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.

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.

Spain and Portugal – An Agent’s Journal

Day 1

Spent the afternoon walking around the old city and Las Ramblas. Some nice stores and liked the little artists stalls just a block away from Las Ramblas.

Toured the W and had drinks up on the top floor. Fabulous views of the city at night up there. Dinner at their casual restaurant. The food was good, but nothing special.

The rooms at the W were large and comfortable. They all have window benches overlooking the water. I loved sitting on the window bench and looking out at the sea. The bed was comfortable, but the bathroom was only okay. The sink was large and left no room for your stuff, but it was outside in the room. The shower was large, but the towel rack was at the back, so you had to go into the wet shower to hang your towels after you were dry. The pool area was fabulous, large with lots of places to sit out. Would be great for a family. There is a beach right down below where they can provide chairs to sit on. The lobby was large with lots of places to sit down. Also if someone likes to go for a jog or a walk, it was nice to stroll along the waterfront. The location was away from the shopping and sightseeing, but the cab ride was cheap. About 5 euros tops.

photo1Day 2

We had a half day tour of Barcelona. We spent quite a bit of time at the Sagradia Familia. Both inside and outside. It was fascinating. We also went up to the top of the hill where he history museum is, former sight of the world’s fair and Olympics. Great view. We then walked Las Ramblas and the old quarter. We even went in the old market. Didn’t get a chance to eat anything, but you can. We did a lot in half a day. Went on our own to one of the Guadi apartments. The roof top was the coolest part.

Lunch was at a fancy wine bar called Mon Vinic. Great food and wonderful wines for anyone who likes local food with a new twists.

Dinner at Le Meridien. The Lobby was strange, we bad music. The standard rooms were on the smaller side, but the rooms with the terraces were great. Wonderful location. Dinner there was fine.

Day 3

Left Barcelona via train for Madrid. The train was comfortable. The station was okay to navigate, but you have to be able to move your luggage off and on the train by your selves. They served a meal in first class, but it was pretty bad.

Arrived at the Palace Madrid. It is so close to the train station, you could almost walk it.

The hotel is lovely. The reception area is beautiful with murals. The sittings areas are stately. The room was large and comfortable. The bathroom had double sinks, shower in tub and toilet a bit set back. Lots of closet space and a nice chair to sit in. Comfortable bed to sleep in. You have to ask permission to open your door out on your French balcony for insurance purposes.

We did a night walking tour of old Madrid. It was fun to see the squares and monuments all lit up. You have to have on good walking shoes to do this. The streets were very lively at night. It was fun to see all the locals out.

Had dinner at a nice at a local restaurant. It had a lot of atmosphere and the food was tasty. Very traditional food.

photo2Day 4

Whole day tour of the palace and the Prado. As it was Sunday we did stop in the flea market, which was huge and spread out. It was fun to see. A variety of old and new things. The Palace was wonderful. Worth going to see. The Prado was fine a must for a short time.

Lunch stop at a local restaurant with Made for Spain people. The food was good, but you have to like local foods. Excellent calamari.

Dinner at the hotel was good. Had drinks in the bar before hand. It was good, but expensive.

Day 5

Drive up to Rioja with a stop in Lerma. Once we got out of Madrid, it seemed an easy drive on the highway. Roads were well marked and they didn’t seem to drive too fast.

photo3Stopped in Lerma to see the Parador. It was a cool old castle. Very scenic in a small town with narrow streets and a big square. It would be a nice stop for lunch. The food was a bit odd, but I think it was the menu they choose for us.

Arrived at the Marques des Riscal. It is truly unique and fabulous. The contrast with the modern building, the vineyards with the beautiful leaves changing colors and the old medieval town.

Toured the hotel. It has a lot of facilities for a small hotel. The spa looked lovely with a big indoor pool, hot tub, steam room and a lot of treatment rooms. There are two major restaurants, a nice library to hang out in and a lot of outdoor space to sit out in when the weather is nice. The rooms in the original building are odd shaped and the bathrooms were more cramped. The rooms in the spa building were great. Large and comfortable. Lots of places to sit and all sorts of light controls. The bed was kind of hard. The bathroom was great. Big double sink, separate large tub, walk in shower, separate toilet and a big closet. Again gorgeous views. It was a like a picture postcard.

We had dinner in the more casual restaurant The dinner was good. We had a nice modern twist on local foods.

