All posts by Robert & Adrienne Lee

We are globetrotters who have been traveling the around the world for several decades. . Our travels have taken us to more than 22 countries. We have a passion for traveling the world and encouraging others to do the same. We believe that travel provides the best education and agree with Mark Twain's quote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

What Ever Happened to Travel Agents?

What ever happened to travel agents, do they still exist? Are they extinct? Absolutely not, they are alive and thriving. Like many other industries, the internet has affected the way that travel advisors work. Years ago trip planning always included visiting a travel agency, flipping through brochures and having an agent book the trip. Now much of the booking can be done online, so many travel agents have closed their brick-and-mortar offices and do most of their business remotely.

 

 

When would someone use the services of a travel agent? Some people say always, others say never. In truth, it’s not an always or never situation. It really depends on the type of trip you’re booking. A simple airline ticket, hotel room or even a cruise can be booked online with the click of a mouse. But if the itinerary is more complicated or you’re trying to coordinate group travel, a good travel advisor can save you time – and money. Here are some examples of when you can benefit from using a travel advisor:

– Trip planning: Some people know exactly when and where they want to go. Others have no clue. They may only know that they want to take their family to a warm destination sometime between June and August. A good travel agent uses a survey/interview process to help the client determine what will work best – and will offer several options. They partner with the client to custom design the vacation.

– In recent weeks we’ve seen an unprecedented amount of natural disasters that have resulted in flight/hotel cancellations, cruise ship re-routing and much more. Stranded travelers have had great difficulty getting through to airlines, or the online travel agencies (Expedia, Travelocity, etc) to make adjustments. Many have been kept on hold until their cell phone battery died; then they have to start all over again. Those who had travel agents just had to make one call to let them handle the issues from their office. Agents have access to inside personnel at hotels, cruise lines, etc. who can get much quicker resolutions. They are your best advocates.

– Specialty trips: Some trips are lengthy, more complicated and may have multiple destinations or multiple modes of transportation. A travel agent can ensure that all of the connections and fine details mesh.

 

– Group travel: Have you ever tried to coordinate a group trip or family reunion? It can be like herding cats. A travel agent can serve as the central point of contact and communicate itineraries, payment deadlines and so much more. They also handle all of the accounting – keeping track of who has paid, how much people still owe and what’s outstanding. When a group is small 5-10 people, it’s no problem. But when the group is large, 20 or more, it becomes much more difficult. Group members may be hesitant to give you their credit card information, so it’s much easier to use a trusted travel professional.

– Busy professionals: I’ve seen commercials for OTA (Online Travel Agencies) that will allow you to search hundreds of travel websites. In today’s fast-paced world, many people are too busy to search hundreds of travel websites. One call to a travel advisor can simply that process.

The travel landscape is constantly changing. There are daily changes to airline fees, hotel policies, TSA requirements and much more. People who only travel once or twice a year may not be aware of those changes. Travel agents study trends daily and can inform their clients about how the changes will affect them. When is a passport required? Which countries require visas? What regions require immunizations? This is information that a travel advisor can provide. Here are some examples of valuable information:

– Some American citizens don’t feel the need to get a passport since they don’t travel outside of the United States, but that is all going to change in 2018. Starting at the beginning of next year, residents in nine states will need to have passports in order to take any kind of flight, whether it is international or domestic. Those states are: Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Washington.

– Many countries require that your passport be valid for 6 months beyond your travel date. So even if your passport is still valid, but will expire in 3 or 4 months, you won’t make it through immigration.

– Travel agents can give advice about dress codes and what is acceptable. Some countries require women to cover their heads before entering a church or mosque. In others, showing too much skin is frowned upon – so no tank tops or shorts for men or women. I few months ago I visited the Monaco Casino and they do no allow running/tennis shoes or ripped jeans. I saw several people turned away.

I’ve heard people say, “I don’t use a travel agent, I just book online.” Newsflash, if you book on a website like Expedia, Travelocity or Hotwire, your using an online travel agent (OTA). Often they are in another country, working from home or a call center.

Aren’t travel agents expensive? No. Most of their services are free to clients, since they are paid commissions by the travel vendors (except for airlines, who do not pay commissions). Some agents might charge a service fee for complicated bookings, or airline bookings, but they’ll let you know that right up front. Here’s another newsflash – you pay fees even when you book online since those fees are built into the price. For example, if you ask your travel agent to book a hotel room for you, he/she may find a rate of $199 per night, and the commission will be paid out of that rate. But if you book the same hotel room through an OTA, or directly with the hotel the rate will be the same. You’ll still pay the commission – they just keep it instead of paying the travel agent. You won’t get any additional discount for booking directly.

The same thing happens with cruise bookings. You can book directly with the cruise line. But travel agents often have access to discounted rates and extra perks that the cruise lines don’t tell customers about.

So why not take advantage of the free services offered by the travel agent?

How do you select a travel agent? Are they all the same? No, all travel agents are not “created equal”. Unfortunately, it is a loosely regulated profession. So it is important to shop around and thoroughly vet an agent before trusting them with planning your vacation. Even if someone tells you that they are a “certified travel agent” that’s not enough. They may actually have extensive experience and knowledge – or they may have just paid $99 and taken an online class to get that “certification”.

Here are some guidelines:

  • Make sure they have a website.
  • Make sure they have a social media presence.
  • Get references from past clients, customer reviews, Yelp, etc.
  • Make sure that they actually travel – a good travel agent has real travel experience.
  • Find one that has knowledge about the destination(s) that you plan to visit and the type of travel that you want to do. For example, if you’re planning a destination wedding, a safari specialist won’t be of much help to you. If you want to cruise, make sure that they can give you information about several cruise lines, ships, etc.
  • Find someone with a broad range of travel expertise, in hotels, resorts, cruises and current trends.
  • Ask them what they specialize in. Although all travel agents have access selling all travel products, most tend to specialize in destinations or types of travel. You’ll get better service when dealing with someone who is a specialist in your desired destination.

