Marin County, California Coast

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Marin County is just North of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge.  With just slightly more than 250,000 people, it is one of the least densely populated counties in the Bay Area metropolitan area.

It is also one of the most beautiful counties on the West coast.  It has spectacular headlands, dozens of beaches, numerous redwood groves including the celebrated Muir Woods, Mount Tamalpais, and the Point Reyes National Seashore.

The good news is you can be in incredibly beautiful coastlands 5 minutes North of San Francisco.  The bad news is it is not a secret anymore.  Travel during weekends after 9 AM and you will find yourself in painfully slow traffic.  So travel to the area on week days or get up early on weekends and get on the road by 7 AM to avoid the crowds, especially in the summer and any warm days.

Here are some of our favorite spots.

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Marin Headlands

From the City, go North over the Golden Gate Bridge (US 101 N).  As soon as you cross the bridge be in the far right lane and take the first exit, Vista Point.  There is a large parking lot and excellent views and photo ops of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.

When ready exit where you entered (right turn only) and stay in the right lane which will be the Alexander Avenue exit.  As soon as you exit there will be an immediate left hand turn going under the freeway and then Southbound back towards the bridge.  Just before the entering US 101 South, take a right turn up the hill.  It is not marked but this will be Conzelman Road.  This road will wind its way all the way to the top of the headlands with many pull outs on your left.  The views will get more expansive as you go higher.

About half way up, keep an eye out on the left for an unpaved road and a small parking lot.  This will be Black Sands Beach Trail.  It is a short steep trail to one of only a handful of black sand beaches in the Bay Area.

Continue on Conzelman Road, you will end up first at Point Bonita Trailhead and next Point Bonita Lighthouse (active).  Access is via a tunnel opened Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays, 12:30 PM to 3:30 PM.  Note: from February to May, the northward migration of mother whales and their babies stay close to shore to avoid predators.

Take Field Road down the Headlands, turning left on Bunker Road.  Soon you bear right and up the hill to The Marine Mammals Center.  This is where sick or injured animals are nursed back to life and returned to their natural habitat once healthy again.

Adjacent is the Rodeo Lagoon, Rodeo Beach and beyond are miles and miles of headland trails.  Bunker Road will take you back to US 101 via a unique, one lane tunnel.

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Muir Beach

Travel North on US 101 to the US 1 exit (also known as the Shoreline Highway).  There will be a left at the Arco Station and a traffic light.  Do not miss this turn.  The road will meander through a town-and-country area and eventually into open protected lands.  Soon you will approach the entrance to Muir Beach to the left.  It is a beautiful spot for a picnic, walk, or hike.  It is popular on weekends and the parking lot is often full.  Just beyond Muir Beach is The Pelican Inn.  It looks like it just dropped in from the British Iles.  It is a charming B&B, with a pub and small restaurant with a charming patio.  They serve an excellent breakfast buffet on weekends.  It too is popular and busy on weekends.

Do not miss the Muir Beach overlook on the left at the top of the hill going North.  Walk out to the overlook perched on the cliff.  Spectacular views/photos!

Stinson Beach

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This is one of the best beaches in Marin.  It is also a popular destination for weekend homes.  It is extremely popular in good weather.  Parking and crowded conditions are common on weekend and good weather.  There are a handful of cafes and restaurants.  We like it early in the day, on nice days off season and midweek.

Point Reyes Station

Beyond Stinson Beach is a beautiful drive that will take you to the town of Point Reyes Station.  It is a charming and lively little town dating back to the early days of California.  There are a handful of unique shops and restaurants, farmers markets and coffee houses.  It is home to the famed Cowgirl Creamery that reinvented farm to table artisanal cheeses.

Lunch at Osteria Stellina has become a must when we visit.  They serve the best pastas, pizzas, salads and deserts all sourced locally.

Point Reyes National Seashore

This is a huge area with trails, beaches, a famed lighthouse, ranch and farmlands dating back for generations.

There are elk herds and wildlife in abundance.  The area is connected to the mainland by a thin piece of lowlands.  The infamous San Andreas fault runs directly through these lowlands.  Some day, Point Reyes may become an island.IMG_0170

We recently visited the area in perfect weather and shared the massive North Beach with one fisherman and his dog.  We spotted two humpback whales heading north.  They said “HI” leaping out of the water four times before disappearing into the sea.

Finally…

It is possible to continue North almost to the Oregon Border.  There are so many gorgeous sites along the way but that would take many port postings.  Enjoy!!

Rome, Italy March 2016

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This is the first post in a series reflecting on a recent trip to Rome.  Two weeks in Sicily will follow in additional posts.  Enjoy!

J&J

Air

With early booking and plenty of research with SKYTEAM partners, we used Delta miles to book a KLM flight from San Francisco to Rome via Amsterdam in Business Class.

The KLM experience was delightful.  Service was warm and attentive.  The food and wine selections were extensive and excellent.  The cabin was quiet.  The entertainment system extensive with 15 inch screens.  The angle flat seats were less than ideal yet quite comfortable overall.  Rating: 3 globes

NOTE:  During peak air traffic, many European airports do not have enough arrival or departure gates to accommodate the load.  Some flights use tarmac shuttle buses for arrivals and departures.  This was the case connecting in Amsterdam and again arriving in Rome.

Hotel

We love the Hotel Due Torri,

Vicolo del Leonetto, 23, Roma, Itallia.  E-mail: info@hotelduetorriroma.com

It is a small, well run hotel in the center of the old city.  We have stayed several times over the years and the location is ideal, walking distance to most of the key sites.  (Vatican, Piazza Navona, Campo De Fiori, Pantheon, Spanish Steps.) The rooms are compact to comfortable depending on the floor and exposure.  We like the fourth floor with a small balcony that provides a rooftop view of the neighborhood.  There is an elevator, albeit tiny (typical of Rome/Italy).P1090294

Room rates are moderate and vary with the seasons.  Rates include a hearty continental breakfast.  The staff speak English and are generous with dining and touring suggestions.  The neighborhood is packed with stores, shops and dining options.  Overall rating: 3 globes

Note: The street is very narrow.  Some Taxis may not be able to drive the last block to the hotel.  This means you may need to carry or roll your luggage over the cobblestone street/sidewalks one block.

Food

Central Rome is loaded with great food options with many close to the hotel.  Currently the prices are affordable due to the strong dollar and the less than robust economy in Italy.  Here are three of our favorites close to the hotel.

