Category Archives: Travel

Sugarloaf Mountain

As the DC area prepared for Hurricane Sandy, this weekend, my husband and I decided to go for a hike on Sugarloaf Mountain in Dickerson, MD (7901 Comus RoadDickerson, MD 20842) this weekend before the hurricane blew away all the pretty autumn leaves.  Unfortunately, most of the leaves on Sugarloaf Mountain have already fallen, but it was still a beautiful day for a hike and we both enjoyed spending the time outside.  We parked in the Westview Parking Lot and took the blue blazed Northern Peaks Trail until the intersection with the red blazed trail Monadnock Trail to go up to the summit.  We spent some time at the summit admiring the views and then we backtracked down the red blazed trail back to the intersection with the blue blazed Northern Peaks Trail and continued hiking along the 5 mile Northern Peaks Trail and ended right back in the Westview Parking lot.  Since most of the leaves have already fallen, it was difficult to see the trail at some points because the trails were entirely covered with leaves, which also made it slippery in some areas (there were some near falls).  There were several nice overlooks like the one at White Rocks along the Northern Peaks Trail.

I’veheard that the orange blazed Sunrise Trail to the summit was the most challenging, but we opted to go on a longer hike this time and will likely try the orange blazed trail next time.  The summit was very crowded with most people taking the steps (yes, actual stairs) up on the green blazed A. M. Thomas Trail.

View from the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain

On our way home, we stopped by Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard (18125 Comus Road Dickerson, Maryland 20842), which was also pretty crowded.  They have a nice outdoor area with tables and seating along with an indoor area for purchasing and enjoying wine and crackers and cheese.  For $10, you can sample 8 of their wines in the outdoor patio before going inside to purchase wine.

Next, we stopped by Comus Market (23830 Old Hundred Road Dickerson, MD 20842) to take a look at their many varieties of pumpkins and winter squash.  They had a large selection of different kinds of pumpkins including Cinderella pumpkins, sugar pumpkins, blue pumpkins, peanut pumpkins, Fairytale pumpkins and much more.  They also had a large selection of winter squash like butternut squash, acorn squash, spaghetti squash, turban squash and much more.  We both had fun learning more about the different varieties of pumpkins and winter squash and how to cook them.  My favorite was definitely the Cinderella pumpkin because it was so beautiful and also because it has a magical quality for me since I’m still a big kid who loves Cinderella and hasn’t outgrown Disney.

Comus Market


Winter Squash

Cinderella Pumpkin

It was another wonderful autumn Saturday before Hurricane Sandy!


Harpers Ferry

Last weekend, my husband and I went to Harpers Ferry, WV for the first time. It was a beautiful autumn day and we were looking forward to hiking and enjoying nature for a few hours.  Harpers Ferry is located at the intersection of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers and is well known for John Brown’s raid on the armory during the Civil War.  We decided to go on the popular Maryland Heights trail. We arrived in Harpers Ferry around 1:00 pm and parked in the main parking lot and took the shuttle down to historic Harpers Ferry. There was a $10 admission for a single vehicle. We walked through part of the town and crossed the footbridge, turned left and walked along the canal before crossing another footbridge to the beginning of the trailhead. As we walked across the main footbridge, we could see the old stone piers that contained a railroad and bridge. John Brown crossed this bridge for his famous raid in 1859.

John Brown’s Fort


Maryland Heights is made up of 3 trails: the Combined Trail, the Stone Fort Trail and the Overlook Trail. From the trailhead, we hiked along the Combined Trail passing the Naval Battery from 1862. Most people go directly to the Overlook Trail from the Combined Trail to the popular overlook over Harper’s Ferry, but we decided to first hike the Stone Fort Trail and then going to the Overlook Trail. The Stone Overlook Trail involved a steep uphill climb as we approached walls of the Stone Fort. There are some lovely views from the summit at the Stone Fort. Descending down from the Stone Fort, we passed the 100 Pounder Battery and 300 Pounder Battery.

