Austria

After a few days in Alsace and a few more in Germany, we left Dinkelsbuhl the morning after Christmas to drive to our next destination, Kufstein, Austria.  The drive there took us further and further into the Alps, and the snow got deeper and deeper.  The traffic also got slower and slower, as the autobahn was clogged with post-Christmas Germans bound for ski holidays.  We got off the autobahn and took back roads instead, which made for a gorgeous drive through the mountains.

We arrived in Kufstein the late afternoon as the sun was going down.  The town is on a lovely location on the River Inn, and we enjoyed ourselves checking out the city centre.  We had much more snow and colder temperatures on our trip from here on out.

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The main feature of Kufstein is the Festungsturm (fortress) which sits high on a cliff over the river.  It is huge and imposing and wildly impressive.  It had closed before we got there so we didn’t actually go to the top.

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We stayed at Auracher Loechl, a quirky hotel in the heart of the main tourist street in Kufstein (really more of an alley), adjacent to the River Inn and located directly under the cliff with the fort.

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This was a really funny little place and I would definitely recommend it.  While our room was pretty small and no-frills, the staff was friendly and the breakfast spread, enjoyed overlooking the river each morning, was quite nice.  The restaurant attached to the hotel was actually really good; so good, in fact, that we ended up eating there twice.

On the first night, we had a drink at the fancy gin bar first.  This is located in the old wine cellar of the restaurant, which is basically a tunnel built into the cliff, so the setting is really cool, and the staff are a bunch of hipsters making gin-based cocktails using all sorts of varieties of gins and other ingredients.  This was really unexpected for Kufstein and really good!

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View out our hotel room the first morning

The next day, Saturday, we boarded a train for Salzburg.  After spending a lot of time in small villages, we were ready for a little urban life (such that Salzburg can offer).  Upon arrival, we walked from the train station to the Aldstad (old town), through Mirabell Palace and across the River Salzach.

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The main pedestrianized area of the Altstadt was more posh than I expected, with a number of designer boutiques.

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We stopped at one of the most famous coffeehouses in town, Cafe Tomaselli, for coffee and our first apfelstrudel.  It became my thing to test out the apfelstrudel at almost every place we went in Austria and Germany after this.  This cafe had a wonderful historic atmosphere (although a bit too touristy), excellent coffee and very good apfelstrudel, although we went on to sample slightly better versions later on.

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We walked up to the fort and castle above the city, the Hohensalzburg Castle, but decided against paying the entry fee to explore the castle itself.  Rather, we discovered that there were loads of walking trails all over the cliffs and did that instead, ultimately ending up at the modern art museum.  In every direction we had amazing views over the city, and this was one of my favorite things we did all day.  Highly recommended.

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By late afternoon, we retired to the Augustiner Bierhall for our first proper beer hall experience, complete with huge tables, huge steins of beer and huge pretzels.  Perfect.  We spent more time walking along the river and around the city center, enjoying the city lights in the evening, and stopped in at Alchimiste Belge for some Belgian beer and a refreshing urban hipster vibe before getting on the train back to Kufstein.

The next morning, we awoke to a snow storm in Kufstein.  Plenty of snow had fallen and more was on the way.

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Regardless, I went for a quick run along the river, since there was a lovely little path there and the path was actually somewhat cleared.  I actually ran in the snow several mornings in Kufstein, and it really was quite peaceful.

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We had plans that day to drive to a winter hike we had picked out, but given the snow conditions, we had to skip that idea and instead took the train to Kitzbühel, a ritzy little ski resort that we read had winter hiking trails.  We arrived, walked around the little city center and consulted the tourist office, and boarded a gondola to the top of the mountain for a recommended easy winderwanderweg (winter hike).  Unfortunately, it was essentially white-out conditions at the top.  We could barely tell which way was up and it was nearly impossible to follow the walk markings.

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With the wind howling, snow and ice swirling in every direction, sub-freezing temperatures and little idea of where to go, we walked for about 30 minutes then retired to a lodge on the mountain to warm up.

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Salvation

After that, it did not take long to decide to get off that mountain.  I’m never one to give up easily, especially when it comes to outdoorsy stuff, but I was not having this.

