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TRAVELING TO EASTERN EUROPE AND RUSSIA (PART 1)

Finnair A321-Sharklet-View-3

It’s post-Tax-Season, 2018, which means just one thing for me and the hubby: And we’re off! Both of us are frequently asked where we are going next. Per the map below, our itinerary is Eastern Europe and Russia.  The route is counter-clockwise: fly to Helsinki; ferry to Tallin (Estonia); drive to Riga (Latvia), Klaipeda and Vilnius (Lithuania); train to Minsk (Belarus); fly to Moscow and finally train to St. Petersburg (Russia).

Eastern Europe/Russia Trip Route

Once we get to Tallinn, traveling to the various stops is easy; each one no more than a couple of hours from the other. With a rental car, the travel is flexible and the time-line is our own. The flight from Minsk-Moscow is only 90 minutes. Therefore the longest journey within these three weeks is the train ride from Moscow to St. Petersburg (less than four hours via high speed train). This trip is your basic “planes, trains and automobiles plus a ferry” with a great deal of travel to experience.

Similar to the beginning of our trip last year in India, we are delighted to welcome a traveling companion.  This time it is longtime friend, Julie Shuer!  Beverly-Hills based Julie is flying to Helsinki from Tel Aviv (her second home) to join us for about a week, or through our stay in Vilnius.

As I have done in the past, the trip will be covered in a series of consecutive (numbered) posts. There’s always a lot to write about from my POV; hence, look forward to hearing both the good plus any unforced errors (always possible) along the way.

I can report I had terrific communications with various hotels from home before we left. Items like transportation awaiting us upon arrival (particularly important in Moscow & St. P); advance bookings for must-not-miss restaurants, museums and the Bolshoi Ballet(!); and a Lithuanian guide who will escort us to the Bialosky family roots in two small towns along the way to Vilnius and at that stop — all confirmed.

I love hearing about your experiences too. Let me know which of these destinations you’ve been to. A great many of you have been on a Baltic sea cruise, including the the typical stops in Helsinki, St. P, Tallin and Klaipeda. I consulted cruise line itineraries for our route — why reinvent the wheel, if you know what I mean.

Happy to say we arrived at the beautiful Hotel Kamp in Helsinki.  Not without the usual drama .. right up to the day prior to departure and the Russian Visas (long story still unfolding) and then there was the transfer in Paris.  Suffice it to say,  I was THE LAST PERSON to make the Finnair flight, and would have missed it altogether without the coordination and good graces of the hubby, pilot and head purser.  How does one’s carry-on get scanned with flying colors for the first three checkpoints, only to then have all my meticulous packing/organizing summarily dismantled and everything taken out and “reorganized” as I’m minutes from missing the flight?  The words “don’t take no for an answer” were never more fitting.

“No, you can’t get on the plane” said the first check-in person which a supervisor ultimately overruled; “no, your wife is not going to make it” said the gate person which the pilot and purser overruled (no, the hubby was NOT leaving without me).   That stop in Paris was a 90-minute cardio workout if ever there was one…

 
First flight above (to Paris); second flight below (to Helsinki).
Booked with AA miles.
I love checking out different airlines.
Will we fly them again? (ATN not likely; Finnair – Yes!)
Finally, look who made it all the way to Helsinki …  My duck!  I use her as my rating system (4 ducks = nirvana).  Let’s see where else she pops up.  The hotel was nice to provide a companion, but I think one traveling duck is enough.  And mine’s cuter.
U.S. TravelWining/Dining

TEXAS HOSPITALITY FOR BIRTHDAY WEEKEND

When the opportunity arose to spend my birthday weekend with long-time Houston-based friends Kay & Fred Zeidman, the decision didn’t require much thought.  Spending time with them is always a blast (Cancun, Colorado Springs, Palm Beach, Austin and DC among past destinations), but going to their home base allowed for time spent with their kids and grandkids as well.  The suggestion of the weekend in the country was particularly enticing with new areas to experience — at least for us.

How about that Texas Hill Country (THC), y’all?  The drive time is less than four hours from Houston — southwest of Austin and northwest of San Antonio.  We stayed in Fredericksburg, which is “deep in the heart” of the THC.  In addition to local agriculture specialties of peaches and pecans, you might be surprised as I was that there are over 400 wineries in the area!


