The Amazing African Safari – Part Two

Part One | Part Two

Day Four – 0° 25′ South, 36° 3′ East, elevation 6800 feet

After breakfast, we said goodbye to Sand River. Their food and service was outstanding. The consensus was that the meals we ate there were comparable to any fancy dining establishment, which makes it more remarkable, since this kitchen was two hours from the nearest city, and six hours from Nairobi. We inquired and we’re told that they receive food deliveries twice a month, which must make menu planning quite an art.

On the way out of Masai Mara, we saw the by now commonplace zebras, gazelles, and wildebeest. We caught up to a small group of elephants, and then shortly after, spotted a male lion crossing the road. That was enough to consider pausing to admire the animal, when we caught sight of not one, but four more lions in the immediate area. One female was perched up on a small hill. Perfectly posed for photos. It did not take long for two other cars with safari tourists to join us. One even veered slightly off road to get a closer look. That was our cue to move on, since that was against the rules, and it spoiled the camera shots. There we were, barely thirty minutes into our trek north, and we saw something amazing again.

It took nearly an hour to reach the park exit, then another hour driving along rutted dirt roads to reach a paved roadway. Nonetheless, our driver was zipping along at sixty kilometers per hour, slowing down only for major potholes, and narrow up and down crossings over dry creek beds.  Bernard drove on all sides of the road, avoiding the rocks, ruts, and holes, with a familiarity from fifteen years of trekking around Kenya’s national parks.

As we traveled outside the park, it was now easy to recognize the various Masai villages, with the circular arrangement of huts and fenced off areas for livestock. There were numerous groups of Masai men and boys herding cattle, goats, and sheep, wearing the colorful blanket coverups, and ironically sometimes chatting away on cell phones.

Some of the things we saw just can’t be captured on camera. The vastness of the Masai Mara, the forest of acacia tress in Lake Nakuro Park, or something as natural as dozens of bird species at home in the lake. Perhaps it’s the baboons on the side of the trail. They scatter into the trees before we can even focus our lenses on them.

Lake Nakuro Park, at seventy-three square miles, is one of the smallest parks we will visit, but it’s home to zebras, wildebeest, warthogs, antelope, Rothschild giraffe, and rhinos. Within ten minutes of entering the Park, we caught sight of five white rhinos emerging from a muddy creek. More pictures were snapped, and then we hurried on to the Sopa Lodge, which sat atop a tall ridge overlooking the park, with a breathtaking view of Lake Nakuru in the distance. We were hungry from the long trek up from the Mara. The Kenyans love their Indian food, probably since workers and tourists venture there frequently.  There seemed to be curry and Tandoor options at virtually every meal. Then, we set off for the afternoon game drive. Our driver picked up some chatter and we sped off where two other vans hunkered down by the side of the road. To our amazement, several lions were feeding on a freshly killed cape buffalo. One of the groups of onlookers had long telephoto lenses and cameras that probably cost more than our entire trip. We took the best vantage point remaining, and shoot loads of pictures and tons of video. Once we’d seen the poor beast ripped to shreds, we moved on to the lake itself, but not before encountering the rhinos again. We got as close as we could to the the marshy inlet at the north end of the lake, where we saw an incredible variety of birds, including white pelicans, black headed herons, yellow billed storks, a snake eagle, marabou storks, spar winged plover, and pink flamingos. We finally got to stand outside the confines of our vehicle, but a cape buffalo appeared to kept a watch over us. When the animal veered a little to close, we hoped back into the Toyota. In the end, the buffalo kept walking towards another of its kind beyond our perch. Crisis averted. The day was waning so we zipped back to the lodge for drinks and dinner.

Day Five – 0° 45′ South, 36° 25′ East, 6200 feet elevation

It was our first real sunrise, with gorgeous reds, bright yellows, and misty grays splayed across the eastern skyline. On the road again, we spot a total of eleven giraffes grazing near the road. One crossed a few feet in front  of us. That might have been our wow moment if not for the fact that just after that, we spotted the rhinos crossing the road. We got closer than any zoo experience. As if that wasn’t enough, we finally caught up with a few baboons who didn’t scatter at the site of humans armed with cameras. All of this happened in a span of less than fifteen minutes. It will be tough to top that, but we’ve been continuously surprised every day.

As we drive along the two lane highway towards Lake Naivasha, there is a steady stream of motor cycles, cars, mini buses and trucks. The cars play a game of chicken passing the slower moving trucks, darting in and out of the oncoming, lane trying to get ahead of everyone and everything. It’s white knuckles for us, but Bernard is unfazed, even when an impatient driver passes a truck by maneuvering onto the shoulder. The landscape is dotted with small towns and open spaces, and a few private game parks, where we can spot zebras or antelope grazing. Yesterday, we caught site of a few baboons picking through the garbage which seems to scattered on the side of the road just about everywhere except, for the game parks. Apparently there is little or no recycling in this country, and what does exist can not come close to handling the volume of trash that’s generated.

At Lake Naivasha, we motor boated around the marshy edge of the lake and saw an amazing variety of birds including more storks, kingfishers, egrets, and pelicans. The highlight of the excursion were the hippos resting in the shallow water. One male surrounded by up to eight females or infants. They can stay submerged for up to five minutes. We kept a good, safe distance as we would be no match for an angry hippo. The last trick our boat driver did for us was to toss some raw fish into the water, whereupon an eagle came swooping down from the trees, and deftly snatched the fish, returning to its perch.

Our journey to Amboseli Park routed us back through Nairobi. This time we took a modern bypass around the southern tip of the city, past newly constructed housing developments on one side of the highway, but noticed one of the many shanty towns still standing, farther up on the other side. As we got out of Nairobi proper, we passed through a very typical suburban outlying city that one can see in most emerging countries. There is new construction everywhere of apartments, stores, and shopping centers, as people who work in the cities flee to find better, low cost housing. Of course, that accelerated growth brings with it a host of traffic issues, as urban planning can barely keep up with the needs of its newest citizens.

It was mostly two lane highway, with the last forty five minutes of the drive to the park entrance  again on unpaved road, up some hills, passing through arid, desert like land, with low scrub. We encountered more Masai shepherding goats and cattle. After cresting one last hill, we got our first glimpse of Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest peak in the African continent. Enough of the high clouds had dissipated to afford a view of the summit. It was a good sixty kilometers away, but the land is fairly flat until you reach the base.

Our objective was to reach the Amboseli Serena before dark, and we had thirty more minutes from the park gate. Bernard was zipping along the dirt roads when he picked up more chatter on his two way radio. He somehow managed to go even faster, bumping along, slowing down only for the larger divots in the road. We pulled up to an area where several other safari vehicles had stopped. We trained our binoculars to an spot at least several hundred yards from the road where lo and behold, we caught sight of not one, but two cheetahs. It was too far to see without magnification, but fine with the long lenses. We made it to the resort just as the sun was setting, and snapped more photos.

Day Six – 2° 40′ South, 37° 16′ East, elevation 3675 feet

We set out bright and early, stopping just outside the gates to take some photos of Kilimanjaro, which looked magnificent in the early morning light. When we entered the park, the terrain was very arid, and devoid of much more than bits of short grass and the occasional Acacia tree.  Now we found ourselves looking at a thriving, busy marsh, resulting from the mountain’s water runoff. It is home to hippos and hundreds of bird species. Even the elephants and Cape buffalo Wade into the marsh. You could see the water marks, halfway up their torsos. The other animals, zebras, antelopes, wart hogs, and wildebeest circumnavigate the wet areas. We also spotted hyenas and lions. The middle of the day provided some sorely needed down. Some of us sat poolside. Some got some nap time, and two of us booked massages. The Amboseli Serena Safari Lodge was separated from the game park by an electric fence, so the only animal threat were the monkeys who derived fiendish pleasure from pilfering food. The lodge had its own Masai “warrior” whose only job besides posing for photos was to shoo away the pesky primates. We got caught in a big downpour during our afternoon drive, resulting in a stunning end to end rainbow. We saw more elephants than just about anywhere else on the trip. Their routine was to emerge from the forest during the day, head out to the marsh for the food supply, and make their way back to the trees in the afternoon. Plus, more zebras, elephants, wildebeests, a family of hyenas, and a spectacular sunset awaited us.

Day Seven – 3° 18′ South, 35° 38′ East, 5710 feet elevation

We left Amboseli behind, but not before seeing some elephants up close. We crisscrossed paths with them as we passed through the abandoned lodge at Ol Tukuai. The drive to the border crossing took less than an hour from the time we exited the park. The climb up the hills afforded us a few last glimpses of the Kenyan side of Kilimanjaro, magnificent despite some modest cloud cover. By the time we reached the paved highway, the peak fell behind the hills. At Namango we reached the border crossing. We bid goodbye to Bernard, who escorted us to Kenyan customs and said hello to our new guide, Emanuel, repacked our bags in his truck and drove around to Tanzanian immigration. Then it was off to the city of Arusha, Tanzania. The highway was in much better condition, but the traffic was no different. Buses passing trucks, who in turn were lapped by cars. Emanuel stopped his truck, when was caught sight of some gerenuks, long necked antelope, that can only be found between the border area and Arusha. We also passed some local towns and more Masai villages. The shepherds were out everywhere with varying sized herds of cattle, goats, or sheep. The cattle have right of way, and must be given a wide berth. As we passed one small village, Emanuel slowed down and pointed out an enormous market day taking place.  Everything seemed to be for sale including a live chicken offered by a man who walked right up to us. We moved on, arriving at the Arusha Coffee House by midday, for an outdoor buffet lunch. On the way out, we visited their artisan house, home to art work and trinkets crafted from recycled glass, paper, and aluminum. Most of the artists were people with disabilities.

It took two hours to reach the Manor House at Ngorongoro, a beautiful hotel on a working coffee plantation. Even though it was only ten years old, it was designed to look and feel like it had been around the same hundred years as the plantation. The main building recreated an old Dutch manor house, with large wooden beams in the ceilings, a huge dining room, large sitting room, a billiard room, and a slightly more modern movie room with a projection tv system. But it also featured Delf china, and a reproduction of Vermeer’s “Girl With the Blue Earring.”  One of our group members and I even got to go horseback riding before dusk. It was a fabulous gourmet dinner, and I was so exhausted that I fell fast asleep. Just about the earliest all trip long.

