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26 September 2012 at 8:30 am, by Annie Chen

On day 3 we woke up to a dry tent (yay!) perfect weather, and this view. Oh yeah, bikers paradise weather! Bright and crisp and totally perfect. It would be a long day of bike riding with some hills toward the end of the day, but with weather like this you really cannot complain, so we just enjoyed!

Took sometime for a photoshoot at the hostel. I’ve got to get back there!

We biked from the hostel in Howmore up through North Uist to the island in the north of the Uists, Berneray. A long but rewarding day. First stop, gorgeous beaches on Benbecula, an “islandish thing” in between South and North Uist. I do NOT understand why they named things in the way they did in the Outer Hebrides – a major mystery to me. Anyway, look at this beach!

Like almost everywhere we went in the outer hebrides, it was just us. That is worth all of the biking and weather, for sure:

After an intense morning of biking, we stopped for lunch at the highly recommended and really delicious stepping stones restaurant on Benbecula for…more carbs!

Local lamb (there was a lot of local lamb on every menu):

And fish and chips! The freshest fish and chips you can get (almost – we had one even better later in the trip…stay tuned):

Back on the bikes and then had an afternoon break at the Trinity Temple in North Uist, a medieval monastary:

Being there by the ruins with a view of the water was pretty nice, so quiet and peaceful.

Great spot for a coffee:

Back on the bikes and up through North Uist. The weather was perfect and as you rounded the corner you came upon views like this. WOW:

This is my happy place. When I am stressed, I just need to imagine biking here, the wind at my back, and the sea and sky going on forever:

The water almost looks like the Caribbean!! This was a nice hill spot to sit and get attacked by midgies

And here is probably my fave pic of the trip. Happy happy happy place!!

North Uist was unbelievably gorgeous, but our legs were getting tired. The riding did not seem to end but when we finally made it to Berneray, gosh, what sweet relief!

The final causeway to Berneray:

This was the next hostel. We were basically both over the moon to finally arrive here, the perfect, windless spot on the water, and in the sun. Heaven.

Our camping spot for the night:

 

We both felt pretty strong after that intense day of biking:

And OMG did those beers taste SO GOOD:

Our little tent. We had hoped to party with the wild bunch that was at the hostel that night, but the level of pure exhaustion was off the charts. Turned in for a relatively early night and one of the best sleeps. Now to me, this spot beats a 5 star hotel. What an incredible place! You must go!

 

25 September 2012 at 8:30 am, by Annie Chen

Our first day of real biking was also a day of rough weather. We had to pack up our wettent in the rain, which was not ideal, but we had to catch a ferry on the top of Barra to Eriskay.

This is the typical morning: packing up the panniers, and then loading up the bikes.

The bike ride was a bit rushed and our first exposure to some nice, steep hills. But we had a bit of nice scenery:

But with a bit of rain and a lot of dedication, we hightailed it fast enough and made it to the ferry, which we shared with a group of hungover teens from the Barra music fest…let’s just say we had nicer ferry rides on the trip than this one…

Once getting across the short way to Eriskay, we climbed the hill (always there is a big hill after the ferry – it’s the rule!) and made it to a local pub for lunch. The kind of place that serves mac and cheese with a side of fries. Let’s just say that I don’t know if it would be a good idea to travel to Scotland if you weren’t going to bike all day. It’s a bit of a carb fest. Anyway, a delicious break to sit out the rain. Then, on to the causeway to South Uist. Otter crossing!!

South Uist was pretty beautiful, despite the wind and a bit of drizzle. Very rocky and wild, with glimpses of the amazing beaches and ocean as you turned the corners. South Uist was probably the most uninhabited of the places we went – and we loved it for that!

A cute little place along the road where they had sheep and also grew flowers and vegetables. In the little hut was an honor system store that sold wool goods and some of the products from their garden. I wonder how many visitors they get there…

Roadside break of coffee and these really amazing chocolates – they are great energy boosters for windy bike rides:

We also stopped at the North Uist museum where we had some nice chats with the docent – a retired local. He was very eager to share with us information about the history of the island. It is, and has been, a very remote place to live, and it’s clear from their history museum that it’s definitely not an easy life…I could only imagine how bad the winters get.

