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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.

 

To-Do ListU.S. TravelWining/Dining

ROAD TRIP: FOUR NIGHTS/TEN STATES/4K MILES

So Utah

If you’re stuck in your comfort “cocoon” — pretty much those of us who reside either in major cities, coastal states or other parts of this enormous melting pot, I highly suggest you get out on some of the finest highways our country has to offer.   The recent road trip to attend a Celebration of Life in Columbia, MO (the story why we drove was covered in the last post), accomplished just that.

Our route is below:  LA-St. George UT (lunch) -Limon CO (overnight) – St. Louis (overnight) – Columbia MO (service) – Kansas City MO (Gates BBQ) – Mulvane KS (overnight) – OKC (OKC Memorial) – Amarillo (The Big Texan) – Flagstaff (overnight) – Barstow (best Mexican food at Lola’s Kitchen) -LA.

When I wasn’t driving, I was posting Instagram stories (to keep from getting bored).

Random thoughts on the trip in no particular order:

  • The legal speed limit throughout much of Utah is 80 mph. That means I could go 90+ without much concern.  Most of Kansas, Arizona, Colorado, etc., is 75.  CA — what’s up??
  • There was a swing of more than 50 degrees in the course of 24 hours — from a low of 40 in the Rockies to 95+ in other parts.
  • There was an incredible display of lightening east of Denver in the pitch-black night, but almost no rain encountered.
  • Billboards prominently featured in Kansas and Missouri would create anarchy in California.  Free speech is alive and well in these states. No doubt there are folks who don’t like what they see, but I didn’t see a single billboard with graffiti or any other display of discord.
  • On the flip side of promoting the sanctity of life and religion, there are billboards advertising “adult superstores.”  Colorado has a very limited number of billboards of any type throughout the state.
  • The scenery in Utah is incredibly beautiful, having nothing to do with foliage — rather rock formations.

  • St. Louis has a fabulous baseball stadium!  Right in the heart of the city that you can walk up to.  And the diaspora of their fan base is enormous so folks come from all the surrounding states to get their baseball fix.  By the way, Missouri has the most contiguous states in the U.S. — eight of them. Blame the hubby if the math is incorrect.

  • One can work in the hotel business and not know the difference between feather and foam pillows, or which one is even offered at the hotel where they might work.  I have “extra feather pillows” as part of my hotel profile.  That’s a biggie to me.
  • Hotel rates are negotiable, especially late at night.  Do your homework, and don’t feel pressured to accept the rack rate.  Call ahead and let the desk clerk know you’re informed on the subject.
  • “The Hill” area of St. Louis has no view.  But it has all the best Italian food offered.  Go to the original Ted Drewes (on Chippewa) for frozen custard.  But be prepared to wait in line, especially after a Cards game or probably any other time.  In December, you can get frozen custard and buy your Christmas tree at Ted Drewes.

Fun stop in Kingdom City, MO
  • The road conditions immediately improve once one leaves California.  I mean like just past the state line.  It is a remarkable thing to experience.
  • Kansas somehow has managed to have a toll road on Interstate 70 — which is a federal highway.  How does that work?  Speaking of Kansas, it is the flattest place I’ve ever seen.  But Missouri has some of the most beautiful trees and agricultural fields.  Amazing.
  • Enormous bugs hit the windshield loudly and leave marks the size of half dollars.
  • There’s a stretch along the I-70 in Utah that goes for about 90 miles with no services — gas, food, etc., except for a couple of rest stops.  Be sure to watch for it and gas up beforehand!  We missed the sign.  But the hubby never let our car get below half a tank, so all was well.
  • As told to us by George Gates (with the hubby below), grandson of the founder of KC’s Gates BBQ, there are 126 different BBQ stops in KC.  All different.  This was my first trip to Gates (others previously visited: Arthur Bryant’s and Jack Stack).  I loved it.  George’s own grandson was with him.  Much of the Gates family is involved in the business (over 300 employees).  If you choose not to work at the family “shop,” that’s fine.  But don’t expect free food when you come to the stores.

 

Go big or go home (below):  At the Big Texan in Amarillo, your meal is free if you finish this 72-oz behemoth within 60 minutes.  You should also get free angioplasty if you eat that steak.

