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International TravelThings You Should Know

A SIMPLE REQUEST YIELDS BIG BENEFITS

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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.

International TravelThings I LoveThings You Should Know

NOT JUST LONDON PART 2

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An 8-day stay in London provides so much time to do and see, a second post is necessary to cover all our activities. This is in addition to the one covering Wimbledon (HERE), and the side trips covered in the previous post (HERE).  With just four remaining days, a lot of ground was yet to cover.  And here you go:

Not knowing how peppy we might be from Friday at Wimbledon, Saturday plans were open. A last- minute decision to acquire theater tickets was an unplanned but deliciously enjoyable afternoon!  First, a random choice for Vietnamese food near the theater was one of those “scores” — amazing food! Next, seeing Crazy for You, a revival directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, was just a marvelous experience. Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm” and “Nice Work if You Can Get It” had us smiling (and singing along) throughout. At the Gillian Lynne Theater now though January 2024, I highly recommend it if you have the opportunity.

Bardo St. James is a supper club in the St. James area (obviously) I found during research for our big Saturday night.  It is an extremely well executed restaurant/club. The food is delicious and the setting is gorgeous with nightly entertainment. We thoroughly enjoyed a young lady singing from the Great American Songbook with barely a hint of British accent. We spoke with her at a break and the accent was most definitely there, so kudos to her for singing “American.” The hubby and I have long frequented Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood, but strictly for the entertainment. Food and ambience are most definitely secondary.

The singer is visible in the background (above); below our dinner and perhaps the single best dessert ever — a magnificent fruit tart.  Perfection. 

Our return visit to Buckingham Palace happened Sunday morning, early enough to still watch the Men’s Finals. Our first visit in 2011 featured a display from the Cambridge wedding (with illicit photos of Kate’s dress). This visit featured all the Coronotion regalia (with accompanying illicit photos).

The “backyard” is roughly 6 acres, including a gorgeous pond shown below.

Part of the tour included The Royal Mews adjacent to the palace, where all means of transportation are maintained. 

After watching the final match with a little picnic in our room, we had a lovely walk to a pub in Chelsea for dinner and nearly made it back to the hotel before the rains came. And came. And got us pretty soaked! Nevertheless, got those steps in.

Below, the magnificent sun setting prior to giving way to the rain.

Tickets for Windsor Castle were intentionally booked for Monday. The reason? To see the Queen’s final resting place there at St. George’s Chapel, closed on Sundays for worship services. This was also a return visit for us so we mostly did a quick perusal inside and headed to the chapel. After a fairly long queue, with full view of the tomb, I became quite emotional.  All I thought of to do was curtsy and say “thank you for your life of service” before welling up. I have always been enamored with her unfailing and lifelong devotion to service. Seeing the finality of it all just got to me.

Side note: Prince Phillip was not initially interred in the chamber. He was relocated there after the Queen’s passing. I don’t know the reason, but was told so by the guard on duty. Together with her parents, they shall remain so forever. Yes, I snuck a photo (below), not unlike what has been widely shared in the press.

Above, inside St. George’s Chapel; below, beautiful grounds at Windsor Castle

Our last evening included a spectacular performance of  Guys and Dolls at the Bridge Theater, so called as it is located steps from the Tower Bridge. What’s most unique about the venue: “It is the first wholly new theatre of scale to be added to London’s commercial theatre sector in 80 years.”

Suffice to say, any production of Guys & Dolls is by virtue of the score a joy. I would say this was exceptional.  “An immersive audience experience” — meaning guests could choose to stand during the performance. Stage management dressed as cops moved audience members about as actors on risers performed — flawlessly without interference. At the end, actors danced with audience members after the final “formal” curtain call.  An absolutely joyous experience where everyone walks out happy.

The magnificent bridge, seen after and before the performance

What to do until it was time to head to Heathrow for an overnight prior to our early flight the next day? Why, head to Harrod’s!  One can certainly spend countless hours browsing the endless floors and rooms and departments. “Go big or go home” were both true with lunch at Gordon Ramsey Burger.

Terrific people watching accompanied the delicious food. My favorite was a woman with her four children who ranged in age (I’m guessing) maybe 13 down to 6. When we left, I made a point to compliment her on their behavior. Imagine a scene where kids all sit quietly (reading/drawing/talking) without a single electronic device to occupy them!! Extraordinary, especially today.

At Harrod’s in what many women also call “the promised land.”  (No purchases in answer to your question)

We ended as we began, with a British Airways flight to Houston and a switch to United for the flight home. The hubby got to experience Wimbledon to celebrate his milestone birthday (early) and we both came away feeling extraordinarily grateful to again see and do so much.

