Relaxing Times at Salento in Houston

The weather in Houston today was picture perfect - temperatures in the upper 60s, beeeautiful clear skies and our Gulf Coast humidity was nowhere to be found. What a great day to head to Rice Village. We wandered around from store to store with the baby and took some time to chill out for a relaxing lunch at Salento. What a great little place - cozy and quaint with a focus on "gathering" (as their web site explains) rather than just eating before hitting the road.

Salento offers a small selection of sandwiches, salads and sweets and excels with a nice mix of wines, teas and coffees. But the clincher is that Salento is a great place to just hang out. In fact, they want you to linger... regular events such as live music and weekly Wednesday night tango nights make it easy to do so.

While our baby boy wasn't very cooperative today, we still found the time to enjoy some excellent (and generously sized) sandwiches, salad and a Quilmes beer. You know... given the tango nights and the Quilmes, I can't help but wonder if the place is Argentine-run. Anyway, I can't recommend the place enough. A local crowd (architectural historian Stephen Fox was enjoying a leisurely Sunday afternoon) frequents the place and it's not unusual to see the same faces sitting hour after hour. It just has a great vibe and the people are nice - you can't ask for more.


More Travel Tips with Kids

Now, did I post these or not? I know I included some links about traveling with a baby but just received some new ones via Baby Center. Here are some great articles if you're planning to go a travelin' with a baby.

Seven Secrets to Successful Travel with a Young Child

Traveling with a Newborn to 8-Month Old

Tips for Helping Your Child Adjust to Travel

Baby Center also has a message board where readers share tips and ideas on traveling with children. Could be some good tips there, too.


La Trattoria - Real Italian Cuisine

I'm always on the lookout for real Italian restaurants in Houston. At times, the search can be quite daunting - many of the most popular Italian restaurants in town are chains, sadly unauthentic or run by individuals who really don't have a clue.

La Trattoria at 6504 Westheimer, however, would not fall into any of those categories. Carlo Molinari opened La Trattoria in the 1980s. His restaurant focuses on mostly northern Italian cuisine with other Italian classics thrown in for good measure. His wine list is about as extensive as you'll see with typical Italians wines like Chianti and Barolo as well as other great varieties like Valpollicella and Nero D'Avola.

What's great about La Trattoria is that Carlo does not compromise when it comes to his food. Clients looking to add chicken to their pasta will find that La Trattoria will not oblige. Rightfully so as chicken and pasta do not add up in Italy. Some people find Carlo's inflexibility off-putting but I find it refreshing as not often does one find an Italian restaurant that refuses to bend to American ideas of Italian cuisine.


Excess is Alive and Well in Manhattan

Let's talk decadence, excess and, well... downright stupidity. If you're that guy in New York City who would be willing to plunk down $1,500.00 for a cocktail or $1,000.00 for a pizza, then there's a new prix fixe "deal" waiting for you at Masa. Then again, if you are that guy, then stop by Serendipity 3 to watch $1,000.00 evaporate while you eat a sundae.

For our money, we'll grab a cocktail at Bemelmans Bar, the legendary watering hole in the Carlyle Hotel or The Monkey Bar, a famed spot not only frequented by us but also by my dad in the 1950s.


Shots fired at Santa

While I would love to visit Rio De Janeiro, I always wonder about safety in the city. Certain stories make you think - maybe it's not so safe when Santa can't even catch a break.


A colonial day trip from BsAs

Yes, it's true... I have Buenos Aires on the brain. I can't help it - I'm really very excited to be going back next year. There's just something about BsAs that has me ensnared. Yes, despite being robbed at gunpoint and nearly tied up two years ago, Buenos Aires has me in its spell. It's that reason that I've been thinking about possible day trips that we can take the next time we've there.

Last year, we went to Bariloche for three nights - it was a great, albeit rainy, trip. I've been meaning to post about that trip and eventually will. The previous year, we went to the Estancia Santa Susana. Little did we realize when we went there that it was owned by my friend's family. Small small world.

Next year, I'm really leaning towards taking the Buquebus (the ferry) across the Rio Plata to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay. While I'd like to check out Montevideo, I've heard the day trip to Colonia is worthwhile. The Buenos Aires Argenita Guide Blog has a great entry on visiting Colonia - worth checking out the next time you head to BsAs. The historic quarter has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site. Much more detail on Colonia can be found in the UNESCO nomination.

Why Colonia? Apparently the historic quarter of the town is well-preseved with many 17th, 18th and 19th century buildings. Cobblestone streets and a colonial feel make the town a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of BA. The town was actually a Portuguese settlement but traded hands between the Spanish and the Portuguese until the birth of modern-day Uruguay. The day trip is only 50 minutes each way with a high speed ferry and is easily made with small children.


Starbucks Spreads Its Wings

Full Discolure... we're in a sitting in a Starbucks right now. We spend a lot of time at Starbucks... too much. We'll admit it. Yes, probably daily visits... and part of it is just the experience of going there, hanging out, bringing the laptop or a book or a magazine and just chillin' out with our little baby. It's an American take on cafe' society, I suppose. Cities like Houston don't really have hordes of cafes where one can sip an espresso and watch the world go by. So, for us in the States, Starbucks will do quite nicely.

But... what do you do when you encounter a Starbucks overseas? I think it's a bit of a quandary. I can unequivocally say that I wouldn't dare set foot in a Starbucks in Italy. No way - it would be like eating McDonald's in Italy. Just so wrong. Now, Canada? I felt no qualms about it - we did it quite a bit while in Ottawa. Then there's places like London...

According to my boss, there are more Starbucks in London than there are in New York City. I think he's telling the truth - from what we saw during our New Year's Eve trip to London, Starbucks was everywhere. There were two within close walking distance in Marylebone. You would usually find a competing Costa Coffee across the street. Well, I guess we just didn't have a big problem with it in London, as you can see from my wife's cup. We grabbed some before taking a train to Hampton Court.

