Things You Should Know

Snippets from the RoadThings You Should Know

ALILA — EVER HEARD OF IT?

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No?  Neither had I until I got wind of a new property recently opened in Encinitas (north San Diego area).  In the course of looking for a fun getaway befitting a special anniversary, I explored Alila Marea Beach Resort.  This is a separate brand under the Hyatt umbrella where one might expect premium pricing from Park Hyatt or even Hyatt Regency.  I definitely was not expecting a room cost approaching $1,000 per night (includes breakfast!) on a AAA rate.  I will continue to look.

When considering where else where else to go, I decided to look into an old favorite from early in our marriage — Ventana in Big Sur.  Turns out that property is also now an Alila, and only the third one in the US.  All of the other locations are scattered around Asia and the Middle East.  Ventana was always a splurge, but nothing like it is now.   At least the rate is basically “all inclusive” — per the website:

Each Ventana booking now features the following inclusive offerings: Dining in-room (all meals), poolside on your dedicated chaise lounge (lunch), or at The Sur House (breakfast and dinner). Convenient, healthy, and inspiring snacks to take on the day’s adventures, along with complimentary keepsake reusable water bottles. The Ventana Big Sur picnic program. Access to indoor and outdoor fitness studios. Volvo chauffeur service within a three-mile radius. The Excursion Outpost, featuring complimentary items for your use on picnics, hikes, and more.

The cost for the above (lowest rate and you best sit down) :: $1,650 per night, plus tax of course.  Onward I go.

Then there is Napa, site of the newest Alila.  Scratch that for the desired timeframe (end of August). But we can go earlier in August with rooms starting at just under $1000.  I’m feeling rich.

Thus I look forward to sharing all the stories and photos of the settled itinerary :: Cleveland (the hubby’s hometown) for baseball plus seeing friends and family; Detroit (baseball only) and some glorious days in Chicago for eating, shopping, exploring and celebrating.  Sounds pretty ideal to me.

International TravelSnippets from the RoadThings You Should Know

DON’T LET THIS HAPPEN TO YOU!

passports

If you’re like so many others right about now, you have either booked or plan to book international travel.  BUT, have you checked your passport’s expiration date lately?

I cannot stress enough that you do, because the renewal process “ain’t what it used to be.”  Remember all those passport expeditors (even the USPS) who could easily get it done in a day or two for you?

Chalk up that absent service to another Covid casualty.  I just booked a client on an Alaska cruise that embarks in Seattle.  That means the ship encounters “international waters” en route — thus necessitating a passport.  She hadn’t checked hers recently and it expired in February of this year.  And then the fun began.

Expedited services at best still require 15 business days and some hefty fees.   According to a Wall Street Journal column this week, the State Department indicates the process can take up to 18 weeks for renewals including mailing.   In cases of a life-or-death emergency, there are some “very limited in-person appointments” that require either a death certificate or a letter from a hospital.  No one wants to face that in a time of need.

So, what is the takeaway here?  Like with all else in life, make sure your paperwork and required documents are in order and up to date.  People have waited so long for travel to resume that you don’t want to be denied because of an expired passport.

 

 

International TravelThings You Should Know

GORILLAS IN THE FOREST

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Wait; what?? There’s gorilla trekking in Uganda?  Now that’s something on the proverbial bucket list.  My thoughts that both the exorbitant cost along with adding Rwanda to our itinerary were deal breakers.  Upon learning the experience is the same in both countries but the cost is significantly lower in Uganda (the respective governments set the fees), the decision to go was fairly easy.   With either destination, there is a lengthy list of warnings and precautions one must consider carefully.

Following an Entebbe overnight after our remarkable experience in Tanzania (see previous), an 80-minute flight to the southwest corner of Uganda in a 12-seat Cessna Caravan took us to our next destination.  Again, we were a party of two plus the co-pilots for a great flight.  Both the smooth ride and the view were spectacular.  At the other end, William — our guide for the six-night, three-location stay — was there to meet us.

Heading left for the landing strip
Guide/driver William at our vehicle

Seeing the small villages and towns in the west of Uganda is an eye-opener; sadly not in a good way.  There is tremendous poverty and primitive living along with way too many unpaved roads.