Day Eight – 3° 9′ 15″ South, 35° 40′ 34″ East, 7880 feet elevation

But that’s later. Upon viewing the Ngorongoro crater from above, it just appears as a vast empty space. That couldn’t  be further from the truth. When perched at any scenic overlook, you are 1800 feet above the crater floor. When you descend, you realize it’s teeming with wildlife. More zebras and wildebeest, plus baboons, ostriches, warthogs, hyenas, jackals, the aforementioned lions, black rhino, and hippopotamus. Lots of hippos. At the “hippo pool” there were at least a hundred. Even more were at a completely separate watering hole. A group of flamingos put on a display of flying in unison around one of the marshes. It was quite a site and we captured it on camera. And alas, we found the black rhino, the last of the animals we were seeking. We never saw crocodiles, but they do not live at Ngorongoro. Our group wasn’t the only one seeking the elusive rhino. It seems everyone else was. When word got out that someone had spotted the rhinos, every land cruiser in the park seemed to converged on that spot, creating a rather unique traffic jam. But we did see two rhinos, albeit at a pretty good distance. So when we left to head back towards the northern end of the park, it felt like we had the whole place to ourselves. After seeing all these animals, grazing, sleeping, as well as several lions devouring a fresh kill, we finally caught two lions in the act of making more felines. It was bound to happen. We had caught sight of some lions earlier in the day, but they were doing what most cats do, sleeping, grooming, and more sleeping. Upon our return to the same spot, the big cats were still there. However, one of the males was looking rather listless next to two females. I made a comment to everyone that he looked pretty frisky, and taking my cue, someone started the video on their camera. The next thing we know, our lion is mounting one of the females. The entire encounter lasted no more than twenty five seconds, and a lot of human laughter can be heard in the background, mostly from the females in our group.

It would have been difficult to top that experience, and we slowly wound our way out of the park and up to the Sopa Lodge, which is perched on an overlook affording a spectacular view of the entire crater. It is one of only four lodges in the Ngorongoro Conversation Area. The NCA encompasses 3000 square miles of protected land, whose main feature is the Ngorongoro crater, the world’s largest intact caldera, formed about three million years ago. The rim is mostly tree forest and thickets, while the crater is mostly arid.

Sopa also boasts no fences, and all guests have to be escorted by the staff to their rooms after dark. Walking back after dinner (with escort,) we saw about half a dozen zebras on the level below us, and as we got closer to the rooms, there was some rustling in the bushes. Our escort shined his flashlight in that direction, revealing a cape buffalo in the foliage. The animal was no more than twenty five feet away, but fortunately heading away from us. When asked about what happens if a large mammal gets closer, since he was nothing other than a walkie-talkie, he informed us that shining the light directly in their eyes is usually enough to scare them away.

Day Nine – 3° 22′ South, 36° 41′ East, elevation 4551 feet

Our last day in Africa. We packed up yet again, and left the manor, armed with loads of coffee beans. So much so, that the whole back of the land cruiser smelled like a Starbucks. We made a beeline for the park gate, since our passes only allow twenty-four hour access to the NCA without additional charges. Our destination today was the Kilimanjaro International Airport by way of Arusha. The two hour drive took us back through now familiar territory, past Masai villages, small towns, and farmland under cultivation.  I sat in the front seat and peppered Emanuel with lots of questions about the Masai culture. His twenty years of guiding experience including a three year stint as head ranger at premiere game lodge in Tanzania.
We saw a lone giraffe on the side of the road, nibbling on acacia tree leaves, more baboons, and had a beautiful view of Lake Maynara, another potential safari stop. Unfortunately, our itinerary didn’t allow time to peruse it. We stopped for lunch at the Lake Duluth Serena hotel. The hotel building, which once served as a coffee plantation, dates back to the late 1800’s. The guest rooms, whose exteriors were inspired by Masai huts, had lovely views of the gardens and surrounding lake.

Then it was off to the airport where we bid goodbye to Tanzania, with a spectacular view of Kilimanjaro from the south, its summit just peaking above the cloud line. Thirty hours later we arrived back in Chicago with some amazing memories and thousands of photos to prove it.

The Amazing African Safari – Part One

Part one | Part Two

Was it worth two eight and a half hour-long plane rides (each way) and a long London layover for a ten day African Safari? Absolutely. We had an amazing journey. In order to make it happen, tough, schedules were cleared, vaccinations were updated, and four friends were recruited to be part trip of a lifetime. It was an unforgettable visit to Nairobi, and game parks in Kenya and Tanzania.

After the aforementioned epic journey out, we were met plane side, right on the tarmac, escorted through customs, and handed off to a representative of the tour company,  who in turn delivered the entourage to the Nairobi Serena Hotel.

Security is ever present in Kenya. There are guards at every property, store, and even restaurants in the capital city. We encountered a checkpoint to get into the hotel property, and all bags had to be x-rayed prior to entering the main lobby. Access to the hotel required passing through a magnetometer.

The Serena is part of Leading Hotels, a global consortium of luxury properties around the world.The lobby was very elegant and ornate, the whole property was bathed in dark brown wood trim, with sandy brown, earthy painted walls. The main dining room was connected to the outdoor pool via a large semi-circular bar.  The hotel is very close to the heart of downtown, so there were many dark suited business types eating, drinking, and having meetings.

We caught our first glimpse of wildlife there, Marabou storks, which like to perch in the tree tops in the park across from the hotel.

Day One  1° 15′ South of the Equator, 36° 45′ East of Greenwich, elevation 5250 feet

First stop of the day’s activities was the Daphne Shedrick elephant orphanage, where for nearly thirty years, injured and abandoned baby elephants are housed, fed, and raised until they can be returned to the wild. The infants need mother’s milk for two years in order to survive. After a long period of trial and error, the founders finally hit on the working recipe to recreate elephant milk. The public is allowed on the property from 11am to noon only to witness a feeding.  Wheelbarrows full of milk bottled were waiting as the first batch of elephants, consisting of one to two years of age. Tourists gathered around a roped off area to view the feeding. We were allowed to pet the pachyderms if they approached the edges. Their skin was dirty, and felt like a ten year old leather suitcase that had been in the sun the whole time. They were friendly and playful. Another batch of older elephants was brought in next for a separate feeding. These were slightly larger and several had just begun to sport tusks. We learning about the dangers of poaching, and how it can take up to five years to repatriate the animals back into the wild. I was also amazed to learn that each elephant had to be feed every three hours, so a keeper will stay in the stables used to house and them, solely them for the purpose of the overnight feeding.

Next stop was the Langatta Giraffe Center, which was started to prevent the population of Rothschild giraffes from going extinct. There was a raised hut allowing people to feed the giraffes at their level. They would gently lap up pellets provided by the staff, right out of your hand. Some liked to be pet, one cared for nothing other than the food. We heard a brief talk about these giant animals, including the history and important work taking place at the center.

Our lunch was at The Carnivore, a renowned eatery that combines the elements of a Brazilian steak house, with popular local delights, including crocodile meat and bulls testicles. We tried most of the meats on the menu, and our group consensus was that the best dish was ostrich meatballs.

We also mixed tourism with shopping as we stopped at Kazuri, a unique factory that employs single, underprivileged mothers. By working at Kazuri, these women are then able to support their families in a country where unemployment is very high and good jobs are scarce.  The beads, necklaces, and jewelry produced are sold around the world.  This social mission began with ten women and now employs more than three hundred.  https://www.kazuriamerica.com/

The next destination was the Karen Blixen house. The famed author of “Out of Africa” and “Babette’s Feast” built a coffee plantation on 6000 acres, of which only the land around her house remains. The residence has been preserved as it looked in the 1920’s and 30’s, with the original furnishings having been gifted back to the Kenyan government.

The last stop before returning to our hotel in some voracious traffic was a medium sized house, where every room had different kinds of tchotchkes, from clothing to carvings, and coffee, as well as spices.  I may think twice before I complain about traffic in Chicago. Our return to the hotel, a journey of less than ten kilometers, took almost two hours, due to the over abundance of cars, lack of public transit, and scarcity of stoplights.

Day Two –  1° 27′ South, 35° 24′ East, elevation 5660 feet

An early start as we bid adieu to the hotel and set off for the Masai Mara. Nairobi is a city of three million people. On our way out of town, we drove for quite some time past more shanties, apartments, and new housing projects under construction. Finally we reached the outskirts of Nairobi, and climbed up a hill that at 6800 feet above sea level that afforded us a fabulous view of the Great Rift Valley, a geographical feature that extends 3700 miles from Israel to Mozanbique. No overlook would be complete without more trinkets for sale, and the first opportunity to bargain. The original asking price for three items we selected was thirty dollars, but ended up settling for eighteen dollars. At no time did we have to pay in Kenyan Shillings, worth approximately 100 to one dollar.

We continued for another five hours, passing small villages and a few towns. The last two hours was spent bumping and bouncing along on unpaved, unmarked roads. The Sands River Masai Mara was another 45 minutes further, after entering the game park. Not five seconds in the park, we saw zebras, wildebeest, giraffes, gazelles, and our first elephant in the wild. We excitedly snapped photo after photo with our cameras, our driver obliging every request, knowing full well that the sight of zebras would soon become very common place.  There are estimated to be nearly two hundred and fifty thousand of them, just in the Mara.

Sands River is a tented compound along the aforementioned river. We had our own private tent with inside and outside sitting areas, four poster bed, and separate bathroom with a large tub. There was even an outdoor shower. We were advised that after dark, we would need an escort to and from our tents. With no fences, the animals were free to roam the camp area, once most of the light were turned off.

After a delicious lunch, we went on a game drive in the park where we saw many more zebras, plus antelope, baboons, monkeys, vultures, a hippo, and a family of giraffes. We also saw ostriches. They look so out of place there, like moving bushes from a Dr. Seuss book. However, just before returning to the property, we stumbled across two male lions, and their females. It was incredible how close we could get. It was minutes from camp, and the staff informed us, these two lions had recently fought another pair to secure their territory.

In retrospect, I should have slept better, but after the admonition against leaving the tent without an escort, every noise caught my attention. Every rustling of leaves, creak of branches, and growls of unknown origin made for a somewhat sleepless night. We were literally zipped into our tent for the evening,. I haven’t left a room light on since childhood, but did on this occasion.

No close calls for us, but we did find out that one of the lions chased an elephant through the compound, breaking a large branch on a tree, and leaving some smelly byproduct behind.
One of our traveling companions swore that he heard the lion breathing heavily as it brushed up against their tent wall.

Day Three – 1° 24′ South, 35° 1′ East, elevation 5321 feet

Every day on this trip, it seems we witnessed something amazing.  For instance, a male lion walked right in front of our land cruiser, and that wasn’t even the highlight of the day. That occurred a few hours later when we again glimpsed another one of the big cats, this time a leopard, up close.  The goal of any safari is to view the big five animals.  They are the lion, elephant, cape buffalo, leopard, and rhino. The phrase “big five” was originally coined by game hunters and referred to the difficultly of hunting them on foot.  The giraffe is obviously larger, and the hippo is actually a very dangerous animal, but not considered part of the big five.

