Category Archives: dining

Don’t Listen to What They Say, Go See

 

 

 

 

 

 

All of us are different and we experience travel differently. While reading reviews, and listening to others’ advice is helpful when planning a trip, the only way to really experience a destination is to go see it for yourself. People are different, and their opinions vary widely. Here are a few of the opinions that I’ve heard about destinations:

THE FOOD IN ITALY IS BAD: Italy is comprised of many major cities – Rome, Milan, Naples, Florence, Genoa, Bologna, Palermo, Venice and Pisa are just a few. The cuisine varies by region. So it was hard for me to believe that ALL of the food was bad. As one of the world’s most beloved cuisines, it is much more than pizza and spaghetti. We made a point of tasting food in in several cities, including Rome, Naples, Florence, Venice, Capri and Vernazza. We had one of our best meals ever, at a picturesque little restaurant in Positano while driving along the Amalfi coast. The limoncello on Capri was fresh and flavorsome. The olives in Monterosso were like none I’ve ever tasted anywhere else. The pasta dishes were excellent everywhere we went. And don’t even get me started on the gelato.

THE PEOPLE IN PARIS ARE RUDE: I was very concerned about being treated badly in the “City of Lights”, especially since we don’t speak French. But bonjour, Au revoir, merci and big smiles went a long way…. We have been twice and shopped at stores, eaten at cafes, visited museums, even ridden on public transportation. We didn’t find Parisians particularly rude – no more than any other city we’ve visited.

PEOPLE IN CHINA TREAT BLACK PEOPLE LIKE ATTRACTIONS: I’ve heard people say that Chinese people pointed, stared and tried to touch their hair….and other body parts. I’m not disputing them, just saying that we didn’t have that experience. We went to Beijing, Suzhou, Hangzhou and Shanghai in 2015 and again in 2016 (there’s so much to see that it takes more than one trip to experience it all). Some people were curious and even asked to take pictures with us, but it didn’t make us feel like “attractions”. Many of the people in the major cities were Chinese tourists who appeared to be from outlying areas and probably had not seen many black folks. But it wasn’t too intrusive. In Suzhou we even explored the neighborhoods near the Grand Canal and no one even paid us any attention. After a while I even asked some of them to take pictures with us. It was fun.

THERE’S NOTHING FOR BLACK PEOPLE IN EUROPE: We have a rich history in Europe that would take years to study. For example, in 711 the Moors from northern Africa invaded what is modern day Spain and Portugal. Their rule in the region lasted until 1492 with the 8-month siege of Granada. When we visited Granada (in southern Spain) we toured the magnificent Alhambra Palace and fortress complex. It was constructed in 889 and converted into a royal palace in 1333 by Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada. Moorish poets described it as “a pearl set in emeralds”. Touring those grounds was like walking back in history. We have visited several European countries and have seen black people everywhere we’ve gone. I met this young sister in Monaco. I don’t speak French and she didn’t speak English….but we managed to connect.

We’ve had some very positive travel experiences – and some negative ones too. No travel destination is perfect. But we never base our opinions on anyone else’s experiences. We prefer to draw our own conclusions.

Talk is cheap and everyone’s experience is different, so don’t listen to what they say, go see for yourself.

Travel Now, and Then

Our love of travel began more than 30 years ago, in 1988 we booked our very first cruise, and we’ve been globetrotting ever since.

 

Over the course of those 30 years we’ve seen lots of changes in the travel industry. Here are just a few:

PRE-CRUISE HOTEL STAY – Cruise lines used to include a one night pre-cruise hotel stay and transportation to the cruise port in the price of the cruise fare. In 1988 we flew from San Francisco to Miami, stayed at a lovely hotel and were transported to the cruise dock the next morning to board the ship for our Caribbean cruise.

AIRLINE TICKETS – Airline tickets were paper (not e-docs) and could only be purchased at an airport or travel agency.

AIRLINE BAGGAGE FEES – There were none. The price of the airline ticket included transporting you….and your luggage. Imagine that!

