Sunday, February 25, 2024

The Joys of Forint Travel


No, the title is not some strange misspelling or typographical error. Later this week we’re making a quick trip to Budapest, Hungary, the official currency of which is the forint, named originally after Florence, Italy, where gold coins were minted from 1252, according to Wikipedia. In Hungary the florentinus, later the forint, was used from 1325.

In the 81 sovereign countries we’ve visited over the past couple of decades, there is a special category in which the language and currency are completely alien to our experience. Along with all of Asia, several European countries come immediately to mind, chiefly Finland, Turkey, and Hungary. Road signs are indecipherable, and it’s virtually impossible for us to acquire a single word of the local language, other than learning words like hello and thank-you by rote.

Our recent visit to Athens reminded us why that old expression “It’s Greek to me” appeared as far back as in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar,­­ even though Greek has had great influence on English and is part of the same large Indo-European language family.

This will be our third trip together to Hungary, the first being with our three young children in the early 1980s. Back then we had to obtain fairly expensive visas at the Hungarian Embassy in Vienna, and cross the Iron Curtain to enter and to leave what was then a Communist country, something of an adventure in itself. 

The main purpose of that side trip during our first European summer was to visit the parents of a college friend Kathy had stayed with during her college days in Vienna in the late 1960s. Back then, Kathy traveled to Budapest twice, the second time to help out her friend who had overstayed an entry permit, at some modest peril to herself. That’s a story for another day. Times have changed.

The point of this little travel history is that after all of these visits we still can’t understand a word of Hungarian, nor can we even recognize the sound of the language. Similarly, after spending a month traveling around the coast of Turkey on a yacht manned by a Turkish crew, we departed knowing nothing more than the “please” and “thank-you” we’d learned in advance.

Now of, course, we have utilized the free translation apps on our phone, Google Translate being one, that enable us to communicate in rudimentary form, and even to translate signs using the phone’s camera. Even so, there’s something especially exciting and even exotic about exploring such countries.

Our itinerary is simple and brief, resulting from a bargain British Airways business class fare between Vancouver and Budapest via London. We're staying in the Hilton Budapest, the same hotel we enjoyed in 2012.

We've bought tickets to attend a production of Tchaikovsky’s opera, The Queen of Spades, at the Hungarian State Opera House. We’re both unfamiliar with it, and fortunately have found a video of a live production for advance listening. Like many if not most operas, the plot is convoluted and frankly nonsensical, but we’re already enjoying the music and attending the production in Budapest’s recently renovated opera house should be most enjoyable for a couple of retired music teachers.

We’ve also reserved a morning walking tour that involves food and wine, and we plan to bring some genuine Hungarian paprika back home for, among other dishes, Kathy’s famous - within our family - Chicken Paprikash, (Paprik├ís Csirke in Hungarian) a recipe she learned in Budapest from that same friend more than 50 years ago.

Are we looking forward to our return to Budapest? Igen azok vagyunk!







Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Homeward Bound at the LAX Hilton

Morning broke early for us at the Hilton Playa del Carmen.

We rose at 3:00AM EST to be ready for CARM Transfer to take the four of us to CUN. Our driver arrived early and we were off by 3:50 on a pleasantly deserted highway.

We arrived at the airport by 4:45AM, said our good-byes to Tom and Ellyn, and entered Terminal 3 for our Alaska flight. Security was a breeze at this hour, and somewhat to our surprise there was no exit passport control.

We had been planning to avail ourselves of whatever delights the Priority Pass Lounge offered in the nearly four hours of time we had before the flight.

It took a couple of phone calls to confirm that, as of the end of January 2024, our AMEX Hilton Surpass credit card cancelled the 12 annual PP entries that we’ve occasionally used over the years. That’s annoying, and we’ll probably just cancel the card, especially after learning the annual fee is being raised from $95 to $150. 

On the bright side, we were both upgraded by Alaska to First, albeit seated apart, and we found out on landing that we’ve been upgraded to First for tomorrow’s LAX-SEA flight too.