This day’s adventure began with a early morning game drive. By now, sightings of zebras and wildebeest had become commonplace. The striped creatures would routinely walk alongside the roads, if you could call the packed dirt trails we drove on roads. Yet, they deftly darted out of the way as our vehicle approached.   We also got a very real sense of just how vast this place is. The park itself is comprised of more than 580 square miles. That is dwarfed by the Serengeti in neighboring Tanzania, with ten times the land.  There are large areas with few or no animals. We could drive for thirty or more minutes, seeing nothing but grassland, then finally approach a section with hundreds of mammals. There are mothers and their young, whether it’s a small tower (yes that’s the name for a group) of giraffes, or a drift of warthogs.

There are animal carcasses scattered around as well, and we chanced upon a dozen or so buzzards feasting on a recently killed zebra. The sick or wounded animals are easy prey for the big cats. Then the hyenas and vultures take what’s left. Along this path our driver had chosen, we spotted a large female lion perched atop a large outcropping, catching some shade under a tree, with a generous view of the surrounding area.  The other animals gave her a wide berth. Then we caught sight of another female a few minutes later, also sunning herself under a large bush. It was incredible how close our driver could maneuver his vehicle. We could see scores of flies had taken up residence on her skin, and she seemed to have given up the chore of swatting them away.  We spotted a third lion atop a very large rocky formation, and after many photos were snapped, we pulled away. Then someone noticed a male lion with a noticeable limp, heading in her general direction, Bernard, who sensed what was going to happen returned the vehicle close to the lionesses’ perch. Sure enough, the male walked right over to her, but not before ambling within a few feet of our car, seemingly oblivious to our presence. He then summited the rocks and joined her.

Mid morning, we headed for a real Masai village, home to a native ethnic group of people who have gone to great lengths to preserve many of their ancient customs. This includes their semi-nomadic lifestyle, and herding cattle, goats, and sheep.  We were entertained by a small group of men who greeted us in song, and then dance. Next, the women welcomed us with a different chant. The chief’s son gave us a tour of their traditional village, complete with a talk on the Masai culture. The Masai certainly are well versed in the dealing with tourists. We were escorted to an area where the various families had set up vending stands featuring many of the same kinds of knickknacks we had seen elsewhere, including animal carvings, bowls, necklaces, key chains, bottle openers, and salad tongs, decorated with animals. Each one of us was escorted around with ostensibly a personal shopper. They were very glib and very slick. How could one refuse to get at least something. We were no exception, neither were our friends, who also made purchases.

It was after departing the village, en route to our lunch destination, that our driver caught some chatter on the radio and detoured slightly towards a small creek area, with many bushes, shrubs, and small trees.

Someone caught a glimpse of a spotted animal pretty well concealed by a large shrub. In fact, you could not see it without the aid of binoculars. A leopard!  According to our driver, leopards were perhaps the most difficult animal to see in the game park, and yet we found one.

As Bernard relocated the vehicle around to the other side of the creek in an effort to try for a better look, the feline emerged from cover. The big cat climbed the embankment right in front of our new position, and took up residence by a nearby bush. This time our driver urged us to be very quiet and keep all limbs inside the car, as we snapped pictures and video of this incredible, up close view.  It was a sighting as good as any he’d witnessed all year. As Bernard explained, the leopards are somewhat elusive. They make a habit of hiding in the trees, even bringing their kills with them.

Other vehicles also approached for a look. We gave up our prime spot took off for a fifty kilometer trek to the Sera Mara for lunch, giddy with excitement at this wonderful encounter.

It was a long drive just for lunch, but well worth it, as the Sera Lodge was perched atop a large mount offering spectacular, panoramic views of the Masai Mara.  During the return, we saw hippos in the Mara river, which we crossed at a point just above the Kenya-Tanzania border. We saw more zebras (of course) Cape buffalo, elephants, giraffe, ostriches, and as we approached camp, we even saw the same two lions from the day before.

The evening was uneventful, and knowing to expect this time in the way of animals sounds outside the tent, we weren’t freaked out by the occasional howl or growl. The only noises came from an elephant or cape buffalo that was splashing around in the river taking a midnight swim.

continue to Part Two

Six Days in Spain – Valencia and Madrid

IMG_6664continued from Three Days in Paris

We arrived in Valencia, Spain ninety minutes late, but our reward was a beautiful day, with patchy blue skies, and temperatures in the seventies.

Why Valencia? My brother and his family are spending a year there, so this detour on our trip was to visit them. My wife and son also flew in to meet us for this portion of the journey.

Valencia is the third largest city in Spain, after Madrid and  Barcelona, with a metro population of more than a million and a half residents. It is located on the coast, three hours south from Barcelona, and two hours west of the Spanish capital. The area is a popular tourist destination, and is the origin of paella, a a simmered rice dish with seafood or meat (chicken and rabbit),cooked in a large steel pan. Valencia is also the birthplace of the cold xufa beverage known as orxata, popular in many parts of the world including the US and Latin America.

The area near the airport is filled with small commercial warehouse buildings. They also serve as storefronts, and the names are in Spanish and Chinese, which seemed rather unusual for this part of the world. My brother explained that a lot of inexpensive goods from the Orient come through the shipping port (the largest on the Western Mediterranean) and are sold cheaply here, much to the chagrin of local retailers. However, for those who can’t afford luxury goods, it’s a bargain bonanza. Once beyond the airport, the city and surrounding area looks like any other European city. Sections of older crowded cityscape give way to more open, rural space, newer construction, mixed with farmland. In addition to the oranges this area is famous for, they grow figs, persimmon, pumpkin, artichoke, cauliflower, and cabbage. Small farms can be located right next to residential housing.

We witnessed this first hand on a twenty minute walk around the neighborhood. It was the first time I had ever seen artichoke in its native state.

That evening we dined on even more traditional Moroccan food than we enjoyed in Paris, including humus, babaganoush, tabouli, and couscous. The total bill for six people was 110€. Restaurante Balansiya, Paseo de las Facultades, 3,  in the university district.  www.balansiya.com.  Many of the places we dined at are were my brother’s favorite eateries, so we knew we were in good hands.

Day Five

IMG_6527After sumptuous home cooked breakfast, which included scrambled eggs and spinach, sheep cheese, and scones, the ladies went off to do some shopping. As sexist as it may sound, the guys were not invited along. No problem. It was a beautiful day and we sat outside in the yard, and enjoyed some nice down time. That proved therapeutic, and was a good rest in advance of the afternoon activities.

We never had lunch, and instead went into downtown Valencia. There we spent time wandering around the main square, saw the cathedral, which dates back to the thirteenth century. There was a flea market taking place with vendors selling all kinds of tchotchkes and souvenirs. While downtown, we feasted on some delicious gelato, cheese, and local beer, in that order. They haven’t really discovered craft beer to any extent, here, and what passes for good beer is an amber ale that was 5.4 % ABV (alcohol by volume.)  Then we headed for Valencia Bikes to rent some two wheelers and explore the city some more. Carrer de la Tapinería, 14 valenciabikes.com.  The rental price was 5 euros per hour.

IMG_6487We meandered through the city center, dodging pedestrians and steered out bikes to the pathways along the Turia garden. This area was created by an engineering project to divert the river Turia. This important waterway had always been prone to floods, and in 1957 the flood was particularly bad. A number of lives were lost, and much of the city was devastated. Valencia decided to divert the course of the river.  Out of the fertile soil of the riverbed sprung a lush garden. The resulting echo park created by the project resulted in a nine kilometer park with picnic areas, child friendly playgrounds, adult playgrounds with outdoor exercise ellipticals, and other “fitness” things for big kids. Also there are soccer pitches, and open spaces where an  festival and concerts where taking place. On this particular day there were a number of booths that appeared to be educational and public health related. The highlight of the park was the ultra modern buildings housing the science museum, oceanographic institute, IMAX theater, opera house designed by world famous architect, and Valencia native Santiago Calatrava.

We rode our bikes all the way to the waterfront and beach, a round trip of about fifteen km.

IMG_6532At night we returned to downtown Valencia for dinner. Old town Valencia was crowded, but not over populated with people at the many restaurants, all of which had outdoor, as well as indoor seating. People were eating, walking to and from the area, or just milling about. We ate delicious Italian food at Lambrusquería. They apparently were doing quite well, as they have taken over several of the adjacent store fronts, in addition to their original locale at 31 Conde Altea.  lambrusqueria.com.  They featured very tasty pasta dishes, and mine was a four cheese fiesta of flavor.  Dinner for eight, with wine and dessert totaled 143€, including tax and tip. That’s barely twenty euros a person for an exquisite Italian dinner.

In order to go back and retrieve the car, which had hike several blocks.  The sheer volume of cars parked along the narrow streets required us to find one of the local garages. Four of us made a side detour. My brother took us to Doce, a bar, which boasts a Guinness world record 429 different varieties of gin. The gang ordered two gin and tonics, one with nutmeg, and one with some Peruvian tonic water.  I opted for some Macallan Amber single malt scotch. Even as we exited Doce well past midnight, there were still lots of people out and about.

Day Six

paellaThe grown ups left the kids sleeping and went to a local eatery for breakfast of scrambled eggs and mushrooms. We also enjoyed a local traditional egg and potato frittata, as well as the very strong Spanish coffee. The agenda for this vacation trip seemed to be one meal after the next, so after a brief respite, and time to pack up our our stuff, we headed en masse once again to the beachfront, with its restaurant row. My brother chose one of his favorite places, La Pepica, known for its traditional Spanish paella, served in large two handed pans, in which the ingredients are cooked, then baked.

There was barely enough time to stroll down their version of a boardwalk before driving off to the train station, where we took the high speed train to Madrid, Spain’s capital city.  The nearly two-hour journey took us past rolling hills, and semi-arid farmland.

The Hotel Villa Real was a short cab ride from the station, located within walking distance of the museums, as well as the Plaza Mayor, one of the city’s main squares. We walked down streets filled with tourists, lots of tourists, enjoying food, shopping, and drinking at the enormous number of shops and eateries along the way. The area was teeming with people. There was a rally in the Puerta de Sol (another popular square) commemorating the fifth anniversary of the Arab Spring, while a concert was being staged at the Plaza Mayor. There were plenty of police on hand to ensure nothing got out of hand. Fortunately, all was civil, and no one had to interfere. We located the San Miguel market, a very modern, veritable food court on steroids. It was comprised of stalls selling everything from tapas, seafood and meats, to vine, cheese, beer, champagne, and fruit smoothies.

We topped off the evening with a stop at Chocolateria San Gines, chocolateriasangines.com which dates back to 1894 for some churros, fried dough, which unlike Mexican version lacks cinnamon sugar. Instead, one gets a cup of hot chocolate, which is a drinkable rich chocolate, that looks like a cup of hot fudge, for dipping the churros.

Day Seven

The goal of this day was to see at least two of Madrid’s best museums. It was was a beautiful, cloudless day, a crisp cool morning with azure skies, as we headed for the Reina Sofia, with a stop for breakfast at an outdoor cafe. We ordered, scrambled eggs, a Spanish omelette, which is similar to a potato frittata, fruit and cheese. All that along with drinks for four came out to less than forty euros. Next, we located the aforementioned modern art museum, only to find that it was closed for the Feast of San Isidro holiday. Even worse news, the Sofia would be closed the following day, it’s regular Tuesday closure. That meant no chance to see it. The only bright spot was that tourist booth next to the museum told us that the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum would be free on Mondays from noon to four, so we killed a little time and headed there instead.

