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International TravelThings You Should Know

WHY PANAMA?

Pan9

When one needs to reuse airfare, the most important aspect is calendaring the expiration date!  It’s likely fair to say that many a cancelled fare has been forgotten and never used.  I know I have done that.  Put the expiration date in your calendar, or keep the original reservation sheet in your travel folder, or wherever is your best place to keep track of it.

Most of the Panama City skyline did not exist 10 years ago ..

In this case, 2019 Boston travel plans changed resulting in unused fare on American.  We had until April 2020 or the credit would go bye-bye.  Early January is the best (and only) time the hubby is free to travel during tax season — plus it happens to coincide with my birthday.  So, where to go???

Nowhere with snow or I’d be traveling solo.  It’s high season in the Caribbean with crazy rates.  The South Pacific is on the to-do list, but will need to wait.  I started looking at Central American countries.  Panama unanimously gets positive feedback from other travelers who have been.  We wanted to see the canal without going on a cruise.  A moderate downside is American routes through Miami (at least from LA), with a plane change then another 2.5 hours to Panama.   If you have a choice, either Copa or United fly nonstop from LA.  Still, Panama got the nod.

Long Miami layover allowed for lunch at Joe’s Stone Crabs with the hubby’s family — Uncle Mike & Shelley of Boynton.

I was thrilled to see how affordable the hotel rates are!  Your dollar goes far with accommodations, meals and most everything else.  The experience is easy — Panama is on both the USD and the same electrical current — and most folks are English speaking.

1. Accommodations

After initially booking the Santa Maria Hotel & Golf Resort, I followed a frequent visitor’s suggestion to stay right in the city so I changed us to the JW Marriott.  That turned out to be a mistake as there were significant renovations impacting the pool experience among other issues there.

Poolside at the Santa Maria with the golf course in the background.

Here’s where one of my favorite topics — Brand Loyalty — played a huge role.  Both properties are under the Marriott umbrella.  Upon explaining our situation, the JWM general manager without hesitation facilitated our move to our original choice, providing a car and driver for the transfer.  The same rate was honored.  We were welcomed at the Santa Maria literally with open arms.  But it gets better.  Gorgeous flowers arrived two days later on my birthday from the JWM manager with lovely wishes.  That’s what I call customer service 101.  Brilliant.

Feeling the birthday love, all courtesy of the hotels.

2. Visiting the Canal

A trip to Panama is not complete without some tour of the Canal, whether via cruise ship or our choice of going to the Miraflores Visitor Center.  An excellent documentary narrated by Morgan Freeman at the adjacent Imax theater provided the history of the canal from which I learned a great deal.  And then we waited on a viewing deck for an enormous ship to pass through (one of forty in a 24-hour cycle).  Patience is key as it is very slow going, about one hour to transcend a particular lock.  In the end, it’s fascinating to see the canal in “action.”

Jockeying for position to capture a photo of the vessel heading down the Miraflores Lock.
From our guide’s phone — apps that show all Canal traffic and descriptions of the vessels.
Near side full and far side empty. Remarkable engineering.
With Robert Valencia, our excellent guide.
Two trains on each side attached by cables pull this enormous vessel through the lock. A captain up top guides a ship from the beginning to end.

3.  Fit for Foodies

A birthday dinner at Maito (#17 on the San Pelligrino Top 50 in Latin America) was a great experience.  It’s hard to pinpoint a specific “Panamanian” cuisine.  We had everything during our visit from fresh fish to terrific and authentic pizza to a French bistro preparing steak tartare tableside.   With the very large and observant Jewish population, Kosher restaurants are abundant and we’re told excellent.

Above from Maito (clockwise from upper left):  Kale with fresh hearts of palm; tacos; Cline Pinot from Sonoma; Banana Napolean; Coconut Ice Cream in Chocolate Shell; flat iron steak — all excellent!

Authentic French bistro in the old town.

4.  My Takeaway

Scenic.  Safe.  Affordable.   Three key phrases to entice travelers for a visit plus expats and retirees looking to possibly relocate to this terrific destination.

