Monday, August 26, 2013

Day 238: Strøget!

Like I mentioned yesterday, on our way to McDonalds, we saw a promising-looking street lined with shops and cafes and decided to explore it today because most of it was closed yesterday evening.


It turned out that this "promising looking" street was part of Strøget, the longest pedestrian street in the world! How awesome! 

I can't believe we had almost missed this! Had it not been for dear old McDonalds we would not have come across this at all. When we were on the red bus, there definitely was a mention of this street, but I believe it happened somewhere on the opposite, far end of the street because it had seemed like a long way away from our hotel. So we were not planning to explore that at all. But thanks to our brilliant stroke of luck, we discovered this gem, just a few 100 metres from our hotel! Yay!

So Stroget occupied us the entire day.

The entire freaking day.

Because there were too many shops, too many cafes, too many artists performing (my favourite was a painter who was making paintings of a celestial theme with some insanely innovative ways of using paints and scraps of paper!), too many people and dogs and sights to be observed. We walked and walked and walked even found ourselves right back in Tivoli! Amazing!

We enjoyed our time there so much that in the evening we went back there for another walk, all the time thanking our luck that we came across it before too late!

So yes, Strøget took our entire day, including lunch (which for me consisted of some really good prawn "sticks").

For dinner, we went back to an Asian place, this time Chinese. The food there was average unlike the Thai place where we went previously but what was most amusing was the little one's excitement. She was in such a laughing, squealing, beaming mood that even the stone-faced sulky Chinese waitress had to crack open and smile broadly. Before we knew it, we found her happily feeding crackers to the little one!

It was a fabulous day, thanks to Strøget, a major landmark in Copenhagen. The commentator on the red bus had mentioned that Copenhagen is such a city where you think you have seen it all but will actually keep surprising you with more and more discoveries.

Amen to that!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Day 237: Little Mermaid, Rosenborg and Farmer's Market!

Today we got back on the open top red bus and as planned, set out to explore the Little Mermaid and Rosenborg Palace. Just as we were waiting for the bus in front of our hotel, the bridge right across started to split and rise, giving way to yachts with tall masts. That's when we realized that we were staying right next to a moveable bridge! How exciting!

We were also caught in between a long stream of people walking - young and old, men and women, with and without pets, with and without strollers. After some time of confusion, we realized that it was a huge walkathon, clearly very popular amongst the Danes. What was cool was that it also had a segment for mums, named "mamathon", resulting in a large number of young moms walking purposefully, pushing their strollers ahead. It was a great sight and I really wished I knew about it earlier so that I could take part in it as well!

We boarded our red bus soon and alighted at our first destination - the Little Mermaid. After we took a picture of the monument, this time from the front, there really was nothing more to do there. So I did what I had been wanting to do for a long time - Eat an ice cream in that cold weather. Usually I don't like ice cream and I really think people are nuts to have it in the kind of cold weather they have there. But wherever you look, you spot people in singlets and shorts having double scoops of ice creams and it was really getting to me. So I got one too and interestingly enough, had a great time having it!

We boarded the red bus once again and this time we stopped at the Rosenborg palace. This was not as big or grand as the Amaneliaborg Palace that we had chanced upon on our first day in Copenhagen. I should also mention here that when we passed by the Amaneliaborg Palace this morning on the bus, we saw how crowded it usually gets with all the tourists. But since we were there by chance early morning on a Saturday, we had gotten the palace all to ourselves, and in hindsight, we were extremely lucky for that opportunity! Anyway back to Rosenborg - yes, it was small but still pretty and was good enough for photos. What more does one want on a holiday! So we took a few pictures, lazed around in the Botanical Gardens surrounding the palace and then walked around in the neighbourhood looking for some food.

And in that walking around part, we discovered an awesome... AWESOME farmer's market! It was really, really cool. Firstly there were no tourists there. There were the locals only, coming to purchase their fruits, vegetables and meat as well as produce like dips, breads, cheese and such. We treated ourselves to some super yummy aubergine dips, breads and salads. It was really really good - so good that we went back for a second round! We also spent a considerable time walking around the market - it was expansive and everything we saw seemed to catch our fancy! We would have easily spent more than a couple of hours there!

Outside the market a cooking contest was on and we watched that for a while too. It was lovely to be there, amongst all the locals, eating their food, watching their contest, and cheering the participants on! Even the little one did the due diligence and clapped her hands when the winner was announced!

After that lovely experience, we made our way back to the hotel for some rest. In the evening, we walked in a different direction from the hotel, in search of dinner. It was a Sunday and we realized that most shops were closed. We finally came across a McDonalds and decided to succumb to fast food for the day. But something good came out of it - while walking towards that McDonalds, we caught sight of a street full of shops and cafes right next to it. All of them were closed thanks to the Sunday, but we decided that we will explore that promising looking street tomorrow.

Another day in Copenhagen , thus, came to an end.. with the promise of more opportunities for exploration! 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Day 236: Red Top Bus, Tivoli, Boat Tour, Noodle Soup!

Today morning, after one last round of farewell to the staff members we came to get acquainted with, we finally stepped out of the Vision of the Seas at Copenhagen. 

We proceeded straight back to Hotel Bethel at the happening location of Nyhavn, where we had previously stayed, and checked in. As usual, since we were way earlier than the check in time, our room wasn't ready. But this time we knew exactly what to do. We left the luggage in the hotel, and took the open top red bus tour around the Copenhagen city. The bus stop for this was right outside our hotel, so it was super convenient for us. 

Our intention was to take the entire tour first, without alighting, figure out which are the spots that really catch our interest, and then go back again on it the next day to just these stops and explore them in detail. This way we can make full use of our 2-day tickets for the bus, and do not have to waste time hanging out at places that don't catch our fancy. 

So we sat on the bus and decided on two specific places where we definitely must alight tomorrow - the Little Mermaid and the Rosenborg Palace. The third stop we had in mind was the must-visit Tivoli Gardens. Tivoli Gardens is one of the oldest amusement parks of the world but what was most fascinating to me was that, today, it runs on 100% renewable power, enabled by its own windmill inside the premises! How awesome is that?! Anyway, we definitely wanted to get down at Tivoli and take a few pictures even if we don't go into the amusement park with the little one and it was on our list as well tomorrow. 

