Things You Should Know

International TravelThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

EUROPEAN VACATION, PART 1 – PRAGUE

**This is the first in a series of posts.

Off we go into the wild blue yonder. Where? Specifically Europe, but with a great many stops.  I will be in 11 countries over the month (the hubby 10) — seven of them for the first time.

How does one create the itinerary? Romania & Bulgaria fell by the wayside courtesy of Covid back in 2020. So those two were automatic.  We have long wanted to revisit Prague and Vienna, so those are stops 1 & 2.  The stops basically go geographically from north to south with some criss-crossing.  None of the destinations are more than five hours of driving in a single day. We will see a lot!

Yes, the country count is correct! Not shown here is a stop in London plus an extra week for me at a Tuscan cooking school.  More about that later. 

The group of countries are “Central Europe” (more or less) for the sake of brevity.

But back to Prague.  After a non-stop to London with a plane/terminal change, we arrive in Prague at night but still take in the glorious beauty of this city.  Soon after, the first “challenge” of the trip (every trip has them) upon receipt of an email from our Vienna hotel, the next stop.  More about that later.

We are on the “Castle side” of the river — as opposed to the “new town/old town” side.  Prague is definitely a walking city with most people traversing the area via the iconic Charles Bridge.   The bridge and towers date back 1,000 years, and obviously are the best place to capture images of the city.

The town center, below, looks exactly the same as it did in 2007, our previous visit here

The Jewish area in the older part of Prague

We intentionally did not plan any specific tours, but rather look to get acclimated and meander through the town — altogether an excellent plan. There’s something to be said for simply being here with no particular agenda.  The only impediment is the weather in Prague — low 40’s with rain, not exactly conducive to comfortable meandering.

Separately, note to self: Make sure to set cellphone and watch on local time.  The first morning I woke up and saw it was 9:45 and panicked that we might miss breakfast! (God forbid).  Jump in the shower, wake the hubby — get up! I need coffee in my travel haze! As we are about to dash out the door, I realize my phone is still on LA time (9:45pm) so locally it is just 7:45 AM. Oh, well. More hours to explore.

Above, Czech wines from our dinner at Restaurant Mlynec along with excellent food below: Salad with buttermilk, burrata, macademia nuts; veal steak “schnitzel” and Peanut Butter/Chocolate ganache.

As to the aforementioned challenge, our plan to drive from Prague to Vienna was shelved.  The Vienna hotel emailed that no vehicles may enter the main “ring” area surrounding the city due to the annual marathon.  So we left our transportation dilemma in the capable hands of the two concierges (Prague & Vienna) to sort it on our behalf.  A hired driver will get us to the Vienna hotel (with a fair amount of luggage) without a couple of seniors hauling the bags via public transportation.  We will drive ourselves from Vienna onward.  But with opera tickets the first night in Vienna, time is of the essence for a timely arrival!

Prague at night, beautifully lit

International TravelThings You Should Know

A SIMPLE REQUEST YIELDS BIG BENEFITS

Romania map

It’s no secret that I regularly emphasize the importance of connecting with your hotel’s concierge.  These seasoned, well-trained professionals have one job: to find answers for guests’ requests. As soon as I have our flight information, I contact the hotel for transportation options.  If what they offer is too pricey, I will investigate other options. But it never fails to bring happiness upon a foreign-city arrival to have that issue resolved. It is so worth the cost.

For our arrival into Bucharest, I did just that.  The response from the Intercontinental Athenee was swift and informative.  Transportation booked just like that. But what happened beyond that is the big story here.

While much of this trip involves driving from city to city through central Europe (i.e., on our own), I was uncertain how to manage our time in Romania.  There is a great deal to see with the castles in the countryside, etc., that the idea of doing it on our own wasn’t ideal. Thus, I asked the concierge for guide recommendations.

Enter my now-bestie/miracle worker, Mr. Daniel Dumitru with the agency Romania on the Map.  Any concerns I might have had as to his English speaking skills (critical for the hubby to understand clearly) were quickly resolved as we communicated. This is a find.

The value of this connection quickly became clear. It was a cinch booking essentially 4 days with Daniel, including a half-day tour of Bucharest, then driving/guiding us along the way with overnights in Brasova and Sibiu before departing from Cluj-Napoca. We will see a lot.