Obica Parlamento, Piazza di Firenza, 28, 00186 Roma, ItalyIMG_0404

Modern, open kitchen, mozzarella bar, house cured meats, awesome pizza, pasta.  Great outdoor dining terrace.  Exceptional service.  Great wine list.  10% discount for Due Torri guests (three blocks from the hotel).  We dined there three times.  Loved it!  Rating: 4 globes

La Campana, Vicolo della Campana, 18, 00186 Roma, Italy

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Traditional trattoria with 500 year history.  Serves traditional classic seasonal Roman dishes.  Don’t miss the fried artichokes or zucchini blossoms when they are in season.  Huge anti pasta bar.  All pastas, fish, roast pork and deserts are excellent.  Extensive wine list.  Some waiters speak English.  It can get crowded at peak times.  We eat here every time we are in Rome. Reservations suggested.  Rating: 4 globes

Brassai, Via di Panico, 28 (Via dei Coronari), 00186 Roma, Italy

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We fell in love with this little café and bar.  It is small, compact, local.  Great place for lunch, a break, a drink.   We ate there twice.  Pasta, pizza, wine are all excellent.  House made tiramisu is not to be missed! Rating: 3 globes

What to see and how to see it!

Central Rome is relatively compact BUT it is also a big sprawling city.  That’s why a central hotel is key to your visit.  This visit we bought a multiday pass on a hop on, hop off tour bus.  (We actually used the bus as our local transportation.) There are several bus companies.  We chose the big red bus because it ran most often (every 10-15 minutes).  Most routes include all the major sites.   Some use alternate routes on Sundays.

Avoid any restaurant with “barkers” trying to draw you in and especially those with menus printed in 6 languages.  Good local restaurants do not need such tactics to draw customers.

Also, mind your belongings.  Wallets and purses should be securely and safely out of sight.

Piazza Navona

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A must see and popular Piazza in Rome was originally a stadium built in the first century.  Today built on the original footprint, the Piazza is a popular gathering spot for locals and visitors alike.  Most buildings are of the Baroque architecture.  The centerpiece is the Fountain of Four Rivers with an Egyptian obelisk reaching for the sky. Take time to stroll the piazza, people watch, enjoy a café or glass of wine.  Rating: 3 globes

Campo de’ Fiori

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Just South of the Piazza Navona is the Campo de’ Fiori which literally means, “field of flowers” as the area was actually a meadow during the Middle Ages.  Today it is especially lively on Sundays when it becomes a bustling marketplace.  The evenings it becomes one of Rome’s nightlife centers.  Rating: 2 globes

Pantheon

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This amazing structure was built by Emperor Hadrian in 126 AD.  It is one of the best preserved of all Roman buildings.  It was truly an structural marvel of its day and remains so today.  The height of the oculus (the opening in the dome) and the diameter of the interior circle are exactly the same, 142 feet (or 43.3 meters).  Today it is still the worlds largest unreinforced concrete dome.

The adjacent plaza, fountain with another obelisk is surrounded by shops, cafes, and carriage rides.  This is a must see location.  See it during the day and again at night.  It will feel like two different places.  Rating: 3 globes

Coliseum

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Arguably the most recognized monument of Rome, it was the largest Amphitheatre ever built, 80 AD.  The adjacent ruins of the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill are worth the time and energy.  This was the center of the universe for centuries.  The Arch of Constantine is a magnificent monument built in 312 AD.  Plan to spend at least a day here.  Be for warned, the entire area is a camera magnet.  Be prepared for lots of editing once you get home. Rating: 4 globes

Spanish Steps 

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Built in 1725 to bridge the Piazza di Spagna with the Piazza Trinita dei Monti and church by the same name at the top of the steep slope.  There is yet another Egyptian oblelisk crowning the staircase.  This is a popular gathering spot for Romans and visitors alike.  Sunset views from the top are inspiring.  Strolling is an art form here.  Across for the Piazza di Spagna is the shopping mecca of the via Condotti and the adjacent streets in most directions.  This is the center of fashion and design in Italy. Rating: 2 globes

Galleria Borghese

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This is one of the world’s most amazing venues and collections of art.  Set in the Borghese Gardens and the Villa Borghese Pinciana housing 15th to 18th century artworks by Bernini, Caravaggio, Titian, Gian Lorenzo, Rubens and many more.

Reservations are essential.  All tickets are timed entries.  This really helps keep the flow of visitors to a steady stream which avoids overcrowding.  Book online (tosc.it) to save time and frustration.  Ticket price is 11 Euro per person.  Rating:  4 globes

Vatican and Museum

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Vatican City is its own country!  It is also the home of the Pope, the leader of the Catholic world.  Visiting the Vatican requires an understanding of the logistics and an understanding of “must see” sights. It is best broken up into multiple in depth visits.  It can also be done in one long day.  Here’s how.

Buy tickets for the Vatican Museum online (mv.vatican.va).  Select a date and time, 16 Euro per person.  We suggest pick a 9:00AM time, opening time.  We did.  We took a cab from our hotel to the museum entrance. (Well worth it, because the museum is all the way around the back of Vatican City.  At 8:30 in the morning the line for tickets was almost a mile long.)  We hopped out of the cab, went to the front door, zipped through security, scanned our online tickets and in we went.  About two minutes.

It is worth downloading the floor plans so you have a sense of what you want to see.  The most popular routes are clearly marked.  The amount of galleries and volume of articles can be overwhelming so do some homework so you know where you want to spend time.  Be prepared to be overwhelmed.

After an hour or two, you will most likely be approaching the Sistine Chapel.  It will undoubtedly be crowded.  No talking is allowed.  No flash is allowed anywhere.  Do shift from one side of the room to the other to enjoy all angles of the Michelangelo frescoes.

Important: When you are ready, keep an eye out for the exit to St. Peters.  This is a group exit, but can still use it.  Exit is located in the far right side corner of the chapel, opposite your entry.  If you miss this exit you will most likely have to go a long way around to get back to St. Peters.  This exit will get you directly into the Basilica.

Once in St. Peters you will be free to wander most of the church.  Some chapels are for prayer only.  Explore as much as you are interested.  It is truly one of the most amazing buildings in the world.

Rating:  4 globes

Once you exit, you will be in St. Peter’s Square.  Lots of photo ops.  By now, it will be time for a late lunch.  We suggest walk to the first bridge on your right and cross over the river.  Take your first left over the bridge and then second right and look for Brassai (noted in FOOD above).

