Wednesday 31 January 2018

Planning Summer 2018: making space for more photos

In the past, we've only blogged trips on Little Rabbit's Planning. After a couple of days of migraine-inducing marathon planning for Summer 2018, I set myself a limit of 1 hour/day and decided to blog the process.

I spent the morning yesterday (not an hour) figuring out how to transfer hundreds of photos from IPads and Androids to my laptop, so that I would have room to take more of them. I spent the afternoon sorting them into folders. Then I spent the evening trying to remember exactly where I was in Iceland when I saw this guy. I eventually managed it, as you can see from the caption, but it wasn't easy. For one thing, he doesn't appear on Google Maps.

Kleifabúi Cairn at the Kleifaheiði Pass, on the Barðastrandarvegur between Brjánslækur ferry and Patreksfjörður, West Fjords, Iceland

I wanted to make the process a bit easier for the next person, so I've submitted the location to Google. If that's accepted, I'll upload a photo and comment as well. The satellite imagery for this section of Iceland is not good. I had expected to make out the statue itself but could only see the pull-off where I parked the car to look at it. I hope I'm not more than a few meters off in my location.

The Kleifabúi cairn was built in 1947 with left-over materials by the road-workers who made the route over the Kleifaheiði Pass. It is said to resemble Hákon J. Kristófersson, a farmer and congress man from the farm Hagi. I can't help wondering why.

From many angles, it is possible to form a certain impression of this artwork, based on its fascinating profile. However, if you approach from the front, you can see that Mr Kristófersson is actually wearing quite a modest mid-thigh-length tunic. The protruding object he is clutching in his right hand is supposed to represent his sword.

Tuesday 30 January 2018

Planning Summer 2018: Getting home via the Blue Lagoon, Iceland

In the past, we've only blogged trips on Little Rabbit's Planning. After a couple of days of migraine-inducing marathon planning for Summer 2018, I set myself a limit of 1 hour/day and decided to blog the process.

I took this photo at the Blue Lagoon, back in 2004. It looks really vintage now!

For some years, the least expensive way to get from the East Coast of the US to London has involved a stop-over in Iceland. If you get your flights timed right, you can use this stop-over as an excuse to go and hang out in the Blue Lagoon, the geothermal spa near Keflavik airport.

We haven't done this in the past (the photo above is from an actual trip to Iceland) but I was aware that the option was on offer from Icelandair as late as last weekend, and that it coincided with the cheapest flight available. I wanted this option! The challenge was to persuade Mike to be decisive enough to let me book a flight. He still doesn't even know what day he wants to fly out on yet, so booking him a return flight is out of the question.

Just to show what a fiddly process these things are, here's what I had to do:

  • Make sure Icelandair doesn't charge more for booking two single flights versus one return flight.
  • Complain when I discovered that the prices had gone up since the weekend.
  • Complain even more when I discovered that the long stop-over flights had vanished from Expedia for the days and departure airports we wanted.
  • Check whether the flights were cheaper and better from other potentially accessible East Coast airports on adjacent days.
  • Figure out that there was no good reason I couldn't have a long stop-over on any day I wanted.
  • Figure out how to make the Icelandair site give me a long stop-over (book a multi-stop trip at no extra cost).
  • Discover to my delight that a long stop-over with our first choice of airport and day is still pretty nearly the lowest price after all.
  • Book a single flight for three people. 
  • Cringe when I see how much a single flight for three adults costs.
  • Check the relative costs of a bus versus a rental car to the Blue Lagoon.
  • Cringe at the cost of car rental from Keflavik, compared to almost anywhere else on the planet.
  • Book a car anyway, because it's still less expensive than three return bus tickets to the Blue Lagoon, plus it will give us a little extra flexibility. 
Surprisingly enough, that didn't take much longer than an hour and it's a load off my mind. NOW THERE'S ONLY ONE THING I STILL HAVE TO DO: continually remind Mike to book his flight to the USA, until he actually does it!!! OH YEAH, AND THIS: Book Blue Lagoon tickets when they become available, probably in March.

