Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The Final Leg - Going Home!

By Kathy
Actual Dates: October 17th – 29th

It is time to leave South Africa and start the trek back to Grenada. BUT…….we have a few stops to make before we get back to SandStar. It has always been on the wish list to see Greece and the Greek islands and once we decided to fly Turkish Airlines it became so easy to spend a week in Athens  and the Greek islands before heading back. To make the trip back even more interesting we also decided to take a day layover in Istanbul before making it to Athens and then a two night stop in New York after Athens before the flight to Grenada in case we hit flight delays from Greece to NYC. Phew....that is a lot of travel in 10 days. 


Once we started researching flights and deciding where we would go we realized we would be flying through Istanbul three times! It is hard not to wonder what is beyond the airport doors when you go through a country so many times. The next step was to figure out how we could get a glimpse of Istanbul. It turns out that Turkish Airlines makes that very easy. If you have a long daytime layover they offer a free walking tour of the old town with a local guide. You just need to land before 8am and your next flight needs to take off later than 2pm. They offered a 3 hour, 6 hour and 9 hour tour. Our flights allowed us to take the 6 hour tour of the old town. I will say we did not realize it was a walking tour until we got on the bus to go to the old town. After an 11 hour overnight flight where nobody really slept we were pretty bleary eyed when we landed in Istanbul. We did get a little pick me up with some seriously strong Turkish coffee and a little snooze in the airport after we landed while we waited for the tour to pick us up.

You know it is strong coffee when it comes with a bottle of water

Jack is out for the count! 

In order to leave the airport you need a visa for Turkey. It is best to do this ahead of time because it is a little cheaper and easier to do than trying to do this in the airport. Is Turkey safe?? We didn’t hesitate to take the longer layover when we booked our tickets but I did pause a bit when I was working on our visas when we were in South Africa. I went back and read what the US State Department said about visiting Turkey but at this point it was really too late. We were going. Luckily we had met a few cruisers who started their trip in Turkey and spent quite a bit of time there and they really enjoyed it. We were also going to be with a local guide and not wandering around on our own. Once we met up with our group we realized that we were the only ones with kids and we were also the only Americans on the tour. We had a great time walking around the old town and were amazed at the architecture and some of the stories the guide told us. We also saw some pretty heavy security measures around the main monument area. There was never a time when we felt unsafe.

The beginning of the tour started with a traditional Turkish breakfast
We are ready to take off on our tour! 

Cool architecture in the big plaza area

The old town was beautiful!
We visited the palace before lunch. I wish I could tell you more but we were pretty tired by time we reached the palace

Lots of buildings and gardens inside the palace gates

Our tour guide with a security guard behind him (he was guarding the gate not us)
As we were leaving we ran into this parade

One thing that we really enjoy about traveling is that you get to experience different cultures and sometimes the ones that are vastly different from your own can really make you pause and take notice. Dan and I knew some of the background on Turkey but the kids did not. We tried to explain it to them before we arrived but it didn’t set in until they actually saw some of the different customs especially when we visited the Blue Mosque. It was mind blowing for Emma to see the different rules for women when we entered the mosque – there was a different entrance, different dress code, and different rules once we were inside for women versus men.

 The courtyard of the Blue Mosque

It really surprised the kids to see the separation of men and women

They were very welcoming to visitors
Emma and I had to wear a head covering to enter the mosque

Everyone had to remove their shoes
A teachable moment

When you get deliriously tired at the end of the tour

The must have treat before leaving Istanbul

This was the last part of the trip that was planned and booked. We really didn’t know where to start when trying to navigate the guides and recommendations. There is so much to do and see on the mainland and in the islands. First, we decided to spend majority of the time in the islands. The next big question was – which island??? There are so many choices. After some help from our guide books and after reading a few great blogs we decided on Naxos. Naxos is the largest of the Cyclades island group. Naxos is not as well-known as Santorini but it sounded like it had just what we were looking for – culture, good food and interesting architecture. How would we get there? Plane or ferry? Would we island hop? Probably not. We were arriving at the end of their season so the ferry and flight schedules were not as accommodating as it usually is in the summer months. But first before we made the trek out to Naxos we wanted to see some of the big sites in Athens.