Cheers! We had a great time …
Things I LoveU.S. Travel

ROAD TRIP COMBINES AMERICA’S FAVORITE PASTIME

AUG 2019 16

Want to know an outstanding way to combine seeing the USA and enjoying America’s favorite pastime?  Get out on the road and visit ballparks! (Click HERE for last year’s trip) It’s relatively inexpensive, easy to plan and navigate and you’ll see and do things you wouldn’t normally do without investing a bit of time.

A three-stadium baseball trip was great fun notwithstanding the typical hot and humid weather.  The trip began in Philadelphia and continued on to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and a visit with a great friend from LA now living in Louisville, KY (post to follow).  One needs to allow two days in each city in case a game is rained out.  This being August in the east/midwest, there’s a high probability of that.  About two hours prior to game time in Cincinnati, we were driving to our hotel in a blinding deluge.  The rain stopped, the skies cleared for the most part and the game started on time.

Son Sam was also in Philly for a wedding

I grew up as a devoted LA sports fan, just not of baseball.  It was the original LA Rams, Lakers and, of course, UCLA basketball where my dad played.  Baseball is probably my favorite now which is why I enjoy visiting so many stadiums.  And it’s a shared family pastime, which is a big bonus.  I hardly have the encyclopedic memory of particular games and plays possessed by both the hubby and son, but I can hold my own.  Below is the list of the stadiums I’ve been to so far.  Some are older and/or have been renamed (i.e., US Cellular is now Guaranteed Rate Field).  Two big ones are missing:  Cleveland’s Progressive Field and Detroit’s Comerica Park (e.t.a. Summer 2020).  Cleveland was a near miss in 2012 due to a rain-out but at least I got to see the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame instead.

PHILLY:

Citizens Bank Park is located in what’s called the South Philadelphia Sports Complex.  We walked out of our hotel in downtown and took the Broad Street Line to the last stop.  From there it is a haven for sports lovers — Phillies, Eagles, Flyers, 76’ers and even the Lacrosse team — all in view.  Easy access, ride-share vehicles and taxis just waiting to be hailed if the train isn’t for you.  Vendors sell water, pretzels and peanuts on the way to the stadium.  All that is needed is more Phillies fans to fill the seats.  Oh, and the choice of concessions?  Don’t get me started on how our beloved  Dodger Stadium pales in comparison.

Citizens Bank Park

PITTSBURGH:

PNC Park is widely favored by baseball lovers as America’s best stadium.  It is walkable from the downtown area, has spectacular views from most every seat, is right at the junction where three rivers meet and provides an outstanding fan experience.  Can’t beat that.  It would be hard to find anything about which to critique the venue, therefore it deserves two photos!

View from our seats
PNC PARK

CINCINNATI

Great American Ball Park is also located in the heart of the city.  Again, few fans.  We walked up to the box office at game time and had seats behind home plate at a very reasonable price.  The stadium even has underground parking!  We left the game and walked across the street where there were lots of restaurants to choose from.

GREAT AMERICAN BALL PARK — the Great American Insurance Co. building is in the background.

The concession stands were a bit lacking — no mustard anywhere.  Fortunately a kind person brought me a side order ..

Other trip highlights will be posted in Snippets from the Road.  Here’s a few fun photos from the road trip including Philly foods.  Can we just talk about how outstanding ice cream is in this part of the country?  Died and gone to Bassetts heaven lower left; pies at the Rittenhouse Square Farmers Market (genius idea to sell half pies!); a Philly cheese steak of course.

Below:  Philly, standing in the shadow of two giants; with Columbus friends Todd Applebaum and Larry Levine for impromptu lunch at Giuseppe’s as we drove through the area; WE WANT A RING TOO …  but with blue sapphires!  This one belongs to a scout for the Cubs attending a game.

I would be remiss in not thanking son Sam for selecting my new phone (OnePlus), which was used to take all of the photos contained here ..