IMG_6574In addition to a very impressive collection of art that dates back to the thirteenth century, this museum houses 1600 paintings as part of the most incredible personal collections I have ever seen. The acquisition of much of the artwork was started in the 1920s as a private collection by Heinrich, Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza de Kászon. He purchased much of it from rich American collectors struggling during the Great Depression. His son Hans furthered this treasure trove with more artwork from family, and new acquisitions. The younger baron’s wife Carmen was instrumental in persuading the Baron to relocate the majority of his collection to Spain, where the local government had a building available next to the Prado. The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum officially opened in 1992, showing 715 works of art. A year later, the Spanish Government bought 775 more artwork to augment the collection, paintings from the mid-1800’s onward including works by Monet, Renoir, Boudin, and other impressionists and well as important works from the early twentieth centuries.

It was such a gorgeous day that we eschewed the Prado, and instead opted to go to nearby Parque de Retiro, Madrid’s equivalent of Central Park.  350 acres filled with walkways, sculptures, and several cafes, where we had lunch al fresco, adjoining a small lake that features rowboats for rent. It cost eight euros and we rowed around for about thirty of our allotted forty-five minutes.

IMG_6589Then we engaged in the family sport of shopping, dividing our time between the small shops along the Paseo del Isabel, and a large department store that carried both European and American brands. We were able to take advantage of a tax rebate program, and with the help of our salesperson, one of my 30€ shirts ended up costing two euros after rebates and discounts.

For dinner, we set out to locate a popular, but less touristy area about a fifteen to twenty minute walk from the hotel. It was a mix of traditional Spanish, Indian, pizza and other options, and we found and Asian/Spanish mix that promised us a tasty wok cooked chicken dish. They delivered, and also talked us into a vegetarian entree with fedeos, an angel hair pasta. Our mission after that mini-feast, was to find some gelato for desert. We first tried the mercado San Miguel, where we dined Sunday, but they had a small selection of branded flavored, which would have been like going to a chain ice cream shop at home. Two other stores had the exact same brands, so we took a pass as well. Finally we located a shop with homemade gelato, a mere three blocks from our hotel.

During our search we wandered down a very uncrowded side street, not far from the hotel where we spied a very local, bar with dozens of dusty liquor bottles on the shelves. My son and I returned there after delivering the the ladies to the hotel, and discovered that it was a sherry and port bar, serving glasses and bottles right from several casks behind the bar.  The old bottles were a collection of sherries from around the world, which reminded me of the gin bar in Valencia. However, this place was much more low key, filled with mostly local patrons. We had four glasses of the different libations, plus a cheese plate, and the whole thing cost less than twelve euros. The bartender kept everyone’s tab in chalk on the old wooden bar itself. We made plans to take the rest of the gang back there the following night.

Day Eight

Instead of searching for an eatery, we simply had breakfast at the hotel, where they had the typical European buffet of cereals, bread, fruit, meats, as well as items cooked to order including omelettes and pancakes.

IMG_6625At some point we had to do a little business, so Jennifer and I met with a representative of the hotel and got an official tour of the property and its sister hotel, the Urban, just around the corner from the VillaReal. Whereas the VillaReal is a more traditional hotel, the Urban, constructed ten years ago is more modern and upscale, with a indoor courtyard, a terrace with excellent views of the surrounding area, and a small museum containing items from the personal collection of the hotel owner, which included wood carvings from Paupa New Guinea dating back to the late 1800’s. The VillaReal on the other hand, has large Roman era mosaics from the local area.

We gathered the troops and headed out for a day of exploring the city of Madrid. Like most large cities, they also have several hop on-hop off buses. We caught a Madrid City Bus and rode the route 2 north to the Bernabeau Stadium, the home of Real Madrid, one of the premier sports clubs in the world. For just 19€ we got a self guided tour that included a view from the upper deck of this 85,000 seat stadium, a visit to the club’s history museum, with its gigantic trophy case. Or perhaps I should have said trophy cases. Real is one of the most decorated clubs as well, have won pretty much every league, country, and European title during its illustrious and rich history. The team museum had not one, but  five, room length display cases to hold all the hardware the club has won during its storied history.

IMG_6613There were other exhibits including an opportunity to pose with the UEFA champions league trophy garnered in 2014. A number of my colleagues have had their picture snapped with Stanley Cup, but not many have had a chance to hold this equally renowned piece of silver.

The tour also included a stop in the owner’s boxes and VIP seating area, as well the the locker rooms and player benches on the pitch, plus the obligatory finish at the team store.

We rode the bus some more, enjoying great views of  the local architecture. Whereas in Paris, even newer buildings are constructed in the City of Light’s French colonial style, edifices in Madrid run the gamut from Spanish colonial, to thoroughly modern, coexisting, sometimes, side by side. We stopped for some some lunch at Vait, a chain of high end pastry and gourmet , where our lunch, which included goat cheese lasagna and grilled swordfish. After buying some cookies and pastries for the road, we continued our sightseeing, with stops at the Egyptian temple, and the presidential palace. It was closed for some official function, because the king was in residence.

It was a beautiful day, and when we out back to the hotel, we sat outside and enjoyed our complimentary glass of champagne, which we augmented with a (paid) cheese plate.

la sanabresaAfter some rest, and packing, it was off to the next meal.  This time we consulted Yelp for guidance in locating an authentic Spanish restaurant. We hit the jackpot with one of the top meals of the trip. It directed us to La Semerosa, calle Amor De Dios 12, where for sixteen euros each, we had a three course dinner. The appetizers were terrific. Grilled asparagus, mushrooms, and eggplant fritters.  Dinner included steak and veal, and sumptuous desserts featuring a super moist cheesecake, sponge cake, and flan. Flan, a traditional custard pudding topped with caramel is one of my favorite desserts, along with tiramisu.  If it’s on the menu, I’m getting it. This version of flan was served with whip cream on the side, and was one of the best I’ve had in a long time. Water was complimentary, and a tasty half bottle of wine was a mere 6.5€.  We mangled to stop by the sherry bar again, and tried some more libations. We even bought a bottle of Oloroso, which means “aromatic” in Spanish, to bring home. Five drinks and a bottle to go totaled less than 25 euros. A great way to end our last night in Spain.

Day Nine

Just as the hotel had predicted, the taxi ride to the Madrid airport took 40 minutes. The fare was a fixed price of thirty euros. The driver and I engaged in a lively conversation about gas prices and energy efficient cars. One sees very few gas guzzlers on the road in Europe. They consider an SUV a very large car. Most people drive compact cars, and drive far less than Americans do. The driver noted that he only puts about 7500 kilometers a year on his personal vehicle, which was typical. At a little over a euro per liter, Spaniards were paying about four dollars a gallon for their gas. Diesel is very popular there. By comparison, Parisians were shelling out about 10-15% more.

Madrid’s airport is very modern and we had to take a train our to our gates, similar to Atlanta’s giant airport. Between some slight confusion at check in with our seat assignments, some duty free shopping, and a pause for some breakfast, two hours passed rather quickly. We arrived at the gate at boarding time, which was another mass gathering. Our priority boarding put us at the front of the queue, only to have to wait in the jetway for an additional ten minutes. After these experiences, I don’t think I’ll ever complain about boarding procedures in the US.

It was an uneventful nine hour flight home.

Three Days in Paris

IMG_6418 copyMy first trip to Europe was in 1983. A five week sojourn through seven countries took five weeks and cost me a mere nine hundred dollars, not including airfare. That amount wouldn’t last nine days today. Of course, my taste in hotels and food has changed appreciably since then.

That didn’t stop me from taking one of my children to Paris, as a college graduation gift.

The City of Lights is one of my favorite travel destinations, and has always been a non stop hive of activity. But in twenty years since my most recent visit, the number of cars seems to have increased dramatically, and is more congested than ever. The only thing that seems to have diminished in two decades, is the amount of dog poop on the streets. (There was almost none.)

From my experiences, the best way to engage the French citizens is to make any attempt to say something, anything in French.  Even a simple “Bon jour” will change the perceived negative attitude that Parisians have towards Americans.  They almost all speak English, but the effort to try some French goes a long way towards getting what you want.

Note: I have written prices in euros to give the reader an idea of our costs.  The exchange rate I got from my credit card company was about $1.13 or $1.14 to the euro.  I purposely used a credit card with no fees for foreign transactions, and a debit card from a bank that only charged a 1.5% fee.  While merchants offer you the option to pay in dollars or euros, one should always choose the local currency.

Day One

Never was that auto logjam more apparent than during the trip from Charles DeGaulle airport to downtown Paris. A bus journey of 30 kilometers (19 miles) took more than an hour and a half at mid morning, whereas late at night, it would take barely a half an hour according to Google. Then, add the additional 3.2 km (2 miles) to our hotel which was thirty minutes taxi ride, instead of ten, and I’m suddenly re-thinking my departure strategy.

The Hotel Le Littre was a welcome sight at the end of this two hour ordeal, mostly because I was jet lagged and sleep deprived. The flight from Chicago seemed to have non stop of turbulence, and a rather zealous flight crew, The best news was that our room was ready, and we didn’t have to dump the luggage and kill some time. Throughout our stay the staff at the hotel could not have been more friendly and helpful, whether it was a food recommendation or directions to the nearest metro stop. 9 rue Littre  hotellittreparis.com

My best remedy for jet lag is two pain relievers and a cat nap.

That done, it was time to explore. While back in the states, I ordered a two day pass from the hop on, hop off bus company L’Open Paris http://www.paris.opentour.com/en/. These are located in many large cities, including some in the US, and are a great way to get around and see the sights. The Paris system has four different routes covering most of the city’s major attraction. You can ride as much as you want during a fixed period with unlimited on and off privileges. We ordered our through Viator Tours.  They offer tours, things to do, sightseeing tours, day trips and more, for cities around the world, not just Paris. Also available from your friendly travel agent.

If you want to use this option, make sure to print a copy of the map from the website. The stops are marked, but they are intermingled with Paris’ extensive bus system. It took some walking around to find the nearest one by trying to reconcile the names of the stops with our Paris map. In retrospect, I should have checked to see if the hotel had one. Ultimately, we did find one within three blocks of the hotel. That ended up being our main mode of transportation around town. It cost 37 euros for a two-day pass, and by the time we got on the bus, it was late in the day, and our driver gave us an extra day. We spent more time than expected as a passenger, because, just before we were going to hop off that afternoon, a torrential downpour started. We couldn’t even sit on the open upper deck. Water was cascading down the staircase to the top level.