AIRLINE SCHEDULES – Airlines attempted to stick to published schedules. Now when you make a reservation, all bets are off. If you happen to make a reservation that’s a few months away it’s very likely that your flight time, seat choice and even aircraft type will be changed. Or sometimes they just cancel a flight altogether and re-route you. Their right to do that is spelled out in the fine print of their terms and conditions…which few passengers actually read. A few months ago we purposely booked nonstop flights between San Francisco and Fort Lauderdale. When I re-checked the reservation a few weeks later, I found that they had cancelled those nonstop flights and put us on flights with one stop each way that were routed through Chicago….in the dead of winter (high likelihood for weather delay). I called the airline and was able to get them to re-route us through a different city. – for no charge. It’s a good thing I checked. Always remember to check….and re-check.

AIRLINE CHANGE FEES – What can I say about those that hasn’t already been said? It is understandable that they can’t allow people to book reservations and make changes at a whim. But you can pay exorbitant fees to make even the smallest change…like one letter in the spelling of a name. It now costs $200 to change or cancel a non-refundable airfare on the remaining “legacy” U.S. airlines (American, Delta, United), and a bit less on some other carriers. Changing or canceling an international ticket can cost much more. Why do they do it? Change fees are a healthy source of revenue for the U.S. airline industry. During the first half of 2010, the 19 largest domestic airlines collected $1.1 billion in cancellation and change fees, according to the Transportation Department. Delta made the most ($347 million) followed by American Airlines ($235 million), and United Airlines $158 million). So why do they do it? Because they can.

TRANSPORTATION SECURITY ADMINISTRATION (TSA) – The TSA is an agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that was created after the September 11, 2001 attacks. TSA employs screening officers in airports, armed Federal Air Marshals on planes, and mobile teams of dog handlers and explosives specialists, to protect air travel. When we flew in 1988 we could not have imagined that air travel would one day require disrobing in front of strangers, removing our shoes and walking through a metal detector or even having a “secondary screening”. If you’ve ever gotten the “SSSS” on your boarding pass you know what I mean. There are a variety of reasons that can cause you to be selected for this type of screening:

  • Sometimes it’s because the specific itinerary you’re on is unusual; this could include flights booked last minute, international one-way tickets, travel originating in “high-risk” countries, etc. Perhaps that’s why it happened to me last year when we were returning from Istanbul, Turkey. Let me tell you, they were quite thorough. I managed to grin and bear it, while my beloved travel partner/husband sat at the gate idly reading a newspaper, seemingly oblivious to my plight.
  • Sometimes it’s because you’re on some sort of a list; I have no clue what causes people to get on lists, though I suspect for some people it’s because of their travel patterns, for others it’s because of their names, and for others it’s because they’re being watched more carefully for whatever reason.
  • Sometimes it’s completely random.

Purchasing the TSA Pre Check allows for a lesser screening experience (you can keep your shoes on and don’t have to take out your computer). The cost is $85 and it is good for 5 years.

TRAVEL FASHION – Remember when people used to dress up to travel? Whether you were traveling by airplane or train, you put on your Sunday best. These days that’s not usually the case. Traveling economy has become such a contact sport that you need to “suit up”. No more Stacy Adams, stetsons,  pumps or pearls. Honey, now it’s all about Nike shoes and sweats.

LAS VEGAS – We fell in love with Las Vegas in 1989 when we went to the Sugar Ray Leonard/Thomas Hearns fight (The War) at Caesars Palace. Boy has the Strip changed since then. Gone are the days of cheap eats, free drinks and statuesque show girls. Las Vegas has gone through several metamorphoses in the last 30 years. In the 1990s there was even an attempt to make it more family-friendly with an amusement park at MGM. There are still some thrill rides at New York, New York and Stratosphere. But much of the emphasis these days is on high-end shopping and designer boutiques including Chanel, Dior, and Louis Vuitton. The Strip has also become a mecca for gourmet dining with restaurants by a veritable who’s-who of top chefs including Gordon Ramsay, Huber Keller, Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse, and Bobby Flay – some even have more than one restaurant on the Strip. If you’re looking for an exceptional dining experience, visit Joël Robuchon’s unparalleled French restaurant. This unforgettable Three Michelin Star restaurant caters to a sophisticated palate and was designed to resemble a luxurious Art Deco townhouse complete with a lush garden terrace and marble floors. Whether enjoying the 16-course degustation menu on the picturesque Parisian Terrace or relaxing in the elegant Aperitif Lounge, Joël Robuchon Restaurant provides an unparalleled dining experience.

