Uncategorized

Blah, Blah, Blogs (or You Decide the Topic)

When you commit to writing a weekly blog it’s easy to think, “hmmm, what if I skip a week?” or – more often – “What the heck am I gonna write about this week?” 

 I am quite proud that the topics I write about are either from the heart or from personal experience. That means I have to come up with a topic even on weeks when Greg and I don’t go anywhere. Honestly, that’s more often than not. 

I’d love to travel more. If you read this blog, chances are you feel the same. Short of winning the lottery or having this blog discovered by a wealthy benefactor who’s looking to sponsor my travels, you are going to be reading a little less about places I’ve been and a little more about HOW to travel. I am happy to share lessons learned, travel tips, hints, and similar topics with you. I’d also like to know what you want to read.

What do you want to know? What topics interest you? 

Send me your questions! Send me your thoughts! If I get enough, I’ll do a fun question and answer blog. I may be writing this every week, but you’re reading it. Shouldn’t you have a little say in what’s discussed? 

After all, there’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored … let’s start exploring how much fun we can have together with this blog.

The World A to Z, travel, Uncategorized

How Do You Travel?

From Washington’s Birthday until the end of May, there are no federal holidays. This season should be embraced by travelers. The need for vacation days, breaks from work and school, are well-studied and documented. A whole quarter of the year without a break built-in is just awful!

The good news is, every school schedule includes spring break. Students and teachers from 5 to 95 have a week off somewhere during this dearth of holidays. If you’re looking for an adults-only type of vacation, you should consider where the spring break crowds may be. After all, HOW you travel is as important as WHERE you travel.

Here’s what I mean: When you plan a trip there are dozens of questions to consider before making any reservations. “Where are we going?” leads to “What do we want to do?” “Do we want to avoid the crowds or head to a popular, albeit crowded destination?” You have to ask about interests – Will I be bored in a museum? Do I want to sit in a beach chair and escape into a good book? What will the kids do while I’m relaxing? Maybe a cruise or an amusement park. Maybe we should send the kids to summer camp and take a romantic vacation for two without them. 

It seems like every question you ask brings up another question … and that’s just the “where” aspect of vacation planning. “When” is also important: “Do we go over spring break?” “Do we take a longer, summer vacation?” If you don’t have a school schedule to worry about, do you take into consideration when you will encounter students or when you can avoid them?

And then there’s the question of “how” you travel. This is the most important question for me – Cruise? Train? Road trip? Flight to a far-off destination? Greg and I are not fans of cruising. We prefer land-based travel because the opportunity for surprise diversions comes up at nearly every turn. We prefer smaller crowds, so we tend to travel during off seasons. That means we give up a few things, though. Sometimes stores and museums are closed at our destination, for instance. 

But there are many times we have opted to head right into a crowd. We took our grandson on a road trip in August. The crowds at the Grand Canyon were immense – busloads of tourists crowded the overlooks and restaurants. He was on summer break with every other school student in the US. We were locked in to his school schedule.

I could go on and on, but by now you get the point. Planning a vacation can be a monumental challenge. You can tackle it alone, with your family or get help. Travel professionals can offer ideas you may not have considered. Researching a potential destination might even lead to a new item on your travel bucket list. Have fun with it! 

Remember, while there’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored, you have a whole lifetime to see it.

The World A to Z, Uncategorized

Travel is Personal

This headline may seem a little like a no-brainer to a lot of people, but I’m not sure most people take their travel personally. Here’s what I mean: I’ve been to Paris three times and I’ve never been up in the Eiffel Tower. Oh sure, I’ve been TO the Eiffel Tower, but not up in it. I didn’t want to go up. I also didn’t want to go to the Louvre. I’m not particularly an art lover, so why waste a day in a museum when I can stroll along the Seine or watch a street artist or simply sit in a café and people watch? All those things seem a lot more interesting to me than art.

I’ve spent enough time in European churches that they all start looking the same … stunning stained glass, astounding feats of architecture, majestic. Yes, admittedly, the cathedrals of Europe are gorgeous, but after awhile they just start looking the same to me. I’d rather find the hidden gems, sample the food, soak up the atmosphere of the town, not the tourist meccas.

