Down South with Friends

If you are following me, in this blog series I just got back from Vegas and made my way to Charleston, South Carolina.

  1. SoCal and Idaho trip
  2. Las Vegas
  3. Charleston
  4. Finger Lakes, New York
  5. Portland, Maine
  6. Boston, Mass.
  7. Cape Cod & Returning home to my vineyard!

Some very dear friends of mine have lived in Charleston, (frankly, about 20 minutes from downtown in a suburb), for several years and I do try to visit them about once a year, even when my home base was in California. Now in a sense it’s become easier because Charleston is on the way back from visiting family and friends in Cali to my new home base of Portugal. Charleston airport is very modern, not too big or crowded, and there are some decent connections to airports where I can hitch a ride back to Europe.

We’ve been all around the world together. We all love to travel and we’ve known each other for over 25 years, so there’s that.

U.S. – San Diego, San Francisco, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, New York City, Durham (where they lived for a time) Asheville, Savanah and Charleston (where they live now).
Canada – Montreal and Quebec City
Peru – Lima, Cuzco and Machu Picchu
Australia – Sidney, Melbourne
New Zealand, South Island – Christchurch, Twizel, Te Anau, Queenstown and of course, Milford Sound
Europe – here’s where it gets ridiculous, so I’ll just name the countries, starting from the North:
Ireland, Scotland, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Spain, Italy & Greece

Back in Charleston, some would say that visiting the South in August is just not a smart thing to do. I do not like very hot temperatures and Charleston in August is typically 90F (32C) with about 60-80% humidity. I, of course, like to do a daily walk about 1pm, also not an ideal time, but I knew I was going to sweat, was ready for it and therefore it was not a problem. I began to know the areas around the neighborhood with a lot of shade and this helped.

One of the things we like to do when I go visit is hit a few high end restaurants. I think my friends save up for the time I come to visit to do this as well. One of my favorites is The Ordinary, in downtown Charleston. Primarily a seafood place with great oysters, they also have a very good bar. We also went to Wild Olive, an Italian restaurant on John’s Island. There were a couple of other places we wanted to go to but we didn’t make reservations far enough in advance and were not able to get in. We tried all hours and days but given the shortage of restaurant workers, a reservation is a must for the owners as it will allow them to manage the help they do have to serve their customers as best they can. In any case, we had a great time at both of these and will probably hit them again the next time or two I drop by. I was in the Charleston area about 3 weeks and we tried to make reservations at Hall’s Chophouse and couldn’t get in. We have made arrangements for late November when I will next be in Charleston!

The City Gallery at Waterfront Park had a very interesting exhibit. We went to the gallery because we had passed by it several times in the past and it was either closed or it was just not on our agenda. We booked some tickets online and went in. The gallery pretty much displays one exhibit at a time and the whole museum is the exhibit space. We didn’t expect such a heavy topic but it was very interesting and poignant. The exhibit focused on “the effects of mass shootings”; with an “installation (is) made up of contemplative pieces that represent the lives lost and communities affected by mass violence from 1903 through present day.” There were sheets of paper on the walls with a certain number of dots. Each dot represented a death in a mass shooting with the definition of “mass” being more than 5 people. Each page represented a time and place. Starting from sometime in the 1970’s the frequency and intensity of these horrible events goes up dramatically. I am not anti-gun but pro-mental health. This display, however, does give one a reason to pause. Susan Perkins is the artist. It was the last day for this exhibit but I would recommend you check the links above and read a bit more about the exhibit.

Next stop – a solo trip through the Finger Lakes, NYC – not that fun being the solo traveler in a wine region! 😦 But I limited my wine tasting and had a great time. Check back next week to hear about that stop.

Vegas, Baby!

Ok, truth be told, I do NOT like Vegas! I am not a gambler. I worked hard for my money and don’t want to see $50 vanish in less than 5 minutes with the hopes of turning said $50 into $5,000 or more. Now, what’s the difference between Vegas and the Stock Market? Not sure, but I feel there’s a “bit” more forethought in the Stock Market. Of course, I can’t talk about the “whales” that play the market but looking into a company’s fundamentals and making a sound investment decisions, to me, is better than putting a chip on the table and betting on “Lady Luck”. I may be wrong and you can let me know in the comments. For me, Vegas is about the glitz and the glamour of NYC for the West Coast. A lot of people also say it’s the Disneyland for adults. Either way, Vegas for me is about entertainment and food rather than gambling. I guess you could say for most people, and “lucky” for Vegas, is that gambling IS entertainment.

