Macedonia day 1: Skopje

We arrived in Skopje mid-afternoon after a mixed experience in our flight with Wizz air. They inexplicably took forever to board, resulting in a missed slot and an hour on the ground at Luton. The arrival experience however was good – a short passport queue and our checked bag on the carousel literally in front of us as we came through the other side of immigration. We’d decided to hire a car for the trip and having done so in the UK twice this year I was prepared for pretty awful service and a long wait. Not so in Skopje, which has loads of hire companies based right outside of customs (to your left as you come out, you can’t miss them) and a super friendly guy on the desk who already knew who we were (probably a consequence of coming in the off season) and had the car ready to go. After 5 minutes filling in paperwork he walked with us to a space literally outside arrivals and we were ready to go, just like that! We arranged our rental in advance with Surprice and paid 80 euros for 6 days, which included a second driver for free. 

The drive to Skopje was more or less straightforward, excluding a small panic when we realised we didn’t know how to get the car into reverse. Once that was sorted it was easy to find parking, which *seemed* to be free in the streets by our hostel. After a warm welcome from our hosts at Hostel 42 we were ready to explore. 

Skopje isn’t too big and we easily walked around the sights recommended by our host in a couple of hours, perfect for a short trip like ours. 

We started with the fortress. Its pretty imposing sitting on a hill above the town. There wasn’t an entrance fee and a parts of the site were closed off for what seemed like improvement works. At first we weren’t sure whether we should be there but soon felt easier as we saw a few other tourists wondering round. Its a great place to get a feel for the layout of the city and a pretty impressive relic. 

Next up was a brief walk through the old town next to the castle. Its worth a look and had loads of restaurants about but having heard so much about all the sculptures around town we pushed on to the other side of the river to take a look. 

There definitely are a lot and they are large, but not as imposing as I was expecting after everything I’d read. What is striking is how incredibly pristine some of the buildings are on comparison to the apartment blocks we saw outside the centre. It’s a really interesting contrast and I’d love to know more about the politics here. 

We took a pitstop at a cafe/bar which seemed mostly populated with locals. A couple of things we noticed – 1) tea and coffee are happily drink alongside alcohol here and 2) smoking is everywhere! There is an ashtray on every table and the majority of seating in most restaurants is under outdoor canopies on the pavements, presumably to circumvent laws on smoking indoors. Smoking seems to have all but died out in London these days so this was odd at first, but we decided to just go with it. Other than my hair constantly smelling of smoke it didn’t bother us much. 

We got straight into the local for with a “shopska” salad, which is chopped cucumber, tomato and grated feta. Really tasty! The food here in general has been great, with amazing fresh salads and plenty of meat and vegetarian options on all the menus we’ve ordered from. Dinner was actually Mexican food! We were too scared to go to the local restaurants recommended by our hostel owner having found the language too much of a barrier when there wasn’t an English menu on offer. The Mexican tapas, beer and the passion fruit sour we ordered from Amigos (near the giant fountain with the statue of a man on a horse-you’ll know what I mean) were happily all excellent. It really is a cosmopolitan food scene where you can easily get most major cuisines. 

Tired from our flight, we decided to take a short walk along the river then call it a day, ready for Matka Canyon in the morning. 

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Canada and USA 2016: Las Vegas

Vegas was our last stop of the trip, and to be honest a bit of a blur! We definitely found it true that time passes more quickly inside the hotels and casinos. Here is a list of our highlights:

Hotels

Our first two nights were at the Westin, a couple of minutes walk off the strip. We booked this to be on the same hotel as my sister who by coincidence overlapped our stay for a night. We weren’t sure how it would be staying in a “normal” hotel with a relatively small casino – would we miss out on the full vegas experience? Actually we really liked it, it was nice and quiet by the pool and we could be in amongst it within 5 minutes but escape the crazy when we needed to. If you’ve stayed at a Westin you’ll hopefully be familiar with their very comfortable bedding (you can even buy it to take home!) and I’m happy to report that the Westin Las Vegas is no different.