Finally, huge kudos to my hubby for meticulously providing music.  My car has satellite radio but there’s no auxiliary outlet for a music device.  So he brought over 50 CD’s for us to enjoy. Broadway, Bruno Mars, Sinatra and Big Band music plus Maroon 5 thrown in to the mix.  It was a blast — nearly 4,000 miles over 4-1/2 days.  So much fun.

Second visit to the haunting Oklahoma City Memorial. Each chair represents a life lost. Note the smaller chairs ..
The reflecting pool at the OKC Memorial
Sunrise in Flagstaff on our last day.

 

U.S. TravelWining/Dining

THANK YOU VIRGIN AIRLINES FOR THIS TRIP!

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What does that mean?  Virgin Airlines did everything in their power to destroy our return flight last September from Boston & Providence.  After much back and forth, a $500 credit was offered for future travel.  When I attempted to use the credit for a January trip to Houston, I found out that any travel associated with the credit had to go through Seattle — you guessed it.  Off to the PNW before the credit goes bye-bye.

Dinner view, Bellingham waterfront.

 

Not that one needs a good reason to visit the area, but we had a few besides the aforementioned credit.  First up, a long overdue visit with LA friends who relocated to Bellingham a number of years ago.  Then there’s my niece and her family — in particular my 3-year-old great niece.  Did we need to pick a weekend where the Dodgers just happened to be playing the Mariners?  Not really, but why not?  It’s always fun to visit stadiums, and our friends are serious fan(atics)s as well.

Bellingham transplants Marion & Ed, a friend of the hubby for 45 years.

Upon the recommendation of our Bellingham buddies, we reserved two nights at The Willows Inn on nearby Lummi Island, a quaint establishment with just eight accommodations.  From their website:  “Lummi Island is located in the archipelago that includes the San Juan Islands and the Gulf Islands in the Salish Sea, the waters off the coasts of the Pacific Northwest and southwest Canada.”  I didn’t fully appreciate what we were in for, except I knew we were going to splurge on their prix-fixe dinner.

Outdoor grill at The Willows Inn prepping dinner courses
Tempting lobby treats!
Love this outdoor table!

Chef/proprietor Blaine Wetzel is a disciple of Rene Redzepi of the world-renown restaurant Noma in Copenhagen.  The style of cooking and use of ingredients is based on whatever local products are available, heavily skewed to all types of seafood and every vegetable known (and some new ones) including plants, herbs and edible flowers.  Many were grilled outside and finished inside.  Our “snacks” began on the patio with a series of small bites and progressed inside for many more courses.  We finished back on the patio for a series of desserts mainly using local fruits.  It was a world-class meal in every sense.

You had me at bbq’d mussels
“Herb Tostada” — completely edible!
Braised local cabbage with charred edges. Outstanding.
The only bread offering (amazing) — with a buttery crab dip.

After dinner we went into the kitchen along with many other guests where we met the chef himself.  Our friends generously bought me his book so I wanted to get it signed.  Little did I know that head chef  Wetzel actually delivered (incognito) one of our courses!  Talk about everyone being hand’s on.  We loved hearing more background about the restaurant and having an aperitif before retiring to our room upstairs.

The only issue with the Inn’s location is the ferry that runs back and forth to the mainland — which ferry is the only access to the Inn.  The line can be oppressive, especially in the summer months.  After waiting about 30 minutes to get a morning ferry to the mainland, we called an audible, went back to the Inn and gathered our belongings and checked out.  The idea of spending up to 3 hours of this short trip waiting for the ferry just didn’t make sense so I booked modest accommodations for the night on the mainland and off we went for a spectacular day of sightseeing in Bellingham and the surrounding areas.

Ugh. Endless line for the ferry.

As a longtime suffering gardener — meaning my efforts and my yield are seriously out of balance — seeing blackberries growing literally like weeds everywhere is just a killer.  And then we went to pick blueberries.  Does anyone not love blueberries? (Mr. H, don’t answer that).  There are simply not enough adjectives to describe the abundance of berries in the area, both at Boxx Berry Farm and at a private home in Lynwood.  Literally grab a container and proceed.  The best method for picking proved to be imitating how one milks a cow (which I have never done but used my imagination).