We learned pretty quickly that Athens is a very expensive city. The lodging was the most expensive that we had seen on the whole trip (including NYC).  We opted to only spend two nights in Athens due to the cost and try to get the most out of our time. 
We found the market in Athens
Yum!! Greek olives!!
The fish market was next door
Then the meat market
The streets of Athens
The first of many meals of grilled meat in Greece!
Top of the list of things to see is the Acropolis. We knew we would be pretty beat once we arrived after a long flight from South Africa, a 12 hour layover in Turkey, and the flight to Athens. We wanted to make the most out of the Acropolis so we decided to hire a tour guide to take us to the ruins. The next step was to find one that would interesting for our very tired kiddos and keep them engaged along the way. We found a great tour company called Kids Love Greece that specialize in tours for families and we went with a Mythological tour of the Acropolis. We also made the decision to pay extra for a private tour that left later in the day so we could catch up on our sleep and eat a good breakfast at the hotel. I am fairly sure we would have had a huge mutiny if we told the kids they needed to get up early for a tour on our first morning in Athens.  It was an amazing tour, the kids stayed engaged and Dan and I learned a lot too. Our tour guide, Marialena, is an archeologist and was so knowledgeable about the ruins and the mythology stories that went with them. She also grew up in Athens and told us more about their culture and her family. She was very engaging with the kids and knew everything about the Percy Jackson series so she could make references back to the book. Emma is a huge Percy Jackson fan so they talked quite a bit about the different gods and goddesses.  

One of the smaller amphitheaters
The bigger amphitheater -  it is still used today for concerts 

Marilena telling the stories behind the structures to the kids

The Acropolis was amazing - so much thought and work went into building the structures
 A view from the top
The last part of our tour was of the Agora - From the Agora you could see the Acropolis on top of the hill

Favorite Greek Mythology Stories:

Emma - Poseidon vs Athena for the naming of Athens. You can probably tell who won. 

Sam and Jack - The birth of Athena (born out of Zeus' head). It makes you think about headaches a different way.

Kathy - The story of Nike - the winged goddess of victory. Once you learn the story of Nike you realize how well the company Nike picked their name.

Dan - Medusa from beauty to monster. The story of  how ego was the end to Medusa's beauty and she was turned into a monster with snakes in her head.

The Greek Island – Naxos:
Accommodations: The Grotto Hotel -  One of our favorite hotels!! The kids even had their own room!! It is a family owned hotel and the Lianos family spoiled us with their hospitality and amazing homemade food.

A view of the old town from the hotel
A cute picture with Nicoletta Lianos - her family owns the hotel. 
The hotel was beautiful! 
I am standing on the kids balcony and they are on ours. Two rooms was a huge bonus!
It was a bit chilly outside so the indoor pool was a big plus for the kids
The hotel had a few Greek cats hanging around that Sam enjoyed

After a whirlwind tour through the Acropolis on our one day in Athens we had a very early morning wake up call to make it to the ferry terminal to catch the ferry out to the islands. We arrived before sunrise and bought our tickets right at the terminal and quickly realized our ferry was HUGE!!! It felt like a cruise ship complete with a crew welcoming you on board and an escalator to the upper decks. The seating was first come first serve and we quickly found a nice spot in the restaurant area with a table and couch. After some strong Greek coffee and a good doughnut everyone settled in for the 5 hour ferry ride to Naxos. It was such a comfortable ferry ride – the kids napped and played games. We were also able to get a lot of blog posts written about our time in NYC, Ireland, and Scotland.
Just bought our tickets and walking to the ferry - It is so early it is still dark outside
The ferry was huge!
A good strong Greek coffee was in order when we found a seat. Everyone is still half asleep.
Settling in for a long ferry ride to Naxos
Before arriving in Naxos the ferry stopped in Paros
A full picture of the ferry from the Naxos dock
On the ferry ride back to Athens 
The Grotto picked us up directly from the ferry dock and we were immediately surrounded with hospitality. Our bags were taken to our rooms, introductions were made, then they treated us to a homemade Greek pastry and juice on the patio. We also told them about Jack’s food allergies and they brought him out a special plate of fresh fruit.
We arrived at the hotel - in my happy place!
Our welcome treats were delicious