Working with a travel advisor is not right for everyone – or for every trip. But working with the right one can be priceless.

 

 

Cruising 2.0

Have you been on a cruise lately? If so, you have experienced some of the great new innovations that have been introduced by the cruise lines. Of course cruising is not a new experience; it has been used for centuries to transport people and products. But the invention of the steam engine made the process much faster and the passenger ship industry began to flourish.

If you watched television in the 1970s you’ll remember a weekly series called “The Love Boat” that was set aboard a Princess Cruise ship. Each of the episodes included several story lines that revolved around the cast and crew. It provided an inside look at what vacationing onboard a cruise ship was like. It was also a great marketing tool for cruise lines.

Fast-forward to 2017 and you’ll find that cruising is no longer just a way to travel from point A to point B. The cruise game has changed completely. In the last 20 years cruise lines have continued to build bigger, more innovative ships – they have become floating cities! Onboard activities include IMAX theaters, zip lines, ice skating rinks, rock climbing walls, world-class spas, designer shops, waterslides and much more. Here are some examples:

In 2009 Royal Caribbean introduced the world’s largest cruise ships; the Oasis Class. They can carry more than 5000 passengers and 7 different neighborhoods, a 5-deck high Central Park with lush tropical gardens, a boardwalk with a full-size working carousel. Entertainment options are many and besides the usual casino and main showroom, guests can enjoy the comedy club, aqua theater, ice shows, and several nightclubs. Active cruisers can zip line, rock climb, ice skate or hit the waves on one of the FlowRider surf simulators. There is also plenty onboard for the little ones since Royal Caribbean has partnered with DreamWorks so you never know when you’ll run into someone like Shrek or Fiona.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carnival has expanded their fleet to include activities like an IMAX theater, an onboard waterpark and even flying bicycles!

On the newest ship, the Vista guests can enjoy SkyRide at SportSquare. It is a twin-track suspended bike course — strap in and race around for the win or just cruise for great views.

Celebrity offers modern luxury cruising and its newest ship, the Edge, is advertised as “a ship to leave the future behind”. It does exactly that with transformative spaces. As the sun sets, the groundbreaking spaces on Celebrity Edge transform to deliver completely new experiences. By day, outward-facing ocean views, ever-changing abstract artwork, and unexpected entertainment create a luxurious resort-style atmosphere. At night, ambient lighting, unique al fresco dining, and live music set the scene for energy, intimacy, and elegance.

Custom-built for the spectacular, the Norwegian Bliss will cruise Alaska and the Caribbean seasonally beginning Summer 2018. In addition to the aqua park you can also burn rubber on the largest racetrack at sea and then challenge your friends or family to some friendly competition on the Aqua Racer. Dare to whoosh over the side of the ship on Ocean Loops before dodging lasers during an exhilarating game of laser tag.

Bellissima is the newest flagship of the MSC cruise line. The two-deck inside promenade features a spectacular 260-foot-long LED dome, and is lined with places to shop, eat and drink. There are 20 bars and 10 restaurants to choose from, including specialty restaurants. For entertainment, you can enjoy 2 brand new Cirque du Soleil® shows designed especially for MSC Bellissima, and relax in the desert themed Water Park – an oasis for kids and families.

Princess, the original cruse line of the Love Boat continues to expand its fleet with its new Medallion class ships. Its latest ship, the Regal Princess will debut in November 2017. Enjoy sweeping views from one of more than 1,400 balconies on Regal Princess or stroll on the SeaWalk®, a glass-floor walkway extending 28 feet beyond the edge of the ship! From the tranquil Sanctuary, a retreat reserved for adults, to the dazzling Princess WaterColor Fantasy light and water show and more, there are diversions for every mood.

If you’re looking for an all-inclusive luxury cruise experience, look no farther than Crystal and choose from 3 different cruise types – ocean, yacht or river cruise. The award-winning Crystal Serenity has a contemporary style with a bright, modern décor. Guests can shop at chic boutiques or dine under the stars at Trident Grill, a light and airy courtyard beneath a retractable glass roof. Most striking is the lush greenery – variegated “living walls” and live olive trees under-planted with lavender.

If ocean cruising is not your thing, consider taking a river cruise. It’s a great way to experience the beauty and scenery along the world’s greatest rivers like the Danube, Rhine, Yangtze or Nile. Traveling by river, beyond the reach of roadways, you’ll discover the true nature of these fascinating lands and the people who call them home. You’ll travel with ease, unpacking just once and enjoying the ever-changing scenery along the banks as you are gently carried aboard an elegant, intimate ship to your next destination.

Disney fans that want a “magic included” cruise experience can find it on one of Disney’s world-class ships. There is something onboard for everyone with activities for children and adults-only areas as well. They even offer convenient Wave Phones that let you call and text your fellow passengers while you’re onboard or at Castaway Cay (their private island) so you can always keep in touch.

World Cruises – If time and money are no problem, consider taking a world cruise. Sail from Los Angeles to London (120 days), Sydney to Vancouver (Australia, Asia & Alaska, 79 days), or Athens to Hong Kong (50 days). If you haven’t made vacation plans for 2018, it’s not too late to book the Princess Cruises 2018 world cruise, sailing round-trip from Fort Lauderdale where you can spend 111 days visiting 5 continents and 28 countries. However, the ship only holds 672 passengers, so it’s very likely that it is already sold out.

As you can see, there are LOTS of different cruise experiences to choose from. Cruise ships have become floating resorts. There is so much to do onboard the larger ships, that it can be difficult to experience everything. We have taken transatlantic cruises on Royal Caribbean’s mega ships, the Oasis and the Allure of the Seas and even with 12 days on the ship, we didn’t manage to do or see everything.

