Central America – part 2, Guatemala and Belize

I forgot to mention in part 1, Belize is Anjali’s 50th country and Ariana’s 25th!!! The drive to the Camino Real hotel in Guatemala was just 1.5 hours and the immigration out of Belize and into Guatemala was annoying (since you had to do paperwork twice 100m from each other) but generally seamless. We had gotten papers for the car at the time of rental which made things easy. We arrived at our resort just in time for lunch, and were delighted to see the beautiful green-blue lake adjoining the resort. After some local Guatemalan shrimp and rice, we all jumped into the pool and hot tub. We also took a stroll to the Peten lake waterfront where the water was crystal clear and warm. The sunset was absolutely stunning over the lake. The kids were tired and had a late nap, and we had an overall relaxing evening ending with some time for me to read a book and drink some wine on the balcony.

Next morning we headed out to Tikal, the world famous 2000 year old Mayan ruins and the primary purpose of our trip to Guatemala. A quick 45 mins drive north from the resort, we arrived at the entrance of Tikal. It’s a massive area in the middle of the rainforest scattered with Mayan temples, and it reminded us a lot of our recent experience at the magnificent Angkor Wat. We walked what felt like a really long time through the forest to the first pyramid and ruins. A few 100m later, we reached the Gran Plaza – a breathtaking site with the most famous ruins and temples on each side. On one side stood the super famous Temple I or the Jaguar temple. Opposite stood Temple II that Ayaan and I climbed to get an amazing view of the on plaza. And the north and central Acropolis on the other sides, that all of us enjoyed climbing and exploring. Tikal is not super kid friendly with its climbs and long walks, but it worked out well for us since we didn’t have FOMO to see every single temple. Also luckily we got a ride back to the entrance. Tikal was a great experience, much like visiting Angkor Wat or Petra, though not as magical.

That evening we went down to the lake to feed the fish and turtles. Kids loved it as the fish jumped to get the food and a turtle came by to fill his tummy. We ventured to the island town of Flores, 45 mins away for dinner. Flores is a quaint, colorful, tiny island town in the middle of the lake. We really enjoyed our dinner overlooking the decorated boats on the lake and capped it off with ice cream for the kids.

Next morning was a travel day as we drove across the border back to Belize (crossing was just 15 mins), returned the car at Belize City, took the Belize express ferry to San Pedro (made famous by Madonna’s La Isla Bonita) and finally a smaller boat to our hotel called Portofino. We learned that Belize had just 340,000 people, a former British Colony 37 years old and is facing a referendum to remain independent or join Guatemala. What is super unique about Belize is that it’s a mix between being in Central America and the Caribbean. Portofino at Ambergris Caye is a boutique hotel with just 17 rooms and a private beach. It was a very different experience than our other beach stays, very relaxing with the pool, bar and beach right outside our room. On a different note, I find it amazing how the kids adapt to not having toys. For example Ayaan is obsessed with how they clean and fill the pool with a pipe at this resort.

We spent our last 3 days of our travels in our sabbatical relaxing at the beach (slightly disappointing with weeds although water is warm and a lovely color), the pool and spending our time with the kids. Ayaan and Ariana were fascinated that they cut the coconut from the tree, cut them and served them absolutely fresh. The food and cocktails were fantastic with freshly caught seafood and local rum. We ventured out to the town of San Pedro one of the evenings, walked around the tiny town and had some ceviche with local rum. We we’re so lucky to catch a double rainbow with Ariana wearing her “Chasing Rainbows” tee. The weather got really nice (“only perfect” as Ariana says), sunny and warm with a slight breeze. On our last day we went out to snorkel at Mexico Rock, a part of the Holchan preserve. Belize has the 2nd biggest barrier reef in the world after Australia. The snorkeling was one of the best we’ve done anywhere comparable to the Red Sea and Zanzibar. Our guide was fantastic and we saw eagle rays, barracudas, lobsters, sting rays, pink conch, rainbow fish, puffer fish etc. The kids were well behaved and enjoyed seeing the fish come up to the boat as we fed them. Overall an amazing way to end our travels in our sabbatical as we head back to SF via Houston tomorrow! Again super thankful for Ayaan and Ariana and grateful that we got to spend all this time with them.