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CASA SANA, PERU

Hi everyone,
This post is forwarded for your information and consideration.
Those of us who are fortunate enough to travel know the world is a big and diverse place with many folks far less fortunate than ourselves.  Please take a moment to take a look at the information below.
Better yet, check out the youtube posting below.  It will give you a heartwarming look at Casa Sana.
Madena, CEO and Founder of Casa Sana, is a life long friend of ours.  John and I look forward to promoting and supporting Casa Sana efforts to make the world a better place.
J & J
**************************************************************************** Hi Guys and Happy New Year! 2016 is shaping up nicely here at Casa Sana and we are only a little over half way through the first month!
As you know, we are a Non-Profit that Empowers Teens in Peru. As you also know running a Non-Profit is a tough gig. Always coming from a place of lack, asking for funds.
NO BUENO!
I have decided to change this aspect for Casa Sana and myself.  I think you will agree with me: It is much easier to make money than to ask for money!
So we have created a Voluntourism Venture to enable Casa Sana to be self sustaining. We call it The Thrive Peru Experience. It is a 3 day Total Immersion into the Peruvian Culture, through Community Service in remote villages, shanty towns and urban areas of Piura, Peru – the home of Casa Sana.
You will become part of the Casa Sana family and return home with a renewed energy for life and a new appreciation for all that you have. The Thrive Peru Experience is full of Contribution, Culture and Connection.
Contribution – this experience supports Casa Sana and the local communities
Culture – you will be invited into the homes of the Casa Sana kids and the Casa Sana Headquarters. You will be immersed into the Peruvian Culture up close and very personal.
Connection – the connections you make on this trip will last a lifetime. You will be helping people who can NEVER repay you monetarily but will ALWAYS repay you with appreciation and deep gratitude. You will be eating homemade Peruvian Cuisine made by the Casa Sana Elders, meals are an event and full of love. laughter and connection.
I guarantee, this will be an Experience of a life time!
While in Piura, services provided include:
1) Accommodations
2) Meals
3) Transportation
4) Laughter, love and an experience of a LIFETIME!
Other attractions to see on your trip to Peru – either before or after your Thrive Peru Experience
1) Cusco and Machu Piccu
2) Nazca Lines
3) Lake Titicaca
4) Amazon
5) Longest Wave – Trujillo
6) Many more
The dates we have available for 2016:
1) April
2) May
3) June
4) September
5) October
Here is a short video with more information: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YhfBwJcKMmo
So to help us get out of the energy of LACK, please forward this to anyone who you think would be interested in this Experience. They can contact me directly and we will set up a time to speak one on one for further details.
In Service,
Madena Parsley
CEO/Founder
Casa Sana
Website: www.casasana.org
Phone: 360-281-6919
Address: 6809 Sleret Ave.
Vancouver, Wa. 98664
Email: madena@casasana.org
Donate: via PayPal
Follow Us: Twitter Facebook Google Plus LinkedIn Pinterest Instagram

London, January 2016

St. Pauls and the City, London

London is a really big city.  It Boasts an enormous range of sights, museums, entertainment and a global choice of foods.  It has an excellent transportation system.  It is one of our favorite Cities in the world.  Our favorite time to visit is early fall, anytime after Schools starts.  The crowds are usually smaller and the weather generally still pleasant. Enjoy!

Food, site seeing, shopping and entertainment are highlights.  Not having to navigate the language barrier makes for a easy transition.  That said, the first time visitor will quickly recognize they are not in the US and should proceed carefully until they get comfortable with some of the basics.  Like looking both ways at intersections and cross walks for traffic flow.  Or standing on the left on escalators so people in a hurry can use the right side.

Thames

Entertainment is plentiful and can be free to very expensive.  Live theater, concerts, the opera and special concerts can be quite expensive and often sold out.  If you have ‘must see’ expectations, advance research and purchase on the internet is recommended.  But there is so much available, smaller venues or neighborhood events can be rewarding and much more affordable.

 

One of our best resources is the Half Price Ticket booth at Leicester Square (on the square, there are several ticket outlets around and off Leicester Square but only one stand alone building on the square.)  Arrive before the 9 AM opening for the best options.  Ask about matinees as well.

London has some of the most diverse choices for food and dining.  It ranges from simple fish and chips to Superstar chefs and practically every cuisine on the planet.  It is a perfect time to try something new or unavailable at home.

Do try the local pubs as they vary wildly in offerings, entertainment, history, and decor.  Food options in pubs range from the old fashioned basics to world class gastronomy.

Central London

The Tube (subway) is extensive and typically the fastest way to get around.  But also try the surface buses.  Most have been upgraded recently and are quite comfortable and cost the same as the tube.  Pick a destination or neighborhood and enjoy sightseeing you would otherwise miss using the underground.  Consider a day pass good on most forms of public transportation but be aware day passes are not valid during morning rush hour before 9 AM.  If you are planning to visit London more often, consider their Oyster Card.  A rechargeable transit smart card good on all public transportation.  The value never expires.  That is what we use.

 

The ‘must do’ list.

Westminster Abby is a Gothic church dating back to 1090 with spires 225 feet tall.  The walls and floors are a who’s who of British history including Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Edward the Confessor and more.  The abbey has been modified over the centuries by no less than 6 of the most prominent architects including Christopher Wren.  Long lines are common.  Hours are 9:30 AM to 3:30 PM. Admission 20 Pounds, discounts for Seniors, children and families.

St. Paul’s

St. Paul’s Cathedral is the Anglican cathedral, seat of the bishop of London and the mother church of the Diocese of London.  It sits on the highest point of the City of London, Ludgate Hill.  It opened in 1708, it is the second largest cathedral in the world, standing 365 feet tall and was designed by Christopher Wren and Lorenzo Gafa in the Renaissance and English Baroque style.  Hours are 8:30 AM to 4:30 AM. Admission is 18 Pounds, discounts for Seniors, children and families.

London Eye is a giant Ferris wheel on the South Bank of the River Thames.  It opened in 2000, stands 443 feet high.  Each capsule takes 30 minutes for a full rotation.  Excellent 360 degree views are best at the top.  Admission from 20 Pounds and up.  Hours: 10 :00 AM (except Christmas and January 11-22), closing times vary by season and run at least until 8:30 PM.

Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress known as the Tower of London is a UNESCO World Heritage site sitting on a 12 acre site dating back to 1078 on the River Thames.  It served as the backdrop for much of British history and has had several rolls over the centuries.  It currently houses the Crown Jewels of England.  Hours vary by day of the week and season. Generally 9:00 AM to 4:30 PM most of the year, closing an hour later in summer. Admission: 24.50 pounds per adult, discounts for Seniors, children and families.

Houses of Parliament  There are a variety of ways to visit the Houses of Parliament.  Tours, watch debates and committees, visit the Parliamentary Archives, School visits, and special events.  There are audio tours, guided tours, afternoon tea tours, tours of the Commons and Lords Chambers and the historic Westminster Hall.  Book in advance, www.parliament.uk.

Buckingham Palace (Summer only) has served as the official London residence of Britain’s sovereigns since 1837.  The state rooms are open to the public each year for most of August, September, December and January.  It is a wonderful tour that usually includes viewing the royal picture gallery collection of art and, weather permitting, a limited stroll in the rear gardens.  There is an excellent gift shop and café.  July and August Hours: 9:15 AM to 7:45 PM.  September Hours: 9:15 AM to 6:45 PM.  “Royal Day Out” Admission is Adult 37.00 pounds, or State Rooms only 21.50 pounds, discounts for Seniors, children and families.