After the history museum we went about 10 miles to Howmore, where we camped near the first of a few of Gatliff Trust Hostels, which are completely magical places. Stay there!

Here’s the outside of the Hostel, an old crofting house with a thatched roof.

And look at this cutie who popped out to say hello:

With these hostels, you can also just pay a few pounds to use the showers and camp outside. It’s really convenient and cheap. Pretty much a dream for any student travelers. Plus, because of the wild camping rules, you really can camp wherever you like. Check out our spot:

Good place? A field of wildflowers?

Oh yeah, what a view!

The sun came out as we walked from our tent spot to the hostel for what were AMAZING showers:

Cooking dinner and sharing wine and stories with the other guests. Some German students who were backpacking around and hitchhiking their way throughout Scotland. If there’s anyplace I would feel safe hitchhiking, it really is here – the people are just so friendly and it is such a pain to actually get to the Outer Hebrides that if you make it there, you’re probably there for the right reasons- appreciating the specialness of the place. There were also a couple of older British Gentlemen who had just been out to St. Kilda – which is one of those places I’ve just got to go sometime.

Oh yes – a coal fire to warm up after the wet and windy day? Almost as effective as the red wine.

 

 

 

24 September 2012 at 8:00 am, by Annie Chen

We left Amsterdam on a KLM flight to Glasgow at 7am. That meant about 3 hours of sleep (due to some work emails that needed to go out before the holiday started), a taxi ride, a train ride, and a shuttle bus to the airplane. Those kind of trips where you don’t know where you will sleep that night are always full of eager, nervous anticipation. When we arrived in freezing, rainy Glasgow we had a big list of things to do while lugging around a couple huge duffle bags:

1. Drink really big, and hot coffees (Pret a Manger was the only place open)
2. Pick up last minute camping supplies  (Tico sport on Buchanan street) – dry bags, a watch, and anti-midge repellent. We still don’t REALLY know what a midge is, so I guess the spray worked.
3. Get Timo some bike shoes (Alpine bikes)
4. Pick up and load up our rental bikes (Gear bikes)At each of the above places we had the better customer service than I have had it the past year living in Amsterdam. The Scots in shops and restaurants and generally are just SO NICE in comparison. Another reason that the trip was a blast.

Once we had our bikes, we hightailed it to Queen St. station and loaded ourselves, our bikes, and 4 very yellow and very full panniers onto the 3 hour train for Oban.

Timo is PSYCHED about the planning I made! (Or maybe he’s just excited about the trip – hard to tell):

The train was running late so we were in danger of missing our ferry. Luckily, we were in Scotland, the friendliest place on earth, and the train conductor called his buddy on the ferry to hold it for us 5 minutes so we could jump off the train and hightail it to the dock. So unfortunately, we did not get to explore Oban at all – which is evidently a really great place. Anyway, safe on board the ferry, we finally got a chance to relax, breathe in the amazing fresh air, and watch the sailboats and tiny islands and castles go by.
Ferry coming in to Oban:

Us leaving Oban:

Vacation mode Timo:


Sailboats and castles on our way out:

The entire ferry journey to Castle Bay on Barra was 6 hours, so we had plenty of time to nap, read, stare out the window, and enjoy some Scottish specialties (a curry and a lamb burger, but more importantly, the local Oban brew):

At the ned of the ride we retrieved our bicycles from the bottom of the ship and got all ready to go. Can you see how bright eyed and bushy tailed we look? I don’t think we knew how much it could rain that night…

But this is the kind of view that makes the entire day of travelling  all worth it: Castle Bay on the Southernmost populated island of the Outer Hebrides, Barra.

We had a plan to camp near a hostel for the night, but because of the ruckus Barra music fest, that option was not available. So in order to avoid the loud music and loud locals, we cycled in the other direction, hopped a fence or two, and found a great place to camp. First, had to use our trusty orange shovel to remove the sheep poop from the general vicinity. Not as gross as it sounds, promise. But if you don’t like sheep/sheep poop – do not go to this place.