Central America – part 1, Belize

After a long, long flight from Mumbai to Houston via Toronto, we spent a week getting over jet lag and spending time with Anjali’s sister Dhara. They were great hosts and it worked out well as we got to acclimatize back to America and celebrate the holidays together including New Years, Dhara’s Birthday and a quick trip to Austin to visit the Art of Ice Cream Experience. Reenergized we took off for our last international trip as part of our sabbatical – to Central America for 10 days. Belize was a short 2 hour flight from Houston and it was great to get back to warm tropical weather. We rented an SUV for the first 6 days as we discovered the rainforest, ruins and Tikal in Guatemala. As we drove to the Cahal Pech Resort in San Ignacio, a 1.5 hour drive, we knew we were in for an adventure with bumpy roads and horses “parked” on the side of the road instead of cars.

The resort was rustic and local right by the Cahal Pech ruins and perched on a hill overlooking the city and the rainforests. We got a nice little hut to ourselves with a view and a hammock, that the kids loved. Belize was surprisingly not super kid friendly as the resort didn’t have a kids menu or a crib. It’s a relatively new country and is still building the tourism infrastructure. Our adventure began the next morning as we drove to Mountain Pine Ridge forest reserve. I was glad we rented an SUV as the road was non-existent for a majority of the drive and not for the faint hearted. 1.5 hours later we made it to Rio on Pools, a collection of pools formed from the waterfall and rivers. We had the entire place to ourselves which was amazing (and a pattern for this trip) and Ayaan and I enjoyed wading through the pools and to the waterfall. Our next stop was the Rio Frio Cave a short drive away that was a unique experience with a river and beach within a cave that also featured stalactites. We were pretty tired and had lunch at the Gaia resort which had a stunning view over the river and waterfalls. Our last stop for the day after lunch was the Big Rock waterfall, which were nice but honestly too steep a climb with kids. Exhausted from the hikes and the drive, we chilled at the pool and hot tub with an early dinner and bedtime.

Next day, not deterred by the roads, we set off in the same direction again to visit the famous Caracol Mayan ruins. A very bumpy 2.5 hour drive later we got to the ruins and were delighted to only see a couple more cars. We were told that we’d need a military escort on the drive since it’s on the border, but it works out just fine without one. Caracol was luscious green and the ruins were there for us to explore on our own – pretty incredible for the fact it’s Belize’s most famous site. The kids really enjoyed running from temple to temple hearing Tucans and howler monkeys and occasionally climbing the almost 1500 year old “pyramids”. Definitely worth the drive. On our drive back, after the kids napped, we stopped at the Green Hills Butterfly farm. This was a wonderful experience as the kids got to see different butterflies, and learn about its journey from egg to caterpillar to pupa to a beautiful butterfly. The evening again was uneventful as we relaxed in the pool and had an early local dinner comprising of fish and chicken curry.

On our 3rd full day we decided to take the kids to the Belize zoo an hour away. It was an awesome morning as the kids got to watch animals and birds they’ve never seems before such as the tapir, tucan, jaguars, macaws, coatemundis, howler monkeys and several other. Ayaan’s favorite part though was pushing the baby cart we had rented. That afternoon the kids didn’t nap much so we visited an iguana hatchery at the San Ignacio Hotel. Ironically on our way to the hatchery, we saw a hug iguana trying to breakdown the bathroom window in the hut next door! The hatchery was an incredible experience as we got to hold the huge male iguanas and the kids got to pet and feed them. We all had a great time being one with the animals and birds all day.

Our last day in the area began with a quick visit to the Cahal Pech ruins next door. It was a pleasant surprise since it was compact but really nice and once again deserted. The kids were able to climb up the temples on their own and we got some great pictures. After a busy 4 days in Sa Ignacio, we set off for the drive across the border to Guatemala …

