Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sunday (8/26) - Back to Reality

Day #14

Wait a minute, what the heck is wrong with my alarm? I could have sworn we just went to sleep....

Oh yeah, we did.

With a 40-minute cab ride to the airport and checking bags because of our wine and olive oil bottles, we awoke very early to make sure we left enough time for everything. We quickly showered and threw on our clothes, and made our way down to the hotel lobby in time to meet our cab driver, and say goodbye to the nicest of the three-headed lobby attendant monster at Hotel Cecil. Our cabby was slightly too talkative for a Sunday morning around 4:00am, but he soon caught our vibe that we weren't quite ready for twenty questions on this given we rode ther est of the way to the airport in relative silence, reflecting on the trip and waking up.

We got to the airport in great time and immediately made our way to the airline counter to get our baggage checked for our multiple stops on our flight home, from Athens to Paris to Los Angeles to San Diego. But as soon as we started talking to this airline employee, he said it was too early in the morning to print the passes for our connecting flights, so we should get them at the next airport, but our baggage "would definitely be there to meet us in San Diego." Yes, we all know where this is going...and it ain't San Diego. But more on that later.

After saying goodbye to our luggage, we made our way to the gate and had an easy boarding process, and before we knew it, we were on the plane back home. The flight to Paris was uneventful and short, and when we arrived we printed our passes for the next (and longest) leg of the trip to L.A. Other than a slight flight delay, we had no problems with our connection and soon enough we were on our 13-hour flight to Los Angeles. And what did I do that entire flight? You guessed it...more movies! I watched True Grit, Memento, Hunger Games, and American Reunion, and was once again grateful for modern airplane technology allowing me to have something to keep my mind off the fact that I couldn't sleep on planes!

We arrived in L.A., and at this point we knew we would be going through customs since we were back in the states. We had a relatively short layover in L.A., and with our previous flight being slightly delayed, we were a bit worried about catching our final flight to San Diego. The line was incredibly long, and we knew we were in trouble, but then the airport employees gave us a bright orange form for connecting flights and allowed us to bypass the long line and make our way straight to baggage claim, where we waited for our luggage. And waited. And waited. After the same ugly blue duffel bag went around the luggage carousel for the 30th time, we realized our stuff was not on the plane, but we were inching closer to our flight time, so we asked to file a luggage claim, to which we were told we had to wait to file it until we got back to our home city (San Diego). We raced to the next terminal over (where our flight was), and got on the very short flight to S.D., knowing that we had some issues to resolve when we got into town with no luggage. We took off quickly and within an hour we were landing safely at Lindbergh Field in San Diego (around 6pm).

While Julie's mom patiently waited for us, we went to the airline office and filed our claim, to which they said they found the luggage in their system (in Atlanta) and would track the luggage and have it delivered to us the next morning. How it got to Atlanta, we have no idea (probably a Paris to Atlanta flight), but we were overjoyed knowing that our stuff was not lost and that we would only be without it for about 12 hours. The better news was we had everything we needed ot get by for the day, since we were both due back at work the next morning.

Julie's mom drove us home, knowing we were too exhausted to talk about all the details of the trip, so she let us just kind of sit and idly chat about the wedding and how nice it was to be back home. And then she dropped us off, we walked up to our front door, and walked in to find all of our wedding presents still waiting to be opened! A joyous sight for Julie, and a slightly overwhelming feeling for me, opening presents would have to wait for another day, as we both were ready to crash. At 7:30pm my wife was asleep, and I wasn't very far behind her. And thus our trip ended just how it started that first day in Athens...exhausted, happy and ready for a good night's sleep.

It was the best trip of my life, and I did it with my best friend. And I definitely have the travel bug now. And wherever I go, I'll be sure to bring my travel agent wife, along with the newest addition of the LP Bible.

There ya have it! Greece, blog-style!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Saturday (8/25) - Goodbye Crete, We Love You

Day #13

As we awoke to our final morning in Crete, we definitely had a bit of mixed emotions, as we were ready to make our way back home and tell everyone of our two week journey, but had trouble leaving our favorite island of the trip. For the second straight day, we just threw on some clothes and walked out to the hotel lobby to have another wonderful, fresh breakfast (similar to the day before) as we looked out the harbor windows. It was definitely a huge perk to have such quality food and service right in our hotel. Once again, I couldn't help but think how lucky I was to have married such an accomplished travel agent.

With plans to fly back to Athens later in the day, we decided to pack up our stuff and leave it with the hotel, then go out and walk to the local beach just up the road. As with the other beaches, we paid our eight euro to have an umbrella and two lounge chairs, and after relaxing in the shade for a bit, we made our way to the crystal clear water. The water was so clear we could see all the clear fish that were swimming around our toes, looking as if they want to eat our feet, getting closer and closer, dangerously close to actually...HOLY SHIT! He just bit me! Now, for the record, the fish just peck at you and there is zero pain associated with it, but it's hard not to flinch when they go for your toes. And put those things in front of my already-scared-of-water wife, and we had a good old-fashioned anxiety attack right there in the ocean in Greece. After making me carry her cuz she didn't want her feet sucked on, we swam out to some visible protruding rocks and explored around there for a while. Finally we made our way back to the showers on the shore, changed over into walking clothes, and walked back into town.

Local beach in Chania

Sampling the local cuisine...

We ventured around the town's back alleys and shops one last time, and ended up buying some olive oil and olive wood items for family back home, and of course, a tiny t-shirt for our godson, Paxton. After I tapped out of shopping for the trip, we made our way to a late lunch in Crete at a small place in a back alley called Portes (it goes without saying, but it was an LP Bible suggestion). Portes had a good-sized chalkboard posted on the front wall listing the day's specials, of which there were easily 10-15 items. We ordered some tzatziki and bread, Julie housed a plate of olives, and then we got lots of cheese, amazing stuffed mushrooms, baked feta and meat pies. We seriously ate more cheese than I believed possible.

