La Strada is in a good location on a main street in downtown Palo Alto. After checking the outside menu we decided to give it a try for lunch on a Sunday afternoon. The atmosphere and decor are simple, but pleasing. They offer outdoor and indoor seating. One the first things we noticed was the wood-fired oven and the delicious aroma of fresh baked pizza. We were seated inside and after examining the menu we found several entrees that interested us. Our server was attentive and courteous. He immediately brought bread to our table (and it was warm and tasty). From our table we were able to observe the kitchen staff at work and they appeared to be quite organized and functional. Our food arrived quickly. I ordered one of the lunch specials - Buckwheat Pappardelle with roasted chicken and vegetables, which came with a small salad of mixed greens with a light viniargrette dressing. My husband ordered the Chicken Alla Diavola, a half semi-boneless chicken with roasted vegetables. The portions were decent. The chicken was well-prepared and flavorful. However, the vegetables were undercooked and did not have much taste. A starch like mashed potatoes or rice would have rounded out the meal. Just chicken and vegetables left a lot to be desired. If I had to rate the restaurant I would give it a C, because was just average. Nothing stood out as being particularly good or particularly bad. There are so many other dining choices in downtown Palo Alto that we probably wouldn't go back.
Why did the chicken cross the road? No doubt this riddle has been asked hundreds of times since its first known printing in 1847. Although the standard answer is “to get to the other side”, many other answers have been given. Whatever the answer is, the fact remains that the chicken wanted to see new territory. That impulse to wander and explore the world is referred to as “wanderlust”. This basic urge lives in all human beings; the desire to travel…to find out what lies across the road, across the country, around the world. Pioneers have traversed the planet, under the sea and even into outer space.
The degree of wanderlust is different in every person. Some people can satisfy their urge to travel with an occasional getaway, while others are constantly on the move. They vacillate between planning for a trip, traveling, and planning for the next trip. They have an insatiable desire to experience new destinations and cultures. They keep a suitcase packed at all times so that they are ready to take off at a moment’s notice. It is an exhilarating way to live. I happen to be one of those people who live in a state of perpetual wanderlust. Although I have traveled extensively for more than 30 years, I am still excited about what more the world has to offer. As Susan Sontag said, I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.” I have been to 22 different countries, and have returned to many of them more than once. It is impossible to experience all that a destination has to offer on the first visit…or even the second. For example I have been to the Eiffel Tower several times, and each time it has been wonderfully different. Has the Eiffel tower really changed? Of course not, it’s the same iconic structure that it has always been. Maybe I’ve changed, grown, matured. So each time I’ve seen it slightly differently.
As a travel consultant I enjoy letting my clients know about the many benefits that travel has to offer. First of all, it broadens a person and allows them to get outside of their environment to experience new foods, new cultures and make connections with new people.
Travel can engage all 5 of the senses. I went on a sensory journey during a recent trip to London when I visited the Food Halls of Harrods. I knew Harrods as the world’s most famous department store, but I was completely blown away by the Food Halls where an entire floor is dedicated to delicious cuisine from all over the globe. You can literally eat your way around the world. I can still picture the beautifully displayed candies and dried fruits. I can still smell the captivating aromas of the baked goods, fresh from the oven. I can still taste those delicious beignets. I can still hear the soft music playing and the charming accents of the clerks at each counter. I can still feel the plump dates that I ate at the dried fruit counter. It was a veritable feast for my senses.
Travel brochures and websites do a good job of picturing and describing destinations, but it’s a 2 dimensional experience at best. Nothing compares to actually being at a destination and immersing yourself in the experience.
Learning about other cultures while onsite is a great educational experience. When I visited the Rialto Market on a Monday morning there were very few other tourists there. So I was able to sample the fruit and watch the fresh-caught seafood being sold. It was interesting to watch elderly couples shopping for fresh food. I realized that I was witnessing something that has been a daily routine for hundreds of years.
Travel can also be humbling. The successful traveler learns to adapt to his environment, no matter what he finds. As Gustave Flaubert said, “Travel makes one modest, you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world”. I think that most important item to pack in your suitcase is an open mind.
People often ask me to name my favorite destination, and I find it impossible to do so. Would it be sailing into a Caribbean sunset? Would it be standing at the foot of the Eiffel Tower at dusk at the precise moment that it begins to sparkle with hundreds of tiny white lights? Would it be the thrill of watching the military precision of the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace? Would it be standing on the beach as the waves crash against the rugged California coastline? I cannot choose. I have had memorable travel experiences everywhere I’ve been.
I may not know why the chicken crossed the road, but I do know that I will always keep traveling to see what’s on the other side.
Best Fried Chicken in San Francisco
One of our culinary quests has always been to find the best fried chicken in any city that we visit. When we heard rave reviews about the golden bird at Brenda’s French Soul Food restaurant, we knew that we had to check it out. It had been featured on a local food program where diners critique restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area. According to a recent census, San Francisco has more restaurants per capita than any other city in the United States; so there is a myriad of dining options.
Since San Francisco is only a 50-minute drive from our home we decided to venture over one Monday for lunch. Parking in that city is always at a premium, so we when we found a space right across the street from Brenda’s we knew that this was a good omen.
It was obvious the moment we walked in, that this was a serious eating establishment. A quick scan of the dining room showed diners very engrossed in their meals. Although we arrived in the midst of the lunchtime rush, our wait was only 5 minutes. As we were led to our table we couldn’t help but notice the delectable dishes and mouth-watering aromas that filled the room.
Since Brenda is originally from New Orleans, the menu offers a variety of Cajun selections; gumbo, red beans & rice, muffalettas and even hush puppies. Although the other choices were tempting, we stayed true to our goal – fried chicken – and ordered the BFC (Brenda’s Fried Chicken). It did not disappoint. The two perfectly browned chicken breasts were served with crispy fries, coleslaw and a huge light-as-air biscuit. We also ordered sides of creamy grits and hush puppies. The chicken was perfectly prepared –piping hot, crispy on the outside yet moist and flavorful on the inside. The cole slaw was fresh and crunchy with just the right balance of sweet and tangy. The grits were a bottomless bowl of buttery goodness; and the creamiest we’ve ever had. The hush puppies were served with a chipotle remoulade and were as good as any we’ve ever tasted – even in New Orleans.
The service was quite good; attentive without being intrusive. The staff moved about the compact dining room with precision and ease. The atmosphere was busy without being frantic.
We look forward to returning in the VERY near future to try some of the other menu choices. One that particularly caught our eye was the Sloppy Josephine, a sassy version of a Sloppy Joe made with turkey and served on a warm toasted bun. However, it will be difficult not to order the BFC again – perhaps we’ll take one to go.
If you are a fan of good fried chicken, Brenda’s should be at the top of your list.
Chef Chu's - Great Food, Great Dining Experience
While visiting Palo Alto recently we developed a taste for Chinese food. There are many choices in the area but we decided on Chef Chu’s – and we’re so glad we did. It is a well-established restaurant that has been there for many years. The description on their website states “Established as one of the Peninsula's best Chinese restaurants, Chef Chu's is known world-wide for its innovative and delicious cuisine.”
It did not take long to find out how they earned that reputation. Located on a busy corner on the border between Palo Alto and Los Altos, it easy to locate. It is situated in a very attractive area. Parking spaces in front of the restaurant are limited, but there are ample spaces in a nearby lot.
Upon entering the restaurant we were greeted warmly by a pleasant hostess who immediately ushered us to our table in the spacious, beautifully decorated dining room. We enjoyed the lovely décor and the fact that the tables were well placed, so we had plenty of room. Even though we were there during the lunch rush, the atmosphere was calm and relaxed. Service was prompt but we did not feel rushed. The calmness was never interrupted by noise from the kitchen or scrambling wait staff. Our smiling waiter delivered our tea and our entrees at just the right time.
Everything worked like a well-oiled machine. It was obvious that the wait staff were seasoned and experienced.
The gourmet luncheon menu was quite extensive, offering a large variety of delicious dishes to choose from. The average price was $10. After much contemplation we decided on the Tangy Lemon Chicken, Hunan Chicken and Chow Mein. Each dish was prepared to perfection. The lemon chicken offered the perfect balance of citrus and sweet and the deep-fried batter had just the right crunch. The Hunan chicken was savory with just a hint of sesame oil. The chow mein was mixed with an assortment of well-prepared vegetables. Servings were plentiful and each dish, including the chow mein, was artfully presented.
The restaurant is quite spacious and can accommodated large parties in their upstairs dining rooms.
Chef Chu’s is an excellent choice for lunch or dinner.