British Museum

British Museum (free, except special exhibits) houses one of the largest collections of art and artifacts (8 million works) in the world.  It is dedicated to human history, art and culture.  Established in 1753 it is considered one of the best museums in the world.  It houses one of the largest collection of Egyptian mummies and statues outside of Egypt.  The Rosetta stone, the Elgin Marbles, and the Magna Carta are all housed there.  It would take weeks or months to fully explore this museum.  Map your visit in advance.  Hours: 10:00 AM to 5:30 PM daily.

Windsor Castle, (Day trip) is the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world.  It has been the family home of British kings and queens for over 1000 years.  It is the official residence of Her Majesty The Queen.  The castle is accessible by train from either London Waterloo or London Paddington stations.  Hours are 9:45 AM to 5:15 PM March to October, 9:45 AM to 4:15 PM November to February. There are numerous closures throughout the year.  Check for details. www.royalcollection.org.uk.  Admission is 20 Pounds, discounts for Seniors, children and families.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, (free, except special exhibits) has one of the best and largest decorative arts collection in the world.  The museum has undergone restoration in recent years resulting in upgraded presentation of its collections.

Self Portrait, Tate Modern

The Tate Modern (free, except special exhibits) The Tate Modern is one of the greatest free modern art museums in the world.  It was created from an abandoned power plant and repurposed as a museum.  About half the exhibits are free, the rest require a separate ticket.

Tate Britain

The Tate Britain (free) is a magnificent collection of over 500 years of British artwork and sculptures in over 20 galleries.  Most notable is the sizable Henry Moore collection of sculptures and the over 300 pieces by the famed British painter JMW Turner.  Bonus:  There are numerous special event exhibitions included without extra cost, two gift shops, both excellent, a cafe serving beverages, breakfast and lunch.  There is also an award winning restaurant for lunch in a room boasting Rex Whistler murals and award winning wine list.

Queen Elizabeth II
Prince Harry and Prince William

The National Portrait Gallery (free) was founded in 1856.  It houses paintings of historical importance and famous British people.  The galleries are well organized and the paintings nicely displayed.  There are gift shops and a café.  Plan 1 to 2 hours.  Hours: 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM daily.

The Courtauld Gallery (Admission fee: 8 Pounds) adjacent to the Somerset House Museum complex is a true gem.  An outstanding collection of art from the early Renaissance to 20th century masterpieces seen no where else are not to be missed.  There is a cute cafe in the basement and an excellent gift shop across from the entrance.

For a deeper look, there are tons of specialized museums, theaters, attractions and just about anything you can imagine available.  Discovery while traveling is one of the reasons to travel and explore.  Enjoy.

Notes:

  • Avoid major attractions on holiday weekends or major holidays.  The crowds can be huge making the exhibits difficult to enjoy.  If your schedule is tight, plan to visit those attractions as early in the day as possible.
  • Choose the lesser popular attractions or farther afield destinations to travel to instead.  Large or extended families are less likely to choose those options because logistics can be more challenging.
  • Try alternative sights or destinations in lieu of the most popular and save the most popular for a midweek day if possible.  It could make all the difference in the world.

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Kenwood House

imageOnly a bit further afield from Central London and next to the village of Hamstead and it’s much adored open Heath is Kenwood House, a magnificent mansion set in expansive parklands. It is a visit you will enjoy any time of year.

The original structure dates to 1616, but was extensively expanded by the then owner William Murry, the Lord Cheif Justice and Earl of Mansfield in 1754 with the aid of architect Robert Adam.

After his death, the estate passed through several hands before finally being bought by Edward Cecil Guinness who used the House to showcase his extensive collection of art.  Ultimately he bequest the House and grounds to the English Heritage with the  condition the House and art collect remain intact and access to the public free of charge.

imageAnd so it is today.  A 15 minute underground ride to a world from the past.  The house is still in exceptional condition from its 18th Century overhaul.

The most impressive asset in the House is the extensive collection of fine art, including Rembrandt, Van Dyke, Hals, Reynolds, Gainsborough, JMW Turner and more.

imageEvery room has highly skilled docents to help visitors absorb what they are experiencing.  This extra resource really maks the visit a memorable experience.  Vistors will leave with sense of having visited a day in the life of the House as it may have been.

Especially noteworthy, this is the home to Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of Sir John Lindsey, nephew to Lord Mansfield.  This was the true basis for the feature film production Belle in recent years.

 

Novello Theater, Momma Mia, London, United Kingdom

Mamma Mia!

mamma miaThe long running musical Mamma Mia has attracted audiences for decades.  Its catchy Abba playlist set in the Greek Islands and the comedic love triangle plus one has become a classic.  This was our third viewing over time and possibly the most rewarding.

Perhaps it’s because it is playing in one of our favorite Cities in the World, London.  Or maybe it is because the production at the charming, four tier, West End Novello Theater just made it feel more intimate.

What caught our attention was the surprisingly large number of children, from four to teens and older.  And when they liked something they heard, they leapt to their feet and danced their tootsies off.  Conversely, we spotted many  seniors you might not expect to be up shaking it around, but there They were!

And why not, it is a classic, funny, charming and a reminder of the value of young at heart.

Rating: 4 Globes.

Our Favorite Travel Destinations on water, Part 2

Fjords of Norway

What are fjords?  They were created by massive glaciers that carved massive u-shaped canyons of rock over 3 million years ago.Bergen2                                                                  Bergen.

There are several ways to experience the 100s of fjords in Norway.  By land, Oslo is the Capital with international flights, and is worthy of a few days touring.  Then travel by car or better yet, train to Bergen, Norway’s second city and gateway to the biggest and most impressive of the big three fjords.  Don’t miss the charming city of Flam.

There are driving and train itineraries that combine one or many daytrips.  The road system is well developed and offers extensive access to many fjords while the big ships tend to focus on a few of the best.  The benefit is more time to explore village life, the spectacular scenery away from the fjords and of course a slower viewing experience of the fjords themselves.

The best way to experience these incredibly beautiful ocean canyons is best seen by water. The range of options vary from the large ocean cruise liners to small intimate local watercrafts.

fjordDo not miss the “king of the fjords”, Sognefjord.  At 127 miles long and the deepest at 4,294 feet deep, the sheer rock walls may blot out the sun or the many waterfalls fall hundreds of feet to the sea.  The mighty Geirangerfjord and Naereyfjord are Unesco Hertitage sights with waterfalls and little Bays with villages of typical red buildings and charming white churches.  On land there are many touring options.  One of the most popular is skiing world class slopes with 30 feet of snow in the middle of summer.cliff

The best time to go is May to September during the longest days of sunshine.  Winter is also possible offering a stormy and unique look without the crowds.