That’s what I mean by travel is personal. Too many people cave to the recommendations of an author who writes about those things you “simply must see” in cities around the world. Those authors apparently don’t think, or live, like I do. I prefer to travel with a vague idea of where I’m going and leave much of my trip to chance. Usually in a week-long trip I only plan one or two things to see and leave the rest to chance.  If you’re the type who prefers a little guidance and direction, just keep in mind that these authors are writing about what they love. If you agree, their insight can be super helpful, but if you don’t agree, don’t feel like just because they are published authors means their suggestions are right for you.

That said, one of the things I typically plan is some sort of walking tour or half-day sightseeing tour. A really great travel agent who takes the time to get to know you before booking your trip can be the difference between finding the right “kick-off tour” for a vacation and spending a week touring sites that bore you to tears. My travel agent, Travel Planning for You!!, does just that. Micky knows the overview-style tours hit the highlights and point me in directions I might not have thought about. Tour guides are a wealth of information about their towns and can often suggest off-the-beaten-track sights that have shorter lines. Once on a walking tour in Prague, another couple was talking about a place called “Spa Beerland.” With a name like that, how could you not be interested? I asked about it, checked it out on the hotel lobby computer and made a reservation. It is still one of my favorite vacation memories.

When you’re planning your next vacation try to remember, travel is personal! After all, there’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored. Go see it the way you want to!

Road Trip, Route 66, The World A to Z

Hotels, Motels and a Wigwam

Anyone who has ever gone on any kind of trip away from home can tell you there is a little twinge of trepidation about where you will lay your head at night. Going home to see Mom and Dad? Will the bed of your youth be as comfortable as you remember? Headed off on a camping trip? Will the ground be as hard as a rock? Reservations at a swank, spa hotel? Will the bed be as comfortable as you expect?

No matter where you sleep, the goal is a good night’s rest. In every case, it’s the little things that make the difference.

When you’re on a road trip, spending the night in a different bed every night for two weeks, you are sure to face a night or two of questionable conditions.

One our Route 66 trip, we stayed in several classic motels along the Mother Road. We made reservations at three different chain hotels along the way, using points for one of the stays. We opted for a bed and breakfast at one stop and treated ourselves to a couple of upscale hotels, too. It was our way of mitigating the risk of having a bad night’s sleep every night.

It was a good thing to do. As expected, the upscale options were certainly the nicest accommodations. When it comes to comfy beds and soft sheets, you really do get what you pay for.

20170401_084202At Kimpton hotels in Beverly Hills and Chicago, the beds were just right, the pillows nestled our heads and the surroundings were clean, new and stylish. The mini bars were not just stocked, but offered incredible choices. The concierge from the Kimpton Palomar sent a note a week before our stay. The note said, “We want you to feel as comfortable as possible, so we invite you to send us one photo and we will have it framed and waiting in your room…“ It was a really nice, personal touch.

20170413_184208At the Kimpton Grey in Chicago, we were greeted by name by nearly every member of the staff we encountered. At one point, we even commented to each other that it everyone seemed incredibly friendly and helpful. The only problem with the Kimpton properties is there was no coffee in the room. Sure, you could go down in the lobby for free coffee in the morning, but in-room coffee options have become pretty standard across the hotel industry (and no one wants to see our just-out-of-bed hair-dos). Of course, the free mini-massages in the lobby during the free wine happy hour was a really nice perk.

From the LaFonda on the Plaza in Santa Fe, we received an actual package…in the mail!

IMG_7821 It included a welcome letter and a book about Santa Fe so we could plan our visit. When we arrived the parking and check-in were a breeze. Our room was incredible … it even had a working fireplace! The balcony afforded us a stunning view of the nearby cathedral. We watched the sunset colors reflected off the cathedral dome in a light breeze.

The chain hotels were, for the most part, just what you would expect. The rooms were clean. The amenities were simple. The beds were comfortable. It was a safe bet we would get what we expected and we did – three good nights’ sleep, three free breakfasts.