International TravelThings I LoveThings You Should Know

NOT JUST LONDON PART 1

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Suffice it to say, a week in London offers virtually endless possibilities. That is the amount of time allocated for the trip where attending Wimbledon was the centerpoint (see last post). But that was just one day’s activity!

I’ll start with how we flew to London. I’ve often talked about booking mileage seats for international flights. The number of miles to fly into Heathrow is officially crazy, not to mention the taxes. Arguably the worst route is LAX-Heathrow. But if you begin heading east from LA, the number of miles is less. Often by a lot. That means, find other cities with non-stop flights to LHR:  Phoenix, Las Vegas, Denver, and (bingo!) Houston. Why get excited about Houston (in the summer especially)? A chance to visit with longtime dear friends as a bonus for this trip. Even with the addition of round-trip air from LAX to Houston on United, the spend was less than originating in LA. Below, with various members of the Zeidman family in Houston (who tried their best to get us to divulge the nature of the trip – to no avail!)

After a fun overnight catching up, we had a uneventful flight into London. “Uneventful” is a word that cannot be assumed these days. Both our LA and Houston drivers shared with us the turmoil their schedules have been subject to recently. It is very difficult to plan with so much air travel disruption.

It’s always a big and time-consuming endeavor deciding on a hotel (for me, anyway). Consideration includes location, cost, amenities, hotel size, etc. Staying a full week in one hotel is highly unusual for our travels. We tend to move every 3 days or so. Accordingly, even more thought went into this one.

I chose the Baglioni London for a few reasons. It was one of the most “affordable” among the Amex Platinum offerings; it has just 60 rooms (definitely prefer smaller hotels); and I like the location for walking (near Kensington Palace). It’s also a member of Leading Hotels of the World, through which I often book. Overall, we thoroughly enjoyed the hotel along with their top-notch team. In particular, the concierges were extremely helpful and very knowledgeable.

Like the recent trip to Singapore, I booked an international outpost of a beloved LA restaurant – Pizzeria Mozza. We managed to keep awake long enough our first evening to thoroughly enjoy the meal while adjusting to the time change. The delicious food below:

The following day took us back to Heathrow but for an excellent reason!  Getting our rental car (for the day) and driving on from there to Wales. Why Wales? Why not? We’ve been to all the other UK countries. But it wasn’t just to have a “look about”in the area. The route provided us an opportunity for another first: visiting Stonehenge.

Back to the Wales visit, the country has an entirely different language.  I mean, it is barely understandable. And it’s full of consonants with few vowels. Try deciphering the one below while driving!

After lunch in Cardiff, Wales – chatting with a local

I mapped our return route to see the historic site Stonehenge. It is quite amazing — a monument made of stone assembled thousands of years ago that attracts more than a million visitors annually. It is well worth the trip.

And then a trip highpoint (for me at least):  Highclere Castle — the filming site for Downton Abbey. Getting there is fairly easy via train from Paddington Station, then a short cab ride.  I pre-booked our tickets and we arrived with time to walk around the immense grounds and visit the gift shop (no purchases!).  The first glimpse below.  Don’t you half expect to see Carson walking up the path??

Photography is prohibited inside (wink, wink), but a very nice person took the photo below at the entry.  (The entry doors seemed larger on the show!) Once inside, the path is pre-ordained to include the main “great” room, reception rooms, upstairs bedrooms and the well-known and familiar grand staircase. The downstairs kitchen was filmed off premises.

Several iconic areas below that are easily recognizable from the show:

A few people asked me if tourists are allowed inside. Many grand estates in the UK are only able to exist with the funds raised by people who are curious enough to pay for a visit. Highclere has been in the same family for 8 generations and encompasses 5,000 acres. That requires a lot of “pounds” to maintain!

The rest of our London (and beyond) adventure in the next post.

International TravelThings You Should Know

SPRING TRIP 2023: FIJI

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The last stop on this Spring Trip 2023 was Fiji.  Given that it is just a three-hour flight from New Zealand (our previous stop – read HERE), this was a fairly easy choice.  And because of that proximity, countless Kiwis as well as Aussies make up the vast majority of Fiji’s tourists.

Two initial impressions upon landing at the airport: the heat and humidity (significant but tolerable) and the kind Fijians! That above all else proved to be the takeaway — Fijians are among the nicest, kindest, happiest and fun people. What a joy.

There are two large main islands in Fiji plus several hundred smaller ones.  The smaller ones might have one resort or several, or have no inhabitants at all.  I opted to stay on the main island of Viti Levu (the other is Vanua Levu) with a reasonable drive to the main airport of Nadi. The Sofitel Resort is located within the private resort development of Denarau Island, where there is an assortment of other properties, golf course and the marina for day trips. While many of the ultra-luxe resorts are on the small islands, I preferred to have more options in order to venture away from the hotel.