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Trying to convince myself this is fun

So we left there in early afternoon and spent the afternoon/evening exploring Kufstein a bit more before getting to bed early to rest up for our ski day the following day.

We were up early and drove to Alpbach for our ski lessons for the day.  More snow had fallen but the main roads were clear enough.  This was very new territory for us; I had skied a bit in the U.S. as a kid, but it was a very long time ago, and Andy had basically never skied.  We had no idea about gear, lingo, technique, anything, and felt pretty intimidated.  We booked in for a day of beginner lessons with Alpbach Skischule and hired some gear.  Basically, we wanted to test it out and see how we liked the experience before booking a full ski holiday.

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We had a fantastic 74-year-old British ski instructor, Dave, and joined a group that included three Brits on a weeklong holiday and a young Dutch guy wanting to learn to ski to keep up with his girlfriend as he joined her family’s ski holiday.  Dave was great: really friendly and funny and a good teacher.  We practiced our snowplowing and turns on the bunny slope, stopping for a much-needed lunch break halfway through.

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I had so much fun and would love to spend more time skiing, and do a proper ski holiday next time.  The Brits we were with had booked a weeklong package with hotel, half-board (lunch and dinner) and lessons included, which seems like the way to go.  Alpbach was a very friendly little town and seemed to have a number of nice little restaurants and lodges.

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That evening, we joined Dave and the others for an apres-ski drink at the Post Alm pub, and sadly had to leave before it got too late given the falling snow and our drive home.

The next day, we awoke to yet more snow; I think we ended up with two feet total!  I ran along the river some more before we prepared for the next leg of our trip, back on the German side of the border.

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Up next, welcoming the new year in Mittenwald.  Thanks for reading!

Germany: Black Forest and Romantic Road

Picking up where I left off, we departed La Haute Grange on Monday morning, the 22nd of December, and drove across the border to Germany. We stopped in Freiburg for a walk around the city center and our first taste of Germany, literally and figuratively (I had been to Germany just once before, over a decade earlier on short trip to Munich, and this was Andy’s first time).

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Freiburg seemed like a fun little city, with a bustling town center and nice architecture. The Christmas market was very nice, and we split a cup of gluhwein to warm up, and Andy got a sausage while I got a flammekuchen, a thin, pizza-like dish found all over this region (on the France side it is known as tarte flambée).

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Back in the car, we drove further into Germany and into the Black Forest, to arrive at our base for the next few days, the small town of Gengenbach.

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Gengenbach was picture-book adorable.  It is a small village with a medieval main street of half-timbered buildings, anchored by medieval gates to the city.

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The village center was bustling with the Christmas market.  With the sun setting in the background on our first evening there, the atmosphere was magical.

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Gengenbach claims to have the largest Advent calendar in the world, and the main event of each evening is watching that day’s window be unveiled.

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The next day, we set off for exploring the Black Forest.  We took a short train ride (I think about 30 minutes) to the village of Shiltach, another perfect little village at the base of some excellent hiking trails.

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We honestly could not get over how gorgeous this little place was, and would definitely recommend visiting.  The people were quite friendly and the tourist office sorted us out with a hiking map and advice for a short day hike.

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We made our way up out of the village and climbed into the forest.  I know this is cliche, but neither words nor photos do it justice.  We quickly were ascending trails up steep paths past impossibly tall pine trees.  The air was fresh, the trees were beautiful, and the views breathtaking.

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After ascending trails for awhile, things leveled out and we traipsed through meadows and past sun-drenched valleys and the occasional farmhouse.

Germany 1 - 10We had perfect weather and got quite warm at times.  We were surprised there was no snow, but it made for a lovely autumn-like hike and don’t worry, we had plenty of snowy hikes later in this trip.

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We covered about 11 kilometers total, and eventually found ourselves back in Shiltach.  We tried in vain to get a slice of Black Forest cake at one of the recommended tea shops in the village but no luck!  Apparently they sell out quick each day.  Lesson learned: get your cake before the hike.  I would much rather enjoy my cake after the hike than before, hmmph.  No matter, we boarded the train back to Gengenbach.  This was easily one of the highlights of the entire trip for me, and I’d love to explore more of the Black Forest.

The next morning, I awoke early for a run through and around Gengenbach, including a dash up to Jakobskapelle, a chapel overlooking the town.  It was a steep climb to the top but did not take long at all, and I was rewarded with views of the sunrise over the town.