 

 

 

 

 

ENJOYING THE MERRY-GO-ROUND ON THE ALLURE

It goes without saying that cruising is not everyone’s cup of tea – there is no “one-size-fits-all” vacation. But cruising comes pretty darn close. Here are some of the benefits:

There is something onboard for everyone. Whether you’re a party animal who wants to be in constant motion, or a loner who prefers “me time”, there are spaces and activities for you. Even the ships that carry 5000 passengers are so well designed that there are always private nooks and crannies.

Cruises are a great way for families to travel together. There are age-specific areas and activities for all ages, so it’s a great way to vacation with the kids and still enjoy some “grown folks” time too.

Cruising offers the best value for your vacation dollar. Although many are not all-inclusive (you have to pay for alcoholic drinks, sodas), it’s still a good value. The cruise fare includes unlimited dining (in dining room, buffet and snack areas), 24 hour room service, nightly shows (we’ve seen Grease, Hair Spray and Cats with actual Broadway casts), nightclubs (no cover charge), and of course transportation between ports. The total for those activities for a 7 day vacation would be much higher than a cruise fare.

Cruising also offers an element of safety. A solo traveler who might be hesitant to stroll around a big city after dark would be perfectly safe going to dinner, a show or nightclub on a ship.

Are all cruises wonderful? Absolutely not! It is important to choose the cruise line and itinerary that fits your travel style and budget. As you can see from the list of ships and activities they are all very different. The experience depends on the ship and the itinerary that you choose. I’m not a fan of old or small ships, so I don’t book cruises on them. It’s also important to book the right cabin. I’ve heard people say that the cabin doesn’t really matter since you don’t spend much time there. Maybe it doesn’t…..to them. For me the cabin is a very important part of my cruise experience. So I want to be as comfortable as possible. I’ve heard people say that they don’t want to be “cooped up” on a cruise ship. That can happen if you’re in an inside cabin with no windows or outside light. But a cabin with a balcony provides an entirely different experience. It’s the perfect place to enjoy the beauty of the ocean in complete privacy, and enjoy beautiful scenes like this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If your idea of a vacation is a nonstop pool party, I wouldn’t recommend taking a river cruise – they tend to draw a quieter, more elderly crowd (#no turn up). Or if you are a senior who prefers to vacation with people in your age group, a spring break Caribbean cruise would not be the best choice for you.

What’s the best way to decide? Talk to an experienced travel advisor who has cruised and is familiar with all of the cruise lines. They can help you make the best choice.

The cruise industry continues to innovate and re-invent the cruise experience.  It’s a great way to vacation and a great way to see the world.

 

Show Me What You’re Workin’ With!

According to Wikipedia, “The representation of African Americans in media has been a major concern in mainstream American culture.” It has also been a major concern of mine – especially when it comes to travel images. There are very few of us on the Travel Channel, in travel magazines or brochures. Although there are millions of us who do travel, somehow mainstream media manages not to show us. Why do you suppose that is? (Rhetorical question). I could list a number of reasons and I’m sure you could too. Suffice it to say that the media does not try very hard to present us in a positive light. The negative images like street fights, robberies and mug shots manage to appear on the front pages of newspapers and lead stories on the nightly news. But the positive images are few and far between. They struggled for 8 years when they were required to show the First Family – who always presented a positive image.

 

Ownership in the media drives what is being broadcast and we are significantly under-represented when it comes to ownership of media. Advertising also plays a big part and African Americans are also under-represented when it comes to being sponsors. Although there are predominately black areas all over the United States, we are less than 13% of the overall population. So our domination of the mainstream media is not likely to happen soon.

However, when it comes to travel, we do have the power to broadcast our own positive images. Social media outlets like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and blogs are perfect (and free) ways to do that. Most of us live with a cell phone clutched in our hand, or pocket, so it’s easy just to point and shoot.

BEYOND THE SELFIE – We’ve all mastered the art of taking a selfie, so many of the images that we post are just photos of us. That’s fine, we all do it. But how about also taking photos of the destination? We know what you look like, but we’d also like to see the scenery, historical sites, architecture, etc.

BEYOND THE STILL PHOTOGRAPH – Videos are powerful ways to allow viewers to actually experience the sights and sounds of a destination. Harness the power of YouTube to share your VLOGs with the world.

CAPTURE THOSE MEMORIES – My father was an amateur photographer, so he took his cameras everywhere we went. As children, we didn’t always appreciate his artistry and didn’t want to stand still long enough to pose. But now that Dad has passed on, we have a treasure trove of beautiful scenery (much of it in black and white) as well as a catalog of family memories. Your photos and videos also help to relive the joys of any trip. If you visit more than one destination in a trip, it’s sometimes difficult to keep them separate in your memory. Earlier this year we spent 9 days traveling around western Turkey….what a fabulous trip! Each day was more amazing than the last. Canakkale, Laodicea, Ephesus, Kusadasi……it’s hard to keep them straight in my memory. But the photos and videos that we took transport me right back to each amazing site.

AT THE LIBRARY IN EPHESUS

TRAVEL LEGACY – By recording your travel experiences with photos and videos, you’ll leave a legacy for your children and even grandchildren. My son loves looking at my old travel photos (even if he does laugh at me in Yosemite, with my afro and bell bottoms).

MY SIBLINGS AND I IN 1968

Too much of our history has been forgotten. We have had an impact on the history of the world, but since we didn’t write the history books, much of it was “omitted”.…..imagine that. I’ve traveled over much of southern Spain and learned about the many accomplishments of the Moors from North Africa. In Iberia (Spain and Portugal) they created a highly advanced civilization and culture, famous for its art, architecture and centers of learning.

Somehow those facts never appeared in the textbooks when I studied world history.