Day 6

Tour of part of the Rioja area. We went to the monestary that was so interesting. The place they found the first written Spanish. If you don’t go with a guide, they only speak Spanish. Our guide translated what they said. We then went to see the Cathedral… This pilgrems still come through their way to Santiogo des campestello. We say the dorms that house them.

We had lunch at another parador. Not as interesting as Lerma.

We did an hour tour of the winery at the hotel. It was very interesting. We got right up close to the machines, bottles and old wine cellar.

Dinner tonight in the fancy restaurant. We had the memory meal, that was fabulous.

photo4Day 7

Left from Bilbao for flight to Lisbon. It took about 75 minutes in the rain.

The flight was okay, but on a smaller plane.

Arrived into Lisbon and taken to the Sheraton. It is in a fabulous location with a recent renovation. For a mid-range property this is very good. The rooms looked comfy, but not too big. The club level lounge was nice with lots of amenties. It has a nice outdoor pool and sun deck. Good work out facilities and a spa. WE had lunch at the top in their restaurant. It was good, with great desserts.

The drive to Evora was just over an hour. Again it seemed easy, if someone wanted to drive themselves.

The hotel has a fabulous old church that is still used once a month for services. The rooms are a bit spread out. They all have terraces or balconies. The standard rooms have traditional décor it was okay in sive.Then there are designer suites which are a bit larger with strange modern paintings. There are some unique suites in the old building for a special occasion. The spa has a nice indoor pool, that was kind of cold. The spa treatments only got a mixed review. The bathrooms are okay. The sink area was kind of short on space. There is a separate tub and shower. You have to be okay walking far to your room as it is spread out. There is an outdoor pool, playground and tennis courts. Again the bed was kind of hard.

We had a wine tasting in their cellar, where every night they invite guests for a wine tasting.

Dinner was good at their restaurant.

Day 8

Wine tour of a local winery. Very similar tour to the one in Rioja. They also had olive oil that was fabulous and their wines were good as well.

We had a cooking lesson in the bar at the hotel. It was fun to learn knife skills with the chef. We ate what we cooked. It was good, but fishy.

Afternoon walking tour of Evora. We saw a church made out of bones. Very creepy. They also have a cathedral and old roman ruins of a temple. The town was okay. It had some nice shops and cute cafes to sit out in.

We had dinner with local specialties in an old horse carriage house that was made to look kind of like a farm house. After dinner the people that run it sang old Portugess songs. It was special.

photo5Day 9

Drive back to Lisbon.

Stayed at the Four Seasons. Close to where the Sheraton is. Great location by a park and one of the main statues. The lobby and lounge area were fabulous. The best chocolate cookies with the coffee.

The rooms were large and comfortable. The bathroom again with double sink, separate shower, tub and even toilet. Lots of room and balconies overlooking the park that you can sit out on. Nice spa and workout room, with great views of the city. Did not eat at the restaurant.

We did our own self guided tour, with advice from Henri at the FS. We took tram 28, with the locals and other tourists. What an experience going up and down the hills in the old tram. We stopped in the Chiad area and at a famous café and shopped at the famous glove shop.

We continued up the hill for more fabulous views of the city. Made the three block walk almost straight up to the old castle grounds. It was great to walk around the old castle and up on the old walls. You have to be good at stairs to walk up on the walls.

Dinner at a local restaurant not far from where we had lunch.

Lisbon is very hilly, like San Francisco. The streets are very narrow in the old parts.

Day 10

Head home. On a Saturday morning with no traffic, we were about 15 minutes from the airport. Very convenient.

Sand, Sea, and Skyscrapers – Ten Days in Abu Dhabi and Dubai

Sand, sea, skyscrapers, along with food, in abundance, would be the most apt and description of my trip to the United Arab Emirates.

This just completed journey gave me a glimpse into two vibrant, bustling, metropolises. Their efforts to diversify from dependence on oil revenues, seems to be paying dividends.

But first, a little geography lesson, and a briefest of histories.

The UAE is a single country made up of seven emirates, in many ways, similar to our states. It is located on the Arabian Peninsula, with Saudi Arabia to its west and south, Oman as an eastern neighbor, and the Persian Gulf to the north. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are two of the better-known emirates, as well as the two largest cities. The UAE has been an independent nation since 1971, shortly after the British, who had been governing the area since the 16th century, ceded control to the locals. The discovery of oil in the fifties provided the seed money for much of the infrastructure that is in place today.