Departure point, where we received our orientation and assigned ranger.

Our stay at Mahogany Springs requires almost no “commute” for the main event — trekking Silverback mountain gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.  In fact, sometimes the beasts venture onto the gorgeous premises.  And head chef Abraham did a terrific job with every meal!

Mahogany Springs view of the forest from the dining room

Trekking is a stunning and very challenging experience.  The forest is wet, steep, slippery, and full of fallen trees (mostly pieces of the trunk or branches).  Plus there are the tangles of vines which are impossible to avoid.  So a foot could easily get stuck and cause a trip or fall.  Walking sticks from the lodge are an essential component along with gaiters, long socks (for tucking in pants), gloves (for gripping), sturdy walking boots (mine are below — before and after our trek), and a lot of the strongest insect repellent.  Our pre-trip documents had this extensive packing list.

Here’s some million dollar advice:  Hire “sherpas” on the spot — porters who push you and pull you and hold your hand and tell you where best to plant your foot to avoid slipping (or worse) and carry your stuff.  And hire an extra.  They were invaluable, had significant training, and saved us from any accidents which could have easily occurred.

Above with the porters when we were clean and had no idea what lay ahead.  Below, one of many rest stops.  Not even close at this point (at least another hour to go).

Our three porters help the hubby navigate the slope

Once in the presence of gorillas, trekkers have just 60 minutes to observe and take photos.  If the gorillas move, so does everyone else (a team of armed guards in front and back; ranger; porters and trekkers).    Our successful viewing:  One large Silverback male, four adult females and two babies.  The photos:

Below — the silver “stripe” goes horizontally across the back at the mid-point.

The giant Silverback in repose after eating. Note the foot.
Can you spot all four??

Opposable thumb!

When it was time to leave, we had to call in reinforcements due to utter exhaustion from the trek at that point.  For the most part, the hubby and I are pretty healthy 67-year-old’s.  The time for doing this kind of hard-core physical endeavor has an expiration date in the not-to-distant future.  We are very happy to have it in our rear-view mirrors.  And thank the Ugandan Gods for the exit strategy from deep in the forest:  A “helicopter” evacuation.  I was expecting the real deal, but the photos show the actual ride. Had it not been available, we just might still be there.

About the evacuation experience:  It is a very smart and entrepreneurial solution for repurposing car seats.  Someone came up with the genius idea to mount a seat on two parallel metal poles and add an extra seatbelt.  Then, the team executes some Olympics-worthy choreography for changing positions (to shift the weight burden) while the chair and passenger are in the air.  On incredibly steep terrain.  Without missing a step.  Bravo, just bravo.  We (they came back for me too) probably went one-half mile via this mode to get to flat ground for walking.

Immense gratitude for this team

What an amazing experience.  One that shall be savored for a long time.  Next post:  The rest of our Uganda stay — boat safari, chimp trekking and some amazing scenery.

 

 

International TravelThings You Should Know

AND THE AWARD GOES TO …

FIRST PRIZE

For “Best understanding and navigating the complicated world of travel restrictions,” the award goes to :: Anyone who prevails, especially internationally.  I will gladly accept my blue ribbon (after untold hours spent).

Many of us might just cry “Uncle.”  Our family trip to Italy has been rescheduled twice since 2020 and is now calendared for November.  For me and the hubby, this year’s trip was always going to be Africa (Kenya and Tanzania), but what a ride it’s been.  And we haven’t even left yet.

Industrial-strength desire and patience is a must in the planning stages.  It might be tempting for some to think its just too much work to pull off a trip.  And is anyone truly patient?  I know I’m not.  Just when one is certain the itinerary is settled, a new wrinkle appears.  I could fill up a recycling bin with printed copies of reservations made and cancelled.

A LATE CHANGE

The biggest surprise, literally just contemplated and confirmed a few days ago, is Tanzania is out and Uganda is in.  That means in addition to the traditional “Big 5” — lions/leopards/elephants/rhinos/buffalo — we are including gorillas and chimps, oh my!  Until recently, I thought Rwanda was the only place to go for gorilla trekking.  In reality, there are some 400 of these amazing creatures in Uganda’s Bwindi Forest where we’re headed.