We finally got set up. Pretty nice digs, right? The grass is all machair -  it’s like a super soft bouncy carpet full of little flowers – sometimes so many that it looks purple. Makes for perfect camping or lounging on breaks from the biking:


So, it turned out to be a rainy night, but we survived warm and dry in the tent. A day of a lot of different types of travel, but finally making it to the islands felt great. We certainly had an adventure in-store!

 

23 September 2012 at 9:39 am, by Annie Chen

At the end of July we had a really amazing 10 days in Scotland. Work had been intense for both of us and we were getting sick of the time spent on computers and cell phones. Time to get away from it all! We first looked into a trip to Iceland but decided because of ridiculous ticket prices and amount of time in a car that it wasn’t ideal. Then after poking around on the internet, we decided on the outer hebrides islands on the west coast of Scotland. Why?

1. Middle of nowhere. It takes a 6 hour ferry ride from Oban to Barra. Single track roads along the entire island chain. Very little wifi and shaky cell phone reception.
2. Bikeable. The islands  are small and uninhabited enough to make biking the whole trip manageable and pleasant. Also, in comparison to most of the Scottish highlands, it is relatively flat (relatively being the key term here)
3. Wild camping. I am not a fan of camping in organized camp grounds…but in Scotland you can actually “wild camp” – pitch a tent anywhere, technically even on someone’s front yard. Though I don’t recommend actually pitching a tent in someone’s front yard – there are so many incredible camping spots!
4.  Wild, raw beauty of the place. The pictures don’t do the outer hebrides justice. Reading about it in articles I could not help thinking – this is exactly where I want to go. Yes, cities and beaches and tropical climates are lovely vacation spots. But for some reason I am much more attracted to these unpredictable northern places. In a description of the islands:

“In many ways, the islands are the last bastion of the old Highland life. Though newer industries such as fish farming have been introduced, the traditional occupations of crofting, fishing and weaving still dominate and, outside Stornoway, life is very much a traditional one, revolving around the seasons and the tides. Relentlessly battered by fierce Atlantic winds, the islands can seem a hostile environment and an unappealing proposition. Much of the interior is bleak peat bog, rocks and endless tiny lochs, and the long straggling crofting communities only add to the feeling of desolation.

But anyone who has stood on a cliff top and felt a thrill at the power and potential of all that water should come here. Nowhere else in Britain is there such a sense of emptiness and of the sheer forces of nature”

So, that last line does a pretty darn great job describing exactly what I am looking for in a vacation spot…

Over the next week I will blog pictures of our bike trip. This is something I highly highly recommend to anyone to do – just thinking about the trip makes me emotional (in a good way!). The temperamental weather and intense bike riding combined with the beauty, quiet, and excellent scotch of the place really made it a trip to remember. If you’re thinking about going, let me know if you have any questions!

Quotation from the fabulous Footprint guide to Skye and the Outer Hebrides.

5 September 2012 at 9:00 am, by Annie Chen

we got out on the boat! Some swimming and cruising and total relaxation. What a treat!

 


4 September 2012 at 9:00 am, by Annie Chen

As a special surprise for my mom’s birthday, we went out to San Diego! Leesie and Paul picked us up from the airport and we stayed at their place until the next night when we had a surprise dinner for my mom – it was a blast. And Aunt Susie came too! Every day was a party – we really enjoyed being together and I had forgotten how nice the SUN was. There were also great times catching up with Sarah, Anne-Reed, and Lily. Oh yeah, and Jordan came down from LA too. I should have blogged this all a while ago – I have forgotten a bunch of it I’m sure. What I am absolutely sure about though is that I look back on the trip with so much joy – definitely a celebration.

I just wish I had more photos – I was so relaxed that I think I forgot my camera most of the time – sorry about that!

We also made a point of eating Mexican food every day:

 

Mama Testa’s is my favorite for sure:

Surprise, Mom!