Riders should also note that the service ends at 8 PM, and some drivers take that literally, as several buses seemed to be out of service, as we were waiting for what we thought was the last ride back towards the hotel.

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The Louvre

Part of the afternoon also found me catching up with an old college classmate who was staying at the Hotel Regina. When he informed me that he was across from the Louvre Museum, he wasn’t kidding. This five star hotel could not have been any closer, across the Rue de Rivoli from the Musee des Arts Decoratives, and three blocks from the architect IM Pei’s fabulous pyramid entrance.

After two buses passed us, with no intention of stopping, we walked the kilometer or so back to our hotel, down the Boulevard St. Germain and Boulevard Raspail, two busy commercial avenues in the Left Bank, dotted with shops and offices.

I had looked up some nearby eateries on Yelp prior to leaving, and one that caught my eye featured a mix of French and Moroccan cuisine. Chez Bébert did not disappoint. We arrived to a packed house, but needed only two seats, we were quickly seated next to a man at a table for four. This gentleman, sitting by himself turned out to be a retired professor from Baltimore, and was very pleasant conversation throughout dinner. I had a crepe with tuna that was more of pastry, then for an entree, had a combo entire of chicken, meat, and merguez, a spicy lamb sausage. It arrived with a heaping plate of couscous, and side dishes of beans and chick peas in some kind of sauce. Needless to say, I struggled mightily, but could not finish. Dessert was out of the question. Dinner for two – 67€.  Chez Bebert 71, Blvd du Montparnassee.
Full bellied, we returned to the hotel where I fell fast asleep.

Day Two

notre dame

Crowds at Notre Dame

The hotel had a decent breakfast with delicious coffee and warmed milk, plus juices, pastries, and several excellent cheese options. Only the scrambled eggs were a disappointment, but that is typical of most European eateries. Then, after heading in the wrong direction, we found the closest L’Open bus stop. We had to wait about twenty minutes for a bus, but then we took the orange line to the Hotel des Invalides (a complex of museums and monuments, all relating to the military history of France, as well as a hospital and a retirement home for war veterans,) before transferring to the green route. It was still cloudy, but with no rain in sight, we were able to sit on the upper deck this time, which makes a big difference as you gaze upon the many Parisian landmarks. That took us past the Place de la Concorde, the Opera, and some of Paris most fashionable stores, including Printemps, a department store dating back to 1965.

We disembarked at Notre Dame, a must see for any Paris trip. there was a short line, and security was looking at every bag entering the fabled landmark. We rented a portable audio guide for 5€ which had some nice information. After that we found a nearby cafe, where I had a smoked salmon crepe and bottled water. Lunch for two was 35€. Pricey, but very convenient, and a clean bathroom. Never underestimate that. As we were preparing to head out again, it began to rain, so as we got back in another bus, we had to relocate to the lower level. This portion of the journey took us down the Champs Elysee, similar to New York’s Fifth Avenue, with more high end stores.

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Limited visibility from the Eiffel Tower

Our destination was the Eiffel Tower, where we had pre bought tickets. The best we could do, even three weeks in advance was a three PM entry time. Still, the rain continued to come down, moderately at times. While you are probably not feeling sorry for me, it was a bit disappointing, as visibility was no more than a few miles. Security was once again very stringent. There were metal detectors, and screeners checking every bag.

We took the Orange line bus back, doubling part of the route we traversed yesterday. It did afford some more views of Boulevard St. Germain and the scenic Left bank. Next, we did some shopping and helped the local economy. We turbo charged our stamina for shopping with a detour via a cafe around the corner from the hotel, where we snacked on crepes, coffee, and hot chocolate – Crêperie La Duchess Anne. Total bill was 18€.

For dinner we asked the hotel for a place with traditional French food. Their recommendation of La Rotonde was spot on, as we had a three course meal for 44€ each that included a goat cheese crepe, sautéed sea bass, and creme brûlée for dessert. rotondemontparnasse.com 105 Blvd du Montparnasse.

Day Three

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The gardens at Versailles

After breakfast at the hotel, we had a short walk to one of three nearby metro stops, as we were en route to the rendezvous point for our guided tour of Versailles. A group of eighteen people, including us, boarded a commuter train for the journey to the palace and gardens of Versailles, located about twenty kilometers (12 miles) southwest of Paris. This huge estate, commissioned by Louis XIV in the seventeenth century, originally consisted of 20,000 acres, of which 2000 still remain. This swampy, forested brush was cleared by hand labor to create the luxurious gardens which remain to this day. Our guide walked us around major parts of the gardens for two hours, and explained the history of this beautiful landmark. Afterwards, she escorted us into the palace itself for a self guided tour. The audio tour provided a good description of each of these exquisite, ornate rooms. The place was very crowded, with tourists and students on field trips. Not recommended for the claustrophobic. While is lavish and grandiose, we couldn’t wait to get away from the mass of people. The train station is no more than a few blocks from the palace, and we hopped a train back to Paris, exiting at the Musee D’Orsay, which was our next destination.

We needed to rest our tired feet for a bit, so we ambled down the street another block beyond the museum where we loaded a nice eatery. Paris-Orsay, 14 rue de Bellechasse, had pizza, burgers, and salads. I chose a chicken, spinach, tomato, corn salad. My daughter didn’t see anything that intrigued her, so she ordered a hamburger and fries. Plus bottled water, the tab was 37€.

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Claude Monet – Boats at Argenteuil

If you love Impressionist paintings like I do, then the Musee D’Orsay is a must see. In addition to art from Manet, Monet, Cezzane, Van Gogh, and others, there are furniture, sculpture, and other rotating exhibits, housed in a beautifully restored train station. You can see the progression of French art from the mid nineteenth century to the early 1900’s. Admission is 12€, 9€ for those 18-25, free for those under 18.

We were fortunate that it did not rain during our Versailles trip, but the skies opened up again while we were in the museum. We would have probably stayed longer, but the early adventure was wearing us down. I personally could stay there all day, but I had others to attend to. We walked to the nearest hop on bus stop, pausing along the way at a pastry shop we discovered two days before, Maison Kayser, 18 rue de Bac http://www.maison-kayser.com/fr/. We ate our pastries, then waited, and we waited some more, but no bus came. Despite tired legs, we ambled back to the hotel, window shopping along the way.

I went back out in search of some souvenirs and a place to repair my watch. Galleries Lafayette, located in the Tour Montparnasse was a department store, not unlike a Macy’s back home. Fortunately, they had a Swatch department, where they fixed part of my watch band. Here’s an unsolicited plug. I’ve owned two watches in the past thirty years. Both Swatches. Their customer service is second to none. I can get my watched cleaned and serviced at any company store for free, so it was no surprise that my repair was gratis.

We thought about getting takeout, and having a simple dinner, but stumbled across a pizza restaurant in the square across from the skyscraper, so we dined in at Pizza Pino. We split a cheese, mushroom, and truffle pizza that was delicious. There are several items on my obligatory list, and that includes caprese salad (tomatoes mozzarella, basil, and olive oil, so we ordered that, along with a small bottle of red wine. Dessert was chocolate mousse which was part of the pizza deal. Total bill was 39€, the least expensive dinner so far.  57 Blvd du Montparnasse.  As you can see, we dined mostly in the area around the hotel. There were plenty of choices, as the area is very popular.

Day Four

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Place de la Concorde

We debated back and forth about the best return method to get to Charles DeGaulle airport. The bus did not seem timely, based on our arrival, and we’d still have to get ourselves to the pick up location, adjacent to the Paris Opera. Our “research” even included walking to the St. Placide metro stop, to gauge how easy or difficult it would be to lug our suitcases through the train stop. The cheapest way would have been to take the metro to the Gard Du Nord train station, and pick up a commuter rail to the airport. In the end, we opted for simplicity and got a taxi from the hotel. No bargain at 70 euros, but it did only take 50 minutes, as we traveled against the bumper to bumper traffic heading into town.

Of course we arrived at DeGaulle only to find our flight was delayed. The fog and dense cloud cover caused our flight to be two hours late. We may think our system of group boarding in the US is a pain, but let me tell you, there was no real boarding system on our Air Europa flight to Valencia, Spain. After business/first class boarding, it was a free for all. To make matters worse, there was another flight leaving from the same gate, with a departure about twenty minutes prior. So there were really two crowds massed at the departure point. Somehow it all worked out, even if we spent ten minutes on the jetway, as passengers were not actually boarding the plane itself. Go figure. I’ll never whine about group boarding in the US.

The story continues with our sojourn to Valencia.

A Cancun Resort Vacation

Secrets-the-Vine-CancunA short five day vacation trip to Mexico is just what I needed to seek refuge from another Chicago winter. Who knew it would be a mild March, although truth be told, I did manage to miss a small snowstorm.

A beer procured from an airport hawker at near US prices was ideal for the slightly warm, balmy day, and the seventy-five minute ride south from the Cancun airport. The mostly modern highway leads past a number of resorts, with names like Excellence Riviera, Iberostar, Xcaret, and Xel-ha. Interspersed among the mangrove and a few small towns, including Puerto Aventuras, Akumal (where the development of the Rivera Maya began in the 1960’s,) and Playa del Carmen, were quite a few familiar names like Walmart, Office Depot, and the ubiquitous Starbucks. One of our guides would tell us jokingly, I assumed, that all the American franchises were thriving in Mexico, except one…Taco Bell!

Finally, we reached the outskirts of Tulum. It is a municipality of just under twenty thousand people, located near the archeological ruins of the same name.

That is where The Grand Bahia Príncipe is located. It is one of several resorts dotting the Caribbean as the coast winds southward toward the ruins. This huge property is comprised of four resorts in one. Akumal, a 758-room, high end all-suite resort, that was off limits to us; the Sian Ka’an, a contemporary, modern resort, for adults only, featuring a golf course and 420 rooms; Coba, the largest on the property, with 1080 rooms, and a more family oriented place; and lastly Tulum, named after the nearby ruins, and where we were staying in one of its 960 rooms. We also would be enjoying its three pools, five restaurant, and seven bars. Add to that, the additional six pools and thirteen restaurants and bars we could theoretically go to, and there is no shortage of things to do.

IMG_5657Each resort area within the complex featured a spacious lobby, which was a mini beehive of activity. Dozens of people congregated. Some were checking in, several were in the process of checking out, but most were gathered to get their free wifi. The receptionist checked us in and unfurled a map that showed us where not only our room was, but where the restaurants were, including a 24-hour cafe where we could snag a late lunch. The map proved very useful as the rooms were in three story villas, all of them looked alike, and numbered around thirty. There are staffers everywhere, and our luggage and tired selves were escorted to a second floor room at one of the closer buildings. All the villas fan out from the lobby, and are groups of six or ten units forming and inverted u-shaped configurations.