Finally it was time to go back to our hotel and say our goodbyes. The hotel assistant (a very tiny, nice woman) called us a cab to the Chania airport, and she carried Julie's roller bag all the way out to the car parking area, despite Julie's urgings that she didn't need to do that. Our cab driver was very pleasant asking about our stay in Chania, and after a nice 40-minute ride through the outskirts of the island, we made it to the airport. We checked in with relative ease, this time having to check bags due to all the wine we were bringing home from Sigalas Winery in Santorini and the gift bottles from our hotels! Security was a breeze, and we found ourselves with plenty of time to kill in the airport.

Our plane was on time, and it was a small plane with two seats on either side of the aisle. The flight itself was only about 45 minutes, although a ferry ride would have taken upwards of 6-7 hours. Definitely worth the airfare. Since we would be staying in Athens just for one night, and waking up way before dawn the next morning for our 6:50am flight back home, we chose to stay in Hotel Cecil, where we stayed when we first came to Athens, so we could have a place of familiarity and not take any additional time having to get to know the town to find the hotel and a place to eat. Again, excellent call Julie!

Last night in Athens

We rode the metro back to downtown Athens, walked our two blocks to Hotel Cecil, said hello to the second nicest of the three-man lobby team, got our keys, and stayed in the room right next door to where we had stayed a week and a half before. By this time it was getting dark, and knowing that we would be getting up early, we decided to eat early (8:30pm) and then go crash. We trekked back to a place called Platanos, which was closed when we had tried to go earlier in the trip, and this time found it to be open! The place was quite busy, and we had another nice meal of wine and white fish (I can't remember what Julie had). I was exhausted, and dreading the night of little sleep I was about to get, so Julie caved into my tired mood and we walked back to Hotel Cecil. We laid our clothes out, ready for the morning, and got ready for what we hoped would be a relatively stress-free, easy trip back home.

*Up Next* - Athens to Paris to Los Angeles to San Diego...and our luggage left somewhere in between.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Friday (8/24) - Spot the Kri Kri!

Day #12

Now that was some good sleep! Obviously the night before we had reached the peak of physical exhaustion, because we both slept through the night (a rarity on most nights), and didn't even get up until 8:00am. Samaria Gorge had definitely left its mark on us, but nothing one night in comfortable Casa Leone couldn't fix!

We woke up and threw on some clothes and ambled outside our room door to the hotel lobby, where we had a fresh breakfast made for us at our own table when we sat down. We had fresh coffee and juice, fresh fruit, yogurt and granola, bread and jam, and an egg scramble. A wonderful, quaint meal making us feel like we were staying at a B&B (which for all intents and purposes, that's what it was). During breakfast, we met two of the other people staying in one of the four rooms, and got some pointers on what to see during our time in Crete. We exchanged some tips about Santorini, as that was where they were headed next, and they were excited to have some food suggestions for their next island.

After breakfast, we showered up and made our way through the main plaza (and the early heat) to the Agora Central Market. A hub for most locals, the market was enclosed in a large exhibit hall with two main drags that intersected in the middle. Among the tenants were local fishermen with the fresh catches of the morning, butchers with fresh meats of all kinds, and also random skinned animals, including skinned goat heads and hanging goats with the fur still on the feet. In addition to all the fish and meat vendors, the market was filled with herbs and olives and fresh fruits scattered about. There were also olive wood vendors, and many more "tourist" shops with the stereotypical monogrammed towels, Christmas ornaments, and of course, Angry Birds t-shirts.

Goat Heads!

We spent a good amount of time in the market, making a few purchases along the way (no goat heads, sorry folks), and finally decided to meander back along the harbor and game-plan for our next meal. On our way to lunch, we stopped by a harbor excursion boat and ended up signing up for a snorkel tour later in the day. While we were there, we chatted up the snorkel tour guy and he ended up giving us a suggestion for dinner on the harbor that night at a place called Vasilikos. You could tell this guy frequented the place, because he could recite by memory the entire menu, and did us the favor of writing down on the back of our snorkel information page exactly what to order that night...down to the appetizers and wine. But that was dinner, back to our lunch decision...

After consulting with the LP Bible, we settled on a place called Kouzina E.P.E., which had stunning reviews, most notably of which was a comment about how this was a no-frills place where the locals turned out to eat. Bingo, real Greek cooking. Let's do this.

Kouzina E.P.E. is tucked a few streets back from the harbor and away from the main drag, in a small street with relatively no businesses around it. We found the sign and door pretty quickly, and as we set foot in the doorway, we were smacked in the face with a multitude of overwhelming aromas from the kitchen. Why was it so overwhelming? Because the seating area is basically an extension of the kitchen! We sat down and surveyed the surroundings, noting the gigantic chalkboard on the wall with the day's menu. Before we got too comfortable, a server came up to us and let us know that, in this place, the way you order is by walking up to the kitchen window, looking at the long line of food options, and pointing at which meals you want. Sounds simple enough, we thought, so we stood up and took about ten steps to where the food was. What we didn't realize is we were literally standing in front of three old Greek women in hair nets, toiling away making the day's meals, and in front of them was a line of 13 pots and pans with various dishes for us to choose from. Our server pointed to each pot and explained what was in it, and by the time he got to the end, we had to ask him to remind us what was in the first three pots. The options were unreal, from stuffed grape leaves to lamb to eggplant to fresh stews. Everything looked and smelled incredible, and we definitely had a moment of stress as we debated the merits of the options in front of us.