I haven’t been to Vegas in a while. I think 2015 was my last visit. I went to Vegas this time to get to hang out with the family in a place they enjoy and meet up with a friend from high school. The venue was the Flamingo on the Strip. My aunt is a member in the Harrah’s group and the Flamingo is one of their holdings so we got a free room. Not that the room was expensive by any means. We were there during the week when Vegas rooms are pretty cheap. Were we forced to pay out of pocket, the rooms online were showing $40 for a double queen room. A point for Vegas.

However, being on the Strip, not much else is cheap. I guess since most of the time I go to Vegas, it’s for a show or concert event, I am hardly ever in the casino area but since I was with the fam and they do like that sort of thing, I hung out on the casino floor. Even though I don’t like to spend my money that way, I do enjoy watching others play. I like to watch poker, 21 and craps and I do enjoy myself, however, since I was not actively gambling, I had to pay for my drinks on the floor and they were not cheap! I wouldn’t have minded so much if they made a proper drink but I ordered an old fashioned and got something that looked more like a shirley temple! I did this not once but twice! Shame on me and then I started ordering straight whiskey. You can’t screw that up. At first I thought that maybe the bartender at Bally’s just got the order wrong but I also ordered the old fashioned at the Flamingo and got the same garbage. Now, for you non-drinkers out there, an old fashioned’s main ingredient is whiskey, some simple syrup and bitters. You can garnish with a cherry if you like. What I was getting was what looked and tasted like 7-Up and maraschino cherry syrup with a maraschino cherry as the garnish. I paid $18 for the privilege. Anyway, end of that rant. I did finally get a proper drink at The Palm steak restaurant inside the Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace.

I will now demonstrate where I do spend my money in Vegas – food and drink. Anyone that knows me, knows that I am a cheapskate when it comes to fashion and everyday items but when it comes to having a nice meal with friends, the sky is the limit. My high school friend and I coordinated meeting in Las Vegas as she has been living outside of Salt Lake City in Utah since the imposed lockdowns showed to be longer than a couple of months and she was not really visiting California that much. I mentioned I was going to Vegas in an email and we agreed to meet at The Palm for dinner. This was very “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” a reference for those of you 80’s children. She flew in from SLC the afternoon of our meeting, had dinner with me, stayed at Caesar’s and flew out the next morning. Très chic! When I go out for a nice meal, I like to have a cocktail and sit and chat before even ordering. Therefore, since my friend doesn’t drink, I arrived at The Palm about 30 minutes before our meeting time, sat at the bar and had my martini. Then, the rest of the meal can proceed. She and I normally get together every few months and have a 3 or 4 hour meal/meeting but this was the first time I had seen her since the lockdowns. The last time we saw each other in person was for my birthday dinner at The Capital Grill in South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa, California in February 2020 and Vegas was end of June 2021. We had a great meal and it was nice to catch up in person. The restaurant was not overly busy but there were a decent amount of patrons. Las Vegas in general was busy but not pre-pandemic busy. Sure, there were people in the streets and the casino’s but there was plenty of room to move. Vegas wasn’t requiring masks but there were signs posted at all entrances suggesting you wear a mask. People did as they saw fit.

So, here’s another reason I don’t like Vegas – I like to drink but I don’t like drunk people and there are a lot of them, day and night in Vegas. We took a trip over to the Downtown area and it was more dead there but there was also a different element hanging out. I’m not going to get into social aspects of allowing alcohol and marijuana in the streets but let’s just say a lot of people cannot control their vices and this is not the town to try to cut back on those vices. I’m a single woman and normally travel on my own and I can tell you if I was by myself in Vegas, I would not go Downtown. Pre-lockdown they were trying to get more people and families to go downtown by installing a zip line that runs right down Fremont Street. This was still closed when we were there and if you weren’t specifically going to a casino to gamble, there isn’t much else there. A few blocks away there is the Container Park with some eateries and shops but most of those were still closed.

As I mentioned earlier, we were there during the week and Vegas wasn’t fully open. They were reserving their resources for the weekends when Vegas is typically more busy. For example, they told us that valet parking was closed from late Tuesday afternoon until late Thursday and there were other examples of partial openings.

If you’ve never been to Vegas, it is somewhere I would recommend. The fact that all of this is in the desert, the mass of buildings, lights and gambling brought thousands to see it is amazing. It’s big, it’s bombastic, it’s entertaining. It is a nice tourist destination depending on your likes. It does have a lot to offer – gambling, shows, concerts, shopping, food of almost any kind, clubs and more – and, in normal times, 24 hours a day. If you like one or more of those things, this is the place for you. I can handle it in moderation – 2 to 3 days every few or more years. So Vegas, Baby, I’ll see you around 2025.