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I rounded out the run with an out and back along the river stretching out of town.  It wasn’t always easy to work out on this trip; most of the locations we were in had some running paths, but our days were actually quite packed and I somehow got in the habit of having a lie-in until at least 7 or 8am most days.  Typically I am up by 6am, but the sun didn’t rise until 8 in most places, and while at home I would run in the dark, I was not interested in doing that in unfamiliar places.  Besides, we were on holiday.  Since we did lots of hikes and long walks most days, I figured it all worked out.

After another trip to the excellent breakfast buffet (we are really well at all of our hotels on this trip; love the European tradition of providing a true “Continental” breakfast with loads of breads, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, yogurt, muesli, and more – including champagne!) we headed deeper into Germany, driving a few hours to the small Bavarian city of Dinkelsbuhl, on the Romantic Road.  This was to be our destination for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

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Dinkelsbuhl was a very cute and very quiet city at Christmas.  We quickly learned that it shut up tight as a drum for Christmas Eve.  When we first arrived we were not terribly hungry (see above about the fabulous breakfast spreads) so we explored the town and had a coffee but no real lunch –> mistake.

As we realized that every restaurant was closing for dinner, we decided to make the best of it.  All I really wanted to do for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day was relax and take it easy, and we had a nice dinner booked in for Christmas night so we were fine with winging it.  We drove around the area, watched the sunset, and procured some snacks to have in the room for dinner.  We spent the evening back in our hotel room having assorted fruits, bread and other snacks with a bottle of Alsatian wine and movies on the iPad.  It was actually really fun.

The next morning, I got up for a peaceful Christmas day run around the old city walls, followed by breakfast at our hotel and later, a nice Christmas day walk around the village with Andy.

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We also spent some quality time reading and having tea, before heading off for our evening plans.  We first went to the city center of Nordlingen, where we watched the sun go down and the Christmas lights come up, and stopped for a pre-dinner drink at a lovely little wine bar.  Then, we moved on to the main event, dinner at Meyers Keller, which turned out to be one of the best meals of the trip; it was traditional German cuisine but done with a modern twist, in a lovely rustic farmhouse setting.  The food was excellent and while the service was a bit odd, we later gathered that this was typical German service so nothing to be concerned about.

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It was an excellent meal and a wonderful, unconventional Christmas for us.  Up next, on to Austria!

Paris Marathon Training

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I haven’t written specifically about running lately, and with just under 11 weeks to go until the Paris Marathon, now seems like a good time.

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I ran off and on in December, as much as I could considering the amount of travel I did. Strictly speaking, if I was doing a full 18-week training plan I should have begun my training in early December, but I think 18 weeks is a bit too long to be strictly training, especially since I already had a decent base, and I knew I needed to be realistic about how much running I would get in while traveling.

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Throughout November and December, I consistently ran 3 to 4 times per week, topping out at 10 miles for my longest runs, and went to yoga about 3 times per week and spin about once a week on the weeks that I was in London, and also tried to keep doing various strength exercises to keep my glutes in line and at least pretend to build up a little core and upper body strength (though to be honest I’m not sure I got anywhere with that).

I am using Hal Higdon’s Marathon Training Program, mostly sticking to his Intermediate 2 Plan but making some variations when needed. I’ve usually used Hal’s plans in the past and been generally pretty happy with them. He calls for five days of running per week, and while I really like to run five or six days per week, I know that ups my risk of injury so I have been doing more like four runs/week, five if I can fit it in.

Up until this week, I was substituting a spin class at BOOM for one short run per week, but my BOOM credits ran out this week and I’m not going to buy more soon, in the interest of saving some money and having more flexibility in my schedule for running and yoga and other activities. I know that spinning is good cross-training, but I’m going to forego that and try to convince myself to do more strength work and NTC workouts at home.

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It is really hard to pick a training plan and stick to it, when there are so many options out there and everyone has an opinion. Plus, when you are picking a generic plan off the Internet, you have to know that it is not tailor-made for you and that it’s unrealistic to stick to it perfectly, and yet, I feel like it is still important for me to stick to a plan because I like the structure and accountability that goes with following directions. While I have the experience of several rounds of marathon training over the past few years, I do like to have a set plan since I’m certainly no expert and I don’t want to just wing it.  I also know my risks for injuries if I adhere too strictly to a plan, so I hope I am striking the right balance this time around.