The staff at Africa Travel Resource have been extraordinary throughout the process.  Numerous itineraries were offered.  They weighed in with pros and cons.  They have continuously sent clients on safari in spite of the challenges from the pandemic and know the terrain extremely well.

THE JOURNEY THERE

The first hurdle?  Getting to the African continent with travel rules that change daily.  There are few routes (via American Airlines partners) where one is able to “transfer” through a destination.  That means arriving somewhere but not entering the country (i.e., outside immigration).  Instead, the onward travel to the next destination simply continues within the confines of the airport. This avoids any of the country’s quarantine requirements.  Even an overnight at an airport hotel might require quarantine; thus avoid!

A case in point of how airport transfers can become a nightmare:  We once had a plane change in Sri Lanka.  Since we weren’t technically entering the country, I didn’t apply for Visas.  Lo and behold, the Sri Lankans considered going to the baggage carousel to gather our bags for the next flight (on a different airline) to be “entering the country.”  Long lines, language barriers, and a ticking clock to the next departure equaled major stress.  Singapore Airlines more than earned their best airline status by helping us through the calamity.

By the way, if the Sri Lanka episode happens to you, be firm about not missing your next flight.  We were told that there was no way we would make it.  But because of polite persistence and some absolute insistence, we indeed made the flight.  (More about that subject is covered in a previous post linked HERE).

Thus I feel positively victorious to be flying from Los Angeles to Nairobi on just two flights in a mere 22 hours.  We have one plane change in Doha, Qatar, for two hours.  I used 75,000 AA miles per person for the flights on Qatar Airlines. Even with the first leg at 15-1/2 hours, I’m looking forward to experiencing their Q-Suites.

We’re scheduled for the required COVID test just prior to leaving Los Angeles.  Kenya requires proof of a negative test (not more than 96 hours old) for entry to the country.  From there, no quarantine is required so off we go.

The trip map

I will write more later about the rest of the journey.  I’m just happy to be able to finally focus on all that needs to be done before we leave in a few short weeks.  That is a great joy indeed.

Snippets from the RoadThings You Should Know

TRAVEL RULES — THEY ARE A CHANGIN’

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First the encouraging news :: travel agents, cruise lines and tour companies are all reporting record bookings for 2021.  If you’re like so many of us who love to travel, you’re itching to get back out there!  But the how, when, where and all the rest have unique protocols in place.  Nearly as fast as we read something, there is a new rule.

 

RESOURCES

Following are some great sites help you plan.  One of the absolute best I’ve come across is Sherpa via American Airlines.  It is so simple and so full of great information regarding entry Visas and in particular COVID restrictions for any country in the world.  Amazing, up to date, and beyond helpful.

Next is the CDC website.  These links are very comprehensive (if a bit complicated).  I just want the bullet points!  Regardless, check out the following:

Domestic Travel   https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/travel-during-covid19.html

International Travel  (this is a biggie with re-entry requirements just published for all US citizens) https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/testing-international-air-travelers.html

PLANS (which could be cha-cha-changin’)

I’ve written about our upcoming trip in April to Kenya and Tanzania.  American Airlines main partner is British Airways.  The vast majority of flights heading east have a stop at Heathrow along with exorbitant taxes.  If I can get somewhere and avoid Heathrow, I’m thrilled.  That is the case for this trip.  Our mileage tickets via American partner Qatar Airlines fly to Doha, then on to Nairobi.   Except Qatar now requires a 5-day quarantine. That does not work for our trip schedule.

But, and it’s a big but — some countries allow transit passengers meaning you can transit through the country but not leave the airport.  Sounds like a great plan largely depending on the length of said transfer.  Say it’s 12 hours.  What then?  Well, many large international airports (Hamad in Doha included) have hotels inside the terminal.  They are pricey, but you can book for as little as a few hours to rest, shower, change and proceed on.  It’s not nearly as interesting as departing the airport to actually get a glimpse of the destination or go out for a meal.   But it’s certainly beats hanging around a terminal — even if you have lounge access.