With our photos and videos, we have the power to shape the narrative and present facts about our travels. I watched a program on the Travel Channel just this morning about New Orleans. They visited several restaurants in the French Quarter and went up and down Bourbon Street – but somehow managed to show only 2 black people. What? Somehow they managed to shoot around them….and I’ve seen this happen on many of their programs in other locations. Coincidence? I think not. Mainstream media outlets have no intention of showing us traveling around the world. But they can’t stop us from sharing our own experiences. It’s exciting to see so many black travel social media groups sharing information and showcasing our travel exploits. They also spark very lively discussions. But at the end of the day, talk is cheap…..post those images.

SHOW ME WHAT YOU’RE WORKIN’ WITH!

 

 

 

 

 

10 Things to do in Barcelona

Barcelona is the largest metropolis on the Mediterranean Sea, and one of the world’s leading tourist, economic, and cultural centers. With a population of ~1.6 million people, it is an urban kaleidoscope of culture, entertainment, media, food, fashion and architecture. It also happens to be one of my favorite European cities. In the last 10 years I have visited it more than 6 times and each time have discovered something new to enjoy. As a cruise port, it is often visited by tourists. But whether you’re in town for a few hours or a few days, there is always plenty to see and do. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Spend some time on Las Ramblas               Las Ramblas is a tree-lined pedestrian mall that is popular with both tourists and locals. It stretches for ~1 mile and both sides of the street are lined with shops, restaurants, tapas bars, and hotels. It is a perfect place to stroll, see and be seen – or just sip a little sangria.

2. Shop Around La Boqueria

La Boqueria is one of Europe’s oldest markets. Since 1217 it has been used to sell meat, fish and many other goods. Although it is a major tourist attraction, it is also frequented by local residents. It’s easy to find since it’s located right on Las Ramblas.

There are so many choices – fresh fish, fruit, vegetables, juices, baked goods, meat (including some of the best ham in the world)that it’s difficult to know where to begin. You can even purchase tapas to eat onsite at one of the many food counters. Everything is artfully displayed, so it is as visually stimulating as it is delicious. Prices are quite reasonable, so it’s a perfect place to eat on the cheap.

  1. Take the hop-on-hop-off bus

One of my favorite ways to explore a city is by hop-on-hop-off bus and Barcelona offers two companies to choose from; Bus Turistic and City Sightseeing. Both have 3 different lines, so they are the perfect (and affordable) way to tour the entire city. They run frequently, so you can get off and spend as much time as you like in any location. It’s easy to purchase tickets online ahead of time, or just get them on the bus.

  1. Get lost in the Gothic Quarter

The Gothic Quarter is the center of the city of old Barcelona. Located near Las Ramblas, it is one of the most fascinating areas of the city. It was built primarily in the late 19th and early 20th century, but some buildings date back to medieval times. The area is filled with charming narrow streets and alleyways that open onto plazas. It’s a perfect place to wander around and enjoy the many shops, eateries and even churches. On a recent visit our hotel room looked out onto the Church of Santa Anna, a medieval church dating back to 1300.

 

 

  1. Eat a sandwich at Conesa

Barcelona is known for it’s delicious tapas and they can be found everywhere. But there are also other dining choices. I’ve had some scrumptious kebobs at several eateries all over the city. On my most recent visit I discovered Conesa, a sandwich shop in the Gothic Quarter. It’s a perfect place to enjoy a hot, tasty pannini.

 

  1. Take a day trip to Montserrat

Montserrat is a multi-peaked rocky range located not far from the city, in Catalonia, Spain, so it is a good option for day trip. It is well known as the site of the Benedictine abbey, Santa Maria de Montserrat. Located high on a hill, it is impressive, and views of the valley are spectacular.

  1. Tour wineries in the Penedes Wine Region

Located less than an hour from Barcelona, this is another great option for a day trip – especially for wine lovers. It is one of Spain’s best wine-producing regions, particularly known for it’s Cava production. We spent a day touring the Jean Leon and Torres wineries and the Freixenet Cava caves.

At each winery we were greeted by a knowledgeable guide and each tour ended with plentiful wine tasting and tapas.

  1. Eat tapas – lots of tapas

Tapas are snacks or appetizers that are enjoyed in the early evening. Since dinner is usually served between 9 and 11pm, Spaniards often go “bar hopping” in the hours between finishing work and having dinner. They can be served hot or cold and can include bread, meat, cheese, shellfish, olives, and other delicious fried delicacies. I must confess, that after visiting several tapas bars and enjoying a few sangrias, I’m usually too full to eat a large dinner.

 

  1. Check out the street performers on Las Ramblas

The street performers on Las Ramblas are some of the most imaginative that I have ever seen. Their costumes can range from cute, to kitschy to downright scary.

If you want to take a picture of or with them you’re expected to leave a tip. Each one is unique and puts on a good show.

10. Visit La Sagrada Familia

Barcelona is famous for it’s architecture, the city is full of beautiful and imaginative buildings. One of its most famous architects is Antoni Gaudi. One of his most famous buildings is La Sagrada Familia, a large Roman Catholic church. Construction began in 1882 and is still ongoing; with a projected completion date of 2026. It has been called the most extraordinary personal interpretation of Gothic architecture since the Middle Ages. It is both ancient and futuristic. In a word, it is AMAZING.

Since it is such a popular tourist destination, it is often crowded and lines can be very long. I definitely recommend purchasing a guided tour with skip-the-line access.

These are just a few of the attractions available in this vibrant city, with the cool urban vibe. Whether you choose to take tours around the city, or just sit in a plaza and relax, it is

In Wine Country

Jeff Gordon said, “As I get older, my appreciation for wine has just increased. I fell in love with wine through my travels, but knowing what the wine country is all about definitely makes it my own.”. Enjoying wine has always been part of my travels also and during my 30 years of globetrotting I have had the opportunity to visit some of the world’s finest wine regions.

NAPA GRAPEVINES IN JANUARY

Napa Valley, one of the world’s most famous wine regions, is only a short drive from my home, so I visit regularly.