We booked the Palazzo for the last night. I’m glad we got to see what it was like and the room was undeniably awesome. To be honest though we spent so little time there and everything seemed to be extra – no tea or coffee in the room, you could use the gym not the spa, a bit mean with late check out and so on. It’s a great place if you’ve got a big budget and don’t mind fighting for a place by the pool, for us it was probably unnecessary on this trip.

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Food (mostly buffets)

Our first buffet was breakfast at the Wynn. It was pretty great. We had to queue for about 45 minutes (we arrived at 8.30) but it was all very efficiently managed. The hotel and the restaurant were beautiful and, as we were to later realise, it was reasonably priced at $24.99 plus tax. My favorite things were the breakfast pizzas, pierogi and scrambled egg but we also tried the sushi, pancakes, sausage, thai breakfast options and probably much more that I don’t remember! After plate 3 or 4 we went back for desserts which to be honest looked pretty but weren’t that great. It didn’t matter though, the existence overall was brilliant and we didn’t need to eat again until evening.

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Following on from that we decided our best food option for the next day was to check out another buffet. On reading reviews the Bellagio lunch buffet cane out pretty high. Had we gone here first I think our minds would have been blown, however after the wynn it felt much more canteen like. We also got stung by a $13 increase in price (to $37.99 plus tax) because of easter weekend which increased our expectations. No sign, just scribbled down on a little piece of note paper next to the cashier after we’d already queued (about 5 minutes at 11.30am so no biggy to be fair). To justify the amount paid we really went to town on this one with 5 plates each and felt terrible afterwards because of the volume of food. We ate a snack at 11pm that but but only because we thought we should not because we were really hungry. I would probably go again for lunch on a normal day as it was definitively with the normal price.

Show

We only saw one, Raiding the Rock Vault. It was enough, and awesome! The idea is that members of rock bands from the past come and sing an anthology of songs from rock history. The voices and instrumentals on display were of incredibly high quality and the songs had excellent singalong potential. The theatre itself was small so you can even see the fingers moving on the guitars and appreciate the skill of the player. We got tickets from the both opposite the Bellagio for $40 each which I consider good value.

Other activities

We shopped at the Fashion Show mall which was nice and quiet and well air conditioned. A good place for a morning away from the hustle and bustle.

The fountains outside the Bellagio were fun and free. The sequencing with the music is seriously impressive. They go off every half hour in the afternoon then I think every 15 minutes after 8.

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The volcano outside the Mirage is also free and an impressive spectacle. It goes off at 8 and 9 on weekdays, I think also at 10 on weekends. You can’t see much in the picture below but you can imagine the scale!

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The mall at Caeser’s palace is pretty cool and the first place we saw a ceiling painted like the sky. It also has an automated show based on the Joseph and the technicouloured dream coat story which is located at the back by the cheesecake factory. We couldn’t make out what it was saying but the visuals and music were fun anyway.

Following the canal inside the Venetian took up a whole morning, partly because we got lost and couldn’t get out! Well worth a visit, as with all the hotels the attention to detail in the design is amazing.

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The Eiffel tower at the Parisian is another amazing replica. Getting up close the amount of effort that must have gone into it is astounding.

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And finally, just walking down the strip blew my mind a little bit. Going away from the airport you’ll walk past New York New York and many others that will amaze you. We spent so much time just taking it all in.

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And finally

To get from the airport to the hotel we used the Belltrans shuttle which cost $7 each plus a couple of dollars tip for the driver. It was good, very prompt and our hotel was the send drop.

For the journey back to airport we’d clocked into Uber and got one fir $15 fit both of us. The Palazzo has a special pick up point for uber and similar so the whole thing was very straightforward.

A couple of tips:
-Starbucks is more expensive in the hotels. The one at the bottom of the Fashion Show mall has normal prices.
-There is wifi everywhere, including on the street. You won’t want for it.

Oh yes, I forgot the gambling!

I’m not a natural gambler as I can’t stand the feeling of losing money! I therefore was a far from ideal companion for Ben who gambled a bit but was limited by my lack of enthusiasm. The bit we did – a couple of shot machines and roulette was fun and the scale is huge so if you are a gambler I’m sure you will love it.