Yes, the Las Vegas Strip has come a long way from the $5.99 steak dinner and the shrimp cocktail. But more affordable taste treats can still be found at off-Strip restaurants and diners. It’s still possible to find a really good hamburger, even on the Strip. One of our favorites is Bobby Flay’s Burger Palace.

GROUND TRANSPORTATION – Landing in a new city meant catching a taxi to your hotel – and hoping that the driver didn’t take the long way so that he’d get a higher fare. I dreaded watching the meter that seemed to keep climbing higher…and higher…even at stop lights. With the increasing number of ride share services, travelers have other choices like Uber and Lyft. Despite opposition they operate in an increasing number of cities in the Unites States and around the world. It’s a convenient, cashless way to get around a city. It’s also helpful when you don’t speak the local language. Last fall we used Uber in Mexico City quite successfully, even though our Spanish language skills are sketchy, at best.

LODGING – Besides hotels and vacation rental homes, the shared economy has encouraged the development of companies like Airbnb where travelers can rent homes, villas, condominiums, rooms and even campers. I saw a listing for an Airstream trailer on a beach that would accommodate 3 people, for $650 per night. And then there’s Couchsurfing, which Wikipedia describes as “a hospitality and social networking service accessible via a website and mobile app. Members can use the service to arrange homestays, offer lodging and hospitality, and join events such as “Couch Crashes”. So whatever your lodging choice, there’s an app for that.

TRAVEL BOOKING – Planning a trip used to begin with a visit to the local travel agent’s office to thumb through brochures. Now it’s just a matter of logging onto your computer or mobile device and looking at websites or taking virtual tours of hotels and resorts. YouTube is an excellent way to get destination information. If you know where you want to go, you can purchase an airline ticket, book a hotel room or rent a car with just a click of a mouse. Online travel agencies (OTAs) like Expedia and Travelocity work well for simple itineraries. But for more complicated trips, perhaps with large groups or multiple stops, many people still turn to their travel agents.

Today’s travel agents still provide valuable services to busy travelers who don’t have time to book their travel or affluent travelers who simply want to take advantage of the customer service offered by expert travel advisors.

LOYALTY PROGRAMS– It pays to be loyal….Airlines, hotels, cruise lines  and even credit cards provide travel perks to their loyal customers. As Honors members we’ve gotten upgrades and free Wi-FI at Hilton hotels in many cities.  As Diamond Level members of Royal Caribbean’s Crown and Anchor Society, we enjoy great benefits every time we cruise….like backstage theater tours, ship bridge tours and  nightly private cocktail parties with unlimited drinks.

During the past 30 years we’ve seen lots of changes and racked up lots of travel miles. No doubt, the travel industry will continue to change…..and we’ll continue to travel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cruising the Mediterranean

Malaga….Marseille…Morocco…..these are just a few of the ports that Sylvia Keys and her friends visited during their recent Mediterranean cruise that  sailed from Lisbon, Portugal. The itinerary also included  Barcelona, Spain and Genoa, Italy.     

These ladies have been globetrotting together for some time and have been to Dubai, the ABC Islands, Australia and Fiji. They work in various professions and each brings her special skills and talents to the group. Sylvia is the group leader and researcher who finds the trips, studies the travel books and scopes out the best shopping deals wherever they go (like the Jade Market in Tokyo).  The financial analyst maps out the costs of each trip.  Several of the ladies work in the medical field and focus on keeping everyone healthy. One is a doctor who has loads of Marriott points (a great benefit to everyone).