Most importantly, I need to be able to tweak my plan around some work and personal travel that I have planned for February and March.  I always run when I travel, yet there are certain situations about which I need to be realistic.  For instance, a four-day work conference that I know will include 12+ hour days with early starts, in DC in the winter? A 20-mile run simply will not happen that week, and I’d be setting myself up to fail if I even tried to schedule that.

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From Hammersmith Bridge

So, I have been officially on the training plan since my first long run back of the new year, right after returning from our Christmas trip.  I met up with some TNR girls for my first group long run, and it was fantastic to get involved with other runners going through the same things I am.  I ran through Green Park and St. James Park to meet the others, then we ran along the Thames from Southbank to Tower Bridge to Westminster, and concluded with brunch.

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I’ve done a bunch of other runs alone, including a nice speedy tempo on the river before yoga one Saturday morning, and other mid-week long runs to and around Hyde Park and Battersea Park, and up and down the Thames Path.

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Battersea Park

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Albert Bridge

This past Sunday, I met some TNR girls for the Run Through Hyde Park 10K and some pre-race miles.  I was nervous about the timing of this because I had to run from my flat to Westminster, then meet some of the group at Southbank, then pick up more along the way, and get to Hyde Park in time to get our numbers and start the race.  Tricky!  Oh and this also was meant to total to 16 miles for me, the longest I have run in over a year, and I was seriously worried about whether I could do it.

Luckily, everything went so smoothly.  I basically broke my run into three parts (solo, with the group, then the race itself) and for each running segment I felt strong.

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I ended up doing 16.6 miles altogether and felt great.  It is so nice to meet new friends through running; many of the others did Paris last year and are training for London or other races this year, plus I’ve met a few running Paris this year as well.

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The race itself was great too; I was certainly not aiming for a PB but it was a nice two laps around Hyde Park with a small group of friendly runners, very easy and low-key.  Looking forward to doing another in Greenwich Park in a few weeks time!

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So, with 11 weeks to go, I am feeling good.  Nervous about doing 26.2 miles straight through.  I have definitely had some runs where I have not felt great and had to stop and stretch or walk for a bit.  I’m also worried about getting injured, but I’ve been foam rolling all the time and trying to keep up with my PT exercises, and I do think yoga helps as well.

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At this point, my main goals are:

1) Get through the whole training cycle without injury and make it to the start,

2) Get through the 26.2 miles and finish happy,

3) Run the entire distance without stopping to walk,

4) Beat my PB of 4:42,

5) Achieve a time in the 4:15 – 4:30 range.

I’ll check in on those time goals as it gets closer, but that seems most realistic for now.  Here’s hoping the next 11 weeks go smoothly!

Christmas in Alsace

Over Christmas and the New Year, Andy and I traveled around eastern France, southern Germany and Austria.  We flew into Freiburg where we picked up a rental car and spent the next two weeks weaving in and out of rural villages, Alpine landscapes, deep forests and mid-size cities back and forth over the French, German and Austrian borders.  I hope to capture the highlights of our trip in a short series of blog posts, starting today with the Alsace region in eastern France. We spent the first few days exploring the villages of Alsace and checking out the adorable Christmas markets.

After checking into our hotel in Illhaeusern on the first day (more on that later) we ventured to Riquewihr to wander around for the afternoon.

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This was so much fun; we felt like we were in a fairy tale village (a theme of the trip) and there is something so giddy about the first day of vacation.

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No stress, no work, nothing to do but enjoy ourselves.  We had our first mug of hot mulled wine (vin chaud) and toasted to a fantastic holiday.

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We stayed in the tiny village of Illhaeusern on our first night, at the Hotel des Berges on the banks of the River Ill.

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This was absolutely beautiful and we had dinner that night at the Auberge d’Ill.

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This was an unforgettable experience; it was so quintessentially French, so steeped in tradition and class, yet the cuisine was modern and fresh.  We had a multi-course tasting menu with wine pairings and there is really no way to describe the level of service and quality.