My dad and his helpers (my mom’s friends) did a great job putting everything together. It was gorgeous. Full of weird french food that my parents love:

NABPP = Not a birthday party party

A few days later, dim sum at Jasmine – woohoo!

And then, randomly, disneyland!?!? I don’t know what inspired this one but I thought it would be great. And it WAS AMAZING. I felt like a little kid again.

We went on our birthday(s)-same day- and wore these buttons. Everyone working at disneyland wished us a happy birthday. It was great.


While in SD, Timo learned to surf:

 

And he did a great job!

 

We also got to meet up with great friends and I really wish I had pictures because I love those guys!! But I do have one with Jordan, and he’s just the cat’s pajamas.


4 September 2012 at 5:00 am, by Annie Chen

In July, Timo went to Istanbul to work with Gillian on their new venture, TripCommon (they are super cool – sign up for when they launch!). Gill and Wes live in a really amazing apartment in the Cihangir neighborhood with gorgeous views over the river and the city. I was able to fly out there for the weekend to help out a bit with TC but mostly just enjoy Istanbul. I completely fell in love with the city and the people there…and definitely the food. It’s such a cool place to have an adventure and I can see why many travelers stay longer than they expect…

The things I love about Istanbul:

1. Street kittens everywhere! They are just so sweet – I understand why locals feed and take care of them. Some of my favorites were the vespa kitties:

And the sleepy little guys on the stairs:

Definite cute attack!

2. The view from Gill’s apartment. W-O-W. It’s no surprise she calls it a treehouse. She also has a really cool tumblr blog with pictures from her apartment.

 

3. Boat trips on the Bosporus - this was truly special. Gill and her friends rented out the boat for the day and it came with an awesome crew and a plenty of comfortable couches and benches.

The water was clear and refreshing and warm enough to stay in for a long time. Loved jumping off the boat!

Super cuties alert!

Gill mixes up a mean negroni – what else to drink in this kind of climate?

Go team TC!

4. Cultural wonderland – I have actually not spent any time in a city with a heavy Islamic influence and population. Istanbul as a crossroads of the east and the west and the different religions was utterly fascinating. We were there during the start of Ramadan and it was hard for me to imagine fasting all day in that exhausting heat. Our first night there I was scared half to death by the drummer going by at around 5am waking everyone up to eat before the sun rose.

Here we are standing outside the Blue Mosque:

Inside the Aja Sofia:

The mosaics are something not to be missed, really amazing:

Inside the blue Mosque:

5. The people are wonderful – super friendly and great service everywhere we went. Living in Amsterdam I have come to really appreciate great service!

6. Fruits and veggies are to die for. Street food is to die for. Food in nicer restaurants is to die for. So maybe yes, it’s ALL turkish food, but it is so so good. In fact, Timo and I have been eating at Turkish restaurants every week for the past month! We’re completely  obsessed.

7. So much more to see…there are so many places in Turkey besides Istanbul that I am now dying to see – beaches, islands, inland. Looking forward to exploring the country more, this trip was a super delicious taste of all of the travel I hope to do soon! It’s also sometimes amazing everything that you can do in a weekend.

 

 

 

3 September 2012 at 9:00 am, by Annie Chen

In April I was super lucky to go to Yvette’s childhood home and stay with her parents in Enschede! It was a blast to see where she is from and also nice to see smaller cities in the Netherlands (small town, right Yvette? :)) Was a very special time, and I’m looking forward to going back – invite me again, Yvette!!

After a delicious curry dinner at her parents’ house (I need to get this cookbook) we went downtown to the main square. It’s the place to see and be seen in Enschede, and really fun – a bunch of cool bars surrounding a church, where you run childhood/school friends all over. Not me that is, but Yvette and her super cute friend Ingeborg (obsessed with that name, btw).

We ran into one of them who knew about a cool party, but unfortunately was not good at taking pictures…

The next day we went to see Mika, the dog of Yvette’s sister! Mika is a funloving German shepherd whose favorite activities include chasing dog toys and wearing fun accessories!

