Christmas 2022: Baltics and Back to the Netherlands

After intentionally foregoing Europe at Christmas for the last 4 years, a few factors drove us back this year: nostalgia for winter weather in the season, a truly authentic Christmas experience, and the paucity of other options with availability and reasonable travel costs. One day we’ll get to Namibia or Peru for Christmas, but not this year.

We initially targeted all three of the Baltic states for this year’s trip: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania:

  • Northern Europe to meet the winter climate criteria
  • Great Christmas tradition (Tallinn holds the distinction of hosting the Europe’s first public Christmas tree in 1441)
  • Have not visited any of them before (they would put WolfeStreetTravel’s country count over 70)

However, WolfeStreetTravel flight criteria and the need to keep the trip limited in length due to work resulted in the following refinements:

  • Lop Lithuania off the itinerary (maybe we’ll get back there when we can also visit adjoining Belarus; we certainly can’t go there now, with Putin stooge and corrupt autocrat Lukashenko in charge)
  • Bookend our stay in the Baltic states with some time in another country with direct flight in and out of Europe

The UNESCO World Heritage site of Old Town Tallinn, Estonia, from atop the castle hill of Toompea:

Riga, Latvia, from the spire of St. Peter’s Lutheran Cathedral in the center of town:

Regarding the direct flight bookend, we found a perfect candidate in Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. United offered direct flights there from IAD, and BalticAir offered direct flights to Estonia and Latvia from Schiphol. Plus, we’d add a few days in Haarlem on the front end and a few days in Amsterdam on the back end to break up the flying time.

Haarlem decked out for Christmas:

The canals of Amsterdam during our stay:

In the middle, we’d fly direct:

  • From Amsterdam to Tallinn, Estonia, then
  • From Tallin to Riga, Latvia, then
  • From Riga back to Amsterdam

Between the direct flights to and from Europe and the direct flights to, within, and from the Baltics, we planned this perfectly to minimize the impacts of inevitable flight delays. Nothing could go wrong now, with no connecting flights that could be impacted by delays on the initial leg – the bane of any traveler’s existence.

Then, more than a month after we bought our tickets, United saw fit to eliminate the direct flight from IAD to Amsterdam, screwing things up and requiring some rework and now unavoidable two-leg flights in and out of Europe. Not a disaster by any means, but it just meant more risks.

Which, of course, did materialize into actual problems, although none too bad, in the great scheme of things: our connecting flight on the way in got cancelled when we were in the air, and the connecting flight on the way back resulted in total travel time almost twice as long as the time the original direct flight would have taken. But, we weren’t impacted by domestic air travel calamity wrought by the massive Christmas snowstorm, and got back on time on December 28, so we consider ourselves relatively lucky.

After arriving (late) at Schiphol, we beelined it to Haarlem, where we stayed for the next 3 days (including watching the World Cup Final, where we were cheering on Argentina and the Dutch were rooting for France simply because Argentina beat them in the Semis, which was fun).

Haarlem’s Christmas lights throughout the city were the profile of the town’s landmark cathedral:

The functioning Molen de Adriaan windmill right in the heart of town, which we toured while there. Super cool.

From Haarlem, we flew northwest to Tallinn, Estonia, which was still initially blanketed by snow, which is exactly what we were hoping for.

Heading into the town square, dominated by Tallinn’s 15th-century town hall and host to the town’s Christmas Market.

St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral on Toompea in Tallinn, a vestige of the Russian Empire’s role in Estonia’s history (and also, we got some good snow!):

Tallinn was mostly undamaged during WW II, and its medieval walls and defensive towers are still intact:

Dining highlight during our stay at the Chef’s Table of 180 Degrees Restaurant, which lasted 4.5 hours. This was about an hour and a half longer than it needed to be.

Due to Tallinn’s latitude, the sun set at 3:20 during our stay, resulting in lots of surreal, perpetual twilight afternoons in town:

After 3 days in Tallinn, we headed a little south, to Riga, Latvia – country # 70 for WolfeStreetTravel:

23 degree weather on Christmas Eve!

Riga’s Christmas Market was actually better than Tallinn’s.

And boasted multiple stalls across the market hawking mulled gin, which was a new one to us. It was fine, but we prefer traditional gluhwein (they had that too).

Riga still maintained some of their town’s fortifications, as well.

And was also home to Europe’s greatest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture, since Riga’s prosperity peaked at the same time as this arts and architecture movement at the turn of the century, and Riga wasn’t bombed into oblivion during WW II, preserving the buildings in this district.

Christmas night dinner at 3 pavāru restorāns in Riga, which bested the much fancier 180 Degrees a few days earlier in Tallinn.

After Christmas in Riga, we headed back to the Netherlands, this time to Amsterdam, which we had visited in 2015 at the end of our bike trip through Holland.

Very nice Christmas trip, overall. We’ll post more on each of these locations after we get through a lot of backlog from three previous trips.