We finally decided on three of the options - marinated pork, stewed rabbit, and grilled octopus, with a side of rice and bread. The tough thing here is there is no way I will be able to describe this meal in a way that does it justice. The rabbit came in a wonderful stew with vegetables, and the rabbit meat had a wonderful seasoning of cinnamon and cardamom to balance the salt of the broth. While I housed this meal, Julie ransacked the freshly grilled octopus, leaving no tentacle left behind. It was the perfect combination of tender and chewy (some other places had somewhat rubbery octopus), and it didn't last long. And then the pork. Oh me, oh my, the pork. I wish we knew what this pork was marinated in. I ate my rabbit and told Julie that she would love it, to which she responded, "Just wait until you have the pork." And yes, she was right. It literally fell apart on the plate it was so tender and juicy, and all the flavors of the red-sauce based marinade just seeped through every bite. We were in absolute heaven, despite the fact that we were eating well more than two people's share of a lunch meal. But we didn't care, we were here to gorge. The combination of the wonderful cultural experience (eating with locals and seeing our cooks), and the incredible food made us just sit back and enjoy yet another wonderful moment on a trip ride with similar moments.

Gorged and full to the extreme, we made our way back down to the harbor to board our ship for our three hour excursion around two nearby islands, with two snorkel stops. We jumped on-board, grabbed some goggles and snorkels, and made our way to the top deck where we could enjoy the ride. As we sailed out onto the water, we first passed a small island that was home to the local goat that the locals call the "kri kri." We were told to keep a lookout as we passed by, as we were likely to spot at least 10-20 kri kri running along the hillsides. Well, we saw one...and just barely...from really far. Not exactly a huge thrill.

Leaving the harbor on our excursion 

Searching for "Kri-Kri" 

We stopped at two different snorkeling areas, one where an old World War II bomber had crashed (which was cool, but no fish in sight), and another area in the shallows of a rocky island where there were also very few fish. Although the snorkeling was something to be desired, the water was extremely warm and it was great to dive off the bow of the boat and enjoy the surroundings. And then after we got back on the boat, the remainder of the trip was spent taking shots of raki at the open bar on the boat, all of which were poured by an old, wrinkly deckhand that was shirtless and wore his jeans up to his (saggy) nipples. This guy made it his mission to get everyone on the entire boat hammered, and he did a pretty good job. And man, raki is not an easy drink to take down quickly. Firewater definitely burns...badly.

Enjoying the tour

We docked back in the harbor and went back to the hotel to shower. After watching another beautiful sunset and walking the alleys, we made our way to dinner at a place called Vasilikos, recommended by our snorkel guide earlier in the day. And trusting him with our dining pleasure, we ordered off of the piece of paper he had written on earlier in the day. And with that, we ordered: marinated anchovies, small fried fish, octopus, sea urchin, and graviera cheese. Yeah, we ate all that. The urchin was served in oil and was a great spread for the bread, and the graviera cheese was something we couldn't pass up after having it the day before. All the seafood was unreal. The anchovies were marinated in a lemon and oil sauce that was awesome, and we ate the whole fish. The fried fish were so crispy and cleanly battered that we peeled the meat right off the fish spine. God, we ate so well. 

Last sunset in Chania 

After a quick nightcap of raki and being surrounded by even more cats at the restaurant, we finally called it a night. The harbor was just starting to get hopping around 11pm, with people just getting appetizers and wine as they began their meals. But we were well past all that, so we made our way back to the hotel. And of course, we walked by the "untz-untz" club on our way to Casa Leone.

*Up Next* - We end our time in Crete, fly back to Athens, and have one more Greek dinner...

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Thursday (8/23) - Samaria Gorge

Day #11

After an extremely sound sleep (other than the distracting "untz-untz" mentioned in the last post), we woke up very early to catch the bus up to a small town called Omalos to hike the largest gorge in all of Europe, Samaria Gorge. The bus left at 6:15am, so we walked over to the station, bought our tickets, and then grabbed some breakfast snacks for the ride...and then were told by the bus driver "NO FOOD!", so we had to store our yogurt under the bus with our bags for the hour-long bus ride. Bummer.

The first thing any hiker (experienced or not) notices is that this hike is all downhill. And although it sounds like a cakewalk, let me tell you this was one intense hike. A 13km hike, the gorge begins at the very top, and the first 4-5km are incredible steep and jaggedly sloped. The ground did not have level steps, and often times the dirt was swept away, exposing slippery tree roots that only made the rocky pass more difficult to traverse. The bus unloaded all of us, and within 5-6km, the group had been fairly spaced out, with the fit travelers making their way to the front, as the less athletic people slowed down as they eased their way down the gorge.

 Starting the downward descent

Despite the terrain, the views were breathtaking. Standing at the top, we could not believe how far down we were about to travel, and the greenery and landscape was stunning, from the hillside trees to the white-washed gorge basin. We stopped a few times down the first part of the hike, but we looked forward to when the hike would flatten out, so we let our momentum carry us toward the bottom of the gorge. We soon heard running water, and we came across a small stream passing over rocks that we were required to hop across. One of the little things in life that never ceases to excite me, crossing a small river or stream on rock steps is always a highlight.

Bridge crossing

In the gorge basin 

We continued on, and at one point came across an entire valley full of rock-pile statues. You know, when people balance rocks of different shapes and sizes on top of one another? I'm not talking about 10-15 cool towers, I mean literally thousands of them surrounding us in this flat valley along our path down to the base of the gorge. Julie was especially amazed with this little patch of fun.

Ever-changing landscape 

The gorge begins to narrow

As we stayed along the water's edge, the slope began to ease, and before we knew it, we were seeing a lot of white rock, a sign that we were close to the basin where water normally runs through (but obviously not in August). And then, suddenly, there we were, standing at the base of the gorge, having traversed about 1200m of altitude quite quickly. Looking up, the gorge was even more impressive than we had imagined. The trees lined the dark mountainside, and the white basin ran on forever. But what was most incredible was the part of the gorge known as the "Iron Gates." The most famous part of the hike, the Gates refer to a place in the middle of the gorge basin where the sides of the gorge narrow down to a mere four meters! This cavernous, gigantic gorge all of a sudden became incredibly narrow and tight, providing us with incredible vertical views and perspective looking back as it widened.