Some people see this as a blight to foreign countries. I don't know... much of me tends to agree. I can't imagine getting a Starbucks in Buenos Aires - yes, it has arrived in Argentina. It just doesn't seem right in BsAs. Same goes for Italy, as mentioned. Now, what about China? Starbucks is starting to expand like crazy in China. Singapore is full of Starbucks stores. Apparently the locals don't mind. The Starbucks in Al Khobar, according to my business associates, is full of young Saudis enjoying a taste of western culture.

At the end of the day, the way I tend to look at it is this - the more "english" the country, the less I mind Starbucks. The more traditional European (i.e. France, Italy, Spain) the country, the less I like the idea (but don't tell anyone we had Starbucks in Madrid - I'm somewhat ashamed but dang it helped with jetlag). I guess it's personal choice. For me, it's remains a quandary. Just know this - Starbucks + Italy + me will never happen.


Food... Looks good to me!

I've got this thing for taking pictures of food when we travel... heck, even at home (depending on what I just cooked). I figure... what a better way to keep track of the cuisine of different destinations and to refresh my taste buds' memory. Here are a few shots from various trips we've taken...

Paella in Maspalomas, Gran Canaria
Delicious shrimp spaghetti in Sperlonga, Italy

A tasty pizza in Montreal, Quebec

An Indian spread at La Porte des Indes on New Year's Eve in London
A traditional asado at La Estancia in Buenos Aires
Delicious grilled seafood in Tamarindo, Costa Rica
A beautiful spread of cheese and cured meats in Buenos Aires
Squid ink linguini in Venice, Italy
Tasty lomo in Buenos Aires
A huge platter of bresaola, rucula and parmigiano in Gorga, Italy


Exploring Via Nomentana

One of my Italian aunts lives in an area of Rome just off of the Via Nomentana. It's an interesting area - a typical residential area, not like what most tourists see in the center of Rome - and it offers a little bit of everything for someone who has visited Rome before. Now, if you're going to Rome for the first time, I wouldn't bother with this area. However, if you've been a couple of times, hop on the #60 bus from Piazza Venezia to Via Nomentana for a different take on Rome.

So, what is there to see?

First off, there's Villa Torlonia. Now, the last time I visited the park around the villa, it was in sad shape. You could tell that the park was being spruced up but the main villa, designed by Valadier in the early 19th century, was falling apart. It was used by Mussolini during WWII and later occupied by the Allied command until 1947. An ambitious project restored the main villa and now both all the buildings and the charming park can be visited. Not to be missed is the odd little Casina delle Civette.

Close-up of the main villa before the restoration

Date palms by the entrance from Via Nomentana

Further up Via Nomentana are two of the oldest churches in Rome, the mausoleum of Santa Costanza and Sant'Agnese Fuori le Mura. The church was built in the 6th century over a series of 4th century catacombs. The churches are fascinating and are very peaceful. Most Roman tourists have no idea that these churches exist.

The basilica of Sant'Agnese Fuori le Mura

Plaques commemorating answered prayers

All around the Via Nomentana are interesting neighborhoods. I wouldn't go further north the Nomentana - it gradually gets worse. However, closer to the center as well as heading towards Piazza Bologna one can come across a blend of art nouveau villas, modern buildings, art deco and fascist era rationalistic buildings, embassies and more. You'll see a mix like the mid-century modern Jordanian embassy to the fortress-like Russian embassy. As mentioned, you'll also see a more typical Roman residential area and can stop in local stores, restaurants, supermarkets and the like. My favorite area supermarket is located on Via XXI Aprile, right in front of Mario De Renzi's famed Casa Federici. It's a great way to see what locals buy - great cheeses, local wines, pastries, fresh produce and much more.

A modern apartment building off of Via XXI Aprile

Speaking of Casa Federici, the area has countless examples of rationalistic architecture - much of it in the form of residential mid-rises. A few civic buildings are evident, too. Ridolfi's post office building on Piazza Bologna is a particularly famous example of rationalist architecture. In fact, for the architecture buff, there's much to see - byzantine mosaics, art nouveau curiosities and art deco design.

L'Accademia Della Guardia Di Finanzia - Typical Fascist-Era Rationalist Architecture

The Mid-Century Modern Jordanian Embassy

From what I know, the area has never been run down. However, you do see some signs of improvements taking place here and there. Clearly, you have what took place at Villa Torlonia - a wonderful project given how long the property languished. Across the Nomentana from the villa, you have another park that has gone a wonderful transformation. We found it particularly nice on a hot September afternoon when the heat was just too oppressive.
Across from Villa Torlonia

Also, on streets like Via C. Corvisieri, streetside markets have been cleaned up and moved to other parts of town. Now, you can make the case that these markets added to the character of the neighborhood and to have them removed sanitizes the area. I tend to agree although the area looks much nicer in the afternoon. Once the market closed, the streets were strewn with trash and discarded produce (visit Campo Dei Fiori in the afternoon for a living example of this phenomenon).

Still, I love the area... so much to see and very walkable. If you have the time, the area is definitely worth the cost of a bus ticket.


Pizzeria Guerrin, La Giralda and it's Spanish Cousin

One can't help but find great Italian food and pizza in Buenos Aires. Given that something like 2/3 of Argentines can trace their lineage back to Italy, it's no surprise.

The very first meal we ever had in Buenos Aires came about two hours after landing at Ezeiza. We sat down after 10:00 PM at Pizzeria Guerrin at 1368 Corrientes, a fifteen minute walk from our hotel in the microcentro. What we found was a spacious pizzeria brimming with people, all enjoying their Argentine-style pizza with a bottle of Quilmes or Cristal. It's the kind of place that leaves a lasting impression of Buenos Aires and one that I would recommend as a "must" when visiting BsAs. Head to the top floor and the large dining room for the best spots. It's noisy and crowded but that's part of the experience. The menu is massive so you'll have plenty of traditional options like quattro stagioni or typical Argentine pizzas like fugazzetta.