As for accommodations, I found the Fredericksburg Herb Farm offering individual cottages.  Small and quaint, the location is minutes from all the action on Main Street.  While the cottages do not come equipped with a telephone(!), there is a flatscreen T.V., large room and bath, and friendly cats belonging to the property that are only too eager to come on in.  Each cottage has its own porch swing.  Clearly it would be optimal to visit when the garden is in full swing (what place isn’t?), but there was something lovely about the winter setting.
we had some outstanding meals along the way, most of which were suggested, so for me that was a win-win!  First was Navajo Grill in Fredericksburg for an incredible burger but all-around delicious food.  The BBQ enjoyed along with excellent music (played by Austin studio musicians) and dancing (we watched) made for a fun Saturday night at Hondo’s on Main, not to mention a trip to the DQ for the perfect dessert.  Watching the planes land while dining next to the runway at the Hangar Hotel Diner was too cool, although you’d never get me up in that wind!  The pancakes were to die for …
Breakfast crowd at the Hangar Hotel Diner
Saturday night at Hondo’s
A high point of the trip was visiting the National Museum of the Pacific War aka Admiral Nimitz Museum.  The Admiral was a Fredericksburg native so it is only fitting that this museum is located in his hometown.  The replica of his eponymous battleship (SS Nimitz – still in service) is a sight to behold, providing context for just how massive the actual ship is (nearly 1,100 feet long, just shy of four football fields).  Fredericksburg may be a small town, but this museum is world class.
A small section of the incredible replica on display at the museum.

If I lived in Texas, I would take road trips just for a stop at Buc-ee’s.  To call these behemoths “convenience stores” is like calling Lake Michigan a “water feature.”  Maybe a slight overstatement, but you get my drift.  Endless gas pumps (cheap!); ridiculously clean and plentiful bathrooms; and everything else from used tires to $1,500 smokers.  We sampled a chopped bbq brisket sandwich, fresh-made chips and a drink for under $8 and it was delicious — cooked on the spot.
Everything’s bigger in Texas:  jerky (above);
gas pumps and packaged ice below
                           And then a small portion of the gift area!

 

Love my surprise Buc-ee’s t-shirt which required major subterfuge on Kay’s part! She pulled it off!

 

The not-so-wonderful find on the highway was the automobile “graveyard,” site of countless cars destroyed in Hurricane Harvey.
We also toured the devastation, largely in the Meyerland area of Houston, where home after home is abandoned and/or under construction.  Never have I counted my blessings on my birthday as I did that day.  It was stunning.
Homes are elevated to avoid a repeat of the past; endless For Sale signs; new front steps; the bayou now

 

We finished the stay with a fun dinner at Relish back in Houston (amazing fried chicken) and watched the exciting BCS game before heading out the next morning.  Great friends, great fun, great food … thankful for this great start to 2018!
Things You Should Know

A LOCAL GEM

Do you ever pass by somewhere in your town and think, “I can’t remember the last time I was here.”  I do.  But do I actually act on it?
 
When given the opportunity to visit the Norton Simon Museum, located in Pasadena just 20 minutes or so from my home, I signed up — especially with a private tour and docent arranged through my executive women’s group.  Immediately upon arriving I asked myself  “Why has it been so long in between visits?  I love this place!”
Vincent Van Gogh self portrait
The museum became known as the Norton Simon in 1975 but its origins — through various iterations — actually date back to the 1920’s.  What I particularly love about the structure is that it is so “manageable.”  One doesn’t get that feeling of being completely overwhelmed when visiting so many other museums.  You know the feeling:  you don’t want to miss anything and you can’t really figure out how to tackle it.  Frankly I was stunned to read the museum’s square footage is 85,000, for it seems smaller to me.  I suppose with a collection spanning more than 12,000 pieces, a significant space is required.  But the beauty of this museum is it’s intimate feeling.  To get a sense of proportion, can you guess the size of the Metropolitan Museum in NYC?  How about 2,000,000 square feet?  That’s one heck of a space ..
Above, “Assembly of Sea Forms” in white marble by Barbara Hepworth
 
Left, “Tall Figure IV” by Alberto Giacometti stands 9-10′; 
With dear friends and fellow members of the Organization of Women Executives. The museum outing was part of our Culture Group.  I chair our Foodies Group (no surprise there).
On this beautiful fall day, the sculpture garden was an absolutely ideal setting.   With magnificent pieces by Henry Moore, Rodin and Maillol, one could really get lost in thought while strolling around the Lilly Pond stocked with ducks.  So peaceful.
Aristede Maillol’s “Mountain”
The magnificent pond
Henri Laurens’ “Les Ondines”
Rather than hearing from me, go and then go back again.  I plan to and soon.  This spot is truly a gem in LA’s busy metropolis.
The museum is open daily except Tuesdays.
Things I LoveWining/Dining

HAPPY THANKSGIVING IN NEW ORLEANS!