International TravelThings I LoveThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

HONG KONG; PLUS WINNERS & LOSERS IN SOUTHEAST ASIA

IMG_2815 hk

If you want to know why I’m so big on brand loyalty, how we were graciously treated for all of a few hours in Hong Kong says it all.  “A few hours” in this case means landing around 2pm and departing at midnight.  It’s roughly 30-40 minutes via taxi from the airport to most of the city.  Our bags were checked through to Los Angeles, so there was no waiting for luggage.  We each had a carry-on.

Once we got to the airport’s very fast and efficient taxi line after clearing customs, it was not much after 3pm when we made it to the Central part of Hong Kong (the other main part is Kowloon, separated by the bay).  The driver waited briefly while the hubby acquired some local currency, just enough for to pay for our cabs and some tips.  Where were we?

At the Four Seasons Hong Kong, courtesy of a call from our friends at their sister hotel in Kuala Lumpur where we had just stayed.  We were familiar with the hotel from a previous visit to Hong Kong in 2017.  So instead of watching the clock at the airport, we had the most lovely afternoon — first in the hotel’s Executive Club, followed by a quick clean up and clothes change in the spa.  We then walked to the Landmark complex (a shopper’s dream come true and location of a newer Mandarin Oriental hotel) for our spectacular “last supper” at  L’Atelier Joel Robuchon.  By 9pm, we were back at the hotel to gather our belongings and were then transported swiftly to the airport for the flight home.  We have great appreciation for their lovely hospitality and plan on returning the next time we are in Asia.

A colossus of cuisine was lost in August last year when Chef Robuchon died at age 73, having been awarded 32 stars total in his lifetime — a record.  His imprimatur lives on in his signature style and exquisite cuisine.  I believe his teams are committed to carry on his traditions and high standards.  If there’s one of his restaurants where this big spring trip takes us, we’ll be there — this was our fourth visit (previously in Hong Kong, plus last year in Paris and before that London).  In the U.S., there are locations in New York’s Meatpacking District and in Las Vegas at the MGM.

Below:  One actually can live on bread and wine .. and spectacular butter.  Fourteen varieties of bread, all made daily on the premises, and all incredible.

Below, top row:  bird’s eye view into the kitchen, aka “L’atelier” (workshop); artistic burrata and tomatoes; bottom row: the best baby lamb chops; make that one can live on bread, wine AND chocolate.  The establishment is well deserving of their three Michelin stars.

Below: 26 seconds of Hong Kong on a remarkably bright, clear day — from the hotel’s 46th floor balcony:

 

Hong Kong was the end of our three weeks for Spring 2019.  Here are my “winners & losers” from this trip:

WINNERS:

Vietnam.  There’s a reason virtually everyone comes away having enjoyed their time in this country.  Great people, food, culture.

Vietnam Airlines:  Five flights, all on time, great service.  I would fly EVA again as well (Taiwan’s airline).  Cathay Airlines is always great — I am happy they are an American/One World partner.

Four Seasons Hotels:  I don’t get compensated for my recommendations (why is that?); I simply think they do a great job. Rosewood Hotels is right up there as well.  Whatever your brand is, be consistent and let management know when they do something right, not just when you have a complaint.

Advance planning:  It pays off in spades.  Visas.  Airport greeters.  Tours.  Pre-arranged and nothing missed.

Malaysia:  Very enjoyable and our 70th country, therefore a winner!

Asia travel in general:  The tendency for so many Americans is to head east (i.e., Europe).  I say go west! For U.S travelers living west of the Mississippi, traveling to numerous gateways is easy.   So much to do and see in so many countries.  And it can be done very economically.  And a whole lot easier to get award seats.

LOSER:

Humidity.  Enough said.

And that’s a wrap.

 

 

 

International TravelThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

MARVELOUS MALAYSIA

PETRONAS TOWERS, KUALA LUMPUR

Immediately upon arriving Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia — a quick 50-minute flight from Singapore — the distinction from the recent visits to Cambodia and Vietnam is very apparent.  While both Phnom Penh and Saigon are quite modern, there’s virtually no comparison to KL and the surrounding area seen en route from the airport (a good hour, depending on traffic).