Below, offsite Italian dinner at the nearby Radisson Blu

We happened to strike up a conversation with an Aussie in the hotel pool as he was in a Dodger cap (a great conversation starter).  The hat turned out to be for no particular reason, but what resulted proved quite interesting nonetheless.  He is a retired corporate CEO who serves on the bank board of Sofitel’s main investor.  He shared that they sunk a great deal of money upgrading the property in late 2019, just in time for — yes, the lockdown. Fiji had virtually no tourism until 2022, and is just now approaching 80%.  They are ecstatic with the return of travelers, an uptick that continues to improve.

I asked one of our drivers how he fared during Covid, and he said it was a rough go.  Most Fijians managed by turning to agricultural or construction jobs.  But obviously their main source of revenue completely dried up.

A big plus for this particular resort is the adult’s only section. That means accommodations, pool and restaurant are dedicated to the adult guests (sans children). We could still opt for the main and enormous restaurant for the endless buffets at breakfast and dinner. Or another spot for mediterranean food. Or leave the resort altogether as we did a few times. As I said earlier, choice is a good thing. There’s a free “Bula Bus” invoking the greeting used by every Fijian encountered: Bula! which means to good life and health.  Or a $4 cab ride which we did many times. And they accept USD.

Below, a portion of the adult pool with swim up bar, of course.

Speaking of Bula, it is literally said at every encounter with a Fijian.  The proper response is either Bula (back) or Vinaka (or just naka).  I thought I was hearing “Binaca” which made absolutely no sense, but I ultimately figured it out.

Below, I’m fascinated with these water lillies opening and closing at different times!

Clearly a high point of the stay was our snorkeling excursion to a small island, about 90 minutes away from the marina. We spent most of the day enjoying snorkeling in crystal clear water, plus a short separate boat ride (glass bottom) for feeding the fish, and lunch. It was most enjoyable!

Above, on approach to our day’s destination.  Below, 100 yards from shore and only knee deep!

Above, a literal feeding frenzy of zebra fish when given some bread; a couple of happy vacationers below

I mentioned earlier I would compare Bali vs. Fiji, so here goes: Bali has a greater number of high-end properties all accessible on land. Fiji’s comparable resorts require a boat ride or seaplane for access.  Bali’s culture is of a more eastern bent, with a great many temples to visit for a spirtual experience. Fiji’s culture is much more laid back, fun, and I would say more relatable in that regard. Bali is definitely bigger, both by population and area. Both destinations have a heavy concentration of Aussies and Kiwis given the close proximity to both countries. I think Fiji offers superior opportunities for diving (which I do not do) and snorkeling.  Bottom line: I would go back to Fiji; Bali likely not.

Staying abreast of world affairs below!

Fun fact:  Here are the books I read on this trip. And, yes, we take actual hardbacks. Four books is a lot for me (the hubby tallied seven). Hard to pick a favorite as they were so different. Obviously I’m more of a non-fiction reader. Delia Efron’s Left on Tenth and Benjamin Hall’s Saved were both incredibly inspiring.

Lastly, is there a more apt metaphor than the photo below? The sun literally set on this 23-day/5-country/8-flight vacation.  The resort’s beachfront at sunset, natch, casting a long shadow … Bula!

 

 

 

International TravelThings You Should Know

SPRING TRIP 2023: NEW ZEALAND

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Stop number four was quite a big change from the prior destination (Bali – read HERE).  Not only was there a considerable distance, but a time change of four hours and cool, rainy weather.

For this return visit to New Zealand, the focus was the south island – specifically Queenstown.  This was a deliberate choice as a quick visit to the area in 2010 was the catalyst to return for a longer stay.  The main goal above all was seeing iconic Milford Sound (the whole story in the next post).  Below, Lake Wakatipu waterfront near the town center.

Upon arrival, we got our rental car.  It’s right-hand driving in NZ, which I have done before.  It requires a lot more attention! The biggest adjustment by far is the turn indicator, which I would go to use and the windshield wipers would come on (opposite side again).  And for someone who takes great pride in her parallel parking skills, the photo below was an epic fail!  For the record, I did re-park.

One is immediately reminded of the stunning beauty in the area upon arrival.  The fact that it is late fall with lots of leaves turning is a big part of it.  The air is clean and crisp, and every direction is prettier than the next.  Our accommodations at the Sofitel in town proved the right choice as we could walk for meals and shopping.

Where did we go from our base in Queenstown? First was Glenorchy, a truly small town along the banks of the Dart River made famous by Lord of the Rings.  As we continued to drive, the scenery with low clouds, leaves changing, and animals made for a visually stunning day.