Great shot of the hillside (and my wife)

Looking back through the Iron Gates
After about five hours of hiking, we reached the end of the gorge, only to find that we had not finished the hike. To get to the only nearby town, Agia Roumeli, we had to go another 3km. Let's just say that by this point, our feet and knees were a little sore from the downhill trek, and the thought of 3km made me somewhat delirious and I ranted and raved as we continued down to find the 'real' end of the hike.

The end of Samaria Gorge 

Julie's research proved to be helpful, as we learned in Agia Roumeli that there are no roads, and the only way out of the town is to wait for one of two ferries of the day to take you back to the main port. In Agia Roumeli, there is a morning ferry (11:00am) and an evening ferry (5:30pm)...that's it. So for all those hikers who set foot on the trail around 7:30am, they would all miss the morning ferry, and have to wait many hours for the last one. In our case, we arrived in the town at 12:45, so we had quite a chunk of time to kill.

Agia Roumeli is nothing more than a beach with a few tavernas. Catering almost exclusively to tourists, the food was very mainstream and commercial, with most menus featuring the stereotypical "gyro plate" as their main dish. Gyro in Greece is considered fast food to the locals. Up to this point I had successfully avoided the dish, but given the scarce options, I caved and ordered the gyro plate, and experienced my one and only below average meal of the trip. But we just needed fuel more than anything else, just to charge our batteries, so the food would suffice.

From the taverna, we moseyed down to the beach where we bought an umbrella and chairs to lay down and stay off our swelled, stinky feet. We immediately went across the scalding hot sand and into the water to rinse off and relax, and we agreed that it was actually kind of nice to be forced into relaxing, since we had chosen to go nonstop since landing in Athens 11 days prior.

After about three hours of laying out, we packed up and made our way to another small taverna and splurged on some ice cream sundaes. Never too full for ice cream, we absolutely housed our desserts, leaving no drops left, and were very happy to have found this little treat on such a hot day. From there we made our way to the ferry dock so we could jump on and find a seat in the shade. At this point it was about 98 degrees, and we had more than our fair share of sun that day with the 5-hour hike and 3-hour beach stint.

And then we realized something horrific we hadn't even considered. Of the people waiting for the final ferry in Agia Roumeli, at least 85% of them were there because they had hiked down the gorge and spent the last few hours in the sun. There was a small contingent of locals just making their daily trek to or from the small town, but for the most part, it was hikers. And when you get on a two-story ferry with long bench-style seats for an hour, with people who all spent the last 8+ hours sweating, there is bound to be a major stench. Oh lord, this was by far the most overwhelming B.O.-fest I'd ever encountered. I spent the first 15 minutes of the trip with my shirt over my nose and mouth, preferring to breathe my own scent than brave the likes of my odorific neighbors.

Finally off the stinky-mobile, we rushed to the front of the pack of people to get on the bus to take us back to Chania. We realized later how smart of a move this was, as many people were left waiting for the next wave of buses as we took off up a windy road back to Chania. By the time we got back to Chania, we could not wait to take a shower and cleanse ourselves of the day's activities. Our brains fried and not in the mood to make more decisions, we made life easy on ourselves and decided to save new restaurants for the days to come, and spend this evening back at our new favorite place from the day before, Tamam.

Super excited for another round of food at Tamam, we quickly ordered off the dinner menu as I got the goat fillet and Julie got the lamb covered in eggplant puree. The goat was incredibly tender and had a great braised sauce on it, and Julie said the lamb was one of her favorite dishes of the trip, raving about the puree served with it.

Happy, full, and exhausted, we spent some more times perusing the local shops and looking at all of the different products made from olive wood. We didn't last long in the shops, as the long hike and full day of sun finally caught up to us, so we retired back to Casa Leone and passed out...again. Man, this trip is awesome!

*Up Next* - We visit the open market, have two incredible meals, and take a snorkeling tour with an old man who wanted to get us drunk.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Wednesday (8/22) - CRETE!

Day #10

After a relatively short night's sleep, we packed up our stuff and left it at our hotel early on Wednesday. We set out for the bus station (right near the ferry port from the night before), and we bought our bus fare to take us to our only destination in Iraklio, the Palace of Knossos.

Originally built around 2000 B.C., this Minoan palace had been destroyed by earthquakes and fires over the years, and at the start of the 20th century, an archaeologist named Arthur Evans began to re-build and re-create some of the lost palace. I won't go into too many details here, but you should know that it is always very bizarre to visit a place that has been completely rebuilt, and the signs and brochures explain what an archaeologist from 1900 A.D. thinks these ruins are. For all we know, everything we saw could have been latrines or closets, but the whole place has signs that begin with "Arthur Evans believed...". An odd experience. Some cool ruins, but certainly all taken with a grain of salt. After we perused the grounds, we made our way back to the hotel, grabbed our luggage, and sprinted back to catch our three-hour bus ride to Chania, where we would stay the for the remainder of our time in Crete.

Palace of Knossos ruins

Fresco at Palace of Knossos 

We arrived in Chania around 2pm, and we navigated our way through some cute back alleys with overhanging vines and balconies to find our final hotel, Casa Leone. Our room wasn't quite ready, so we asked for a good lunch suggestion, and ended up going to our favorite food spot of the entire trip. The staff let us leave our luggage at the hotel, so we strapped on the backpacks and began to explore all the wonderful side alleys and small shops en route to the taverna called Tamam. Oh goodness, I am already feeling major nostalgia for this place. Deep breath...and here we go...