At Tivoli, the bus captain told us that the bus would be waiting for at least 20 minutes, since it was its most important stop. So instead of sitting in the bus and getting stewed (the weather had turned pretty warm), we decided to alight at Tivoli, and finish off exploring it the today itself. And that basically meant walking around for a while, taking a few pictures, finding a good place for lunch and finally having really good bull hot dogs at a cafe. 

Post Tivoli, we got back on another open top red bus and went back to our hotel. This time the room was ready and we checked in one last time. After unpacking and settling in, we took some much needed rest.

In the evening, we walked to the boat pier right next to our hotel and took a tour on the boat. It lasted for 60 minutes and took us through the canals of Copenhagen, past houses, palaces, several ancient buildings that now act as their stock exchanges, parliament house etc., statues and monuments and shops and restaurants. The boat also went out to the sea for a while and we could see the yacht used by the Royal Family, a three mast boat converted to a training ground for youngsters, an old submarine, the Little Mermaid (the iconic status in Copenhagen) and so on. Apparently yesterday marked the 100th year of the Little Mermaid exactly and to celebrate they had a big event there with free flow of beer sponsored by Carlsberg (which is a Danish company), story telling of fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen (the author of Little Mermaid) and 100 women in bikini jumping off a platform in the mid-sea straight into the waters! We still have the Little Mermaid on our list of things to see for tomorrow because the view from the boat on the sea was more of the backside and we wanted to see it from the front. 

After that very interesting tour, we walked through Nyhavn, enjoying its super cold weather. Since we had western/European cuisine on most days on the ship, we didn't feel like having that anymore, and I was badly craving for some hot soup, Asian style. Luckily for us, Nyhavn had a Thai restaurant and I had the most amazing ...and I really mean The Most Amazing Thai Style Noodle Soup there. The warmth of the soup bowl, the tantalizing taste of the spices on my tongue and the flow of the hot liquid through my throat and warming up my body, all added to the beauty of the evening. 

The day, with that, ended on just the perfect note! 

Friday, August 23, 2013

Day 235: Final Day on the Cruise!

Today's our last day on the cruise. This of course meant that I was kinda blue at the thought of it ending. But good news is that we have a few more days in Copenhagen before we need to get back to Singapore and to the real world.

So, highlight of the final day:

a) Lots of resting, drinking, eating and packing.
b) Playtime in the playroom for the little one which, once again, drove her into giddy heights of happiness and excitement.
c) Watching the most gorgeous sunset.
d) Watching the final show on the ship that featured a record holding juggler who did some mind blowing acts. The show ended with the key members of the cruise staff coming up on the stage and bidding farewell, which was pretty nice. We also got to take a picture with our captain (a lady!) thanks to the little one who struck up a conversation with her while we were watching the show.
e) Final formal dinner which was really nice thanks to the lovely staff. All of us had become good friends over the last few days and this was a moment of goodbye. Specifically, the restaurant manager who had gotten to be pretty thick with the little one, carried her around the dining room, greeting other guests, while we dined. She refused to come to us after that, that's how much she enjoyed all the attention!

This has been an amazing journey and experience, one that's gonna stay for long in my mind and am very thankful for the opportunity to experience this.

Tomorrow we get back to Copenhagen! 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Day 234: Stockholm, Sweden!

Today we got to Stockholm, the final port of call on the cruise, before we make our way back to Copenhagen.

The excursion we took was a short one of three hours only. But it was a good three hours! Stockholm was beautiful - I can't really seem to place my finger on why exactly but both the hubby and I totally loved it. It was quintessentially European and that was enough, I suppose. 

We started off with a bus ride in the company of our hilarious guide for the day - a guy who spoke in British accent and had some of the funniest stories to share. Our first stop was the City Hall on the way to which we had a photo stop on top of a hill to take pictures of the Stockholm skyline. Stockholm is an archipelago consisting of 14 islands and the key water body is the humungous Lake Malaren. From the hill top we could see the lake, the old architecture maintained intact on one side and their amusement park outlining the other side. One of the fascinating stories we heard on the way to City Hall was about this 1-woman theater. Apparently there is an 18-seater theater in stockholm in a very old building, and it is completely run by a lady, all by herself. She cleans and maintains it, does the ticketing for the performance there and even does the solo theatre performance that outlines the history of that building. How fascinating! 

The City Hall in Stockholm is where the Nobel Prize ceremony and banquet is held every year. The building is relatively new (early 20th century) but comes with its own fascinating set of stories, mainly around its eccentric architect. Here's a sample - apparently the stairway in the main hall (called the "Blue Room") was constructed in such a way that your posture automatically becomes tall and elegant as you walk down the stairs, provided you focus your eyes on a particular star that has been engraved on to one of walls of the room. The story goes that he made his wife walk up and down several times to test this. They eventually got a divorce. Another story is how he wanted the whole place to be done in Blue first (and hence the name "Blue Room" for the main hall), but after the brickwork was done, he liked that look instead and it was left at that, but the name "Blue Room" remained). 

Another fascinating room was the "Golden Hall". This one, as the name indicates, was golden in colour with illustrations from Swedish history.

After spending a considerable time in and around the City Hall, and taking a ton of pictures with the adjacent Lake Malaren as the backdrop, we proceeded to the Old Town. 

The Old Town, or the Gamla Stan, as the name very rightly indicates, is pretty much the oldest part of the town, dated back to the 13th century. It has narrow, wooden houses in a row, cobbled streets without side pavements and a community well in the square centre. The place also has the Royal Palace next to it and we caught sight of a few Royal Guards in their posts. I am still very fascinated by the thought of Royal Guards, don't ask me why. It is just fascinating to see them, in their uniforms, looks all solemn and important, and do their routine - walk up and down, taking a certain number of steps at regular, timed intervals. It's such an elaborate process for something that's of no real practical use most probably. 

Anyway, at the Old Town, we decided to part from our excursion group most of whom were returning back to the ship and instead, decided to explore a bit more in the few spare hours we have before heading back to the ship. 

After walking around the Old Town, taking in the sights, refreshing ourselves with some coffee and getting a bit of shopping done, we decided to walk in the direction of Opera House and get lunch somewhere in the area. 