They selected MSC, an Italian-owned cruise line because it offered an itinerary with the ports that they all wanted to visit.

Since the ship sailed from Lisbon, they spent time exploring the city and learning about its rich history. Before long it was time to board the ship and set sail on the MSC Preziosa.

As an  experienced cruiser, Sylvia provided good information about the Preziosa and their onboard experience. The other passengers were mostly from Russia, Eastern Europe, Australia, Brazil, Japan, Malaysia and Portugal. There were only ~10 other Americans onboard. There were only 18 Black people, all total. The ship was large and very well maintained.

The  cabins were comfortable with large showers and large balconies. They even cleaned the balcony doors several times when the ship was in port.

Customer service was excellent and Sylvia described the staff as FABULOUS. Most of them were from Madagascar, South Africa and the Caribbean; all spoke several languages.

Entertainment was different from other cruises they’d experienced – no musical or comedy shows – probably due to the fact that the passengers spoke so many different languages. Other onboard amenities were standard and included swimming pools, a casino, spa, hair salon and even a 4D movie theater.

Food was fresh and included fresh fish, Indian food and burgers.      As much as they enjoyed the shipboard experiences, the real fun began when they docked. Barcelona was the first port of call and they enjoyed its many sites, including La Sagrada Familia. Sylvia even remembered to send regards to our BFTT group.

In France they explored the port city of Marseille, gateway to the Provence region. Even though it rained some,  that did not dampen their spirits.

Then it was on to Genoa, one of Italy’s most underrated gems. One of the highlights of the trip (and there were many) was visiting Morocco. In Casablanca they shopped in the bazaar for about four hours, visiting vendors who sold herbs, textiles, rugs, Goyard items and other souvenirs. The bazaar can get pretty hectic, but they found someone who guided and protected them from the more aggressive vendors, and even helped them find ATMs and taxis.    The bazaar has ~400 kiosks, shops and stores. It really was the shopping experience of a lifetime.

It really sounds like these ladies had the trip of a lifetime. It must be great to have travel buddies that you can travel with regularly. If you’ve ever traveled with a group, you know that group dynamics can be “interesting”. But even with five different personalities and mindsets, these ladies seem to have it figured out. As a matter of fact they are already making plans for their 2019 trip.

 

My Favorite Place

 

 

 

 

 

My husband and I have been globetrotting for more than 30 years. In that time we have seen some breathtaking sights and had some amazing travel experiences. When people find out how much traveling we have done, they often ask, “What is your favorite travel destination?” We’ve had so many enjoyable experiences that it is difficult to pick just one. But after lots of thought and consideration, I’ve decided to answer that question. My favorite destination in the entire world is…..Istanbul, Turkey.

This bustling metropolis is one of the world’s most exciting cities. It is a kaleidoscope of culture, history, ancient architecture, modern urban energy, and fresh, delectable cuisine.

Experiences like watching the sun rise over the Bosphorus, shopping at the Grand Bazaar and hearing the call to prayer as we entered the Blue Mosque are indelibly etched into our travel memories. Yes, Istanbul is my favorite destination.

But wait….after our recent trip, I can’t possibly leave out Thailand.

The azure waters, balmy breezes and lush scenery of that tropical paradise are almost too beautiful to be believed. After a hair-raising speedboat ride we spent a perfect afternoon sailing around the islands and sunning ourselves on powdery white sand beaches.

Yes, that idyllic paradise has to be my very favorite travel destination.

But wait….when I think about azure waters and white sand beaches, I can’t possibly leave out another tropical destination….the island of Jamaica.

After viewing this beautiful beach in Montego Bay, it was easy to see why Stella got her groove back here. There are plenty of other ways to enjoy the island. We’ve partied on the beach, climbed up Dunns River Falls and zip lined through the tree tops at high speed what a rush!

We’ve also eaten the most delicious jerk chicken, Jamaican patties and washed it all down with ice cold Red Stripe Beer…and of course, rum punch.So without a doubt, Jamaica is my favorite travel destination.

But wait…how can I forget about China? In 2015 we visited Beijing, Suzhou, Hangzhou and Shanghai.