The decision for this year’s route is in flux as we speak. That is, until I can confirm transit status through Qatar.  Heathrow allows for transit passengers so it might just be easier to add the extra cost and change the tickets.    Whatever the route is, it will be with full knowledge of requirements for the trip ahead before leaving.  But we are leaving and that’s the best news of all!

Things You Should KnowU.S. TravelWining/Dining

FAMILY THANKSGIVING IN NAPA

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If you have either been to Napa and/or know those who have, the concensus is clear.  It appeals on so many different levels to so many people.

Nonetheless, every travel experience contains at least one head-scratcher.  Our flight from Burbank to Oakland was flawless, arriving early with a half-full plane. However,  the rental car pick up was anything but “flawless.”  Remember the famous Seinfeld episode where Jerry has a car reservation, but there’s no car available? Bingo. “Anyone can T A K E a reservation,” a frustrated Jerry says to the woman behind the counter.  “But you have to H O L D the reservation.” How exactly does a car rental company have no cars for their bookings?  Fortunately, steps away from Fox was Avis who solved the problem and off we went.

Silverado Country Club offers spacious units with three bedrooms and two baths so that was our choice.  Our family of four could spread out, bring in food for breakfast with the full kitchen and be very comfortable.  COVID meant none of the typical services, but the front desk responded promptly to all our requests.

Over the course of the week, our adventures would satisfy the most dedicated oenophiles.  Son Sam created and with the hubby operates a family enterprise, The Cellar Beverly Hills.  Now in our third year, we offer private wine storage with concierge services and much more.  Given the business has been built almost entirely by word of mouth, imagine our collective glee hearing from a prominent winery that TCBH is quite well known among Wine Country vinters. We were ecstatic.

The images below are from Wheeler, a custom crush facility where we had a tasting from Accendo Cellars.  The bottom photo is Wheeler’s open kitchen (to die for).

Make no mistake — this was a working trip.  Thanksgiving provided a much-needed respite, but the rest of the days were spent making and enhancing winery relationships (21 in all).  If you want to help this area from a devastating year — not just from COVID closures but the fires — buy wine!

We did our part.

Along with wine, the other joy of Napa is eating lots of great food.  Because there are so many choices, strategy was needed to try everywhere we wanted to go.  A couple of restaurants were nixed because of closing for the transition to complete outdoor dining (Avow and The Charter Oak).  A mix of new and old made up the rest:  Mustard’s Grill, Oenotri, Bistro Don Giovani, Celadon, Gott’s Roadside (a must), Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch and our favorite, Poesia in San Francisco.

Tasting at Hartford in Sonoma

You should know a word about outdoor dining this time of year. It’s cold. Very, very cold.  When the sun goes down, Napa drops at least 20 degrees. Every night was mid-40’s. One night required keeping my gloves on between the courses.  The establishments do their best with heaters but those unfortunately don’t reach one’s feet. Brrrr.

Mustard’s on Hwy 29
Celadon entrance

Poesia was a last-minute find for Thanksgiving dinner.  The food (shown below) was fantastic but even more fun was Pietro, the crazy, animated, fun and enthusiastic caretaker of our table.  This Italian/Jewish/filmmaker might just show up on our doorstep one day.  Prego!

Above (clockwise from upper left):  Eggplant parm, Cabbage salad with pears, walnuts & goat cheese; incredible rigatoni marinara; ravioli with pumpkin filling, sage and balsamic.

Below, the quartet of desserts:  Hazelnut gelato with hard chocolate shell; (take the gun but leave the) cannoli; millefoglie with apple; tiramisu.  All magnifico!

Pietro at Poesia

A few precious and careful visits with friends and family were icing on the proverbial cake to this spectacular week.  As a result, layers of ongoing and much welcomed (small) gatherings were added with cousin visits in Silverado, San Francisco and Lafayette.  We got in a quick coffee in Sebastopol with a high school friend, along with tastings at Jeff Cohn Cellars and Littorai in Sonoma.

Touring Mayacamas

Napa continues to be one of the best — if not the best — vacation destinations there is, so go!