Just as we were getting out of Old Town, we saw a huge crowd outside the Palace waiting for something, clearly, but we had no idea what they were waiting for and for how long. We could tell that something significant was going to happen but we didn't stay on figure out what is was because the crowd was a bit too much. So we continued on our way out of Old Town and after about 10 minutes, we came across a spectacular sight! 

We were walking down the pavement and right next to us, on the roads, was a long, majestic procession of the Royal Guards on their horses. About 40-50 of them! It was amazing! All three of us, including the little one, watched them with fascination! This is what the crowd outside the Palace was waiting for and thanks to our good luck, we could get a real close look without any crowd at all! It was a superb experience, no doubt!  

After absorbing that amazing sight, we continued our walk to and beyond the Opera House, until, almost by accident, we reached Drottningatan, a major pedestrian street in Stockholm, lined with shops and cafes -  a perfect stop for lunch. Today, we decided to get some Asian lunch, and settled for Thai and Japanese fares. Lunch was pretty good, not only because of the food but also because it gave some much needed rest to my feet - all that walking had taken its toll. Post lunch, we did what everyone simply has to do on that street apart from eating - shopping! 

Later we took the shuttle bus provided by the ship to get back to the pier. Thus ended the last excursion on the cruise. Later in the evening, we caught a show by the dancers and singers from the ship, on a Disco theme, which was pretty nice. The little one behaved through this one as well, which was great!

Tomorrow the ship will be at sea, giving us that much required rest day to pack, before getting off the day after. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Day 233: Helsinki, Finland!

Today's stop was Helsinki, the capital of Finland.

But instead of going for a tour of the capital city itself, our excursion took off straight to Porvoo, a very quaint little village about 45 minutes away from Helsinki. Apparently Helsinki doesn't have much of their old buildings left unlike the other European cities because many of them have been repeatedly burned down. So to show us what Finland used to look like, we were taken to Porvoo which has managed to preserve most of the old, wooden buildings.

And I loved Porvoo. It has a small river, a row of beautiful red store houses along it, small paths, quaint cafes and shops, and when we were there, beautiful weather as well.

After walking around for a bit, we relaxed at a cafe, treating ourselves to Finnish coffee and pastries. Apparently the Finnish people drink the largest amount of coffee in the world - upto 10kg of coffee per person is consumed! Phew! When we heard that data point, we had to, of course, drink coffee in Finland.

Post walking around the Porvoo village, we had lunch at a lovely little cottage in the beautiful Finnish countryside. It was fascinating to see their over-used charcoal-covered fireplaces, huge furnaces and fur covered chairs that were signs of cruel winters. The food was, once again, yummy and we stuffed ourselves with the breads, cheese, salad, chop and dessert.

After lunch we were given a tour of Helsinki, with the main stop at the marvelous Senate square. I must say I really like this idea of squares in these cities. A wide space where people sit, chat, sunbathe, play, walk and eat. The Helsinki one was spectacular, especially with the backdrop of the majestic cathedral, the speckless, vividly blue skies beyond, and the beautiful gulls enjoying the square as much as us humans.

We also visited the Rock Church which was carved out of a rock, as the name indicated. That was lovely too... it was like walking into a cave and every little sound there boomed and echoed gently, giving it a beautiful atmosphere.

After a little bit of shopping again, we were back in the ship for another evening of tea, snacks and resting, followed by a huge dinner that went along with a glass of port wine, my new favourite drink.

Before I wrap up, here are a few of the fascinating things I learnt about Finland.
1) The Finnish education system has apparently been declared to be the best in the world. And it is free for its residents.
2) Their healthcare is almost free too. You need to pay 20 euros for the first two trips to the doctor, after which healthcare is free for the rest of the year.
3) There are more saunas than cars in Finland. The population of Finland is about 5 million and the number of saunas in their country is about 3 million.
4) They even have competitions to see who can stay in a sauna for the longest time. Apparently people from even Japan and Korea fly down to participate.
5) One favourite passtime of the Finnish during winter, when they have like a metre of snow and when temperature dips to even -40 degrees, is to alternately sit in the sauna and then take a dip in ice cold water. They make a hole in a frozen lake and then run from their sauna room to dip in that water and back. Freeze, stew, freeze, stew, freeze, stew. Apparently they believe it is good for the heart.
6) Our guide spoke authoritatively about Santa Claus who is said to be staying in the north of Finland, near the Arctic circle. It was as if he was like the President or something, very much alive and hearty, with his clear agenda, his way of life and his herd of reindeer.

Yup, I love Finland too.

Tomorrow we touch our final port of call - Stockholm, Sweden. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Day 232: St. Petersburg, Russia and a Lot of Drama!

We had a really early start to the day today as our reporting time for the excursion in St. Petersburg, the port of call for the day, was 6:45am! I had my doubts about  how I would manage that with the little one around, but we did. Am pretty proud that we even managed to squeeze in breakfast by that time!

Alright, so St. Petersburg!

It was such an eventful day…both eventful and dramatic. There is no way am gonna be able to remember all the details and put it down on the blog, but let's try.

Russia was the only port of call on this cruise that required us to complete an immigration form and go through the immigration process. In all other ports of call, the "sea pass" was simply tapped at the exit of the ship and that was that. So this elaborate procedure of immigration basically meant heightened security measures (and general lack of trust of foreigners, if I may add) in the country.

[For those planning on a cruise to Russia any time in the future, here's a useful tip: if you take the excursion from the cruise to go around Russia, you do not need a Russian visa! That's like music to any Indian's ears!]

So in a way, from the exclusive immigration procedure and all that, I already had this feeling in my head that Russia might not exactly be a piece of cake.

Interestingly enough, as soon as our excursion bus took off from the port terminal and we entered the city, I saw a police car and two policemen roughing up a guy who I presume is some kind of a petty criminal and shoving him into the car. I hugged my belongings, including the little one, a little tighter after watching that scene.

But there was no need for such tension because we had the most comfortable trip ever.

Russia was spectacular!

I was pleasantly surprised by how developed and well maintained it is! Yeah, yeah I know it was a superpower earlier and this is to be expected, but from what I have personally heard from friends who had visited Russia before, it was a complete story of riches to rags and was not necessarily a pretty place. So I had a different set of expectation and was genuinely very amazed about its grandeur and modernity.

