Things You Should Know

Snippets from the RoadThings You Should Know

UNEXPECTED (EMERGENCY) TRAVEL

Judy car

Those of us in the wonderful state of California mostly have it pretty good.  Our weather is enviable (I would prefer more cold), we have virtually every activity — beaches, mountains, desert, culture, sports — at our fingertips.  But it’s well known we have had our share of disasters — most recently epic fires in both the northern and southern parts of the state.

Residents watch as the Woolsey Fire burns in the West Hills area of the San Fernando Valley Friday night. (photo by Andy Holzman)

That brings me to a thought:  What if you had to travel VERY QUICKLY as though your life depended on it?  Would you be ready to go at a moment’s notice?  A longtime friend/business colleague told me that she and her husband thought they were ready to go with the essentials packed:  medication, water, computers and back-up devices, snacks, pets and their necessities, clothing, etc., so they were feeling pretty confident.  When the evacuation order came, two issues occurred:

  1. Neither of their cars had more than 1/4 tank of gas; and 2) they didn’t know where they should go.

Fortunately everything worked out in the end for them even though it meant spending a night in their cars (along with three cats) at a safe destination.

So what’s the takeaway?  Have a go-list ready so you don’t have to think about it if this happens to you.  If you keep cash in the house (and everyone should, particularly smaller bills), grab that along with jewelry and portable valuables.  Have a list of prescriptions you need plus a one-week supply ready to go.  Make sure all your photos are backed up! Prints can be reproduced but don’t forget those priceless photo albums.  Extra cords you’ll need. Don’t let your cars get too low.  Finally, move faster than you think is necessary.  My friend was stunned at how quickly the winds shifted and their situation became urgent.

Finally, below is an excellent list provided by FEMA.  Find your own version and use it.  I would even suggest modifying a list of must-haves when you’re traveling.  Your carry-on becomes your go-bag with things you absolutely need.  Most importantly, be safe out there!

Snippets from the RoadThings You Should Know

FILL OUT THOSE SURVEYS!

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For the recent trip to the Pacific Northwest (see post), I rented a car with Avis.  Once we had our suitcase, we headed to the rental car shuttle.  Wow.  The line was just endless.  Not wanting to wait, I hailed an Uber and headed up to the pick-up point for ride-sharing vehicles.  Another wait in line, not to mention $16 — probably some sort of minimum charge as a detraction (obviously the drivers want longer fares).  We needn’t have bothered, for the line at Avis was stunning.  About 30 people waiting to get cars, with three Avis people doing the check-out.  Anyone who prepaid in full (with avis.com) went to an expedited line and got priority — and that line was mostly empty until someone showed up and was immediately served.

A manager (in charge of both Avis and Budget) told us this problem is symptomatic of summer travel, where it is simply not possible to gauge how many cars are needed.  Every car was booked. This location is ghost-like in the winter, so gearing up for summer is challenging.  Of course, that didn’t satisfy me so I started tweeting (including this photo):

“Wow, @Avis, your service sucks.  Never again.”  Which didn’t do any good, but made me a bit calmer.  Some 90 minutes later, we got our car and headed off.    A few days later, I received their survey to rate my experience.  “On a scale of 1 to 10 …” That got a 1.  “How likely are you to recommend Avis to a friend?”  Not.  Survey completed and submitted.

The upshot?  I got a very nice email from an Avis manager apologizing for the delays and asking that I let him know prior to any future rentals so we would get priority treatment, etc.  The bigger surprise was, even though the rental shuttles are managed by SeaTac Airport and the car rental companies have no control, he took $30 off my bill to cover the Uber.   1) Fill out those surveys.  They do get read.  2) Share positive reviews as well.  Always nice to provide feedback to those that are doing a great job.

International TravelThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

SANTORINI, GREECE — Last stop for a milestone birthday

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Thank you to the Greek weather Gods for allowing us to arrive in Santorini to glorious sunshine.  Beautiful blue skies against the white abodes literally built into steep hillsides provide gorgeous contrasts.

Every room has it’s own terrace.
Dining area at the resort.

Our last resort for this trip was in the town of Oia (pronounced “e-a”), about 40 minutes from the ferry in Fira.  Naturally the resort — Mystique — is steep as well, just like pretty much everything else on the island.  The view of the caldera is quite stunning.  “Caldera” refers to the vast opening from the long-ago volcano eruption which formed Santorini itself along with several much smaller islands.  One could sit facing the water and do nothing else.  Of course, navigating up and down the steps required to get anywhere provides added incentive to stay put.  And there’s no “ADA” provisions; it’s simply climb or else.

Our resort with another right above it.
50 steps so far; about a million to go. No handrails.