The next day we headed in the opposite direction to their wine country.  A wine shop proprietor in the quaint village of Arrowtown recommended four places.  Luck of the draw, we picked Mt. Rosa and loved it. The winery is a small producer of 5,000 cases. We sat and chatted with the general manager for quite some time as well as other staff.  With reasonable shipping costs, a number of bottles are en route as we speak.

Above, outside the winery.  Below, is there a better combination (with wine)?  I think not.

Above, Arrowtown’s main “drag”; below, our car after the prior day’s muddy drive!

Below, the magnificent property of Millbrook  offering “Luxury Golf & Lifestyle Resort.” If this isn’t the down-under version of Napa Valley’s Silverado, there simply isn’t one! Golf course, private properties, rental properties, restaurants, etc., in the wine area.  And the scenery is spectacular.

I suppose one could go to Queenstown and not eat something from Ferg’s, but I’m not sure one would want to.  There’s Fergburger with lines out the door pretty much all day; Ferg Baker, Mrs. Ferg Gelato and then Ferg’s Bar.  Each one of the Ferg shops were busy as well depending upon the time of the day.  Everything is baked/made on the premises, with ovens (hamburger buns and baked goods) going nearly around the clock.  The verdict: LOVED the gelato (pretty much daily); I liked the burger better than the hubby did. Bottom line, well worth a stop.  I never did find out who exactly Ferg is or was.  Someone took over the business roughly 10 years ago with social media savvy and boom! Crazy busy.

Below, Ferg owns the block:  (right to left) Bar, Burgers, Bakery, Gelato.

Stay tuned for the dramatic story regarding Millford Sound.  Until then, I’ll close with this: There’s a reason every person I’ve spoken to who has been to New Zealand agrees: it is a gorgeous and exceptional place to visit again and again.

International TravelThings You Should Know

SPRING TRIP 2023: BALI

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The popular island paradise known as Bali is but a small part of Indonesia. The country ranks fourth worldwide in overall population (behind India, China and the US) with some 274 million citizens.  While it is a long way for Americans to travel, it is a hugely popular destination for Australians (just three hours from Perth) as well as New Zealand. Certainly, it is a breeze for travel from Singapore, our previous destination (read HERE).

Every luxury hotel brand has a presence, but there are likewise accommodations at every level. And while one might go for truly extravagant resort prices, the cost of food is surprisingly quite reasonable.  We opted not to stray far from our accommodations at the St. Regis on Nusa Dua beach for most meals and activities, save for a snorkeling/waterfall excursion. Below, feeling very welcomed by the resort.

Exquisite presentation of Salade Nicoise for lunch!

One said activity (the Uluwatu Temple Fire Dance at sunset) was a big fail due to the selected day — the end of Ramadan and a school holiday. When there’s traffic in the area, it is basically a complete standstill. What should have been a 45 minute journey was more like 90 minutes. And sold out by the time we arrived.

So we simply backtracked for our dinner at the magnificent Alila Villas in Uluwatu. Alila is Hyatt’s ultra-high-end brand. While our resort is on a magnificent stretch of beach, the Alila and many others are on cliffs overlooking the ocean. It’s hard to “go wrong” in either case.

Above, before dinner; below, view from the restaurant

Here’s what “struck” me most in Bali: the gracious staff. There’s a lot of bowing with hands clasped. In other words, extremely gracious if not deferential. We definitely felt welcome. Our particular resort is built around “bodies” of water — not just the Indian Ocean, but very large, meandering pools. None of the pools exceed 4′ in depth. Many villas have direct access to the salt water lagoon (BELOW) which I estimated in length to be two football fields. It certainly seemed that big!

With my Marriott status, we were upgraded to a one-bedroom villa that was simply enormous — the “living room” seen below.  It had it’s own small pool, plus the aforementioned lagoon access. Stunning! Now, if we could only figure out the innumerable (and unmarked) light switches. The hubby would frequently ask me, “Are you having fun yet?” as the lights went on and off. Repeatedly.

The main pool, seen above during the day and below beautifully lit at night

One full day was allocated to snorkeling, roughly 90 minutes from the resort.  Our driver provided a good deal of information during the drive but stayed on land while we had a small manned craft take us to a couple of different spots.  Of course no underwater camera on hand.  Trust me, the waters were full of beautiful and colorful fish.  After, we proceeded to the Tegenungan Waterfall for a quick bite and some gorgeous views.

Above, heading down to our vessel; below, the gorgeous falls which many hike into (not us)

These resort stays are intended to be totally relaxing. Mission accomplished. With spa pricing a fraction of typical costs at U.S. properties, two trips during the stay seemed about right. And then that gorgeous beach, seen below, in front of the resort…

If you remember the itinerary laid out initially for this trip (read here), the last stop takes us to Fiji. How do Bali and Fiji compare? Stay tuned. To be covered in a future post. For now, it is on to Queenstown, New Zealand, and a complete change of weather!