Hotel Review: Olivia Plaza - Nice Hotel, Nice Location
After a recent transatlantic cruise we decided to spend a few days in one of our favorite cities, Barcelona Spain. There are many hotel choices in that exciting city so it took some time to make a selection. We wanted something that was close to Las Ramblas, modern and moderately priced. The Olivia Plaza Hotel met all of our criteria, so we decided to stay there; and we’re glad we did.
Our ship docked early on a Saturday morning, and after a brief cab ride we arrived at the hotel. Although it was too early to check in, we were warmly greeted by the doorman and front desk staff, who, thankfully, spoke English since our Spanish is limited. They immediately checked us in and offered to store our luggage until our room was ready. The lobby, though small was quite cheery and welcoming. The décor was modern with splashes of bright red accents. There was also a lovely floral aroma that we noticed each time we entered the lobby. We also appreciated that the hotel entrance was quite secure. The door is locked at all times, so guests are only admitted after being screened by the ever-present doorman. So there is no danger of people just wandering in or loitering in the lobby.
The customer service is top notch. Whether we were asking for directions or assistance with printing boarding passes, the front desk clerks were always pleasant and efficient.
One of the best features of the hotel is its location on the Plaza Catalunya, just steps away from the end of Las Ramblas. So it was very easy to get to tour buses, shopping and any number of restaurants. The back of the hotel borders the Gothic Quarter. As a matter of fact from our second story room we had a perfect view of Santa Anna Church, a beautiful, historic church that was founded in 1140. So gazing out the window was like traveling back in time.
The hotel restaurant was easy to access and offered a nice menu. It also offered alfresco dining on a quaint little patio.
Like the lobby, the décor of the rooms is modern with a minimalist design and decorated with red accents. The beds are firm with good quality linen. The closet is open and quite small, not designed to hold large wardrobes. The vessel sink is modern, but not very practical since the water splashes out onto the counter and floor. The room did not have an iron or ironing board, so we had to request one from housekeeping – and sign for it. Bath and hand towels were provided, but there were no washcloths.
There is a small work desk and best of all, WI-FI is fast and free.
This is a good hotel for a business trip or weekend getaway. It is more suited to a short stay than a long vacation stay. It worked nicely for our 3-day post-cruise stay, but I would not recommend it for a longer stay.
Lunch at La Strada
A London Love Story
“Where do I begin to tell the story of how great a town can be”?
This variation on the opening lyrics to the song “Love Story” definitely describes our experience as first-time visitors. We had heard that London is one of the world’s most visited cities, and it didn’t take long to find out why.
We arrived at London Heathrow airport early on a Monday morning and were immediately swept up into the pace of this bustling city. We felt like VIPs when our smiling driver, who displayed our name on his iPad, loaded us into his BMW sedan. He whisked us through the morning commute traffic, telling us the story of how he and his family had moved to London from Romania. He gave us a mini-tour of the city as he took us to our hotel in the Kensington district. Our hotel was the Holiday Inn Kensington Palace. It was a good mid-range hotel with small rooms and very small closets. The onsite restaurant served a good buffet breakfast. The hotel is frequented by tourists and business travelers and is functional, if not fancy. The hotel staff was friendly and provided good customer service. Since it was too early to check in, we stored our luggage and struck out to acquaint ourselves with the city.
You’ve probably heard the adage, “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping”. That’s exactly what we did. We hopped into one of those famous Black Cabs and headed for Harrods, the world’s most famous upmarket department store. To describe it as massive would be an understatement. It boasts floor after floor of wonderful merchandise; from the scandalously expensive to the delightfully kitchy. The store personnel were quite helpful and gave us much-needed maps of the store. The highlight for us was visiting the Food Halls – several massive rooms chock full of beautifully displayed food from all over the world. Choices included meat pies, seafood, cheeses, charcuterie, desserts, olives, pate, caviar and much more. We wandered from room to room snapping pictures and looking every bit the tourists that we were. I can still vividly recall the delicious aromas that emanated from the freshly baked pastries.
After leaving the Food Halls we visited the Egyptian Escalator with its beautiful Egyptian artifacts. It is also the location of the memorial to Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed, since Dodi’s father, Mohammed Al Fayed, once owned the store.
As we returned to the hotel, we noticed the beauty of the Kensington and Chelsea districts. The architecture of the homes is charming, like something out of a movie. There are also many little parks and green spaces.
After checking into the hotel and resting a bit we began making dinner plans. We wanted our first meal in London to be at a traditional English pub. Our hotel concierge was quite helpful and suggested Bumpkin Pub in South Kensington. It was every bit the charming establishment that we had hoped it would be. It was warm and welcoming with a cozy atmosphere, cold Guinness and of course fish & chips. The food was just OK and I must admit that I have had better fish & chips in San Francisco. But it was a nice experience.
The next day began bright and early with a short tour of the city that included St. Paul’s Cathedral and watching the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. St. Paul’s Cathedral is a beautiful structure and Sir Christopher Wren’s design is awe-inspiring. It was amazing to walk where Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer were married. Since it is in such a busy area of the city, it was interesting to watch all of the Londoners and tourists dashing to and fro. During the noon hour, many people sit on the expansive front steps to enjoy their lunch. Dining choices in the area are plentiful and we ate at a tasty little Japanese noodle house on nearby Paternoster Square.
Changing of the Guard - Although I had seen it on television, I was not fully prepared for this amazing ceremony. There were literally thousands of people who had come to see it also. Besides people, the front of Buckingham Palace was filled with rows and rows of beautiful flowers. Also in front of the palace is St. James Park, a huge public park with acres of lush green grass, verdant vegetation and peaceful ponds. It is also a good place to find public restrooms. Luckily our guide had the bus drop us off at the right time and guided us to a great location. We saw the St. James Palace detachment march, along with the excellent band up to Buckingham Palace where the change actually occurs. The Guardsmen were resplendent in their red jackets, black slacks and bearskin hats. However, since the temperature was in the 70’s I can imagine that they were quite warm. But the Changing of the Guard is British pageantry at its best.
On Wednesday we spent the afternoon at the Tower of London. For an English history buff this is a magical experience. It was amazing to actually walk where these famous people lived – and died. It is much more than a tower, it is a walled city. Like other attractions it was filled with tourists. It is well laid out and easy to navigate. Even with the throngs of people, it never felt crowded and the lines moved constantly and smoothly. The Beefeaters are readily available to help with directions and offer information.
One of our favorite areas was the Wardrobe Tower, which is FULL of weapons of every description - battle axes, swords, muskets and full coats of armor – all artfully displayed. Touring the Wardrobe Tower requires lots of walking. The entrance is located at the top of a steep staircase and once inside there are 3 more flights to climb since the weapons are displayed on different levels. Please note that once you enter, you must tour the entire tower – there is no turning back.
The highlight of the tour was viewing the Crown Jewels. It is difficult to find the words to describe these opulent riches. The size of the jewels alone defies description. But there are also cases full of the dishes, utensils and even the elegant robes used at coronation. There are no pictures allowed, but none are needed. Those sights are unforgettable.
No visit to London would be complete without a cruise on the Thames River. For just a few Euros, you can ride one of these open-air boats and enjoy the sights of London as you sail by. There is a guide who narrates the tour and describes each iconic building. Our cruise ended at the London Eye, another London must-see. Although the line was extremely long, it was worth the wait. Each of the pods holds approximately 25 people. Note, that the ride is constantly moving, so when it is time for you to step onboard, you need to move quickly. Since we were there at sunset, the views of the city were spectacular.
Although we were only in London for a few days, it impacted us greatly. The food scene, like the population is very diverse and goes way beyond what has been referred to as “traditional English fare”. It is a fast-paced city, full of life – and traffic. But taxis are plentiful and public transportation is easy to navigate.
Our time in the city was much too short and we look forward to returning to continue our love affair with London.
The More Things Change......
“The more things change, the more they stay the same” is an old adage that has been quoted and re-quoted many times. However, when referring to the travel industry the quote should be “The more things change, the more things change”. In recent years change has been frequent and constant. As travel professionals and frequent travelers even we have to work to keep up with all that’s going on in the industry, so that we can keep our clients informed. The last 20 years have seen a myriad of changes. Here are just a few that have taken place:
Airline Tickets: Years ago the only places that airline tickets could be purchased were at a travel agency or at the airport. Now tickets can be purchased online 24/7.
Travel Documents: Paper documents are very rarely used now. Most airlines and tour companies only issue electronic documents. The few who still issue paper documents may charge a fee to provide them for travelers.
Airport Access: Meeting arriving passengers at their gate or walking departing passengers to their gate is a distant memory. If you do not have a boarding pass, you do not get past the Travel Security Administration (TSA) checkpoint. So those tearful goodbyes and joyous hellos have to take place on the outside of that area.