We were captivated by the architecture and history of this ancient country. In addition to the Forbidden City, Summer Palace and Lingering Garden we shopped and dined in the modern metropolis of Shanghai. We even toured jade, silk and pearl factories. The highlight of the visit had to be climbing the Great Wall of China. I expected it to be amazing, but the experience was beyond anything that I’d imagined. I’d hear other people describe going up on a gondola, so I was prepared to see breathtaking vistas. What I wasn’t prepared for was the actual climb. Our tour guide took us to Juyongguan Pass, a section of the wall where there was no gondola. So it was all about the climb….and those 2000 year old stone steps were no joke.

But it was well worth it – the views from the top were spectacular! The experience was even more special since we shared it as a family.

But wait? I can’t possibly forget about Spain. There is so much to see and do in this country that I’ve lost count of how many times we’ve been there. With cities like Barcelona, Valencia, Mallorca, Malaga, Vigo, La Coruna, Cartagena, Valencia, Marbella, Sitges and Puerto Banus it is impossible to see it all in one, or even two visits.

Barcelona is a city that has to be experienced to be fully appreciated. Its edgy, urban energy reminded us of San Francisco with the restaurants, street performers, street art and designer shops. The Gothic Quarter is a winding maze of narrow alleys that open onto charming plazas where you can hear street musicians, watch flamenco dancers or just sit and people watch, while sipping sangria. There are also great destinations to visit outside of the city. Two of our favorites are the Penedes Wine region, home to the Freixenet Cava caves and several other world-class wineries. We also enjoyed visiting the Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey, nestled high on a mountain peak; it’s only an hour train ride from Barcelona and home of the famous Black Madonna.

Malaga is another one of our favorite destinations in Spain. It’s a port city on southern Spain’s Costa del Sol, near the continent of Africa, Morocco is only a 70-minute ferry ride away. We were particularly intrigued by evidence of Moorish history. We toured the Alcazaba, a hilltop citadel and the nearby Alhambra Palace, another fortress built in the 13th century.

We’ve always been fascinated by Moorish history and discovered that the Spanish occupation by the Moors began in 711 AD when an African army, under their leader Tariq ibn-Ziyad, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar from northern Africa and invaded the Iberian peninsula ‘Andalus’ (Spain under the Visigoths). So visiting this palace complex was like walking in the footsteps of those great warriors.

So that’s it…..Spain is my absolute favorite travel destination. Unless I overlook Italy….and I couldn’t possibly do that. From Rome, to Venice, to Florence to Capri, to the Cinque Terre, we’ve lived “la dolce vita” all over that country.

Although many of the famous sites (Colosseum, Leaning Tower of Pisa, Trevi Fountain) are often overrun by tourists, they are still amazing to visit. Regardless of religious beliefs, the museums and St. Peter’s Basilica of Vatican City are simply awesome. During our most recent visit we got an inside tour of the Colosseum and actually got to see it from a gladiator’s perspective. Wow!

Whenever we visit Florence, we take a day trip to the Cinque Terre, 5 charming coastal villages accessible by boat or train.

Whether you choose to hike between the villages or take the train, the views are simply stunning!

Foodies, can we talk? Italy is hands down one of the world’s top culinary destinations. We’ve enjoyed delicious meals at small trattorias, fine dining restaurants and neighborhood cafeterias. There’s much more to Italian cuisine than gelato, pizza and pasta. But I’ll admit that I could actually eat my weight in pasta….and have done so on occasion.

No matter where you are in Italy, eating gelato daily is a must….

 

So that settles it, Italy is my favorite travel destination.

Who am I kidding? I can’t pick one single destination as my absolute favorite. Each place offers something special that is unique to that destination. So I’ll just plan to keep traveling around the world…..discovering new “favorites”.

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.

cafe-chicken-fries

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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.