When we arrived at the Abu Dhabi airport after a thirteen-hour flight from Chicago, to our chagrin, there was no one to meet us from the ground operator, who was coordinating most of our transportation between cities. My first thought was, “Great, here we are in a very foreign country with no driver, and no working cell phone to contact the tour company!” That did not bode well for the start of a ten-day odyssey.

Fortunately, those fears were short-lived, as our very apologetic operator showed up about twenty minutes late, explaining in his Russian-accented English that the flight notifications never showed us as arriving early.

Our view from the Fairmont.

Our view from the Fairmont.

One of the first things we learned on the trip to our first stop, the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr, was that the native population of Emirati, as the locals are called, is only about twenty percent of the people living in the UAE. Like our guide, most of the people we met were immigrants from India, Pakistan, Iran, England, France, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, Australian, Philippines, as well assorted other Arab countries. Not surprisingly, our that driver was from Morocco.

There are a few rules that come into play in an Islamic country, such as the fact that the sale of alcohol is restricted to hotels and restaurants, and liquor is not sold in the stores. Also public displays of affection are frowned upon. I read in the newspaper about a couple of foreigners who were sentenced to a year in jail for indecent behavior, having been caught in the act in a lifeguard’s chair at the public beach.

We saw all manner of dress there, from men in a traditional Arabic “thwab,” an ankle length white cotton shirt and keffiyeh (headdress) and women with the black “abaya,” the over garment, to others in jeans and casual Western wear.

Even at the shopping mall, some women chose to wear the abaya, only allowing their faces to be seen in public, while some went as far as covering up everything except their eyes. However, you could see blue jeans or colorful dresses peeking out from the lower part of the abaya as they walked along. Even some of the abayas had what I can only imagine is expensive decorative gold lace and trim.

When thinking of Abu Dhabi, some people might have a visual picture of the palm-shaped island. That however is in Dubai and is a man made creation, whereas Abu Dhabi is located on a natural island, sitting a short distance from the UAE mainland. Several other islands make up the city including Saadiyat and Yas Islands. The Fairmont where we stayed the first two nights is actually in an area called “Between the Bridges,” and offered a spectacular view of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, a stunning white marble building, and one of the iconic landmarks in the UAE.

It was also where we had the first of many exotic dinners, at the hotel’s Lebanese restaurant, Cedars Lounge. In truth, we were too tired to go anywhere else the first night, and coming from Chicago, we did not feel the need to eat at the hotel’s steakhouse. The next evening we ventured over to the Souk Qaryat Al Beri. “Souk,” is an Arabic term for marketplace. That term can run the gamut from a fancy retail center, to an old fashioned market with tiny stores, crammed with antiques, and manned by ageless shopkeepers.

The Qaryat Al Beri is relatively new, as is most everything in the UAE, but designed to look decidedly old. We dined at Ushna, an upscale Indian restaurant. The outdoor area sits alongside the creek, with excellent views of the Mosque. I can’t tell you half the things we ate, other than it was great, it was spicy, and as we seemed to do a lot on the first part of the trip, we over ordered.

One of the items I had many times on the trip was mezze, which could best be described as Arabic antipasto – a selection of appetizers consisting of hummus, babaghanoush (eggplant,) olives, cheeses, and other Middle Eastern nibbles. I also came to enjoy “um ali,” a mashup of bread pudding and nuts, that tasted like a cool oatmeal, and served for dessert.

abu-dhabi-golf-club.jpgBy sheer coincidence, the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship was taking place the first weekend we arrived. We decided to watch the action on day two, and descended on the course just in time to see Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, and Martin Kaymer tee off, We followed the trio for the first nine holes, along with the majority of the other spectators present. At one point, one of Tiger’s shots landed within eight feet of our position, and we got an up close look. Later, one of McIlroy’s drive strayed beyond the ropes, nearly landed out of bounds. We strode up just in time to witness one of those amazing shots that only the top pros can make; out of the sand, under a small tree, to within fifteen feet of the cup.

Our visit to the tourney that day was a shortened one, because our afternoon destination was a tour of the Grand Mosque. That was the one place where strict adherence to the Islamic dress code was a must. There was a list of do’s and don’ts near the entrance. Shorts for men and short skirts for the ladies were not permitted. Any woman who did not have her head covered was required to put on an abaya.

mosque-sideThere was no official tour so we joined the masses that were streaming in an out of the main prayer hall. The main prayer hall can accommodate seven thousand people. The carpet we trod on is the world’s largest carpet at 60,000 square feet. The entire building and grounds has room for forty thousand worshippers. The inside was as spectacular as the outside, with column after column (ninety-six in all,) covered in marble and mother of pearl. The building is named after Sheikh Sayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the first president of the UAE, who initiated the construction, but never lived to see it’s completion. He is laid to rest on the grounds.