I really wanted to do a free lesson in craps or poker (offered by a few hotels including the Venetian in the morning) but we missed them in the flurry of activity that is checking in and out if hotels. I think they would be really fun.

So that’s it for this trip. I can’t wait for more adventures in the near future!

Canada and USA 2016: Seattle part 2

The rest of our time in Seattle as a combination of enjoying relaxing in beautiful ballard and exploring downtown. Here are the highlights:

Ballard farmers market

Held on Sunday morning and pleasantly untouristed. We walked around in the rain (very glad of our ski jackets!) then stopped for food. Ben was very happy with his hot dog and I enjoyed my tamale which came with lots of colourful vegetables.

Locks and botanic garden

We walked about 20 minutes from the farmers market to the locks and got lucky that there were boats going through. It was so interesting to evesdrop on a tour guide on one if the boats talking about how the locks worked. We also wondered round the botanic gardens next door. They were very pretty and would be lovely for a non-rainy day.

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Greenlake

I ran from our apartment to Greenlake on our first morning, and what a lovely run it was. The lake has a well maintained and well used path circling it and you can complete a nice flat 5k without too much trouble. It would also be nice for a walk.

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Beneath the streets

This was a great tour of Seattle’s underground tunnels with a lively history of the city thrown in for good measure. Neither of us are tour people, we’re too easily bored and want to go out own way, which means this must have been excellent as the hour flew by! At only $10 each (including fees) bought through groupon this was a steal. I would have been happy to pay full price for the quality of the tour.

The cheesecake factory

Had to be done. I’ve never experienced anything in the uk that compares to the breath and quality of food here combined with great service. I’d only been once before, a few years ago on Chicago and we got so full on the massive appetisers so I was keen to revisit it with Ben! I ordered the chicken lettuce wraps which were fresh and tasty, Ben ordered the mac and cheese burger which was probably awful healthwise but so tasty! The mac and cheese was deep fried and sandwiched in top of the burger patty. Yum! We also had a slice of cookie dough cheesecake. I’m glad I’ve finally tried it but never feel the need to try it again – so rich and sickly but addictive which led to slight nausea.

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University of Washington

We spent an afternoon wandering around here which was lovely. Its all gothic style buildings and cherry blossom. Definitely with a visit. We also visited a nearby cafe that only sold biscuits (I can’t remember the name but it will for sure come up if you Google it) which was tasty. Also a weird experience for Ben and I as we were really obviously surrounded by students and it’s been a long time since guys stage if our lives!

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And then we were finished in Seattle 😦

We took the bus then the light rail to the airport. Having not had much luck with Seattle public transport we left an hour and a half more than we needed to get to the airport. Happily it wasn’t needed and everything went smoothly. A mention here to Alaska air who flew us to our next destination of Las Vegas. The flight went really smoothly and the customer service was great. They even included a free soft drink. Very pleased!

Canada and USA 2016: soccer in Seattle

Although I don’t understand enough about football (meaning English football or soccer) I love the atmosphere of a live game so jumped at the chance to see the Seattle Sounders play. Tickets were a steal at $30 each!

The stadium is downtown near King Street station and purpose built with wide corridors for entry and plenty of parking right beside it, an immediate plus for being much easier to get to and enter than a London ground. If you feel like it you can meet the home fans an hour before the match in Pioneer Square and walk to the stadium with them. We took a look but there weren’t many people there so we felt a bit awkward and went on alone!

Finding our seats was a little tricky as they were right up top with their own entrance, but we loved the customer service from the stewards. Soccer here seems to have a much more family focus and in stark contrast to the scary security guard types you often find at London games, the stewards seemed to be a friendly bunch of retiree soccer fans who were happy to be there and keen for us to have a great time.

On finding our seats we still had an hour to kill until kick off so spent some time admiring the great views over Seattle from the top of the stadium.