Goa

Gaurav and I managed to squeeze in a little getaway without the kids before we leave India. I hadn’t been to Goa in nearly 15 years save for our wedding which was such a whirlwind. Gaurav hadn’t really experienced the real Goa in his younger years because of a bike accident on his second day in Goa. So, we were excited to head (back) to one of India’s biggest party places! And a party it was! By the end of our first day there, we’d each consumed 10 drinks…We landed in time for a late lunch and headed to the famous ‘Souza Lobo’ for some Goan prawn curry and calamari recheados washed down with local beer. After checking in to the Le Meridien, we spent the rest of the afternoon at the pool enjoying bloodies. After getting dressed for the evening, we headed to the hotels rooftop where Gaurav was thrilled to get his favorite ‘double apple shisha’ which we paired with rose. We watched the sun set into the Arabian Sea with the beats of a local DJ, also known locally as a ‘sundowner’. Next up, Gaurav wanted to experience a traditional beach shack which Goa is famous for, so we headed to Brittos which has many memories for me. While it’s become more ‘upscale’ than I remember it, it still had a similar vibe and we enjoyed dipping our toes into the sand as we ate some spiced calamari cooked with onions and peppers and drank some local port wine (Goa has strong Portuguese influences since it has once ruled by them). It was karaoke night and we decided to sing a fairly off-beat rendition of ‘wonder wall’ before we escaped from Brittos and walked down the beach passing tens of other beach shacks, each playing their own dance music. We stopped by ‘Titos’, a club that is another Goan institution. It was early but we got a couple of drinks and heard some old EDM favorites from the 90’s before heading to Fiesta for dinner. A romantic candle-lit restaurant, Fiesta didn’t disappoint. We then hopped into a taxi to Cohiba where we spent the rest of the night. I loved the 10-person live band and we joined in the dancing as we continued to imbibe fresh fruit mojitos.

The next morning, we enjoyed a lavish breakfast consisting of made to order dosas, parathas and other delicious Indian staples. We then headed over to the W (a large wedding block forced us out the previous night but they made up for it by upgrading us to a fantastic 2-bedroom villa overlooking the beach). Check in consisted of two bottles of beer and a buggy ride to our villa. We headed straight to the pool and then, still relatively hungover, decided it was time for a short nap. When hunger called, we made way to a late lunch at Olive, a hip restaurant set on a cliff overlooking the ocean. The Goan chorizo and mozzarella po-boy and calamari 3-ways including a Japanese-inpired sesame-panko crusted version were delightful. We caught an ‘auto’ back to the hotel and lounged at the hammock in our villa for a bit. We later strolled down to the beautiful Rock pool for the sundowner. This venue is a scene due to its beautiful setting over a cliff with a DJ, shisha and over-the-top service. The best from all over Goa apparently flock to the W rock pool for sunset and we were able to snag one of the best spots. What a great experience it was! The sky exploded into a myriad of colors as the sun journeyed down into the sea.

Once it was dark, we headed over to a Rudy’s, a bar and grill that a friend of mine had opened just a few days before. I’d forgotten that it’s not quite to easy / safe to walk in india after dark and the narrow alley made me queasy. I was relived when we arrived! We enjoyed some delicious home-made Beef tacos, prawns and chicken wings with bourbon cocktails for Gaurav and margheritas for me. Next up, we had reservations at Gun Powder which had just been ranked the top 20 restaurant in India. The Andhra prawn curry and stir fried okra with flaky parathas and appams did not disappoint! We ended the night back at the lobby bar of the W, fairly exhausted!

Another fantastic breakfast greeted us the next morning. We then climbed to chapora fort which offered stunning vistas of the W and the Arabian Sea. We ended with a walk on the beach before retreating to our villa. We hit the rock pool when it opened and after a couple of beers, we ended our stay with lunch back at Olive! Thank you to the grandparents for caring for the kids while we got some couple time together.