We did walk into the town to browse around and have lunch at Mezzo Cafe.  It was like the U.N. there with very close tables that lent to conversation.  French folks (from Lyon) to the left and a group of Aussies to the right provided a wonderful opportunity to chat and hear respective impressions of the landscape and life in general.  Our French neighbors immediately asked if I was ok sitting next to their dog.  My response:  “As long as he doesn’t smoke,” which is hardly guaranteed in these parts of the world — especially sitting at an outdoor cafe.  We lucked out on all counts and had a thoroughly terrific time.

Mezzo Cafe
Go-to lunch: Chicken sovlaki with tzatziki, pita and “chips”

Much like our arrival in Santorini (described in the previous post), we experienced a similar “your driver was delayed” challenge upon leaving for a particularly ideal spot to view the sunset.  In this part of Greece, sunsets are like a religious experience.  But they must be well-timed.  We were booked at Ovac, a beautiful spot we were told was best for viewing.  We had a pre-arranged pick-up at 6:15 for a 6:30 arrival at the restaurant, giving us a solid 30 minutes until the sun fully set.  And then it’s 6:20, 6:25.  Tick tock.  Two hotel courtesy cars were waiting, but both had other commitments.

Mind you, I am not walking back down to get to the main office, because I’ll have to walk back up!  Three phone calls later (from a borrowed cell), one of the cars finally took us (ours was still “delayed”), driving at breakneck speed around the curves and we arrived with enough time to get our photos, but not nearly as relaxing as we had hoped.  We did have a delicious dinner and were glad for the experience.

Amazing salad at Ovac.
That view. That sunset.

I’m now convinced not much runs on time in Greece.  In fairness to our two other stays, both had excellent staff and great service (King George Athens and Bill & Coo Mykonos).  But Santorini had some issues to say the least.  Is it Greece in general?  Hmmm.  The country is not exactly stellar in many aspects.  Maybe with this exquisite location, the expectations are lower.  Good question to ponder.

The final day of our stay in Greece was spent at the resort — reading, spa and a wine tasting in their cellar — really a cave of sorts.  Greek grapes are interesting; they are grown without any water other than rain, humidity and/or mist from the sea.  The volcanic earth retains the moisture.  We tasted four local varietals:  sparkling, white, red and a dessert wine, accompanied by various cheeses, fruit, nuts, etc.  It was a lovely experience followed by a small dinner.

Wine tasting a deux.

Fortunately we were back in the room before the anticipated rains came for we would have not been able to negotiate either the steps or steep slope to our room.  It positively gushed water — and it supposedly only rains 20 days per year on the island.  Timing is everything.

Moderate rain flowing past our room.
The deluge a bit later.

For the journey home, American/British Air booked us via our miles from Athens to an overnight at Heathrow then nonstop to LAX.  I’ve complained before about really disliking BA’s biz class (Club World) configuration of front/back seating and having to climb over the aisle seat from the window seat.  However, we were on a brand new plane and it was really “quite lovely” as the Brits would say.  Next year that seat configuration goes away, and everyone will be facing front.  Hopefully staggered.  Better yet, single seating next to the window.  That is the best!

My cubby for 11+ hours. Plenty of room.
That privacy screen was up after the photo!
International TravelThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

GREECE FOR A MILESTONE BIRTHDAY – Part 2 Mykonos

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It takes a grand total of 20 minutes in the air to fly from Athens (visit in previous post) to Mykonos.  Other modes of arrival are by cruise ship or ferry from a neighboring island (most likely Santorini, our next stop) or via one’s yacht (sigh).  But flying was the least amount of total time required and the ticket is very reasonable via Agean Air.

Bill & Coo Resort in Mykonos

Anyone else wonder why every building on the island is white?  Aesthetics?  A means of keeping buildings cool in hot weather (yes, that’s a main factor).  How about because it’s the law?  Yes, every building is required to be painted white.  Best part about that is touch-up’s are a cinch because your neighbors all have the same paint!

From the resort toward Mykonos town.
Sunset view from our balcony

The island population is a mere 10,000, but approximately one million visitors experience Mykonos annually during “the season” — April through early November.  Obviously the bulk visit during the true summer months which is precisely why a late September visit was ideal (for us, anyway).  Mykonos town is a series of very narrow, pedestrian-only streets — more like pathways.  It’s hard to imagine navigating during the height of the season when it’s really hot and really crowded.

Classic Greek style

I checked the weather from home and saw mid-70’s.  When we arrived, however, the winds were really strong — gusts up to 35mph and the temp more like the high 60’s.  Planes and ferries were canceled for two days due to the rough waters and winds.  Sitting by the pool was out so that allowed for more time for pure relaxation which is the point of being on vacation.  Fabulous massage, reading, walking to the nearby town for shopping, great food, people watching, etc.  Then there was following the news at home — baseball and hearings.  We didn’t leave the planet after all.

