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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.

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 KnowWining/Dining

SPRING TRIP 2023: SINGAPORE

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Did you know that Singapore has four seasons?  They are hot, hotter, extremely hot, and monsoon rain (resulting in just mildly hot weather).  Frankly, I don’t know how people manage.

After the brief stay in Tokyo (in case you missed it, click HERE), we made a return visit to this center of remarkable capitalism.  Since declaring independence from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore has enjoyed incredible development.  It is:

A highly developed country, it has the second-highest GDP per capita (PPP) in the world. Identified as a tax haven, Singapore is the only country in Asia with a AAA sovereign credit rating from all major rating agencies. It is a major aviationfinancial, and maritime shipping hub, and has consistently been ranked as one of the most expensive cities to live in for expatriates and foreign workers. Singapore ranks highly in key social indicators: educationhealthcarequality of lifepersonal safetyinfrastructure, and housing, with a home-ownership rate of 88 percent. Singaporeans enjoy one of the longest life expectanciesfastest Internet connection speedslowest infant mortality rates, and lowest levels of corruption in the world. (Source: Wikipedia)

Now, if they could just do something about the weather.

I managed to score a highly-coveted booking at Burnt Ends in the Dempsey Hill area for our first night.  We sat at the bar and enjoyed a selection of small plates, one better than the next.  The real show was the bar itself, with truly artisan cocktails being mixed non-stop.  And the bartenders or “mixologists” are quite the showmen.  We were enthralled.

First, the food seen below (“slider”; wings; salad & taco bites; dessert)

Next; borrowed this one to show the bar area where we sat (photo courtesy Burnt Ends)

In answer to the question:  “How do you get to the bottles up top?”  

No trip to Singapore is complete without seeing the iconic Marina Bay Sands complex (casino, hotel, high-end shops galore and endless dining options).  While the 57th floor infinity pool is only available to hotel guests, there is an observation deck atop another tower.  I steeled myself with a libation at lunch (a White Cosmo with orchid petals in the ice cube) which took the edge off being up so high (and outside).  It is quite something to see the entirety of Singapore from that vantage point. Lunch (below) at Daniel Boulud’s bistro.

In the quest for some delicious Chinese food, we opted for Jian-Nan Chun at the Four Seasons Hotel. And what an auspicious decision that turned out to be.  While looking for the restaurant in the lobby, a gentleman offered to help us find the spot.  And then asked, “Have we met before?  Were you at the Four Seasons in the Maldives (Kudaa Hura)?”  Yes, in 2017.  He was the general manager there at the time.  How did he remember us?  Because he reads this blog!  How cool is that?  If ever I question why I continue to do this, it is stories like these that connect and inspire.  We’re still in touch with the executive chef from the Maldives who we visited in Kuala Lumpur in 2019 (who loved this reunion story when I shared it with him!).

A most delicious dinner below with gorgeous centerpiece:

After learning there are giant pandas at the Singapore Zoo complex, it was an easy decision to see them along with assorted other species.  But you had me at the pandas.  While the shy mom was in the den, we watched in awe of the father and the 2-year old Le Le consume copious amounts of bamboo.  That’s a lot of what they do besides exude cuteness overload!

Below, a more rare Red Panda

Patriarch of the family 

And the youngin’ Le Le

From our Orchard Road-adjacent hotel (the St. Regis), it was an short drive for our last dinner. That was at the Singapore outpost of Osteria Mozza. Nancy Silverton (who revolutionized bread via La Brea Bakery) has excellent personnel on hand making sure the food is identical to the flagship in Los Angeles.  Given that every ingredient must be imported, that is not easy. Among the comments shared with us from the Australian-born executive chef, we found out a young lady makes all the pasta from scratch.  It was delicious. By the way, that it is atypical for someone young to be so adept at this particular skill. Especially since there are none of the Italian “nonnas” teaching her how!

With a morning departure, we said our goodbyes and boarded Singapore Air for the 2+ hour flight to our next stop — Bali.

 

Snippets from the RoadThings You Should Know

RESORT FEES (AGAIN) & KNOWING YOUR FELLOW TRAVELERS

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I promised a follow-up and I do try to keep my word! My last post covered a WSJ column on the bane of most if not all travelers: resort fees. The post concluded with a promise to write about how the hotels view the subject.

Forthwith, a direct quote from the American Hotel and Lodging Association, where this subject is a “Policy Issue.” Here you go:

The hotel industry prides itself on offering an array of amenities and services to ensure guests have what they want and need from their travel experience. Transparency and guest satisfaction are at the core of the industry’s business model. Making sure guests have all the necessary information prior to booking their reservations is paramount.

The hotel industry provides guests full disclosure for resort and amenities fees charged up front. In fact, they were created in an effort to provide consumers with the best value by grouping amenity fees into one cost. If consumers were charged individual fees for all amenities, the cost would likely be prohibitive. This practice aligns with guidance introduced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 2012.

Indeed, these fees are not common practice in the hotel industry. Declining over the past decade, approximately only six percent of hotels currently charge resort fees – and these are the properties that have far more available amenities than other lodging facilities.

So, does your expierence align with the above? If “only six percent of hotels currently charge resorts fees”  then I must be staying ONLY at those! Seems pretty universal to have that darn charge on my bill.  Thoughts?

Did anyone happen to see the recent Washington Post column illustrating different types of travelers? It was sent to me and I think much of it is spot on. A few favorites (but not necessarily favorite types) included here, with illustrations reprinted from the Washington Post:

You know these types — it’s all about posing for social media posts.  How about taking in some exquisite scenery by looking away from your phone? Or not risking your life for that one photo?!

As tempting as it might be to help yourself to goodies from the housekeeping cart, don’t. Staff is accountable for the content! It’s not a “free for all” .. 

The self-appointed expert on the hotel, local restaurants, sights to see, etc. He’s probably been there two days.  Heed his advice with caution. 

The one holding up the line in an attempt to get all things for free — upgrade, view, later than usual check-out, etc.  We’ve all encountered these folks! 

Finally, my personal favorite!  Those folks who worked damn hard and are now reaping the rewards.  God bless — enjoy every minute!

Snippets from the Road

RESORT FEES AND ONE INSPIRATIONAL CHALLENGER

hotel fees

It’s everyone’s favorite subject; right? I’ve written about it before. But it’s a topic that never seems to go away.

As recently covered in the Wall Street Journal, people dispute those charges either on their own or even via advocacy groups. My contention has always been just bundle all costs into the nightly rate. No one likes to be “nickel and dimed” to death, so just show me the total I will be charged in advance. That would enable people to make a fair comparison to other hotel rates up front.

My favorite takeaway from Dawn Gilbertson‘s aforementioned column is about John Morris, a triple amputee who cannot use the bulk of amenities included in typical resort fees. Why would any desk clerk not be astute enough to recognize that fact immediately upon his arrival? Logic suggests the charges be deleted. To his immense credit, he turned his misfortune into a good thing with his website, Wheelchair Travel.

Have you ever noticed how many places in Europe are very challenging to navigate — even for us ambulatory folks? Santorini in the photo below comes to mind (those steps nearly killed the hubby and me). It strikes me that wheelchair-bound individuals are particularly disadvantaged there. I’ve seen many a person in a chair lifted by fellow travelers in order to achieve the same experiences we have. So I highly recommend Mr. Morris’s site not only for astute travel tips but for incredible inspiration.

How do the hotels and other types of lodging view this subject?  Stay tuned for my next post.