 

Want the best and easiest solution for solving who goes where and who cooks what for Thanksgiving?  Leave town.  Especially if you can with those you love most.  That is exactly what I did with the hubby, son and daughter  … headed off to beloved New Orleans for great food, music and time spent together. 

 

 
 
 
Over the years of flying this time of year, we’ve found that leaving on Tuesday while crowded isn’t quite insane.  Having a non-stop flight — particularly on Southwest — also helps.   Of course weather is something over which no one has control and it seems like the snow came early this year, no doubt adding to fliers’ frustrations.  

 

View of the Mississippi from our hotel room 

 

 

Accommodations at the Westin provided not only great views but walking proximity to everything.  Although the hubby will never believe me, I honestly did not know the hotel is attached to the Canal Shops — i.e., an elevator ride directly to Saks.  That happy accident notwithstanding, the staff is wonderful; rooms very comfy; and the view of the river is superb. Win/win/win!
My minor concern over how to spend our time here when not eating was quickly allayed by the hotel concierge who suggested we try the Canal Street trolley.  At $3 for a 24-hour pass, it was indeed a fun and convenient way to see a bit of the city.  We headed up to the Carrollton neighborhood and found Katie’s in a Google search.  And what an amazing find … this local “joint” has understandably been visited three times by Guy Fieri (Diners, Drive-in’s and Dives).  Great food, terrific service, reasonable prices.  Cannot recommend highly enough.

 

Clockwise above: Can’t argue with the logic; inside view; amazing onion rings (with a kick); catfish po’boy.

 

 

 

A sobering reminder at Katie’s is the plaque by the front door, about 6′ high, noting the water line from Hurricane Katrina …

 

The afternoon took us to the City Gardens and New Orleans Museum of Art where timing was perfect.  The priceless, private collection of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen was on display prior to heading back to Seattle, presumably not to be seen again soon. Oh, my … everything from David Hockney to Picasso to Monet to Ruscha to you name it all focusing on landscape.  This was indeed a happy find.

 

 

Above top is the museum; bottom is from the adjacent park. As an orchid person, the sight of so much live spanish moss growing from the trees was amazing.
 
The son joined the party late Wednesday and it was off to Frenchman Street into the wee hours (for the boys only). Thanksgiving Day was a chance to stroll through the French Quarter after the obligatory stop at Cafe du Monde.  The Cafe closes for just 30 hours of the year (6pm on Dec 24 until 6 am on Dec 26) and was packed as usual.  For dinner we truly enjoyed Mr. B’s Bistro featuring a traditional Thanksgiving meal or regular menu items.

 

Ready for the delicious food below (clockwise from upper left): Traditional turkey dinner; Lamb chops; Pepper Steak; Rabbit

 

 

 

A visit to the National World War II Museum should definitely be on everyone list of “things to do” in NOLA. In fact, one could visit several times to take in everything the six-acre, five-building campus has to offer.  We did just that after lunch at Cochon in the Warehouse/Arts District.  A quick stop in the stores this Black Friday was also on the agenda.  Hey, we do what we can to help the local economy! 

Above are bricks engraved with the names of WWII heroes in many of the museum pathways. Left is today’s version of  the famous “Victory Gardens” planted at durring WWII.

Our last dinner in NOLA took us to Gatreau’s in the gentrified Garden District. Good thing we allowed ample time as the city was in full gridlock at Canal and N. Peters requiring a short walk to find an available cab.  The restaurant has no signage whatsover in the beautiful residential area. We had a very fine meal as shown below.  The Uber trip back was most interesting — our driver was a stay-at-home-mom of four (ages 5 to 15).  She loves getting out periodically to earn some dough in her Chevy Suburban which is akin to riding in a luxury mobile home.  I asked her if there were any safety concerns (as did her own mom, apparently); she takes some precautions but generally enjoys the company of customers such as our family ….