Our first stop was in Pushkin, outside of St. Petersburg, to visit Queen Catherine's Palace.

Before I get into more details about the palace itself, I have to write about the drama that took place. Today's excursion was to be a 9 hour long one and we were well prepared for a lot of milk and food for the little one. When we heard that the Pushkin tour would last about 2 hours or so, we thought there's no point in carrying so much luggage around and that we would take just a bottle of milk and some snacks for the little one. I took the necessary things out and kept them aside in the bus, all prepared.

Just that, when we got down, due to some confusion regarding the stroller, I forgot to carry the milk and the food. I didn't carry the entire luggage as planned but I also happily left behind the small amounts we had set aside for the Pushkin tour. I realized this within minutes of getting off the bus, but before I could do something about it, the guide informed me that the bus is already far away and will not be coming back to the palace until after the tour because of lack of parking space.

Needless to say, I panicked. The little one had just woken up from her nap and I knew that she will not be keeping her spirits up for long if she doesn't get something to eat and drink. I felt faint and almost sick from tension I believe because as luck would have it, the palace was on holiday for the day and was opened only for a couple of tour groups like ours. So even their cafe was closed!

There was nothing I could do other hope and pray that the little one doesn't get hungry very soon. So I did that. I tried to focus on the palace, meanwhile praying with all my heart for some miracle to happen and for some food and drinks to appear, that would be edible for a baby.

At the doors of the palace we were welcomed by a Russian band playing some of the popular Russian marches. That was a nice touch to the start of the tour.

The palace was spectacular and reminds one of similar structures like that of Versailles. Like I mentioned before, we were there on a day when the palace is usually closed but it was opened just for a few tour groups like ours. So only about 200 people visited that palace the same day as us and that was actually pretty brilliant, inspite of their cafe being closed. Because, it meant that we almost got a private tour of the palace with nobody in our way to take as many pics as we wanted! I actually have solo shots standing in the super long corridors with a line of golden arches connecting each rooms, behind me. This, am certain, would not have been possible had we not gotten this special tour. I was super thrilled about this!

One downside was that I had to carry the little one in my arms throughout the tour inside the palace because the stroller wasn't allowed. However, given that there were not many people in the palace, I could leave her on the floor and let her play around Queen Catherine's rooms. How awesome is that! Even more awesome was the fact that she actually seemed to enjoy the palace tour thoroughly. She was in her best spirits throughout!

The the tour inside the palace ended and we stepped outside into its gardens. The little one was strapped on to her stroller now, and I was grateful for getting my hands back to myself. But just then she started to wail. A wail that I instantly recognized to be that of hunger and that I knew will not end until she gets something to eat or drink. I think for a few seconds the blood would have drained my face. The guide informed that the tour inside the gardens would last another 30 minutes at least. 30 minutes?! Is my baby gonna wail for 30 minutes because I was so stupid as to leave her food in the bus!

Just for a minute, I stood rooted to the spot, not knowing what to do. And then it caught my eyes... at a little distance, right there on the palace grounds, a lady had opened up a stall selling drinks and I saw bottles of water as well. No food... just water. But it was something. I pointed it out to the hubby, who rushed to get a bottle of water. I poured some water into the cap of the bottle and offered it to the little one, hoping that she would drink some because she has never ever drank water before. She hates it and always drinks only milk. But this time, maybe due to the novelty of getting to sip off a bottle cap vs. a feeding bottle, she sipped on it eagerly. I couldn't believe my eyes and I thanked our luck with all my heart!

After she seemed to be satiated for the time being, we rushed to join our tour group that had already reached a fair distance ahead. We had to walk past the above mentioned drinks stall to get to them, and just as we were hurrying past it, my eyes caught sight of a basket filled with cookies and biscuits hiding behind the stall.

FOOD!!! My head screamed!

Seems like the lady had just opened the stall and hasn't had a chance to display all her wares yet. So we hadn't seen this earlier and thought it was a store that sold drinks only. Needless to say, we quickly armed ourselves with a cookie as big as my head and started to break it into small pieces for the little one to munch on. And she loved it!

Yes, she got both water and food. Just in time. I thanked all Gods known to me.

After that, putting aside the tension and panic till now, we walked around the widespread gardens surrounding the palace. I finally began to relax and enjoy the views.

One stop in the garden was this old, dilapidated building known for its acoustics. To demonstrate how good the acoustics was, a group of 4 singers sang a bit of opera for us. I am not sure whether it was their talent or the acoustics or the drama just preceded this entire thing or all three, but it was heavenly. Standing there, listening to them, gave me goosebumps and if I were a bit more sentimental, I would have cried.

After Pushkin, the next stop was lunch at a restaurant. We had a few Russian singers entertaining us through the lunch and that just added the awesomeness of the wonderful food we had. The lunch was served with breads, cheese, salad, vegetable soup, a very yummy chicken dish, rice, one of the best champagnes I've had that simply wouldn't stop bubbling (!) and even vodka!! The singers made the experience very interactive - they invited guests to dance with them and let us also play with this super cool, small percussion instrument, like a rattle, called the Treshchotka. We were so taken by it that we even bought ourselves one.

Overall, it was a very enjoyable lunch!

Post lunch, we were driven back to St. Petersburg and given a tour around the city. Once again I was really awed by it - it was a humungous city with very good use of the space. There were so many parks at every corner that added to the beauty of the city and the Palace Square and its surroundings were just mindblowing! Unfortunately we didn't get a chance to get down here because we were short on time, but just seeing these places from the bus was still pretty thrilling.

We then went to the banks of the Neva river and got on a boat for a 2 hour cruise on the Neva river, covering most of the important landmarks around St. Petersberg. We relaxed on the boat, taking in the sights  - all of them massive, grand and a visual treat - and absorbing the history. There was just too much of it!

Thus ended our 9 hour excursion to St. Petersberg, but not before some souvenier shopping. We simply had to get ourselves the Matryoshka dolls!