We did not have any plans when we arrived on Naxos so it was a week of relaxing, eating, relaxing, eating, etc…. You get the picture. Before we arrived I had visions of fresh fish and squid on display at the restaurants and we would order and eat it with lemon and Greek herbs. We were very surprised to find very little seafood. The heavy fishing in the Mediterranean has taken its toll on the fish supply. It was also pretty late in the season so we were just out of luck. But that did not stop us from eating AMAZING food. First, the Greek salad. We ate pounds and pounds of tomatoes during our week in Naxos. The tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, feta cheese, and herbs make up a traditional Greek salad. It is a little different than what we were used to in the states. No lettuce to be seen. Then we discovered the kabab. Pork grilled on a skewer and served with tzatziki sauce and french fries and was very affordable at around 3-5 Euros per order. That was pretty much our dinner for the week. The kids were hooked! So what about our lunch?? Well, we didn’t really eat a lunch most of the week. Why??? Every morning the hotel served the most amazing breakfast we have ever seen. Everything was homemade. I will let the pictures do to the talking but needless to say we did not need to eat a lunch after a breakfast like this!!! Remember when we first arrived at The Grotto and we told them Jack had food allergies? Well… we had no idea that they would make him a special breakfast every morning – just for him. He had a frittata, potatoes and ham, spinach rolls, vegetable pastries – again all homemade! It was amazing. They were also very good about letting him know what he could eat on the regular buffet. We were blown away with the special treatment and kindness. But that didn’t stop at breakfast…. They would leave us special sweet treats in our rooms every afternoon.
Sam's favorite breakfast pie - ham and cheese
The spread was amazing!
Homemade breakfast desserts -- Why, yes I will! 
First morning of Jack's special breakfasts
Another breakfast just for Jack - but I will admit I ate some of this one. It was delicious!

Spinach pies for breakfast!!

I took this picture early before they had the whole table set up - Just picture it covered with dishes
My favorite section - homemade Greek yogurt and jams. My favorite was the tomato jam - it was so good! 
That was just our are some pictures from around town:

We thought we would see this everywhere - we only saw displays of seafood at a few places
But we had to try it!
Kids eating squid for the first time
After the squid this was our go to meal for the rest of the week -  the homemade tzatziki sauce was amazing
As you can see we enjoyed some great food during our week in Naxos but there was also some amazing sites to visit on the island. The first thing you see when you arrive is doorway to the ancient temple of Apollo. It is literally just a doorway that is still standing. The rest of the structure was taken apart and used to build other structures in town. We found out later that this was a very common practice – take apart and build something else.

A view of the Naxos Old Town from the Temple of Apollo
The temple behind us
Some pictures take my breath away when I realize she is growing up so fast!
The next structure that catches your eye when you arrive is the kastro or castle that sits atop the old town. The kastro has so many buildings that have been built around it that it looks like one big structure. It looks pretty cool from the outside but once you enter the old town you are blown away by the beauty of the labyrinth that you just entered. It was a maze. I think we walked around in several circles and happened upon some pretty cool restaurants and even a homemade candy store. We tried to walk around every night because it was so pretty with the lights and the white gentle curves of the buildings.

A view from the kastro
The labyrinth during the day
The labyrinth at night was beautiful
Very cool architecture
Cool restaurants tucked away in the labyrinth 
Very cool candy store in the labyrinth
It is hard not to like this place!
Yummy homemade hard candies
The owner invited to come back to watch her demonstrate how she makes the candy
We had to wait until a night her husband was in town because it was a four hand job
He is making the little candies and on the counter next to him you can see lollipops that were folded before the rods cooled. She gave one to each of the kids
Final product - of course we had to try a few pieces
Sam fell in love with the Greek olives - lots to choose from in the small grocery store
Waterfront by day
Waterfront by night
Since Naxos was one of the biggest islands we wanted to see what else there was on the island. We could get to the old town and the beaches (most were closed for the season) from our hotel but we wanted to tour the island with a guide. After reading several reviews we hired Nicolas. Little did we know that Nicolas was actually French. He has studied Greek history and has lived in Naxos for almost two years. He gave us a great tour of the island and gave us some insight on the culture from a non-Greek point of view and what it is like to be accepted into another culture. He told us some fun stories about some of the village women coming over with food so they could introduce their daughter to him.

