Sunday, October 28, 2012

Happily Mapless in Finland: Directions for Girls

dressing room in finland

After having every day on our tour of the Baltic capitals planned out in detail and in such a way that there was never any time left over for much shopping (okay, maybe that's a conspiracy theory I can believe in) we were ready for some girl time in Helsinki. I'd been busy selling the Suomenlinna Fortress as something the men wouldn't want to miss but that we weren't interested in. Unfortunately visiting the market at the pier was a casualty of my plan, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

We'd seen enough palaces and had enough military history to last us a while and we were ready to lay siege to boutiques and storm gift shops in the city center. We were using the fortress as a brilliant diversionary tactic that would allow us to implement our campaign unhindered by questions like "Do you know how much that dress costs in DOLLARS?"

They didn't seem too keen on leaving us to our own devices. We are however battle hardened shoppers. We asked sweetly, "Can we stop in this store?"

A surprise attack. We weren't leaving. We wanted to look at every single item. I scooped up an armload from the sale rack and asked where the dressing room was. The surrender was immediate and complete:

"Excuse me" I heard a male voice say "Can you tell us where we can catch the ferry to the fortress?"

My heart leapt!

After that there were lots of instructions (what DO they think we do when we travel alone?) and pointing to things on maps.

Maps. (I know, right?)

Not that I don't like using a map, but is this a street name you'd be able to remember? You see my point. Besides, my travel ADD was in full swing...a map was not going to be helpful.

street signs in finland

Of course our husbands wanted to know, did we want the map? They didn't need it after all, being men.

We declined. "We'll figure it out..."

They left the store wondering aloud if we'd make it back to the ship on time. I considered the fact that if I were going to abandon ship in a port Helsinki looked like a fine one to do it.

shopping in finland

We had no goal this day except for shopping and enjoying ourselves, but I did want to mail one postcard. We inquired about where good shopping might be and were directed to the Centrum. Lots of small shops of high quality, and though there was a mall we were advised to avoid it since the weather was so nice. We strolled from shop to shop, had a long lunch, shopped some more and with a couple of hours to spare before "all aboard" we started to make our way back from whence we came.

We hadn't paid attention to a single street sign, not that the names would have been memorable anyway. With no map and no idea where we were or how far we'd walked we retraced our steps as we walked along.

"This must be the right direction, there is the place that the man who told us not to go to the mall said he bought his new glasses."

"This is that area where the couple walked with us and asked us about America."

helsinki finland

"There is the statue with the globe, we turn right here."

We began to realize just how far we'd walked. We'd been strolling along having a lovely time and were unaware that we now seemed to be a good distance from the store where we'd started and from there it was still a mile or so to the ship...

"There's the store where we loved the dress in the window but didn't go in. We keep going straight."

"Here's the antique store with that beautiful platter in the window. Take a left."

"There's the store when we got rid of the men. Yay!"

cafe in helsinki

Now I should say that I'd purchased stamps to mail my postcard early on thinking that would be the tough thing to find. I had been in several shops throughout the day and had not found ONE postcard of Finland. Here it was late in the day and this darling store only had funky little vintage cards, none of which said Finland. However, I was out of options. I picked one out and hastily wrote a pathetically short and lame message and got directions to the post box down the block.

helsinki postbox

Of course there was one more photo op.

Mission accomplished. Several missions in fact as I'd made quite a few purchases that I was ridiculously happy about. We made our way back to the ship, taking our own sweet time now, and at the last shipside souvenir shop--what did I find? A vast selection of post cards...

And what did I find in my cabin upon arrival? A man who looked at me with shock that two women had actually managed to find their way back where they were supposed to be.

We hadn't set sail yet, and I was tempted to head back to town.

Except that I had a new dress to wear to dinner...and yes, I do know how much it cost in DOLLARS. I'm just not telling.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Falling For the Gulf Coast in October

It's October, the air is cooler, the sky is bluer, and the leaves are beginning to turn in the south. The traditional trip to take this time of year is to the Smoky Mountains or the Ozarks for long drives on winding roads. You may want to rethink that choice in favor of something a bit different. A little known secret is that this is a perfect time to visit the Gulf Coast. While spring break at most beaches isn't exactly a family event, if your kids have a fall break it is possible for them to have entire hotel or condo swimming pools to themselves and for your family to visit restaurants without the hour and a half wait.

I cannot tell you what a luxury it is to walk straight into Lulu's and request a table by the water. Eating outside when the humidity is gone and the temperature is in the 80s is far superior to standing around amid sweltering crowds and having the ice melt in your drink before it gets to the table. It is possible to find deals on hotels and condos, when more of them are empty. If you want something extra to do, or think too much relaxation is a bad thing, then you can plan your visit during Shrimp Fest.

We drove down on a Friday and our condo wasn't going to be ready until the next day so we needed a hotel for one night. We found a gem right on the beach. The Hilton Garden Inn at Orange Beach offers, in addition to all the amenities they are known for, a lovely pool area with an indoor/outdoor pool, hot tub, pool side bar, and beach access. Robert, at the bar, whips up a mean pina colada. While most hotels are laying out the same old continental breakfast, HGI serves a made to order breakfast that is superb for less than ten bucks. If you run into Austin at breakfast you can get some snarky commentary to go with your coffee. I love that. The staff is friendly and if you have a problem they will work hard to make it right.

While there are enough people on the beach to enjoy people watching (my favorite beach activity) by dinner time it will be nearly empty. This means that you can enjoy taking that requisite family beach photo without your kids being embarrassed by other people watching them. Here's ours. Oh, and the white and khaki thing is over. Color it up!

By far, the nicest thing about traveling to the coast this time of year is the absence of traffic and crowds. Less time getting where you are going for dinner and standing around in long lines under misters means more time at the beach for the kids and a lot less stress for mom and dad. Besides, the leaves are probably turning in your own front yard. And as you can see from this last picture of my daughter and her husband, a little romantic solitude is a very good thing.

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