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The Hague, Netherlands – a royal city.

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Hotel des Indes seen from Lange Voorhout.  A beautiful hotel in the Starwood Luxury Collection.
Hotel des Indes seen from Lange Voorhout. A beautiful hotel in the Starwood Luxury Collection.

We traveled to The Hague from Aalsmere floral market. The Countryside was very flat with windmills dotting the landscape. I nearly caused Lyn to swerve the car when I exclaimed seeing the first windmill. The amount of wind in the Netherlands was evident from seeing the windmills turning. We even saw a field of birch all growing in the same direction.

The Hague, capital of the Netherlands, has an elegance about it. It is, in fact, a royal city. There are palaces along with embassys from many countries. The Hague is also known for its peace and human rights commitments. There is even a peace palace, The Vredespalais.

We had planned to stop by the Central Train Station, but we couldn’t find it. The signs disappeared that we were following and our navigation wasn’t helpful. The Hague is a combination of old and new. Centuries old buildings lining the canals with tall buildings in the distance. The buildings in the center of the city were very innovative. Architects seem to get their way…

Our hotel, once a large palace, sat at the end of a park lined with stately homes and establishments in both directions. It must be very pretty in the spring and fall. The park was beautiful in winter too. With no leaves on the trees, we could see sweeping views across.

Hotel Des Indes (pronounced “Hotel ‘Days’+’Ahn’) gleamed. The hotel is a warm yellow and the front entrance gleams from the polished brass revolving door, lanterns and other accents. Formal doormen greeted us. One took our car and luggage. The other stood holding the door and pushed it as we went through. We walked underneath the flags of the United States, the United Kingdom, Holland and Belgium.

Once inside, a sparkling chandelier in the foyer led us up to the registration area which consisted a desk with efficient-looking (blond and very Dutch looking) attendants. Each guest was comfortably seated (a nice change from standing in line). They said things like, “It will be very wonderful to have you for the length of your stay which will be no more than two nights, yes?” “You will leave your luggage here because your room involves steps. Come, I will show you.” “Should you wish to have high tea or afternoon tea or your dinner, please let me know so that I can notify my colleagues to welcome you….”

Staircases (perfect for making a very grand entrance) made their way down to the lobby foyer, down to the restaurant, into the ballrooms. Once could imagine the Queen (she used the hotel for hosting State guests), nobility and other special guests coming down these steps. We decided these grand staircases were a far better way of moving about than a (very tiny) “lift” (elevator).

Once settled in our room, we walked back to the train station to retrieve our Holland pass. We like to buy museum passes in cities not only for the discounted admission, but with the passes you can also find charming cafes (and clean restrooms).

The double-decker bicycle “lot” gave us a hint of how many bikes we would see on our visit to the Netherlands. Out in front of the train station was a parking garage equivalent for bikes. Astonishing looking.

Due to the canals weaving their way through many Dutch cities, one is never far from a stroll next to water. Right in the heart of the city there are ducks, wetlands and pretty park trails for walking and bicycling. We learned quickly to discern the two!

Just along the path was a one-story building that looked a bit like Tavern on the Green. The name hinted of pancakes (which I read we must try) and I declared a stop for lunch. We ordered a Kaas en Ham (crepe with ham and cheese) and proffertjes kleine portie naturel (beignets with butter and powered sugar). Not the healthiest of lunches (which we regretted later), but both dishes were delicious and we were starved. Outside our window, an endless flow of bicycles entertained us including one man with a suitcase on his handlebars. I was enchanted by the families.

We came home and took a much-needed nap (at this point we had not slept for nearly 20 hours). I. Could. Not. Go. Any. Further. The plan was to go to Delft, but a bath and crash was in order. A planned one hour turned into four. By the time we awoke, it was 5:30 and we felt a bit hungry. Also, we didn’t want to miss the afternoon tea (which we had heard so much about).

After tea, we walked through the hotel admiring the beautiful decor designed by the owners over the years. We saw the guest book signed by many famous people including several Americans, Eleanor Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, and Bing Crosby.

After tea, we decided to take a walk through the neighborhood near our hotel. Seeing the canals in the evening was such a treat. The shop windows so artfully designed felt like being in a whimsical gallery. While it wasn’t raining, there was a light mist falling which made for a dreamy setting. The street lights cast glowing pools of light on the water and the streets. If it weren’t so charming, one could easily imagine someone turning a corner and the shadow casting its way down an entire block.

Before heading back, we found a little market for some nibbles and juice for the morning.

Just about the moment I typed my final words for this memory, I fell into bed and hardly moved until the next morning.

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Cairn – rock stacking and other international traditions

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Cairn rock stacking in Zermatt, Switzerland
Cairn rock stacking in Zermatt, Switzerland

While traveling through Switzerland, we saw many rock formations. We were particularly enchanted by the man-made formations sometimes seeming to defy gravity. In Zermatt, another theme is finding rocks resembling the Matterhorn. These rocks adorn rooftops, serve as table centerpieces, mark entrances to homes, restaurants and hotels.