Tucked away in a small walking alleyway, Tamam has some of the most unique culture and culinary dishes we experienced during our trek across all the islands. The setting was very real, from the hustle and bustle of the narrow alleyway, to the frequent rounds of children and mothers begging for food right at your table. But let's get to the food. We were famished from our trek across the ruins and subsequent three-hour bus ride, so we dove into a laundry list of dishes: a fresh salad with walnuts and avocado, spicy avocado dip (using bread and potatoes for dipping), a local cheese dish called 'staka' (warm, gooey melted cheese), apaka (thickly sliced pork rounds that have a slight similarity to meaty bacon), and cheese pie (duh). Oh my goodness, the cheese pies were flaky and heavenly goodness, the apaka was salty goodness, and my-oh-my, the staka was heaven. This was salty and creamy cheese in a bit of oil, and dipping bread in it made my whole life seem better. Exaggerating? Hell no, you don't understand until you go to Tamam and eat the staka. After the feast, the server came out with a small slice of a clear. white jello-ish type cake dessert (horrible description, I know), and a small bottle of the local aperitif called raki (also knows as "firewater"). The cake was nothing to write home about, but man, that firewater was off the hook! You think you know a burn from tequila? Use that as your base of comparison, then double the throat singe and add tongue numbing, and you've got raki. Stuff cleared our sinuses for the rest of the trip, and I loved it!

Excited to get back to our hotel and thank the nice lady for the great lunch suggestion, we trekked back to Casa Leone to check out our room. A restored Venetian villa, Casa Leone is a fantastic boutique hotel that features four rooms. We were fortunate to have a balcony that overlooked the incredible harbor inlet (including a gorgeous lighthouse), and the room itself was perfect. We opened the door to find the hotel had left us a honeymoon gift of wine and towel animals. The room was extremely quaint, and was definitely a step up from all the nice places we had stayed thus far. Julie hit a home run the whole trip with her hotel planning, and this place, by far, was the grand slam.

Towel animals! 

View out our doors at Casa Leone 

Our harbor view in Chania 

We lazed in the hotel for a few minutes just to game-plan our next move, and then we set out to walk the harbor, see the welcoming shops, and experience the overflowing culture in Chania. There were fishermen out in boats, kittens running through the streets, people sampling olive oil in and raki in stores, and a wonderful overarching energy that permeated through the whole town. The enthusiasm was contagious, and we knew immediately we had found the combination of culture and beauty we had been hoping for.

After exploring the town a bit, we made our way around the entire harbor to get to a narrow stone walkway that led out onto a seawall to the lighthouse. By this time we were approaching sunset, so we hung out and took some photos as we killed time so we could watch sunset from the seawall and lighthouse. This was one of the most mesmerizing moments of the trip, with our legs dangling over the edge of the wall, the sun hitting our faces, and the sound of the ocean crashing on the jagged rocks below.

Taking in sunset on the seawall 

Chania sunset 

After taking in the sunset, we made our way back to the main harbor to try out a dinner place called Apostolis II (the 'II" is in reference to the original Apostolis restaurant, which was two blocks down the harbor). Another LP Bible suggestion, Apostolis II is a water-side taverna in the harbor that offers beautiful views of the local boats and the lighthouse. And in addition to a great ambiance, it also had excellent service. Our waiter brought our bottle of white wine in a tall standing bucket of ice, along with our highly anticipated appetizer of gruviere cheese, another local Cretan cheese. The gruviere cheese was a hard cheese, sliced in wedges, with a nice mild flavor that worked wonderfully with the basket of bread. Then came the only meal of the trip where we ordered the same thing - the catch of the day - a beautiful white snapper. This was the creamiest, almost velvety fish I've ever tasted. We devoured the fish and found ourselves wanting more of it, as Greece once again proved it prepared fish way better than back home.

One of the most beautiful sights of the trip - the illuminated lighthouse from Apostolis II 

But, apparently, the meal wasn't over! The staff came out with a huge dessert plate of grapes, melon, fluffy cheese pastries, a summery edible flower, fresh marmalade, yogurt and a carafe of raki for free! One of the many reasons Crete would end up being our favorite stop of the honeymoon, the service never ceased to amaze us with the generosity, hospitality and above-and-beyond treatment of its customers. 

Exhausted from our day of travel, we strolled down the boardwalk on the harbor, passing the increasingly busy tavernas (normal dinner time was about 10:30pm), and the increasingly pushy servers. Apparently some of the tavernas have a reputation of being a little too cavalier in their efforts to bring in the local passers-by, and many of the other restaurants used this as marketing effort in their favor, displaying chalk signs out front of their stores that read:

   "We Don't Touch People"
   "No Pressing, No Stressing"
   "We Don't Speak Too Much"
   "We Are Not The Best"

Suffice to say this gave us quite the laugh, as we saw certain servers grab people by the elbow and try to escort them, and then look inside their taverna to see it empty, and their neighbor restaurants packed.

We made one last pass through some of the cobblestone alley shops, and among other things, found many shops that specialized in olive products, from oils to soaps to olive wood pieces. A great light brown color, the olive wood utensils and sculptures were beautiful throughout the town. As we exited the last shop, we heard the recognizable "untz-untz" thumping of a nightclub, and saw it was within definite earshot of our balcony one block down. As we passed the harbor-side club, we found it odd that they were blaring music with about three people inside, but all would be explained the next morning when we both woke up at 5:50am to hear the unmistakable "untz-untz" coming from that same club, the only place still open at that time of morning.

With that, we retired for the evening back at Casa Leone, and were excited about how the tone had been set for our time in Crete!

*Up Next* - We hike Samaria Gorge, get stranded on a beach, and go to Tamam...again.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Tuesday (8/21) - Can We Do It All?

Day #9

Planning our final day in Santorini, we decided to take a bit of a risk and plan a day excursion before we had to catch our late afternoon ferry to Crete. It was going to be cutting it close, but between the bus schedule and cabs as a backup, we intended to make every minute count!

On the pirate ship!