Resort Fees: Most hotels and resorts now charge “resort fee” for services that used to be included in the room rate; daily newspapers, access to the onsite gym and what ever else they lump into the description. They can range from $10-$15 per night and are mandatory, even if you do not use any of these services.
Airline Mergers: As many major airlines merge with others there have been more codeshare agreements. A codeshare agreement is an aviation business arrangement where two or more airlines share the same flight. A seat can be purchased on one airline but is actually operated by a cooperating airline under a different flight number or code. A few months ago we booked a flight to London on Lufthansa and carefully selected our seats. The flight was operated by United (Lufthansa’s codeshare partner). When we arrived at the airport the Lufthansa counter wasn’t even open. We finally found out that we had to check in at the United counter. The configuration of the United plane was completely different than what Lufthansa had displayed on their website. So much for our carefully selected seats.
Las Vegas: When clients ask for help with planning a Las Vegas vacation and fondly mention enjoying cheap buffets I know that they haven’t been there in quite some time. Las Vegas has become one of the world’s top foodie destinations. Celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay, Wolfgang Puck, and Giada de Laurentis all have fine dining restaurants on the Strip – and they are far from cheap. A meal at Joel Robuchon’s L’atelier can set you back several paychecks. So much for the $2.99 buffets.
Cruises: Years ago cruises were mostly frequented by the very affluent or people of an advanced age. In recent years the cruise industry has been completely revamped. Now there are cruises for every age group and income level. Ships range in size from small river cruise vessels to large ocean-going ships. Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas is the largest cruise ship ever constructed. With a gross tonnage of 225,000 tons, she carries more than 5000 passengers and boasts an Oceanside Aqua Theater, 2 surf simulators, a 3D movie theater, zip line, designer shopping, Broadway hit musicals and much more. There is something onboard for everyone.
Before your travel, be sure to check the website of your carrier and be sure to read all of the fine print on your travel documents.
Best of all, work with a travel professional. We study the industry daily and can keep you informed of changes as they happen.
Coffee, Tea or Fee?
As a longtime traveler I have enjoyed traveling the world for many years. As a longtime travel professional I have seen many changes in the industry - especially with regard to air travel. Long gone are the days when air travelers could enjoy a pleasant in-flight experience at a fair price. The airline industry has become completely fee-driven, and it has worked very well for them, adding billions of dollars to their profits. In 2013 alone $23.7 billion in a la carte fees for food, beverages, baggage, seat preferences and more. However, this windfall for the airlines has taken a real bite out of consumers' budgets. Most of the services that used to be included in the price of a ticket now come with an additional fee.
- If a change is made to a reservation, there can bee a fee in excess of $150
- If there is a passenger name change, there is a fee - even to correct a misspelling.
- If you book the reservation over the telephone there is a booking fee.
- If you want to select a particular seat, there can be a fee. Even with an Economy class ticket, some airlines charge a fee to sit in a particular seat in that section.
- On domestic flights there can be a fee for the in-flight meal. I have a real problem with paying for food that is barely edible.
- Baggage fees top the list, ranging from $25-$100 per bag. And if the bag exceeds the weight allowance, expect to pay an additional fees. So be sure to check your airline's baggage fee schedule before you fly.
- Depending on the airline, fees can also be assessed for carry-on bags, WI-FI, headsets, extra legroom, early boarding and printed boarding passes.
Why do they get away with this highway robbery? Because they can! And with the recent airline mergers, it doesn't appear that this will change anytime soon. So when planning airline travel, be sure to count the cost very carefully. Buyer, beware.
Changing of the Guard
Since this was our first trip to London, the Changing of the Guard was on our list of must-sees. We had seen it on televsion, and really looked forward to witnessing it in person. We wondered if the pageantry would be as exciting as we'd heard. It definitely was.
We were there in April on a beautiful spring day and prior to the ceremony we enjoyed spending time in the lush greenery of St. James Park.
The ceremony began with the arrival of the horse guard who marched from St. James Palace to Buckingham Palace followed by a marching band. We were impressed by the beauty of the horses, the precision of the guardsmen and the musicianship of the band. It was a very well-staged production. The impeccable red uniforms and bearskin hats are quite impressive. Although the sun was quite warm, they managed to maintain a cool demeanor. The formations and military precision really stood out; there was never a break in formation or character from any of the soldiers.
We had heard about the large crowds who come to see this spectacle daily, but there were even more people than we had imagined. There were literally thousands of people from all over the world. So one would have to arrive very early in the morning to secure a spot at the gates to view the change up close. So even though we were a distance away, we still managed to take some good photographs.
Spectators should wear comfortable walking shoes and be prepared to stand for long periods of time. There are public restrooms in St. James Park. There are paths in the park that run parallel to the street that leads to Buckingham Palace and offer an alternate route to get near the palace. They also allow you to avoid some of the dust along the walking paths on the mall.
It is definitely British pageantry at its finest
Flight or Fright?
Do you remember when rock was young? Do you remember when airline travel was fun? Neither do I. As I write this blog I am crunched up in the coach section of a B767-300ER plane on a 10-hour flight from Istanbul to New York, trying to make the best of a bad situation. Since I’m returning home from a fabulous luxury vacation I really can’t complain. So I’ll just share a few random thoughts about airline travel in the 21st century.
If you’re a baby boomer you remember the good old days when air travel was a much different experience. Airplanes were spacious and comfortable and they even cleaned them between flights. Imagine that! These days, passengers are packed in like sardines and there is so little time between flights that when you sit down, the seat is still warm from the previous passenger. I shouldn’t give the airlines any ideas or they will start charging a fee for “pre-warmed seats”. Nowadays there are additional fees for practically everything. The Department of Transportation reported that in 2010 one airline made $952 million in baggage fee revenue; almost twice its 2009 take of $481 million. So now, in attempt to avoid paying those fees, everyone tries to cram as much as possible into their carry-on luggage. I was almost hit on the head by a lady who was attempting to hoist her carry-on bag into the overhead bin. Although it was the allowable size, it clearly weighed as much as a Volkswagen Beetle.
The flight attendants of yesteryear were quite glamorous; impeccably coifed and dressed to the nines in their tailored uniforms. Some of them still are – others not so much. But I can’t really blame them. Those ladies and gents perform nearly impossible feats in very confined spaces. Their job requires them to have the flexibility of gymnasts and the strength of sumo wrestlers. Today’s flight attendant uniform should probably include a hardhat, weight belt and steel-toed boots.
The crew on this flight has passed down the aisles several times, offering what they refer to as “food”. I’m not sure what it was, but it was reminiscent of what high school students who to eat in the cafeteria call “mystery meat”. Today’s offerings included “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Chicken” and “Pseudo Pasta”. The snack was “Something Like Pizza”…. I did not partake. At least the beverages were plentiful – lukewarm, but plentiful. I wont’ even elaborate on what I’ve read about the questionable quality of the ice cubes and drinking water. Besides, the more you drink, the more you need to frequent the restrooms, which are tiny and usually “occupado”.
Experts issue warnings about the dangers of what sitting too long does to leg circulation. They advise us to get up and move around every hour or so. Move around, are they kidding? Obviously those experts have not been on a plane lately. There is no room for line dancing or the electric slide. And for those of us who are on the “hippy” side, sashaying down the aisle is not an option either.
I don’t mean to sound so cynical, but it’s hour 9 of this 10-hour sojourn and I’m getting a little stir crazy. I’m actually very thankful for the aviation experts and all that they do to keep us safe while we’re flying the friendly skies. There is a safety information brochure in the seat pocket of each seat that provides detailed instructions on what to do in the event of an emergency. I sincerely hope that I’ll never be faced with an emergency situation, because knowing that my seat cushion can be used for a flotation device is not very reassuring. The fact that the light on the life vest will come on automatically when I hit the water doesn’t provide much comfort either.
The captain has begun the descent so I guess I should wrap this up. I am about to be amazed by another phenomena that occurs at the end of every flight. As soon as the plane touches down everyone in coach will stand up immediately – even though the doors are not open yet. Now here’s the deal; we will exit the plane from front to back. So for those seated in rows 25-35 I’d like to say, “Sit down! It’s going to be a while.” Besides, standing in the aisles only increases your risk of suffering a concussion from one of those 2 ton pieces of carry-on luggage.
Even though I may sound cynical I’ll still continue to fly. For traveling long distances it’s the fastest way to go. So as I prepare to deplane I ask myself, “Was it flight or fright”?” The truth is, it was a little bit of both.