Monday 29 January 2018

Planning Summer 2018: Choosing a Japan Rail Pass

In the past, we've only blogged trips on Little Rabbit's Planning. After a couple of days of migraine-inducing marathon planning for Summer 2018, I set myself a limit of 1 hour/day and decided to blog the process.

From Wikipedia: Nikko... shall I, or shan't I? Oh... I did.

For a visitor to Japan, checking the benefits of a Japan Rail Pass should be practically a reflex reaction. A 7-day or 14-day Japan Rail Pass is perfect for a typical first visit to Japan in which the visitor zooms around on Shinkansens (bullet trains) between Tokyo, Kyoto, Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Currently, those passes are priced at £184 and £293 respectively.

Even though my itinerary wasn't entirely fixed, I priced out what I did have using Hyperdia. I could already see that our train tickets would come to over £300 and I would still need to buy some extra ones, since we're staying for 17 days. It looks like the 14-day pass will just about work for us, doesn't it? Just about...

Well, it turns out there is a better option, practically tailor-made for a trip like ours. Japan Rail offers many less well-known regional passes. We'll be travelling around Tohoku prefecture with a few days at either end in Narita and Tokyo respectively. We have a few days of long-distance expensive train journeys, interspersed with days of cheap, slow local transport or car hire.

The Tohoku regional pass costs £124. It allows just five days of train travel, but very importantly, it allows you to spread them out as you like over a 14-day period. And incidentally, it includes Tokyo. It may even include a car hire discount, but I haven't looked into this much as yet. It would pay for itself on our very first 'expensive' day of travel.

For the 14-day pass to prove better value, we would need to spend an average of £20 a day on local transport. I already know that's not going to happen: so far our most expensive 'local transport' day comes in at £10. As it is, having five 'expensive' days to play with encouraged me to look at Nikko, a town of which the Japanese apparently say "Never say beautiful until you've seen Nikko". It's not technically in Tohoku, but it is on the Tohoku pass.

Somehow, Nikko really pulled my itinerary together, and by the end of the morning, I'd booked two night in a fancy ryokan in Nikko and two nights immediately before that near Sendai station (because we really want to visit Yamadera, and perhaps the coast, on opposite sides of Sendai).

Sunday 28 January 2018

Planning Summer 2018: Quebec to Moncton on ViaRail's Ocean

In the past, we've only blogged trips on Little Rabbit's Planning. After a couple of days of migraine-inducing marathon planning for Summer 2018, I set myself a limit of 1 hour/day and decided to blog the process.

From Wikipedia: The Ocean, in the kind of weather you really get!

Getting to the station

On Friday July 27 to Saturday July 28, we ride the Ocean overnight train from Montreal to Halifax. The train arrives at Quebec Sainte-Foy Station at 22.34 and leaves 15 minutes later. Sainte-Foy is a tiny place about 10km out of Quebec city centre. There's not much there and we'll be checking in just over an hour before departure so bring a book! We should expect to eat dinner in Quebec fairly early: a ViaRail shuttle bus departs Gare du Palais at 20.45, connecting Ocean passengers to Sainte-Foy. NOTE TO SELF: Book the shuttle tickets.


If we leave our bags at the hotel for the day we need to allow a 10-15 minute walk to the station after picking them up. For the amount of luggage we have, we can either use the Ocean's system of checked luggage or carry everything on board. As we're likely to be in and out of our cabin, checking our luggage has advantages, but we will need to plan accordingly when we pack.

The Ocean

We have a two-person cabin with a shower, washbasin and private toilet. It sounds very comfortable, but I have heard a few warnings about the excessively cooling nature of the AC, so bring warm clothing! At some point during the morning, our couchettes will be transformed into seats. Even so, we will certainly get better views from the Lounge Car and the Observation Car.

During the night, the Ocean will hug the southern bank of the St Lawrence under a full moon as far as Mont-Joli, but despite the enticing names of the Quebecois towns, I don't expect to surface until after Matapedia, round about 6.30 am. By then, the train will have crossed the Gaspe Peninsula and started its journey along the Baie des Chaleurs. At around 9.30, it heads inland again, as far as Moncton. Prime viewing time is therefore between 7.00 and 9.30 am.

