Do I see Canada in the Distance?

It's a little hazy right now but it looks like a summertime week-long trip to Canada might slowly be taking shape. We'll probably be staying in a small town near the St. Lawrence River and will be within easy driving distance to Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa. From what I know, all three cities are completely different - each has its own personality. If you were to rate the three cities (in terms of which ones to visit), how you would you rate them? More importantly, if you had 1-2 days in a city, what would you do/visit?

I currently have Montreal at the top of my list. The old town of Montreal looks amazing and the food sounds tremendous. Besides, we don't have any trips scheduled to France so, for the time being, this will have to do.

Any tips?

And, oui, je parlez un petit peu de Francois.


Airborne - Glorified Candy

Lately, it seems like Airborne is showing up on more store shelves than ever before. A new series of commercials just launched, surely increasing brand awareness. Some people swear by it as a miracle "medicine" to take when traveling. BUT... many are starting to wonder whether it is effective at all or the "cold remedy" that the company once claimed it was. Even the packaging states,

"not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease."
So... does it work? What is your experience?


What's on Your List?

If you look in our kitchen, we have a list on our fridge known as "the list"... destinations that we want to visit in our lifetime. A few short months ago, we were able to check Costa Rica off the list. We had planned to check off the Greek Islands in August but our baby news changed those plans. Of course, by changing those plans, we were able to add an earlier trip in the year - our
upcoming visit to the Canary Islands... technically not on the list but, hey, it's a new destination that looks pretty amazing.

So, do you have a list? What are some of the places you want to visit or things you want to do before it's your time to go? My wife and I occasionally talk of different places and sometimes have varying opinions but some of the ones we've discussed include:

Table Mountain in Cape Town

Visiting Africa - Now, this one is pretty broad and it does include some different options. To begin with, both of us want to check out a wild game safari in Africa. We've also been talking quite a bit about visiting South Africa and Cape Town. Anyone we know who has been to Cape Town has loved it - so many options... surfing, visiting wineries, Table Mountain, you name it. Oh, and then there's the trip I want to take to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. That's definitely on my personal list. So is...

Nimble Feet in Pamplona

Running with the Bulls in Pamplona - With a baby on the way, this one may be slowly slipping further down the list. I have a friend who did it and returned free of scars. I figure if I do it sober, I'll be two steps ahead of the other drunks.

The Lights of Tokyo

Getting Bewildered in Tokyo - The more I read about Japan and the culture, the more I want to visit. I really want to experience the madness of Tokyo... the food, the lights, the culture, pachinko halls, Engrish... all of it. I've also heard Kyoto is a beautiful city.

Gourmand's Delight in Morocco

Experiencing Morocco - There's a certain mystery and exotic side to Morocco that just looks fascinating to me. I would love to wander through the soukhs, take in some amazing cuisine (probably not at the soukhs, though), explore old walled cities and so much more.

Those are the ones off the top of my head. What is on your list?


Mouthwatering Travel Packages

One of the things I love to do when traveling is to catch up the latest issues of several of my favorite magazines. Nearly each time I fly, I pick up a copy of magazines such as Frommer's Budget Travel, Men's Fitness, Outside, Men's Journal or a number of other publications. I get a chance to catch up some new destinations, pick up some ideas for taking care of myself or simply find something entertaining to pass the time on a long (or short) flight.

As mentioned, Frommer's Budget Travel is one of the first magazines I pick up. Unlike magazines like Conde' Nast Traveler (which I subscribe to) or Travel & Leisure, the magazine offers up great ideas for travelers who don't always want to drop $400 a night on a room. However, the part I absolutely flock to each and every issues is the magazine's monthly 40 Best section. Each issue, 40 great packages and travel offers are listed for the coming months for destinations in the U.S. and across the globe. It was thanks to the 40 Best section that in 2005 I first realized, while on a flight back from New York City, that Buenos Aires was more affordable than I had ever imagined.

The May issue has some mouthwatering offers including the "Sumptuous South Africa" tour for $1,999 a person (including airfare from DC or New York) that includes stays at both 3-star and 5-star properties. If you're looking for a unique adventure in an exotic location, here's this month's "pick of the litter"...