A welcoming cairn (rock stacking) in Zermatt, Switzerland
A welcoming cairn (rock stacking) in Zermatt, Switzerland

I read up about this phenomenon and learned that Cairns have been built since prehistoric times to mark graves, to mark trails and even to mark the divisions between countries. In Europe, Cairns most commonly mark hiking and biking trails. They have even been built to note land outcroppings and noted on navigational charts. An old Scottish Gaelic blessing, “Cuiridh mi clach air do ch├árn” translates to, “I’ll put a stone on your cairn”. It is believed that the Highland Clans, before they fought in a battle, each man would place a stone in a pile. Those who survived the battle returned and removed a stone from the pile. The stones that remained were built into a cairn to honour the dead. (Credit Wikipedia/Cairn). In German and Dutch (my heritage), the cairns are anthropomorphized refering to “large man” or “small man”.

Cairn rock stacking in Zermatt, Switzerland seen on a rooftop terrace.
Cairn rock stacking in Zermatt, Switzerland seen on a rooftop terrace.

Looking out from our hotel balcony in Zermatt, Switzerland at the Walliserhoff, we noticed a cairn on the rooftop terrace across from us. Each day we were there, the tower of balanced rocks grew higher.

Along the shores of Lake Zurich, you can see incredible formats which appear to be held together with glue or cement, but they are all balanced.

Rock stacking along Lake Zurich (photo courtesy Happy Scientist)
Rock stacking along Lake Zurich (photo courtesy Happy Scientist)

Back home in Maryland, I can now appreciate the unique rock formations adorning my neighbors front lawn, rock wall and front doorway. She is from Switzerland. Another clue to her European-ness is seeing her outside nearly every day with her daughter regardless of the weather.

Suggested links:
Read more about Cairns
The Happy Rock Stacking Tradition in Switzerland by HappyScientist

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Why you should write a letter with your will (my most popular Pinterest pin)

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I once posted this on Pinterest and it is my most popular “repinned” pin of all time.

Leave some words of comfort with your will.  Photo credit:   http://professorjaszczerski.wordpress.com/
Leave some words of comfort with your will. Photo credit: http://professorjaszczerski.wordpress.com/

Elsie Baxter Heckel, my children’s grandmother and a lovely woman, mother, grandmother, aunt and sibling, did an amazing thing. In the same file where she kept her will, she also collected inspirational articles, quotes, photographs and special letters. I remember how comforting it was for her family to find this file when the time came. It made it helpful to write her eulogy knowing the quotes and things she found inspiring (of course she had also mailed many special things).

I am reminded of this as I am preparing for our next trip and making sure that we have all of our “affairs in order”. Of course, we are focused on trip planning and the fun stuff, but it is also a good mark in time to do some paperwork housekeeping.

Most people have their will in a logical place and, surrounding that, all other important documents (article on the 25 documents you should have in order).

However, most people don’t keep in that same place things that would provide some comfort to their family and friends who must go through such things should something occur.

All of us probably have a file of special letters, quotes, memorabilia, etc. But do you keep it anywhere near your important documents? If not, consider keeping the “best of” near your will. These days, so much is electronic that there will be an electronic archive – at least for a while – that captures your best Facebook-worthy or Pinterest moments, but after a while those sites stop being populated and who knows whether those sites will exist long into the future.

It goes without saying that having a copy in a safety deposit box or with an attorney is an important added measure of peace of mind.

It pains me to write this, but a huge percentage of Americans do not have a will. Never got around to writing one. If you are in that percentage, PLEASE, rectify that now. You do not need official legal help. You can follow some simple sites to create your own.

Write a letter. Do it now. And share this with your friends….

Helpful links:
Writing a will
Emergency Plan – every HOME and VACATION needs one.

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Emergency Plan – every great vacation (and home) needs one.

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Every vacation needs an emergency plan...
Every vacation needs an emergency plan…

This may seem like a “downer” topic for a blog about travel, food and other pleasures of life; however, I make this post in memory of and to honor the memory of the Pyle family. And because a hotel near-disaster hit me a little too close to home.

In January, 2015, in the middle of a cold winter night, the Pyle grandparents and four of their grandchildren perished as a result of a raging four-alarm fire in their home after spending a happy outing together. The family tells that the grandparents bought costumes for the children and they attended a meal together at Medeival Times. Sometime in the middle of the night, their neighbor (an acquaitance of my family for many years) awoke to find his bedroom glowing orange from the light of the Pyle home burning. Fire boats could be seen racing down the river. The fire burned all night and left nothing other than a chimney, the outline of the home and twisted metal. The home was called “The Castle”.

As of this writing, the cause of the accident is still under investigation. Foul play is not suspected. The fire made international news for the tragedy of so many members of a family lost as well as the elegance of the home (designed to look like a castle). I’ll spare links to the images except for one to emphasize my point about why you should have an emergency plan.