LIVERMORE VALLEY VINEYARDS

Only a short drive from the San Francisco Bay Area is the Livermore Valley.  Although it i one of California’s lesser-known wine regions, it  offers a fine selection of world-class wineries.

SANTA CATARINA WINERY, PALMA DE MALLORCA

I absolutely adore Spanish wines, so during a trip to Palma de Mallorca we  we visited the north coast of the island and sipped vintages at a 500 year old winery.

YOUNG MALLORCA GRAPEVINES

TUSCANY

I’d always heard about the beautiful Tuscany region, so while visiting Florence we took a day trip from the city to check it out. The wines were delicious and I was amazed at how much the region reminded me of California valleys. I felt right at home.

TUSCAN VINEYARDS

FREIXENET CAVA CAVES

While spending time in Barcelona I ventured out to Penedes, Catalonia’s premiere wine region, where I visited several wineries, beginning with Freixenet. In addition to touring the underground caves, I sampled some excellent sparkling wines. If you’re a fan of bubbly, I definitely recommend touring their facility and tasting the cava.

JEAN LEON WINE BARRELS

During the day trip I also toured the Jean Leon winery where  I ventured underground to see where the wine was stored.

TORRES WINERY GRAPEVINES

At the Torres Winery I even had the chance to wander out into the vineyards.

TAPAS

Each winery offered a fine array of delicious tapas along with generous portions of their vintages. So by the end of the day we were full….and happy.

MAUI’S WINERY

I’ve always thought of Hawaii as a tropical paradise, but had no idea about wineries on the islands. While visiting the island of Maui we took the Road to Hana tour. One of the highlights of the tour was tasting at Maui’s Winery.

One of my travel goals is to eat my way around the world, and that also includes tasting the world’s finest wines. It’s a tough job, but well worth the effort.

Cheers!

 

 

Our Trip to Turkey

We just returned from a trip to Turkey and we can’t say enough about how much we enjoyed it. We’d visited Istanbul briefly during a pre-cruise stop in 2011 when we’d only had 3 hours to pay short visits to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. That whirlwind tour whetted our appetites and we knew we wanted to return to experience more of that vibrant city. Recently we had the chance to do just that.

I could use so many superlatives to describe the trip – awesome, incredible, wonderful, marvelous, memorable – but the word that came to mind most often was WOW and that was from the first day to the last. This “cultural baklava” offers layers of culture, history, delicious food, warm/friendly people. Here are a few the things that we recommend:

BLUE MOSQUE

The 400 year-old Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque), with its six minarets, is one of Istanbul’s most recognizable structures. Although we had been there before, we were again captivated by the beauty of the blue tiles and the lush red carpet. Even though it is a popular tourist site, it continues to function as a mosque today.

 HAGIA SOPHIA

Located very near the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia is another awe-inspiring must-see mosque. It was originally constructed as a church between 532 and 537 so it is also rich in history. As one of the greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture, the interior is decorated with beautiful mosaics, marble pillars and elegant chandeliers. It is currently under renovation, so large areas were obstructed by scaffolding, which took away from the majesty of the interior.

CRUISE THE BOSPHORUS

One of the highlights of our trip was taking a cruise on the Bosphorus, the beautiful waterway that divides Istanbul since it sits on two continents, Europe and Asia. It is one of the world’s most strategic waterways, connecting the Black sea to the Mediterranean. One of it’s most iconic sites is the Bosphorus Bridge, a beautiful suspension bridge that reminded us of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. It’s a busy waterway that offers several sightseeing options including ferries and dinner cruises. We chose to take a small yacht and spent several hours admiring the spectacular buildings, palaces and scenery.

WATCH THE SUN RISE OVER THE BOSPHORUS

In Istanbul we stayed at two different hotels and both had rooms facing the Bosphorus. Sitting on a balcony, sipping tea and listening for the call to prayer was a great way to begin a day.

VISIT A BAZAAR

No trip to Istanbul would be complete without spending time in the Grand Bazaar. Built nearly five centuries ago, with more than 4000 shops, it is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. Originally built to sell textiles the offerings have expanded to include a myriad of other goods including jewelry, hand-painted ceramics, carpets, embroideries, spices, antiques shops and many other Turkish delights. Visited by between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily, it is the ultimate shopping experience. Before entering I wondered how pushy the vendors would be. They were definitely insistent, but not overly aggressive.

We also spent time at the Spice Bazaar the second largest covered shopping complex after the Grand Bazaar. It has a total of 85 shops selling spices, tea, Turkish Delight and other sweets, but also jewelry, souvenirs, dried fruits and nuts. The sights, sounds and aromas are truly intoxicating. The spices we brought home have definitely enhanced the meals we cook.

EAT, EAT, EAT

Delicious, delectable, delightful, divine…these words only begin to describe how good the food is – all over Turkey. As a foodie, I made a point of sampling culinary delights all over the country; From Istanbul to Kusadasi to Canakkale, to Pumakkale. From fine dining, to street food everything we ate was fresh, well-prepared and delicious; much of it organic and locally sourced. Everywhere we went there were street food options – roasted chestnuts, roasted corn on the cob and my favorite was in Canakkale. We’d just finished seeing the Trojan Horse when we came across a cart that sold cups of roasted, buttery corn kernels. Hot, tasty and delicious.

On our last night in Istanbul we had the fine dining experience of a lifetime at the imperial palace section of the Çırağan Palace Kempinski., a 5 star hotel that is absolutely regal. It was built in 1863 by Ottoman Sultan Abdülaziz and it still reflects the ultimate luxury of a genuine Ottoman Palace. We dined at the elegant and award-winning Tuğra Restaurant, located on the first floor of the historic Palace, and had the ultimate Ottoman dining. Each delicious course, work of art, was presented with a descriptive introduction and all the pomp and circumstance befitting sultans and their guests. We dined like royalty.