Seven Days in Mongolia - $2,199 - Every July, Mongolia celebrates Nadaam, a three-day festival devoted to the "three manly sports" - wrestling, archery and horse racing - which have hardly changed since the time of Genghis Khan. You can ride horses and watch the competitions on a seven-day trip from Escapes Unlimited that covers Cathay Pacific flights from L.A. or San Francisco to Beijing (via Hong Kong), an onward Miat Mongolian Airlines flight to Ulaanbaatar, all local transportation, most meals, guided sightseeing, two nights hotel in Ulaanbaatar, and four nights in Nomadic ger tents. Highlights include a visit to the Bogd Khan Palace Museum in Ulaanbaatar; a camel ride in the Elsen Tasarkhai sand dunes; a tour of Karakorum, the ancient capital of Genghis Khan; and a chance to see wild Asian horses at Hustai National Park. WHEN: Wednesday departures May 1-31, Sept 1-30 ($2,199); June 1-Aug 31 ($2,599). OTHER GATEWAYS: Seattle, Spokane (add $50); New York (add $150); Boston, D.C., Miami (add $250). Escapes Ulimited, 800.243.7227, escapesltd.com.

Be sure to read the "What You Need to Know to Use This Section" sidebar in the magazine. Travel companies have varying deposit policies. One company that I researched required upfront payment via money order or wire transfer (a no-no with me) while others may simply required standard deposits or credit card payments. Tour operators range from airline-specific ones like Visit Southern Africa (visitonsaa.com) or package providers like The Vacation Travel Mart (vacmart.com). If you don't like the terms, do your own digging and you may find that you can put together a similar package for about the same price. Of course, this takes effort. For us, that's not a problem but some travelers opt to have everything pre-packaged for them. It's all a matter of preference.


Humorous Roman Signs

The next time you visit the Campidoglio in Rome and decide to wander over to the old Jewish ghetto, you might do well to keep your hands off of any plants you see along the way.

It's not too hard to find wry or humorous signs and sayings scattered across Rome. One one hand the reality is that graffiti is, sadly, pretty much ubiquitous. Then there are signs like this one on the left, pasted by a frustrated homeowner struggling to content with those who just won't keep their grubby mitts off their prized cactus (note the lovely "cactus-approved" Christmas decorations). Apparently someone kept taking cuttings from this cactus without the owner's permission. In response, the owner posted...

"Chi taglia queste piante devono sanguinare come loro"

Simply put, "Whoever cuts these plants needs to bleed like they do"


Less threatening but funnier than the first is this sign...

"Non e' un cesso per cani, zozzoni"

Loosely translated... "this isn't a bathroom for dogs, pigs!"

Keep your eyes peeled walking around Rome - if you don't read Italian, write down the sign and see if someone can translate it for you. You never know what you'll find...

"Ho deciso di mettermi a dieta!! ...ma ho person solo tanto tempo!!"

"I dediced to go on a diet!! ... but I only lost a lot of time!!"


Back from Charlotte

Back from Charlotte - it's 10:15 and, since I got up at 4:40 this morning, I'm going to keep this real brief...

  • The area around Charlotte looked beautiful from the plane - very green and surrounded by plenty of beautiful lakes.
  • Signage in and out of the airport is a bit sketchy and in some places is covered by heavy foliage or just not well marked at all.
  • Wow... nice new highways in Charlotte. Now, maybe I hit it at the right time of day that there wasn't traffic as my clients mentioned that traffic can be terrible. Still, getting around town seemed easy enough.
  • Random observation but the parking garages at the airport are beautifully designed - very cool modern look. Landscaping around the airport is really pleasing, too (hey... aesthetics count for something on business travel)
  • Since Continental doesn't have a President's Club, I had to find a Wi-Fi option. If you have a T-Mobile Wi-Fi account, you can "squat" outside one of the Star Alliance Clubs and log in. I tried using the "USAir Free Wi-Fi" at the business center but it didn't seem to work.
  • I have to say that the main departures area in-between the concourses is really well done. Nice and open with all kinds of shops and restaurants. Very nice.

Day trip to Charlotte

You can tell that summer in Houston is just around the corner. No, it's not the profuse green foliage that has overtaken the city or the steadily rising heat and humidity... it's the air conditioning! With less "padding" than I used to have, I'm now more sensitive than ever to the widespread use of Artic temperatures in any controlled climate. This was evident last week during a training class at our office (it was 66 degrees with a slightly southerly breeze in my office) and this morning on my way to the airport. From the towncar to the terminal and, surely, in the plane, air conditioners are cranking away at temperatures worthy of summertime in Dubai or Dhahran. Such is life in Houston - if you live in a subtropical climate, you have to accept that most places will go overboard with overwhelming amounts of air conditioning.

If you're coming to Houston from outside of the state, you can prepare yourself for the summertime heat but I say prepare yourself for the summertime A/C. Expect to walk into offices, Starbucks and Pottery Barn and feel the cool penetrate your cool summer clothes. Get ready for your arms to cramp up as you walk around with your arms crossed, trying to make use of a little bit of body heat. If you see anyone walking around with a sweater draped over their shoulders, you can reasonably suspect them to be European as they try to deal with the extreme differences in A/C usage between the continents. Granted, you have Italy or France with spare use of air conditioning (loose term, at that) and then you have Houston with compartmentalized arctic fronts. You can imagine they're just trying to cope.