Interior wall of the Stone Fort

View from from Stone Fort summit

As we walked down a pretty steep trail, we turned right and went on the Overlook Trail down to the popular cliffs to enjoy a beautiful view of Harpers Ferry where the Potomac River joins the Shenandoah River. Then we started hiking back down to the trailhead and went back across the footbridge to the town. The hike took about 4 hours including several stops to enjoy the view. Without stopping, the hike probably would’ve taken 3 hours. As a treat, we stopped by Scoops Ice Cream (173 Potomac Street, Harpers Ferry, WV).  where I had a delicious pumpkin shake and my husband had a hot chocolate. Then we went back to the parking lot via the shuttle. I wish we could have explored the town a little more, but it was getting late and we needed to start heading home.

View of Harpers Ferry from the cliff

Scoops Ice Cream

Pumpkin Shake from Scoops Ice Cream

It was the perfect way to spend a beautiful autumn day!

Istanbul Trip Day 5- Topkapi Palace

On our last day in Istanbul, we had a morning to visit Topkapi Palace before an afternoon flight to Athens.  Topkapi Palace was built as the administrative center of Sultan Mehmet II and then later converted to be the residence of Suleyman the Magnificent.  The Palace is open Wednesday-Monday from 9:00-19:00 (until 16:45 in the off season) with the Harem open from 10:00-16:00.  The price of admission to the Palace is 20 TL and 15 TL to visit the Harem.  We used the Topkapi Palace Tour chapter of Rick Steve’s Istanbul as our guide.

Entrance to Topkapi Palace

We arrived around 10:00 and decided to go to the Harem first before it got too crowded which was great because we got to slowly walk around without crowds of people pushing and shoving and getting in our photos.  The Harem was the home to the sultan’s wives and concubines and is well worth the extra 15 TL to see the exquisite tiles and get an inside look at what life there was like.  It was fascinating to read about life and customs in the harem.  Harem is an Arabic word that means “forbidden” meaning that this part of the palace is only for family members (women) and is forbidden to others.  Sultans could have up to 4 wives and hundreds of concubines that were slaves who kept house and “favorites” who were selected from the concubines by the sultan’s mother and wives to have a more intimate relationship with the sultan.  It was interesting to learn that the sultan’s mother’s living quarters were located between the sultan’s quarters and his wives’ quarters.  Can you imagine that living situation today?

The sultan’s quarters resembling a Turkish Bath

Example of the stunning tile work in The Harem

Courtyard of the Favorites where the favorites of the sultan selected by the sultan’s mother lived

Once we left the Harem, we were slightly overwhelmed with how much more there was to see.  And it was getting quite crowded with lines forming everywhere. There was so much to see so I will only mention the highlights were us.  I loved the Imperial Treasury where there were thrones and jewels.  There is a pretty long line for the Imperial Treasury and you walk through single file and sadly photography was not allowed in the Imperial Treasury, Sultan’s clothing collection and Muslim Relics.  The highlights of the Imperial Treasury were the Topkapi Dagger, which includes an emerald on top of the handle and the other highlight for me was the Spoonmaker’s Diamond that is 86 carats and surrounded by 49 other diamonds.  Wow!  I also loved the Hall of Holy Relics where an imam reads verses aloud from the Quran 24 hours a day.  There are also everyday items from Muhammad, Moses, Abraham, David and Joseph.  If you ever wanted to see Abraham’s cooking pot or Moses’ staff, this it the place!

The view of the Bosphorus from Topkapi Palace (amazing!)

After we left Topkapi Palace, we grabbed some kebab sandwiches from a place near the tram tracks near Hagia Sophia (on Divan Yolu) where they have large chunks of meat that cooks as it rotates in front of a vertical grill.  Then the chef cuts off slices of the meat and serves it wrapped in pita or bread.  I had a chicken kebab sandwich, which was the cheapest meal we had in Istanbul and although it was not spectacular, it was good and certainly filling.

Kebabs grilling

Chicken kebab sandwich

After one last walk by the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, we went back to our hotel and left for the airport for Athens on our way to Santorini.  Stay tuned for more about our amazing time in Santorini!