Ireland – part 3, Galway & Dublin

After a sumptuous breakfast of waffles, freshly baked croissants, and smoked salmon, we set out for Connomarra National Park, a 2.5 hour drive from Corrofin. As we approached the area, our eyes were greeted by stunning lakes, and lush green mountains with waterfalls streaming down. Our first stop in the park was for lunch at the visitor center, after which Ariana played with her grandparents in the park while Ayaan joined Gaurav and I for another hike. As we walked up the mountain, we could see a spectacular view of the valley and lakes below. After the hike, we drove to the beautiful Kylemore abbey which was set against the backdrop of a lake. After strolling the grounds, we drove to Galway and checked in to our apartment. Gaurav brought dinner for the kids and grandparents, and then we enjoyed a date night out! Our first stop was at Cava Bodega where we enjoyed pinxtos and tapas with a carafe of Rioja. Next we headed to the popular pub, Tig Cioli where we each enjoyed a strong Irish Coffee. We learned that Tig Cioli was the first pub that ever opened in Galway and they’d listed the price of a pint for nearly every year since 1900! I’ve begun to really appreciate the pub culture in Ireland because it is extremely kid friendly with baby changing tables, kid menus and live music to drown out any tantrums :). The pubs have become what I look forward to for each meal, and possibly what I’ll miss the most about Ireland! This time though, we were kid free and we decided to make the most of the night. Our next stop was Tich Neachtain where we were able to hustle our way into a fantastic seat right by the live band. We started off with a black Jameson reserve which was fantastic and then proceeded to have several pints of Guinness and whisky flights interspersed with shots of Jameson. We stumbled home and woke up to a heavy hangover the next morning.

It was dada’s birthday so after breakfast at home, everyone enjoyed a treat of the famous Murphy’s ice cream. We walked to Eyre Square and then strolled the medieval streets of Galway taking in the live music at nearly every corner. We made our way to the Galway cathedral which was beautiful. Finally we enjoyed lunch at a pub near our home and then headed back for the kids nap. Ayaan and Ariana have been to over 50 playgrounds during this trip and we took them to another before dinner. It was one of the densest playgrounds we’d been to with a train in addition to the usual and the kids loved it. It was dada’s 73rd birthday and we celebrated with dinner at Buddha Bar. The kids enjoyed singing “happy birthday to Dada”, blowing out the candles and eating up the cake.

In the morning we drove 2.5 hours to Dublin and arrived at our apartment in the heart of Dublin near O’Connell St. Gaurav returned the car to the airport after 1600km of driving, while I picked up groceries and lunch. We spent the afternoon strolling through the historic streets of Dublin – Trinity college, Dublin Castle and St Patrick’s Cathedral. Ayaan wanted sweet corn chicken soup again so we found a nearby Chinese restaurant called M&L which worked out great, and also gave us the opportunity to walk down the touristy city center. After putting Ariana to sleep, Gaurav and I sneaked out to check out the night scene in Dublin. We stumbled upon the Quays bar with a live band that played many of our favorite Karaoke songs! We also visited the famous Temple Bar which is a huge indoor-outdoor pub with Irish local music. The Jameson Black Barrel became our go to drink for the night. Overall we really enjoyed Dublin’s vibe with its historic streets, canals and live music everywhere.

On the last day of our European adventure, we woke up to a sunny Dublin. We took the tram to St Stephens Green, a lovely local park with beautiful flowers, ponds and a playground, and neighborhood. The kids and parents enjoyed the short tram ride. We spent the morning strolling through the park with our coffee, and ate lunch at the mall next door. To celebrate the end of our 2.5 month journey through Europe, Gaurav and I had a special meal at Taste of Rustic, a new age Japanese restaurant in Dublin. After enjoying some Nigiri, we visited the Church bar, a unique experience since neither of us had previously had a drink at a converted church!

It’s been a wonderful journey and we’re thankful that Ayaan and Ariana did incredible, and the grandparents joined us for some of it. On to Bombay for the next phase of our journey!

Ireland – part 2, the west

The west of Ireland is where it’s at, with its stunning coastline and 5 peninsulas. After exploring the Dingle peninsula the previous day, we got a very early start to explore the famous Ring of Kerry drive. The weather wasn’t great in the morning and unfortunately our boat tour around Skellig Michael got cancelled – but we were sort of glad since the ocean was rough and the kids wouldn’t sit still for 2.5 hours. We anyway drove to Portmagee, our first stop on the ring. It’s a small fishing village with the typically colored houses and a breathtaking view point overlooking Skellig Michael and the boats departing to it. Our next stop was just 1.5km away at the Kerry’s Cliffs. The signs are right to call this the most magnificent cliffs of Kerry! We continued down the beautiful Skellig ring drive and were often reminded of the 17 mile drive in Monterey. We stopped for lunch at a pub in Waterville and it was once again a warm experience. We continued driving around the loop making small stops along the way at some sights, and taking a break for coffee and Irish apple cake at Kenmare – another cute town with colorful houses. Ariana and I explored the church here and we took the kids to the playground where they made new friends. Our last section of the ring was through the Molls gap pass and the Killarney national park. We stopped to see the Ladies view and the waterfall along the way, before stopping in the town of Killarney. All of us loved walking around the slightly larger town of Killarney and we ate some Asian street food for dinner.

