2015

Mine and Rick’s first foreign trip together was our honeymoon in St. Maarten.  One night, we ventured over to an old-school restaurant, claiming a romantic table on a balcony overlooking Marigot harbor on the French side of the island.  At the end of our dinner, we were presented with a check of 665.  Both of us gulped hard, and worried that our credit limits might not accommodate that total.  Thankfully, it dawned on us that the tab was in Francs, and we could divide by 6 to approximate our total in dollars.  Whew!

A few weeks ago, a similar calculus was at work.  It was the first night of a sailing charter in the Adriatic Sea among the many islands off the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia with our friends Skip and Harriet, and Pat and Emily.  We moored along a rocky shore off the island of Šolta, bobbing in crystalline deep green waters in Šešula bay

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Crystal clear green waters and craggy shores along Šešula bay and the restaurant where we enjoyed dinner.

The price for the mooring was having dinner at the adjacent restaurant, Konoba Šešula.  Our local captain, Roko, told us the restaurant was “OK.”  Well, it was more than OK to me.  Any place that lets me choose my fish from among the days catch is much better than OK.  We dined Mediterranean-style on the scary-looking but deliciously grilled scorpion fish and local produce and bread, and quaffed many a bottle of Croatian wine.

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Yes, we did name this fish — over 2 kg. deserves his own identity.

The toll at the end of the evening was 1800.  Kuna that is.  (Croatia is in the European Union, but has not adopted the Euro currency.)  With an exchange rate similar to that of Franc to the Dollar on our honeymoon, we divided by 6 and discovered we’d feasted for a very modest $300 for 7 of us.

And so it was for the rest of our week among the islands of Šolta, Brač, Hvar and its satellites the Pakleni Islands (islets, more like).  Roko took us somewhere wonderful and we paid a reasonable price for it (after dividing by 6).  In the town of Stari Grad, on the island of Hvar, we got 3 liters of decent white wine, poured from a barrel into empty water bottles, for a mere 60 Kuna (less than $10).

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It may not be pretty or classy, but it was good wine.

Initially, we weren’t too thrilled with the idea of having a skipper.  We’ve got a lot of nautical miles under our keels and a lot of experience chartering boats, even ones bigger than the 44 foot catamaran we’d chosen from Sunsail’s fleet.  But sailing in the Adriatic requires a license which none of us has, and we weren’t inclined to scramble to get and pay for one.  Ultimately, having a captain was good value.  He managed the tricky business of mooring [See Moondance’s Blog ].  He did the Croatian speaking for us (despite our game attempts to learn a few words, and despite the Croatians’ excellent English, it was a great help to have a native speaker among our crew).  And he took us to places we wouldn’t otherwise have found.

Case in point was our second night.  Roko had arranged for us to have dinner in a beautiful setting near the village of Dračevica on the island of Brač.  After a taxi ride inland and way uphill, we were ushered through to a terraced villa overlooking cultivated fields.  At a wooden table under a spreading tree, we – and no other guests – shared a locally-sourced meal of grappa, local vegetables and ham, spit-roasted lamb, and dessert cheeses.  And lots of local wine.  It felt like a scene from a movie, or from a travel program.

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A beautiful setting with delicious local food.

A priceless experience, at a reasonable price.

If Croatia had us dividing by 6, the days we spent in London before and after our Croatia sail had us doing the opposite.  As sailors, we cope with the inflated price of all things “marine” by calculating them in “Boat Units” – the value of a Unit varying with the size and complexity of your boat.  It’s less painful to say that a new mainsail will set you back 10 Units than the actual price.  Given that London is a notoriously expensive city, I simply let my brain assume that a British pound was the equivalent of a US Dollar.

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Unlike our experiences in Croatia, where the modest price of top-notch experiences allowed us the best of everything, most of the pleasures we experienced in London were more moderate.  Pub lunches and bistro dinners away from the glittering thoroughfares of swanky London.  Walking around until our feet ached, and taking public transportation, instead of taxis.  By no means did it lessen our experience; it merely lessened the load on our credit cards!

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Rick and Harriet enjoying a pint in a pub.

All of that walking in London confirmed to us, once again, how much more compact and congested Europe is than the US.  When we have chartered in the Caribbean, one of the running jokes is that you can easily tell North Americans from Europeans by how close they anchor.  They clearly have a different sense of space than Americans, accustomed as they are to close quarters in the homes and on their roads.  This became more than abundantly clear during our Croatian sail.

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Narrow streets like these in Hvar Town and Stari Grad remind us how accustomed Europeans are to tight quarters.

Our first night at Šešula was merely a pre-cursor, with a dozen or so boats moored stern-to the shore, separated only by fenders.  Roko had told us that the first night is usually quite crowded, since most charters in the region start on Saturday and can only get so far from the base, there are a handful of destinations where everyone gathers.

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Perhaps our catamaran Jams was aptly named; it got jammed into a lot of tight spots, like this one in Šešula.

This did not prepare us for the next night, which was even more of an awakening.  We’d headed to the Palmižana marina across a channel from one of the prime destinations in the Dalmatian Islands – the town of Hvar.

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Scenic Hvar Town.

Consisting of basically 3 docks, Palmižana’s marina accommodates 180 (!) boats.  The boats are tied stern-to the dock, and wedged in using K-Y and a shoehorn (OK, exaggerating; but only a little).

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Roko watches carefully, but without alarm, as boats anchor close to ours at a popular swimming spot.

Once the dock was full, we were no more than a fender’s width away from our neighbors.  When cruising in the Bahamas, we’d probably have made plans for happy hour together.  In the US or the Caribbean, we’d at least introduce ourselves and find out a little bit about each other.  In Croatia, the practice seems to be to put blinders on and benignly ignore neighbors.  And yes, close the shades in the head and cabins so as to avoid unintended exposure (not that Europeans seem to mind, judging from the prevalence of tight Speedo swim trunks and bikinis, regardless of the wearer’s physique).

Just to add more to the festivities, we were sharing the marina with a flotilla of about 50 boats carrying 20-somethings of all nationalities engaging an annual event called Yacht Week.  It’s a series of week-long trips throwing together both friends and strangers aboard yachts for a week of port-to-port partying (if one of the destinations’ names being “Carpe Diem Beach” is any indication, it sounds dangerously fun).  So Palmižana was full of shrieking, braying, hooting, laughing, howling, and throwing each other in the water.  What I want to know is: where was this when I was a 20-something?  And how could I have gotten my parents to pay for it?

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Fun at Yacht Week.  How come I never got to do this?

Even after the Yacht Week flotilla moved to bays where we wouldn’t be, the bays were full of boats.  Luckily, Captain Roko knew where to go, whom to call, and how to get us situated at a quay or mooring that would keep us from the fate that befell other charterers, puttering around looking for somewhere safe to tie up, or tied to a tree or rock onshore and suffering a miserable night rolling at anchor and wondering if it would hold.

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Amazingly, the high season had yet to begin, so heavier crowds could be expected in a few weeks.  For me and Rick, who typically seek solitude, this was very different kind of trip.  We learned very quickly that even though not many North Americans knew much about sailing in Croatia, it has most definitely been discovered.

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The season has yet to begin, but Split is busy and vibrant.

More to come.