Adrienne in Wonderland
On a brisk December afternoon while cruising Las Vegas Boulevard we were drawn to a new establishment in the City Center. Although we are very familiar with most of the Strip hotels, this one was unlike any other that we had visited.We were immediately surrounded by sights that amazed and astounded us. There were bright colors….LED screens that projected bubbles and moving geometric patterns…futuristic furniture. We felt like we’d stepped through the looking glass with Alice. Suddenly I was surrounded by a pack of giant stone dogs. In my effort to escape, I ran smack into an 8-foot patent leather shoe! Things just kept getting “curiouser and curiouser”.We wandered down a hall and came upon a standstone oasis with mystifying sand sculptures and an enchanting moonlight canopy of stars overhead.
In an effort to find some normalcy, we headed back toward the center of the hotel. But even there we encountered an unexpected sight. We craned our necks, along with other visitors to see what turned out to be a 3 story Swarovski crystal chandelier. Wow!
Where were we? We were at the Cosmopolitan, the newest addition to the City Center complex. Unlike any of the other major resort casinos on the Strip it does not boast a central theme. It is a completely unique experience. The artwork and design elements reflect their commitment to whimsy and creativity. The hotel has a modern, urban vibe with multi-story windows that allow lots of natural light, which is not commonplace in most of the Strip properties.
We were treated to a guided tour where we were able view each of the room and suite types that include a Terrace Studio, Terrace Suites and even a Lanai Suite. Each was well appointed, beautifully furnished and many offered panoramic views. Our favorite was the Wraparound Terrace Suite that featured a 480 square foot private terrace, a modern kitchenette with microwave and refrigerator and even a washer/dryer. Talk about a home away from home.
That sandstone oasis was actually the Sahra Spa & Hammam, a full-service spa with a reimagined steam room, heated hammam, personal rejuvenation suite and holistic body treatments.
In recent years Las Vegas has been touted as a “foodie’s paradise”. The Cosmopolitan excels in this area as well, with a restaurant collection like no other on the Strip. China Poblano showcases Chef Jose Andres’ personal take on Chinese and Mexican cuisines. Noodles and tacos come together in a festive, stylish setting. Scarpetta offers modern Italian fare. Holstein’s is an exciting new burger concept with an emphasis on fresh, natural and organic ingredients. The signature burger is the Gold Standard Burger, a dry aged beef burger, smoked bacon, aged goat cheddar cheese, tomato confit, arugula and garlic-chive aioli. I thoroughly enjoyed a turkey burger complete with dressing and cranberry sauce. There are creative appetizers like street tacos made with shredded duck confit, foie gras and truffle crema with cranberry relish. If we’d had room for dessert we would definitely have tried the Lollipops in lemon meringue, red velvet cake, brownie, blondie or strawberry cheesecake.
True to Las Vegas style, the Cosmopolitan has a buffet. But true to the Cosmopolitan style, the “Wicked Spoon Buffet” is a unique culinary experience. It blends familiar staples with imaginative dishes. The entrees are presented in single-serving portions. Of course diners can take as many as they like, but the small servings make it easier to sample many dishes without wading through mountains of food. The food was so unique that we had to eat there twice during our stay to make sure that it was as good as we thought – it was.
We gorged ourselves on dishes like ricotta cream spinach with whipped ricotta and a parmesan panko crust and mac and cheese with smoked ham hock and fontina cheese. The meat carving stations were a carnivore’s delight.
An indescribable selection of desserts included fresh seasonal berries, house-made gelatos and sorbets, specialty candies made in-house and of course staples like crème brulee, tiramisu, and other petit fours.
The nightclub scene is unique The spectacular Marquee Nightclub opened to rave reviews on New Year’s Eve 2010 with a performance by Jay-Z. The venue is more than 62,000 square feet with 50-foot-tall ceilings and an unparalleled multi-million-dollar sound stage that has to be seen to be believed. It draws a non-stop celebrity clientele. In the warmer months, the Marquee Dayclub is a daytime entertainment choice complete with three-story Bungalow Lofts, a cabana, living quarters and a party deck on top, with lots of eye candy to enjoy.
That 3-story crystal chandelier that we saw in the hotel centrum has been described as a ‘living, breathing architectural wonder created by luminous beaded curtains of light.” There are lounges on each of the three levels that allow patrons to enjoy a libation along with the artistry of the Chandelier.
Of course there is shopping. The Cosmopolitan has the most eclectic collection of shops on the Strip with stores like Stitched, Jason of Beverly Hills and even the CRSVR Sneaker Boutique that specializes in limited edition sneakers and men’s and women’s casually dressed up fashion.
As we took in all that the Cosmopolitan has to offer, we realized that this was not a dream. This is just the latest example of how Las Vegas continues to evolve. We were once told by a savvy cab driver that one needs to visit the Vegas at least once every 4 months just to keep up with the evolution of the city. So it wasn’t Alice in Wonderland, it was Adrienne in Wonderland and I’m sure I’ll find the Mad Hatter the next time I step through that looking glass.
Recently our insatiable thirst for travel led us to Los Angeles, California, commonly referred to as L.A. As our plane approached LAX, we were greeted by one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks, the Hollywood sign. After landing we proceeded to find ground transportation that would take us to our hotel. Unbeknownst to us it would take an additional 30 minutes to get out of the airport because our shuttle driver was determined to get maximum capacity in the van . Needless to say, it was a cozy ride. It was a beautiful spring day and the skies were surprisingly smog-free. So we enjoyed a mini-tour of the city while en route to our downtown hotel. Upon our arrival at the Westin Bonaventure we were warmly greeted by the hotel staff, who were very professional and provided excellent customer service. Our room was located on the 36th floor of the Green Tower and featured a view of the aforementioned Hollywood sign.
After checking in, we dropped our bags and took a taxi down to L.A. Live, one of the city’s most exciting attractions. It has been described as a one of a kind entertainment campus and a world-class sports and entertainment destination. It is comprised of apartments, ballrooms, concert theaters, movie theaters and wonderful restaurants.
Although it is always an exciting place to be, the excitement was heightened by the fact that it was March 17th, so St. Patrick’s Day celebrations were happening throughout the complex. It was a festive atmosphere filled with live music, dancing and lots of beer. This area’s color scheme is normally dominated by purple and gold, the colors of the world champion Los Angeles Lakers. But due to St. Patrick’s Day, green seemed to be the dominant color. It didn’t take us long to find out that green is always a dominant color in L.A., because it takes a lot of “green” to take advantage of all that the area has to offer. Los Angeles can be an expensive vacation destination.
Like many other cities, L.A. offers a plethora of dining choices, from street food to fine dining. One restaurant that we really enjoyed was Yang Chow, and judging by the celebrity photos on the walls and the long line out the door, it is an area favorite for many. The portions were quite large and we highly recommend the slippery shrimp. We look forward to dining there again.
Although we were only in town for three days, we managed to see a lot of the area. We spent a great afternoon on Venice Beach enjoying its eclectic vibe. There were street performers, artists, musicians, dancers and of course the beautiful coastline. From there, one of our good friends took us on a whirlwind tour where we cruised Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood Boulevard, and the Melrose District.
Later that night we returned to L.A. Live where we attended a party at the Grammy Museum. It was sponsored by the L.A. Times Travel and Adventure show and guests included Samantha Brown, Rick Steeves and other travel celebrities. We’ve all heard the much-used phrase, “Party like a rock star”, but that night, we really did. The party was catered by Wolfgang Puck and it was open bar. Needless to say, a good time was had by all.
On our last day in town, we took time to enjoy a leisurely brunch at the hotel. As we dined, we began to notice some unusual sights. We saw a number of people entering the lobby and they all had several things in common. They each were dressed in athletic attire, they were moving slowly with great difficulty and appeared to be in a great deal of pain. After about 10 of these individuals crossed our path, it donned on us that they had been participants in the L.A. Marathon. Earlier that morning we had watched the beginning of the race on television and we’d even seen the male and female winners at the end. So we had seen the thrill of victory. Now, 6 hours later, we were witnessing the agony of defeat. What a sight….
Would we go to Los Angeles again? You’d better believe it. L.A. is LIVE!
A Berkeley Afternoon
On Saturday afternoon we ventured to Berkeley, CA to attend a Meetup with some fellow travelers. The group consisted of people who had traveled widely throughout the world. The conversation was lively, filled with travel tales that only a true traveler could appreciate.
After the meeting we decided to take advantage of the rich culture that Berkeley has to offer. Berkeley is strongly associated with the rapid social changes, civic unrest and political upheaval that took place in the late 1960’s. Berkeley was a focal point for the hippie movement that started across the Bay in San Francisco. Remnants of that era are still very evident. We witnessed it firsthand yesterday. Some people are still living the 60’s lifestyle and even wearing the same fashions. That element mixed with the present social climate makes Berkeley an enticing cocktail. Since it is a college town, the energy and open-mindedness is evident everywhere. The streets are filled with a kaleidoscope of humanity; intellectuals, humanitarians, vegans, political activists, environmentalists and so on. There is an air of freedom and acceptance to be who you are without being judged.