Some of the standouts included maki amuse bouche, our first taste of gewurtztraminer wine (not normally white wine people, especially with dinner, but this was so amazing and appropriate with this food), lobster with champagne sauce, excellent breads and cheeses and desserts, and so much more.  Absolutely amazing splurge for us.

The next morning, I awoke early for a short run through the quiet village and empty country lanes, before having a (wonderful) breakfast at the hotel and sadly departing Illhaeusern.  So beautiful!

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Egg vending machine: essential

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We drove to Obernai and explored the town and market, and walked around the old city walls circumventing the village.

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Next, we checked into our B&B for the next two days, La Haute Grange, high up on a mountainside outside Fréland.  This is a large farmhouse with just four guest rooms, and we were given a huge room with a huge bathroom.

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I loved it.  The hosts, a Scottish/French couple, were extremely welcoming, showing us around the large, impeccably kept house and giving us loads of advice and tips on tourism in the area, including wine tasting and dining recommendations.  They even booked us in for a meal that night since it was a busy Saturday night before Christmas and it would be impossible to get a table without a reservation. That afternoon we visited Turckheim, did a wine tasting and watched the traditional ceremony in the town center of the Advent calendar lighting.

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We moved on to Kaysersberg, a popular, picturesque medieval village.  We walked around the Christmas market stalls before our dinner at Winstub at Chambard that evening.  The food was excellent but the restaurant was overcrowded so we were put into an overflow dining room that was lovely, but a bit formal and didn’t have the tavern-esque vibe of a traditional weinstube.  After dinner we walked through the empty village, now void of tourists, and enjoyed the stillness.

The next morning I did a short run of hill sprints on the mountainside and saw an incredible sunrise peeking through the mountains, but sadly didn’t have my phone.  Breakfast at La Haute Grange was unreal; the owners make the breakfast from scratch and it included the most amazing homemade Christmas jam, homemade yogurt and bircher muesli, breads and cheeses – fantastic.

We returned to Kaysersberg with the intention of doing a nice country walk through the vineyards to neighboring villages.

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It was a beautiful clear day and quite warm.

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It took us about 90 minutes to get to Riquewihr, which was quite crowded that day, being the Sunday before Christmas.  We sampled wine and St. Alphonse Christmas beer (so good) and browsed the market stalls, taking a rest to read in a cafe.

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We eventually returned to Kaysersberg via a shuttle bus, then moved on to Eguisheim, where we explored their Christmas market and watched their Advent calendar ceremony, seemingly a tradition in many of these villages.

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We had dinner booked at Au Vieux Porche.  Another excellent meal; the lobster lentil dish really stood out, and an excellent creme brûlée for dessert.

On Monday morning, we had breakfast at the hotel and then moved along for our next destination, over the German border.  Sad to leave France!  I love practicing my language skills and the food and villages were unreal.  I would love to go back and explore more.

Up next, the Black Forest!

Maui Trip…

I was fortunate to travel to Maui for work recently. For work, honest!

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It was certainly a LONG trip both ways, with stops on both ends on the East Coast, to see family on the way there and work in DC on the way back to London, and an unplanned overnight layover in San Francisco due to a delayed flight and missed connection (which amounted to four hours at an airport hotel, it’s not like I could enjoy San Francisco at all – in fact, I dreamt I was in Chicago and woke up thinking I was, it was that anonymous).

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Anyway, no one will believe me but I will say anyway that getting to travel to Maui for work was not all fun and games: first, I worked really hard leading up to the trip and once I got there it was 4 solid days of work; the long flights and jet lag (10 hour time difference from London) were real; and the hassles of travel were all there.  I just didn’t take photos of those parts!  So here are more gratuitous palm trees.

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But with that out of the way, I will also say that I know I am really lucky and I’m not complaining, because it was all worth it.  Each morning and evening I saw the sunrise and sunset from my hotel room balcony:

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My work event was at quite a swanky resort, so I enjoyed the views, some fantastic food (lots of fresh fruit and fish) and warm weather, and a luau performance at one of our evening receptions:

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The first two days were way too busy for workouts.  On the third day I made it to the hotel gym before sunrise, and on the final two days I had time for sunrise runs along the beachfront path:

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I was off the clock as of about 1pm on Saturday, and I left for the airport at about 12:30 on Sunday, so I had nearly 24 hours to spend as I wanted. Typically I would want to be active and go exploring, but I really didn’t have enough time or the inclination to rent a car. After long work days, all I had the inclination to do was sit on the beach at this ridiculous resort.

