Category: Wiggins’s Words

Our third stop on the Eurotrip was Santa Margherita Ligure. This was a destination Katy had been to before but to which I had never been. We transferred to Santa Margherita by train, purchasing our tickets through self-service kiosk at the main train station in Florence (S.M.N.). This actually proved to be a fairly easy way to travel, even though we had to transfer twice. The total cost for the tickets was around 40 Euro apiece, which is much cheaper than any other alternative to get from Florence to the Northern Italian coast.

Here are a few of our favorite spots:

  • Hike to San Fruttuoso (& Giorgio Restaurant!):This was easily one of our most memorable outdoor activities of the trip! All in, it’s somewhere around a 4 mile hike, that we were very much excited to do, because the promise at the end of it was an Aperol Spritz and some of the finest white sardines you’ll ever eat at this small local restaurant in the town of San Fruttuoso. The hike had a fair amount of elevation, and some stunning views along the way:

  • Portofino: a great destination in its own right; Portofino is the lap of luxury when it comes to fancy Northwestern Italian Coastal Getaways. It’s a pretty fun town with lots of (somewhat overpriced, as expected) dining and shopping options. We saw several massive yachts, including one worth several hundred million dollars – Zeus:

  • Capo Nord: this was a fairly upscale dining spot literally right on the Mediterranean Ocean. One of the coolest places we’ve ever dined outdoors, I could actually stick my foot in the sea from our table. This was the view from our table:

  • (The Train to) Punta Chiappa: this is a very cool little spot a few miles away from where we stayed. We could have hiked to it, but we had been fairly active for a few days before so we opted to take the train. It cost us around a couple Euro, and was super fast and easy. Plus – an added bonus – train station views (and beers!):

The hotel we stayed at in Santa Margherita was Blu di Te House. It was boutiquey and chic, and we very much enjoyed the accommodation as well as the price (it was about middle of the road – not too expensive, but definitely not a hostel). As to be expected, the common area amenities, snacks, apertifs, and breakfast (buffet style, included in the rate), were all outstanding. Here is a picture of the lobby to give a frame of reference for how warm and friendly the room (and the staff!) were:

Til Next Time,

Michael

Our second stop on the Eurotrip was Florence. What an incredible place! We ended up taking a train from Zurich to Florence, and couldn’t have been happier with that decision. Our hotel (the Marriott) in Zurich was within walking distance of Zurich Main Station and the Airbnb we stayed at in Florence was around a 15 minute walk from S.M.N. (Santa Maria Novella), the main station in Florence. That turned into a bit of a hassle on the way out of Florence, though, as we had a (always reliable, super helpful) Samsonite spinner wheel break off right as we started the walk to the station. That area of Florence is much too congested during the morning rush to try and bail out for an Uber (would have added 30 minutes easily), so yours truly got to carry the bag :(

Some of our favorite spots in Florence:

  • Centrale Market: a great market on the Northwest side of Florence proper. Many shops on the lower level, including places to find great cheeses, wines, and produce. The upper level is a recent addition and includes a food-court-style setup with dozens of vendors who all serve separate fare (anything from pastas to prosciuttos to sandwiches to dumplings, and many others in-between). There are also beer/wine service folks who will help you get a drink once you’re settled at a table.
  • Casa del Garga: an absolutely outstanding off-the-beaten-path restaurant near our Airbnb. We had one of our best meals of the trip at this spot, which was recommended both by our Airbnb host (as a great local spot within a couple blocks) as well as one of our wine tour guides in Tuscany (who used to live in the area when she was studying for her Sommolier exam).
  • 4 Leoni: tremendous spot on the South side of the river, which we found through a quick google search for “Bolognese” (one of my vices) while we were spending a leisurely cafternoon shopping on the more “locals” side of town. The lasagna is out-of-this-world, and the special ravioli/tortellini with pear is excellent as well. Here is the lasagna:

  • The Duomo: one of the more famous spots in Florence. Insider tip: book your tickets in advance (and select a tour time and print this confirmation). Skipping the line will guarantee you a spot, as well as save you hours in line as the flood of tourists for this site is constant. The hike to the top can be a bit cramped, with many small stairwells and several spiral staircases. The total hike to the top is approximalye 25 minutes in length, with an initial (interior) observation deck around 15 minutes in. Once you continue onward and reach the top, the 360-degree views of Florence are unmatched (making the climb totally worth it). One of the many, expansive views from the observation deck atop the Duomo:

  • Academy Art Gallery: the location of Michaelangelo’s famous David sculpture, along with several of his other “unfinished” works. The statue itself is incredibly large – much bigger than one might think based on photos alone.

  • Piazzale Michaelangelo: a common terrace on the south side of the river, with scenic views of the city. Free to go, and several bars/shops around to stop for a breather if the hike up the hill (~15-20 minutes) has you a bit winded.