Another aspect that makes Berkeley unique is its dining scene. It is the home of Chez Panisse a restaurant known for using local, organic foods and credited as the inspiration for the style of cooking known as California cuisine. There are too many restaurants to name, but some of our favorites are Bake Sale Betty’s and Café Gratitude. It was refreshing to notice the absence of chain restaurants and fast food establishments.
It was obvious that the Berkeley mindset is one of authenticity and commitment to the preservation of the planet. To experience this, add Berkeley to your list of places to visit. Once again, you’ve got to GO there to KNOW there.
Will Berkeley be added to our list of frequent getaways? Most definitely. As we used to say in the 60’s, “power to the people!”.
A San Francisco Getaway
Saturday afternoon found us driving into San Francisco, one of our favorite cities. No matter how many times we cross the Bay Bridge, the city skyline never ceases to energize us. It is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. As we entered the city we were once again spellbound by the magic that is San Francisco. It offers beautiful architecture, shopping, dining, cultural activities and the seemingly endless number of sights to be found around every corner.
We had ventured into the city to attend two major events, the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition at Fort Mason Center and the Chinese New Year’s Parade at Union Square. For a short itinerary, we had no time to waste. Our hotel of choice for this weekend was the Handlery on Union Square, which allowed us to be only steps away from the parade route. We could see that Union Square had already been transformed into a VIP viewing section complete with bleachers and television reporting locations. The very atmosphere was electric in anticipation of the evening’s events. After all, this parade has a 150-year history and is the largest Chinese New Year’s parade outside of China.
After checking into our hotel and grabbing a quick lunch of minestrone soup and an organic hand-ground chicken sandwich we hopped into a cab and headed to our first event at Fort Mason. The San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition features more than 300 wineries, all medal winners who bring their offerings to the Festival Pavilion to pour for more than 5,000 people. Very few events deliver this much wine in a single setting. In spite of the cold rainy weather, the event was well attended by a very jovial crowd who was quite hesitant to depart at the end of the afternoon. Finding a cab to take us back to Union Square proved to be challenging. After waiting 35 minutes for a cab, we decided to start negotiating with a limo driver. A deal was struck and we were off – on the ride of our life. Our driver handled the limo like he had the pole position in the Indy 500. We knew that he was in a hurry to deliver us and come back for more passengers. His concern was profit – ours was survival. After a wild ride across the city (and I do mean wild), we paid the driver, kissed the ground and counted our blessings.
Back at the hotel we noticed that the crowds were already gathering to enjoy the Chinese New Year’s parade. So we donned warmer clothing and went out to join the reportedly 800,000 spectators who had come to celebrate the Year of the Hare. The parade was a pageant, a sensory feast of beautiful colors, exquisite costumes, live music, martial arts demonstrations and larger-than-life floats.
Sunday morning found us at one of our favorite people watching spots, the window seat near the entrance of the Starbucks at the corner of Powell and O’Farrell. While sipping our tea, we were entertained by a kaleidoscope of humanity in every possible shape and size (and hair color). In a matter of a few minutes we saw people representing all walks of life and we were reminded of the joy of being alive and part of life in a vibrant city.
There is absolutely no place like San Francisco, the city by the bay. Once again we were spellbound by it’s magic and can’t wait to visit again.
A Very Vegas Christmas
Spending the holidays in Las Vegas has been our tradition for several years. On Christmas morning we boarded the flight for our annual holiday getaway. The airport was electric with the excitement of holiday travelers. The other passengers on the flight were also energized with the anticipation of what Las Vegas had to offer during this special time of the year. The flight seemed to only take minutes and in no time we were whizzing up the Strip, passing fabulous resorts like Mandalay Bay, MGM, Paris and the Bellagio.
Our first stop was the newly opened Cosmopolitan, the latest addition to the City Center complex and Las Vegas’ newest property. It is a 2995 –room casino resort that features dining venues, retailers, 3 unique pools nightclubs, a departure from nightclubs into “day club” experiences, the Sahara Spa and Hammam, and a 3-story Swarovski chandelier that defies description.
We were anxious to see how it measured up to other luxury Strip properties. The valet and bell staff warmly welcomed us where we received “red carpet” treatment. We found the décor modern and eclectic with an urban vibe. We had arranged a private tour so that we could compare the room types. All of the rooms were spacious and well appointed with spectacular views from the balconies; many overlooking the dancing fountains of the Bellagio Hotel. We were eager to see what the dining choices were and found that there were 13 restaurants to choose from, including China Poblano, and the Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar and Grill. At the recommendation of the concierge, we decided to try the Wicked Spoon Buffet. Las Vegas has a long history of lavish buffets, dating back to the El Rancho Vegas that opened in 1941. Since we have dined at all of the major Vegas buffets, we wanted to see how the Wicked Spoon Buffet would set itself apart. It did not disappoint. We would definitely give it 4 stars. The food was delicious, well prepared and beautifully presented. It was an excellent value for the price. Although the property is quite new, it was obvious to us that this great resort will quickly establish a client base. We would highly recommend it.
Upon leaving the Cosmopolitan we checked into our favorite hotel, The Palazzo. The lobby was resplendent with elaborate holiday decorations and the excitement of our fellow-guests was palpable. The hotel was filled with guests of all ages from numerous countries. Our suite on the 42nd floor had a sweeping view of the Strip. Once we settled in we began to make dinner plans. The Palazzo offers a plethora of dining experiences including Mario Batali’s Carnevino, Wolfgang Puck’s CUT and Dal Toro Ristorante. Our choice for the evening was Zine Noodles Dim Sum, which was voted one of the top 10 Chinese Restaurants in the U.S. The delicious food and beautiful décor combined to provide a feast for the senses.
The next day we spent several lingering hours at the Qua Roman Baths and Spa at Caesar’s Palace. What a luxurious experience and a perfect way to rejuvenate. Our restaurant of choice for the evening was Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio, located on St. Mark’s Square in the Venetian. As always the food was delicious and the service was exceptional. We highly recommend the Chicken Picatta. St. Mark’s Square is a very pleasant place to stroll, shop, listen to music or just enjoy some gelato. The Venetian features gondola rides, complete with singing gondoliers much like what we have experienced in Venice.
Once again our holiday getaway to Las Vegas was a winner. If you are looking a unique way to spend the holidays, consider Las Vegas.
4 Days in Paradise
Lots has been said about Jamaica and all that it has to offer: beautiful landscapes, rushing waterfalls, fresh seafood, spectacular beaches, breathtaking sunsets, delicious cuisine, warm hospitable people, Blue Mountain coffee, and of course Appleton Rum.
On our recent visit to the island we found all of these things and more. We stayed at the Riu, an all-inclusive resort in Montego Bay. Upon arrival in the lobby we were greeted by hotel staff offering an assortment of rum punches and other refreshments. Along with the refreshments we enjoyed a colorful performance by the resort entertainers. After check-in we proceeded to our suite, which blew us away. It was expansive and beautifully decorated with a huge Jacuzzi tub and an awesome beach view. We were so impressed that we immediately made a video to capture its beauty. Then it was time for lunch.
The resort has 4 restaurants, each with a different theme, all exquisite. Our first meal was at the Steakhouse, an open-air buffet, right on the beach. The food choices were plentiful and delicious. The team of master chefs put together a plethora of foods including Jamaican dishes.
Later the view from our balcony, facing the ocean was a perfect place to experience one of the most beautiful sunsets imaginable. After watching the sun melt into Montego Bay, we decided to attend the evening beach party. Approximately 200 people were in attendance at this food and beverage extravaganza. The atmosphere was festive and everyone was in a party mood. Even the sand fleas and mosquitoes came to dine – little did we know that we were their cuisine of choice. The entertainment was outstanding. The dancers arrived by boat carrying flaming torches and proceeded to perform a dance that paid tribute to Jamaica’s Taino and African history. Our video of the dance can be viewed at http://bit.ly/aXGXhP.
The Riu is a perfect family vacation destination that offers activities for all ages including snorkeling, water sports, and great excursions to other parts of the island. One of the excursions we really enjoyed was the Chukka Cove Zipline Adventure where we saw some of the most beautiful vegetation on the island. The adventure began with a rugged 30- minute bus ride up into the mountains. At the top of the mountain a team of expert guides outfitted us with helmets, pulleys and harnesses. After a safety briefing we were led down a trail through the rainforest that consisted of 376 steps. We knew then that this adventure was not for the faint of heart, but it was too late to “tap out”. Eventually we arrived at the first of 10 launch platforms – and the adventure began. One by one we descended from launch pad to launch pad, along zip lines that ranged in length from 300-600 feet.; but seemed more like a mile. We whizzed past trees and seemed to be only inches away from a major collision. There were times when we felt like Tarzan and Jane. What a great way to be reminded that you are alive!