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Another couple of things we noticed at this point:
1) it’s fine to take beer into the stands (all be it you can only buy two at a time per person before half time and one after). In the uk there is strictly no alcohol allowed in the stands and the blinds of the boxes where you can drink have to be closed so as not to inflame the crowd through their being able to see the booze. It was a good indication of a much better behaved crowd.
2) there were lots of signs warning against obscenities and we didn’t hear anyone swear. It was a pretty wholesome atmosphere and seemed suitable for young children.

The hype at the start of the game was long! I enjoyed it, Ben could have done without it. There were performance of both teams national anthems, fire works, pitch based chat and presumably assume other things I’ve forgotten as it lasted a good 20 minutes! When play kicked off we saw the next big difference to the atmosphere at an English game: the crowd was largely silent until prompted by the must energetic hype guy I could imagine. Basically one area of the crowd seemed to be designated for people who wanted to chant and rather than it happening organically the hype guy would tell then when to start and sing along with them from a mic. Watching it was seriously impressive and at some points almost like watching a Zumba class as he had crowd jumping and waving their arms. It looked exhausting! The pic below shows the flags in this area but doesn’t do justice to the full spectacle!

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The game itself was fun to watch although sadly seattle lost. It was also really easy to get out. None of the hour long queues along congested London pavements not designed to cope with the volume of the crowds. We were out and in our bus a few blocks away within half an hour of leaving out seats.

All in all a great fun way to spend an evening!

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Canada and USA 2016: Seattle part 1

Having arrived in Seattle on time at 11am with Amtrak our lovely Airbnb host picked us up at King Street station, drove our suitcases home for us and dropped us off at Pike Place market. The market is really cool with lots of places to eat and stalls selling unique art, jewellery and a lot of fresh fish in between. I saw so many things I wanted to buy but our already very full and heavy suitcases (perhaps fortunately given we want to buy a house) put a stop to that. We didn’t last long as it was Saturday and therefore so busy we could barely move but it was definitely worth a visit.

We stopped for lunch at the Crumpet shop where I had the egg with smoked salmon cream cheese and Ben got marmite and cheese. If you’re British this place probably won’t blow your mind unless you’ve been an expat for a while in which case it might – the crumpets are a perfect replica of the normal (not the basics or finest) ones in sainsbury or tesco. If you’ve never had a crumpet before then this is a perfect place to try one for that reason. They also do sweet options with almond butter, ricotta, marmalade and various other toppings which I would have liked to try but was too full!

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Having finished there we walked up to the Space Needle. At this point I’ll discuss transport options. We loved Seattle but the public transport was not great and struck me as expensive for what you get – a bus journey is minimum $2.50 and you have to pay again if you transfer to the metro or monorail. A day pass is $8. We paid $5 for the stored value Orca card thinking it would be better value. We quickly found out that it isn’t! The fares are the same as cash and the advantage of bit having to have exact change was quickly lost when we realised there is a $5 minimum top up, you have to go to a safeway or metro station (neither of which are easily find) to top up or you have to wait 24-48 hours for credit to be added if you buy online. Coverage isn’t great and services aren’t frequent. For that reason we walked most of the time in downtown. This might not work for you as it’s pretty spread out (the space needle is a mile or so from Pike Place) in which case Uber seems pretty easy and inexpensive option especially as there is free wifi or a starbucks you can lurk by almost everywhere block.

Anyway, back to the space needle. Being Saturday it was very busy so we decided not to go up but admired it from below.

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Right next to it is the Seattle centre which houses several museums, gardens and an epic fountain. Its a nice place to spend an afternoon and we enjoyed watching the fountain in action.

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That done we headed to the EPM museum which was highly recommended by a friend. It was great! The focus is pop culture and there are areas for fantasy, horror, indie games, the band nirvana and several others. We spent the afternoon there with a starbucks break in the middle and neither of us got bored which is a huge achievement as we both struggle to pay attention to this kind of thing. The entry price is a little steep at $25 or around £18 buy I get the impression this is about standard for museums out here. It also included a conveniently located coat check right by the cash desk which was awesome.

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After that it was time to head back into town to catch a live soccer match which I’ll talk about in a separate post as it was quite a different experience to one in the UK.