Just down the road on Corrientes is another "must" - La Giralda. Named after the famed tower in Seville, La Giralda is known partially for its historic pedigree but mostly for its chocolate and churros. While not as breathtaking as the churros found at Madrid's famed San Ginés, the larger version (on the left) found at La Giralda are delicious and sought out by locals and tourists alike. Our waiter got a real kick out of hearing that we had visited La Giralda in Spain, gradually telling all his coworkers and the owner. Anyway, La Giralda is one of those classic places like Cafe Tortoni where visiting will not only provide great food but a glimpse of old world Buenos Aires.

As mentioned, if you're in Madrid, you should definitely check out San Ginés. The famous chocolate and churros shop is located at Pasadizo de San Ginés 5, a side street off of Arenal, not far from Plaza Mayor. It's smack dab in the middle of everything but not always the easiest to find. Once you do make it, you'll find an international and local clientele scrambling for the few small tables to savor the deliciously rich chocolate with their thin churros. I don't think we've ever made it to Madrid without stopping by San Ginés. Here is my wife (below) enjoying a tasty late night meal with my cousins. These delectable delights make a great addition to a night of tapeando.


A Change of Plans

Well well... it looks like it's...

Goodbye to...

...and Hello to...

We made a change of plans. We decided to pass on the exorbitant Euro and head towards a friendly peso.

Here is an older but excellent article on the continued resurgence of Buenos Aires called Buenos Aires in Bloom, from Travel + Leisure.


More BA Hotel Options

Looking for more insight on various hip haunts in Buenos Aires? Here are a few articles to make the decision even harder...

Oh yeah... and how could I forget 248 Finisterra? Most of the reviews I've read are very favorable, despite a "good" review from the New York Times. The hotel is located in Las Canitas. While there's a lot to like about the hotel, I have to wonder if the lively nighttime scene is right for our little one.

I'm not making it easier on myself.


U-Turn to Buenos Aires?

Have I recently mentioned that the Dollar's fall versus the Euro has been giving us heartburn? Oh yeah... that was my last post. Well, it's been giving me so much heartburn that I'm seriously reconsiding our trip to Amsterdam and Rome. So much so that I'm almost certain we're going to make our way back to Buenos Aires.

The Dollar has hung tight against the Argentine Peso - pretty much remaining unchanged during all the recent currency fluctuations. While Argentine has become more expensive as of late, it is still a bargain compared to most European cities. Hotel rates have been on the rise but food, shopping and transportation are still very affordable.

On our last trip, we stayed at the amazing Bobo Hotel, consistently rated the #1 hotel in Buenos Aires on Trip Advisor (rated the "Best Hidden Gem" in South America). That's no surprise - the level of service, the location, the rooms and the entire experience make the Bobo one of my highest recommendations. BUT... while the Bobo is great for a couple, most (if not all) of their rooms tend to fall short for a couple with a child. That would be us. Their largest room, the Argentine Suite (left), unfortunately isn't available for a possible stay... nor are larger rooms like the Minimalist. That rules out the Bobo for any possible stays... for now, anyway.

So, now we're looking at other places. During our first trip to Argentina, we stayed at the NH Latino - a nice busines-class hotel but we would rather not stay in the Microcentro with our son. It's just not a good walking area with a child. So, we've started searching some other options. Unfortunately, Five Cool Rooms is not available - it's completely booked out. We had our eyes set on the separate apartment.

Now I'm shooting out e-mails to a few options to see what might be available and then ultimately decide where we want to stay. Some of the hotels we're considering are:

The Cocker - Located about three blocks south of Plaza Dorrego, this B&B is owned by a British couple. Reviews are terrific and even the largest room will run you only $85/night. The con? No elevator - could potentially be an issue. This one's tempting and it did just make Conde' Nast Hot List for 2007.

Costa Petit Hotel - Speaking of the hot list, this hotel made the list, as well. Something about this hotel seems really appealing and junior suites (the entire hotel has four rooms) are still an affordable $150 USD a night. Located on the edge of Palermo Viejo.

Home Hotel - Located in the Palermo "Hollywood" area of Palermo Viejo, this hotel offers a sleek and modern alternative. The largest suites are quite expensive, particularly the loft which rents for a lofty $300+ USD a night. The hotel has an on-site spa and a nice pool and garden area.

Hotel Design CE - This is a great looking hotel - rooms and suites with a very slick design-oriented theme. They look to have incredible views although I can't quite put my finger on the location... on the south edge of Recoleta? I can't tell... the location may not work for us.

Soho All-Design Suites - Great Palermo Viejo location and all suites. The smallest ones, the Superior Suites, are them most affordable at $150 USD/night yet are still a spacious 410 sq. ft. All have equipped kitchens, wi-fi and room rates include a breakfast buffet. Unfortunately, you can't check availability online without putting in your credit card information.


Stuck in Philly and Thinking of Greece

So here I am in Philly... unfortunately, Continental doesn't have any flights that return to Houston past five o'clock and I couldn't figure out how to connect to another city to head to Houston. Oh well, I'll be here overnight before catching an early one back home. I'm at the Renaissance by the airport - a far cry from other Renaissances like the one in Austin but it will do the trick. Besides, it was actually $70/night cheaper than the Courtyard. Baffling.

My meeting in Allentown went very well so I'm pleased with the outcome. We'll see where it leads . Otherwise, I'm just happy I made it to my hotel after taking the cab ride from hades - my driver apparently had a death wish and little regard for my life. I'll just be happy when I'm home tomorrow.