We started our fifth day in Ireland driving to our next stop in Corrofin, near the Cliffs of Moher. On the way we passed Adare, a small town with thatched roof houses, a castle and a Methodist church. We stopped at Limerick for lunch where we had some delicious Italian food. Before checking in at our next B&B, we visited The Burren National Park, with its limestone rocks and large formation. Ayaan, Anjali and I walked on the 40 min nature loop and we were so proud of Ayaan since he walked the entire loop himself. Our B&B (Burkedale) was lovely as it was a large top floor of a house with meadow views. Joanne our host was very warm and welcoming – as we expected in Ireland at this point. She also gave the kids toys to play with including train tracks and the cars to sit on. The kids loved the house as it had a cat and dog as well. In the evening, we visited the quaint town of Ennis and ate at a recommended pub which was fantastic as well. We tried the Irish coffee which then became a regular for us.

We slept in late in our comfortable B&B and woke up to a good breakfast – having a fulfilling breakfast is one of the best perks of this trip so far! We drove 40 minutes to the famous Cliffs of Moher. We were early enough to beat the rush as we took in the beauty of the magnificent cliffs. As we strolled along the cliff side path it became clear what this place special with its humongous cliffs, green meadows and clear waters. We spent a few hours here and then drove to the nearby Doolin for lunch at a locally recommended pub. We relaxed in the B&B as the kids played with their toys, and later visited the town of Ennis again for dinner.

Ireland – part 1, the south and some west

To end our 2 and a 1/2 month adventure in Europe, we boarded our Norwegian air flight to Dublin. Ireland is a new country for all of us and Ariana’s 20th country! We were excited to be meet my parents who were joining us for this last leg. We arrived to a typically rainy Dublin and rented a large 7-seater to ensure we’d all fit comfortably. I was excited to drive through Ireland on the other side of the road and not have to catch another flight for 10 days. We picked up my parents from their hotel in central Dublin and drove straight to the town of Kilkenny 1 hour 45 mins away. It worked out great since the kids napped after the flight and were overjoyed to meet Dada and Dadi. We stayed at the Springhill Court Hotel which was quite nice and had a pool and spa and most importantly a playground. As soon as we arrived we could tell the Irish were super nice and kid friendly, which was a pleasant change from the recent countries we’d been to where it seemed like they had forgotten how to smile. We spent our first evening eating at Lemongrass, an Asian fusion restaurant, in the heart of Kilkenny. We loved the food and the town with its castle and quaint brightly colored beautiful houses (which we learned through our travels was typical of Irish towns). Anjali and I put the kids to sleep and enjoyed a Guinness at the hotel bar with live Irish music!

Next morning we woke up to an average breakfast in the hotel, before going into the town of Kilkenny. Street parking was easy and we started by walking the grounds of the famous castle from the 12th century. My parents took the kids on a chu chu train tour of Kilkenny which they really enjoyed as it gave them a flavor of this unique town. Anjali and I meanwhile walked through the quaint streets and explored the local Abbey and the church, both of which were worth a visit. Kilkenny was my favorite little town in Ireland! After about an hour of exploration, we drove to the Rock of Cashel that was on our way to our next stop at Kilbrittain. The Rock of Cashel is a historic must-do site, a medieval rock castle, overlooking vast meadows and fields with cows and sheep. Walking through the rock got us hungry and we ate at an Irish pub. The pubs became our go to for meals since the atmosphere, food and service were uniquely Irish and very relaxing. We were also pleasantly surprised to find Indian curry in many of these pubs. After filling our stomachs with yummy food and Guinness, we drove for about 2 hours to our B&B in Kilbrittain called Seafield farmhouse. It was located at the southern tip of Ireland with stunning views of the bay and ocean, hundreds of cows, bright green meadows and to the kids delight had its own dog. The host was very sweet and welcoming as well. Oh yes – and the rooms in Ireland were large unlike much of Europe. We were in love with Ireland to our delight and it was very different than our travels in the mainland. We ended the night with a ocean view dinner at the Pink Elephant with great wine and local food.