It was already past four and we walked over to the aforementioned cafe for a very late lunch. There were a surprising number of food choices available, well beyond the requisite hamburgers and french fries. That included salads, fish, and poultry. There was also a soft serve ice cream machine, and a stocked bar serving margaritas, daiquiris, and mojitos. Many guests had their own large cups to keep the frozen concoctions cold. We also checked out the pool area, one of several on this part of the property. Lastly, we took a stroll by the beach. It was a windy day, and the red flags were flying, indicating high surf or strong currents. That didn’t seem to deter the few people who were in the water, which was protected by a small barrier reef.

Our room was quite ample, and included a king sized bed, a couch, a small round dining table, as well a refrigerator stocked with Corona beer and soda. The room was no smoking, and yet ironically, there was an ash tray on the balcony.

After a brief rest, and despite having had a snack so recently, we set off for dinner a mere two hours later. The theme at the main dining room was Spanish. The room was decorated in the red and yellow colors of Spain. There were Castellan food options, such as paella, although I chose more typical Mexican fare, like arroz con pollo (chicken with rice.) The food was fair, but the choices were many.

After dinner we went to the adjacent bar. The entertainment included a male and female duo on vocals and drums, backed by synthesized guitar and keyboards, courtesy of their laptop. The repertoire consisted of seventies dance hits. After they finished their forty-five minute set, we were entertained by a Mexican Elvis impersonator. He was backed by a full six piece band. Even though he mispronounced a few lyrics, his enthusiasm and schtick more than made up for it.

IMG_5647Day Two began with a walk over to the Coba. This resort features baby, kids’, and teen clubs, a water park playground, kids’ menus, and family suites. There are numerous, frequent trams ferrying guests all over the property, to and from the various sections, but this was our morning exercise, so we circumnavigated the Coba, finishing at one of their restaurants for our breakfast. We were greeted with our choice of adult beverages at the restaurant, and I opted for a Bloody Mary. It was made from scratch. The coffee was good, and served with warm milk. The best part of the meal wasn’t the hot entrees, it was the abundance of tasty, fresh fruit.

The remaining part of the morning was spent poolside, before breaking for lunch at the Brazilian restaurant. Unfortunately, It began to rain after lunch, which meant there wasn’t much more to do, than checking emails or texting with family, while my wife contacted her office. This was a working vacation of sorts. As a travel agent, there is always something to tend to back home.

On this night, Mexican was the dinner theme, so I feasted on ceviche and bistek (a traditional skirt steak) among other entrees. At a friend’s suggestion, we booked an excursion to the Mayan ruins at Tulum. For a mere $35 each, we procured a guided tour for the following morning. It would be an early start so we kept things low key, and retired early without attending the evening show.

IMG_5679Day Three: Along with several other people from our resort, we boarded a coach bus for the twenty minute trip south. Tulum is one of the more recent Mayan architectural sites, and the only one located along the coast. It was actually the first site discovered by the Spaniards back in the 16th century. From the parking lot it was a 600 meter walk to the site, but first we passed a gauntlet of vendors, sandwich shops, bars, and a Starbucks. Once we cleared the man made trap, a walkway took us past mangroves, palm trees, and other dense foliage to the stone wall that surrounds Tulum, whose origins are estimated to date back 1400 years ago.  I’ve never seen the better known Chichen Itza, but Tulum was spectacular in its own right.

The area is open space dotted with the remaining temples and the foundations of ancient houses. The site was mostly a fortress built to defend the coastline. It culminates in a lighthouse atop a cliff, that overlooks the ocean. Several buildings are positioned to funnel the sunrise light at the vernal/spring and winter equinoxes, in a sort of architectural calendar. After a walking tour by our guide, we were free to explore more, and more importantly, decent the wooden staircase to a cove and go swimming in the waters of the Caribbean. We were among the first groups to arrive at Tulum. By the time we finished swimming, the place was crawling with tourists. Despite the influx of people, it never felt crowded on the grounds.

IMG_5722We returned at lunchtime, and decided to seek out the Mexican restaurant on the property for for the day’s lunch buffet. It was one of the better lunches we had, with made-to-order pasta, spinach wrapped in chicken, cucumber salad, and yes, shots of tequila. We saw an army of iguanas sunbathing on the rocks just outside the restaurant. Then it was a brief pool time and relaxing before our a la carte meal at La Tortuga, the property’s Brazilian Steakhouse.

I’ve eaten that type of meal before and it’s always a challenge not to load up on salads and appetizers before the arrival of the passadores, he waiters holding sharp knives, carrying meat on sword like skewers used to prepare meat in the churrasco style of South American rotisserie cooking.

IMG_5733We dined on lamb, steak, chicken, and grilled vegetables. My one small gripe about the service, is that while the staff are very nice, they couldn’t seem to refill the water and drinks on a regular basis. Almost all of them could converse in English, and if not, may Spanish was sufficient to ask for what we needed.

The evening’s nighttime entertainment was a Michael Jackson tribute show. The star lookalike lip-synced and mimicked Jackson trademark moves along with a troupe of eight dancers who choreographed routines to Jackson’s more popular songs. After that we proceeded to the bar where the staff found four couples willing to participate in some very silly, but entertaining dance games. That was enough amusement for one night.

Day Four began with an honest effort to hit the gym and began to work off all this food. All inclusives are great due to the vast array of food choices you have, and just as bad, because of all the food choices you have. Three meals a day can quickly become five meals a day if one does not make a effort to scale back. In reality, that never happens. So we arrived at the gym only to find that everyone else seemed to have the same idea. Plan B was to walk to the Coba portion of the resort, which we hoped would not be as crowded. It wasn’t, but their only elliptical, my exercise machine of choice was taken, so I had to whittle away ten minutes on a crappy old lifecycle. Memo to the Grand Bahia. Time for bigger gyms, with more ellipticals. After a quick breakfast at Coba’s main dining room, there was just enough time to walk back and pack up as we were splitting this trip between Tulum and Cancun, with a stop in Playa Del Carmen to visit the eight month old Grand Hyatt Playa. (coming soon – a review of the property)

Then we braved a tropical rainstorm and some slightly flooded street for the hour trip north to Cancun, where our final destination, Secrets the Vine, awaited.

IMG_5794Cancun reminds me of Miami Beach, with a narrow strip of land abutting the mainland. High rise hotels shoot out of the land, gobbling up nearly every inch of buildable space.

The weather continued to be windy and rainy, so that precluded us from exploring the pool area Instead, we went to see how many of the restaurants we could scope out. The Italian eatery came highly recommended, and we ended up there. Along the way we got a tour of the spa, booked a massage, had a latte in the coffee and snack bar, and staked out a place while watching the Duke – North Carolina game at the sports bar. A small crowd gathered there to watch a UFC fight card .

IMG_5790While we waited for our table at Nebbiolo, we chatted with Uriel, whose job was to make the pizzas, and prepare the focaccia bread. That included rolling the dough, and baking the pizza crusts in an 600 degree oven. He deftly maneuvered his creations in and out of the device without any worry of getting burnt. Uriel’s says he makes about seventy pizzas a day during his his twelve hour shift. He even made a version of my favorite appetizer pizza, the four cheese and tomato pizza, which we were all too happy to share with two ladies seated next to us.

Day Five broke with a mix of dark, rain laden clouds with a few specks of sunshine. Despite a howling wind and a pounding surf, a handful of people were out on the beach at eight in the morning. The red warning flags were once again flapping in the stiff breeze, and no one seemed to be in the water. A few brave folks were poolside, but abandoned that idea after a while. Yet in spite of the pounding surf, the water color remained a gorgeous turquoise blue.

IMG_5795Every vacation, it seems, my wife makes at least one attempt to kill me via the long strenuous walk. This trip was no exception. We passed on the gym to go for a walk on the beach. The clouds were a mix of grays, light and dark, but did not seem to imply that rain seemed imminent. We headed north up the beach, along the ocean front, into the face of a stiff breeze. The wind was causing the waves to break on shore, and being low tide, there was a wide expanse of sand between the hotels and the water. Unfortunately, the sand was very loose and with each step our feet would sink a little bit into the sand. It wasn’t like walking in quicksand, nor was it like treading on the hard packed stuff either. Undaunted, off we went slogging through the slippery sand, trotting onward, past more high rise hotels, and larger, low rise properties. We got perhaps a mile up the shore, when some more ominous looking clouds began to approach the coast. Although it would have been just a little further to our desired endpoint,  I recommended we turn around. With the head wind gone, we could move at a better pace, but it still was a bit of a battle to keep moving forward in the sand. I was dripping sweat by the time we got back to the hotel, a two-mile roundtrip according to my wife’s fit bit. Ironically, she was the one dying of thirst as we proceeded directly to the breakfast buffet.

The sun finally made an appearance, and we spent the morning poolside. It was pretty easy to find some chairs, where we sat next to another couple from Chicago. We grabbed lunch at the Sea Salt Grill, where I had a very tasty salmon ceviche and gazpacho. They are very creative with their takes on traditional South American fare here.

For the afternoon activity, we had previously decided to indulge ourselves and splurge on massages at the spa. But before that, I spotted one of the entertainment crew members holding up a sign that said “Texas Hold’em Poker.” That is like catnip for me. Three other participants and I played, and in less than an hour, I was sixty dollars richer. That was good, because I was due at the spa. We arrived early, and took advantage of the sauna, steam room, cold pool, and jacuzzis, before heading to the “relaxation” room in advance of our treatment. I opted for the fifty minute Swedish massage. That was relaxing enough to take care of the rest of the afternoon.

IMG_5812That night we headed up to the Olio restaurant, the hotel’s middle eastern eatery. JJ, one of the maitre d’s at the Italian restaurant from the night before, had not only urged us to try Olio, the Mediterranean themed restaurant, but promised to get us a reservation. What we didn’t know, was that JJ had procured one of two “feature” tables with a gorgeous nighttime view of the the Cancun hotel district skyline. All of the menu choices looked fabulous, so we ended up getting a sampler of hot and cold appetizers to go along with our entrees. As a bonus, the chef herself presented us with a desert sampler that was as much a work of art, as it was delectable. I’m not a big fan of people taking food pictures, but this one had to be seen to be believed.

We went down to the lobby and out towards the beach to walk off some of the food, and enable my wife to reach her 10,000 steps for the day. We made a detour via the game room and played ping pong, something I haven’t done in quite some time. My wife comes from a family of avid racquet sports players, but we just played a few minutes without keeping score. The hotel game room also had air hockey and foosball tables, plus some video game consoles. Lastly we stopped by the piano bar, where no one was playing piano, got a night cap and retired for the evening.

IMG_5815Day Six  After so much food, we resolved to hit the gym. This was a very impressive facility indeed, with lots of treadmills, bicycle, free wights, exercise equipment, and or course, ellipticals. This room had an ocean view that would make me want to go exercise every day. We followed it with another tasty breakfast, hung out on the balcony watching the activity below until it was time to get our taxi to the airport.