The following day, we moved to our next hotel, the Westin Abu Dhabi, which is located on the golf course that hosted the aforementioned tournament. Had we done a little research prior to arrival, we might have stayed there the entire weekend. To say the least, it was a thrill to be located a chip shot away from the first tee. Our arrival Saturday afternoon coincided with a few of the last pairings reaching the eighteenth green. Then we retreated with a number of the hotel guests to the sports bar, where we sipped on over priced beer and feasted on English Premier League soccer with a number of golf fans from the UK.

camel market - Al AinThe reason we didn’t arrive at the Westin until late in the afternoon is that earlier that day we made the ninety-minute drive east to the city of Al Ain, where we visited the Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum. You’ll notice the Sheikh’s name comes up a lot. He truly brought the country from a backwards Bedouin existence, to the modern country it is today. Many roads, bridges, buildings, and schools bear his name. The museum is an old fortress, which served as Zayed’s residence. It has been restored to approximate the look and feel of visiting it sixty years ago, before the oil boom. In addition, we stopped at Jahili Fort, another old fortress that has been turned into a museum. It hosted an exhibition of photographs by British explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who lived the modest existence of the Bedouin tribes for two years in the late 1940’s, and took thousands of pictures during his treks across the harsh desert. Our last stop before lunch was to see a camel market, something I can truly say I have never experienced before.

That evening, we dined at Agadir, the Westin’s Moroccan restaurant. We found out later that all the chefs and, the waiters were brought in from Morocco in an effort to be as authentic as possible. For appetizers, we had spiced soup along with Moroccan filo pie, filled with pigeon (it was not as gross as it sounds) quite tasty actually, and covered with crushed almonds and orange blossom, then glazed with honey. The main course was “couscous royal,” a combination of lamb, chicken, merguez (mutton) sausage and vegetables. As usual we over ordered and ended up taking our desert of pastries and cookies back to the room.

 

Dubai beckons

The next day it was off to Dubai, but not before one of the best breakfast buffets we had on the entire trip and watching some of the final pairings tee off. They love their buffets in the UAE, and every hotel had amazing displays of food, both Arabic and well as Western and Asian fare. There was something about the preparation, choices, and taste that made the Westin’s buffet rise above the rest.

Abu Dhabi has is share of architecturally eye catching edifices, but nothing prepared us for what we saw in Dubai.

Now I live in Chicago, so I’m used to seeing a skyline with tall towers.

There is an eight lane highway covering the eighty miles between the two cities. The border between the Emeriatees is about halfway there. The Abu Dhabi part of the highway is lined with small “ghaf” trees planted diagonally on the side of the road, as well as the median. That probably acts as a buffer to keep sand from blowing on the road. You pass through a few suburbs along the way. The minute you reach the Dubai border, the trees disappear and all you have on either side of the road is flat desert scrub, and the occasional low, rolling dunes and wild grasses. Off in the distance are some of the industrial buildings from suburban Dubai.

As we approached the city, we saw a cluster of high rises and started looking for the fabled Burj Khalifa. That turned out to be the Dubai Marina, a three-kilometer stretch of high rises condos and apartment building along artificial canal city on the Persian Gulf. We continued on for another twenty minutes before the downtown business district came into full view.

 

The architecture is a) stunning b) impressive c) imposing or d) all of the above

Answer: d

 

The buildings are everywhere. Each ongoing construction project seems more outlandish and eye catching than the next one.

dubai-skylineCheck out the view from our room at the JW Marriott Marquis. Their claim to fame is that at eighty stories, it’s the world’s tallest hotel only building. The hotel actually has twin towers. The one we stayed in opened only in November. The second structure isn’t even completed yet. Our room was on the forty-third floor. We even managed a foray up to the lounge on the seventy fourth floor, but were a bit disappointed that it only had views on two sides, and that was partially obscured by some of the windows decorations. It also had balconies that appeared to be solely for look, because you couldn’t go out on them. Go figure. The hotel itself was another example of the over the top design in Dubai. Among other things, it boasted a fabulous bakery with some outstanding French pastries. The property is located in an area called the Business Bay, a few short kilometers from the main downtown area.

business bayOur concierge advised us against taking at taxi to go to the Dubai Museum, fearing that we’d spend much of the time stuck in afternoon traffic. He recommended taking the Metro. Dubai’s subway system is clean, modern, and efficient. It was also very crowded at rush hour. So once we bought our tickets (about $1.25) for a one-way fare, we jockeyed for position on the platform, then fought our way through the mob to enter the nearest car. Once safely inside, I looked around to notice that I was the only male in the car. While normally that would not be a bad thing in a Western country, in the Middle East women can and do prefer some segregated facilities. So after a few mumbled apologies, I made my way into the next car. No harm, no foul. People were particularly nice on the train, going out of their way to tell us where to change trains, and what stop to exit.