 

 

Clockwise above: Red Trout; Sea Bass; Duck; Roasted Chicken; Below: California Syrah; Goat Cheesecake; Peanut Butter & Chocolate “Pretzel”; No signage anywhere

 

    
Who knew the trip would be memorable for the college football game played on Saturday — an epic battle between our beloved Ohio State Buckeyes vs arch-rival Michigan Wolverines.  It was literally a race against the clock as the hubby refused to leave for the airport before the game ended  — in double O.T.!  We watched in the hotel bar as the Buckeyes finally prevailed, let out the appropriate screams of delight, and raced to the airport for the happy trip home.  All’s well that ends well! 

 

Things You Should KnowWining/Dining

ROAD TRIP! (Part 2)

After a couple of wonderful days in Pebble Beach (read about that here), the hubby and I continued north.  There is absolutely no question that a trip to the Bay Area incomplete without a meal at iconic Chez Panisse in Berkeley — always at the cafe. Why the cafe?  Just because I like the choice of what is offered instead of the typical fixed three- or four-course meal. Plus it just seems more casual … regardless, the food is always superb.  Read my post published in The Jewish Journal entitled “If You Had to Pick Just One” .. for my full take.

Since some of the Bialosky family settled in the East Bay, Walnut Creek was the designated spot for a group dinner.  There are a big selection of restaurants, and Maria, Maria provided authentic cuisine in a fun and lively (loud) setting. A night spent in Oakland was the easiest choice for our logistics so we proceeded to the downtown Marriott.  The hotel was fine, but $45 for valet parking (self park was just $10 less) seemed outrageous, and the personnel’s justification that “other places charge that and more” did not begin to make their case.  After a “firm, fair and friendly” chat with manager, the charge was removed.  Sadly, the overall area has a long way to go in terms of enticing visitors, and I’ll just leave it at that.

 
On to San Francisco where we had terrific accommodations at the Palace Hotel, south of Market (SOMA area) and part of Starwood luxury hotels. It is a great location and within walking distance to so very many places. I booked their AAA rate that included the $60 overnight valet parking. Having stayed at a number of high-end properties in the city, I wouldn’t hesitate to go back to this one again and again … 

 

          Towering hydrangeas in the Palace lobby ..
 
On this beautiful summer day, we had a reunion lunch (childhood/high school friend) at Scala’s Bistro on Powell Street (recommend!), briefly visited the refurbished SFMOMA, and had an incredible dinner at Boulevard.  I’m not sure why this was our first visit to this restaurant, but it certainly won’t be the last.  After more than 20 years, the place was still packed and the food delicious. We were clearly in the hands of professionals.  Not so great was the walk to the restaurant from the hotel down Mission Street, where the very significant homeless problem in SF was unavoidably obvious.  If these folks could just be provided with public facilities, that would be a huge improvement.
 
 
 
En route to SFMOMA via Yerba Buena Gardens
View of museum atrium from the outside …
And an inside view

 

 

Lunch at Scala’s Bistro with my childhood friend/Bay Area resident Larry Clayman

 

 

Boulevard dinner:  salad with melon and veggies; soft shell crab; entrees of trout and chop; divine desserts … if only I could have hidden a round of their amazing bread from Acme bakery in my coat, the night would have been complete!
Only in SF or NY would this be considered a “bargain”
Ferry Building

 

                    

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
And then there was a fun visit to IHOP (why not??) before heading to see the Oakland A’s play the Toronto Blue Jays … but no point in going into this relic of a stadium.  We were just happy to spend time with our niece, nephew and their spouses before heading up to Napa — where this Road Trip deliciously continued!
 

 

Someone must have yelled “lean” instead of “cheese”!
Niece Jen and nephew Mitchellhere

 

Things I LoveU.S. TravelWining/Dining

THE GIRLS TAKE MANHATTAN: BROADWAY BINGE

Most every parent I know says the same thing:   The older your kids are, the harder it is to carve out time with them.   They move out (God willing); they have a significant other; many go on to have their own children.  So it was music to my ears when daughter Hannah proposed we plan a fall trip to NY for essentially a Broadway binge. 