Cancun’s airport is more modern than some US airports. In addition to the world’s largest supply of tequila for sale, it boasts a number of American franchise restaurants, such as Burger King, Dominos, TGI Fridays, Bubba Gump, Johnny Rockets, Margaritaville, and of course Starbucks. So you travelers can get a little taste of home, before actually hitting US airspace.

Pardon Our Dust

We’ve moved our offices!

Our new location is:

900 Skokie Blvd, Suite 220

Northbrook, IL  60062

That’s just south of Dundee Road

Our phone number is still 847-480-0169

A Memorable 7-Day Mediterranean Cruise

windsurf01Looking for a fabulous trip to undertake?

With the strong dollar, Europe might be the go to place for the trip of a lifetime.

In the pages that follow, you can relive a fabulous 7-day memorable Mediterranean cruise that my wife and I took in the summer of 2014 from Rome to Barcelona, with before and after stops in each city.

When asked if I would trade ten days in front of the big screen television watching World Cup soccer for the same time spent on a luxury cruise, it was a tough decision, but common sense and the desire for adventure prevailed.

So, on a warm, sticky summer afternoon, we packed as much as we could into to large suitcases without being overweight and headed for the airport. Eight very restless hours later we arrived at Rome’s modern airport, and breezed through customs. The wait for the luggage was quite brief, and thus our adventure began in earnest.

Day 1

The trek over to the airport’s train station was remarkable short, and soon we found ourselves on a warm, unairconditioned express train to Rome’s downtown “Termini” station. It was less hot than Chicago, but a good deal more humid. The cool air came on only as the forty minute trip got underway.

Out the window I saw some fields with hay rolls, a few apartment buildings, and the lush Italian countryside. A few squatters dotted the landscape as well, until we reached the outskirts of Italy’s capital city. The countryside gave way to more apartments, some office buildings, and a lot more street traffic.

Rome is a beehive of winding streets, motorcycles, small cars, and trucks, buzzing around in a chaos of sounds and lights that somehow manages to function.

The station itself was full of tourists and a plethora of locals outside ready to help you find your hotel, a ride, or some other destination, for a fee, of course.

One of the most frustrating aspect of this place is the lack of street signs. Some of the wider boulevards are properly market, but most provide no clue as to what Via you are on. It didn’t help that we had the hotel name, but no exact address, other than it was “a ten minute walk” from the train station. In most places that might have sufficed, but not in this place. Tourist information was non existent, and we set off in a comical journey to find the hotel, schlepping our big bags with us. With the help of a kind local who called the hotel and a map, we at least got pointed in the correct direction, but no surer of where we were headed. The biggest hurdle was trying to figure out exactly how to navigate the labyrinth of streets in one of the world’s oldest cities.

The cloudy skies began to darken more, and by the time we gave up and hailed a cab, it was a mere four blocks away (via a few one way streets) but well worth it as a downpour began not a few minutes after arriving at the Rose Garden Palace. Had we set out going west, instead of south from the station, we might have actually found it.

Nonetheless, we found the charming five story hotel, located in the vicinity of the US Embassy. Since our room wasn’t quite ready we ate a delicious lunch in the hotel’s restaurant. I had a vegetable ravioli, and my wife Jennifer ate a pasta with eggplant. We shared a Greek salad loaded with grape tomatoes, feta, and olives.

After catching up in some much needed sleep, we ventured out in search of a highly recommended gelateria. This time, however, we located the place on Google and wrote out the directions from the hotel.

That helps if you don’t stray from the route, but we detoured by way of the fabled Spanish steps, then tried to readjust our route. We knew the place was near the Trevi Fountain, but it was still a challenge to find it. The fountain itself was enveloped in a scaffolding and was a bit disappointing. But the gelato was not. Gelateria di San Crispino (http://idgelatodisancrisino.it) was well worth the exhaustive search, as the Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee gelato was some of the best tasting gelato I’ve sampled.

During our search we passed many outdoor cafes. One happened to be showing the Netherlands – Australia match so we doubled back there and watched the Dutch comeback and sipped a few glasses of wine. The News cafe had two TV’s tuned to the action, and we cheered on with several Dutch partisans. It drizzled on and off as we scrunched under the restaurant’s outdoor umbrellas. After the game, we able to reverse the original directions, but not before stopping at La Fenice (via F. Crispi, 68), a ristorante/wine bar/tea room, where we selected some delicious pastries for later consumption, as we watched Spain play itself out the tourney in their loss to Chile. I’ve watched soccer on Mexican television, The Italian announcers are quite tame in comparison. Fortunately, I’m well versed in soccer and can follow the action in whatever language is broadcast, which will come in handy when we reach France.

Day 1

It began with a typical Italian breakfast of cheeses, fruits, and pastry, along with strong coffee. Before leaving the hotel, we checked out their fitness room which had a nice variety of equipment, along with a sauna, and whirlpool.

rome-frescoNext it was off to the Vatican. Our guide, Elena met across from the Vatican Museum. She was a thin, attractive thirtyish woman with an extensive knowledge gleaned from ten years of studying art history. We went right in via the guides’ entry, bypassing the people queued in a long line to enter the building. Our journey began in the picture gallery, which contained tapestries and paintings dating back to the fifteenth century. There is so much to see there, but we made the most of our three-hour tour, which also included the statue gallery, the old papal residences, the fabled Sistine chapel, and finishing with St. Peter’s Basilica.

Before entering the Sistine Chapel, Elena gave us a very descriptive history of the artwork in the famous edifice, highlighted by Michelangelo’s creation of the ceiling frescoes. It was interesting to learn that even though the renown artist did use a scaffolding, he painted standing up. The frescoes have been carefully restored over the past thirty years, and a Japanese television network owns the photographic rights, and thus forbids the taking of photos. Also, due to the sanctity of the chapel, talking is prohibited. Tip: bring binoculars to get a closer look at the artwork.

Lastly we toured St. Peter’s, one of the largest basilicas in the world. It is spectacular with it’s marble, tile, and gold interior. It is breathtaking with its forty-foot ceilings. We walked out via St. Mark’s square, with its marble columns by Bernini, a preeminent architect of the seventeenth century.

Our cab ride back to the hotel, once again zigging and zagging through the streets reminded me of that old game with a wooden labyrinth and a metal pinball where you try to avoid falling in the holes. Once there, we collected our luggage and bid “Ciao!” to Roma.

The Port of Citavecchia was no more than forty minutes by train from Rome’s train station. When boarding a train, be careful of hucksters who offer to validate your ticket (not necessary) or offer to guide you to your car and load your luggage. They will then attempt to extort an outrageously large tip for a token effort. Stand your ground or threaten to call the conductor.

When arriving at the port, it is necessary to transfer to the ship terminal. It is too far to walk. There is a shuttle bus for .80 euros, but they don’t sell tickets on board. Instead, we opted for a taxi, who charged five euros to deliver us right to the embarkation door. It was well worth it as it was a circuitous route through the port area. It seems there are no straight routes in Italy.

Our ship was the Windstar Wind Surf, a 535-foot long luxury cruising yacht, comprised of 153 state rooms capable of carrying 310 passengers and a crew of 191. It is dwarfed by the giant cruise ships, but instead offers an intimate, personal journey, with a friendly, caring, and knowledgeable staff.

Boarding the ship was a breeze. Of course a small ship doesn’t have the logistical challenges that the mega cruise vessels do of loading thousands of passengers and their luggage.

We promptly explored the ship, although it always seems to take a large portion of the voyage to get my bearings around the ship, regardless of size.

stateroomOur stateroom was actually a suite, comprised of what was formerly two adjoining rooms. So, in addition to the queen size bed, there were two of everything, bathrooms, desks, closets, plus a refrigerator, a couch, chairs, and a Bose iPod dock. There were also a surprising number of lounges, bars, and restaurants to spend your onboard time at.

If our first dinner was any indication of the cuisine, it was very promising. Artichoke crepes, chicken stuffed with sun dried tomatoes, olives, and feta cheese. Others had corvina, a firm, large flaked fish, with a lime mojito sauce.

It was a fun, long dinner. After, we moved the party to the “Compass Rose” lounge where, the evening’s entertainment, a husband and wife duo, performed quite a variety of songs, from Amy Winehouse to Neil Diamond, while our ship set sail to Portoferrio, on the island of Elba.

Day 2

We awoke early to get a good breakfast before heading off on an morning excursion to Porto Azzuro, located on the southeastern side of island. Our bus took a route up and over the steep hills flanking Mount Capanne, which afforded some terrific views of the port. Along the way there were a remarkable number of cyclists on mountain as well as road bikes traversing the same hills as our tour bus. These were not small hills. Apparently, this a very popular destination with German cyclists. We walked around the small village punctuated by the large number of anchored sailboats, and stopped at a cafe for coffee and a creme filled croissant.

Our next stop was La Chiusa, a winery that has been in operation for more than an incredible three hundred years. There was a food spread including cheese, marmalade, and bread with olive oil and tepanade, as well as wines to sample. These delicious beverages ranged from whites and reds, and their specialty, desert wines. I would have liked to have seen more of the operation including the vineyards, and perhaps seen how they make the wine, but it was apparently not part of the excursion.

elba01We returned to the ship in time for a late lunch then set out on our own to explore the town of Portoferarrio. The town itself dates back to 1548. It held a very strategic location, and at various times was held by France, England, and Austria. In 1814, it was the seat of Napoleon’s first exile, but has been in Italian hands since 1860. Portoferrario got it’s name as a shipping port for iron ore from the local mills. With the decline of the iron industry in the 1970’s, it’s main income today comes from tourism.

For three euros, we ascended to the top of the fort, which had magnificent views of the town below, and it was very obvious why the fort was invulnerable to invaders, then walked through the old town, with it’s narrow winding streets, some that were inaccessible by auto, before stopping for a drink and a chance to use WiFi to check emails and check in with the folks back home.

Our jovial captain hosted a cocktail party where he introduced the senior members of the staff, each one to a different rock song, such as “Hungry Like the Wolf” for the head of the dinning staff, or “Hotel California” for the chief of the room staff.

Dinner again included grilled halibut that was freshly caught, lamb chops, or filet mignon, along with sumptuous desserts like creme brulet and red velvet cake.

Day 3

The northern part of the western Italian coast is composed of steep, rocky hills that shoot out of the sea like angry waves of rock and vegetation. It includes the province of Genoa, and that’s where the town of Portofino is is nestled on a small peninsula of land jutting out into the Mediterranean, about 50 kilometers south of the port of Genoa. Portofino’s history can be traced back to the end of the first millennium. It has been a popular vacation destination for centuries and the presence of mega luxury yachts can attest to its continued prominence.

portofinoYou can only explore the area above the harbor on foot. The walking path is lined with slate stones and newer brick. To lug any supplies and equipment up to the houses there requires a contraption that looks like a motorized wheelbarrow with tank treads to navigate the many stair steps along the way.