Istanbul Trip Day 4 – Bosphorus Cruise, Galata Tower

We spent the first half of our day cruising the Bosphorus Strait.  The Bosphorus Strait separates the European side of Turkey and the Asian side of Turkey.  It also connects the Black Sea in the north with the Sea of Marmara and the Mediterranean in the south.  We took the cruise on the public ferry which leaves from the Bosphorus ferry port in Old Town’s Eminonu district next to the Galata Bridge.  A round trip ticket was 25 TL and the ferry leaves the port at 10:35 and 13:35 in April-October (at 10:35 only the rest of the year).  The round trip took about 6-7 hours, including a 2-3 hour stop in Anadolu Kavagi.  We left at 10:35 which was perfect because we arrived in Anadolu Kavagi in time for lunch and had some time to walk around and explore and still managed to get in some more sightseeing in Istanbul when we returned.  We arrived early so that we could get a good seat for optimal viewing. Most of the sights on the way to Anadolu Kavagi are on the European side, so we chose a seat on the left so we could see everything.  The ferry did not include a tour, so we read the Bosphorus Cruise chapter of Rick Steve’s Istanbul beforehand so we were prepared.

Bosphorus Ferry

On the Bosphorus Ferry

As the ferry pulled away from the port, we had a great view of Old Town Istanbul behind us with a view of the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace.  After that, we saw where the Bosphorus joins the Sea of Marmara on the right.  Offshore on the right is the Maiden’s Tower, which is a landmark used as a lighthouse and restaurant.  Next on the left, we saw the Dolmabahce Palace, which is the 19th century palace of the Ottoman sultan.  Then the ferry slows down for it’s first stop at Besiktas.  Then we saw a very grand Four Seasons Hotel followed by Ciragan Palace, which is now a five star hotel.

Dolmabahce Palace

Ciragan Palace (now a hotel)

Later on the left before the Bosphorus Bridge is Ortakoy Mosque and right next to the mosque is a 19th century mansion, Esma Sultan Yalisi, which once belonged to the sultan’s daughter.  Next is the impressive Bosphorus Bridge, which connects two continents.  Just to the left of the bridge is Beylerbeyi, which is the late 19th century summer palace of the sultan.  On the Asian side, we saw several waterfront mansions.  It must be amazing to live in one of those beautiful mansions right on the beautiful Bosphorus!  Also on the Asian side was Kucuksu, which was a hunting pavilion for the royals.  Following that is Anatolian Fortress, which was used to cut off aide to Constantinople during a seize.

Bosphorus Bridge


Next on the European side, is the very impressive Rumeli Fortress.  It was built a year before the conquest of Constantinople and it was constructed in only 80 days!  It was crucial for the Ottomans to have fortresses on both sides of the Bosphorus so that it was impossible for a ship to pass through without permission.  Next is the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge before stopping in Kanlica.  Kanlica is known for it’s yogurt served with powdered sugar, which servers sold on the ferry and was quite tasty.

Rumeli Fortress

Kanlica yogurt

Next the ferry docks at Yenikoy, which is a trendy district with elaborate houses.  Next on the left side is the Presidential Mansion, which is the summer home for the President of Turkey. Next the ferry stops in Sariyer before arriving at Rumeli Kavagi.  As the ferry leaves Rumeli Kavagi, the ferry turns toward Asia and we could see the Bosphorus opening into the Black Sea.  The tale of Jason and the Argonauts and the rocks the crew encountered is believed to have occurred on this stretch of the Bosphorus approaching the Black Sea.

Bosphorus opening into the Black Sea

he ferry docked in Anadolu Kavagi, which is a small fishing village on the Asian side of Turkey.  We were able to see Yoros Castle up on the hilltop as we approached the port.  The ferry stopped here for 2-3 hours, so we were able to enjoy a delicious seafood lunch on the water before hiking uphill to Yoros Castle.  There are several seafood restaurants along the water and we looked at a few menus and then chose one that had seating by the water.  Then we boarded the ferry to head back to Old Town.