Although one of my travel goals is to eat my way around the world, I may not be able to circle the globe without returning to Turkey.

VISIT A RUG FACTORY

Carpet weaving represents a traditional art, dating back to pre-Islamic times and some of the finest examples can be found in Turkey. So visiting the Sultanköy carpet gallery was a real treat. In addition to admiring the beautiful carpets we had the opportunity to learn about their production, including dyeing and weaving techniques. We’d visited a similar factory in Selçuk during our 2011 visit, so we knew what to expect. We also knew that we did not want to go home empty handed, so after an intense round of bargaining, a purchase was made.

DIG INTO THE HISTORICAL SITES

We expected to visit sites like the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Grand Bazaar – and all were amazing. But they were only the beginning. Each of the historical sites/ruins revealed layer upon layer of civilizations past, complete with massive theaters, towering columns and even latrines. It really felt like we were walking back in history. Since none of them were very crowded we were treated to what felt like private tours. That was definitely the case at Alexandria Troas, where the site was opened up just for us; talk about VIP treatment! My husband and I had visited Ephesus in 2011 (with throngs of other tourists), so we knew what to expect. But on this visit we could see how much more of the ancient city had been excavated.

Visiting the sites requires lots of walking – up to a mile or more – and a pretty high level of fitness since much of the terrain is uneven. The fact that many of the sites had added wooden walkways made it easier to get around.

MAKE A FURRY FRIEND

Everywhere we went there were LOTS of dogs and cats. In the city, in the countryside and even at the historical sites animals were everywhere! They were domesticated, healthy, well fed and quite friendly. Turkey is definitely a nice place for animal lovers.

FEAR FACTOR Like many countries around the globe, Turkey has been affected recently by several violent events. So some tourists have taken it off of their travel destination lists. Some of our friends and associates questioned our decision to visit. However, we found no reasons to be fearful and felt completely safe at all times. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a reckless traveler and would not venture into a dangerous situation. But we didn’t feel any more at risk than we’ve felt at home in the U.S. It is still high on our list of favorite destinations and we plan to return in the very near future.

 

Caesars Palace – a Hotel Review

As frequent visitors to Las Vegas for the past 25 years, we have stayed at more than 15 properties – on and off of the Strip – ranging from the Flamingo to the Mandarin Oriental. So in January we stayed at Caesars for the first time. We had frequented the property for many years when it hosted major boxing matches. Our first was “The War” in 1989, between Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns. We have also been regular visitors to their Qua Roman Baths and Spa and regular shoppers at the Forum Shops.

We’ve watched Caesars grow through the years, becoming one of the largest resorts on the Strip. So we wanted to find out what the experience would be like as hotel guests. We took a shuttle from the airport and upon arrival found that the hotel drop-off area was uncovered and a distance from the front entrance. There was no one in that area to assist with luggage. That is definitely an inconvenience in inclement weather. So if it had been raining or triple-digit temperatures (as is often the case during summer months) we would have been very uncomfortable after being dropped off, and waiting to be picked up. There is no covered shelter to protect from the elements. That area is also the designated drop off/pickup point for Uber and Lyft drivers. There is no clear walkway from that area to the entrance so we had to maneuver our way through traffic, over uneven surfaces to enter the resort.

When we made it to the check-in desk, and presented our reservation confirmation we were greeted warmly and processed fairly quickly. It was 1:30pm and check-in time is 3:00pm. This is normal procedure at hotels, but often there are rooms available and guests are allowed to check in early. We were told that there were no rooms available yet, and advised to leave our luggage at the bell desk. Then we were presented with and option – if we paid $30.00 a room would be available. We chose to utilize that option. However, we viewed that as an upsell. We have stayed at fine hotels all over the world, and have never had to pay for early check in. If a room is available, we’re normally allowed to check in. It was apparent that rooms were available, but not until we paid the $30.00. This is an unnecessary upsell and a deterrent.

Locating the room was an adventure in itself. Caesars is a 50 year-old property that started as a single hotel, but has grown into a maze of separate towers, connected in very disjointed ways. Signage is confusing, at best. Getting around the property is similar to maneuvering a maze. We stayed in the Palace Tower in a standard king room on the 26th floor, overlooking the pool. The room was spacious, clean, well-furnished and even offered a Jacuzzi tub. However, there was a letter in the room, informing us of construction due to remodeling. We should have been informed of that at the front desk. We did find the noise disruptive and registered a complaint. They did offer a change of room.

The Palace Tower is one of the oldest, and getting to the elevators requires walking through an area lined with shops and salons on both sides. Guests passing through this area are constantly solicited by aggressive shopkeepers. We were accosted each time we entered and exited the tower – VERY annoying. That sort of behavior is expected out on the Strip, but certainly not inside of your hotel tower.

DINING: The dining options are plentiful – from fine dining, to the food court – and service is excellent. The Bacchanal Buffet is one of the best in Las Vegas. We also enjoyed Gordon Ramsay’s Pub and Grill that served great pub food and the service is exceptional. Prices at all of the eating establishments (with the exception of the food court) would be considered $$$, so it is not the place to “eat on the cheap”.

Since it was January, we did not utilize the swimming pool. But walked around the area and examined the cabanas. The area is well maintained with marble statues and pretty landscaping. No doubt it is a happening place during the warmer months.

GAMING: Table games and slots are plentiful, covering much of the casino floor. There is a large Sports Book, with very large high-quality screens. However, it is poorly lit and with the layout, it is difficult to see the betting boards. Also, free seating is limited, there are only a few free seats in the very front row; which only allows a distorted view of the screens and the betting boards. The remaining seats must be reserved – at a price. In many of the other resort casinos on the Strip (Venetian, Palazzo, Wynn, Encore, Aria) free seats are plentiful.