  • Garga: one of the best hidden gems in Florence. We had what may quite possibly be the best, most unexpected bolognese of our lives here. Just take a look for yourself; you can almost smell it off the screen:

Bolognese at Garga

For lodging, we ended up in an Airbnb on the Northwest side of the main town center. It ended up being great, and gave us some good separation from the much more touristy areas down by all of the historic sites that Florence has to offer. We ended up finding some gems and hole in the wall restaurants off the beaten path, which was an added bonus.

Til Next Time,

Michael

Our first stop on our Eurotrip/Memorial Day extravaganza was Zurich, as that was the cheapest route to get to Europe using Skymiles. 40k miles apiece got us direct flights from ATL>ZMH, which proved to be just fine for the price. The slight added legroom was cluth, although neither of us got much sleep. The flight departed around 5:30 PM and arrived around 8:30 AM (both local times)/

As far as places to go and things to do, we did a little bit of research upfront and knew that we would want to explore key areas such as the old town, the lake, among others. A few of our favorite spots:

  • Widder Hotel:A great hotel/bar that you can head to (regardless if you’re staying there), in “District 1” (which was across the river from us, just south of the train station which we arrived at).

  • Café Balliser Keller:The BEST fondue we’ve ever had, in addition to a personal service of the much-anticipated racelette. Both dishes were absolutely outstanding, and made us wonder why we ever even try to recreate them at home. Added bonus: the chocolate fondue was dynamite, and was served with a very playful preparation:

  • Old Crow Bar:Albeit expensive (20-25 Swiss Franc per drink), this bar was one of the coolest and most interesting environments we’ve ever enjoyed a cocktail in. Kay had a Mezcal drink (called Solanum – Mezcal, Hibiscus, Sugar, Bitters, Champagne), and I had a Wihskey one (called Café Eccosais – Highland Single Malt, Espresso, Chili-Honey Syrup)

For our hotel, we stayed in the Marriott Zurich, as we got a great rate with points. The hotel was pleasantly nice, and located in a fairly advantageous spot for us to be in close proximity to several of the things we wanted to do. We were never more than a 15-20 minute walk from the areas we ended up visiting.

Til Next Time,

Michael

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In order to maximize time off, we decided to do a Memorial Day trip to Europe this year to do our big trip for the year. While we weren’t able to take (quite) as much time off as we wanted, it was still a great way to get away for nearly two weeks while only having to use only ~6 days of PTO. Capitalizing on a late Friday departure and a return stateside the Tuesday after Memorial Day, we were able to achieve a 12 day vacation and hit three total destinations that were of huge interest to us: Switzerland, Italy, and the Netherlands.

We departed late on a Friday (4/19), flying from Atlanta, Georgia to Zurich, Switzerland (ATL>ZUR). The cheapest option to get us across the Atlantic was to fly into Zurich, and we didn’t mind since it was a destination we had always been interested in. We ended up paying 40k Skymiles apiece for a one-way Delta Comfort Plus fare (not First Class, but more room than Economy), which we found to be fair.

The flight from ATL>ZUR was an overnight flight for us, meaning we took off in the evening on 4/19 (Atlanta time) and landed in Switzerland in the morning on 4/20 local time. We had a wonderful time in Zurich, and wish we had more time to explore and enjoy the culture. Given we only had a short time away, though, we were interested to get to Italy as quick as possible, so we only opted for one night in Zurich.

Sunday, around noon, we departed on a train from Zurich to Florence, Italy. The train through the Swiss Alps proved to be quite the preferable option, not only because we got great views of the Alps (and Lake Como), but even more so because it runs you around the same amount of time as it would to fly. As an added benefit, it was actually significantly cheaper to head South via train as well, which was a plus for us. Intra-Europe travel via train couldn’t be easier either. More to come on that at a later date!

In Florence, we spent 3+ days touring around and generally enjoying ourselves. We even opted for a private chauffeur to take us on a day excursion to Tuscany, and ended up finding a lot of wonderful places, including several vineyards. We stopped in San Gimignano, which was a recommendation from Katy’s parents, and then continued onward to three vineyards, our favorite of which was ….

From Florence, we took another train Northwest to Santa Margherita, a quaint beach town where to locals go to vacation, near Portofino and Cinque Terre. We hiked around quite a bit and relaxed quite a bit, exploring the surrounding beach towns over our 3+ days there. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves there, and will share many more memories of that time in a future post.

To round out our trip, we took a taxi from Santa Margherita to Genoa, to catch a flight up to Amsterdam. We spent our last two nights in Amsterdam, soaking up every minute of the Dutch culture that we could!

Our flight home from AMS>ATL may have been just a touch more enjoyable than the Easterly long-haul, primarily because we were in Delta One+. As always, it was an extremely professional and top notch experience.

Needless to say, it was quite a journey, and we are very excited to share more in future posts!