Although we had enjoyed Jamaica before, this experience was entirely new and even more enjoyable; perhaps because we were seeing it with “second time” eyes. Other than the sand fleas that insisted on feasting on us, it was a perfect trip. Even those little hungry critters can’t keep us from returning to this Jamaican paradise.
4 Hours in Paris
4 hours in a city like Paris could never be enough, but on a recent trip to Europe, that’s all we had. We were on a Royal Caribbean cruise and our ship docked in Le Havre so it took several hours of driving through the French countryside to reach Paris. But since the day in Paris was one of the reasons we chose this particular cruise, we were willing to endure it.
Our time in Paris began at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. It was a sunny April afternoon and the energy coming from the crowds of people was contagious. We knew from that moment that something special awaited us. Since we wanted to see as much of the city as possible, we chose to board one of the many open-air sightseeing buses, which were conveniently located at our starting point. The buses are equipped with headphones so that travelers can hear the recorded tour information in the language of their choice. Within minutes we were passing historic attractions; such sites as Notre Dame Cathedral, Louvre Museum, the Orsay Museum and of course the Arc de Triomphe. Scores of people were enjoying sailing up and down the Seine River. Although the city was filled with an abundance of people and cars, it did not feel overcrowded or frantic. The energy of the city was intoxicating. We were entranced by all of the delicious aromas emanating from the cafes and restaurants. We departed the bus at the Notre Dame stop and began to explore the city on foot. We ducked in and out of shops and restaurants experiencing as much as our limited time would allow. We even made a purchase at a department store; due to an unfortunate accident with our camcorder. But even that mishap did not dampen the excitement of our Paris holiday. Although though we speak very little French, we had no problems communicating. People were more than willing to give directions and answer the normal tourist questions. Everyone we met was quite friendly.
In 2009 and 2010 Paris has been ranked among the 3 most important and influential cities in the world according to a research published by Financial Times and it was easy to see why. In addition to the amazing architecture we were very impressed with the cleanliness of that area of the city. We were also impressed by the diversity of the tourists and citizens that we met.
Paris is the most popular tourist destination in the world. The Paris region receives 45 million tourists each year, 27 million of whom are foreign visitors and in April we were 2 of that 27 million.
Our brief visit was the ultimate hors d’oeuvre and we are already planning our return trip so that we can savor the main course. Regardless of what you’ve heard or read about Paris before you can form an accurate opinion, you need to experience it for yourself. If you have a bucket list, Paris should be at the top.
Like we always say, “You’ve got to GO there to KNOW there!”
Tips for the Wise Travel Consumer
Handling the countless tiny details of travel planning can sometimes feel like torture by 1,000 small cuts. Despite the glut of Web sites that offer endless flexibility and options for booking your own travel, somehow the whole process seems more grueling than ever. If you can find a good travel agent, the hassle of searching for and purchasing airline tickets can be offloaded entirely for fees starting around $35. A good travel agent can quickly filter out all the stuff you don't want and drill down to see things you can't see, such as seating charts, to find you the right flight at the right price with the right seats.
Especially when traveling as a family or with a group, when getting seats together can be critical to a sane and safe trip, you can save yourself a lot of hassle and anxiety by having a pro put together a sensible and reliable flight itinerary.
While your agent is at it, you might have him or her look into rental cars, hotel rooms and more -- and, if the price is right, go ahead and book it. Researching and reserving these yourself usually requires visiting multiple Web sites and can take a few hours of your time, so having a travel agent book them for you can save you time ... and it may not cost you anything more in fees.
Memorable Meals of our Travels
Having a big Sunday dinner has long been a family tradition at our house. As we enjoyed today’s feast, our conversation turned to the many memorable meals that we’ve enjoyed throughout our travels. Here are a few we’d like to share:
- Barcelona Wrap – While strolling along Las Ramblas, we found that the food offerings were plentiful. One of the ways that we select a restaurant in a new city is by the size of the crowd. We were drawn to the Rajah, a Pakistani/Indian restaurant, a little walk-up spot with enticing aromas and a long line. We enjoyed the most delicious chicken wraps we’ve ever had and the numerous toppings and fixings made this eating experience unforgettable. Needless to say we visited it several times during our stay in Barcelona.
- Lunch in Positano– On a drive along the Italian Amalfi coast, we stopped to have lunch at a hotel in Positano. Our tour guide, Aldo had assured us that this would be a special meal – and he was right. It proved to be one of the best Italian meals we’d ever had. It was served in a beautiful dining room that had floor-to-ceiling windows that enabled us to have a breathtaking view of the Bay of Naples. There were several menu choices, but we selected the Chicken al Limone, prepared to perfection and topped with fresh capers, picked from a nearby hillside. It was complimented by spinach lasagna and a zucchini side dish that had to be tasted to be believed. The pies-de resistance was the dessert, a fresh- from –the- oven lemon cream cake, baked by the hotel owner’s mother, who came out to greet us and serve her delicious creation.
- Osteria del Circo is one of the fine dining restaurants at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. The décor is reminiscent of a European carnival tent, featuring views of Lake Bellagio with its periodic water-and-light extravaganza. The menu features upscale Tuscan fare, and the meal that we enjoyed reminded us of some that we have enjoyed while visiting the Tuscan region. It was more than an exquisite meal, it was an experience.
- It is common knowledge that Italy is famous for gelato. On a warm July afternoon, following a morning of sightseeing and shopping in Florence, we noticed a large crowd gathered outside a gelato shop. In need of refreshment, we ventured into the establishment. As we studied the colorful array of offerings, we made our selections. I chose the cantaloupe and the taste was so fresh it was like taking a bite out of a ripe juicy melon. It was the perfect treat for a hot day.
- During a recent Mediterranean cruise we stopped in to visit friends on the island of Santorini, Greece. While exchanging pleasantries, our friends produced a jug of homemade wine that was truly unforgettable.
- We had often heard about the beer in Belgium. So when we had the opportunity to visit Bruges in April we decided to find out for ourselves. We stopped at the Half Moon Brewery to sample their brews. Was it ever worth it! To say the least, it was the best beer we’ve ever had. Of course the chocolate, fries and waffles are also worthy of mention. We can’t wait to go back.
- New Orleans….where do we begin? Is there anything there that doesn’t taste good? We ate our way through the French Quarter. The first meal was blackened red fish, red potatoes, jambalaya and lobster bisque. Other dishes that really stood out were coconut shrimp, gumbo, red beans and rice, bread pudding, and of course the beignets.
- While visiting the Provence region in France, we enjoyed a wonderful afternoon in the university town, Aix en Provence. We strolled down the Cours Mirabeau, a wide tree-lined thoroughfare, bordered by fine houses formerly inhabited by French aristocrats and decorated by fountains. In keeping with our quest to taste foods from each region that we visit, what caught our eye was the crème caramel in the window of one of the charming pastry shops. What a great selection. It was exquisite.
- While enjoying a lovely afternoon on the island of Capri, the aromas emanating from a busy pizzeria caught our attention. We decided to try the pizza margherita that was recommended by one of the other customers. It was simple, fresh and delicious.
To see photos of more memorable meals from our travels, visit our photo album “Travel Bites” http://bit.ly/b1WmWP.
Our July 4th in Las Vegas
The morning of July 4th found us landing at the McCarran airport in Las Vegas. As soon as we arrived we could sense the energy of the city. Some things never change. Although we have visited Las Vegas dozens of times, we were drawn by its non-stop excitement and our knowledge that a Las Vegas vacation can be anything we want it to be. The acclaimed dining scene, golf courses, spas and shops have something for everyone. The attractions and entertainment options continue to get better. Headliners such Cher, Wayne Brady, and Barry Manilow are regulars on the Strip. Cirque du Soleil mounts shows in 5 different theaters. Other nightly acts include the Jersey Boys, Blue Man Group and magicians Lance Burton and Criss Angel. There are even Broadway shows like Phantom of the Opera and Lion King.
Las Vegas is also a family-friendly vacation destination. Hotels such as Circus, Circus and New York, New York offer arcades and theme park attractions. The Stratosphere features heart-stopping thrill rides high above the Strip like Sky Jump, X-Scream and Big Shot – not for the faint of heart.
Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll find in Las Vegas. With so many options, where does one begin? We began with a slow drive up the Strip, taking in the sights that had changed since our last visit. Most prominent was the new City Center complex that includes the Mandarin Oriental, Vdara and Aria hotels. We soon arrived at our hotel, the Palazzo. Although we had stayed at the Venetian Hotel several times, this was our first visit to the Palazzo. We were given a lovely suite on the 30th floor with a view of the Strip and 5 swimming pools. Since the Venetian and Palazzo are shared properties, guests have access to pools at both resorts. After settling in, we ate at the Grand Lux where our favorite brunch entree is their famous chicken and waffles.
Since it was July 4th, we had done prior research to find out the best places to watch fireworks. Little did we know that the view from our window would be the best place. We were able to see the complete 30-minute Caesar’s Palace show from the comfort of our suite; and it was spectacular. We could also see other shows across the valley.
The following morning we went over to Caesar’s to enjoy a few hours relaxing at our favorite spa, Qua (www.quabathsandspa.com) a one-of-a-kind experience. It has a fitness area, Roman baths, mineral pools, Laconium room and Arctic Ice room. After their workout Robert and Marcus watched a World Cup soccer match while relaxing in the gentleman’s lounge, sipping on specialty teas and organic juices. Adrienne also enjoyed the elixirs brewed by the in-house tea sommelier while reclining on a thermal stone deep relaxation chaise. What a great way to rejuvenate and gear up for a day of shopping.
We have taken advantage of the great shopping that Las Vegas has to offer for more than 2 decades. It offers everything from top designers to great outlets. We have found some of our best deals on the clearance racks of high-end boutiques. This trip was no different; the deals were plentiful.
With the triple-digit temperatures, we enjoyed our time at the pool. The water was refreshing and so was the environment.
One of the highlights of the trip was our visit to the buffet at the Wynn Hotel. The word “buffet” does not do justice to this dining experience. You have to witness it to really understand this level of culinary artistry. It is much more than taste; it engages all of the senses. It is an international gourmet dining experience.
We left Las Vegas feeling rejuvenated and satisfied. We got what we expected – and a little more. As our plane departed heading back to San Francisco, we began planning for our next trip – to Las Vegas.
La Coruna, Spain
La Coruna is the second largest city in Galicia in northwestern Spain, second only in size to the port of Vigo. The city is the capitol of A Coruna province. It was the Galician capitol from 1563-1982 before that role was moved to Santiago de Compostella. La Coruna is a busy port located on a promontory in the entrance of an estuary in a large gulf on the Atlantic Ocean. It provides a distribution point for agricultural goods from the region. The land was once occupied by Phoenicians, Romans, and Moors, but Galicia has its strongest ties to its Celtic past.
La Coruna is built on a narrow strip of land jutting out of the Atlantic Ocean. This strategic location is an excellent base for excursions to Santiago de Compostella, the third holiest sight in the Christian faith, next to Jerusalem and Rome. Legend has it that Saint James came to Spain to preach the new word of the Gospel shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. He later returned to Jerusalem and was beheaded by Herod Agrippa. Two of James’ disciples removed the corpse and brought it to Padron, 20 kilometers downstream from Santiago. Lost and forgotten for 750 years, a hermit who was directed by divine light to a field just outside present-day Santiago de Compostella, rediscovered the remains in AD 813. The story spread throughout Europe and a pilgrimage to Santiago began. At the height of its popularity, in the 11th and 12th centuries, the city was receiving over half a million pilgrims each year. Believing in the miraculous power of Saint James, it was thought the journey would guarantee a remission of half of one’s time in purgatory.
Despite the fact that La Coruna is an ancient city it does not have a wealth of historical and architectural monuments. The great event in the history of La Coruna occurred in 1588 when Philip II’s Invincible Armada sailed with a fleet to conquer England. Caught in a ferocious storm, most of the fleet was destroyed with only a few ships returning to Spain one month later. The spirit of Spain was badly shaken and to make matters worse, Sir Francis Drake and the English arrived one year later and devastated the town.
We sailed into La Coruna at 8:00 A.M. and the temperature was 68 degrees. Our prior research let us know that we could explore the city on our own, so we disembarked with map in hand. Our plan was to take a tour on one of the open-air tour buses that we had found in most cities. However, we soon found out that the buses only ran on the weekends and this was a Wednesday. So we stopped by the local tourist office to get more inside information. The Plaza de Maria Pita was a gateway into the old town section of the city where we visited numerous churches and even attended mass in one of the most beautiful Spanish churches we had ever visited. As we ventured further into the old town to get a sense the city we immediately noticed that the overall feel was medieval. There was an assortment of shops that featured contemporary attire for young and old alike. We noticed a plethora of restaurants that featured fresh seafood and cured hams. We visited several tapas bars that offered local specialties like mussels, crayfish, scallops and octopus. We also sampled the local wine such as Al Barino and beer, Estrella Galicia. Although the local people were quite friendly, we did not encounter the vying for our attention or tourist dollars that is so prevalent in other cities. It was easy to feel like a local. The weather, although warm, changed quite rapidly from sunny to rainy. Unfortunately we had left our umbrella aboard the ship and spent a fair amount of time huddling under shop awnings until we found an umbrella to purchase.
We found La Coruna to be interesting and charming. Does it have a lot to offer? Maybe for some, but our favorite Spanish cities are still Barcelona and Palma de Mallorca.
Our Visit to Vigo, Spain
Vigo, Spain was our first port of call on a recent European cruise. It was the beginning of a wonderful adventure and an unforgettable experience. Vigo is a busy, mid-sized port on the Atlantic coast, located just north of Portugal. It is Galacia’s largest and most industrialized city, dating back to Roman times. If you’re a beach lover, then Vigo is the place for you. You can soak up the rays at one of several sparkling beaches, including Samil, Alcabre and Canido. Or explore the ruins of Santa Maria de Dozo. There is something for everyone.
Through our prior research we had learned that a large part of Vigo could be explored on foot so that’s how we started our adventure. It was only a short walk from the pier where the ship docked to the downtown area. The weather was a comfortable 71 degrees, surprisingly warm for the month of April. The area around the dock was quite modern and a short uphill walk led us into the old town area. The architecture immediately transported us back to what Vigo must have been like several centuries ago. It was a mixture of old and new and we even went into a shop that sold urban clothing and happened to be playing a James Brown song on the CD player. Delicious aromas emanating from shops and restaurants permeated the air. Tourists and locals lined the streets at outdoor restaurants and tapas cafes. It was evident that seafood was quite prominent in the local cuisine and many shops displayed mussels, octopus and oysters who had been swimming only hours before. We found a charming little cafe to have lunch at in the old town square where we enjoyed watching a lady shucking oysters. She seemed to supply all of the local cafes as well as anyone who wanted to purchase them. It was only a short walk from the old part of the city to the modern downtown area where we found designer shops and restaurants that were frequented by local citizens and business professionals. Although Vigo is a big city, we found the pace to be surprisingly relaxing. People were friendly and we were greeted warmly everywhere we went.
After we finished our walking tour we decided to see more of the city by taking a bus tour on the Bus Turistico where were where treated to a 2 hour guided tour that visited various sites and monuments. The highlight for us was the Museo Quinones de Leon a beautiful museum housed on the grounds of a spectacular historic home surrounded by beautiful gardens. . For more information and a virtual tour visit the website http://www.museodevigo.org.
Having visited other Spanish cities like Barcelona and Palma de Mallorca, Vigo had a feel all its own. It wasn’t quite as busy as Barcelona, but it wasn’t as laid back as Mallorca. Although we felt quite welcome, in our opinion, tourism is not the primary industry. We were not subjected to the pressure to be separated from our tourist dollars (euros) that we have felt in other tourist towns. Would we recommend this port as a vacation destination? Yes, it is a lovely place to spend a laid-back vacation and enjoy some beautiful beaches and Spanish culture.
What Here2there Travel Can do for You
Many of our clients are realizing the value we bring to them on a very important purchase; their vacation. With that in mind, we would like to highlight a few of the benefits that Here2there Travel clients enjoy.
Customer Service: At Here2there Travel we provide unparalleled customer service. Research studies indicate that frustration with the online booking process is increasing and that consumers are actively seeking the services of a great travel consultant.
Time Saving: We have access to numerous travel resources that allow us to price-compare quickly and efficiently. We can book the perfect vacation for the best value in less than half the time it takes the average client to do it online. In a world where time is at a premium, this is a great value. We offer clear and concise pricing information.
Comprehensive Service: We provide more than just a transaction. We deliver a complete service experience, including research and planning, support during the vacation and post-trip follow-up. We are your advocates during the entire vacation process.