Resources:  www.fjords.com, www.rccl.com, www.visitnorwat.com

Stockholm Archipelago stockholm

There are over 24,000 islands that make up the Stockholm Archipelago.  Start your journey with any itinerary that includes Stockholm, the capital of Sweden.  We suggest at least three days, the more days the better.  Stockholm will not disappoint.

stockholm archipeligo 2At anytime, carve out some time for one or more day trips to the more popular islands of  Finnhamm, Grinda, Nattaro or Uto.  There are one to five day passes if you would like to use public transportation.  All have quaint villages for lunch, snacks or fishing supplies.

Just wander or hire a guide to take you to places of your particular interest.  There are dozens of islands with bright red summer homes, historic palaces and castles.  There are also expansive forests, fields of flowers and long sandy beaches.stockholm beach

If you are traveling by cruise ship, do check out the time of the sailing into or out of the Archipeligo.  Find the best upper deck in the front of the ship for a bird’s eye view from above the islands.  Alternatively, local Steamboat cruises run all Summer and Fall.

stockholm steamshipYou will be enchanted what ever your choice.  Best time to go is May to September for the long warm Summer/Fall days

Resources: www.waxholmsbolaget.com, www.stockholmarchipeligo.com, www.visitstockholm.com

St. Petersburg from the Neva River

St. Petersburg bridgeThis journey can be done in just a few hours and may be the highlight of a trip to St. Petersburg.  It was such a memorable experience, it had to make this list, especially now that all the major sites have been restored to their original glory.  Plan at least a few additional days for the must see sights you should first see from this water journey.

St. Petersburg churchDepending on the service provider, your boat will most likely begin on the Moika Canal, St.Petersburg primary commercial corridor before sailing into the broad Neva River where you will be greeted by two bridges with bronzed lions, griffins and chariots. To the left bank will be a skyline of churches and palaces.  To the right will be the expansive baroque Winter Palace, formerly the residence of the tsars, now part of the Hermitage Museum.  This will be one of the ‘must see’ list, plan a half day just for this museum.

st_petersburg winter palaceNow, across the river again will be the gleaming white Stock Exchange (now a navel museum and on you ‘must do’ list) and the Peter and Paul Cathedral, another ‘must tour’ sometime in your trip along with a visit to the Peter and Paul Fortress and a day trip to the Peterhof Palace and its fantastic gardens.

Peterhof palacePlan to travel between May and July to experience the ‘White Nights’.  Book everything in advance, the local bureaucracy is inconsistent and often unreliable.  Another note, do NOT drink the water anywhere.  Remember good bug spray as it will be peak season for those critters too.

Resources: www.russia-travel.com, www.russiagateway.co.uk, www.saint-Petersburg.com

Danube, Budapest to the Black Sea

The more popular route for sailing the Danube is Passau, Germany to Budapest adding Vienna and Bratislava along the way.  It is a great trip, but alternatively sailing from Budapest to the Black Sea reveals a very different face of the Danube and much of Southeastern Europe.

budapestYou can cruise this route in reverse but we liked the progressively intriguing stops going West to East.  Add a few days in Budapest in the beginning because there is a lot to explore.  We also added four days in Transylvania at the end just because it was close by and we may not be back in that part of the world anytime soon.  Transylvania, by the way, was one of the highpoints of this trip.  Think Swiss Alps but at bargain prices for five star touring, food and lodging.

transylvaniaOur stops in Croatia and Serbia included small towns of Osijek, Vukovar and Novi Sad each with access to town centers and historical sites, ancient and not so ancient wars after the collapse of Yugoslavia.

belgradeBelgrade was an impressive stop.  Lots of history and culture but the agro tourism was the highlight for the day.  New and savory farm to table food and super affordable local wines.  The scenery just got better and better the farther into the trip.  The mountains just kept getting closer and closer until it became a canyon, completely unexpected.

Constanza, Romania was our last port on the river cruise.  A beguiling seaport, a mix of East and West, a mix of cultures and civilivations.  On the other hand, Bucharest was the bustling, thriving capital of Romania with all the trappings of Western Europe.  This trip was a pleasant surprise and a lot of fun.

bucharestResources:  www.oattravel.com, www.vikingriverscruises.com, www.avalonwaterways.com

 

Dalmation Coast

There are many tour operators and ferries that offer sailings around the Adriactic coast.  Many of our favorite stops are listed below.  Many folks make a whole vacation at just one or two destinations.  The area is blessed with a long sunny, warm season from May through October, August can be quite crowded.  There are plenty of hotels, resorts and tour operators.  We spent 3 weeks island and town hopping, and we are ready to do it all over again but perhaps longer and slower.

The Dalmation coast today consists of the coast lines of Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Albania.  It’s history dates back to pre-Grecian times.  It is generally unknown to Western travelers.  Those who like the coastal areas of Greece, Italy or most of the Mediterranean are likely to love this region on the Adriactic Sea.

The island of Hvar is famous for its lavender fields, pine covered hills, quaint villages and Venetian styled buildings on the harbor.

hvar

The island town of Vis is proud of its scenery, excellent wine, national park and diving sites.

visThe isle of Brac is world famous for its stone quarry (used extensively for the US White House) and its Golden Cape, a haven for sun worshippers and wind surfers.

bracEven the little village of Zadar boosts an awesome sea organ that is linked to a state of the art computer system.  As you listen to the sea organ and walk on the plaza, the computer responds to your footstep with a stunning light show underfoot.zadar

Kotor sits at the end of a fjord-like inlet guarded by a tiny manmade islet Our Lady of the Rocks and its charming church.  The town itself is nestled between the sea and the mountains.  it is a vibrant town of 13,000 +/- people, a lively town center with lots of places to eat, drink and relax.  An ancient wall still survives the ages.

kotor The village of Korcula is connected to larger island famous for its beaches.  The town is known for its medieval walls and towers.  Central square is home to the Cathedral of St. Mark dating back to the 14th Century.  It feels like a bit of a time warp with its narrow lanes and pathways, tiny shops, and medieval everything.

korculaThe Old City of Dubrovnik is one of the most outstanding cities in the world.  It’s history and perserverance have helped the City to become a UNESCO World Heritage site.  It is truly a walled city with an incredible setting and port.  It seamlessly housed Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque churches, monasteries, palaces, courtyards, squares and fountains.  It is alive with its residences and visitors alike.  Do walk the walls of the City for the breathtaking views and overlooks.  Oh, the food and wine is exceptional almost everywhere.

dubrovnikLast but not least, is the charming city of Split.  It has an impressive harbor location with a wonderful promenade, a Roman palace dating to the 4th century, an array of bars, cafes, restaurants, galleries, cathedrals, hotels, beaches and overlooks with fantastic views.

splitResources:  www.croatia.hr, www.montenegro.com, www.ricksteves.com

Our Favorite Travel Destinations on water, Part 1

 Eastern Caribbean CruiseSt. Maarten

Several Cruise lines have itineraries for the Eastern Caribbean.  We think this journey should include these islands: St. Thomas, US; St. John, US; Anguilla, UK; the fascinating of St Martin, France/Sint Maarten, Netherlands; and Antigua.