 

Vegas Your Way

vegas skylineLas Vegas….Sin City….Entertainment Capital of the World…..whenever it’s mentioned it evokes strong emotions. People either really love it or really hate it. I’ve heard people make statements like, “I don’t like Las Vegas because it’s so smoky”, or “I don’t like Las Vegas because I don’t gamble”. Apparently they believe that smoking and gambling are all that Vegas has to offer. They couldn’t be more wrong.

I happen to be one of those who really love that city – especially the Strip. I’ve been going there for the last 26 years and often go several times each year. I’ve watched the Strip reinvent and redefine itself continuously. Believe me, there’s much more to do than smoke and gamble.

There’s a world of activities, attractions and entertainment to enjoy. Here are just a few:

DINING

wicked spoon charcuterieIf there ever was a foodie’s paradise, Vegas is it. Gone are the days of the cheap buffets and $2.99 breakfasts. Many of the world’s top celebrity chefs have opened restaurants in the major hotels and they offer world-class dining experiences. That list includes Joel Roubuchon, Gordon Ramsay, Wolfgang Puck, Giada De Laurentis, Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali and Bobby Flay. Many of them have more than one, and they offer a variety of dining experiences. For an unforgettable French dining experience I recommend Joel Robuchon, a 3 Michelin star restaurant located inside of the MGM Grand hotel/casino. On the other hand, if all you really want is a hamburger, you can’t go wrong with Bobby Flay’s Burger Palace.

bobbys turkey burgerLocated right on the Strip in front of the City Center, I discovered this gem during a recent stay at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. The burgers were so good that I had to eat there twice. Even the service was exceptional; I’ve never been served so well in a casual dining establishment.

If you have a sweet tooth I highly recommend Buddy V’s at the Palazzo and Jean Philippe at Aria.

jean philippe desserts2The Las Vegas buffet scene is still alive and well and I’ve had some unbelievably delicious buffet experiences at Bacchanal (Caesar’s Palace), The Wynn Buffet and The Wicked Spoon (Cosmopolitan).

SHOPPING

ac shops for jewelryMany of the world’s top designers have opened shops in the major resorts and shopping centers like Crystals in the City Center and the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian. Chanel, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Jimmy Choo, Christian Louboutin, and Prada are just a few of the shops that I visit when I need to get some “retail therapy”. The Fashion Show Mall has more than 250 stores and offers a nice shopping experience. For discounts and deals I always visit the Las Vegas Premium Outlets or take a drive out to the Primm Outlets.

ENTERTAINMENT

blues brothersAt just slightly over 4 miles long, the Strip has more entertainment venues than anywhere else that I can think of. It has always been home to world-famous entertainers, showrooms and lounges. But today’s choices are absolutely mind boggling. In addition to the world-famous headliners, there are several Cirque du Soleil shows, magic shows, comedians, burlesque shows and so much more. During my recent trip I went to see Legends in Concert, one of the longest running hit shows where the super-talented cast members play well-known entertainers like Prince, Lady Gaga and Whitney Houston. It was great! The nightclub scene is phenomenal and some of the resorts even have day clubs. Marquee Day Club at the Cosmopolitan had a very long line….at noon. It spans 22,000 square-feet and boasts two pools, several bars and a gaming area. Programming throughout the season is highlighted by Marquee Nightclub & Dayclub resident DJs encompassing the world’s premier electronic music talent.

You can always find discount (often half price) show tickets at one of the many Tix4Tonight locations.

ADVENTURE/ATTRACTIONS

For those seeking action or adventure, there are lots of choices. Las Vegas Valley has golf courses and packages for every skill level. You can take a flying leap at Vegas Indoor Skydiving. You can satisfy your need for speed by taking a spin around a racetrack in an exotic car like a Ferrari 488 GTTS or a McLaren 570S. You can soar above the Strip in a helicopter, or fly to the Grand Canyon.

Amusement park lovers have a variety of attractions to choose from. The High Roller at the Linq, a 550-foot tall observation wheel (similar to the London Eye) allows riders to enjoy the view of Las Vegas in comfortable glass-enclosed cabins. You can even have open bar.

high rollerThe Roller Coaster on top of the New York-New York Hotel & Casino features towering drops, multiple loops and stunning views of the Strip. When it was first built I agreed to ride it with my son. From the ground it didn’t look too rough…boy was I wrong. That was one hair-raising ride!