Choppy waters all around
Justin Turner (separated-at-birth) lookalike, complete with Dodger cap
Deep contemplation at sunset

Fortunately, our scheduled ferry to our next and last destination, Santorini, was available, more or less as planned.  The ferry itself was very nice with spacious seats on the top level.  When we departed Mykonos it was quite rainy.  But all that gave way to glorious sunshine upon arriving in Santorini.  Hooray.

Our Mykonos departure with some soggy travelers.
On the ferry

 

Hip, hip hooray! On approach to Fira in Santorini.

Alas, the sunshine was about the only good part of the arrival.  Our luggage was stored in the ship’s lowest level, right next to where the cars park.  Everyone was crowded together, gathering their bags, and tightly packed in waiting to exit.  Curiously, they were boarding passengers at the same time we were exiting.  Total chaos even before we all were on land searching for our respective transportation — either large groups finding buses, or individuals like us looking for our drivers.  An absolute mass of travelers all trying to get out.  Total travel time door-to-door:  Seven hours!  Most of that was spent on the Santorini end.

The traffic snafus as a result of the over-crowded ferries were remarkable.  The line of vehicles to get their passengers was backed up probably a good two hours.  There’s only one very steep road (think California’s Highway 1) to the ferry dock area with continuous hairpin curves, usually with two enormous buses passing simultaneously — one down and one up.  We saw quite a few people obviously so concerned about missing their departing ferry that they gave up and WALKED down the road with their luggage.  They deserve a lot of credit for that!

But we made it to a beautiful resort.  My report on our Santorini stay in the next post.

At Kalita Restaurant in Mykonos, absolutely empty at 8pm except for us (the Americans!)
Fabulous fresh sea bass with zucchini ribbons in foamy sauce. Yum!

Below — what I’ve read so far.  Two wonderful books.  Two wonderful love stories.  Lots of tissue required.

 

Snippets from the RoadThings You Should Know

CONFIRM ALL YOUR DETAILS .. THEN CONFIRM AGAIN!

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A fellow traveler shared his travel nightmare upon arriving in Barcelona.  He had checked with the hotel beforehand and determined that a private car wasn’t necessary given the options of cabs/subway/buses/trains.  Except said hotel concierge neglected to alert him when the cabs went on strike.

He’s traveling with a couple of suitcases and a backpack.  The train might seem the way to go until you realize how antiquated the stations can be: things like escalators, porters (save for some questionable locals trying to earn a few euros), and adequate signs are frequently missing.

Been there; done that. Never again.

To add insult to injury, he used an ATM to get much-needed local currency, only to find that his wallet was missing afterward.  Not theft but more likely fumbling around with all that luggage produced an “ooopsie.”  (The hotel was later extremely helpful with the challenges faced with the missing wallet).

So what’s the takeaway?  Check in with the hotel the day prior to your arrival just to make sure everything’s “good.”  Email the concierge or manager or local reservations desk for any last-minute updates.  They should be doing this on your behalf, but just in case they don’t …

Your wish is their command. Use them.
International TravelThings You Should Know

SOUTHEAST ASIA LUXURY HOTELS

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In the course of mapping out our Spring 2019 trip to Southeast Asia, I have been shopping hotels.  I like to start at the top of the heap and see if I can make 5-star hotels work within our somewhat-set budget.  Rather, what can I get at these desirable venues and not have the hubby look at me like I’ve lost my mind.  We don’t skimp, mind you, but there are limits.  Hence, the advance shopping is endless and sometimes I change the bookings as the dates get closer.

 

Hong Kong/Taipai/Hanoi/Ho Chi Minh City/Siem Reap/Phnom Penh/Singapore/Kuala Lumpur

What I’ve found so far is just astonishing.  With few exceptions (the Aman resorts are $$$$$ regardless of destination), every high-end hotel is a fraction of the cost in these locations that the same chains charge in other major cities.  That means Mandarin Oriental, Rosewood, Peninsula, Park Hyatt, St. Regis, Four Seasons — you name it — charge rates that are basically one-third the cost in many of their other destinations, with some exceptions.  Hong Kong is pricier, but certainly less than comparable accommodations in New York or Paris.

Park Hyatt, Siem Reap

You know why (in my humble opinion)?  It’s the only way they can get tourists to endure the weather!  Get it?  The oppressive heat and humidity almost year-round in these places is a deal-breaker for many. The promise of hotel nirvana is the best way to drive traffic to the area.  Could it be that labor costs are much less in these destinations, thus they can charge lower rates and still make a profit?  Not likely the reason since when are hotels in the “benevolence” business?  That’s a nice thought, but certainly a stretch.   In the scheme of things, this trip is looking downright “reasonable.”  If they could just do something about that humidity …