Julie found a three-stop morning excursion that left Santorini in the morning, and even better, it departed from the port down below at Ammoudi Bay! We took a quick bus down to the bay (we had enough of those donkey steps), and soon enough our pirate-looking ship arrived and we embarked on the first stop of our journey, Nea Kameni. An active volcano that last erupted in 1950, Nea Kameni sits at the center of the caldera of the Santorini volcano. As we stepped off the ship, we were immediately herded into a group of about 75 people that were all set to hike up the hill in a long, death-march style processional. The tour guide spoke many languages, and stopped three different times up the volcano (all hardened lava) to inform us about random facts of the volcano. Finally at the top, we were able to see small sulfur emissions coming from the ground, a sign of its continued activity. Definitely a cool sight to see, and despite the heat, we enjoyed the hike through the magma as well!

At the top of Nea Kameni

View from the volcano

Shortly after we made the descent, we jumped back aboard our ship and made our way to the second leg of the trip, the hot spring at Palea Kameni. We set anchor a little ways off this tiny island (still within the caldera), and we were able to climb down a ladder into the water (or in my case, JUMP) and wade our way through the blue water all the way to a brownish-yellow patch of water where the hot spring was. Well, after making our way there, we came to the conclusion that they should consider renaming it a lukewarm spring. We had both been to hot springs before, and this water wasn't exactly a spa. The normal water in Greece is about 75-77 degrees, and the hot spring water was about 84 degrees. Not exactly a shocking transition...but nonetheless, it was always nice to jump in the water in Greece.

The final stop on this ship tour was another small island named Thirassia. This was a bizarre stop, as we only had one hour on the island, and to get to the main town, it was a 30 minute round-trip hike up some steep stairs. So while some made the trek to see the town, we decided to stay in the small island port and eat at a taverna called Captain John's, suggested by our boat guide. Captain John's had a beautiful outdoor patio that overlooked the water, and as we walked in, they were grilling octopus outside for everyone to see, and we couldn't wait to get inside. Once inside, we came across a huge buffet, where we had tons of amazing options, and bless her heart, my wife ordered completely with her stomach, and between the two of us, we had two of the fullest buffet trays you've seen this side of Souplantation. And the best part? We ate it all!

View from our table on Thirassia

Stuffed beyond belief, we ambled back onto the ship and made our way back to Santorini. We got delayed in hitting our port by a slow boat before us, and while we sat on our boat waiting, we realized we would miss the bus (the cheaper, but less frequent option) and would need to catch a cab in order to get to the ferry on time. We raced and got our luggage and hailed a cab down to the port. Because of the speediness of the cab, we made it there well before our ferry ride, so we settled in a taverna and ordered ice cream and crepes! Definitely a great treat on a hot day with us running around (although I'm not sure how we fit that food in our stomachs after our buffet lunch).

As with the last two ferry rides, I spent my time studying up on our next destination...Crete! After reading the LP Bible, I couldn't wait to explore the sites and restaurants of the famous island. A short ferry ride later, we arrived just after dark in Iraklio, the capital of Crete. We had plans to go to another spot in Crete, but Iraklio was the hub for the ferries, and there was a palace we wanted to hit...but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Thanks to my travel agent wife, our hotel was less than half a mile from the ferry port, so we dragged our bags through the town and weaved our way through some narrow, dark alleys in search of our hotel. Only staying there for one short night, we went on the inexpensive "just give me a bed" route, and found a great place just steps from the main square of local restaurants. We found it with relative ease, and with it past dark and our appetites ready for the next meal after the buffet had digested a bit, we dropped our bags and went to find our spot for dinner.

After walking around the square a few times (and me in an increasingly tired and not so fun mood), we finally settled on a place on the outskirts of the square that looked promising. Julie ordered a lamb dish and an appetizer, and not being incredibly hungry or feeling well, I chose a safe chicken fillet. And that ended up being the most boring, dry dish of the trip. That'll teach me to not order a unique Greek dish. Bad move Sawyer.

After dinner, we made our way back to the hotel, and despite the warm room, crashed pretty quickly. Now settled on our third island of the trip, we were loving life and ready to do more exploring the next day!

*Up Next* - Palace of Knossos, moving cities to Chania, a gorgeous hotel, and some ridiculous food. I mean, the best of the entire trip...easily.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Monday (8/20) - Best Day Ever!

Day #8

I am going to warn you now - what follows will be an extremely long post. This day on our honeymoon was jam-packed with excitement and activities, and I want to detail all of the fun!

During her research, Julie discovered that we could hike from our place in Oia (the northern tip of Santorini) to the main hub in central Santorini called Fira. The hike was about 5-6 miles along the coastline ridge, and Julie said it was relatively flat (more on this later).

Church stop on the hike

We left our house early in the morning to beat the heat, and we started by walking through our small town of Oia, and right away we were approached by two random dogs patrolling the town. Julie, of course, immediately started talking to them and petting them, and that was enough for them to hang out with us as we embarked on our hike. One of them kept running way ahead of us, so I named him Rocket, and then the other one had some problems walking in a straight line, so I named him Drifter. So the dynamic duo started walking with us as we finally reached the edge of Oia, and then we couldn't find the launch point for the path for the hike, and before we knew it, our two canine guides walked straight to it and led the way!

Did you really think I wouldn't find one of these?!

The hike started as a steep uphill climb through some biting, swirling wind. We could see the top of this initial incline, and we took our time as our two doggy friends forged ahead, never straying too far to be out of our sight. We began to worry that they would venture too far from home, but these two obviously had done this trek before, and were perfectly content to have some human company on this particular day. We reached the top of the mountain and found ourselves at a small church in the middle of nowhere, with no roads to be found. The dogs had vanished too far ahead of us, and sadly, after calling our dogs (by the names we named them), we continued on the path without our friends. No more than five minutes later, I heard the most excited, genuinely happy squeal I've ever heard from Julie behind me. Wanting to see what the excitement was, I turned just in time to see Rocket and Drifter come running over the hill. Julie held her arms open wide and hugged both of them as she was reunited with her buddies. Including our wedding, that was the happiest I've ever seen her.