Breakfast and lunch

Two meals in the restaurant car are included in the price our our ticket. Breakfast is first-come, first-served from 6.30am. I hear it is advisable to turn up early, before some items run out. A 3-course lunch is served from 11.30, and reservations will be taken beforehand. As we leave the train at Moncton at 13.23, we will want one of the earlier seatings.

Saturday 27 January 2018

Still planning Day 22, Summer 2018: The Adirondack

In the past, we've only blogged trips on Little Rabbit's Planning. After a couple of days of migraine-inducing marathon planning for Summer 2018, I set myself a limit of 1 hour/day and decided to blog the process.

From Google: the 'trench in the trees' and a Canadian border post, about 20km west of the train crossing.

The Adirondack from New York to Montreal

(Updated: 7.34) 8.15 - the train goes up the Hudson River Valley, through Yonkers (8.44), Crouton-Harmon (9.03), Poughkeepsie (9.45), Rhinecliff (10.01), Hudson (10.21), Albany (10.47-11.10 - Rennselaer Station is small but very sweet), Shenectady (11.33), Saratoga Springs (12.02), Port Edwards Glen Falls (12.23). So many places I’ve heard of.

It continues past the Adirondacks on the left and Lake Champlain on the right: Whitehall (12.47), Ticonderoga (13.20), Port Henry (13.42), Westport (14.02), Plattsburgh (15.20). So many places I’ve never heard of.

Amtrak assumes that if you’re riding their trains instead of sweating through airports, you’re doing it in a spirit of decadence. Therefore, they publish a nice little guide brochure, telling you about the places you’re going through.


Amtrak restaurant cars are pretty nice, but the Adirondack doesn't have one. I wouldn't count on the cafe car for anything other than weak coffee, weak beer and a packet of crisps potato chips. I already made a note to buy enough food for the trip.

Canadian immigration

US immigration is at Rouses Point, Canadian immigration is at Cantic, round about 17.00? I think they do the immigration controls on the train and it looks as though it may take a while. As a US citizen, Mike just needs ID to enter Canada. For a while, I thought that as an EU citizen I needed a passport and an eTA. It turns out the eTA only applies if you’re entering Canada by air. Let's just hope there isn't a special clause for people entering by train and leaving by air. NOTE TO SELF: I still need to call Amtrak to confirm the ID we'll be using at the border. We really should have done this when we made the train reservation. We assumed we could enter it afterwards, as you can with plane reservations, but apparently not.

While I was researching the immigration process, we learned this interesting tidbit about the USA-Canada border: instead of a wall, they maintain a trench in the trees! Along the whole border! We zoomed in on parts of this border with the satellite view in Google Maps. You can see the trench, and even some little neighborhood roads across the border which seem to be blocked with concrete bollards.


We arrive at Montreal Gare Centrale at (updated: 19.01) 19.11, passing through Saint Lambert (18.57) on the other side of the St Lawrence River. It’s a 15 minute walk to the hostel, partly through Montreal's Underground City (if we can find our way). I've reserved a double room with a shared bathroom for two nights.

Quite a few restaurants in Montreal close on Monday, and many others close by 22.00. I’ve noted some open and likely places close to the hostel in Google Maps. One or two have outdoor terraces. Also, I think Place d’Youville, on one side of our hostel, is pedestrianized in summer.

Friday 26 January 2018

Planning Day 22, Summer 2018: Beauty and the Beast

In the past, we've only blogged trips on Little Rabbit's Planning. After a couple of days of migraine-inducing marathon planning for Summer 2018, I set myself a limit of 1 hour/day and decided to blog the process.

From Wikipedia: Interior of 30th Street Station

Today, I turn my attention to those fiddly connection issues that go with train journeys. On Monday July 19, Mike and I take the train from Philadelphia to Montreal. Like this.