Most sailings will embark and disembark from San Jose Puerto Rico.  Renowned for their pristine white sand beaches, Azure, sapphire, turquoise waters, gentle breezes, and coral reefs bursting with tropical fish, each island has it own character, history and culture.

St. Thomas and St. John offers a US approach to Caribbean living, dining and entertainment with some of the best shopping in the region.  While French St. Martin offers numerous dining options, Dutch St. Maarten offers expansive shopping.St. Martin

The best snorkeling and coral reefs are on St Thomas and St. Martin.  Most islands have great inland hiking trails with spectacular scenic overlooks, lots of flora and fauna.

High season is typically December to April.  Summers can get very hot and humid. Summer and fall are often hurricane season but the ships are great about rerouting out of harms way.

Resources:  Windstar Cruises, Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity

Duration: usually 7, 10 to 14 days.

Lake Titicaca, Peru/Bolivia, South AmericaLake-Titicaca

If you traveling in the region, Peru or Bolivia, plan to spend a few days and nights in one of the larger Cities, like Puno, Peru or Copacabana, Bolivia on Lake Titicaca.  Better yet, a night or two at the Ecolodge La Estancia on the Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) closer to Copacabana and La Paz, Bolivia.  Discover the ancient ruins on the island.

At just over 13,000 feet, Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable Lake in the world.  Day trip to the islands are plentiful from both Peru and Bolvia shoreline resort towns.  Each of the islands has its own culture with colorful local costumes in the villages and markets.

Close to shore you will see massive beds of reeds.  Just beyond will be islas flotantes, floating island, the traditional homes of the Uro people, who have lived on these island dating back to the Incas.  Keep and eye out for the traditional totoro reed boats made from bundled lake reeds lashed together to make canoe-like boats, the local transportation for the Uro.

Try the typical local dishes like Alpaca steak, fish from the lake or roasted guinea pig.

Do not miss the night sky.  It was literally like being in the best and biggest planetarium on earth.night

Best time to go is between May and October.  Be prepared for extreme changes in temps.  Intense sun during the day and close to freezing by night.  Electric power is inconsistent.  A flashlight is essential.

Resources:  www.peru.info.com, www.peru-explorer.com, www.kensingtontours.com, www.viator.com/lake-titicaca, www.amazonadventures.com/lake-Titicaca

Yangtze River, The Three Gorges, China

The Yangtze River is one of the longest rivers in the world.  Its length is 3,915 miles long starting in the Tibetan Plateau and ending in the East China Sea.

three gorgesAdd a 3-4-5 day river cruise to any China trip and enjoy the journey from one of the 4 and 5 star ships.  Cruises travel West from Chongqing, Yichang, Wuhan and Jingzhou or East upriver in reverse.yangtze

The highlight will be the 150 stretch or the river Three Gorges region where the gorge walls tower 610 feet above the river and 1.3 miles from bank to bank.  Depending on your ship choice, it will take four to five hours to pass through five locks.

There are a wide variety of side trips available, small boat trips to pristine tributaries, shopping excursions, theater and entertainment venues, major museums, small villages and temples.

Depending on your tour choice, you journey may be part of a longer China journey from companies like Grand Circle, Uniworld, Tauck, Avalon Waterways or Viking Cruises.  Or put your own trip together and book you river portion directly with Victoria Cruises (our choice), Orient Royal Cruises, or many others.

Best time to travel is Spring or Autumn or anytime in between but it will be warmer.

The Mekong River

The Mekong River’s source is a spring in the mountains of Tibet that flows 2500 miles through six countries: Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, China, Myanmar (Burma) and Vietnam.mekong laos

There are a variety of ways to travel the river.  It can be in conjunction with other travel to each country, or several countries, or a day trip, or a river journey.  Intrepid travels often hire a raft to

We have traveled on the Mekong independently by hiring a fast long boat in Thailand for a wonderful ride zipping up the river to a remote village where we then hired elephant for a trek into the rain forest and a remote stilt village where we had a home cooked Thai lunch before retuning to the comfort of a 5 star hotel.

We sailed twice more on the Mekong, first in Vietnam as part of a small organized tour (16).  It was a wide, beautiful, peaceful day trip past remote village, incredible scenery and lots of wildlife. And just last year in Laos, from the World Heritage site, Louangphrabang upriver to Pak-Ou, an amazing limestone cavern to see hundreds of Buddha statues of all shape, sizes and ages.mekong cave

Other highlights were the riverside villages, one with one of the largest bells in the world that you can actually climb into, ancient temples, fishermen and gleeful children everywhere.

Go during the cool, dry season, December to February.

Backwaters of Kerala, India

keralaKerala is an incredibly beautiful part of South India, a chain of brackish lagoons and lakes lying parallel to the Arabian Sea.  Partly man made, partly natural, at the confluence of 38 rivers.  A largely agricultural and fishing region where the lagoons are used to transport goods and services to the numerous villages.

Fresh water is used for irrigation while the brackish and salt water are used for fishing.  The local folks of all ages use the canals and lagoons as streets and highways.

The main event for travelers is to hire a houseboat with crew for as many days as you would like.  The boats are mainly former rice boats that have been converted into house boats for tourists and travelers.  They are particularly popular for couples celebrating a honeymoon or a romantic getaway.kerala-backwater-trip

They come in all shapes and sizes.  Ours was part of the royal fleet with two decks, a handful of private rooms with en-suite facilities, a chef and crew.  The food was fresh daily and prepared to perfection (usually very spicy/hot).  The local tiger prawns were amazing.

It’s a great way to take a break from the sensory overload India often offers.  Floating along the byways, observing a simpler rural lifestyle, post card sunrises and cocktails by sunsets.Kerala fishing news

The best time to go is November to February.  Avoid the monsoon season, March to October.  Insect repellant is essential.

Resources: www.india tourism.com, www.keralagreenery.com, www.ktdc.com, www.oattravel.com

One Dozen of our favorite hotels around the world.

Note: Prices are approximate and vary on demand and accommodation selection.

HOTEL DUE TORRI, Rome, Italy

Hotel Due Torri
Hotel Due Torri

We discovered this charming little hotel several years ago and fell in love with it.  It is on a little tiny one lane street in the center of old Rome within walking distance of most of Rome’s must see sites.  The rooms are compact but very serviceable with free Wi-Fi and a hearty breakfast included.  There are a handful of rooms with small balconies overlooking the rooftops of the neighborhood.

The owner and manager speak very good English and are very helpful recommending lots of local restaurants and shopping in the immediate area.  In fact, we enjoyed our last stay so much we have reservations for several days next year.  Reviews rank 3.9 of 5 stars.  Rates: 80 to 330 Euros.