The real wild card was the classic motels. Frankly, I was excited about the adventure of it more than I was worried about what I would find.

20170402_182338First was the Route 66 Motel in Barstow, California. The room was small, the pillows were flat, but the place was clean. The coffee maker provided a steaming cup of Joe in the morning that offset the fact that the shower ran out of hot water before I was rinsed. Greg had showered first, so at least one of us got a hot shower. The owner was a great, fun, chatty guy full of stories and information.

On night three, we checked into the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, Arizona. It is, by far, one of the most famous of the Route 66 motels simply because of its unique architecture. These teepee-shaped cabins were spacious and funky. The furnishings were highly-polished log furniture. It was fun even though Greg did have to get up in the middle of the night to fiddle with the heater to get it to turn on. The chair in the room was a bit saggy, but the bed wasn’t and the shower was surprisingly great. Hot coffee was available in the office.

IMG_7787The Sands Motel in Grants, New Mexico was a block off Route 66, but clearly still offered clean rooms at good prices judging by all the construction trucks in the parking lot. That’s a good sign, by the way. Workers who have to travel routinely often know the best options for a good night’s sleep on a budget. It was quiet, cozy and clean and the friendly dog in the office offered her belly for a scratch along with a welcoming tail wag as I checked in.

In Tucumcari, New Mexico. The Blue Swallow Motel is among Route 66’s most famous.  It’s neon lights brags of 100% refrigerated air for weary travelers who stop for the night. The original free-standing cabins were connected early-on in the motor court’s life with the addition of garages. Comfy chairs in front of each room offered the chance to enjoy the sunny late afternoon weather and chat with other motorists making their way along Route 66. Our two-room suite featured a clawfoot tub behind a screen, a very comfortable bed and a blissfully hot shower. The in-room fridge was a nice touch, but the working rotary dial phone was a stunning novelty. I called home just like I had done as a young girl.

IMG_8037The Route 66 Inn in Shamrock, Texas, wasn’t in any of the guidebooks we had read, but it got good marks on TripAdvisor and justifiably so. It offered clean rooms and hot showers, but the air conditioner was oddly placed high above the sink and required a chair to reach the controls.

The next stop was our B&B, The Rose Cottage in Baxter Springs, Kansas. We reserved a room in this historic midwestern, three-bedroom Victorian home in town. We were the only guests, so we had the whole house to ourselves. That was probably a good thing since every time we rolled over in bed, the old frame creaked and groaned. It was comfy, though, and our hostess, Jane, had left fresh, homemade cookies for a late-night snack and delicious apple-cinnamon muffins for breakfast.

In IMG_8141Lebanon, Missouri, we arrived at the Munger Moss Motel before dusk. The desk clerk was friendly, but clearly a heavy smoker as the office air was heavy with the odor of stale cigarettes. The room, however, was fresh and bright and lightly floral scented.
The furnishings were perfectly suited for a room in a Route 66 motel – mid-century modern. I remarked that they were either really good reproductions or must’ve been discovered tucked away in an unknown warehouse as they appeared new. IMG_8132

 

 

The bed was covered with a classic quilt and offered a delightfully restful night’s sleep. The only thing missing was the “Magic Fingers” box on the nightstand.

If you’re going to take a classic road trip, don’t cheat yourself out of the chance to stay in some of the historic motels that dot the roadways along your route. They are fun! The owners are usually in the office and always know the best places in town for dinner or breakfast. These little gems of Americana are a great way to remind yourself to slow down and enjoy the journey.

There’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored … but don’t forget, you have to sleep sometime, too.

The World A to Z, Uncategorized

O is for Orseolo

IMG_5967The best part of having your own plan to see the world is being able to make it fit your personal wishes. That was especially true of the “O” trip. Greg and I wanted to go somewhere romantic, European and hopefully Italian. Neither of us had ever been to Venice (well, to be fair, I spent a few hours there on a day trip once about 25 years ago), so we were looking to head to the “City of Bridges.”