Concierge Service: With more than 30 years of personal travel experience, we have a plethora of first-hand product knowledge. We have a broad knowledge of destinations, airports, hotels, resorts and cruises. We also have personal relationships with hotel managers, chefs, jewelers, tour conductors and local merchants, domestic and abroad; all readily available to our clients.
Attention to Detail: We pay close attention to every detail. A vacation is made up of many moving parts that must mesh together to make the perfect experience. Flight itineraries, knowledge of hotel properties, seasonal considerations, local transportation, immunizations, visas, political climate and even wardrobe guidelines must be taken into account.
Client Needs: We make sure that all of our clients’ needs are addressed. These may include traveling with infants or small children, disability travel, dietary requirements, etc. We understand that vacations, unlike tangible consumer goods, are perhaps one of the more important purchases a consumer makes. They fulfill important needs, including the need to spend quality time with family, the need to relax and unwind, and the need to create lifelong memories.
Passion: We are passionate about travel and treat each client’s vacation as if it were our own. It is one of our goals to ensure that each vacation that we book is an unforgettable experience for our clients and that they have gotten the most of out their vacation investment.
San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition
On Saturday we attended the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition public tasting, the culmination of the largest competition of American wines in the world. The tasting was held at the Fort Mason Center Festival Pavillion. The stunning backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and the bay contributed to the ambience that made this a rare opportunity to sample the finest wines in the country. The estimated attendance was more than 6000, and with hundreds of wines to tasteIt was the ultimate tasting experience. Along with the excellent wines there was a plethora of gourmet delicacies provided by artisan food vendors.
Although we have attended many wine events, this one far surpassed anything that we've ever experienced. We found the atmosphere to be quite comfortable. Even with 6000 people in attendance it wasn't crowded, hectic or overwhelming. it had the feeling of a very large gathering of friends. There was a liveliness in the air that promoted a feeling of congeniality and friendliness. The diverse crowd was made up of connoisseurs, people with a true appreciation for fine wines.
We tasted wines that were truly amazing, and rightfully deserving of the awards they had won. Our favorites included a shiraz, several chardonnays and a very memorable gevurztraminer. Many of the wines came from family-owned vineyards so the passion exhibited by the winemakers was like that of proud parents.
Due to overwhelming public demand, admission to the public tasting is limited, and the event consistently sells out beforehand each year. Advanced purchase is encouraged and available at www.winejudging.com.
Hope to see you there next year!
Sausalito, a Hidden Jewel
A recent day trip across the Golden Gate Bridge found us in one of the most beautiful seaside towns in Northern California - Sausalito. The weather was beautiful and the bay was filled with sailboats and yachts. The laid-back atmosphere reminded us of our travels along the Amalfi Coast in Italy. It has the perfect balance of old-world charm and upscale shops. Most of the restaurants had outdoor seating, reminiscent of Italian cafes. The city boasts a plethora of art galleries. The breathtaking scenery makes it easy to see why a number of artists call it home. It is easily accessible by land or sea. Regular ferries run back and forth from San Francisco. If in the area, we highly recommend a trip to this special hidden jewel.
A Weekend On Union Square
San Francisco remains one of the world’s favorite cities and it is also one of ours. With so many choices of activities - from dining to entertainment to museums,and the list goes on – our biggest dilemma is where to start our adventure once we enter the city. Although we usually favor boutique hotels, a recent visit to the city found us at the Grand Hyatt on Stockton so that we could use Union Square as our launching pad. This outdoor plaza surrounded by trendy boutiques, hotels, street vendors and fine restaurants, makes for a great people-watching spot. The ice skating rink, a real treat for Californians, was filled with many skaters, from novice to expert level. The open-air tour buses passed quite frequently, as did the cable cars, filled with excited tourists from around the globe. It is possible to stand at any spot on the square and hear several languages being spoken, or engage in conversation with someone from another country.
Although the area is known for fine dining, it also a great area to “eat on the cheap”. There are even sidewalk hot dog vendors. On this trip we chose to focus on affordable dining and enjoyed a great lunch at Hubert Keller’s (of Fleur De Lys fame) Burger Bar on the sixth floor of Macy’s; hands down the best turkey burger we’ve ever eaten. The view of Union Square from its window is worth a visit in itself.
Shopping on Union Square is legendary, and it never hurts to look. And window shopping certainly never hurt anybody’s wallet. Choices abound and include Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Barney’s as well as designer shops like Prada, Gucci and Mont Blanc. All were still running exceptional after-Christmas sales so there were many great deals to be had. Service is one of the most enjoyable aspects of shopping there. At Neiman Marcus we were assisted by a delightful French lady named Josiane, who offered several recommendations for our upcoming trip to Paris.
San Francisco is an international city and the blending of many cultures makes its energy electrifying. We are fortunate to live in the area and will continue to be frequent visitors to our favorite city.
This month we will describe another destination that we visited on our Mediterranean cruise. Day 3 found us on the island of Mallorca, Spain, the largest of the Spanish Balearic Islands. The island coastline is marked by a series of small caves and beautiful beaches. It is approximately 50 miles wide and 60 miles long and boasts over 250 miles of coastline. Palma also offers everything you are likely to want from big city shopping to sightseeing and amusement. The island has been home of some famous people including George Sand, Frederick Chopin, Archduke Luis Salvador of Austria and most recently, Michael Douglas. In addition to the bustling tourist trade, farming is the chief occupation and the island grows vast amounts of almonds, olives, figs, citrus fruits and grapes for the production of local wines. We docked early in the morning and took a scenic drive along the north coast to the charming resort village of Valldemosa. The morning air was permeated with the aroma of coffee and freshly baked pastries. The outdoor cafes were filled with locals reading their morning newspapers while shopkeepers opened their doors to welcome the public. The pace of the town can best be described as laid back. Shopping opportunities were plentiful and included local wines and brandies, Spanish linens, artwork, and of course Mallorca pearls. Stores ranged from inexpensive souvenir shops to the "I wish I'd hit the lottery" designer boutiques. Valldemosa was a new experience for us and the atmosphere really captured our senses. It was a study in contrasts; a mixture of medieval structures dating from the 17th century to modern architecture. It is easy to see why it is one of Europe's favorite summer resort towns. We could envision ourselves spending several weeks there, exploring the various shops, restaurants and surrounding countryside. Is a return trip to Valldemosa in our plans? Most definitely! From Valldemosa we continued on to a 700 year old winery where we tasted the local vintages and toured the owner's private home that was decorated with beautiful antiques and rich tapestries. We ended the day at the port city of Palma, a metropolis bustling with upscale shopping and a beautiful yacht harbor.
Our latest San Francisco discovery is the Kensington
Park Hotel, one of the Personalit y Hotels; 5 boutique hotels located in the Union Square area - in the heart of the city. Each hotel has a unique look and feel - each designed with a different decor and atsmophere . The Kesington Park Hotel has an elegant aura, with rich woods and warm hues. The centerpiec e of the lobby is the grand piano. Tea and sherry are served there each afternoon. We were impressed by the hospitalit y and attention of the hotel staff. The hotel has a private feel - at times we felt like we were guests in an elegant private home.
The location is spectacula
r, close to the theater district, fine restaurant s and upscale shopping.
It is a great hotel for discrimina
Our recent holiday getaway to Las Vegas was as enjoyable as each of our annual trips to that city. Surprisingly, the crowds were good and it felt as if the old Vegas energy was returning. There was a holiday atmosphere in the air with lots of activity on the Strip.
We checked into our suite at the Vdara Hotel in the newly-opened City Center complex. We were eager to survey this new Las Vegas property. Having been frequent visitors to the Venetian, Encore and Wynn hotels, we wanted to see how Vdara stacked up. For our taste and expetations, it fell far short in several areas. The archtecture was modern and very beautiful, but nothing reminiscent of a Vegas expereince was present. There was no energy, no particular theme and crowds were sparse. It has been our experience that what draws people to Vegas is Vegas, and this property, in our opinion is not Vegas. We would not recommend Vdara or Aria to our clients who are seeking a typical Las Vegas experience.
We found ourselves spending most of our time outside of City Center. We enjoyed a wonderful show, "Hitsville" at Planet Hollywood. The shopping and Christmas decorations at Palazzo were quite lovely. The Wynn, as always was on top of their game. We enjoyed one of our favorite pastimes at Qua, the Roman baths and spa at Caesar's Palace. What a way to spend several hours relaxing and renewing.
A new area worth mentioning is Town Square, a beautiful upscale shopping plaza on the south end of the Strip, not far from Manadalay Bay. It boasts a theater, several restaurants and numerous shops.
It is obvious that the economy has had an effect on Las Vegas. But it still has an over-the-top energy that says anything is possible, even if only for one night.
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