We’re relaxing in the LAX Hilton, and enjoying an expansive view of the runways. 

It was raining hard as we landed after a bumpy approach through the clouds this morning, but it looks a little brighter now. 

We’ll try out hotel’s Italian eatery for dinner, figuring the $18 dining credit we each receive as one of Kathy’s Diamond benefits will bring the exorbitant menu costs down to a halfway reasonable price.

It’ll still be a shock after the “free” all-inclusive meals we’ve enjoyed for the past week.

Returning to reality is often a challenge.

And we find ourselves back in the LAX Alaska Lounge the following morning, enjoying TRIPLE SHOT Cappuccinos before boarding our flight to Seattle.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

At the Hilton Playa del Carmen: Just as Good the Second Time Around

We enjoyed ourselves here in January 2022, and were happy (and relieved) to find it just as enjoyable with Tom and Ellyn in February 2024.

The rooms are more than adequate, the grounds are beautiful, the employees are exceptionally friendly, and the dining experiences in this all-inclusive resort range from good to excellent.

We even managed to find one of our favorite 2022 waiters, Victor Herrera, still working at Asiana. Kathy recalled he and his wife had a baby who is now an active two-year old.

The food is still good, especially the sushi.

Tempting desserts…

We tried every restaurant, and found pleasing plates in all of them.

It’s a great place to spend a week eating and relaxing and eating some more. They even have a coffee bar that turns out excellent double-shot Cappuccinos.

One more day of paradise and we’ll be ready to face a gruesome 4:00AM pickup to the airport.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Sunrise at LAX

Drinking triple shot Cappuccinos in the Alaska Lounge in Terminal 6 after a 6 AM shuttle…

Upgraded to First for our flight to Cancun.

Monday, February 12, 2024

Trip Final Preparation: Look Before We Leave

 We're leaving later this morning for a stay at an all-inclusive Mexican resort, the Hilton Playa del Carmen. The two of us stayed here in January 2022, and this time Kathy's brother Tom and sister-in-law Ellyn will be joining us.

They don't leave Colorado until tomorrow, but we're flying from Bellingham to Los Angeles today and overnighting at LAX before catching a 8:18 AM flight to Cancun Tuesday morning.

In other words, it's a fairly simple trip, since we may cocoon at the resort for the entire week. Still, we always try to do some research just before a trip. What did we review for such an uncomplicated itinerary?

Like many if not most travelers, we keep a travel checklist and review it before every trip. We usually (occasionally?) have thought of everything, but every so often we're surprised. We obsessively and compulsively check to make sure we have passports, plastic cards, and cash.

Second, we look for any last-minute comments or reviews or complaints about the property on TripAdvisor and FlyerTalk. We noticed just this morning a recent TA reviewer complaining about arriving at the hotel and unable to make dinner reservations because the restaurants were full. Brian called the hotel on his cell phone's Skype app, and confirmed three dinner reservations, including a late one for our arrival tomorrow.

We also check our own blog. We've stayed here recently enough that we can remind ourselves of various details, large and small.  

We also checked in advance a new tax for visitors imposed (rather poorly) by Quintana Roo, the Mexican state we are visiting. We learned that the $20 fee is not an actual scam, and also that it has not so far been enforced. We now know that if we're requested to pay it at the airport, we can pay it without thinking we're being ripped off.

Finally, we're constantly checking our TripIt itinerary and our airline's website (Alaska) to see if there are any flight changes, cancellations, or even (hopefully) upgrades.

Phileas Fogg, the hero of one of Brian's favorite childhood books, Around the World in Eighty Days, written in 1873 by the great Jules Verne, said in regard to his own travel planning to circumnavigate the globe, "The unforeseen does not exist." While we've understood for a long time the irony of that remark, we still continue to make the effort to foresee what we can, leaving us time and energy to deal with the unforeseen as it arises.