That was the easy part. Trying to find the Al Fahidi Fort and the museum was another thing. There were no signs at the station, so we relied on people to point us in the right direction.

The fort, which dates from the late 1780’s, is the oldest structure still standing in Dubai. Admission was three Dirhams (less than a dollar.)

Per Wikipedia: The museum was opened by the ruler of Dubai in 1971, with the aim of presenting the traditional way of life in the Emirate of Dubai. It includes local antiquities as well as artifacts from African and Asian countries that traded with Dubai. It also includes several dioramasshowing life in the emirate before the advent of oil. In addition to artifacts from recent discoveries as old as 3000 B.C.

After the museum visit, we took a water taxi across the Dubai Creek to the old market area, where we were overwhelmed by the Gold Souk. It was like Chicago’s jeweler’s row on steroids. Store after store selling watches, rings, gold chains, earrings, necklaces, and bracelets. Hundreds of shops, literally. So we retreated to the relative safety of the nearby Spice Souk, and bought a few items from a charming, middle-aged shopkeeper who was from Iran. Based on his recommendation, we found a Persian restaurant and enjoyed a meal of traditional Iranian fare.

 

The next day we set our sights on the tallest building in the world.

burj khalifa 01

You might know the towering Burj Khalifa from its supporting role in the movie Mission Impossible 4. Tom Cruise dangles out of the building at breath-taking heights. What’s simply amazing is looking up from the observatory on the 124th floor, and seeing another forty stories of building soaring over our heads. The building itself is so much larger (2717 feet tall with 163 stories) that it makes the fifty and sixty story edifices look simply puny next to it. At times the tower itself can take on a surreal look. http://www.burjkhalifa.ae/language/en-us

 

downtown dubai The Burj is the centerpiece of Downtown Dubai, and mixed use development features five hotels, eleven residential options, and of course, shopping centers.

http://www.mydowntowndubai.com/

 

In the UAE, they love their malls. The Dubai Mall has over 1200 stores. Every brand name from the US can be found there, plus top retailers from the UK, Spain, France, and Germany, a full size ice rink, and wait, there’s more – the Dubai Aquarium.

By contrast, the super sized Mall of America outside Minneapolis burj-al-arabhas just over 500 stores. The Dubai Mall has nearly twice the retail space as the MOA, checking in at hefty 5.4 million square feet. There was no chance we were going to eat American, but we could have at TGI Fridays, PF Changs, Outback Steakhouse, or California Pizza Kitchen. Instead we chose to enjoy a mix of local and Asian food at the Social House, an outdoor eatery facing the large fountain that was part of the complex. The Dubai Fountain is renown in its own right, and features a water show produced by the same people that created the famous fountains at the Bellagio in Las Vegas

We never got to see the inside of it, but one of the other uber-malls in Dubai is the Mall of the Emirates. This 520-store behemoth boasts Ski Dubai, an indoor ski slope. Yes, you read that right – a year round, indoor ski area that can accommodate up to 1500 guests on 242,000 square feet of surface area, or roughly three football fields.

http://youtu.be/Witt1TpWZnA (Travel Channel video of Ski Dubai)

 

Without a doubt, the highlight of the trip was our stay at the Al Maha Desert Resort.

al maha suiteIf the tall buildings and modern city life epitomize Dubai, then the Al Maha is the antithesis of the hustle and bustle of the busy metropolises. Instead of traffic jams and crowded malls, there are camels, gazelles, Arabian oryx, and birds. Situated on 225 square km, fifty minutes south of Dubai, Al Maha is a peaceful, tranquil, and graceful oasis in the Emerati desert. It boasts forty luxurious one-bedroom suites, designed to look like Bedouin tents from the outside, yet as plush as any of the hotel rooms we stayed at on our journey. The resort includes a first class restaurant, and a full-featured spa with several treatment rooms as well as a fitness center, pool, sauna, and steam room. None of other hotels, however, offered falconry, camel riding, horseback riding, or nature out into their own desert landscape. The best activity was a 1 1/2 hour excursion zipping around the giant sand dunes in four-wheel drive vehicles. The adrenaline pumping, stomach-churning experience is not for the faint of heart, and never to be undertaking after a meal.