Leaving Singapore; clear evidence of the world’s busiest container port.

The grand welcome at the new Four Seasons Hotel was unexpected!  To say our visit felt appreciated is quite the understatement.  I have written before about the value in creating “brand” relationships.  In this case, the connection between our stay in Vietnam (Hoi An) and now in Kuala Lumpur was indeed a continuation.  A subsequent post will include this trip’s “trifecta” with a layover in Hong Kong.

With the extraordinary Guest Services team — Halilah (manager) and Didi

The area surrounding the hotel is home to numerous high rises, of which the new hotel (open less than a year) fits right in.  The structure combines both hotel followed by residences above and is attached (conveniently) to a large department store.

Readers who follow this blog know that the hubby and I consider ourselves foodies — not just passionate about experiencing cuisines, but likewise connecting with the creators; i.e., the chefs and restaurateurs.  We have such a connection, made two years ago on a visit to the Maldives at the exquisite Four Seasons Kuda Huraa resort.  Executive Chef Junious Dickerson made a fateful comment at departure when we happened to share a short ride from the resort to the mainland:  “Come to Kuala Lumpur!  I am transferring there when the new hotel opens …”

After that trip, we communicated a bit when he would comment on a blog post.  I think it’s safe to say it might have been unexpected for us to actually show up.  Nevertheless, it was a grand reunion with him and we shared some precious time during our brief few days there.  After all, he oversees a kitchen staff of 100 so he’s a busy guy.  And the food offerings were vast and elaborate to say the least.  We happened to be visiting during Ramadan, widely observed by Muslims (Malaysia is roughly 60% Muslim), so nearly ever restaurant was affected.  Since there’s strict fasting between dawn and sunset, a large and elaborate buffet was offered every night during our stay with countless dishes prepared.  Imagine your typical Sunday brunch available at many high-end hotels, and then having to do that every evening.  It is quite the effort to pull off.

With Executive Chef Junious Dickerson — he’s originally from Virginia but has been living abroad for many years. We’d follow him anywhere!
Not your typical avocado toast (with our thanks!)
Arrangement in the dining room. What’s particularly amazing is each cymbidium flower is in it’s own water tube. That is a lot of work.

As happens in the days concluding weeks’ long travel, there is a winding down period where the travel back home is now in sight.  That, coupled with a bit of travel fatigue and less of a desire for sightseeing, led to some very low-key days.  We did go to the famous Petronas Towers, not just your ordinary tall structure, but unique for the two matching towers connected by a floor-to-ceiling, glass-enclosed bridge … about 560 feet above the ground (connecting floors 41 and 42).  I got about about three steps onto the bridge and had an epic failure to proceed.  In fact, I commandeered a guide and then an elevator operator to take me straight down immediately.  I say “commandeered” because my first request was met with “Oh, you need to go to the 82nd floor and then go down with the next tour group” to which I respectfully declined.

Curiously, I was fine on the visit to Dubai’s Burj Khalifa which observation deck is 125 floors up. Or for that matter, lunch in Taipei on the 84th floor.  It was the damn bridge that did me in, feeling there was no support underneath.

That bridge! Photo cred: Wikipedia
Beautiful plaza near the hotel. It is colorfully lit with fountains at night — maybe a little too Vegas-y but fun to watch.
Night view of towers from the terrific steakhouse, Marble 8.

Our couple of days were spent with a visit to their Orchid Garden (not great considering the constant humidity) and, of course, plentiful shopping malls.  If one wanted to see then newly-released Avengers End Game, it was showing on four out of seven screens in one location alone.  Kind of like home.

At the botanical garden
Papaya? Mango?? If you guessed PUMPKIN, you would be correct. It was a delicious offering at a Chinese restaurant.
Sensational and authentic at Strato
Not a lover of dim sum, but this was delicious (soft shell crab)
Time for a healthier choice!