Her timing was good — the hubby is totally preoccupied in October with the seasons:  end of taxes, college football and baseball playoffs.  He probably won’t even notice we’re gone. November is out as he and I will be out of the country for 10 days (blogs to follow of course).  So from this evolved a way to spend time together, view fall foliage, and make a considerable contribution to the Great White Way (aka Broadway).

But hold on a minute.  She is very gainfully employed and making a good living.  No reasonable person would consider me and the hubby stingy in the parental category, but there are limits.  So her willingness to contribute $$ in a meaningful way was a big factor in the planning and further sealed her status as an adult.

A couple of giddy travelers taking a one-and-done selfie 
and our view shown below

Hannah furnished the list of her top choices (all of the marquees are above) and I procured the tickets. Hamilton was obviously the hardest to get — not fabulous seats but we were happy just to be in.  And was it ever worth it.  I knew little about the show except for obviously it is about Alexander Hamilton (other than Benjamin Franklin, Hamilton may be the most important American who was not a President), but who would think that nearly three hours of rap music centered on American history would be so wonderful.  It was downright joyous to see school kids outside the stage door mobbing the show’s stars. Whatever it takes to spurn interest in our country’s history works for me. Fun Home has terrific acting and clever staging; Something Rotten is hugely entertaining and hilarious a la Mel Brooks (and should have won the Tony over Fun Home but I didn’t get a vote); An American in Paris has a score that makes me swoon along with the most beautiful dancing. Finding Neverland had me crying at the end.  But the Curious Incident was just mind-boggling.  The young star is phenomenal in an extraordinary role (his Broadway debut).  Again the tears fell (and fell) … 

Stage door post performance with (from top):  Brian D’Arcy James, John Cariani, Tony winner Christian Borle
Upper:  Hannah edging her way to Finding Neverland star Matthew Morrison in the huge throng; Bottom:  From Curious Incident Keren Dukes and remarkable lead Tyler Lea

 

Top to bottom:  Jonathan Groff, Javier Munoz and Daveed Diggs.  Diggs mobbed by the kids at left.

A couple of exceptional meals: Untitled, restaurateur extraordinaire Danny Meyer’s latest outpost at the new Whitney Museum of American Art, and Jams, from NY-based/California-style chef Jonathan Waxman.  Both restaurants are open spaces with lots of interesting sights — Untitled is the ground floor of the museum and completely glass-enclosed; Jams was jammin’ (I apparently coined that phrase — the hostess had never heard it used before) at nearly 10pm for our late-night/post theater supper.  For the best pizza, go to John’s Pizzeria on W. 44th …

Clockwise, from upper left: black bass; roasted cauliflower; chicken salad;
cheese offerings and sticky toffee pudding
Clockwise from upper left:   Pancakes with salmon & caviar on corn pudding (insane);
burrata with proscuitto; roasted vegetables; signature roast chicken with tarragon sauce

 

L-R: Barnard student Sofia and her mom (my long-time friend) Julie Shuer; Hannah and me atop the Whitney

 

The new Whitney is in the ultra-happening Meatpacking district of Manhattan. Lots of residential construction going on in the area, plus high-end shopping and restaurants.  What I especially loved about the Museum are the views — whether taking the glass-enclosed indoor stairs facing the Hudson River or the outdoor stairs with panoramic views — the sights are endless.  Of course, that doesn’t even take into consideration the art:  enormous installations on white walls, to me very similar albeit a good bit larger than the LA’s new Broad (see my last post).  Directly outside the structure one can either take an elevator or stairs to the High Line, which originates at that point and goes north 1.45 miles with lots of interesting things along the way or to just stop for a bit.  I loved my first visit to both and fully intend a return trip.

From top left:  View of the Statue of Liberty from the museum, looking down on the High Line
and different views as we walked along

It was great fun having lunch with my newish friend David Patrick Columbia who is the brainchild behind the New York Social Diary, a daily must-read for me.  We dined and talked at length at Michael’s on W. 55th where David has an ideal table for meeting and greeting — essential to his profession.  GM Steve Milligan is key to running a hectic lunchtime crowd, whether Michael is there or not…

NY cousin David Stone joined us for pre-theater dinner at Scarlatta

Hannah is already looking forward to part deux of The Girls Take Manhattan with another list of shows.  I couldn’t be more thrilled that my kid still wants to spend quality time with her mommy …