On a different note, I've decided Santorini is the place to visit in Greece. Since our trip will be short, we'll just focus on staying there rather than hopping from island to island like the original Milos / Santorini trip. Now we're trying to decide on a hotel. Give than the Euro is eating the Dollar's lunch, we're trimming back our budget a bit and have narrowed it down to the following hotels:

Golden Sunset Villas (Oia)
Aris Caves (Oia)
Chelidonia Villas (Oia)
Strogili Houses (Oia)
Afroessa (Imerovigli)
Delfini Studios (Oia)

It's tough to choose. I like Afroessa but wish it was in Oia. That makes me lean a little bit towards Strogili since it has a pool. Nefeli Homes looks like but the reviews aren't as good. I'm also tempted to include two nights at Amoudi Villas since it is right by the water in Amoud Bay - right at the base of the cliffs below Oia.


Threadless in Chicago

Threadless makes the coolest T-shirts... I somehow came across them - I honestly don't remember how - but I'm a big fan of their shirts. I typically order their shirts online (have picked up a design or two before) but if you happen to be in Chicago, they apparently have a retail storefront at 3011 North Broadway Avenue. Now, if you haven't ordered their shirts before, they are all issued in limited amounts - how many of each? Not sure but I do know that whenever I try to get a shirt in medium, I better do it shortly after it is released. Anyway, they'll release a few shirts each week so you can always check back to see what is in stock. Oh, and if you visit before December 16th, be it in person or online, you'll find most of their designs are only $10.00... and yes, that includes reprinted classics like We're Toast and Summer Wind.


Fall Foliage

So, I went to Nashville this past week for a quick trip to present to the executive team for one of my clients. I'd never been to Tennessee so that was one more pin I could add to my travel map. Anyway, despite falling into a baby-induced sleep on the flight, I woke up in time to see all the beautiful fall foliage as we landed in Nashville. What a gorgeous sight. Houston has so many evergreen pines and live oaks that you just don't get a chance to relish the colors of fall. If you want to know where to catch the tail end of fall color around the country, The Weather Channel always posts good foliage maps. Another place is the Foliage Network (not one of the big 3). The same site lists the top 10 places around the country to see fall foliage. Despite Pennsylvania being listed as number 9, I have a feeling I won't see any fall color when I make it to Allentown later this month. Probably too late. I will note that the icing on the cake for this past trip was being able to catch an earlier flight back home - always beautiful!

Houston Restaurant List

I'm going to start maintaining a list of Houston restaurants I like and would recommend via a constantly updated entry. When I think of something I want to add, I'll just bump this to the top. Expect this to start small and grow as we go along...

Downtown (and Nearby)
Azuma Sushi - 909 Texas - Downtown location of outstanding Rice Village area sushi bar. Great design and atmosphere.
Cabo - 419 Travis - Nice big menu - fish tacos always worth ordering. Great balcony seating (if you can find a spot)
Gravitas - 807 Taft - Scott Tycer and Jason Gould's brainchild - tasty food in a loud, frenetic environment.
Perbacco - 700 Milam - Italian-run and very authentic. Great before the theater.
Vincent's -2701 West Dallas - ...and Nino's and Grappino di Nino - all adjacent to each other. Take your pick - all three are excellent.

Galleria Area
Arco D'Oro - 5000 Westheimer - Sardinian cuisine. Grab a spot on the patio.
Berryhill - 1717 Post Oak - Multiple locations. Casual "baja-style" cuisine. Great fish tacos!
Bice - 5175 Westheimer - Elegant Houston-location of Italian-run chain. Pricey. Great for client dinners.
Cafe Lili - 5757 Westheimer - Family-run Lebanese food. Complimentary coffee a nice touch.
Thai Restaurant - 5757 Westheimer - Excellent family-run Thai restaurant with good service.
Uptown Sushi - 1131 Uptown Park - Delicious upscale sushi restaurant. Place to be seen.

Memorial Area
Bistro Provence - 13616 Memorial Drive - Delicious French cuisine. Nice homey interior, excellent patio seating.
Ciro's - 9755 Katy Freeway - Expanded location with a nice outside patio (despite the noise)
Collina's - 12311 Kingsride - One of four locations. Food is decent but a good casual restaurant for families. BYOB. Tasty pizza.

Rice Village Area
Crossaint Brioche - 2435 Rice Blvd - Nice spot for an afternoon cappucino and tarte
Patu Thai
- 2420 Rice Blvd - Tiny Thai restaurant short on space but big on quality.
Prego - 2520 Amherst - Great Italian restaurant. Always buzzing... expect a wait.

Upper Kirby
El Tiempo Cantina - 3130 Richmond - Extremely popular spot with delicious Tex-Mex

Upper Westheimer Area
713 Restaurant.Lounge - 10001 Westheimer - Great sushi on an eclectic menu with reasonable prices.
Fadi's Grill - 8383 Westheimer - Original Fadi's location has outstanding mediterranean food.
La Trattoria - 6500 Westheimer - Italian run restaurant with Northern Italian cuisine.
Rioja - 11920 Westheimer - Very good tapas, nice patio with live music on weekend

Achille Express - 1127 Eldridge - Casual Italian-run eatery. Great pizza margherita.
Marine's Empanadas - 3227 Hillcroft - 47 types of Colombian style empanadas made fresh. Delicious.
Rattan Pan-Asian Bistro - 1396 Eldridge - Nice variety of Asian food - well-designed restaurant, attractive patio.


Saudi Blogs

One of my largest clients is a well-known international organization in Saudi Arabia. Given that I now work with this Saudi firm, I occasionally do a little bit of digging around a very complex but fascinating culture. It looks as if Saudi Arabia is going through some interesting boom times thanks to the sky high prices of oil. However, if you want to get the opinions of two "regular folks" who live in Saudi Arabia, I'm adding two blogs to my page - Saudi Jeans, written by a Saudi youth, and American Bedu, written by a former diplomat married to a Saudi. I hope you find them enlightening.