The church where we met more dog friends!

We kept walking and came across four more dogs, who we quickly named Deuce, Stringbean, Wallaby, and...wait a minute, is that...Flops? Holy hell, it was! Sure enough, our sunrise buddy from the day before was out gallivanting with his homeboys on the path of our hike! As if it was planned, the four new dogs fell into stride with us and continued on. Mind you, by this point Rocket and Drifter had been with us for 2 miles, and these dogs had no intention of leaving. And we had no idea where they lived.

Flops returns!

I have plenty of dog stories about these six dogs, but for purposes of this post, just know they all had unique personalities, and Julie could not contain her excitement and laughter as we did voices for them the whole hike. Oh wait, did I say the whole hike? Indeed I did. These dogs stayed with us for anywhere from 3-6 miles, each slowly departing on different stops along the way. Such a hilarious start to our day.

*Side Note* - This hike was awesome (don't let the dog talk fool you). I recommend it to anyone. The hike was a steep climb to start, but it certainly was not overly difficult, and there were churches sprinkled throughout the hike that served as great stopping points for rest and photos. It climbed up, and then dove down, and there was rarely a time you didn't have an ocean view. At one point, the island narrows down to about a kilometer wide, and you stand with ocean visibly on both sides of you. Absolutely breathtaking. Just don't believe your wife when she says "Oh, and it's pretty flat!"

Finally arriving in Fira, we set out to grab a snack and then my most anticipated part of the day - renting ATV's! We grabbed a quick cheese pie (duh), and then found an ATV rental place. The gentleman renting the vehicles asked Julie if she'd done this before, and when she excitedly said "No!", he looked at her and asked "You sure you want to do this?" Classic moment.

Julie on her ATV

After convincing him we could do it, and getting a quick tutorial on the gears, we burned rubber out of Fira and set out to ride our hogs down the remainder of the coast of Santorini. We switched off riding lead and rear hogs in our two-man biker gang, and soon enough we reached our first stop of the ride, Red Sand Beach. Akin to its name, Red Sand Beach sits below some red cliffs, and the pebbled sand was of the same burgundy color as the cliffs. We parked the hogs, walked down the cliff, and quickly jumped in the water and explored the area. A beautiful site, but we had more to see!

Enjoying Red Sand Beach 

We set out again and went just down the road to Kamari Beach. This was a fun ride through neighborhoods, main roads, and beach coastlines as we traversed the entire island coast. Now famished from our hike and ATV adventures, we checked the LP Bible for a food suggestion, and settled on Nechtheri, a small taverna on the beach that overlooked the crystal clear water of Kamari Beach. Ordering with our stomachs in mind, we were soon presented with octopus with fava, baked feta, tzatziki (surprise), tomato fritters and the house salad. Yet another solid meal on the island.

After lunch, we strolled down to the beach, paid eight euro for two chaise lounges and an umbrella, and crashed on the black sand beach of Kamari. This island is so awesome because in the course of one kilometer, you can go from red sand to white sand to black sand. The black pebbles of Kamari were very nice, and warmed the water up even more than the other beaches. While at the beach, Julie fully indulged herself as a honeymooner should, and hailed one of the walking masseuses and got a full foot and leg massage while she passed out on the beach. Girl was in heaven!

Biker Gang 

A few hours later, we picked up our stuff and made our way back to the ATV's and rode them back along the remaining coastline as the sun slowly started to make its descent. This was an extremely "Zen" moment for me, looking out to the water every chance I got (while flooring it on my bad-ass hog). We made it back to Fira, and after an unnervingly long time trying to navigate the one-way roads and pedestrian-only alleys, we finally returned the hogs in one piece (much to the surprise of the salesman), and found our way to a local bar called Tropical Bar to extend our tradition of sunset cocktails. This bar was well suited for sunsets, with a beautiful balcony with limited seating, solid cocktails, and a breathtaking view of the volcano caldera.

 Tropical Bar in Fira
 Sunset caldera view in Fira

Once again hungry from our return trip, we decided to stay in Fira for dinner, and found another taverna called Ouzeri, another LP suggestion. We settled in and were greeted by an extremely nice waiter, and within minutes we dove into our white wine and appetizer of ouzo-marinated meatballs. The ouzo definitely seeped through to the meatballs, and although a simple dish, we found it refreshing and fun. From there I went and picked out my own sea bass for dinner, while Julie selected the prawns. This was some of the freshest seafood we had all trip, and Julie had humungous prawns! These suckers were outrageously large, and my seabass was almost creamy. I swear the Greeks know how to cook fish so much better than Americans.

We finally ended our time in Fira and caught a night bus back to Oia. We walked the streets, and despite Julie's urging to walk the stores, Marc was done. My loving wife put off shopping for one night, and accompanied me back to our amazing old house, and we crashed in the bed, with me muttering about how amazing the day was as Julie drifted off into sleep about all our dog friends...

*Up Next* - A day excursion to hike a volcano, swim in a hot spring, a huge lunch, and a late afternoon ferry ride to Crete!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Sunday (8/19) - Food & Wine!

Day #7

Oh, so this is why people love Santorini. We made plans to wake up really early so we could catch sunrise from our beautiful balcony, and as soon as our alarm went off we opened the doors and made ourselves comfortable on the deck chairs as we took in the beautiful dawn. The sun slowly started to make its way over the hill to our right, and as it did, it threw amazing colors onto the perfect white canvas provided by all the hillside houses. What a sight. We breathed it all in, soaking in every second of this amazing trip and experience. Definitely one of the most incredible moments of the trip.