IMG_5952It turns out one of the doges credited with founding the city was Pietro I Orseolo. In fact, there is a small section of the city named for him. So … “O is for Orseolo.”
To make it even more legit, we stayed at Locanda Orseolo, a fabulous boutique inn just a block and a half off St. Mark’s Square.

I knew that a trip to Venice at the end of February was a weather risk, but what the heck, you can’t make the weather, but you can adjust to it. So we packed rain stuff and enough to keep warm if it got a little cold and headed east.

We arrived in the rain … but found our hotel easily thanks to the picture perfect directions provided by the staff. What a gem of a hotel! It totally pays to do your research, read reviews and decide what you really want. We wanted small, close to the center of the city and very Venetian. We got exactly what we wanted!

Tired from travel and feeling a little jet lagged, we asked about a place close by to grab a quick, simple dinner and wandered a few tiny alleys, crossing over a couple of bridges to a small ristorante. WOW! Trust your hotel staff for their recommendations. We had incredible fresh seafood, perfect Italian wine and delightful ambiance.

IMG_6036Exhausted and full, we climbed the three flights of stairs to the Gianduja room and slept under a soft, fluffy comforter awaking to the forecast for another gray, rainy Venetian day. It was, indeed, gray, but the rain was holding off so we jumped onto a vaporetto (Venetian buses are boats!) and headed for the island of Murano to see how the famous glass is made and wander through the shops in search of a real Murano glass souvenir.

IMG_5722The glass museum posted notices that pictures are not permitted, but it’s worth a visit before you hit the shops. You learn about the island’s history and techniques used to produce the myriad of pieces you’ll see – everything from lamps and chandeliers to earrings and cufflinks. One shop sported an incredible selection of insects made of glass; another was brightly lit with ornate chandeliers. Snapping a few shots of the scenes and shopping left us craving lunch, so we stopped into a little restaurant and grabbed something to warm up after spending the morning walking around in the cool dampness of the day.

It was a quiet afternoon of wandering and sightseeing before a classically touristy dinner in a restaurant right on the main tourist street. Be aware – we ate at a place on the tourist street because we wanted to know just how “authentic” it was. After the previous night’s dinner, it was clear the “real Italian food” the man out front suggested we would get was much closer to Olive Garden or Chef Boyardee. We got exactly what we were looking for – campy, mediocre tourist food. The lesson here is: go off the beaten track. Find a place with a bit of a crowd speaking the local language. That’s where the good food is!

IMG_5779We’d scheduled a food tour for Monday mid-day and met Francesca at one of the dozens of churches in the center of Venice along with the other three people who would be taking the tour with us. We met a pair of sisters from England and a single mom from Berkeley, California and headed out to learn about Venice, Italian wines and something called ciccheti (the Italian word for tapas).  What fun! The sun flirted with us and the rain held off as we weaved our way through passageways to four different bars to try the flavors of Venice. IMG_5766We wandered past the fruit and vegetable market and marveled at the huge purple artichokes and pink cabbage. The tour was over too soon. We decided to continue on our own, discovering more hidden treasures in a city known for its challenging layout.

Tuesday we took a side trip to Florence, which left Wednesday for us to see and do everything we had missed earlier. We declared a photo day and headed out to see what incredible views we could find as the sun blazed brightly for the first time during our visit.

We snapped pics of little churches on hidden piazzas, gondolas gliding along the canals, architectural oddities and sights familiar to anyone who’s ever seen images of the famous Venetian landmarks. We grabbed a pizza in a little pizzeria tucked into an alley in the “artists” section of the city. IMG_5832We snapped a shot of a father and his daughter walking near a church. We found the scene depicted in a painting we have in our home and tried to recreate it in a photograph.

Thursday came all-to-soon and we packed our belongings and made our way back to the airport (once again in the rain) for the flight home.IMG_5970

Venice lives up to its reputation as a charming, romantic city with great food and a fascinating culture unique to a city with no roads, just waterways. If you get a chance, this is one of those places you should try to see. Despite its fame, you can still soak up the culture without being assaulted by “tourist traps,” although there are places that define the phrase.IMG_5808

So what are you waiting for? Book a flight, pack your bags and go! Even if it’s not Venice, there’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored.