If you really need a dose of adrenaline, go to the Stratosphere to try the world’s highest thrill rides. All rides are at the top of the Stratosphere Tower, over 900 feet high. The four extreme thrill rides are The Sky Jump, the Big Shot, the X Scream, and Insanity.

SPAS

quaSpas in Las Vegas offer a variety of specialty treatments and wellness services that aren’t offered in your neighborhood back home. Some of my favorite places to be pampered are Spa Mandalay (Mandalay Bay Hotel), the Mandarin Oriental Spa, and Qua Roman Baths and Spa at Caesars Palace.

FREMONT STREET EXPERIENCE

Downtown Las Vegas is home to the Fremont Street experience a pedestrian mall covered by a barrel vault canopy where light and sound shows are presented nightly beginning at dusk on the Viva Vision video screen. For a real rush, try the Slotzilla Zip line experience.

FREE ATTRACTIONS

If you happen to blow your budget before you leave, not to worry. There are plenty of free attractions to enjoy. The Bellagio Conservatory is a beautiful place to enjoy elegant arrangements of plants and flowers. Circus, Circus has free shows featuring jugglers, unicyclists, trapeze artists and acrobats perform death-defying stunts and exciting acts every half-hour at the World’s Largest Permanent Circus. One of my favorites is the free Fall of Atlantis fountain show that entertains audiences with special effects and animatronic figures who recount the myth of Atlantis. I especially enjoy watching the Fountains at Bellagio, a combination of music, water and light; it is a spectacular audiovisual performance with its majestic fountains.

mo lobbyMANDARIN ORIENTAL LOBBY

Hotel/resort choices are many and there are options for every budget. During my 26 year love affair with Las Vegas I have stayed at most of the major resorts on the Strip and each one delivers a unique, experience. I have several preferred properties, and my newest is the Mandarin Oriental. It offers a 5-star luxury experience in a non-smoking, non-gaming environment. It is an oasis of tranquility in the middle of the non-stop energy of the Strip.

Whatever your preference, Las Vegas is what you make it – and you can do it your way.

How Did You Learn to Travel?

plane at gateHow did you learn to swim? Did you go to the deep end of the swimming pool and jump in? Probably not. You probably started with inflatable water wings, then moved on to swimming lessons and soon enough you were dog-paddling your way across the pool.

How did you learn to ride a bicycle? Did you hop onto your bike and take off down the street? Probably not. It is more likely that you started by pedaling around on a tricycle, and then it was on to your first little bike with training wheels. Finally Mom took off the training wheels, let go of the back of your bike, and you wobbled your way to two-wheeled freedom.

How did you learn to cook? Was the menu for your first dinner party standing rib roast and grand marnier soufflé? No, it was probably more like grilled cheese sandwiches and canned tomato soup.

So how did you learn to travel? What are the ABCs of globetrotting? Is it necessary to take lessons? Of course not – travel is a very individual experience and each of us has very specific preferences. It’s not as simple as learning a set of “dos” and don’ts”. There is no school, travel is more of a learn-by-doing experience. However, if there was a Travel University, and they asked me to teach Travel 101, here are some of the topics I would include in the course curriculum.

passportsHow to Pack – If you are planning to be away from home for more than a day, you’ll need to take at least a few things with you. Your destination, and the length of your trip determine what you take. You might be able to manage an overnighter by throwing a few things into a backpack. Some people even manage to take long trips with only a backpack. But if you are going on an extended journey or are planning to visit a different climate, you’ll need something larger. It also depends on your personal style. If you are one of those creative types who can make 27 outfits from 2 pieces of clothing and a few accessories, you won’t need much luggage. But if you’re one of those people who want to make a different fashion statement every day, you’ll need to pack accordingly. Small cosmetics and fragrance samples are a great way to conserve space and weight.