Blueberries!
Three of us picked these.
Packed up for transporting home

We loved going to Safeco Field for two Dodger games.  The ratio of Dodger blue gear to either Mariners or other teams is at least 50/50 if not more.  Spending time with friends/fans was terrific fun.  Once more, the distinct differences between stadium food offerings in other parks compared to Dodger Stadium makes one wonder why our organization doesn’t do a better job!

Fun at Safeco Field
Dodger pitcher Rich Hill warming up pre-game.

We had a blast spending time with family and enjoying a splendid meal at Purple Cafe in the heart of downtown.  Delicious food, conversation and time well spent all adds up to a most enjoyable journey up north.

Pasta with local corn and tomatoes
Peach gallette with a side of salted caramels.
The fam: Niece Jenna, hubby Thomas and 3-1/2-yr-old gorgeous Doron
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 …

International TravelThings I LoveWining/Dining

EASTERN EUROPE & RUSSIA, Part 6 — TURN OF EVENTS LEADS TO PARIS!

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If you’ve been following along on this journey (Helsinki/Tallinn/Riga/Klaipeda/Vilnius), then you know we had Russian Visa issues prior to leaving the US.  After the earlier-than-planned exit from Russia and with time left before our scheduled departure back home, the question then became:  Where should we go for the remainder of the trip?  You now know how the story ended, with four glorious and unplanned days in Paris (runners-up were Vienna, Prague and London).

Other than our honeymoon plus a day trip from Brussels several years ago, we’ve not spent any time in Paris.   A big consideration in deciding where to go was rearranging the flight home to LA.  Happily, I worked with AA and was able to move things around while still in Moscow, maintaining a terrific mileage ticket (85k) flying non-stop from Heathrow to LAX in First Class!  Obviously, I did not want to lose that, so we added a Paris-London flight and continued onward.  Moscow-Paris offered tons of options, ultimately selecting Luftansa with a bit of a layover in Frankfurt.

Courtyard; Park Hyatt Place Vendome
Gorgeous weather; Jardin de Tuileries
Salade perfection; Les Jalles
Musee d’Orsay

What did we do? Roamed the streets near our Place Vendome hotel, immersed ourselves at the  Musee d’Orsay, did a return trip to spectacular Giverny (below), ate at some classic bistros — including Le Grand Colbert (yes, that one — made famous in the movie Something’s Gotta Give), and just had an extraordinary time. We also had great fun perusing the incredible hotels and their remarkable floral arrangements. I am a serial advance planner, so there’s typically lots of emails back and forth with hotel concierges to make sure nothing is missed.  This stay was more about “What do you feel like doing today?”  The final day was a win/win, with the hubby going to the Louvre plus scouting the very best place to exchange currency, and I endlessly browsed the stores (strictly for research purposes).

Giverny — tulips!
Wisteria and the Lily Pond at Giverny
Exquisite purple tulips
Still reaping benefits after so many years!
Basilica of the Sacre Coeur in the distance

So another post-tax-season holiday comes to an end.  Three weeks of magnificent sights, terrific service, fun with (first-week) traveling companion Julie Shuer, and meeting so many wonderful people.  There were oopsies as always:

  • What happened to my other pair of jeans?? (Lost somewhere at stop 1 or 2)
  • Why are four keys not working on the laptop — it was only a few drops of champagne??
  • Why was the hubby the smart one to take a pair of shorts??  (It got warmer than I expected)
  • Where the hell were all the band aids I needed for all that walking?? (Can never pack enough)

Minor inconveniences (maybe the computer was a bit more than that).  As always, it is a great privilege to explore this incredible world.  Final pix below ..

Brasserie Lipp — classic roast chicken and frites and the most scrumptious Napoleon for dessert.

What’s this?  The secret entrance to the world’s most reclusive jewelry designer – Paris-based  JAR (Joel A. Rosenthal).  Not that I would be granted an appointment (even if I could afford it) for it’s a very small and exclusive club that owns his pieces and for whom he creates.  But that didn’t stop my wish to find the iconic doorbell to his atelier.  The hubby encouraged me not to embarrass myself by bothering to ring.  Point taken.

That doorbell is the only clue.
Discreetly above the door in the Place Vendome

 

If there’s one of these wherever we travel, it is our last supper tradition.
We’ll miss this beauty …