Back on the ship, we first refreshed ourselves, grabbed a cup of tea and some snacks and got a bit of rest. In the evening, we went to watch the special show by the local artists from St. Petersberg. The ship has had a production show every evening but we had skipped all the previous ones because we thought going in to a theatre with the little one might not be a good idea. But today, we had enjoyed the Russian performance during lunch so  much that I didn't want to miss another one for sure. We decided to take a chance and went in with the little one. We took a seat right next to the exit in case… well, we had to exit unexpectedly.

The show was brilliant, and we watched it right until the end! The little one not only didn't make any fuss, she actually seemed to enjoy the performances, especially all the dances! Once in a while, she was even clapping her hands in appreciation!

After the performance, we had another round of delicious dinner and then it was time to call it a night for some well deserved rest after that long day.   I had my doubts about how a 9 hour excursion with a 9 month old will go, and there were hiccups - big ones at that - but it all ended as well as possible! Am so thankful for that!

I loved St. Petersberg and tomorrow, it's time for Finland!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Day 231: Tallinn, Estonia!

Today morning, the ship docked at Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. When we booked this cruise, we were pretty amused that it was planning to go to a place called Estonia. It was one of those countries that we may have heard of somewhere but really had no clue about what it would be like. So when we booked an excursion from the ship, we were really looking forward to figuring what it is all about.

And more than just "figuring it out', I fell head over heels in love with Tallinn!

I don't know where to start describing it from, so am just gonna write a list of all that I loved in Tallinn!

a) The charming buildings in the their pastel shades of green, blue, yellow, pink, peach, orange and many more!

b) The beautiful little girl who was playing the violin by the streets.

c) The local women in their jackets, skirts, socks, block heeled shoes and scarves, looking straight out of story books.

d) The beautiful old town area with its cobble streets, tiny shops, lovely churches and even a cute, little parliament house.

e) Getting caught in the rain as we walked around the old town, this time much heavier than the one we got caught in Denmark. I can't really say that I loved the experience but it was pretty memorable and we did emerge unscathed after all! Not to forget that the little one slept in her stroller through the rain, completely unaware of the din!

f) The absolutely gorgeous non-motorable area beyond the cutely named "Viru" gates with its rows of cafes.

g) Our lunch in one of the cafes inside Viru gates, seated along the street and enjoying the weather that's now moved on to being sunny.

h) The little one's delight throughout the lunch as she munched on her snacks, watched the pigeons that came to pick on the crumbs she left on the floor and struck conversations with several of the folks at the neighbouring tables and passers by.

i) The lunch itself was amazing - we got Estonian goat cheese that literally melted in the  mouth with vegetable salad (am not a fan of cheese nor salad, but this was mindblowingly good!), grilled crusted chicken with figs and lamb chops that came with a unique sauce that had a tangy taste that I loved.

j) Shopping in the outdoor market which had a crazy good selection of woollen clothing. I totally felt like moving to some place where the weather would be a LOT colder than it is in Singapore, just so that I could buy all those gorgeous coats and scarves and hats. Instead, I simply bought myself one knitted tunic and felt quite happy about it.

Back in the ship, we had a round of pizzas, hot dogs and tea in the afternoon, followed by another round of sumptuous dinner in the evening. My pick was a herring dish that went extremely well with a glass of rosé. A day well spent!

Tomorrow, it is time for Russia!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Day 230: Ship, Sea & Surprises!

The ship was at sea the whole day, giving us ample time to relax, explore and also get our cabin into a functioning little home for the next few days. I unpacked and put everything in its "rightful" place, and moved things around so that the baby has space to move around even with our three huge pieces of luggage and the stroller in the cabin. No easy task, I tell you.

But it was done and we could spend the day at leisure.

There were a couple of highlights, other than the continuous gastronomic indulgences and sea-watching from the decks and cabin.

The first highlight was spending some quality time with the little one. We didn't have to step off the ship, so it was great to just be in one place and play with her through the day. We even spent some time in the nursery on the ship where she went absolutely bonkers playing with the available toys and making friends with the other baby who was present. I have hardly seen her that excited before, so it was very fascinating to watch here.

The second highlight and really big one was further celebration of the husband's birthday. I had written here how I had surprised him with the birthday decor outside and inside our cabin and the further addition to that was a surprise birthday cake that was to be delivered to the dining room post our dinner. I had booked this with the cruiseliner for the first day of sailing,which was yesterday. However, for some reason it didn't arrive and I fidgeted through the last part of the dinner but couldn't say anything as that would spoil the surprise.

This morning, I slipped away from the cabin for a few minutes - in the pretext of  picking up a banana for the little one, and went to the guest service officer and asked her about the cake. She said it was some mistake but that she will ensure it gets delivered today during dinner.

But as luck would have it, it didn't come today either. I sat through the dinner, ordering wine and coffee to stay as long as possible but the cake just didn't come. So when we were done and the hubby picked up the little one on the stroller and moved ahead out of the dining room, I slowed my pace down and caught hold of the restaurant manager Marco, the same guy behind the vegetables yesterday, and told him the issue. He quickly checked in the system and realized that yes, there was indeed a miss. He requested me to get the hubby back into the dining room under some pretext and wait, so that he can go get the cake. I was lost. What pretext could there be possibly to go back and stay in the dining room!

At this point in time, the hubby realized that I am left behind and he came back in asking what's going on... I made some story up that I was just checking with Marco whether he could arrange for some mashed vegetables tomorrow morning for the little one. The hubby readily bought that story and was about to leave again, while both the restaurant manager and I were kinda lost how to take this forward. The manager kept gesticulating "stay back... say something" to me and I, very usefully, blinked like a fish.

Just as the hubby was about to exit the dining room once again, he turned back looking horrified and exclaimed "Oh no! The feeding bottle... I think I left it at our table!".  He ran towards our table, picked up the bottle and rushed back, before Marco and I could even react. Just then a stroke of genius hit the Marco.. he grabbed the bottle from the hubby and said, "Please let me rinse this for you." The hubby protested, because clearly there was no need for the restaurant manager who is a senior officer of the Royal Caribbean to rinse feeding bottles. However, Marco insisted and the hubby gave in, looking visibly impressed by the service levels of the Royal Caribbean. I, of course, continued to blink helpfully.

As we waited back at our table for the rinsed feeding bottle, the hubby exclaimed a few times about how impressed he was with the whole service and how he thought Marco is real cool. I was pretty happy that he had no clue what's going on still.