We walked to the lighthouse on the rocky outcropping overlooking the entire bay, stopping at a small church with a mausoleum containing the last resting places of some of the towns residents. Along the way is the Brown Castle. It cost 6 euros to enter, and was well worth it. It sits on the site of a Roman lookout. The castle, built in the sixteenth century had been restored in the nineteenth century, and again in the 1950’s.

There were many photographs from the early 1900’s pertaining to then owner, who was the British consul in Genoa, and his many guests. Among the pictures where photos from his trips to China.

After returning the main square by the port, we sat down at a cafe to check our emails and sip some expensive drinks. A beer was 7 euros (about $10). The one nice thing is they never chase you away, or make you feel guilty that you are monopolizing the table. You also get served potato chips and tomatoes in olive oil with your drinks.

Next we set off to walk/hike to the nearby town of Santa Margartia. The first portion was a path above the main road connecting the two towns, offering wonderful views of the area below. The last part of what turned out to be a five kilometer (3.2 mile) trek is along the road. Below us were the beaches. Some were small strips of pebble. Others were literally rocky outcrops were people found any flat surface and laid out on towels. Where the beach was a bit larger beach clubs sprouted, where the locals could rent lounge chairs and umbrellas. Some even had bars or restaurants.

We waiting until we reached the town to grab some lunch. Bar Guili (http://www.bargiuli.com/) tuned out to be a nice choice with a substantial menu of pasta, fish, and pizza. Unfortunately, we missed the shuttle boat back to Portofino, and not wanting to wait around for the next hourly departure, we grabbed a taxi back to town. It was an expensive proposition, with a fixed rate of 35 euros. Interestingly, we passed a line of stopped cars on the way back. A policeman waved our driver through. He explained that the police limit the amount of vehicular traffic into city. Otherwise, the area could not accommodate all those cars.

Back on the ship, we had another excellent dinner and participated in a name that tune contest, which our group won. It didn’t hurt that most of the songs were right up my alley, including the Doobie Brothers, Otis Redding, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and other pop songs which my wife and other members of our entourage knew. We won a bottle of champagne that we split twelve ways.

Day 4

Instead of the pine trees and picturesque houses that sprout from the hills above Portofino, some of the most expensive hotels, apartments, and condos rise above the harbor in Monte Carlo. There was probably more wealth docked in the harbor than in net worth of some third world countries. One cruise passenger commented to me that it cost fifteen thousand euros a day to dock in a slip there. Whether or not that’s true remains to be seen, but that fact was there were some massive yachts there, including a few that might require a small country’s army to maintain. Having no set plan, we stayed late on the ship and took advantage of the on board marina, and went kayaking around the Windsurf. There were many boats and yachts zipping around the harbor, so we never strayed far from our mothership.

monte-carlo01After lunch, we took the tender into port, and proceeded up the hill to where the National Oceanographic Museum (www.oceano.mc/en) is located. Since we have a world class aquarium in Chicago, we skipped it, but it’s worth a visit, and a lot of tourists were going there. Instead, we took a thirty minute tram ride around downtown, complete with simultaneous translation into twelve languages (via headphones). As we approached the old city of Monaco, it felt like were on a tram through Disney World. An beautiful palace, immaculate streets, and ornate gardens reminded me very much of the Magic Kingdom, except that this was for real. Our self guided tour of the old city included a required stop at the Chocolaterie de Monaco, close to the Prince’s Palace, a must for any chocoholic, like my wife.

Next, we walked towards the fabled old casino, but due to the distance, we got less than halfway, before climbing aboard a town bus for two euros to complete the journey. We cut through the Fairmont Hotel parking lot, where an assortment Rolls Royces, Ferraris, and Aston Martins were valet parked. I poked my head into the casino, but was not about to pay the ten euro entry fee. Other passengers confirmed that beautiful marble columns and stained glass ceilings in the lobby extended into the casino itself. They also noted that it was a subdued atmosphere, with no loud bells and whistles on the slot machines. The table minimums were 25 euros, which probably would have precluded me in the first place.

Eventually we made our way over to Quai Antoine 1er (Antoine the 1st street) where Stars and Bars (www.starsnbars.com/) was located. This American style sports bar, conveniently near the dock, was my first opportunity to see live World Cup action in four days. The Belgium – Russia matchup turned out to be eighty minutes of inaction, followed by ten minutes of spectacle as the Belgians scored a late goal and hung on for dear life. It was a pretty good deal for the 3.50 euro draft beers, considering what prices were elsewhere in the notoriously expensive town.

Even though we had a late departure well after midnight, we decided to return to the ship for dinner, and skip the South Korea – Algeria tilt. There was no way we’d make it for the USA game, which also began at midnight. Instead, I had to settle for the score updates on Sky Sports, which were pretty regular. It was only later that I found out that Portugal tied the contest at the last possible second.

Day 5

My wife the travel agent arranged for us to visit the Les Mas Candille (http://lemascandille.com) hotel in Mougins, twenty minutes from Cannes, our next port of call. We disembarked next to the Palais des Festivals, where the Cannes Film Festival is held every year.

mas-candideMark Silver, the property owner himself, picked us up for the ride into the hills above the coast. Silver’s path from health club proprietor in the English countryside to owning a gorgeous 46-room luxury hotel on nine acres in the French Riviera would be it’s own fascinating story.
After a most delicious lunch, we ventured into the town of Mougins, a walk of less than five minutes from the hotel. Mougins is a small charming village populated by cafes and artists displaying their paintings, sculptures, and other art, right from their studios along more narrow streets and a beautiful village square. Pablo Picasso lived his last dozen years there, and the village has a museum located in a medieval townhouse that houses a collection including statues, ancient armor, along with works by old masters and modern artists. http://mouginsmusee.com/

Upon returning to Cannes, we walked around downtown, did a lot of window shopping, and as usual, my wife found another top caliber chocolatier. We made our way back to the ship to relax a bit, have another excellent dinner, and enjoy the crew talent show, which included some terrific singing by various members of the ship’s staff.

Day 6

A ferry strike in Marseilles forced the Wind Surf to dock in Surnay-sur-Mer instead. Politics aside, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Hooray to the ship’s staff for making all the necessary arrangements to bring a vessel of this size into a sleepy little port town of 17,000 and to rearrange all the excursions to depart from a new location.

Speaking of excursions, our half day trip to Aix-en-Provence became a six and a half hour field trip, due to the change of port, to the heart of old Provence. It was well worth it, as an excellent and extremely knowledgeable guide led us on a walking tour of the old city, including a fascinating medieval church, and a visit to the studio where painter Paul Cezanne spent his last four years. This two story building on what used to be the outskirts of town has been kept in the same condition that the fabled Impressionist artist left it at the time of his death in 1906. There were many items recognizable from well known works including small statues, vases, and skulls provided by his physician father.

aixAix is a bustling university town, and there were students and young adults everywhere. It was also market day, and a vibrant flea market was set up on one of the main streets in town where vendors were hawking, t-shirts, dresses, shoes, fabric, the local soaps, and more. We also passed the farmer’s market where I was finally able to procure some farm fresh goat cheese. French pastry, crepes, and even pizza were consumed during this excursion. It was just great fun to stroll around the old section of Aix, with it’s sixteenth and seventeen century buildings.

Upon returning to the ship, I was finally able to get out on the water on a Hobie Cats, one of several boats available through the “marina” such as windurfers, kayaks, and paddle boards for the passengers.

This night’s dinner was an outdoor barbecue, in which the passengers were served up carved meats, paella, shrimp, lobster, and a whole lot more on the upper deck of the ship. It was a little warm at the start, but by the time the sun began to sneak towards the horizon, it turned pleasant and comfortable.

Day 7

obeliskThe last full day on the water. After a morning on the ship, we boarded the tender for Port Vendres, France, a fairly small commercial port, whose main business appears to be fishing. However, as the closest French port to Africa, there was a big container ship in port. The large vessel seemed out of proportion to a village with a population of only 4500, but there seemed to be one branch of every bank in the country there, as well as a number of restaurants and cafe along the wharf. We visited the only touristy thing to see in town, a tall obelisk, the only one in France dedicated to King Louis XIV, who lost his head, not long after commissioning this elegant tribute to himself. We should have taken the tram train to the nearby scenic town of Coulliet, with its beaches and old castle, but we chose to have a leisurely lunch, and another chance to catch up on emails at one of the cafes.

Later in the evening we had a farewell dinner with our new found friends, exchange stories one last time and traded business cards with promises to connect on social media.

The nice thing about traveling on a cruise ship is that you unpack only once. The downside is having to repack and figure out what to do with all the tchochkes and gifts we bought all week. The logical decision was to buy a suitcase in Barcelona because we were perilously close to being over weight on our already overstuffed bags.

Day 8

barca-sunriseWe awoke to a beautiful sunrise over the Iberian coast as we sailed into the port of Barcelona. The sailed shaped W hotel rises from the shore like a tail fin on a shark. It is an odd contrast to the rest of the port area, which is pretty commercial in nature. There were a few more goodbyes at our last breakfast, including several of the crew who were outstanding in providing us with great service. Then, it was off to a two day adventure in the capital of Catalan.

Cruises

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Cruising is still one of the best travel experiences.  See multiple ports of call or countries without ever having to unpack and repack.  The Caribbean, Alaska, the Mediterranean, and the South Pacific are just a few of the options available.  We will find you a cruise line that fits your budget.

allure-of-the-seasCruises can last anywhere from five days to as long as a month. Ships can vary in size from as few as four hundred passengers to the giant floating cities that carry upwards of six thousand passengers.  You would be surprised that even on the largest vessels, you don’t feel crowded.

So call Sentinel Travel today at 847-480-0169, 866-707-SENT, or our use our contact form

 

Historical Europe

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See the world’s historical capitals. London, Paris, Rome, Berlin.  You can see Europe on your own, or with a tour. Be part of a group or take a customized journey tailored to your special interests. Travel by ship, train, bus, car, or even bike. An unforgettable journey is a phone call away.

So call Sentinel Travel today at 847-480-0169, 866-707-SENT, or our use our contact form

Hawaiian Vacation

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The Aloha state is one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

Among the top tourist destinations in Hawaii are Volcanic National Park on the Big Island, Waimea Canyon on Kauai, and Iao Valley on Maui.

Favorite resorts include the Hyatt Regency in Maui, the St. Regis Princeville in Kauai, Four Seasons Hualalai on the Big Island, Moana Surf Reder (Westin) on Oahu, which dates back to 1901.

Activities available include zip lining, biking, hiking, kayaking, dolphin swims, snorkeling, scuba, golf, tennis, and much more.

But Hawaii is more than just pretty scenery and fabulous resorts.

It has a lot of history and culture that make it unique. Polynesian royalty dating back to the late 1700’s, the pineapple industry, and it’s strategic importance in World War Two offer a chance to step away from the pool and see something interesting.

So call Sentinel Travel today at 847-480-0169, 866-707-SENT, or our use our contact form