Website: Hotel Due Torri

Beryl Country House, Wells, United KingdomBeryl Country House

This delightful house was built in 1842 and has been fully restored and updated with comfortable furnishing and antiques.  It sits on 13 acres of parkland including a walled Victorian garden.  There is also a pool opened from May to September depending on the weather.  There are 14 rooms to choose from, each with its own character.

Breakfast at Beryl is a traditional English breakfast with a menu of choices.  While dinner is not served, the hotel has a variety of suggested dinner options a short drive away.

Wells is famous for its Cathedral, its charming town and close proximity to other places of interest.  We suggest 2 or 3 nights in conjunction with other destination in the Somerset region.  Reviews rank 4 of 5 stars.  Rates 110 to 160 Euros.

Website: Beryl Country House

Courtyard Budapest City Center, Budapest, HungaryBudapest City Center

We just discovered this hotel this summer for 4 nights before boarding a river cruise to the Black Sea.  You might think it odd to recommend a Marriott property for a visit to an ancient capital, but this is a sleek, modern full service hotel with nice everything and it was surprisingly affordable for the quality.

It is in the center of Budapest making it well positioned for sightseeing.  Trams, buses and subway are all out the front door.  Rooms are generous in size, floor to ceiling glass, some rooms have balconies.  Other rooms face a large light well so bear that in mind when making reservations.  Reviews rank 5 of 5 stars.  Rates 90 to 184 Euros.

Website: Courtyard Budapest City Center

Belmond Hotel Monasterio, Cusco, PeruHotel Monasterio

Located next to the Cusco’s central square this hotel as you might guess, started as a monastery in 1592.  Make no mistake, this property was completely renovated into a luxury hotel boasting two restaurants, and a spa.  The 122 rooms and suites are both ancient and modern situated around the original courtyard.

It is in the Center of Cusco, a perfect location from which to explore this amazing colonial city before or after a visit to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley.  It is a bit pricy but worth the splurge.  Note: some rooms come with extra oxygen pumped in.  The local coca tea also works well.  Reviews rank 4.5 of 5 stars.  Rates $345 to $1200. USD.

Website: Belmond Hotel Monasterio

Park Hyatt Sydney, New South Wales, AustraliaPark-Hyatt-Sydney_jpg

I still remember our arrival to this hotel.  After a painfully long flight in coach (we were relatively novice travelers then), followed by a long ride from the airport to central Sydney, we checked in, made our way to our room, pulled back the drapes and wham, there was the Opera House in all its glory.  It consumes the entire field of vision.  It turns out the Park Hyatt is in a dynamite location directly across the harbor from the famous Opera House.

Located in the lively “Rocks” neighborhood, with its restaurants and shopping, directly adjacent to central Sydney.  This is a world class luxury property with oversized rooms, fine dining, rooftop pool, spa and free Wi-Fi.  As you might suspect, it is also pricy, but considering the journey to get there, what a great way to get oriented and rejuvenated.  Reviews rank 4.6 of 5 stars.  Rates $500 to $2200 USD.

Website: Park Hyatt Sydney

Westin Resort & Spa, Los Cabos, San Jose del Cabo, B.C.S., MexicoLos Cabos Westin

This resort is nestled in it’s own private cove with stunning modern architecture.  All rooms have stunning Sea of Cortez ocean views and balconies.  The resort has a beach club, all the water sports you can imagine, a huge spa, state of the art fitness center, numerous dining options, six golf courses nearby and close to the city center of San Jose del Cabo.

All that said, this resort was damaged by last year’s hurricane Odile.  The hotel has been undergoing extensive repairs and restoration since and is scheduled to re-open July 1, 2016.  We have been twice, first at the resort and later at the adjacent timeshares which have full access to the resort but with private spa, pool and fully equipped apartment.  We will go again.  Reviews rank 4.6 of 5 stars.  Rates: $208 to $3500. USD

Website: Westin Resort & Spa, Los Cabos

The Aubrey, Santiago, Chileaubrey

We stumbled on this small boutique hotel last year and spent New Years 2015 there.  The Hotel consists of two historic homes that were completely restored,  upgraded and expanded.  It manages to be intimate, authentic and original at the same time.  There are three room types but all rooms are unique with ultra modern bathrooms.  Some rooms have balconies or private terraces.  There are extensive exterior decks and lounges.  There is also a pool nestled on the edge of the hill.  The property is surrounded by foliage and flowers yet there is plenty of sunshine.

There is an extensive breakfast buffet along with eggs to order.  Tapas are available from the indoor/outdoor bar in the evening.  Beverage service is available on demand anytime.  Affordable massage service is available en suite or poolside.  The service is world class and the concierge among the best.

Central Santiago and all the main sights are walkable, but there is also safe public transportation.  Taxis are very affordable.  There are dozens of dining, shopping and entertainment venues in the immediate neighborhood.  Reviews rank 5 of 5 stars.  Rates $195 to 575. USD

Website: The Aubrey

Canal House, Amsterdam, Netherlandscanalhouse

This is truly a ‘unique to Amsterdam’ hotel made up of three traditional buildings (some dating back to the 1600s) adjacent to each other and merged into a unique luxury hotel.  It faces one of the inner canals making it ideally situated for exploring the City.  It is also walkable to the Central train station.  It includes breakfast and Wi-Fi., garden, terrace.  There are 23 rooms.  The staff is multilingual and service attentive.  It is like stepping back in time but with all the modern conveniences including room service.  We cannot wait to go back.  Good reason to go now, all the major museums and sights have been recently restored.  Reviews rank 4.5 of 5 stars.  Rates: $345 to $750.  USD

Website: Canal House

Ravenswood Hall Hotel and Restaurant, Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk,  UKravenswood

We discovered this wonderful gem of a hotel as a pre-North Atlantic cruise extension.  (Great suggestion if you are sailing in or out of Harwich, England.)  The origins of the 7 acre estate, surrounded by thick English woods and flora, date back to Henry VIII.  The hotel holds a variety of rooms, a lively pub/bar and an excellent restaurant.  When weather permits, there is a large pool, and equally large sun terrace and expansive lawns.

The hotel is close to Bury St. Edmunds which is a robust town with all manner of history and activities. The bucolic Suffolk region offers easy access to seaside villages and tranquil countryside.  Two, three or four nights would do nicely. Reviews rank 4 of 5 stars.  Rates: 125 to 175. British Pounds

Website: Ravens wood Hall Hotel and Restaurant

Tenuta Di Canonica, Todi, Umbria, ItalyTanuta di canonica

We fell in love with this estate home, with roman ruins as the foundation, over a decade ago.  It was transformed into a countryside hotel just outside the hill town of Todi in the region of Umbria.  Rooms vary from simple and quaint to opulent suites.  It retains so much character of its past but offers a warm inviting vibe that fosters lingering.  Much of its history was that of a farm house, today a hotel with a wonderful chef in the kitchen for savory dinners and delectable breakfasts on one of the many terraces.

And after a long day of exploring the countryside towns and villages, an awesome pool terrace with unspeakably beautiful vistas awaits.  We especially like to visit during the wild boar and truffle seasons (early fall).  This is a fav of ours.  Reviews rank 4.5 of 5 stars.  Rates: $173 to $250 USD

Website: Tenuta Di Canonica

Sheraton Mirage, Port Douglas Resort, Port Douglas, AustraliaSheraton Port Douglas Resort

This is a large, chic, upscale resort with all the bells and whistles you might expect. Two giant saltwater pools, several bars, restaurants but only one golf course.  Choice of rooms or villas.  Pool view, garden view, ocean view.

Best of all, this is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef.  One of the best in the world.  We have been here twice and we are planning another visit in the next year or two.  Tons of active options: the Reef, Daintree Rainforest, Skyrail Cableway, helicopter rides, rafting, horse riding and on and on.  For this one, it is the whole package, hotel meets activity.  No doubt the reef is tops.  Reviews rank 4.5 of 5 stars.  Rates: $220 to $1674. USD

Website: Sheraton Mirage, Port Douglas Resort

Hotel La Fenice et des Artistes, Venice, ItalyHotel La Fenice

First, it’s in central Venice, steps away from St. Marks Square!  Next door to La Fenice Opera House, where you can ease drop on tonight’s performance rehearsals in the late morning or early afternoon.  It has a wonderful restaurant with a charming garden.

The rooms vary a lot but they all have incredible silk wall fabrics and classical period furniture with high ceilings and beautiful art.  Breakfast is included, great bar, room service, concierge and free WI-Fi.  Its a bargain by Venice standards.  Did you know Venice by night is uncrowded and just as beautiful as by day?!  Don’t forget the magic of hundreds of church bells ring simultaneously. Ah Venice.  Reviews rank 4.5 of 5 stars.  Rates: $270 to $1200. USD

Website: Hotel La Fenice et des Artistes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Japan 2015

Japan Water Front

Now that jet lag has subsided and I am in my right mind, please see my observations below. I hope you enjoy.

First, just a quick travel observation. We left Osaka, Japan yesterday, Thursday at about 4:30 PM. We landed, at 10:00 AM Thursday. So officially, we returned to the US six hours before we left! It is one of the International Date Line things that happen every time you cross the dateline.

Another Quick side bar. Our 8 year old nephew, William, knew we were traveling to Asia. His Dad explained to him where we were and how it was tomorrow there from the US. Since William and we were following the playoffs and it was a day ahead, William asked by text if we knew who won the Houston/NY game. Too funny!! Oh, to be 8 again. 😋

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Impressions of Japan

Japan was a fascinating, strange, vaguely familiar place. Prior to this trip, we had only been to a few of Japan’s “cruise ports” for short day tours, mostly coastal sites of interest prior to this three week visit.

Now, my overarching observations. Japan is a big, first world country with all the benefits you would expect of a G7 world economic power.

Next, it is so clean, I could hardly believe it. And I mean everywhere!! Every street, every bus, cab, train, street car. Every restaurant, new, old, city, village. Every car, house, temple, office building, store. Every attraction, school, temple, shrine, park, tourist stop.

It is civilized. Everyone is polite. (well 99% but I do not want to be picky, unless you count fellow tourist/travelers. But that will be a future article.) Everything works and well! Hotel checkins were instant. Openings of anything, on time, every time. Same for closings. Taxis, buses, trains all on schedule EVERY time. It was almost uncanny. True fact: Japan’s train service last year, including their extensive high speed Bullet train, had an on time record within 36 seconds, yes I said seconds. Jaw dropping.

Bowing is a big thing. Mainly, three different bows. One for greeting (about 15 degrees), one for respect (about 30 degrees, as guests, we got a lot of those), and one for apologies (about 40-45 degrees). Bowing is so common, we found ourselves adding a small bow to every hello, goodbye or thank you.

Japan is not perfect. The first poke I’ll take is urban architecture. While there is an occasional superstar here and there, the country in general has the most boring, boxy, bunch of buildings I’ve seen anywhere. Yes, traditional housing and temples have their charm, but, they are squashed out by the endless boredom of concrete and glass office towers or apartment blocks with occasional attempts at some kind of architectural flare.

And now, (drumroll followed by the applause of my fellow travelers) FOOD. That one thing so many of us hit the road for! The sustenance of life and pleasure for the soul. It was general boring and mostly repetitive. This was somewhat a surprise for a country touting so many Michelin star restaurants. It was a big discovery to find the better restaurants cater to only to the wealthy and expense account crowd.

We made a few discoveries on our own but only a few. On the surprise front, on two different nights we ventured on our own for dinner, both nights the chef owners followed us outside afterwards and gave us full bows of thank you until we were out of sight. Humbling!!

Another surprise but over arching discovery we were not prepared for, was undercooked foods. Example: every egg, scrambled, fried or otherwise was half cooked or raw. I am not kidding. Same for bacon, sausage or even chicken, pork or beef. Bizarre!

You MUST eat rice! Every meal, every day, every day. We are not talking Uncle Ben’s here, or jasmine or basmati rice. We are talking full blown Japanese sticky short grain rice. And fish, sashimi (raw), sushi (also raw). At least one fish per each meal per day. The alternative was a life saving bowl of udon or ramen noodles served in a broth but often accompanied by vegetables and…some type of fish, shellfish and occasionally chicken or pork.

Personally, I love fish and sashimi/sushi are right up my alley but I must admit the rare pasta or pizza was devoured with delight.

On the highlight side.Architecture The countryside is very accessible everywhere and we were honored to be able to enjoy lots of it. The national parks and temples and shines and imperial palaces were amazing. The gardens are unlike any we have seen anywhere. In one park we saw gardeners plucking imperfect pine needles one by one and dropping them onto large tarps so as not to litter on the ground. Water features are an art form, stones and lanterns are messages, form and function are often the same. It was hard to come away from any such walk in a bad mood.

In ending, it must be said the people were amazing. Genuine, polite, helpful, forgiving, cheerful, focused. We met old folks still with a twinkle in the eye. Children, delightfully doing what children do, with glee in every action. Buddhist monks, going about their daily business, shepherding the poor and poor of spirit alike. Worker bees, working long hours and painful commutes in numbers that must be seen to be believed.

Japan is not perfect. It is still a male dominate society. Women are way behind on the equality front. This is slowly improving, so slowly. Tradition is paramount yet variety in all aspects of life seems to offer a crack in that armor. Time will tell.

Someday, I would like to see Japan again, in spring or in snow, maybe farther away from the urban centers. But for now, we’ve had enough and are pleased to be home and surrounded by all things familiar.

Forest

Japan Skyline