Our last stop of this trip is a long layover in Hong Kong.  I’ll cover that plus my SE Asia “winners and losers” in the next post.

More stunning flowers in the hotel lounge
Kid indeed.
Bar Trigona at the hotel has a cabinet dedicated to scotch afficionados.
The hotel bar was just recognized in the top 50 of best bars in Asia
International TravelThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

CAMBODIA — SIEM REAP AND PHNOM PENH

IMG_2461 SR (2)

Visiting the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, Angkor Tom and other sites in the northern part of Cambodia is the main reason travelers come to Siem Reap, just a 45-minute flight from Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City (see previous post).   For an area with fewer than 1 million residents, the current number of area hotels (500 and counting) is surprising.   The local Cambodians rely heavily on tourism as far and away their biggest industry.  If not in hospitality, the Cambodians in the north have a difficult time making a living as it is estimated that 50% of the economy is tourism.  Poverty and primitive living conditions are sadly visible in the surrounding areas; we saw this first hand on our drive from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh.  More about that in a bit.

1. SIEM REAP

Above top is the magnificent lotus flower:  it is closed at night so the display upper right required manually opening each flower.  We opted for the best way to get anywhere — via tuk tuk — about $2 for any distance.  Bottom right, delicious Mango Mille Fueille plus two excellent dishes — rice with pineapple and a refreshing salad with pomelo, which I loved.

This is an epidemic everywhere.

We followed the advice of many to capture Angkor Wat at sunrise, a particularly magical hour.  A 4:45 a.m. pick-up obviously meant waking up in Siem Reap at the crack of dawn.  Credit to the beautiful Park Hyatt for suggesting the early departure, then afterward we rest a bit, clean up and have a leisurely breakfast mid-morning.  It really made the timing of the entire plan much more palatable!

Angkor Wat is just 30 minutes from the town, including a brief stop to acquire tickets — $37 each.  By the way, US dollars are the acceptable currency in Cambodia; obviously not having to convert money always makes travel much easier.  Advance reading prior to this trip suggested carrying a decent amount of small bills — $1’s and $5’s — some great advice we happily followed.

One would think it would be much cooler at the early hour.  Hah — wishful thinking.  At least 90 degrees and very humid at our 5:30 am arrival.  There was a significant gathering of tourists, even though it’s “low season” — soon to be desolate with the impending rains.  The following pictures paint a much better story than my words.  Enjoy.

Crowds angling for the perfect sunrise photo
Hot air ballon over the area
Korean tour group, pretty in pink
Shrubs popping out of a spire. Maintenance takes great care in removing all plants, otherwise the spire would eventually be covered.
We’ll pass on this one ..
We observed the request for “modest attire” — no shorts or bare shoulders — adding to the heat.
The extent of this trip’s encounter with animals — a wild monkey perched and hoping to find food
Worth getting up for …

2. PHNOM PENH

For us, this was a one-and-done temple visit.  Others go all in and see many, but we were happy with the experience and chose to bum around the town a bit, rest up and arrange for a car and driver for the 5-hour journey south to Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh.  At a cost of $200 US, the opportunity of going door to door in air conditioning, sans airport, and seeing the countryside en route was an easy decision. Nonetheless, some sights were truly heart-wrenching as there is significant poverty visible.  Then the developed area of Phnom Penh came into view.  Much like Saigon, it is a (mostly) modern metropolis with high-rise buildings developed around the Mekong River.

We were told that few American tourists visit Phnom Penh; rather, it is mainly business clientele and largely from other Asian countries.  The Chinese are investing heavily in real estate, building new housing, hotels and casinos.  I would suggest the infrastructure could use a lot of work — mainly trash pick up.  But there’s great wifi everywhere, lots of shopping opportunities and some excellent restaurants.  And we were spoiled rotten at the gorgeous new Rosewood Hotel with exceptional treatment!  If you’re not familiar with the brand, look for it.  They have nearly as many properties opening in the next few years as they have open now; i.e, ambitious expansion.