We walked to the town center where there was a big sports celebration thing – to get people excited about sports and exercise, Michelle Obama would be proud! They tour through all the different cities in the Netherlands promotion health and sport. Pretty fun.

Yvette is a natural beach volleyball player:

There was also a demo of the wheelchair dancing team – they were great!

 

Mika also loves posing for pictures:

 

And we also saw some lacrosse! That’s definitely a first for me in the Netherlands. Would be fun to get a couple sticks and throw a ball around on the weekends…

3 September 2012 at 9:00 am, by Annie Chen

We found decent Pho in Amsterdam! It’s too expensive and likely MSG free, which makes it feel foreign and wrong, but delicious. At Xinh on the prinsengracht.

 

SO psyched:

2 September 2012 at 7:45 am, by Annie Chen

Going way back in time…April! Took a long weekend to visit the gorgeous and charming Anna and Alex while she had a break from Cambridge and was in Berlin! Lucked out with terrific weather and the time together exploring Berlin was lovely. This was my first time in Berlin and what really left an impression was the scale of the city. I guess being in Amsterdam I am so used to small everything, but in the center of Berlin, the size and scale of the government and historical buildings, wide avenues, massive monuments and parks – the city leaves a great impression of power, strength, and a bit of grit to prove how it got there. This juxtaposition: one of the largest economies in the world that was destroyed by great turmoil not THAT long ago, is a bit bizarre and very cool.

But aside from that – really great food, cute shops, an awesome little bike tour, and serious friend time – that’s what it is all about.

Look at these cuties! In the Schoeneberg area, where Alex lives in his awesome apartment:

In the neighborhood is this really cool grocery store that is all about helping you make a perfect meal. It’s such a great and convenient idea, I think it would do really well in other areas. First you shop around and see which meal you would like, then you take all of the ingredients as specified on the sign and a recipe. It’s very precise (German!!) and basically foolproof.

Luckily we had an expert available to explain everything to us:

 

After wandering the cool neighborhood we ended up at the market, which made me pretty jealous about Alex’s daily life…maybe it was the great weather or maybe this market was just super well done, perfectly designed for an enjoyable Saturday out – grab a coffee and some lunch, browse beautiful flowers and interesting crafts and produce for dinner. We could use something this civilized in Amsterdam!

An mini, and pink, espresso truck:

Super crusty bread:

White asparagus season in full swing:

Artichokes

A pizza oven on wheels…

 

I ate most of that strawberry tart that the intriguing moustached stranger is holding…

 

We stopped for some beers (mine had a cute bunny on it!) and these fabulous grilled whole fish. They serve it to you on thick white paper with various garnishes and crusty rolls. Sitting outside in the crisp sunshine with grilled fish and beers? It DOES NOT get better than this. I am still gushing:

 

After lunch, Anna generously took us on the perfect bike tour of Berlin. She’s got the city down – we saw all of the sites in less than 2 hours, and had a blast doing it. We picked up some rental bikes at a store in their neighborhood and just went for it.

 

The highlight on such a beautiful day was the tiergarten (animal garden!). Wonderful winding trails for leisurely biking and boats on ponds just begging you to go for a float.

 

We had enough time for a quick stop at the biergarten in the tiergarten.

After a rest and some downtime at our airbnb rental (from all of that day drinking), we went to Alex’s place for cooking dinner. The mad scientist at work:

 

A beautiful dinner of all of the gorgeous produce we bought that day. Really lovely. Plus some bubbles to celebrate our April/May birthdays!

 

I scream for ice cream:

And the night continues at a fun cocktail bar not far from Alex’s place

 

No, it’s not Christmas…just happy guys in colorful sweaters…

 

After brunch we went downtown for a boat tour of Berlin which was a great way to learn about all of the sites and some of the history of the city. We were sitting on top of the boat and freezing, but was still a great way to see everything. Made me write a big list of all the places I want to spend more time on the next trip to Berlin.

 

After the boat tour and some hot tea we were back on the train to Amsterdam. It was a super short but very fabulous trip that we were lucky to have and enjoyed tremendously! Just to see Anna and Alex was a treat…can’t wait for the next meetup!