Three Zurich Hotels (and two bites)

One of our favorite cities in Europe is Zurich... clean, historic and situated along the banks of the Limmat and the picturesque Lake Zurich. I enjoyed my business travel there so much that when we booked our honeymoon trip, Zurich was our first stop.

Personally, I've always felt the altstadt or old town makes a great base. Admittedly, I've never stayed in famed hotels like the Baur Au Lac or the Dolder Grand but I would gladly recommend the three I've frequented...

Sofitel Zurich - A highly regarded hotel that often receives rave reviews for the level of service and its convenient location. While not located in the altstadt, it's a mere five minute walk from the Bahnhofstrasse, about as far from Niederdorfstrasse and just up the block from the Limmat. Some of the 134 rooms can be a bit spare but are all comfortable.

Hotel Altstadt - Just like it's namesake, the Hotel Altstadt is located in the old town, tucked between the Limmat Quai and Oberdorfstrasse. The location is literally in the shadow of the Grossmunster church. Accommodations are more basic but comfortable for a three-star hotel. Rates range from 160 CHF to 230 CHF. A small bar is attached to the hotel.

Bar Hotel Rossli - Somewhere between the Sofitel and the Altstadt - comfort and price-wise - is the Bar Hotel Rossli. Having stayed there on business, we chose the hotel for our honeymoon stop in Zurich. The hotel is about a block away from the Hotel Altstadt on Rossligasse. Rooms are nice and comfortable but, if you have the funds, splurge on the Junior Suite... the room is spacious but the clincher is the private rooftop terrace overlooking Lake Zurich - by far the highlight of staying at the Rossli. Rates start at 270 CHF for a double and 380 for the junior suite.

While I've never stayed there, some other well known hotels are the Hotel zum Storchen (my dad's favorite) and the Hotel Adler. While Zurich is by no means cheap, you'll always get what you paid. The same goes for food. Zurich may not be renowned for its cuisine but the food is generally good and sampling Swiss specialities at restaurants like Zunfthaus zur Zimmerleuten and Haus zum Ruden is always worthwhile. Leaving Zurich without eating zurigschnatzlets (veal and mushrooms in a cream sauce) with rosti would be a crime.


Hampton Court on Display

If you're in Houston, be sure to stop by the Starbucks at the corner of Voss and San Felipe on November 9th to see one of my photos displayed at a small local art show. Titled "Hampton Court Carousel", the photograph is a close-up of the horse depicted at the right. Given my love for travel photography, this is a small opportunity to show off a little bit of my work.

A local map will help you find the Starbucks where the show will be taking place.

Overwhelmed by the Greek Islands

So, someone I know (cough cough) might be doing a little covert research on Greece... because, you know, it never hurts to look around and just see, what's there. Right? Of course...

Now, visiting Greece almost always involves a visit to one of the countless Greek islands. The first obstacle you have to face is... which island do I want to visit. Will it be one covered with whitewashed houses in the Cyclades or will it be one of the Italian influenced Ioninan islands? Perhaps something closer to Turkey in Dodecanese? Yeah... it's not easy to pick.

I have found two sites that offer a great wealth of information when one is tackling such a task. One is Greeka.com, the self-proclaimed "Greek island specialists". It's not a bad moniker - they really offer a ton of information and many great pictures. You can poke around by island chain, by town within an island, by beach... lots and lots of good information. I really like this site. The second has more of a personal touch. It's Matt Barrett's Travel Guide to Greece, written by a man who has traveled or lived in Greece since 1968. Suffice it to say, he has a ton of really useful and detailed information from a traveler's perspective. I always check out his site... I mean, "my friend" who is researching a possible trip checks out his site.

Vroulidia Beach in Chios
Photo by Sabine Koening on www.Spitaka.gr

As I was saying, these two sites will get you on the right track. If you can manage to figure out which island you're going to visit, you'll then have to sort out where to stay. This can also be quite daunting. Of course, you have sites like Trip Advisor that offer plenty of good reviews. Still, an island like Santorini has 200 or so hotels, inns, apartment complexes, etc. that are available for rent. You have to sort through all the reviews and cut through some of the typical bias. You have to have a discerning eye.

Anyway, as I... yes, it's me... dig around, I'm catching a few places of interest. Obviously, there are literally thousands of lodging options but here are a tiny handful that I have found interesting... Keep in mind, I've never been to any of these places so I can't vouch from first-hand experience.

Folegandros - Chora Resort
Kea - Porto Kea Suites Hotel
Milos - Milos Limeri
Milos - Villa Notos
Mykonos - Apsenti Boutique Resort
Mykonos - Vencia Boutique Hotel
Santorini - Anastasis Apartments
Santorini - Aris Caves
Santorini - Golden Sunset Villas
Sifnos - Niriedes Hotel
Sifnos - Sifnos Lighthouse Hotel


A Few Words About Tamarindo

As you know, our primary experience with Costa Rica was in Tamarindo, a small beach town on the Nicoya peninsula. While there, I kept some notes on the town with the express purpose of eventually posting them here. A bit edited but here's the gist of them...

High Tide at Sunset at Tamarindo Beach

Tamarindo offers a great beach location with the secluded and expansive Playa Grande just a brief minute boat ride away... water taxis cost 500 colones or roughly a dollar. Don't believe that it only takes 15 minutes to walk to Las Tortugas once you cross the estuary - that was the estimate I was given at Iguana Surf Shop. It took us about 45 minutes. The water taxi drivers will also offer to take you on an estuary tour for about 2 hours for about $20/head. You can just show up and go whenever you want as there are plenty of water taxis running.

During low tide, the beach in Tamarindo is wide enough for plenty of people to hang out. However, as you can see from the picture above, once high tide hits... the beach tends to disappear as the difference between high tide and low tide is, going from memory, about 8 feet. Pretty drastic. Just take a look at the lava reefs in front of the Diria below and you get the picture.