SHOPPING: The Forum Shops still offers a great shopping experience, with shops and boutiques by many of the world’s top designers. It is well laid out and beautifully designed. It features the Roman theme and even has a small replica of the Trevi Fountain. The “Fall of Atlantis” show is not to be missed. With the dramatic music and moving statues, it is one of the best free shows on the Strip.

ENTERTAINMENT: There are a good number of nightlife options, including the Omnia Nightclub and the Colosseum where many of the world’s top entertainers like Celine Dion and Elton John perform.

Caesars is priced like many of the other luxury resorts on the Strip, but the overall experience does not compare. I would consider it a 3 star property with a few 4 star elements.

“Dining Out in Paris” – a Book Review

Paris has many nicknames, but its most famous is “La Ville-Lumiere” (usually translated as “The City of Lights” or as “The City of Light”), a name it owes to both to its fame as a center of education and ideas and its early adoption of street lighting.

Paris is also known for its culinary choices and is a magnet for foodies from all over the globe. With such a plethora of choices, where does a first-time visitor begin? I recently discovered a great little book to help answer that question. It is called “Dining Out in Paris” by Tom Reeves.

If you are a Francophile you’ve probably already compiled a list of your favorite Paris restaurants. But if you are an infrequent visitor – or have never been to Paris – this is an excellent beginner’s guide. It tells what you should know before you go to the City of Light. The book is comprised of easy-to-read descriptions and beautiful color photographs.

I especially enjoyed the author’s detailed descriptions of types of dining establishments; restaurants, cafes, bistros, brasseries, salons de the, bars a vin,  even neighborhood food shops; and what to expect in each one.

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The book is very easy to read and small enough to carry in a purse or backpack. It gives very practical tips and valuable advice such as:

FOREIGN RESTAURANTS: Paris has many foreign (non-French) restaurants, so one can enjoy cuisine from all over the globe.

SERVICE: The concept of service is very different from what many Americans have come to expect.  The pace is leisurely, not rushed. The server allows the customer to set the pace. The goal is not to have multiple customers per table each night, but perhaps only 1-2 seatings per table.

crepe-chocolatTIPPING: A service charge of 15% is always included in the bill, so leaving a tip is unnecessary. However, if one wishes to recognize exceptional service, it is customary to leave an additional tip; normally 5%. However, this must be in cash because it cannot be added to a credit card charge.

The book also includes detailed reviews of several top restaurants and fine-food stores in or near the Latin Quarter. So it is a wonderful beginner’s guide to dining in Paris that covers everything from picnicking to fine dining.

I recommend it  highly and I wish I’d had the opportunity to read the book before my first trip to Paris. But I’ll definitely have it with me the next time I go.

ac-at-cafe-on-champs

Family Matters

sierra-lake-view_crop – Waking up at a campsite to the delicious aroma of bacon frying and seeing the morning rays of sunshine filter through the redwood trees

– Being fascinated by the exhibits and immersive experiences at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry

– Taking in the wonders of the Grand Tetons, Mount Rushmore and Old Faithful during a summer road trip

clark-kids-in-washingtonWith my siblings in Washington, D.C.

All these are fond memories from traveling with my family as a child – and all occurred before I even turned 16. My parents didn’t have much money for travel, but they planned strategically and exposed my siblings and I to some memorable experiences. Dad was an amateur photographer, and this was long before digital photography, so his camera bag, stuffed with film, lenses and several cameras, always laded him down. He took beautiful pictures and we made beautiful memories.

gg-bridgeWe lived in the San Francisco Bay area, so many of our journeys were road trips around northern California. We’d ride up into the redwoods, or drive to the coast and dip our toes into the chilly Pacific Ocean. Anyone who visited San Francisco in the 60’s may remember Playland and Ocean Beach. It was an amusement park located along the Great Highway in what’s now known as the Richmond District. It closed Labor Day weekend in 1972. I can still remember the Funhouse with its mirror maze and it’s Barrel of Laughs (a rotating walk-through wooden barrel).

170px-laffing_salAnd I can still hear Laffing Sal, the automated character whose cackle echoed throughout the park. In those days the attractions were much simpler than those in today’s high-tech amusement parks. I’ll admit that my 7- year -old mind was convinced that Laffing Sal just might be real (scary thought). But we had great family fun there.

Travel provides a perfect way for families to explore, enjoy and make memories that will last a lifetime. However, one primary consideration is always cost. Years ago a trip to an amusement park like Disneyland was fairly affordable, even for a family with several children. Now that same trip to the Magic Kingdom could easily cost a king’s ransom just for entrance to the park – and that doesn’t include any meals or souvenirs.

However, cost doesn’t have to prevent families from traveling together. They just have to be creative about how and when they do it. A family vacation doesn’t have to be a round-the-world trip in a private jet. It can be as simple as a short road trip to a neighboring city. The goal isn’t so much about racking up miles as it is about spending quality family time. That camping trip might be just an overnight campout in the backyard. As long as everyone is there and there are some good eats (and hopefully no cell phones), it can be a memorable experience. Children don’t ask for much – just their parents’ attention.

Not all of my childhood family vacations were cross-country journeys. Some of those “trips” were really only daylong road trips with a picnic lunch. But I have such fond memories of the times that we spent together.

family_minas-kidsIt is important for families to travel together. Not only is it a great way to bond, it’s an opportunity to expose our children to other cultures and ways of life. It also teaches them basic social skills like how to go through security at an airport or how to order in a restaurant. Our son was 11 months old when we took our first family vacation. We stayed at a vacation rental in Nassau, Bahamas. We enjoyed the convenience of having a little kitchen and other home comforts with our toddler. When he was a little older we began to cruise and took several Caribbean, Hawaiian and Mediterranean cruises. lee-family-cruise-pose

It was great since there were always activities onboard for his age group and lots of other children his age; and my husband and I were always able to enjoy some “grown folks” time.