We woke up to cows mooing and birds chirping, ate some home made scones and breakfast, and set forth to explore the nearby town of Kinsale. Weather was typically Irish and wet, so we first decided to go to the Charles Fort, a rock fort overlooking Kinsale and the south of Ireland. The kids loved their time here playing with the grandparents and running around with umbrellas in the light rain. We stopped in the town for lunch to devour some pizzas, only after a stop in the playground!

Our stop for the next couple of days was on the west coast in Castlemaine and it was a couple of hours drive from Kinsale. We decided to drive further to the stunning Dingle peninsula since the kids were sleeping. This wasn’t originally part of our itinerary but we were so glad we did this. The Slea Head drive at the tip of the peninsula is one of the most amazing drives I’ve done. It’s extremely narrow and we often got stuck and had to back up – but still worth the drive. We ended our drive at Coumeenoole, a gorgeous view of Skellig Michael and the great basket islands. We drove an hour back through the town of Dingle to the Murphy’s Farmhouse B&B in Castlemaine where we stayed for 2 nights. We ate at yet another local pub that night called Anvil while thoroughly enjoying the live music!

Belgium

A short 1.5-hour flight from Munich brought us to Brussels. The kids we’re fairly tired by the time we reached our hotel because they were too excited to be on an airline after nearly two months, and skipped their afternoon nap. We walked around in Schuman, the neighborhood where our hotel was located and enjoyed some frites with mayo at the famous Maison Antoine which were delicious! We then enjoyed dinner at an outdoor cafe in the square with some local beer and decided to call it a night.

The next morning, we took the train to Brugge which had he kids thrilled, singing chugga chugga choo choo” and enjoying the sights of numerous cows along the way. The walk from the Brugge station to the Belfry tower and main square was beautiful with ornate small houses lining quaint cobblestone streets. We enjoyed a sumptuous lunch of mussels with garlic, shrimp scampi and frites washed down with leffe blonde. We then strolled to the chocolate museum where we enjoyed some delicious samples, sculptures made of chocolate and learned about the origins and history of this treat! Later, the kids napped while Gaurav enjoyed a drink in the square and I climbed up the Belftry tower for views of the city and canal. While beautiful and quaint, Brugge attracts heavy crowds of tourists which detracts from some of its charm.

The next day, the forecast was rainy so we decided to stay in Brussels. Our first stop was the Royal Palace which was grand. The kids loved the interactive science exhibit at the end where they danced with their illuminated shadows! Next we walked to Grand Place, the city’s main square which is lined on all sides with exquisite buildings. It was absolutely stunning! Soon, the rain forced us into an indoor gallery mall where I enjoyed a massage and Gaurav enjoyed some Belgian chocolate tastings while Ayaan napped. After a brief rest at the hotel, we were excited to dine at Tai Hon, a Taiwanese restaurant that I found in a blog where we had a reservation. The kids devoured the entire platter of appetizers before either of us could get a bite in, and we knew we had a win! The entrees were delightful too and we made a reservation to return in a couple of days.

The next morning, we took a train to Gent, a beautiful university town with a river running through the old town. We stopped for lunch at a pizzeria and then made our away to the old town. A ‘bubble man’ in one of the squares had the kids entertained for a while! Next we saw the church and the castle and once the kids napped, we stopped at a riverfront bar for a glass or rose. A few more cafes and drinks later, we made our way back to Brussels and enjoyed sushi at a restaurant near our hotel. Gent was a charming town without the crowds of Brugge which made it very desirable.

Our last day in Brussels was fairly relaxing with no real agenda. We strolled to Parc du Cinquantenaire where we found a large park and sand pit for the kids. We walked past Autoworld, a museum of vintage cars, to a beautiful fountain where we caught a rainbow! We then took the train to the Notre Damn du Sablon, a spendid church and then walked to the famous Mannekin Pis which was somewhat underwhelming. We enjoyed a local lunch and then it was Gaurav’s turn to get a massage while I did a bit of shopping while the kids napped. We returned to Tai Hon for another memorable dinner! We’re off to Budapest tomorrow.