...and This is Low Tide

The town has an excellent mix of restaurants in all price ranges. Many of them are a welcome retreat for the shady scene on "the circle", particularly at night. The closer you get to the circle, the more likely you are to see prostitutes or be offered drugs. We were asked three times on a Tuesday night if we wanted pot and one time on a Wednesday night for a harder option.

"Hello my friend... how are you... want to buy some weed?"
- Drug dealer puttering by on his dinky motorcycle

Honestly, you can walk around without being hassled - small crowds of locals sometimes are unnerving but no one really messed with us. At the same time, sometimes you feel like you're being watched. Some roads are pretty dark - like the road from the main part of town that then leads to the Kahiki. No streetlights, really.

Souvenir shops are more than plentiful, some of which have unique items worth buying while the rest are filled with your typical tourist fare. A couple of galliers (one next to Kahiki and the other next to Nibbana) offered nicer items. The shops at El Diria are more boutique-like although prices are definitely higher. Several surf shops are also in town - High Tide, Iguana and the like - so you won't have any problem locating board rentals, ding repair or a surf school. A handful of small supermarkets (more like convenience stores stuffed to the gills) are located throughout town. Since construction is taking place all over town, new shops, markets and restaurants are sure to pop. Many of the owners are expats - Americans, French, Swiss, Argentines and Italians.

Browsing Some Great Hardwood Items

The town is small enough to walk pretty much everywhere and, given enough time, you can take a comfortable walk to Playa Langosta. Many people opt to rent cars to visit nearby beaches or head to/from the airport. I have no idea where people park, though. If you do walk, expect to get plenty of dust all over you as each passing vehicle leaves a cloud in its wake. I'd say maybe 10% of the roads in town are paved -the rest are rocky. They must me a muddy mess during the rainy season. Ladies would do well to leave their heels at the hotel.

It's Tico Time at the Diria

When it comes to currency, you can probably do just fine without colones as everyone accepts dollars. In fact, if you're a gringo, they'll assume you're paying with dollars. You'll see USD prices all over the place. ATMs are located throughout town with two right by El Diria and one just west of High Tide Surf Shop. Keep in mind that prices are inflated in Tamarindo.

Next time... more information on various tours from Tamarindo.


Reward Seats to Greece

Tickets to Greece on Continental can run upwards of $2,500.00 or more per person. So, pssst... here's an inside tip. Want to go to Greece next year on miles? There are some standard reward seats floating around in September... (lots of them!!!) Save yourself some money and use your OnePass miles on a typically absurdly priced ticket.


Hampton Court with London Walks

Our December 2006 trip to London was relatively brief... enough to get out of town for a memorable New Year's Eve but not too long to get burned out. Given that we only had so much time to work with, we thought it might be worthwhile to take a little guided tour of something while in the London area. Now, mind you, we're not "guided tour" types. We're pretty much freespirits who, while relatively structured in our travels, do it all on our own.

So, we thought... what the heck... let's see how we can find a tour that will shed a little more light on the sites we see. After doing some research, London Walks came highly recommended. As mentioned on their own web page, Fodor's claims, "London Walks was the first and is the best of the walking tour firms." Wow... that's some endorsement... and we're sure that in many ways, it's probably true. I just don't know how true it was for us. Let me explain...

I printed out a few tour options before we left for London but we didnt' decide on what tour to take until we arrived. We opted for a tour of Hampton Court - the royal palace of Cardinal Wolsey and, eventually, King Henry VIII. We met Hillary, our guide, at Waterloo Station. What we envisioned to be a tour of ten, maybe twelve people turned into a tour of over forty people.

I don't have to tell you how well that worked for us... forty people? This isn't going to be very personalized, we thought. Indeed, it wasn't. Not only did we find that everything took longer (getting tickets, going into the palace), it was just hard to hear since we were in a crowd. Another big drawback was the guide. Yes, she was quite nice but her proper English voice lacked in the volume department. Not only that, her pace was dreeeeadfully slow. Not glacial... but certainly not brisk enough to keep our attention.

This commentary is scintillating!

In fact, the pace and the process was so hard for us to handle that, well, we left the tour. Granted, we ate the 15 pounds or so (I think) that it cost each one of us but we just didn't want to waste our time. We wandered to the Tudor kitchens and enjoyed the rest of the grounds on our own... and you know, we had more fun.

BUT... that was our experience. It could be that we just picked a busy tour or just had a guide that, well, we normally wouldn't pick. You'll have to find out on your own but, for us, it's either a "one on two" guide or we're on our own. Sooner or later, I'll post an entry on Hampton Court. London Walks aside, we highly recommend visiting. It is a splendid palace.


Grabbing a bite in... Omaha!?

So let's switch gears from Rome, the Eternal City to... Omaha!? Well, I have to throw a curveball every once-in-a-while. I'll admit, I haven't been to Omaha in forever but you may need to... you may have to go on business to visit a company like FirstData or swing by to say hello to relatives or the Cornhuskers. Whatever the case, here is a random tip...

Head to The Old Market district in Omaha and grab a bite at M's Pub - a nice "upscale" pub menu with a very broad wine list and upbeat atmosphere. The place has been open since 1973 - they must be doing something right. I liked it when I visited and it's smack dab in the middle of a very enjoyable entertainment district.


Piazza Della Repubblica in Rome

In many respects, you could say that Piazza Dell Repubblica is stunning and yet both blessed and hindered by it's location. It is a glamorous piazza that sits at the crossroad of what many would term a seedy neighborhood to the southeast and the epitome of the dolce vita to the northwest.

From ItalyGuides.it

The design of Piazza Della Repubblica, or Piazza Esedra, and the surrounding buildings is indeed stunning. I've always been attracted by the graceful curves of the buildings that hug the circular piazza. The fountain has a particular glow at night. Surrounding the piazza are some of Rome's finest five star hotels - the luxurious Grand Hotel (Rome's first luxury hotel), the new but stunning Hotel Exedra.