Til Next Time,
Michael

This past weekend, we were in the East Bay of San Francisco for a wedding. No better time, we thought, to go ahead and add on an extra couple days in order to get back up to one of our favorite places on Earth… So, we decided to add an escape to wine country!

We organized our flights out to SFO so that we would be able to spend the afternoon on Thursday, as well as all day Friday in Napa with my parents-in-law. My wife (an IHG employee) was able to secure some great employee rates at the recently-renovated Hotel Indigo in Napa, a VERY convenient location for the majority of our planned activities. While the hotel seemed a bit dated from the outside, the inside was comfortable and clean. It falls very much in line with the other corporate hotel franchises in wine country which are somewhat limited on exterior design limitations (and typically are renovating an existing 3-4 story structure already in place), something that is governed by county regulations.

We visited Del Dotto on Thursday, and then went to Seavey, Chimney Rock, and Saintsbury on Friday. For dinners, we enjoyed meals at FARM for dinner on Thursday, Farmstead at Longmeadow Each for lunch on Friday, and Ad Hoc for dinner on Friday.

As far as the winery reviews:

  • Del Dotto – 8 out of 10. Very similar to our last visit, albeit somewhat less heavy on the volume of pours. This could be attributed to the fact we paid $60 instead of $75, but either way – it still felt like a hefty fee even though the experience is great. We all agreed, though, that it was very unique to actually taste estate wines in a cellar, straight from the aging vessel. Interestingly, this time I was able to taste Missouri Oak barrel aged wine (and, being from Missouri – that’s cool!). They even had a cross-over barrel called “MO/FO” – because it was both Missouri Oak and French Oak.

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  • Seavey – 9 out of 10. Such a great experience! Although the drive was a bit out of the way, and took several miles off the beaten path on winding backroads, we did really enjoy the quaint secluded estate. We had a private tour, got a chance to see some of the local farm animals (goats and cows), and enjoyed a very personal tour of the bottling/aging facilities. It really simplified the overall process and helped us get a great sense of the care they take in their bottling process.

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  • Chimney Rock – 6.5 out of 10. This was a somewhat corporate tasting, standing at a tasting bar. What was nice about this place, though, was we got to see their indoor private event space, which doubles as an aging shed. My parents-in-law were so impressed, they decided they would do their 25th wedding anniversary there. They clearly enjoy Chimney Rock wine a bit more than we do, though, as we thought most of the varietals (besides the Cabernets) were just OK.

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  • Saintsbury – 10 out of 10. We are still so in love with this place. Now, as a member of their wine club, you can really tell how much they appreciate your business. We got a private tasting seated near the private library reserve tasting room. Our guide (Galen) is the same guy who runs all of their customer contact, so I had been in touch with him many times previously. He doesn’t generally do tastings anymore, so I could tell it was because we were members that we received such special treatment. We will definitely be back!

 

Til Next Time,

Michael

Ex Prisoner Massage Center

As I shared previously, I didn’t originally plan to review spas individually, but we had two such stark contrasts in experience (and price) that I felt compelled to post separately and call out the good (and the bad/ugly). The great experiences we had were at all of the massage centers in Chiang Mai. Specifically, I’d like to elaborate on our time at the Women’s Massage Center.

This chain of massage studios is actually a concept developed to provide vocational opportunity for ex-prisoners (yes, you read that right!). Given that spas are so prominent in Asia, the skill and trade of providing great spa therapies is something that is highly-coveted. Once you get past the momentary pause that you are (gasp!) about to receive a foot massage or spa treatment from an ex-prisoner – this place is absolutely magical.

One of the most intriguing parts of this chain is the price. It’s simply unbeatable. At one point, I believe we paid 200 Baht (roughly $6 US) for a one hour foot massage. Given that these are in fact ex-prisoners, they intentionally keep the cost low because it is really a win-win. #1 – you, the consumer, win because who doesn’t like the idea of a $6 hour-long foot massage? #2 – they, the therapists, receive education, training, and a vocational opportunity to make some good (by Chiang Mai standards) money while learning an extremely valuable trade that can keep them gainfully employed for a long time.

And, I would be remiss if I did not mention how professional and incredible these women were. Whatever stigma one may have about “prisoners”, I can truly say these women were energetic, kind, and extremely proficient in their trade. Seeing how they interacted and chatted with each other really showed how much they enjoy the opportunity and the “new lease on life” they have when they get to work with such strong and positive peer influences.

Such a stark contrast from Naka Island. Maybe it’s partially the fact that I could get 50 hours of foot massage for what I paid for the Naka Spa treatment. Maybe it’s because the energy and vibe were so positive. Maybe it’s because it was less stuffy, a bit more rickety, but way more charming. Maybe it’s all the above.

Either way – I cannot recommend this place highly enough!

Til Next Time,

Michael


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