Pyle family lost six in house fire.

News reports have said that there were not fire detectors. This seems odd for a multi-million dollar home not to have the most advanced fire protection. Assuming this is true, having and regularly TESTING fire alarms may have made a difference.

Have and maintain fire detectors. Test them regularly. When clocks change, replace batteries — and conduct a fire drill with your family.

What if this type of fire happened on vacation? It could happen in any hotel. In my own community, there is a hotel that had a carbon monoxide scare (from a clothes dryer with a faulty venting system) that sickened two workers and several guests. Had the leak occurred at night, there could have been devastating loss of life. I know intimate details about this emergency because my husband works at the hotel where it happened. The hotel took every precaution and, thankfully, there was no loss of life. This hotel is now one of the safest in the region because – did you know – hotels built before 2012 are not required to have carbon monoxide detectors. This hotel now has them everywhere in addition to fire protection. Another hotel in Pennsylvania had a late night scare.

CO2 Alarm for travel
CO2 Alarm for travel

Consider traveling with a portable fire and carbon monoxide detector. After the fire in the hotel near me, several of the airline flight crews began including them in their travel essentials.

Even if this were in English, it probably would not help you much in the middle of the night with people shouting in another language.
Even if this were in English, it probably would not help you much in the middle of the night with people shouting in another language.

So, what can you do at home or traveling? Have an emergency plan. At most hotels, there will be a map posted on the inside door of your hotel room. For good measure – and for exercise – consider walking that route at least once during your stay. Plus, you’ll probably get some extra exercise taking the stairs. If a true emergency comes about, knowing the way out could be a lifesaver. Having been evacuated from two hotels in the middle of the night, I strongly suggest always hanging your warm coat in a convenient place so that you can find it in a hurry. Also, having a grab and go travel safe can be helpful when dashing out of rooms quickly.

Trip insurance often provides medical evacuation.  We came close to needing this!
Trip insurance often provides medical evacuation. We came close to needing this!

My mother, while traveling to Mexico, had a very bad fall. Fortunately, she did not break anything, but she discovered quickly the gaps in coverage and care in a foreign country. As a result of this, my husband and I looked into trip insurance and found that the coverages were reasonable and would save us far more than additional insurance we had to purchase for our rental car. We are using an AIG product for our next trip which covers changes in flight plans, medical evacuation, rental car coverage (saving us as much as the premium costs) and other features for both peace of mind and practical convenience.

Finally, before you leave home, be sure that a trusted friend or family member has a copy of your detailed itinerary. Furthermore, be sure all of your important documents are up-to-date. As accidents can and do happen at any time, it provides peace of mind at all times and some comfort to your survivors if something were to occur. Don’t forget to write a loving letter to accompany your will, but that’s for another post….

Recommended links:
BETA – emergency evacuation
U.S.-based FEMA Emergency Preparedness
FEMA Emergency Supply List (PDF)
Travel CO2 Alarm
Passport Office Safety Advice
Travel Safe
International Travel Insurance (includes medical evacuation, rental car and other great coverages)

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Baja Fish Tacos (Food-truck inspired)

Just like in Baja California from the food trucks at the beach, a fresh and flavorful fish taco.
Just like in Baja California from the food trucks at the beach, a fresh and flavorful fish taco.

It took me 43 years to discover fish tacos. I loved traditional tacos and so never ventured beyond them to discover the unique and fresh creation that is a traditional Baja fish taco. My first was in San Diego, California from a food truck (with a VERY long line) at the beach. I was HOOKED. Since then, I’ve been on a hunt for the “perfect” fish taco. The good news is, unlike a traditional taco, a fish taco can be made at home and tastes close to – if not better than – the original. I’ve made some substitution suggestions along the way.

Crockpot Beef Stroganoff (light version packed with flavor)

The temperature has dropped below 10 degrees. Just being in the kitchen feels cold as the air just outside the window is so cold. Something warm and comforting (while healthy) seemed in order.

I love a beef stroganoff. My Mom made this often in the wintertime. This can also be made with stew meat, which usually sells for a very reasonable price. My Mom’s version used high-test sour cream, egg nooodles and canned mushroom soup.

This version uses light cream cheese in lieu of sour cream (you’ll be amazed how great it works to stir into the broth). I like to use whole wheat egg noodles or egg white noodles (I don’t notice the different at all), but you can use regular.

Beef stroganoff began appearing in cuisine in the 19th century. It is of Russian origin. To read more, check out: http://www.beefstroganoff.net/history.php

Chicken Pot Pie (Skinny)

Today we had a steady snow fall and warm comfort food was in order. The recent edition of Cooking Light featured a beautiful chicken pot pie and I realized I had most of the ingredients on hand (with a few extras thrown in on my own). I made a few adjustments and some notes to make it better for next time. Enjoy!

Live. Love. Travel….