It's now 6:04 AM in the Continental President's Club in Terminal B at Intercontinental Airport. When I got here about 15 minutes ago, the few travelers who had arrived early looked like extras from Night of the Living Dead. There are signs of life as the coffee flows freely. I'm heading to Charlotte today for a quick day trip. I haven't been to North Carolina since the mid-80s when my grandparent's lived in Hendersonville, a hilly town west of Asheville. It's not that I'll get to see anything today save for a passing view of downtown, a couple of interstates and two major corporations. Maybe I'll catch a glimpse of a reason to make it back to Charlotte for a long day trip.

Happy travels!


Great Deals to Tahiti!

If only we were Norwegian and had 5-6 weeks of vacation to burn. Air Tahiti Nui is running fares as low as $379 one-way from LAX to Tahiti. Check out their fare sale on their web page.


Snoozing on the Concourse

When we planned our "currently postponed" trip to Greece, we were anticipating sleeping in the Athens airport on our last night in Greece as our flight was going to leave the next morning at 4:50 AM. We've dealt with delays before - those aren't really new to us so killing time in airports is old hat. Yet, we had never slept in an airport.

Well, it's good to know that in this day and age, you can find a page dedicated to, you got it, sleeping in airports. Some people do so simply because they have no choice while others do so because they're tightwads. Yeah... really.

So, The Budget Traveler's Guide to Sleeping in Airports is actually a really interesting page. It confirmed a couple of things for me.

a) Athens would have been a good airport to crash for one night
b) Charles De Gaulle in Paris is universally considered a sty, as we experienced during a five hour delay on the way to Zurich.

Based on reader submissions, the page lists the "favourite 10" and "Airports you would rather pay to avoid flying through/from".

The top?

  1. Singapore (Heard it's awesome)
  2. Hong Kong
  3. Helsinki
  4. Seoul Incheon
  5. Oslo
  6. Kuala Lumpur
  7. Amsterdam
  8. Athens
  9. Auckland
  10. Vancouver
The worst offenders?

  1. Moscow
  2. Quebec City
  3. Paris Beauvais
  4. Paris CDG (big shocker!)
  5. Manila
  6. Los Angeles
  7. Delhi
  8. JFK
  9. Lviv (!?)
  10. Chicago O'Hare

Obviously posed photo during a 5 hour delay
on the way to Palm Springs in 2004

This entry sounds like someone fresh from the airport...

PARIS (Contributed by ?)
12/2006 (Terminal 2 - Main Lobby / Check-in counters / Boarding Gates / In Transit) - "I got a 12 hour layover in CDG and it is one of the worst airport i have been. Water is cold the restroom stinks the staff are rude try to speak with them and they will just give you a blank stare and the freakin bars are so expensive and they will shoo you away if you buy a cold sandwhich from other cafe. With europeans like a steam train smoking like hell if you want to have a lung cancer stay in this airport. There is also this annoying announcement every waking time. Really noisy and mind you transferring from other terminal holy cow they herd you like bulls ready to be turned into corned beef imagine thousand of passengers are diverted to this small screening area. To sum it all it sucks." Added 01 April 2007

Moscow sounds lovely, as well...

MOSCOW (Sheremetyevo) (Contributed by Gibby)
August 13, 2006 (Terminal 2 - ML) - "This actually is my wife's story. She is an ethnic Russian who was on her way from Canada back to Kyrgyzstan for a visit with family. She arrived safely in KGZ but ended up dropping $70 in Sheremetyevo 2 in a ten hour span. $5 for bottled water. $15 for booze. $40 at a second floor restaurant in which she selected the cheapest fare, and ten dollars on a bribe. After sitting on the ground for several hours she managed to grab a bench and slept there until awoken by someone trying to get into the knapsack she was using as a pillow. She moved from her bench after a woman nearby vomited. Several hours later my wife passed the spot and the vomit had not been cleaned. Being Russian she was able to fend for herself in this toxic environment but even she found the place awful. On her way back from KGZ she is taking sandwiches, beer, toilet paper, and water. " Added 28 August 06


A Taste of Luxury at the Boca Resort

When it comes to vacation planning, most guys I know really don't focus on spa facilities. For the most part, when looking at a hotel's web page, I might look at the rooms, restaurants or activities. Spa? Well... just not on the top of my list.

It was no different when we schedule a 2006 July 4th weekend vacation to Boca Raton, FL. With low season in full swing (even with the July 4th holiday), we found some good deals at the Boca Raton Resort and Club. