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International TravelThings You Should Know

HIGHLIGHTS FROM HANOI

IMG_1928 Hanoi Temple of Literature

Hanoi (or Ha Noi), the capital city of Vietnam, was the first of our three stops in nine days following Taipei where this this spring journey began.  Hanoi’s landmark hotel is the Sofitel Legend Metropole, established in 1901.  The original building retains the era’s characteristics while the newer Opera Wing (where we stayed) has more modern rooms and architecture.  The hotel is walking distance to the Old Quarter of the city.  It is very safe to walk in Hanoi but one has to be mindful of the ubiquitous motorbikes!  Our first and lasting impression of this country is the how very friendly the people are.

Hotel Metropole, you had me at this note in the room. Love at first sight.

We randomly picked a restaurant in the Old Quarter for dinner and it was just delicious.  Besides the terrific food, it was just $18 total for three courses and a bit of ice cream.  Welcome to Vietnam …

Old Quarter Hanoi

Around the lake

I had arranged in advance for a daylong tour to Ha Long Bay, a World Heritage Site, roughly 2 hours from Hanoi via a fairly new highway.  Many people do overnight trips to the area for a short getaway.  Once there, the endless stream of boats in the bay is evidence of the area’s popularity and status as a must-see destination.  Our guide Tien led us to our small charter with a staff of three for lunch and a few hours’ tour on the bay.  It turned out to be a perfect amount of time (for us).  Prior to the cruise, we were given a brief tour of a pearl farm and shown how the pearls are grown.  Not surprisingly, there was a big showroom right there!  Anyone who tours in this area of the world is accustomed to having a tutorial of some sort and then an “opportunity” to make purchases — whether it’s pearls, jade or even tea.  I passed this time but they had some very beautiful items and were quite willing to negotiate, with calculator in hand.

Hai Phong Port
Pearl farm demonstration
With Tien, our Ha Long Bay guide
Cruising Ha Long Bay
Lunch on the boat
In deep thought
“Kissing cousins”
From a distance, the island foliage fades to different shades of grey

After a long day, we opted for a restaurant near the hotel with pretty good Italian food.  It rained a decent amount in the evening, providing some cooler temps for our city tour the next day.  By “cooler” I mean lower 90’s … No point in going into the heat and humidity; it’s a known fact but one goes with the flow as best as one can.  That’s the deal; otherwise it means missing many parts of the world where the weather is less than optimal when we travel in April/May. For that matter, it would mean forgoing much of Asia where there’s little variance at all in the course of a year.  It’s either hot or wet or both.

Our young (just 21) guide Nam met us the next morning for a half-day tour of Hanoi highlights:  Temple of Literature, Hoa Lo Prison (commonly referred by Americans as the infamous “Hanoi Hilton”), the “notorious black market” area — with store after store of bike and car parts, electronics and other items — and finally some of the famous street food for lunch.  The first thought was obviously the food isn’t being handled in a sanitary way — raw meat and poultry with no gloves as an example.  Nam told us that it is typical for locals to shop twice daily; thus the ingredients are cooked and consumed so quickly that refrigeration is not an issue.  In fact, we had the chance to go down one street where there were (still but not for long) live chickens, but I passed on that one.

Temple of Literature
Such gorgeous faces and such lovely people
Typical black market stall — so many with so much stuff!
Similar to our home remotes (so many …)
Lunchtime
Very delicious
Amazing fresh fruits for sale

Living conditions around these small streets are another reminder of how good so many of us have it at home.  The last stop was the famous Railroad Street, where folks live just feet from the tracks.  Trains go by six times a day.  It is pretty amazing.

One water tank per renter or family
Railroad Street where the trains run by these homes six times daily
With young Nam, who is already very dedicated to his profession!

Our big dinner was at the well-known Press Club, located across the street from The Metropole.  That was more of a splurge with fancy service and stemware, with obviously a steeper price.  The place was empty save for a couple of Brits and a large tour group.  Our fellow travelers provided some good tips and things we must see at our next stop.  Whether or not we follow suggestions, the input is always welcome — it’s interesting to hear how others traverse a given area.

Spinach ravioli and bruschetta
Banana “log”
Serene setting in a hectic city.

 

Next up:  stop #2 in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon.

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.

 

International TravelThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

EASTERN EUROPE & RUSSIA, PART 4 — BEAUTIFUL VILNIUS

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After an overnight stay in the Baltic Sea coastal town of Klaipeda (popular for cruise ships), we met up with our pre-arranged and excellent guide Regina Kopilevich (Vilnius-based and fluent in four languages: English, Russian, Hebrew and Yiddish).  At Regina’s suggestion, our meeting place was the city of Kaunas (formerly Kovna) for the start of our tour.  I had emailed Regina information I had on the hubby’s family history, emanating from the nearby towns of Marijampole and Simnas.   She traveled by bus to the impressive war memorial, Ninth Fort.  As you can see below, it is something to behold.  From there we drove to the other cities — Marijampole is the largest and most affluent.  We can’t say for sure that we pinpointed distant relatives, but just being in the area gave us a sense of them.

Ninth Fort Memorial

We then drove to Vilnius for our stay there, where we spent the entire next day with Regina walking from place to place.  Travel companion Julie tracked our steps — we did good over the week!  Among the highlights were the small but impressive Holocaust Museum (The Green House) and the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum.  When one remembers 200,000 Lithuanian Jews were murdered, it is overwhelming.  But for the grace of God, there were some very brave “Righteous Gentiles” who risked their lives to protect some of the Jews and they are appropriately honored in the State Museum.  Some still survive today.

The photo below is in front of the home of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese government official living in Lithuania, who undertook the enormous risk of hand-writing visas to save more than 6,000 Jews during the war.  He was heroic to say the least.

Happy face or sundial?? (Sundial is correct).
Proof we were there ..

Sunday in Vilnius finds the streets bustling with multi-generational families and young people out everywhere, especially with the beautiful weather.  Of the cities visited so far (Helsinki and Tallinn, Riga and Klaipeda), hands-down Vilnius is one I could come to again.  It is a truly beautiful city;  “Paris of Eastern Europe” is an apt description that comes to mind.  But a large part of what makes for a memorable stay anywhere is a great hotel.  The Kempinski Cathedral Square fits that to a “t.”

How does this connect to Jackie O? The Radziwills (who are named on this door) were a powerful Lithuanian family; Jackie’s sister Lee was married to a descendant. #funfacts

Full disclosure:  We did not like a previous Kempinski stay (Munich) — it was the first city we started in for a post-tax-season trip (2007).  It really left a bad impression so we have avoided the chain ever since.  From now on, I will certainly think differently.

We had an absolutely beautiful suite with a balcony overlooking Cathedral Square, the central location in Vilnius — particularly the older part of the city.  The staff was extremely helpful with restaurant recommendations, friendly conversation and wonderful service.  Little did we know how much we would come to rely on them …

View from the room of Cathedral Square

 

Curious choice for the password; no?

 

Salmon “cones” filled with mascarpone at Da Antonio. Yum.

 

There was quite a bit of conversation with Regina as to our plans to continue on to our next stop in Minsk via train.  She and others confirmed that a 5-day transit visa for Belarus is automatically granted at the airport, but not the train station.  On that basis, I refunded our train tickets and purchased flights via Belavia Airlines for the short flight to Minsk.  On the day of our departure, we said our goodbyes to Julie who was returning to Tel Aviv before we headed to the airport.  The fun began then when we were asked to produce our Visas for Belarus.  It turns out that the transit Visa has some limitations, specifically when one’s onward travel is to Russia.  Even the words “let me speak to your supervisor” were of no avail.  We were denied the flight.

While attempting to get the flights refunded and purchase tickets from Vilnius to Moscow, I emailed an SOS to the Kempinski:  “Help!  We need a room — we are coming back to the hotel!”  The GM kindly responded that they were full but would find/block a room for us.  And no less than four of their personnel were waiting at the front of the hotel when we returned several hours after departing.  We were so happy to have a place to stay and did not have to go searching.  When some additional rooms opened up the next day, we moved yet again to a wonderful room.  We cannot say enough about their help and look forward to a return visit. As it turned out, we had a much-needed break to do nothing (i.e., roaming the streets, shopping, etc.)  Next, on to Moscow …

::Random photos from roaming around Vilnius::

Two items you will not see side by side in a US convenience store: ice bars and escargot.

 

Larry David comes to a Vilnius skateboard store.
Hmmmmmmmm
Doggie drinking fountain
Relaxed pose on a warm day — last dinner in Vilnius at Fiorentina
When dog lovers are away from their own …
We co-opt whatever we can find.

 

International TravelThings I LoveThings You Should Know

TRAVEL TOOLS FOR LONG FLIGHTS

Carryon Pouch Closed

Am I the only one who thinks about the best travel tools for a long flight?  I think not.  In anticipation of having several (long flights) soon, how I manage all the details is key to calming me down.  I needed to find a small “vessel” for having everything at my fingertips — neat, orderly, accessible.  That was my goal and I’m pretty sure I nailed it.

The truth is, I am not one of those fliers who instantly relaxes.  Oh, no — it’s definitely a process requiring multiple items.  I have spent many a flight dropping said items, losing them under the seat or blanket, and/or sitting on them when I come back to my seat.  All of that adds up to frustration, thus less likelihood of relaxation.  Inevitably there’s the hubby who is generally out before the plane leaves the ground.  He is a truly gifted sleeper.  And even more annoying, he never worries about not sleeping.  It’s very aggravating!

And what needs to be is in that magic bag, you ask?  Forthwith, a peak at my must-have list (some items are grouped together in Ziplock snackbags) :

  • Chapstick, lipstick, eyeshades, silicone earplugs, Tums, Tylenol/Aleve/sleeping aid (in one vial), Ricola lozenges, headphones (small and noise-eliminating), almonds, tissues and dental picks.  Ok, I just outed my personal hygiene.  I can live with that.  Can I tell you how excited I am to pull one bag out of my carry-on and have everything in there?  I am ecstatic.  All I need is my book and my neck pillow (which I snap on to my rolling carry-on).
Pouch from Travelsmith
All closed up — about 9″ long

 

Another challenge is arriving at a nice hotel after an overnight flight and NOT looking like you just rolled out of bed.  Leggings and a long top with a scarf is pretty much my uniform.  There is little wrinkling, and I can sleep comfortably as opposed to wearing jeans or another clothing choice.  The other essential is a slip-on shoe, plus I’ve recently decided to pack slippers in my carry-on.  I’ve no interest in putting on my shoes to go to the “loo,” and those socks provided in the amenity kits are not for me.

The last recent purchase is a large (13″ x 12″) tote/handbag.  I found one that is fashionable without screaming designer label (no need to attract thieves), reasonably priced (subjective, I know) and indestructible for getting tossed around in the overhead compartment. Plus there had to be straps that fit over the telescopic handle of my rolling carry-on.  Can I justify the purchase of another black bag?  I can.  The hubby is another story.

Marc Jacobs bag
The pouch fits nicely inside!

If all of this sounds like a lot of work, it’s worth it to feel completely organized during a lengthy period of time (two flights are 11+ hours). I’m ready to take these new finds out for a spin!

Briggs and Riley rolling carry-on

 

 

International TravelThings I Love

REMEMBER WHEN??

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Early 2018 was the perfect time to clean up old files (cue: New Year’s Resolution #3).  Upon doing so, I soon I discovered all my records from our first big trip in this century:  Italy – Spring 2001.
What it took then versus how I plan now might as well be from a different universe.  And yet some things never change … like my obsession with whatever shopping might be available!  Italy was still on the lire way back then (oh, the days), and everything was at least 40% less than in the US.  I found catalog tear-out sheets in my folder which I brought on the trip so I could compare the cost of items I wanted to find when I got to Rome or Milan.
The iconic Via Condotti with the Spanish Steps in the background.
The reality: we arrived in Rome, had lunch, checked into the hotel, the hubby took a nap and I went out and bought five handbags.  That was the end of my “alone time” for the remaining three weeks.  But, oh, how much fun I had!
How about the above for a fun walk down memory lane.  That is a copy of the VCR “taping schedule” for the three weeks we were gone. There was no On-Demand or DVR in those days, so if you didn’t get the recording you were out of luck.  I think there was a performance bonus offered as well … of course, I’m sure son Sam (age 12 at that time) was in charge so we likely got all the shows.
Other fun memories:  printed, multiple-part airline tickets that arrived in the mail!  I loved looking at all those codes and wondering what they meant.  But when I think back to things like seat assignments and how neurotic I have become about where I sit (www.seatguru.com is one of my very favorite websites), it’s hard to imagine going in “blind.”  Well, we didn’t know what we didn’t know; right?
 
we all lament the trials and tribulations of travel today.  When you are having an “experience,” I suggest you (and I!) remember when … and appreciate how streamlined and easy the process has become.
Wining/Dining

CHECKING OUT LA’S NEWEST STAR CHEF

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Was scheduling a dinner in December at The Grove, one of LA’s busiest open-air shopping/dining malls, the brightest idea?  Probably not.  Believe me, I heard plenty as the hubby, daughter (her birthday dinner) and son arrived in separate cars all juggling to find that coveted parking space.
 
Happily, dinner at 189 by Dominque Ansel was well worth some minor inconvenience.  And what was so compelling about this particular venue?  Chef Ansel has gained enormous notoriety for introducing the world to the Cronut (part croissant, part donut), first served at his eponymous Soho bakery back in 2013.  Frankly I hadn’t heard of him personally, just of the item.  So when reading about the newest openings in LA, I thought this must be worth a try.  
 

 

Amazing croissants and bread above; right are some pastry with the exquisite packaging.
We had a mini version of the gooseberry pavlova for dessert — scrumptious!

 

The restaurant is above the bakery (open until 9pm).  Alas, the cronuts had run out by the time I arrived but I did sample some incredible croissant and everything is beautifully displayed.  
 
 
 

 

What I liked most about the restaurant was the very well-informed staff guiding us through the appropriate number of dishes (4 small/3 larger) all meant to be shared.  The order of excellent “salt & pepper ribs” comes with three but they enlarged it to four so we’d each have one.  That may seem like a small detail, but not having to get a second full order was appreciated.

 

I love to sit at the counter and watch the action
As one might expect, the “48-hour Handmade Sourdough & Butter” was perfection — not a surprise since Chef Ansel is first and foremost a baker.  The other outstanding dishes were the roasted radicchio salad, eggplant and fig tartine and the lamb shoulder was a huge hit.  The “Spoon-tender Cabbage Soup” — similar in presentation to french onion — was the only miss of the dinner.  Why?  Too smoky for our taste.  Our server was very interested in how to communicate our feedback to the kitchen as that is how they learn this early in their operation (open just a month).
Left:  the sourdough;
above: roasted radicchio salad;
Fig and eggplant tartine
Frankly I don’t know all what we had for dessert except the pavlova mentioned above; I think some were compliments for the birthday or maybe they just liked us!  All were delicious.  
So what’s the takeaway?  I’m going back for a return visit with some fellow foodies, happily after the holiday season.  Going to The Grove is a fun and delicious experience; just know that their parking can be a wild ride at peak times of the year!