Reverse Culture Shock

It’s been a long time since I posted. I spent almost 2 months back in the U.S. before returning back home to Estombar, Portugal. Here’s a quick synopsis of my time in the U.S.

  1. SoCal and Idaho trip
  2. Las Vegas
  3. Charleston
  4. Finger Lakes, New York
  5. Portland, Maine
  6. Boston, Mass.
  7. Cape Cod & Returning home to my vineyard!

This first post in the series will recount my initial time in SoCal, a quick trip to Idaho and my initial shock at the difference in everyday costs.

On July 14th, arrived at the Faro, Portugal airport about 8:00 to take a COVID test. I passed and boarded my British Airways flight to London Heathrow and to my final destination in Los Angeles. I arrived later that same evening, albeit after 20 hours or so of travel.

Lunch near Praia da Rocha – restaurant ‘A Casa da Rocha’

First a little background. In December 2020, I applied for my Portuguese D7 visa through an online portal. In January of 2021, I visited the VSF office in San Francisco and turned in my documents live. Later that month I left Southern California for a cross country road trip to Charleston, South Carolina. In February, while in Charleston, I received my visa and departed the U.S. on March 1st. I arrived on March 2nd and came straight down to the Algarve. I stayed on the vineyard which is now my new home, but at the time my place wasn’t ready yet and I was occupying another apartment on the vineyard. Because of the delays caused by COVID, the certificate of occupancy for the new villa wouldn’t be available until August 2021, but I didn’t know that in March. Portugal was in a lockdown when I arrived and slowly started to open in mid-April. I had my immigration appointment in late June in Lisbon. I passed and was authorized to stay in Portugal as a resident. Yeah! My residency is valid for 2 years, until June of 2023. Very exciting. I toured Lisbon that same week and then spent 2 weeks in Porto before finally taking a trip back home to see friends and family. Since I wasn’t sure when the occupancy permits would become available for the villa, I decided to stay in the states a couple of months.

My base in SoCal was a very nice condo in Mission Viejo rented through a friend of a friend. The owner of the condo was in Idaho, which we will visit later.

I ended up renting a car through Turo because the traditional car rental companies were asking about $100 USD per day due to the car shortage experienced as a result of COVID lockdowns and the damage it did to infrastructure and business in general. The rental through Turo was about 1/2 the price and this included a bit of extra insurance I purchased through Turo. In case those reading are not aware of Turo, it’s sort of the “Airbnb” of the car rental world. It’s a car sharing program in most major U.S. cities as well as Toronto and London. Not getting any kickbacks but I had a great experience and would do it again depending on how competitive it is relative to the car rental companies when I visit the U.S.

Rafting in Idaho

Primary purpose of my time in SoCal was to visit family and friends but the side note of that was also to get a bit of travel in. The first was a short 3 day trip to Idaho. I’d never been to Idaho before, not even flying through. Southwest had a great non-stop from Orange County to Boise. The friend that owns the condo in Mission Viejo picked us up on Boise and took us back to her place about 2 hours north of Boise! So she drove down 2 hours to get us and then drove the 2 hours to get back to her place. She also did this when she took us back a few days later. Super nice.

Lake Cascade – front yard

The cabin we stayed was right on Lake Cascade. We had a great time at the cabin; talking, drinking wine and munching on tasty nibbles. Something we did which did not involve relaxing but having fun was a river rafting adventure. I had never done this before but I had a blast. It’s not something I would have done on my own and I was glad it was arranged for me and I just had to go along. We also went to The Cutwater on Payette Lake and had a great lunch.

Price per gallon, Southern California, in USD – July 2021

It was great seeing family and friends. It was SHOCKING to see how much gasoline prices were in SoCal as well as the high price of everything compared with Portugal. I must say, gas in Portugal is more expensive than in the U.S. Gas here is about $1.50 USD per liter and it’s almost 4 liters to make a gallon. But, I don’t have a car here yet so this one doesn’t get me that much. Plus, the whole country of Portugal is about the size of Indiana so the distances are not that much. My biggest expense in Portugal is my mortgage at about $550 USD per month and after that, is my luxurious spend on food and booze. Typically about 50 Euros a week or about $65 USD. I don’t like to go out that much as I normally like the wine and booze I bartend and my own cooking vs. eating out, but when I eat out in the Algarve, I spend about 20 Euros on a nice lunch. This typically includes a couple of glasses of wine and a nice meal. This also normally includes kick ass views of the sea. If I didn’t have the sea view, I’m pretty sure I could spend closer to 10 Euros. As in most places around the world, a view will cost you.