The biggest benefit was this: Our scheduled flight was cancelled from Belgrade (Serbia) to Chisinau (Moldava) for an overnight, before flying to Bucharest for our stay. The flights offered for this area are skant. The solution: leave Belgrade a day earlier flying to Chisinau. Done. But there is just one daily flight now offered to Bucharest, and it is 5:30 — in the morning.  No thanks. I contacted Daniel. Not only did he graciously step in when I called “uncle” in dealing with Tarom (the Romanian airline) — he called them for me and executed flight refunds — but he is now DRIVING us from Chisinau to Bucharest.  Seven hours of comfort from point A to point B, more sightseeing, and actually costs less than that single flight.

So that one single request to the Bucharest concierge for guide recommendations indeed yielded BIG benefits. Ask away.

Things You Should Know

IF IT AIN’T BROKE ….

travel_photography_gear

Have you ever learned from those prophetic words, albeit after the fact?  Meaning, sometimes things really aren’t broke and thus do not need fixing, as the rest of the saying goes.  This valuable lesson was abundantly clear after investing a good bit of time, only to discard the entire quest.

What am I talking about?  Buying a new camera.  After years of taking what I consider very good photos  — integral to sharing my travel stories — I wondered if I needed something more.  Given this year’s November trip to Antartica, the thought of not capturing everything at the highest level concerned me.  I consulted others who have been to that remarkable region to query what they brought.  The answer typically was a mix of both smartphone and traditional camera.

But since maximum consideration is always given to the camera quality — and screen size! — when acquiring my smartphone, I have relied solely on that device for quite a few years now.  That includes 2021’s trip to Africa (photos below from Uganda and Tanzania).

BWINDI FOREST, UGANDA

My trip to one of LA’s best camera stores was insightful.  My last comment to the salesperson:  “You know, you’re talking yourself out of a sale here.”  Why?  Because he shared that cameras are becoming relics.  That the quality of built-in cameras in smartphones is so good that people are opting for those only.  And if companies cannot sell enough units to make it economically feasible to manufacture them, they will discontinue making the cameras.  It was disappointing to say the least as the lack of enthusiasm made me wonder why he was in his chosen profession at all.

Nevertheless, I pursued my quest.  I looked up every online review I could find for a “point and shoot” camera.  Meaning, the camera can function fully automatically via the “AI” setting. But it can also be operated manually to satisfy a photographer’s desire to compose unique pictures.  Plus the camera offers wifi and bluetooth capabilities.

I finally pulled the trigger on a Panasonic Lumix with many bells and whistles.

And guess what?  I’m returning the entire thing.  Why?  The features have gotten so complicated, the technology so daunting, that even transfering photos became a matter of needing new software, etc., etc. Biggest issue? The screen size.  I couldn’t see if the photo was in focus and it drove me nuts!  Are these challenges because of my 70-year-old brain and/or eyes?  Maybe.  But I have zero problem syncing up a new smartphone and making it fully functional.  So I think I’m pretty capable.  (My smartphone is OnePlus with a huge gorgeous screen!)

What’s the takeaway here, besides “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”?  Sometimes what we have is quite good “as is.”  Maybe the cruise ship will have camera equipment to use (many safari camps do with incredible lenses).  And there’s that $800 in “mystery savings” from returning the camera that I can use for something else.  Someone help me convince the hubby of those savings, though …

 

Snippets from the RoadThings You Should Know

WHY LOYALTY (STILL) MATTERS

customer loyalty

Why revisit the subject of loyalty now?  Because I believe it is more important than maybe ever.  Hence, a call back to a post from four years ago, which is linked HERE.

Upon receiving notification that American Airlines is making a number of changes, I learned that one is increasing their checked bag fees.  One of the perks of my longtime loyalty to the program is exemption from baggage fees.  While the amount might not make a difference in the scheme of things, it is nonetheless a nice perk to not have to think about that added cost.  Likewise, there is access to premium seating in certain sections at no additional cost; free upgrades, etc.

And this, from the Wall Street Journal Feb 21:  “The rising fees can help steer travelers into airline-loyalty programs or toward pricier premium tickets that include baggage fees.  At American, customers with the airline’s co-branded credit card or who have status will still receive complimentary bag-checking, as will those who buy seats in premium cabins.”  

Photo cred: WSJ Feb 21 2024

At this point, my travel is less domestic and more international.  Those “big” trips almost always rely on securing mileage seats for the longest flights.  One exception is travel to South America.  While there are flights to some major cities there, the miles required are astronomical! Plus virtually none are nonstop, and many fly through Miami — an airport I go to great lengths to avoid.