Since dinner in the main dining room is always a fine dining experience, he learned to order from the menu and use the correct silverware for each course of the meal. But there were always foods that he could enjoy during his “I only want burgers & hot dogs” phase. One of the ports of call on our Hawaiian Island cruise was one of the islands of Kiribati. It was a beautiful island that evoked memories of the Swiss Family Robinson. There he observed the simple way that the island children lived with no video games or fancy toys.

lees-on-amalfi-coastHe was in high school when we took our first Mediterranean cruise. Visiting the Acropolis in Athens brought his world history lessons to life.

 

Now he’s all grown up, on his own and a serious globetrotter. But he still loves to travel with us when his schedule allows. Our latest family trip was to China where we climbed the Great Wall of China together. That’s an experience that we’ll never forget.

lee-family-on-great-wallI advise everyone to get out and discover what the world has to offer…as a family. Whether you go near or far, you’ll make lasting memories.

the-greatest-legacy-we-can-leave

 

10 Ways to Play Around the Bay

There is no city quite like San Francisco. As one of the world’s top tourist destinations, it welcomes an average of 24.6 million visitors each year from all around the globe. With all of the activities, beauty, culture, shopping and dining that the city has to offer, it’s easy to see why Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco. However, those who venture outside of the city will find that there’s even more to see and enjoy in the surrounding areas. Here are just a few options:

purple-grapes21. VISIT WINE COUNTRY – The word “Napa” evokes visions of pretty vineyards and scenic wineries. However, there are several more wine regions to enjoy without venturing very far from San Francisco. One of my favorites is the Livermore Valley Wine Region. Located just a 49 minute drive away, this picturesque valley is the perfect place for wine enthusiasts to taste, tour and spend the day.

yard-house-stirfry2. EAT DRINK AND BE MERRY – To say that the Bay Area is a foodie’s paradise would be an understatement. There are literally thousands of restaurants, serving every type of cuisine imaginable. The freshness of the California produce and the cultural diversity of the population combine to make eating around the Bay Area a true culinary adventure. Whether you favor fine dining, or just want to grab a bite from a food truck, you won’t be disappointed.

action3. GO TO A GAME – No matter what the season, sports fans can always find a game to go to since the Bay Area is home to teams like San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s (baseball), Golden State Warriors (basketball), Raiders and 49ers (football), Sharks (hockey) and San Jose Earthquakes (soccer). Just pick a season, grab a ticket, and go.

coastal-bluffs4. CATCH A WAVE – The northern California coastline is called the “Frontier of Surfing” and surf spots are scattered northward along the coast. Some of the most popular are Ocean Beach (San Francisco/Marin), Salmon Creek (Sonoma) and Point Arena (Mendocino). It’s not recommended for beginners since Northern California’s water is cold, rugged, and sharky, so be prepared to battle against big waves and strong winds. It is also the home of Mavericks, a winter destination for some of the world’s best big wave surfers. An invitation-only contest is held there most winters, when the waves come.

ac-shops5. SHOP TILL YOU DROP – Shopaholics can definitely satisfy their shopping cravings at designer boutiques, humungous shopping malls and outlet malls. For high end shopping try Stanford Shopping Center (Palo Alto), Santana Row and Valley Fair (San Jose). Premium outlets can be found in Livermore, Vacaville and Gilroy. If you’re in the mood for haggling, try the Berryessa Flea Market (San Jose) with more than 2000 vendors selling arts & crafts, clothing, produce, furniture, tires, bicycles and much more. It is a bargain hunter’s paradise.

mountain-winery6. CATCH A CONCERT – The Bay Area is an entertainment mecca where every musical genre and the world’s top performers can be enjoyed indoors and outdoors. Larger venues include the Oracle Arena, Levi Stadium and the Shoreline Amphitheater. There’s nothing quite like taking in a concert under the stars at the Mountain Winery or the Montalvo Arts Center. For more intimate performances try a venue like Yoshi’s (Oakland).

cypress-tree7. MONTEREY/CARMEL – No trip to the Bay Area would be complete without spending time in Monterey. Only 2 hours down the coast (possibly 3 depending on the traffic), the beautiful scenery of this region is not to be missed. There are jaw-dropping coastal vistas on the way and especially along the 17 Mile Drive, location of Pebble Beach. Pebble Beach is a resort destination and home to the famous golf courses of Cypress Point Club, Monterey Peninsula Country Club and of course the Pebble Beach Golf Links. Spend a few hours strolling around Carmel a charming city – more like a picturesque village – and enjoy world-class restaurants, quaint boutiques and art galleries.

mountainview8. GO SEE THE REDWOODS –Some of the tallest trees in the world are located in northern California. With a million visitors per year, Muir Woods is the world’s most-visited redwood park. Since it’s just a 30-minute drive from San Francisco, visitors to the city can drive here, experience a little of California’s unique natural beauty, and be back in time for lunch. Then there’s the Avenue of the Giants, a scenic 31-mile drive with 51,222 acres of redwood groves. Imagine the picture-taking opportunities.

gnr-at-stanford9. GO BACK TO SCHOOL – Pay a visit to one of the beautiful college campuses like Stanford, Santa Clara or Berkeley. Stanford is a thriving residential campus and community sitting on 8,000 acres of gorgeous foothills and flatlands. You can even take a free student-led walking tour of the central campus. Berkeley and Santa Clara also offer campus tours.

donner-lake10.  GO FOR THE GOLD – California is called the golden state for a reason. Even though the original California Gold Rush is over, you can still try your luck at gold panning and prospecting. Towns like Murphy’s, Angel’s Camp, Sonora, Calaveras, and Sutter’s Mill all have places where you can pan for gold. Many of the small towns’ hardware stores sell basic gold panning supplies if you want to hike into the hills and give it a try in a stream. Who knows, there still might be some gold in “them thar hills”.

So the next time you visit San Francisco, take time to get out of the city and enjoy what the rest of the Bay Area has to offer.