The Temple of Demeter- The goddess of harvest and fertility. Purposely built on the top of a hill overlooking the farmlands
Nicolas explaining some of the temple
The temples has been built, rebuilt, added on, taken apart, rebuilt again many times since 530BC
Our next stop was a private church....actually two churches. One for each family. Still used today for daily worship
The churches were in the middle of the yard of the homeowners. It was a cool farm with some herbs and fruit. 
This was a treat to get to see. We never would have been able to see this if we didn't take the tour. Nicolas had to enter the church first to make sure there were no snakes slithery around. 
Our next stop -  we visited the town of Chalkio
Cool walking area and shops....we even found ice cream
One of my favorite shops - the local spice store. The owner grows and dries all of her own herbs. She gave us many samples to try. 
Our final stop was high on the island in a town called  Apeiranthos. The town is made almost entirely of marble
After lunch we walked around the town
After a week of relaxing it was time to head back to Athens to catch our flight to New York. After another fun ferry ride we stayed in a hotel close to the airport. They were kind and gave us a recommendation to a great local Greek restaurant for our last dinner. Somebody from the restaurant even came to the hotel to pick us up. 

Packed and ready to go!
Ferry fun!
We loved Greece!
Sam having fun in the hotel pool. It was too cold for everyone else! 
We loved the Greek salad!
One of our favorite dinners
Sam loved the presentation
Greece was amazing. We were just in awe of the people, the food, and the history. Hopefully we will be able to return to explore more of this country.
New York

The sleeping situation on our last Turkish Airlines flight - it was a long day!
We have now come full circle on this amazing adventure. It is now time to get back to SandStar and start season two!  Our flight landed late in NYC and the one direct flight to Grenada leaves very early in the morning so we decided to stay two nights just to give us a little buffer with our flights in case we ran into any issues.  We decided to stay in a hotel since it was just two nights and as a family of five sometimes it is hard to find a hotel that sleeps five especially in a city like New York. We lucked out with a Hyatt Place that could sleep five and would accept some packages for us before our arrival. My Dad was our master consolidator and was able to collect our packages and ship two big boxes of shoes, school books, and other supplies to our hotel. Little did we know that we didn’t actually need that fifth bed…. Sam ended up enjoying the shipping boxes as his fort while we were in NYC.

Sam starting to work on his fort
He got his brother and sister to help too

We didn’t run into any flight issues so we had one day to enjoy NYC. What to do??? We talked a lot about this before we arrived and the kids wanted to do their two favorite things. Bike ride in Central Park and eat at Joe’s Shanghai in Chinatown. What we didn’t take into account was the weather. The temperature was much lower in late October compared to early September. Downright chilly! Our bike riding turned into ice skating. We lucked out on an amazing weather day after a Nor’easter just blew through the day before.

Central Park is beautiful in the Fall
We always enjoy the park! One of our favorite spots in NYC
Waiting for the zamboni to finish smoothing out the ice
A quick picture before hitting the ice
Trying out the ice skates
First trip around the ice
The little chipmunk staying close to the wall
Emma is getting the hang of it
Jack is too
They were playing some great 90's music...the kids skated faster when I started singing next to them. 
It is hard to believe we will be sweating and wearing shorts, tanks and flops in less than 24 hours
Taking the subway to Chinatown. The closest stop ended up being Grand Central. 
It was cool to see the inside of the station. We missed this on our first trip to NYC
A boy and his box bed

We did make it to Chinatown for dinner at Joe's Shanghai but we were so tired we almost fell in our soup dumplings and didn't get any pictures. After repacking all of our bags and getting a few hours of sleep we were on our way back to Grenada. Time to put away the long pants, jackets and our smelly fleece pullovers.

It feels like home on the first jam packed bus ride in Grenada. Just imagine the soca music blaring in the bus.


  1. We so enjoyed this blog and the wonderful photos. The kids are growing so fast and you all look so happy. What an adventure!! Thanks for sharing. Love and miss you all. G&G

  2. Istanbul is one of my favorite places--a beautiful, historically and culturally interesting city. Athens was very dirty when Bob and i were there over 15 years ago, and we've not been to any of the islands. Now I want to visit Naxos. What a wonderful trip for all of you, and so educational for the kids.