On the opposite side from the Exedra stands the stunning church, Santa Maria Degli Angeli e dei Martiri. The basilica is actually an adaptation of the remains of the Baths of Diocletian - a work undertaken under the guidance of Michelangelo. The basilica's official page lists pertinent visitor information, event listings and much more. Granted, it does help to read Italian.

Running southwest from the piazza is Via Nazionale... a long and regal boulevard commissioned in the middle of the 19th century to connect Piazza Venezia to Piazza Della Repubblica. The road is lined with a broad mix of shops, from high end shops like Furla, Max Mara, Frette and Intimissimi to more typical Italian stores. You can walk from one end to the other (either uphill or downhill) in a few hours. The shops are reachable from the Piazza Della Repubblica stop or via the buses that run frequently along via Nazionale. I traditionally haven't eaten in the area although the scores of side streets off of Via Nazionale are full of restaurants, trattorie and pizzerie. I'll have a better idea of restaurant recommendations after our next trip to Italy as we'll be staying in one of the aforementioned hotels.

Granted, heading southeast you then have the zone around the main train station in Rome, Termini. Many people are hypnotized by the scores of hotels and reasonable rates near the station. Don't be fooled... I wouldn't stay there. It's not the best area in town and no respectable Roman would recommend it... so, just keep that in mind. Of course, travel to the northwest and you have Via Veneto and a completely different ambiance. Regardless, Piazza Della Repubblica and the neighboring area is worth visiting on a trip to Rome.


Quaint Amsterdam Lodgings

I start planning for trips early... very early. For example, we'll be traveling in a few months to Amsterdam and Rome. I've got Rome all taken care of thanks to a cousin of mine. For Amsterdam, our previous hotel wouldn't do - the rooms simply wouldn't work with an infant (mommy and daddy need a little space, of course). So, I started digging... and digging... and digging.

There are lots of great places in Amsterdam with most prices over 100 Euros... at least. Expect 150-200 Euros for a nice 3 star hotel. Some of the ones I came across that looked enticing (and the reviews were quite good) were the Seven Bridges Hotel and the Canal House - both located on the canal ring. Another was Sunhead of 1617, a little two-room B&B on the Herengracht. This one was tempting. Sunhead also offers apartment rentals.

An Apartment at the Prinsenhuis

We ended up opting for the Prinsenhuis Design Apartments - a little pricey, to be sure but the value they offered made them worthwhile. Each apartment has separate living and sleeping areas and fully equipped kitchens. They have balconies and canal views and are impeccably decorated in a chic modern look. The clincher is their reputed service - really a notch above the rest. Consider these benefits of staying there:

Upon arrival, your refrigerator and pantry will contain complimentary soft drinks, beer, milk, orange juice, fruit jams, butter, cheese, fresh bread, corn flakes, coffee, cocao, tea and bottle of Spanish Rosado wine We will be happy to stock your refrigerator or pantry with any other favorite food and drink items before you arrive. Just send us an email with your requests at least one morning prior to the day of your arrival.

How can you pass that up? We'll know more when we actually stay there but, for now, you might want to look into the Prinsenhuis the next time you head to Amsterdam.


Tips on Traveling with a Little One

I need to sit down and read through all these but it looks like there is a ton of advice on this post regarding traveling with a teeny one

I know I know... (and my beloved BA)

Yes, it's true... my posts have kind of stalled out lately. Our little traveler showed up a bit early so we're dealing with the adjustment phase. I'll pick back up soon, particularly since we'll be planning a trip to Italy in the spring. In the meantime, here are a handful of my favorite "detail" pictures from a May 2006 trip to Buenos Aires (Argentina... how I miss you so!)


Where I Would Stay in Downtown Houston

Let's say you're coming to Houston for business, for pleasure or for, well, whatever reason. There are plenty of wonderful hotels in town. Some are well-known chain hotels like the Four Seasons. Others are small and intimate luxury hotels like La Colombe D'Or. If you were to ask me where to stay in downtown Houston, I would probably point you to one of four hotels.

Click for a Larger Shot of Hotel and Restaurant Locations

Hotel Icon - This has been one of the city's hottest hotels since it opened before the 2004 Super Bowl. Having stayed there and seen several of the different rooms, I can attest that the rooms are beautifully appointed, the bathrooms are nice and spacious and the entire hotel has a great sense of style.

Alden Hotel - Formerly the Sam Houston, the Alden Hotel is known as one of the hippest hotels in town. Particularly worthwhile are the hotel's restaurant, 17 and the always popular bar, A+.

Lancaster Hotel - As the web site says, the Lancaster is Houston's original small luxury hotel. It consistently gets great reviews from those who stay there and is perfectly situated in the middle of Houston's theater district.

Magnolia Hotel - Just a few short years ago, The Post Dispatch building was reborn as the Magnolia Hotel, one of four Magnolia hotels located across the country. This is a great historic hotel located a short walk from Main Street and Minute Maid Park.

Now, if you're going to stay downtown, you may as well eat downtown. Without going into detail, here are four options you can try over a long weekend in Houston.
Bossa has always worked well for us as a pre-theater restaurant. Mia Bella is an Italian restaurant with great atmosphere... right on Main Street. Azuma has excellent sushi with a great menu. And the Longhorn Cafe' is a good place for a casual meal, right around the corner from the Lancaster.


So You're Takin' the Baby...

So you're going to take your baby on a trip. I applaud you... we plan to do the same. Of course, it's always helpful to get insight from other people who have done it before. I spotted an entry called Travel Tips and Other Things Learned in Hawaii on a Chron.com blog. Good stuff...

Protesting for Passengers

I can understand people's frustration when stuck on a plane for hours during a flight delay. Earlier this year, we sat on the tarmac for 3 hours in Newark - my wife was pregnant and not feeling very comfortable. However, I'm not sure what this is going to accomplish. I can't see Congressment stopping by this tent and, if anything, it reminds me of the squatter-style tents I would see protesting in Argentina. For the most part, they sit there and accomplish nothing. I would suggest some other form of lobbying for legislation but can't see this doing much. But that's just me...