  • 4.00 - A train departure from 30th Street Station, Philadelphia at 5.14 am means that we certainly need to be up by 4am.
  • 4.30 - And we certainly need to be on the sidewalk outside the apartment by 4.30. Probably our best bet for getting to 30th Street is to walk three blocks (in the dark) to 19th street trolley station and ride two stops to 30th. At the very best this could take 15 minutes. NOTE TO SELF: make sure to get the tokens in advance. Also, print the E-ticket for this trip.
  • 5.00 - 5am is the absolute last moment for arriving at a station you don't know and finding your platform by 5.14. Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station is beautiful, though I’m not sure we’ll be awake enough to fully appreciate it. I may drop by the day before to have a look around if I can.
  • 5.14 - Philadelphia to New York Penn Station on the North East Regional Service, calling at Trenton (5.45) and Newark (6.22). NOTE TO SELF: buy breakfast and preferably lunch and snacks the day before. I’ve made a note on my packing list to bring a small cooler bag because we may often need to carry food around. The question is whether we should also bring a thermos for coffee/tea?
  • 6.40 - Arrive at New York's Penn Station

Update on May 26th - we just called Amtrak because we thought we hadn't given them our passport details for the Canadian border crossing yet. Turns out we had, but in the process we learned that the Adirondack will now be leaving from Grand Central instead of Penn Station, about 40 minutes earlier than previously scheduled. Way to keep us updated, Amtrak!

So anyway, most of what appears below (circles of hell and all that) is cancelled and the new plan is:
  • 6.40 - Get to Grand Central asap, bearing in mind that it's bound to take 30 minutes, however we do it. Find the platform.
  • 7.34 - Depart Grand Central on the Adirondack.

A visit to some of the more appalling circles of hell?

New York’s Penn Station is well known to be a disgrace to civilization, a thing to which even the term ‘monstrosity’ is scarcely applicable, since it’s more of a tangled, ill-defined morass. It’s actually worse than Euston Station in London, and that takes some doing. I don’t put up with Euston Station. I camp out in the magnificence of St Pancras just up the road until it’s nearly time for my train to leave. I was tempted to do something similar in New York, using the beautiful Grand Central Station as my waiting room.

The problem is that we only have 1 hour and 40 minutes to wait. Also, there is no checked baggage on this route, so we’ll be stuck with all our stuff. Assuming the train is even on time, it’s still doable, but not necessarily worth it. Besides, I had a lot of fun reading about the repulsiveness of Penn Station. It certainly inspires people to heights of eloquence, if nothing else. After a while, I actually felt motivated to view these horrors for myself. There is some hope that they will soon be consigned to history, and we really should do all we can to preserve the memory of them so that our descendants can see what not to do. Shouldn't we? But are we strong enough to endure the necessary torment? I'll decide later.
  • 8.15 - We depart Penn Station on the Adirondack. (Not any more, we don't!!!)

An enjoyable little reading list on the repellance of Penn station:

Why Penn Station Sucks
Incredibly Upsetting pictures of Penn Station Then and Now
Inside America’s Worst Train Station
The Most Awful Transit Center in America Could Get Unimaginably Worse
Why Are the Signs at New York’s Penn Sation So Confusing
Penn Station is New York Commuter’s Hell and it’s About to Get Worse
Penn Sation’s New Concourse is Already Falling Apart
The New Penn Station: Everything You Should Know
It’s Time For a Better Penn Station 
Why a New Train Hall Won’t Fix Penn Station
Moynihan Station Lives Just Like Pat Dreamed it Would 
Cuomo Releases New Renderings of Moynihan Station 

And also:

Amtrak's policies on photography within stations
People sometimes wonder if you're allowed to take photos on station platforms. This would suggest that ticketed passengers who are entitled to be on the platforms also have a right to take photographs there.

Thursday 25 January 2018

Planning for summer 2018: Still Tokyo

In the past, we've only blogged trips on Little Rabbit's Planning. After a couple of days of migraine-inducing marathon planning for Summer 2018, I set myself a limit of 1 hour/day and decided to blog the process.

From Wikipedia: Ueno Park in spring, which is not when we'll be visiting, by a long shot.