So that is exactly what I did on Saturday afternoon, followed by a drink by the pool with coworkers.

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Maui13I fit in a few more hours on the beach on Sunday morning, and was off for the airport.

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It is really amazing to me that I was basically halfway around the world, on a tiny island in the middle of Pacific Ocean, and now I am back in London.  This life is pretty amazing.

Belgium Weekend

Last month, Andy and I took off for a weekend in Belgium. Neither of us had been before and couldn’t pass up the chance to hop on the Eurostar again. I love the convenience and speed of taking the train to another country – it is just so cool.

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We spent most of the weekend in Bruges, staying at Hotel ter Brughe, located right on a canal in a fantastic huge room literally hanging over the canal. I loved this hotel and they put on an excellent breakfast spread in the morning – highly recommended.

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It was a pretty relaxing weekend; we intended to rent cycles and cycle around and outside of the city, but unfortunately it rained almost all weekend.  We made the most of it, wandering around the impossibly picturesque cobbled lanes, checking out the well-preserved architecture and many canals and bridges.  Bruges was adorable, although happily it wasn’t as ridiculously cute as I expected.  It is still a real place, a functioning city with real people, which I appreciated.

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We had lots of excellent (strong) Belgian beers and food, including plenty of mussels, frites, chocolate and speculoos. Not a trip for the faint of heart.

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On Sunday morning it stopped raining and I managed to fit in a run along the path ringing the city, before we departed for an afternoon in Brussels. Definitely enjoyed ourselves and would love to go back to explore more.

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Our Brussels afternoon was also a little rainy, but we explored some of the main sights downtown and met a quirky pub cat before boarding the train home.  All in all a great weekend.

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Cotswolds Weekend

I have been a bit behind on posts but I am catching up now to round out 2014; this week I plan to post several backlogged posts about some autumn travels I have done.  Here is the first one!

In late October Andy and I took a short weekend getaway out to the Cotswolds. I had never been before and I was struck by how close and easy it was to get to from London, and yet how different and remote-feeling it seemed. The landscapes of rolling country farms, quiet little lanes and well-preserved yellow stone villages was unreal.

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We arrived via train early on Saturday morning and had booked in ahead of time for a cycle hire company to meet us at the station with cycles for the day. That worked out perfectly; we used Cotswolds Cycle Hire and I would highly recommend them.

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We had small overnight bags with us, and first cycled about five miles to our inn for the night, the Lamb Inn in Shipton-under-Wychwood. Since this was a last-minute trip we only booked in a few days ahead of time, and were quite pleased with what we got.

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We spent the day cycling all over, stopping for a cup of tea at an excellent inn in Asthall and then a pub lunch and wander around in the village of Burford. We lucked out with beautiful weather. It was a crisp, clear autumn day with blue skies, green pastures and plenty of crunchy leaves underfoot. Idyllic.

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Around 5pm we arrived back at the Lamb Inn for the evening, where our cycles were collected and we warmed up with a cup of tea before dinner. Our room there, the Provence Room, was spacious and lovely, and really did remind me of when we stayed at Ferme de la Huppe in Provence.

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We retired to the tiny bar for a pre-dinner drink and then tucked into our dinner; the food was fantastic. Super filling though! We spent the night basically lingering over dinner and then went for a short walk outside in the cold, pitch dark night to get some air and see the stars.

The next morning I was up early for a run, which was a great way to explore the quiet country lanes and fields around Shipton. So beautiful and peaceful.

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We had breakfast at the inn, and then my brother came to collect us. It turns out, as a surprise to both of us, that my brother lives closer to the Cotswolds than either of us realized, so when we were chatting the day before we decided to get together on Sunday.  Since he has a car it was easy enough for him to come collect us. So we spent Sunday driving around the area and visiting some more villages and country pubs before catching the train back to London that evening.

This was a beautiful way to spend the weekend and such a refreshing little trip. It amazes me how easy it is to get from London to well-preserved rural places; I am so impressed with how the UK has drawn clear lines around what should be urban and what shouldn’t be. If only the US could be better about that.