And before we knew it, Marco together with other staff members of the restaurant came forward with the cake with the candles and customized message and started singing "Happy Birthday!"

The hubby was blown away!

This was followed by a lot of birthday wishes, cake-eating, my profuse thanking to Marco and also congratulating him on his very quick thinking, and a very happy me!

The surprise cake became an even bigger surprise!

And yes, we got back the feeding bottle - all rinsed and clean! 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Day 229: Ahoy!

This morning, after a good breakfast at our hotel, we checked out from our rooms first and went around to check out the shopping scene in Copenhagen. Which basically meant walking over the closest mall and checking out the price tags because things were priced at far higher than their actual worth and I didn't end up buying anything. So while the shopping itself was quite uneventful, what was eventful was the fact that we got caught in the Danish rain. But since am a preparation genius, we were ready to tackle the rains too - with umbrellas for the adults and an effective rain cover for the little one's stroller. Am so proud of having added these items into the packing list because we have never carried even an umbrella on a trip before! 

Post that rainy stroll, we collected our luggage from the hotel and took a cab to the port terminal to board Royal Caribbean's 'Vision of the Seas', our first European cruise experience! This time too our cabbie was a Pakistani who struck a conversation in Hindi and seemed mighty please to have bumped into fellow Hindi speakers.

At the port, we completed the immigration and security formalities during which I realized that the little one has lost one of her shoes. It struck me that we had just taken a picture two minutes ago and if we check it we would know whether the shoe was present when we got down at the port or whether it was lost even before that. A quick look at the picture confirmed that the shoe was indeed present when we arrived at the port. Needless to say I felt like Sherlock Holmes. 

I traced back our steps from the security point to the taxi drop off point where the picture was taken, in search of the missing shoe. Unfortunately I couldn't find it. Now, you may wonder why I am writing the details of such an insignificant event down. Sure, it might not be significant, but I thought I should chronicle the possible events that could take place when travelling with an infant - in this case, the mystery of the missing shoe. Plus the fact that I felt like Holmes. 

Back to the cruise…. so yes, we completed the immigration and security formalities and boarded the Vision of the seas and checked into our ocean view room! Needless to say, we were pretty excited about the whole thing. 

[I cannot believe I didn't mention the below event in the blog before publishing it the first time! This was definitely THE highlight of the day!]

As we walked in search of our cabin, reading the numbers on each of the doors to figure out which one is ours, the hubby who was leading the way, stopped in his tracks and exclaimed "Oh my God, how did you manage this?!" His excitement was at seeing the birthday decor that was hanging on the door to our cabin, courtesy his lovely wife, of course. He had not expected that in the least, and his surprise was awesome to watch! 

You see, Royal Caribbean has the option of ordering gifts to the cabins and I managed to get some done discreetly. I was certain the hubby would not have expected this, and his excitment and wide grin were the exact reactions I was hoping for! I clicked a couple of pictures then and there. 

We stepped into the cabin and there were more streamers, chandelier shaped and flower shaped decor waiting for us. The hubby was thrilled, especially as these were accompanied by a small gift card with a customized birthday message for him, once again courtesy the lovely wife, i.e. me, of course. 

I should also probably mention that there were a few "gifts" for the little one - diapers and bottles baby food. For some weird reason, these also come under "gifts" at Royal Caribbean, so when I ordered them I even had to write customized messages because yes, the diapers and baby food also came with gift cards. Ours read "For your pee & poo purposes!" for the former and "Be a good girl and eat well on the ship!" for the latter. Really, what else can one say under such circumstances?!
After this exciting start to the trip, we spent the rest of the day relaxing on board, taking a ton of photos around the ship, enjoying the sea breeze, eating and drinking a lot and last but not the least, enjoying the beautiful landscape that we passed by as the ship sailed out of Denmark towards the Gulf of Finland. For a long time, we sailed by the land by our side and we saw beautiful islands with quaint cottages and charming churches, green pastures, and thickly vegetated landscapes. Over the sunset, the whole scenery and the atmosphere was just gorgeous.   

Dinner was in grand style with seated and served dining as opposed to the buffet style that am familiar with on the cruises I have been on before. When I asked the waiter for "anything mashed for the baby", the restaurant manager turned up and gave me the list of vegetables he could mash up for me. He then followed up by actually bringing me a bowl of the vegetables to check on before he actually mashed them up! Brilliant service indeed! I must say every member of the restaurant crew so far seem to have been trained to make the guests feel like royalty. I really enjoyed the dinner experience! 

After that satisfying dinner experience, we called it a day, looking forward to tomorrow which would be spent wholly at sea. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

Day 228: Copenhagen, Denmark!

Thus the holiday begins! Highlights of Day 1 of the trip: 

a) The first long flight with just the three of us - the hubby, the little one and myself. Good news, rather… great news is that the little one was not too difficult to manage over our 12 hour non-stop flight from Singapore to Denmark. I have been having nightmares about this long flight, but luckily she co-operated. She slept off through most of it, and when she was up, she was generally in a good mood. It was such a pleasant flight that I actually managed to watch two Hindi films - Inkaar and Shootout at Wadala. Yup, that's how comfortable the flight was! 

b) We had the best immigration experience ever at the Copenhagen airport - with pretty much no queue and believe it or not, without even having to fill up an immigration form. That was definitely a first and we decided that we already love Denmark. 

c) To add on to the instant love for Denmark, we were greeted by Starbucks right at the Copenhagen airport! Yes, Starbucks cheers us up anywhere and everywhere. Over some chai latte for us adults and butter croissant for the little one, we relaxed a bit there before making our way to the hotel. 

d) When we were getting out of the airport, I had casually remarked to the hubby that there doesn't seem to be many Indians in Copenhagen. In fact, we saw not a single South Asian face all through our time at the airport, which is really unusual these days. God immediately decided to prove me wrong, and of all the taxies lining up, the one we got had a Pakistani driver and as soon as we got into the cab, a Hindi song started to play which, for some reason, drove me to a fit of giggles. 