It occurred to me last night that I’d forgotten to check the location of cinemas in Tokyo. I’m sure there’s lots of them, but the closer they are to our accommodation, the better. I don’t think I’m going to be hitting the bars and nightclubs with my 16-year old daughter any time soon, but we’re quite likely to take in an anime movie. It doesn’t bother us if they’re in Japanese. In fact, I don’t even want to share with you the things my daughter has learned to say from watching Anime in Japanese.

Also, while my brain was working on this Tokyo business in the background, I decided we would stay for 3 nights, nearly 4 full days. I reviewed the earlier part of the trip and made the definitive decision to stick to Tohoku Prefecture and Tokyo. You can really only see so much of Japan in one go.

As for our 3 nights in Tokyo, there is one place that keeps working its way to the top of my choices in Centurion Ladies Hostel, overlooking Ueno Park. I would never normally choose gender-segregated accommodation but we are technically ladies (notwithstanding any specialist knowledge of Japanese one of us may have), and this hostel seems very suitable in every other respect.

I looked at a few other places but as my hour ran out, I decided to lock it down and think about it later. Of course, 'later' turned out to be immediately. It’s only my second day of the 1 hour rule but already I overran my hour convincing myself that the Centurion Ladies Hostel would be perfect for us. I got happier and happier with it, until finally, I came across a site that said they only allow women over 17 years of age.

Ooops! It turns out that when I filled in the search form, I’d entered Antonia as a second adult. After all, nobody gives you a discount on a 16 year old, and I don’t blame them. A 16 year old is a woman-sized person who eats for two women, while maintaining a disgusting ability to fits in a size 8 dress. Besides, in my head, travelling with Antonia is really like travelling with another woman. I mean, did I mention the THINGS that girl can say in Japanese?

So now I had to overrun my 1 hour planning session even more by emailing the hostel to ask how they felt about 16 year olds who are travelling with their mothers. I was a bit frustrated about the whole thing, but I must say, they quickly sent me a very nice reply saying it would be absolutely okay for us to stay there.

I’m very, very happy with this outcome. The accommodation may be basic, but it’s well reviewed, smart looking and super-inexpensive. It’s close to Ueno and several other metro stations, a short walk from two different cinemas, and it overlooks the boating lake in the park. As it turns out I’m pretty sure my totally grown-up woman travelling companion will still be in the market for swan boats upon a summer evening in Tokyo.

Wednesday 24 January 2018

Planning for summer 2018: Tokyo

In the past, we've only blogged trips on Little Rabbit's Planning. After a couple of days of migraine-inducing marathon planning for Summer 2018, I set myself a limit of 1 hour/day and decided to blog the process.

Today, I'm figuring out mine and Antonia’s accommodation in Tokyo. Tokyo is a little overwhelming. Also, it looks like one of those Japanese spirits you see in anime. On one of its hungry days. Also, it has spots, although to be fair, I put them there.

First, I need to decide whether we will stay in Tokyo on the last night or in Narita which is nearer the airport. The flight is at 10.40 which means we need to reach the airport by 8.40. The journey takes over an hour and this means we would have to be at Ueno Station in Tokyo by 7.15-ish, which might mean getting up around 6.00. Alternatively, if we take the train from Narita, the journey takes less than 20 minutes or there's the hotel's shuttle bus.

That sounds like the more comfortable option, so Narita it is. I always end up in the same hotel in Narita, the U-City. It's absolutely fine, very good value for money and very, very convenient.  We're álready staying there on our arrival in Japan.

My next task is to figure out some Tokyo accommodation. In order to do that, I need to decide which day we'll arrive on. I thought I would do a quick check on accommodation prices in Tokyo before I make this momentous decision. Not surprisingly, there's a lot of choice. Surprisingly, it's not too expensive. I also realized that I would need to make a decision about which area I wanted to stay in.

To do that, I need some kind of activity plan, so I took to the internet and read a few pages of the '40 Best Things To Do In Tokyo' variety. Armed with a shortlist of ones I liked the sound of, I started placing them on Google Maps. There's a cluster around Ueno Station, so I'll fine tune my searches around there.

I still have to pick a number of days, but I’ll be doing that tomorrow because my planning hour is up.