Canada and USA 2016: Amtrak from Vancouver to Seattle

We had a few options open to us including driving, flying and a bus ride  for this journey but rejected them all in favour of taking the train. I love the idea of train travel and with advance booking (we booked around 10 weeks ahead) our tickets for the four and a half hour journey were a steal at around $20US each.

We took train 513 which left Vancouver at 6.30am. We arrived at the station by taxi at 5.30am which our guesthouse owner felt was far too early but being totally risk adverse we were glad we did. Not least because our driver didn’t know where the amtrak station was and we didn’t know what it was called. Luckily I’d kept an emergency map on the screen of my phone! It doesn’t say the name on the eticket but it’s Pacific Central station. That should help avoid a similar situation.

Anyway, our taxi from waterfront took about 5 minutes at that time of day so we still arrived in good time. On arrival the first thing you’ll see right in front of the main entrance is a table with US customs forms. In an unexpectedly lovely gesture pens shaped like flowers are provided for travellers to fill in the forms.

Once you’re done with that you head on to the coach (or business class if you went for that) check in desk where the conductor allocates your seats. This was the start of what continued to be amazing customer service throughout the journey. The conductors went it off their way to be friendly and welcoming and just created a really nice vibe for the ride. We asked for and were given seats on the coastal side as we’d heard it was beautiful.

Next up we went through US immigration which was fine. The only blip was being charged $6 each for “I94”. We asked what this was but the border agent wasn’t forthcoming. We remain confused as we both had our ESTA. If anyone knows please feel free to comment!

Anyway, the process was quick and easy and we then found ourselves at baggage check. You’re allowed one carry on and one 50lb checked bag each. In keeping with the great customer service they weren’t fastidious about this. I checked a 51lb bag and travelled with two small carry ons rather than one large.

That done, it was on to the train. We found our coach seats very comfortable for the duration of the trip with plenty of legroom. I didn’t take pictures but they were leather upholstered, clean and seemed fairly new. They also had working power sockets and decent free wifi (capable of trip planning and minor instagram, not netflix). The driving cab of the train itself was a shock to our British eyes. It was massive! Maybe because we’re used to boarding from a platform but here we were alongside the rails? It was cool anyway!

We set off around 20 minutes late but this wasn’t a problem as the train made it back over the journey. After a brief nap while we left Vancouver it was time to enjoy the views which were, as reported, absolutely incredible the whole way.

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The conductor informed us well ahead of time that there would be a check when we crossed the US border about an hour in. The whole process was quick and easy. You wait in your seats from the time the border agents board to when they leave, they walk by, check your passports and collect the customs card you filled in earlier. If you ticked that you have food they asked what it was but we didn’t see anything get confiscated (it seems like the only thing that’s an issue is fresh fruit which you’re asked not to take on board).

That done, the train moved on and we checked out the bistro car. I’d bought snacks with me so didn’t eat but it was reasonably priced by European standards. My tea cost  $2 and Ben has a breakfast bagel for $5. He did say it wasn’t very nice but that it was an understandable consequence of train food. They also provide free water and I was impressed that the oatmeal is fresh rather than the instant pots you’d likely find at home.

We ate in the lounge car which was really spacious and a great place to go if you were unlucky with the view from your seat or the people sitting around you.

After that it was back to our seats to watch the world go by for the last couple of hours. I am really not good a doing this kind of thing for more than an hour but on this trip it was easy. The scenery as so unbroken and spectacular the whole way. The sense of space in the US and Canada compared to the UK is just unreal. Also, one if the conductors was a bit of a comedian which added to the experience.

In arrival in Seattle the checked baggage is unloaded airport style. You get off the train, go into the station and on your right you’ll see a baggage room with a carousel. After about 10 minutes the bags arrived and you’re done! As a bonus, Seattle King Street station is gorgeous.

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A great way to finish the journey. So in conclusion this was easily the most amazing, best value train trip I’ve ever taken. Not to mention clearing US customs was so much less stressful than at the airport. I can’t wait to plan another trip, maybe San Francisco to LA this time!