That $30 California Rib-eye

But back in the U.S. while I was staying at the condo in Mission Viejo, I spent almost $30USD (35 EU) on 1 steak! (today, $1USD = 1.17 EUR) or roughly 1/2 of my whole week’s worth of groceries in Portugal. We should also note that I am in one of the most “expensive” parts of Portugal. The first is Lisbon and then one could probably argue that the Algarve is more expensive than Porto. I certainly think that most of the year the rents are pretty equivalent but I found that the restaurants in the area of the Algarve I am located (Portimao/Estombar) are also pretty equivalent to what I spent in Porto. At least in the types of restaurants I like with either a view, in the Algarve, or nice setting/modern, in Porto, the restaurants seem to be pretty close in price.

I paid 30 Euros for that rapid COVID test I took at Faro airport in Portugal and would later pay $200 USD for the rapid test in Boston before returning. Just another example of the price differences between the US and Portugal. It’s one reason I chose to relocate but it was shocking to see it in action.

Next week we’ll go to Vegas, baby!

Benagil Cave/Cliffside Boat Ride

There are a gazillion (true word – fact checked!) tours from many parts of the Central and Western Algarve to the Benagil Cave. It’s one of the most photographed spots in the Algarve and our boat tour operator tells us, the default photo for Windows 95! Dating ourselves, are we?

It was a pretty warm, humid day in May. Portugal has just opened up I went on Airbnb Experiences and found a boat tour from my current hometown, Portimaio, Portugal, to the coves nearby. The Benagil Caves are world famous. Most of this Southern Portuguese coastline is lime cliffs, coves and surf. I am not a particularly sporty person. I love being by the beach, hearing the waves, looking at the coast, cliffs, etc. I’m not a good swimmer and somewhat fear the ocean. So, you are not going to find me surfing or swimming. I would go out on a kayak as long as I have a life jacket!

This tour only cost me about 20 Euros, or just under $25 USD at the time of this writing. Well worth the cost. The tour departed at 11am and was roughly 2 hours total. Just enough to see what you would like to see. It also gives you an opportunity to see the coast from the ocean perspective. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I must point out that the tour company was Atlantis Tours, I want to give them some props. They were very professional and, as almost everyone I’ve come in contact with in Portugal, very friendly.

Check out my quick film of my day out.

Thank you for your SERVICE!

Today is Memorial Day in the U.S.A. Vice President Kamala Harris sent out a Tweet on Friday and people went ballistic. I suppose given her station/title/position within the U.S. system, she should have thought twice about the post but regardless, this is a holiday to celebrate, and maybe more poignantly, remember that many have died and are currently serving or have served in the Armed Forces to help further the belief that people have certain freedoms, or what on the U.S. Constitution are “inalienable rights”.

I am a child of the 80’s and remember when I couldn’t travel to “Eastern Europe” or “Russia” because they didn’t want to allow it and their citizens were not allowed to travel outside the “Bloc”. That luckily ended in 1989 when the Berlin wall fell. I have since only been to a couple of former Eastern Bloc countries and I can tell you, those that remember the restrictions are not fond of that time when Communism ruled their lives.

What do I want to say about this? First, 2 of my 3 my brothers and cousins served in the U.S. Armed forces. One of my brothers went to the Air Force, one to the Navy and both of my cousins served in the Army. One of them made the 82nd Airborne and nearly made Ranger status. What did I think when I was young and saw this? I was one of those “elitist” that thought you went to the military because you didn’t have other options. I was wrong and that elitist idea is still around today. I suppose as you grow older and rely on your own wits and try to succeed, you realize that the world does not revolve around you and that you need to consider other points of view.

Our family is white, Cuban immigrants and although my aunt had a good job in the U.S., she was fluent in English, albeit with a heavy accent which she has and is proud of to this day; my immediate family grew up on welfare. We were a one parent household, my mother did not speak English, I had the tickets at school for lunch, we didn’t have a car and I didn’t have one until I was 26 since I just didn’t have the money for a car and my priorities were to go to college and travel in the summer. Towards the end of my high school it was just my mom, my grandmother and myself since all of my brothers and cousins were gone. They were all serving during the whole Muammar Gaddafi Mediterranean “conflict”.

So, in a round about way, I want to thank my brothers, cousins and my “brothers and cousins” in the military that serve and give me the luxury of the life I’ve led and continue to lead. Thank you for your service!