The end result for this year’s Antarctica trip?  Paying outright for seats on Delta (operated by LATAM).  At least there will be miles gained from the credit card used (Citi/AAdvantage Platinum).  As I begin to map out our spring travel for next year — back to South America plus the Caribbean for countries not previously visited — I am researching how best to incorporate AA/One World partners wherever possible.  It’s “work” yes, but for me both fun and challenging.

Next post will cover the coming changes to earning miles and loyalty points, as soon as I understand them! Stay tuned.

International TravelThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

THANKSGIVING IN VANCOUVER PART 2

van18

So what did we do for the remaining days in Vancouver during our family vacation over Thanksgiving? Plenty. Please read the many fun and delicious adventures in Part 1.

A chance encounter and discussion with locals resulted in a change of plans.  With rental car in hand, we headed north to see Whistler.  The original plan of the ferry to Vancouver Island, Butchart Gardens, etc., ultimately made little sense with not enough time available to do that “right.” Upon learning the beautiful Whistler area is just 90 minutes from Vancouver, there wasn’t much to deliberate.

En route to Whistler is the Sea to Sky Gondola.  The “Sea” is Howe Sound.  Following the 10 minute ride to the summit (in the spacious, comfortable and safe gondolas), the view is absolutely stunning.  There is a suspension bridge and trails in multiple directions.  We just took in the breathtaking vista, chatted with other visitors, and obviously tested our best photography skills.

Above, with Howe Sound in the background; below, two daredevils cross the suspension bridge

The Whistler Blackcomb ski area is “ranked #1 in North America” according to the Wall Street Journal.  The ranking accounts for the abundance of snow (averaging 33 feet annually), trails, apres-ski “scene” and more.  The trail options are massive as the map below shows. We saw just a snapshot of the area for lunch and a walkabout of the village.  It is very impressive and made me long for my skiing days!

The absolutely breathtaking sunset seen (below) en route back to Vancouver had us pulling over to capture the scene over Howe Sound.

Vancouver’s downtown area not only is eminently walkable, but is home to some truly outstanding restaurants. Most evenings, we walked to dinner (rain permitting).  In addition to the ones covered in Part 1, we were fortunate to enjoy two other greats:  Blue Water Cafe and Boulevard Kitchen.

Blue Water Cafe was a late addition as a result of a (full disclosure) social media post. After seeing  Vancouver’s own (heartthrob and native son) Michael Buble rave about the place, I decided it was well worth a visit.  Thank you Mr. B. not only for your great singing but for the head’s up.  We were fortunate to get a primetime reservation at this very busy place. After initially being put off by our waiter — who not once, not twice, but three times briefly said hello and added the same pat comment about how great the food is leading me to think he’s “dialing it in” — we had fabulous service and equally fabulous food.  Yes, one can get great sushi at a restaurant that isn’t a sushi bar per se.  And then there’s the wine. Oh, my.

After befriending the waiter and disclosing son Sam’s industry affiliation, we were given the grand tour of the place. In addition to the main room with sushi bar, there are several other rooms available for private dinners where wine is on display. Lots of wine, not to mention cellars we viewed.  Hat’s off to everyone we encountered who contributed to a memorable evening.

Below, sushi creations; tuna tartare; Char; desserts

Above; endless wine conversation.  Below, private dining anyone?? (Photo cred: Blue Water Cafe)

Special in a somewhat different way was our dinner at Boulevard Kitchen at the Sutton Place Hotel, situated in Vancouver’s highest end area.  Surrounding the hotel is all the top shops, many of which are on Alberni Street.  The original Fairmont Hotel (there are three others in the area) is nearby.

This dinner was all about the wine.  Again, make friends with your sommelier.  Better yet, with the GM/Wine Director.  We did a “red wine tasting” with a great deal of wine details.  Just don’t count on me repeating them.  But see for yourself the sheer number of glasses on the table! Which is likely the reason for the lack of food photos — just some outstanding fish and a lot of desserts.

That’s a lot of stemware above.  All used!  Below, my favorite:  St. Innocent 2017 Pinot Noir

Before returning the rental car, we headed south to two destinations:  The VanDusen Botanical Gardens and White Rock, the latter located just five minutes north of the US border.

The gardens were definitely in a so-called “shoulder season” — meaning the foliage was mostly gone but no snow yet.  But walking through still proved to be a lovely excursion.

White Rock, on the other hand, is a stunning spot. It is home to Canada’s longest pier. Any time one can see the sea with snow-covered mountains in the background, that is a homerun for me. The namesake “White Rock” is shown in the second photo below.