Yoros Castle

Anadolu Kavagi

Seafood lunch of mussels, calamari, fried white fish and also a whole fish (not pictured)

After we arrived back, we walked across the Galata Bridge and watched some of the fishermen catch fish on the bridge and then crossed the bridge to explore New Town.  We browsed around a few shops before going to the Galata Tower, which is a 205 foot stone tower built in the mid-14th century and has since been used as a fire tower, barracks and dungeon.  For 10 TL, we were able to ride to the top and enjoy a great view of Istanbul.  The Galata Tower is open daily from 9:00-20:00.

Galata Tower

View of Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque from Galata Tower

Then we walked back to Old Town and decided to try one of the self-service cafeteria style restaurants for dinner.  We chose one located along the tram tracks (Divan Yolu) and this may have been my favorite meal in Istanbul.  I had stuffed peppers and stuffed eggplant and everything tasted fresh and delicious and it was inexpensive.

Stuffed eggplant and stuffed peppers with rice

Since this was our last night in Istanbul, we wanted to soak up as much of Istanbul as we could.  We walked around the Old Town near the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque while snacking on some chestnuts purchased from street vendors and then we decided to go to Havuzbasi Restaurant and Tea House near the Blue Mosque and sit out on the patio for hookahs, Turkish coffee and tea and a game of backgammon.  It was my first time smoking hookah, which is a water pipe with low nicotine tobacco leaves mixed with dried apples.  I could definitely taste aroma of apples and it was fun to sit outside below the Blue Mosque and just relax with my husband.

Turkish coffee


It was a perfect last evening in Istanbul and we were sad to be leaving the next day, but not until we saw Topkapi Palace in the morning!

Istanbul Trip Day 3 – Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Underground Cistern

We started our day by exploring some sights near our hotel starting by walking through Sultan Ahmet Square where the Hippodrome, Egyptian Obelisk, Column of Constantine and German Fountain are. This is a nice, open, park-like area that you walk through to get to the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The Hippodrome used to be Roman chariot racetrack. The square never closes and is often packed with tourists during the day, but not worth spending a great deal of time.

Egyptian Obelisk

We quickly headed to the Hagia Sophia, which started off as a church for the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople and then became a mosque when the Ottomans took Constantinople in 1453. After serving as an important mosque for centuries, it was converted to a museum. The Hagia Sophia is open Tuesday-Sunday from 9:00-18:30 in the summer (until 16:30 in the off season) with last entry one hour before closing. You will need 20 TL for admission and at least an hour and half of your time. We used the “Hagia Sophia Tour” chapter of Rick Steve’s Istanbul as our guide.

Hagia Sophia

Nave of the Hagia Sophia

I was in awe of how this great structure was constructed without the technology and tools that we have available today and it is still so well preserved. It truly is a magnificent sight and it was amazing to stand in a structure so full of history. Just entering the nave took my breath away. Here are some of the highlights for me:

The architecture: The main dome was definitely one of my favorite architectural highlight. And to see that the architects would adhere to the Byzantine style of symmetry in all parts of the structure by painting a false window or door where real one would weaken the structure made the architecture even more impressive.

The dome of the Hagia Sophia (not the false windows on each side of the dome)

The transition from church to mosque: Throughout the structure, you can see Christian paintings that have been partially covered where the Ottomans tried to cover up anything Christian so the structure could be used as a mosque.

Evidence of the Ottomans covering up Christian paintings

Column of St. Gregory: Near the entrance to the nave from the interior narthex is the Column of St. Gregory. People believed that this column “wept” holy water that would cure illness. You can try putting your thumb in the hole where so many others have over the years. If it feels damp, perhaps you will be cured! It did not feel damp to me (darn).

Column of St. Gregory

Then, we went across the street to the Blue Mosque.  The Blue Mosque is one of Istanbul’s most iconic sights and is named for the rich blue color of the ceramic tiles on the walls inside.  The Blue Mosque is known for it’s six minarets (only to be outdone by the mosque in Mecca, which now has seven).  The Blue Mosque is open daily from one hour before sunrise until one hour before sunset and closed to visitors five times a day for prayer.  Women need to cover their heads and everyone has to remove their shoes to enter the mosque.  The interior with it’s richly colored ceramic tiles is so beautiful and it was wonderful to just be able to sit there in the quiet and take it all in.