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Protected: Christmas 2021: Antigua and Barbuda

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Christmas 2020: Turks and Caicos

After canceling four international trips this year (Cartagena, Columbia, over Memorial Day; Normandy, France, over July 4; the South of France over Labor Day; and Mayakoba, Mexico, over Veterans Day [the last being the only one of these trips fruitlessly planned after the pandemic began]), we finally escaped over Christmas. After evaluating multiple options (which already were limited by the dozens of countries that refused to accept dirty Americans), we targeted the Turks and Caicos. This selection was made based on three factors:

  1. Direct flight from Dulles, which limited our exposure
  2. Turks and Caicos’ requirement that all visitors submit negative test results for the ‘VID, taken within 5 days of arrival, in order to even board a plane there
  3. As a Caribbean island, our time spent there would be almost entirely outside, further limiting our risk

With this plan in mind, we booked cancelable flights to Turks and Caicos in mid-November, immediately after cancelling our Veterans Day trip, but waited until the last minute to actually book a hotel. We were still concerned that additional shutdowns could occur at the end of December, exposure risks could increase unacceptably, or that we’d test positive.

Although the December surge as a result of Thanksgiving gatherings was a significant concern, we did receive our negative COVID PCR tests on Friday, December 18. After some final, thoughtful consideration of risks versus reward, we pulled the trigger Friday evening on lodging, and flew out Sunday morning, December 20.

The reward definitely merited the risk:

Sunset on Grace Bay our first evening on Providenciales, Turks and Caicos:

No Caribbean trip is complete without a little bit of snorkeling. On Wednesday, we hit Coral Garden, featuring a cool green sea turtle and puffer fish:

Providenciales is a sandy scrub island, versus the mountainous peaks of St. Lucia, for example. But we found a high point one evening at the Magnolia Wine Bar, with an entirely different sunset backdrop to the beach views we had been enjoying.

The extreme eastern tip of the 5-mile long Grace Bay beach:

Heading back west, toward home:

Christmas Eve:

These treats were scarfed up later in the evening with absolutely no regard to Santa’s interests:

The tradition of the traveling Christmas stockings continues! These babies have been everywhere, including Christmas in Laos last year.

Christmas morning;

And more snorkeling on Christmas day – this time farther west, at Smith’s Reef.

Christmas night at Infiniti – definitely the best meal we experienced the entire week.

A little beach buddy patiently waiting by our table for a treat that never came 😦

The unbelievably turquoise waters of Chalk Sound on the south side of the island.

Aaaand, the 2020 version of the same selfie (featuring Sandy’s masks):

Night falls on the beach bar and pool at our place:

We were fortunate to finally get away, and look forward to resuming travels this spring with the advent of the vaccines!

Categories: Caribbean, Christmas, Turks and Caicos | 4 Comments

Southeast Asia: Trip Overview

Maintaining fidelity to our commitment in 2017 to avoid Europe for Christmas for a while, we spent Christmas and New Years in Southeast Asia this year. Really interesting trip! We planned to focus on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia (who doesn’t think of Cambodia when they think of Christmas, after all?). However, the layover location for our selected flight, as well as the arrival location, gave us opportunities to add two more countries to our list – Qatar and Thailand.

We posted our detailed itinerary in this previous article, but in summary, our trip entailed the sequence of events noted below.

1. Take advantage of an 11-hour layover in Doha, Qatar:

Highlights in Doha included the I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art (very cool), a long walk along the harbor corniche, and the Souk Waqif:

The real trip started when we touched down in Bangkok:

As noted in the numbered sequence in the map above, the trip went like this:

2. Arrive in Bangkok, Thailand, and spent a full day (and 2 nights) there. Bangkok wasn’t supposed to be part of the trip, per se, but simply where we’d fly into and sleep in before heading up to Laos. However, one of us screwed up in planning early on (how is this possible when a spreadsheet is involved?!) and didn’t account for an extra day we’d pick up due to the time zone change. As a result, we gained a full day to spend there, primarily at the Grand Palace and markets along the Chao Phraya River (where we finally got to eat Pad Thai in Thailand).

3. Fly to Luang Prabang, Laos, and spend 3 nights there, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Highlights included mountain biking between villages in the mountains outside of town, sunset on the Mekong River, and early-morning alms-giving to the monks in a nearby village.

4. Fly to Siem Reap, Cambodia and spend 3 nights there. The major highlight was an all-day bike trip through the Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm temples (which was an amazing way to see the temples and avoid the crowds).

5. Fly to Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and spend 3 nights there, including New Years Eve. Highlights included a night time scooter ride through the city to sample street food (probably the most fun we had on the entire trip), traveling upriver to the Cu Chi tunnels used by the Viet Cong, and visiting the frozen-in-time Independence Palace – the seat of government for South Vietnam that was overrun by North Vietnam in 1975, ending the “American War.”

6. Fly to Hoi An, Vietnam, and spend 3 nights there. The main highlight was the ancient town itself, situated on the Thu Bon River, but this was supplemented by biking through rice paddies to the beach and a 43-dish food tasting event one morning.

7. Fly back (which entailed 23.5 hours in the air on 3 flights + 13 hours in combined layover time in Bangkok and Doha). We’re still migrating our circadian rhythms back to East Coast time, after spending 2 weeks in a time zone 12 hours ahead of Alexandria’s. The process is definitely not complete, and we’re still waking up for good each day at 4:00 AM as recently as this morning. It’s getting kind of old, at this point.

More to come on each location! (After we finish posting the remaining pics from Morocco . . .)

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Protected: Southeast Asia: Doha, Qatar

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Protected: Southeast Asia: Bangkok,Thailand

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Protected: Southeast Asia: Luang Prabang, Laos, Part 1

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Protected: Southeast Asia: Siem Reap, Cambodia

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Protected: Southeast Asia: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Part 1

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