Think about where you’re going and pack accordingly. For example, If you’re going to a tropical climate it’s doubtful that you’ll need that down jacket. Since most airlines charge baggage fees, taking too many pieces of luggage can be quite costly.

How to dress – Be sure to dress for the climate that you’ll be visiting. Last October I spent a week in Dubai where the temperature was triple digits every day. Then in November I traveled to China where it was quite cold and snowing. I took the same amount of luggage for both trips, but used very different packing strategies.

It is also important to dress for the culture that you’ll be visiting. Scanty or revealing clothing is frowned upon in some cultures and at many holy sites. I’ve seen young ladies in hot pants turned away from St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. In Dubai I was very careful about what I wore. I saw many women in traditional dress and just as many in western-style clothing. I wanted to make sure that I was cool and comfortable, but did not offend in any way.

adrienne in jerusalemOne of the accessories that I always carry is a light pashmina. It doesn’t take up much space and can be used to cover my head and/or shoulders when necessary.

How to pick the destination – It is important to choose a destination that you really want to go to. You will be investing your time and money, so you want to get a good return on those investments. I’m a travel professional, so often clients look to me to help them decide where to go. In order to do so I have to ask them several questions like:

What is your budget? I’ve found that many people haven’t even considered total cost. In reality, that’s what’s going to drive your travel decisions. In addition to airfare, there is the cost of lodging, meals, tours, tips and entertainment. So all-inclusive resorts are good options since they include all meals, drinks (soft drinks and alcoholic beverages) gratuities and non-motorized water sports. Cruises offer excellent value since they include all meals, nightly shows, night clubs, childcare, and of course transportation from port to port.

What sort of travel experience are you looking for? If they are retired and looking for a quiet relaxing getaway, I won’t suggest that they take a Disney cruise. If they are young wild and free, I know several resorts that will give them exactly what they’re looking for.

What are your interests? Interests vary widely, so it is important to identify destinations that will satisfy those interests. An adventure traveler with an interest in wildlife might enjoy a trip to the Galapagos Islands. A history buff might enjoy a tour of the Tower of London. That fashionista would definitely enjoy a trip to Paris to shop on the Champs Elysees.

Aerial Oasis of the Seas - At Sea off Miami shoreline Oasis of the Seas - Royal Caribbean International
Aerial Oasis of the Seas – At Sea off Miami shoreline
Oasis of the Seas – Royal Caribbean International

Even cruises differ widely. An Amazon River cruise through the Brazilian Rain Forest on a small vessel allows passengers to experience wildlife, piranha fishing and all that the jungle has to offer. An ocean cruise on a big ship can be like a floating city. On a recent transatlantic cruise my husband and I sailed on Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas with 5000 other passengers. We enjoyed gourmet dining, Broadway shows, an onboard surf simulator, ice-skating, a world-class spa, designer shopping and more. It was a 12-day nonstop party from Fort Lauderdale to Barcelona.

Take it Slowly – In today’s fast-paced world people often think that they have to rush into traveling at top speed. You don’t have to jump in at the deep end; it’s OK to ease into experiences. You may want to take your first trip with a buddy who has been to the destination before and can show you the ropes.

The good news is that there are some really good flight deals on the market. But before you book one, make sure it’s a destination that you really want to visit. If that’s not the case, it’s not a deal for you. And make sure that you can get lodging that fits within your budget. Hotel prices are often driven by demand. Recently we found a great airline price to Las Vegas. But when we checked hotel prices for those dates, we found that they were astronomical. Needless to say, we didn’t book those flights.

Start by taking local trips- there are many attractions near our homes that can be great ways to explore local history and culture. This is especially valuable for families who want to introduce their children to travel. A trip to a local museum can give them an appreciation for art exhibits so that eventually they are ready for the Louvre. A trip to a nice restaurant will allow them to get comfortable with ordering from a menu, being served and tipping a waiter. We began cruising with our son when he was quite small, so he learned the art of fine dining at an early age.

There is no single way to learn to travel, it is an individual endeavor. Learning as you go is part of the fun and It is well worth the investment. As a wise man once said, “Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer”.