Sunrise hitting the white homes

Sun is up in Santorini!

As we watched sunrise, we also had our first canine friend come by. A black, furry little rascal with floppy ears came running across the local rooftops and porches and came and said hello to us. After a few tail-wags and a quick trip around our balcony, he plopped down on the floor next to my feet and took a morning siesta as we took in the sights. Because of his dangly ears, we named him Flops. Little did we know, this would not be our last experience with Flops in Santorini...

My main man, Flops.

After a quick morning walk around the local town, we received our first fresh bread delivery from an extremely pleasant Romanian woman who worked for the owners of our place. With a fresh loaf of cracked wheat bread, we pulled out the jelly and honey from the room and had juice and coffee on the porch. What a day this was going to be!

We set out down the famous steps down to Ammoudi Bay. There are roughly 280 rocky, well-spaced out steps leading from the top of Oia down to this small bay that had four restaurants, a small boat port, and a little swimming hole. The steps are famous for the multiple ways to traverse them. We took the more natural route of walking up and down, and passed on the less strenuous (but more aromatic) option of a donkey ride back up. The train of donkeys, strapped with bells, jingled their way up the hill, although this practice has become less in recent years with the uproar of local animal rights activtists not liking this treatment of the donkeys. We immediately jumped into the water, that was pleasantly warm (around 75 degrees) and swam around and stood on some rocks and goofed off. After taking in some rays on the pier, we explored the local restaurant scene and even passed a place with an aquarium in front where they put the day's catches! As we passed the aquarium, two local fishermen were busy cutting up their most recent, a giant grouper. I mean huge. The head alone was as big as a couple footballs. We explored a bit more around Ammoudi Bay, along the way finding two not-so-attractive, older, nude, female sunbathers. We whisked our way past them, gawking a bit as we did so. And on that note, we were obviously ready for lunch!

Ammoudi Bay 

Julie descending the steps to Ammoudi Bay

I have been so excited to write this next piece, cuz it's one of the best lunches of the trip. Off yet another recommendation from the LP Bible, we made our way to a lunch-place with an incredible view of the volcano and sea, named Skala. We ordered mezedhes-style, requesting four different appetizers along with our glasses of white wine. After a short wait, we were presented with a glorious display of plates and trays of food. Among the many dishes were tzatziki (a Marc staple at this point), greek salad, tomato fritters, and horn peppers stuffed with feta and herbs. Oh my goodness. Oh my goodness. The tzatziki was served chilled, as it should be, with the perfect amount of dill, and I quickly smothered the bread with it. The greek salad was huge, and had generous helpings of feta, tomatoes, onions, and cucumber. Julie and I both housed this bad boy. The tomato fritters were something Julie had heard about and wanted to try, and they certainly didn't disappoint. They were slightly chopped tomatoes fried into balls (slightly larger than a meatball), and when dipped in the cool tzatziki, they were outrageous. And then the crowning gem, the stuffed horn peppers. These peppers had just the right amount of kick, and they were generously stuffed with fresh feta cheese and incredible combination of fennel, anise, dill and oregano. They were so stupid-good, I was upset we didn't have more. OMG, so good. I want them now. This was a fantastic meal. I heart you Skala.

View from Skala

After lunch, we peeled ourselves from our seats at the lunch table and made our way to the town center to see how we could make our way to Sigalas Winery, the local vintner who made the wine we had sampled the previous night at Ambrosia & Nectar. After a short taxi ride, we found ourselves at a quaint wine tasting room, surrounded by its vineyards and beautiful Greek landscape. We were given the ridiculously awesome option of tasting twelve (yes, 12) wines for the absurd price of nine euro. Nine euro? Um, yes please. We made our way out to a veranda and waited for our epic tasting experience to begin. 

*Oh, side note...I met a cat, and I named him Vino. He liked me. End of side note.*

Five minutes later, our server came out with a tray of 24 glasses of wine (12 for each of us). What a sight that was! After she successfully balance the tray after placing all 24 glasses on the table, she separated the whites (6) and reds (6) and gave us a quick rundown of what we were drinking, then departed. So we embarked on our 12-wine journey, sipping each one, writing down notes for each wine, reaching for the next one, and...spilling wine #8 all over my shorts. Oh, and if you were curious, wine #8 was red, and my shorts were khaki. Epic fail.

Sigalas Winery - 24 glasses!

The wines were decent, much better in the white wine department than the red, but all-in-all, an incredibly enjoyable experience, and a great way to spend an afternoon in Santorini. Put it on the "well worth it" list. The setting and views alone were mesmerizing.

We called the cab (same driver) to take us back to the main square, and after a bit of street exploring, we took a short rest on the day bed in the living room. Between the wine and the lunch, we were overdue for a little siesta (much like Flops earlier). We arose in time to go watch a beautiful sunset at the peak of Oia, and the amount of people that came out to watch it was amazing. The entire town came out to see the reflections and colors thrown onto the white houses from the setting sun, and the hanging bougainvillea just added to the beautiful scene.
Watching the Oia sunset.

And then, it was time for more food. After a bit of a search, we found our next target...Kastro. A nice outdoor restaurant with pleasant music providing a great ambiance, Kastro was also highly recommended in the LP Bible. No longer stuffed from the lunch at Skala, we ordered an appetizer of grilled eggplant stuffed with feta, and followed that up with entrees of pasta with sundried tomato and asparagus (Julie) and lamb with an amazing gravy sauce (Marc). Two simple meals, two excellent results.

Last view of sunset from our place.

Fully sated, we once again ambled back to our room, and crashed. Yep, that's it. An exciting day ends with two tired heads on two comfy pillows in an old white house, on a bluff, overlooking the volcano caldera of Santorini. Ain't no thang.

*Up Next* - Julie's dream comes true, we rent ATV's, see different colored sand beaches, and more great food.