Rosewood temptations: their tuk-tuk; bar snack (amazing); french pastry shop

We had a fabulous dinner at Palais la Poste, which building was formerly the Indochina Bank.  From upper left, a lovely French red; scallops with squid-ink risotto; escargot; profiteroles; grilled salmon.  The French influence is very evident in much of the cuisine in Cambodia (as well as Vietnam).

Our visit to the notorious “Killing Fields” and Prison Museum recalling the unspeakable atrocities at the hands of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge was very difficult.  Our wonderful young guide, Nicky, shared with us that her grandparents were killed but the subject cannot be broached with her parents.  It is still just too hard.  She chooses to look instead to the promise of Cambodia’s future.  Wise thinking.  Next up .. our final stop for this trip:  Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.

One of only four children to survive the prison (depicted in the photo), this gentleman has written his story of how he survived the inhumane treatment of Cambodians.
With our wonderful young guide Nicky and driver Mr. Thao.

 

International TravelThings I LoveWining/Dining

HEAVENLY HOI AN

IMG_2387 Hoi An

When sharing our itinerary for the recent trip to Southeast Asia, disclosing a visit to the gorgeous Vietnam beach area of Hoi An universally received lots of “ooohs” and “aaahs.”  Including a few days of doing nothing has become a regular part of the trip planning; this respite provides a much-needed opportunity to relax and recharge.  Otherwise, the travel is fast and aggressive in order to see as much as possible in any given destination.

Serenity.

This beach area is accessed by flying into Da Nang International Airport.  Da Nang is another familiar name to many Americans as it was the site of a major air base during the Vietnam War.  This particular location is in the center of the country — it thus provides excellent access to most other cities in Vietnam.

The ancient town of Hoi An is a Unesco World Heritage Site, straddling the Thu Bon River.  Our biggest activity there was getting manicures.  Choosing where to go was the big question as the number of available shops closely rivals the number of bars and souvenir stores.  Our two manicures cost a grand total of $14, and that was fine for us.  Compared to Hanoi and Saigon, the takeaway from the town of Hoi An was the height of touristy.  Personnel for stores, clubs and restaurants try every which way to lure customers in for whatever is being offered.  And there were outdoor carts as well.  Maybe the area traffic swelled for the weekend we were there, but the combination of crowds, being pitched and likely the weather (hot and humid; what else?) made the town visit just fair.  Fortunately, the resort itself was a haven for relaxing.

One of three locations the proprietor’s family owns in the area. Foot massages were favored by many of the males in the shop.

 

In the town of Hoi An at dusk

And that was exactly how the few days were spent by the gorgeous pool at the Four Seasons Resort.   The company acquired this existing property in 2016, and they cater to guests from Korea, Japan and the U.S. by number in that order.  The resort does an excellent job of providing both for families traveling with children and those of us without.  The main pool is for guests 14 and older, providing a very relaxing space.  One could opt for cooking classes, water sports and/or venturing into the aforementioned town if desired.   The setting is so beautiful that we mostly just did nothing — precisely what we had in mind.

Spa treatment rooms at right, Four Seasons Resort

As has the been the case with other resorts, we again had the pleasure of engaging the Executive Sous Chef, Alessandro Fontenesi, a character hailing from Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region.  He took great pride in giving us a tour of the burgeoning produce garden.  There was pure envy on my part for the available space and neat rows of plants.  While the garden is not able to supply all of the resort’s requirements, everything the garden does produce is used.  Crops are rotated and seasonally planted and the results both look and taste great.  We alternatively wanted the chef to continue providing wonderful tastes and for him to stop tempting us with such delicious food.  What a dilemma!

A couple of kindred spirits ..
Offerings from the chef
Ripening melons
Tough job in very hot weather.
Lots and lots of mango trees!
Overview of the gardens
Doesn’t matter how it’s spelled. Keep it away from me!!

After three terrific and restful days (a total of nine in wonderful Vietnam),  we bid our adieu to the great staff with the promise of a return visit.  Next up, two stops in Cambodia.

Could have easily been in Italy with this ..
Pathway to heaven.