e) After the nice drive through Copenhagen, we got to our Hotel Bethel, which we realised was in the middle of a really happening location called Nyhavn (means "New Harbour" in English, am told). Our room wasn't ready since we were much earlier than the check-in time. So to kill some time, we walked around Copenhagen, coming across a few beautiful gardens, the magnificent Amalienborg Palace where the royal family lives today and the beautiful square in which it is situated, complete with its guards who were patrolling around, beautiful cafes, the river and several cyclists riding with a large variety of bikes. None of the attractions, especially the palace, had tourists streaming in yet due to the early hour, so it was pretty much only us and the royal guards. How cool! 

f) After walking a few good kilometres in the beautiful weather, we came across the restaurant strip along Nyhavn, very close to our hotel. With music by live musicians in the background, the river by the side and the restaurant buildings stacked tight in a row with lovely outdoor seating, the whole atmosphere was charming. We sat at one of them and ordered some brunch (super expensive, but yummy). 

g) By the time we got back to the hotel, our room was ready and we checked in. After which we did the only thing that anyone could have done under the circumstances - we slept off. For a good three hours! By the time we woke up, it was time for dinner. The little one was quite cranky, possibly from jet lag, and hence we decided that we will get some take out instead of going out in the cold to look for dinner. The hubby got some Thai take out (Rice with green and red chicken curries, to be precise……also, it was not too expensive and was yummy too!) and once back in the room, narrated how the cafe strip at Nyhavn had come to life on the Friday evening and that it was quite something to experience. His description of the whole thing was so good that I readily got jealous and decided that I want to see what the fuss is too. So we put aside all that "little one needs to rest because she is cranky and it is cold outside" story and instead changed it to "let's cover the little one up from head to toe and take chance at exploring Nyhavn by night"! So that's what we did. We covered her in several layers of clothing and set out. We walked by the river once again, watching the bustling surroundings and activities which basically involved people eating, drinking, talking, walking, playing music, and even holding candlelight dinners on their private boats parked by the banks of the river. It was beautiful and I was glad that I took the trouble to get out. Interestingly, the little one seemed to enjoy as well as there was not a murmur of unhappiness throughout the walk! 

It was the perfect end to the perfect day! 

Tomorrow, we take the cruise! 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Day 227: A Different Kind of Birthday!

A different kind of birthday! 

Today's my birthday. So is the hubby's. And instead of doing the usual stuff like celebrating with cake and candles and dinner, we set off for our first long vacation post the little one. 

Yup, the upcoming vacation that I had been referring to over and over again over the last few days, is to Denmark. The plan is to get to Copenhagen, then take a cruise out from there that would take us to Estonia, Finland, Sweden and Russia after which we would be dropped back in Copenhagen. Let me also mention here that this whole holiday - including the planning and execution, is a gift from me to the hubby on his birthday! It was the least I could do after the phenomenal gift he gave me last year! Since he is a lover of Europe and anything European, I thought a trip to Europe would be a gift. But given that we would now have the little one in tow, it made sense to take a cruise instead of the road trips that we usually opt for in Europe. This way, we would get to see multiple places but without the hassle of having to pack and move on a daily basis. 

My personal opinion is that this whole plan is a stroke of genius on my part. 

Alright, so back to holiday. We had a midnight flight and that technically meant that today was my last working day prior to the holiday. And I was a mental wreck - both from excitement and nervousness. On one hand, there was the excitement about finally going on this much awaited trip but on the other hand there was still so much to do before I could finally leave. Tidying up things at work, ensuring that all the follow up notes have been sent, getting the never ending packing done, replying back and thanking everyone who sent in their birthday wishes through the day, even squeezing in a haircut in the midst of the havoc! 

But it was all done, well and on time, and by the time we took the cab to the airport at 9:30pm, I was grinning from ear to ear. 

So was the hubby. 

And interestingly enough, so was the little one. 

She had slept off by 9pm and was a bit cranky when I woke her up to get dressed and ready. However, she got terribly excited when she realised that an "outing" was coming up, based on the fact that both her parents were dressed, that there were wearing shoes taken out of the shoe closet, and that they were dragging luggage to the lift, all clear indication that something was going on! First she closely observed all the goings on around her and when she was finally taken to the lift lobby, she broke into her wide, toothless grin and started to clap her hands and bob up and down, which is her version of dancing! 

With that pretty good start, we, very happily, set off for Denmark! 

It's an awesome birthday indeed! 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Days 223 - 226: Shot Breakdowns, Meditation, Perfect Days & Birthday Celebrations!

Jumping right onto the highlights:

a) The little one, for the first time ever, slept for eight hours straight at night! Woooohooooo! OK, it was just a one time phenomenon and was promptly not repeated afterwards, but just the fact that it happened for one day made me feel super duper awesome! It feels like we are at the cusp of a new beginning... one where I get to sleep through the night, wake up with a ton of energy, and ultimately get to do a lot more than I do right now! Can't wait!

b) I have started writing the shot breakdowns for "Aravindum Aarumughamum" and have completed about 40% so far! Am writing shot breakdowns after a gap of two whole years and it feels great! Honestly, it is not easy to find some focused time after work, time with the little one and maybe even a short workout, but it's progressing well so far and I am very excited! More so because from a direction standpoint, this film would be the most challenging I have done till date. That is making me nervous yet super thrilled!

c) I have restarted on my effort to meditate. For some reason, I simply don't have the discipline to make meditation into a routine. It's quite a pity really, because there is no denying the wonders it can help achieve. I have tried time and again to make it a habit but have failed. Still, there is no harm in trying again. So yes, I have done it for a couple of days in a row and I am loving it so far!

d) I had the Perfect day. By "Perfect", I mean a day where I got a lot done at work, played with the little one in the evening, exercised, completed the shot breakdowns for one of the scenes from "Aravindum Aarumughamum" and ended the day with a 10-minute meditation! So basically work, family, health, passion, and spirituality. It can't get more perfect than that!

e) Last but not the least, the hubby and I celebrate our birthday together tomorrow. Since we will be at the airport to start on our vacation tomorrow evening, we decided to treat ourselves to a nice birthday dinner today evening. So we headed to the fancy French restaurant Le Bistrot Du Sommelier  and gorged ourselves, while continuously wishing each other a very Happy Birthday whenever our mouths were not busy munching on the food. It was our own little private birthday celebration and I loved it!