A Mediterranean Paradise

It might be fair to say that you've never heard of the island of Lampedusa. Located about an 8 hour ferry ride south of Sicily, Lampedusa is technically the southernmost point in Italy. The island is southwest of Malta and is actually closer to Tunisia than the Italian mainland. Still Lampedusa is supposed to be a wonderful island - surrounded by stunning crystalline waters, gorgeous beaches and made up of a rugged landscape.

One of my uncles has a house in Lampedusa - admittedly, I've never been there. I've always thought of it as his secret getaway that he uses in the summertime. One of these days, we'll have to visit. In the meantime, here is a nine minute video I found on YouTube that provides a glimpse into life and culture on this gorgeous island.

Using One Leg of a Roundtrip Ticket

So, I wasn't aware of this until I spotted this today on Hornfans.com... thought you might find it useful.

If for whatever reason you're not going to take the outbound part of a round-trip ticket, CALL THE AIRLINE AND LET THEM KNOW YOU'RE COMING BACK!!!

I had originally booked a round-trip ticket to see my fiancee. My company asked me to go to Boston last minute for training, and I had them book a one-way ticket to Boston, and then to my fiancee's city. I figured I'd use the return part of my R-T ticket to get home.

NO GO!!!

I just got back from the airport, where they told me since I didn't take the outbound flight on my R-T trip, they cancelled it and sold my seat. They rebooked a flight and charged me an extra $300 to go home tomorrow. All this could've been avoided if I had called them to tell them, but who the hell knows these rules until it happens?


Three Tips: Breckenridge, CO

Three Tips
Breckenridge, Colorado

1. Eat and drink at the Breckenridge Brewery. Mmmm, oatmeal stout. For the nicest meal in town, go to the Hearthstone Restaurant.

2. Stay as close to the mountain as you can, but try and stay on the peak 9 side, as most weekenders and locals arrive at peak 8, which gets ridiculously crowded.

From MizzouSnives on Horn Fans
3. Enjoy downtown in the evening. It's a great ski town to walk around. Also, grab a crepe from the crepe stand. They are scrumptious and worth the wait if the line is long.


Dropping Cash in London Town

Yum... the food in London is delish!? Yet, that great food keeps getting more and more expensive. The exchange rate in London is a killer and you'll definitely notice the hit when you go out for a bite. I've mentioned in a previous entry that there are ways to get around this so you don't break the bank when visiting London.

Now, if money is not an object, one great place to eat delicious Indian food in London is La Porte Des Indes. We ate a scrumptious New Year's Eve meal at La Porte Des Indes on our past holiday trip to London (above). The total bill was pricey... yes, but the prix fixe menu stuffed us to the gills. Prix fixe menus are not limited to holidays as a Menu Maison or a Royal Vegetarian Menu is available regularly from 32 to 38 pounds per person plus 12,5% VAT.

The opulent restaurant is located around the corner from Hyde Park and the U.S. embassy. Reservations are highly recommended. For those who can't visit the restaurant, a cookbook of the same name with the restaurant's French-influenced meals is available online.


Stay ZaZa in Houston

It can never hurt to play tourist in your own backyard... this past weekend, we did just that, staying at Hotel ZaZa in the museum district.

We had visited the ZaZa before... not as hotel guests but as guests for the Tribeza Magazine launch party. Our first impression was immediate... this isn't your grandmother's Warwick Hotel, anymore. The ZaZa was unveiled as an elegant, sultry and somewhat naughty hotel with a dark but alluring side. From the glamorous lobby to the whimsical yet head-scratching water display behind the elevators, the ZaZa is never short on surprises.

Our Balcony Room

Our room was a balcony room on the 3rd floor - nice and spacious with great decor, a fantastic wall-mounted LCD TV and a balcony overlooking... well, not much other than parking garages and the light rail line. See if you can swing a view overlooking the museums and the Mecom Fountains. If anything, at least the sliding patio doors kept most of the noise out of the room.

Turndown with a twist

Some nice touches in the room - little pillows with whimsical sayings, a humorous turndown service, Bulgari toiletries and, since it was our anniversary, a complimentary bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne. Nice indeed. If you're so inclined, ordering breakfast in bed is actually reasonable - more reasonable than our recent stay at the Hyatt Regency on Town Lake in Austin... and while I like the Hyatt, I'd pick the ZaZa anyday. Service was very prompt and attentive although we stayed on a Sunday night -a slow night. Not sure what it would be like during a busy night. From what we've seen at parties, they would be scrambling to keep up.

The pool is a great spot to blow an afternoon

Other amenities in the hotel - be sure to spend some time at the pool... a great area with plenty of nice, big loungers and a little over half-a-dozen private cabanas that overlook the pool area and the Meacom Fountains. Adjacent to the pool is a well-equipped fitness center with about a dozen machines, very nice treadmills and ellipticals, some freeweights, etc. By the entrance to the pool area is a small cafe' and ZaSpa... we cut through the Spa but did not use any services.

ZaZa, as seen from Hermann Park

Now... the area. One of the best reasons to stay at a hotel like ZaZa is the surrounding area... more museums than you can handle in one weekend and Hermann Park. We really enjoyed going out to Hermann Park and taking a nice, leisurely stroll around the reflecting pond. Very peaceful. For dinner, we drive five minutes to the west on Bissonnet to the always charming Raven Grill. Today's lunch was at Niko Niko's... good but not quite up to the hype. We tried to hit Dolce Vita but, alas, Monday was the wrong day (same with the museums, of course).

A stroll in Hermann Park

Anyway, you can't go wrong at ZaZa - a sultry hotel for a glamorous little weekend getaway tucked one of cultural centers of Houston.