gazelleOur suite had its own private deck and an infinity pool overlooking a beautiful desert vista. Just about every day, the gazelles, which roam freely on the property, would stop and graze just outside our window. It was wonderful just to listen to the birds chipping in the early morning hours, and just after dusk. Everything is spread out over the hotel portion, so it was a delightful five-minute walk back and forth to the main lobby and restaurant.

Once again the food was simply outstanding. Our international culinary adventure the consisted of Sri Lankan fare, some of the spiciest food I’ve ever eaten. And we ordered it medium hot. Our Indian server commented on how spicy it can be, and he’s used to a hot palate.sund dunes

There is a cool video on their website introducing the property.

http://www.al-maha.com

The last three days of our saw our return to Abu Dhabi. This time we relocated to Saadiyat Island, a large, low lying island connected to the mainland by several causeways. We stayed at the St. Regis, right on the beach. There are some very ambitious plans to develop the island, which will include the only branch of the Louvre to open outside of Paris, a Guggenheim Museum, a concert hall, and more hotels and apartments. There is already an 18-hole golf course designed by the legendary Gary Player.

emirates palace

Emirates Palace Hotel

We spent an afternoon over in downtown Abu Dhabi at the Emirates Palace Hotel, where we delighted in having afternoon tea. The hotel is one of the most expensive hotels ever built, at a cost of over three billion dollars. When you see the inside you understand why, from the marble floors and gold inlay. It only has about 400 rooms, but has additional high-end suites reserved for heads of state and the Emerati royal families and their guests. One of the rather unique features of the Emirates Palace is the presence of a gold vending ATM. Shoppers can insert cash and receive gold coins or nuggets. We chose instead to do our shopping along Hamdan Street, and at the Abu Dhabi Mall, not quite as spectacular as the Dubai Mall, but a shopper’s paradise nonetheless.

Our last full day was spent being bums on the beach. The hotel has nine kilometers of pristine beachfront along the Gulf. Sorry for the continuous mentions of distances in km, but that’s the way it works over there. If you want, do the math. One mile is 1.6 km.

etihad towers

Etihad Towers

The final amazing dining experience we had was back at the St. Regis. The Sontaya restaurant featured a variety of Southeast Asian cuisine. We both had fish that was exquisitely prepared, and at last, we ordered just enough food to be able to finish everything.

The next morning it was back to the airport for the long journey back the US. We were sad to leave, but happy to be returning home. It was a wonderful trip. We saw so much, yet still missed out on some things we would have liked to have seen, such as Ferrari World, billed as the world largest indoor theme park, and Yas Waterworld, a brand new water park that had its grand opening while we were there. Given all the construction that was in various stages of development, I can only imagine what the UAE will look like in a few years.

The Jamaica Inn in Ocho Rios – Yeah Mon!

“Timeless elegance.” That’s how manager Mary Phillips describes her fifty-two room, upscale Jamaica Inn hotel in Ocho Rios. In fact, if you take away the wi-fi and the iPod docks, leaving just the four-poster beds, the large easy chairs, the croquet lawn, and the tile walkways, you’ve got the same fine hotel where some of the island’s most famous visitors of a generation ago came to stay, eat, and socialize with their contemporaries.

Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller, Noel Coward, Ian Flemming, and other luminaries had tea, cocktails, and the finest Jamaican dining in the same patio and restaurant I did on a recent weekend getaway.

A four-day trip to the island paradise was just what the travel doctor ordered, and the leisurely, relaxing pace at the stately and meticulously manicured sixty-year old property made for the ideal holiday.

I had no problem with the proper attire requirements of long trousers and collared shirts (their words, not mine) after seven o’clock. Every afternoon tea was served at four. Each evening featured cocktails at seven. No discotheque, no t-shirt contests, and certainly no cutoffs and raggedy tees at night. Obviously, this slower pace is ideal for those couples wanting a throwback to a weekend of stately, old world charm, and vacation elegance.

An overly windy day meant a scheduled boat trip got cancelled, but the resulting change of plans took us to visit the home of the noted playwright Noel Coward. That excursion turned out to be a most pleasant of surprises.
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