Now for our first big fat vacation with just the three of us, tomorrow!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Days 216 - 222: Birthdays, Neighbourhood Cafes, Discoveries and Princess Parties!

When I started out writing this blog, I had put up a "reasonable" target of writing at least one entry a week. I thought that with my multiple roles as mother, wife, brand manager, health conscious human being etc., I wouldn't be able to achieve anything more. But truth be told, I had actually expected myself to deliver far better on the frequency, given my tendency of wanting to over-deliver on targets. And I had done reasonably well so far too - this is my 128th entry for the year, it seems! That's definitely a lot better than a weekly entry!

But recently, I have been struggling to keep up. There have been a lot of combined entries vs. daily ones, and as of today, I think I have hit rock bottom on frequency with this post - which is following the previous one after exactly 7 days!

So why am I writing such utterly inane statistics here?

Because it helps to describe the state of my life very well. Yup, my life's gone crazy busy, mostly due to work.

But that's fine. Good news is that there has been something to smile about (rather widely most often), almost every day!

So here are the highlights from the last 7 days...!

a) As a Malayali, I get to celebrate two birthdays every year. One according to the universal English calendar (which is coming up this week), and another according to the Malayalam calendar (which is a lunar calendar, as opposed to the solar English calendar). The Malayalam birthday, thus, doesn't fall on specific date every year but keeps changing by +/-15 days or so every year. Long story short, it was my Malayalam birthday on Sunday and unlike previous years when I mostly forgot or ignored it, this year I didn't. All thanks to my mom who made quite a big deal out of it with early morning prayers and a celebration involving semiya payasam (dessert made of vermicelli, milk and raisins)! It was a small celebration, but indeed a beautiful one!

b) Ever since we shifted to our current place in Bishan in 2009, there was only one flaw that we could find in our otherwise perfect and extremely convenient neighbourhood. The absence of a Starbucks outlet! There's been countless times when the hubby and I would want a cup of our favourite Chai Tea Latte but there is no Starbucks in the vicinity. If I had a penny for the number of times I said, "I love Bishan... but really wish there was a Starbucks here", I would be pretty darn rich by now. Good news is, it is true that if you really want something with all your heart, the universe does conjure it up for you! Yes, we have our own neighbourhood Starbucks now, within just a few minutes walk, and we - i.e, the hubby, the little one and I, made our first trip there! Woot!! Over a cup of Chai Tea Latte, I thanked Gods and the Starbucks management for making Bishan perfect, finally!

c) It was a 4-day long weekend in Singapore thanks to the National day and Eid holidays and I spent the majority of it on packing for our upcoming trip. I had already written up a 150-item long list, bulk of it being the little one's necessary items. The thought of packing all these have been daunting me for the longest time, but I am proud to say that after several hours of non-stop, focused effort, it is almost all done now! We are pretty much ready for our first long vacation together!

d) I made two new discoveries - First was the Lantern Bar at the Fullerton Bay Hotel, which had a fantastic view and a great ambience. I have to say that the service left much to be desired, but it is definitely worth going there for the view and ambience! The second one was "Blue Ginger" at Tanjong Pagar. I had been here once several years ago, so this was more of a rediscovery. They serve Peranakan cuisine and I particularly loved their Blue Ginger Chicken.

e)  There were also a couple of fun catch ups with friends. A school friend of the hubby had come from India on a short visit and it was lovely to meet him. And we also met up with the usual gang over a very late night drinks session - it was almost like a farewell session because we would be meeting each other only next month now, thanks to everyone's travel plans.

g) Last but not the least, the little one went for her first "princess" party - which was the theme of the birthday party of a friend's five year old girl. The parents had done a pretty amazing job of bringing the theme to life - what with princess themed cakes, balloons, wands, crowns, plates, cups, napkins, and even a storyteller in full princess costume with a "prince" in tow. Our little one, even though had no idea of the theme or the stories or the games, was clearly fascinated by the proceedings. She was so excited that she showed absolutely no signs of crankiness for a span of two whole hours! I guess this is just the beginning of several such parties to follow, and while it makes my head reel to think that I will have to organize such events in the future, as far as the little one is concerned, it was a great beginning for sure!

Now looking forward to our holiday next week! 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Days 212 - 215: Ladies Wing, D-Day, Sudoku & Big Smiles!

Quick list for the last few days....

a) I had a meeting with the Singapore Malayalee Association's Ladies Wing, to discuss some of their strategies and potential events. I used to be very active SMA's activities in the past but it had gone down considerably over the last few years due to other priorities. But these associations that represent my state and its people still remain a soft spot and when I was called for this meeting, I couldn't resist but go! Even though there were just a few of us present that evening, I had a great time! It is always a joy to get back to familiar grounds, something I consider close to home and the fellow ladies wing members were pretty enthusiastic and fun to talk to. An evening well spent!

b) Thanks to my super busy schedule at work these days, I had hardly been spending any quality time with my mom. In her words, "What is point of coming to Singapore, if I hardly get to talk to you?!" Fair enough. So on Friday, I made it a point to take her out for an early dinner, followed by the movie D-Day. My original plan was to go for yoga and get back home and sleep, but then I realized that should probably be second priority. My mom enjoyed the dinner and loved the movie. She looks super pleased at the end of the evening and that in turn made me feel super pleased too!

c) I also got to spend some quality time with my mom on Saturday, and this time...instead of any restaurant outings or movie dates, we decided to play Sudoku together. My mom had just recently discovered Sudoku that comes in the daily newspaper, and she got me work it with her. Together we spent hours solving several Sudoku puzzles! Now I feel far less guilty about that quality time!

d) Last but not the least, I am really enjoying this whole motherhood thing a lot more these days. Mainly because the little one has begun to express such extreme joy at seeing me every evening after work! Just as I open the door and get in, her face lights up, she gives her broadest toothless grin, comes wobbling towards me on all fours, in the fastest possible speed she can. As soon as she reaches me, there is a very enthusiastic waving of hands, indicating that she needs to be picked up and as soon as I do that, there is a smothering of "kissies" all over my face. I don't think anyone has looked this pleased to see me ever before. For as long as it would last, I am gonna thoroughly enjoy it!

Nett, my mom's smiling, the little one's smiling, I am smiling. It's all good!