Blue Mosque

Inside the Blue Mosque

While we were planning for our trip, my husband read about these boats that serve fish sandwiches while the boats rock side to side like crazy and he convinced me to ride the tram down to the Galata Bridge for some fish sandwiches for lunch.  The sandwiches were pretty cheap and the fish tasted very fresh and smelled delicious.  If you’re not a fan of fish with bones, you may not be a fan of these sandwiches.  And it was so much fun to watch the men cook fish and make sandwiches while the boat rocked side to side.  I definitely would’ve been motion sick on that boat.  There are plenty of tables and chairs nearby to sit and enjoy your meal.  There are also many other vendors selling pickled vegetables, popcorn and chestnuts.

Fish sandwich boat

Fish Sandwich

After lunch, we took the tram back to Sultan Ahmet Square to go to the Underground Cistern which is located across the tram from the Hagia Sophia.  The Underground Cistern is a underground reservoir built during the Byzantine Empire.  There are hundreds of columns supporting the brick ceiling with a shallow pool of water below you (with fish swimming in it!).  At the far end of the cistern are two Medusa heads lying on the ground.  The Underground Cistern is open daily from 9:00-20:00 and is a quick 15-20 minute visit with 10 TL for admission.  It’s a fun and neat place to visit, but can be skipped if you are short on time.

Underground Cistern

Medusa head

For dinner, we went to a place recommended by Rick Steves for it’s seafood, Balikci Sabahattin, located a few blocks away from the Blue Mosque.  We showed up with a reservation and were promptly seated.  We got several mezes and tried the rice with mussels, eggplant, octopus salad, monkfish and jumbo shrimp.  The food was all very good, but a bit overpriced as mezes usually are.

Rice with mussels, eggplant and octopus salad at Balikci Sabahattin

Monkfish and jumbo shrimp at Balikci Sabahattin

It was another wonderful day in Turkey!

Istanbul Trip Day 2- Ephesus

We had to get up bright and early to head back to the airport (yes, we just arrived in Istanbul and we’re leaving already! We’ll be back!) to fly to Izmir to tour Ephesus for the day.  We flew AtlasJet from Istanbul to Izmir.  We made arrangements ahead of time to have a private tour guide take us around Ephesus since we did not want to have to drive in Turkey and because I loathe group tours.  We booked our tour through Private Ephesus Tours and our tour guide was excellent.  She was friendly and informative and gave us time on our own to explore without hovering.  Our tour costed $130 per person and included visiting the Temple of Artemis, the ancient city of Ephesus, the Terrace Houses, the Archaeological Museum of Ephesus, the House of the Virgin Mary, the Basilica of St. John and a traditional lunch and visits to carpet and ceramic shops.

Our driver and tour guide picked us up from the airport in Izmir and immediately whisked us away to visit the House of the Virgin Mary.  I would’ve been much more impressed with this site if there were any concrete evidence that this was the House of the Virgin Mary, but it was still a lovely and peaceful site up in the mountains. The house was discovered after a Catholic nun, Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, had a vision about the last days of the Virgin Mary and the house where she lived located near Ephesus.  Other than that, there is no other proof that this actually was her house.

House of the Virgin Mary.

Next, we went to visit the ancient city of Ephesus and the Terrace Houses.  This was my favorite part of the day.  It was so fascinating to see this ancient city that was such a large part of Paul’s ministry and I was amazed to see how so much of it was still so well preserved.  Ephesus was an ancient Greek city that was known for the Temple of Artemis, which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.  I was extremely impressed by the Terrace Houses where the wealthy had once lived and how grand it all was. It was so exciting to walk where Paul and so many others had once walked so long ago!