And then it was time to come home, but not before a memorable sushi lunch at Hello Nori. Counter seating and sushi rolls. That’s it, which means few decisions necessary. And the rolls were delicious! A perfect way to end this glorious week spent with family, for which we feel blessed.

International TravelThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

THANKSGIVING IN VANCOUVER PART 2

van18

So what did we do for the remaining days in Vancouver during our family vacation over Thanksgiving? Plenty. Please read the many fun and delicious adventures in Part 1.

A chance encounter and discussion with locals resulted in a change of plans.  With rental car in hand, we headed north to see Whistler.  The original plan of the ferry to Vancouver Island, Butchart Gardens, etc., ultimately made little sense with not enough time available to do that “right.” Upon learning the beautiful Whistler area is just 90 minutes from Vancouver, there wasn’t much to deliberate.

En route to Whistler is the Sea to Sky Gondola.  The “Sea” is Howe Sound.  Following the 10 minute ride to the summit (in the spacious, comfortable and safe gondolas), the view is absolutely stunning.  There is a suspension bridge and trails in multiple directions.  We just took in the breathtaking vista, chatted with other visitors, and obviously tested our best photography skills.

Above, with Howe Sound in the background; below, two daredevils cross the suspension bridge

The Whistler Blackcomb ski area is “ranked #1 in North America” according to the Wall Street Journal.  The ranking accounts for the abundance of snow (averaging 33 feet annually), trails, apres-ski “scene” and more.  The trail options are massive as the map below shows. We saw just a snapshot of the area for lunch and a walkabout of the village.  It is very impressive and made me long for my skiing days!

The absolutely breathtaking sunset seen (below) en route back to Vancouver had us pulling over to capture the scene over Howe Sound.

Vancouver’s downtown area not only is eminently walkable, but is home to some truly outstanding restaurants. Most evenings, we walked to dinner (rain permitting).  In addition to the ones covered in Part 1, we were fortunate to enjoy two other greats:  Blue Water Cafe and Boulevard Kitchen.

Blue Water Cafe was a late addition as a result of a (full disclosure) social media post. After seeing  Vancouver’s own (heartthrob and native son) Michael Buble rave about the place, I decided it was well worth a visit.  Thank you Mr. B. not only for your great singing but for the head’s up.  We were fortunate to get a primetime reservation at this very busy place. After initially being put off by our waiter — who not once, not twice, but three times briefly said hello and added the same pat comment about how great the food is leading me to think he’s “dialing it in” — we had fabulous service and equally fabulous food.  Yes, one can get great sushi at a restaurant that isn’t a sushi bar per se.  And then there’s the wine. Oh, my.

After befriending the waiter and disclosing son Sam’s industry affiliation, we were given the grand tour of the place. In addition to the main room with sushi bar, there are several other rooms available for private dinners where wine is on display. Lots of wine, not to mention cellars we viewed.  Hat’s off to everyone we encountered who contributed to a memorable evening.

Below, sushi creations; tuna tartare; Char; desserts

Above; endless wine conversation.  Below, private dining anyone?? (Photo cred: Blue Water Cafe)

Special in a somewhat different way was our dinner at Boulevard Kitchen at the Sutton Place Hotel, situated in Vancouver’s highest end area.  Surrounding the hotel is all the top shops, many of which are on Alberni Street.  The original Fairmont Hotel (there are three others in the area) is nearby.

This dinner was all about the wine.  Again, make friends with your sommelier.  Better yet, with the GM/Wine Director.  We did a “red wine tasting” with a great deal of wine details.  Just don’t count on me repeating them.  But see for yourself the sheer number of glasses on the table! Which is likely the reason for the lack of food photos — just some outstanding fish and a lot of desserts.

That’s a lot of stemware above.  All used!  Below, my favorite:  St. Innocent 2017 Pinot Noir

Before returning the rental car, we headed south to two destinations:  The VanDusen Botanical Gardens and White Rock, the latter located just five minutes north of the US border.

The gardens were definitely in a so-called “shoulder season” — meaning the foliage was mostly gone but no snow yet.  But walking through still proved to be a lovely excursion.

White Rock, on the other hand, is a stunning spot. It is home to Canada’s longest pier. Any time one can see the sea with snow-covered mountains in the background, that is a homerun for me. The namesake “White Rock” is shown in the second photo below.

And then it was time to come home, but not before a memorable sushi lunch at Hello Nori. Counter seating and sushi rolls. That’s it, which means few decisions necessary. And the rolls were delicious! A perfect way to end this glorious week spent with family, for which we feel blessed.