Alexandria, Uncategorized

Pied-à-Terre

Literally, pied-à-terre is French for “a foot on the ground,” but Wikipedia says the phrase implies usage as a temporary second residence (but not a vacation home), either for part of the year or part of the work week, by a reasonably wealthy person.IMG_6146

I’d love to say I am “reasonably” wealthy, but my husband and I are just a typical professional couple doing our jobs and living for our next trip to anywhere. So when we finally bought a home together, we decided to think of it as a pied-à-terre. It’s where we live while we save up and plan our next getaway.

IMG_6149Of course, our home is where we live MOST of the time. It’s where we spend the work weeks and every weekend we can’t get away to somewhere. So it really is a permanent home, not a temporary second residence. That said, walking around it, we hope our visitors get a sense of our desire to see the world. We decorated it with maps and globes and compass roses that evoke travel.

IMG_6147The walls are canvases where we showcase images we have captured on our vacations. The food we serve to our guests gives an insight into the flavors we’ve discovered in hidden corners of cities and towns across the globe.

Like many homes we’ve seen in other countries, we decided ours should have more than an address so we named it “Contrail’s End.” The name, carefully chosen, speaks to our love of flying and the place where we are when we land. To us, it says “home.”

We are always learning and exploring wherever we are. That includes our hometown. Just last week we learned that a new poll says ours is the “Best Downtown in America” and we agree. IMG_4706Not only is our town walkable, there is so much to see and do. It’s full of interesting architecture, museums, restaurants, bars, shops and more. Not only that, but our little neighborhood is like the neighborhoods of my youth. Young couples hang out and chat while their children play on the cul-de-sacs. Slightly older kids ride their bikes and scooters along the paths that encircle the neighborhood, winding their way to a huge city park nearby. Friends and strangers smile and exchange hellos as they wander those same pathways, some with dogs happily trotting along.

It’s all a lesson. Live where you want to be. Find a place to call home, but use it as a jumping off point to see the world. There’s a great big world out there just waiting to be explored.

Diversion

Diversion: Take the Upgrade

What do you do with an extra week of vacation? I recently reached a milestone work anniversary and now earn an extra week of vacation every year. Greg is a few years behind me, so that leaves me with a week to use that he doesn’t have. The trouble is, I really prefer traveling with him. In fact, since we’ve been together, I just don’t even want to travel alone anymore like I used to because Greg is so much fun. So when I found out he had to go to New Orleans for a week for a conference, why not spend that extra week in the Big Easy? While he’s listening to keynotes and participating in plenaries, I can spend a week exploring the sights, sounds and flavors of the town.  At night, I can even swing a couple of dinners at a jazz club with my husband instead of staying home alone.

Why am I telling you this? Well … sometimes a trip like this deserves an upgrade. Looking forward to a whole week of relaxation and fun, why not spend the cost of a nice meal to give yourself a treat? I mean, who among us hasn’t walked onto a flight envying those comfy, beverage-wielding passengers looking all relaxed and polished in their front-of-the-plane seats while we shuffle back to coach to cram into a seat that leaves us shoulder to shoulder with our seat mates? As we checked in online for our flight, the airline offered a First Class upgrade for just $90.  We had to spend $25 each anyway to check a bag, so the upgrade was really only going to cost $65 because it included those checked bags.

I could hear my dad’s voice in my head. When I was young, he always used to joke, “It only costs a nickle more to go first class.” For the cost of a decent pair of shoes, we could enjoy a complimentary breakfast served on china, drinks in glass, loads of leg room, and bags checked with priority delivery when we landed. For a three-hour ride, the leg room alone might be worth it. We got to the airport the next morning, cruised onto the flight with the first boarding group and ordered a pre-flight drink. This vacation (well, a vacation for me anyway) was starting out with a little bit of extravagance.

Sometimes we all deserve a little treat …especially when heading off to check out some new destination.

After all … there’s a whole world world out there just waiting to be explored, why not go see it in style?