Ancient City of Ephesus

Terrace Houses in Ephesus

Then, we went to the Archeological Museum of Ephesus, which was kind of disappointing after seeing the ancient city of Ephesus.  The museum is known for statue of Artemis from the Temple of Artemis. Then we had lunch that was part of a Turkish carpet shop.  The traditional lunch seemed to be in exchange for visiting a carpet shop that was there, but instead of being pushy sales people, they showed us how they made Turkish rugs and showed us a few rugs, but we were able to politely refuse to purchase anything without the sales people giving us a hard time.

Making Turkish rugs

Then, we went to see the Temple of Artemis, which was one of the treasures of the ancient world and is pretty much a lone standing column with a bird’s nest on top of it.

All that remains of the Temple of Artemis

Then we went to the Bascilica of St. John and it was fun to wander around the Basilica and imagine what used to be there.  And it was also cool to see where John the Apostle was buried.

Burial place of John the Apostle

Since we had plenty of time left before our flight back to Istanbul, our tour guide offered to take us to a ceramics shop, which we decided to do instead of sitting at the airport for an extra hour and the place we went had beautiful ceramics and vases with lower prices and higher quality than what we had seen in Istanbul, so we decided to purchase a small vase.  We were still early for our flight, so we had to hang out at the airport for a little while and we were hoping for some gift shops or something along those lines to occupy us, but unfortunately, there were a few small airport shops, but that was about it.  We had a smooth flight back to Istanbul and we decided to take advantage of the free hotel dinner offered by our hotel, Sokullu Pasa, and this had to be one of the best free hotel dinners I’ve ever had.  It was a 4 course dinner and everything was so delicious.

Fresh fish dinner at Sokullu Pasa Hotel

It was a wonderful second day in Turkey!

Istanbul Trip Day 1- Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent, Bazaars, Turkish Bath

After we got settled in our hotel, we jumped right into exploring Istanbul!  Our first stop was the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent.  Built for Suleyman, the Magnificent who was the 10th sultan of the Ottoman Empire.  The mosque is open from 9:00 am- 5:00 pm and admission is free.  Women need to cover their heads and everyone needs to remove their shoes to enter the mosque.  This mosque is beautiful and grand, but in my opinion, is not as beautiful as the Blue Mosque.  According to Rick Steves’ guidebook, the mausoleums of Suleyman and his wife Roxelana are located in the cemetery at the mosque, but the gate to the cemetery was locked while we were there which was disappointing.

Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent

 Near the mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent is the Grand Bazaar, which was our next stop.  The Grand Bazaar is a labyrinth of small shops selling souvenirs, rugs, jewelry, etc.  The Grand Bazaar is open Monday-Saturday from 9:00 am- 7:00 pm.  We wandered around and went into some of the small shops to do some souvenir shopping.  There were many extremely aggressive merchants, which drives me crazy, so we left after walking around for about 40 minutes without buying anything and went to the Spice Bazaar.   The Spice Bazaar is open Monday-Saturday from 8:00 am-7:30 pm.  I enjoyed the Spice Bazaar a lot more because it was smaller and not as intense as the Grand Bazaar.  We bought some Turkish tea and Turkish delight.

Spice Bazaar

Then made our way to the Turkish Bath, Suleymaniye Hamami, which is located near the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificant.  This Turkish Bath is for couples and costs about 35 euros or 70 TL.  They are open from 10:00 am-10:00 pm.  We arranged the Turkish Bath through our hotel, Sokulla Pasa, and also arranged for transportation back to our hotel.  The Turkish bath was so relaxing and I felt so great afterward.  When we arrived, we were offered some apple tea in the sitting area and then ushered to a private changing room and provided with garments to wear.  Then we were directed to a large marble room with other couples where we could poor hot water over ourselves while we wait for our attendants.  Then each couple goes into chamber with their attendants where the attendants proceed to scrub us down.

After we returned to our hotel, we selected a restaurant near the hotel for dinner, Buhara 93, located near the Blue Mosque.  We were seated on the roof and enjoyed some delicious kebabs, flat bread and basic Turkish food.  Then we returned to our hotel to get some rest of the next day!

Flat bread at Buhara 93

Kebabs at Buhara 93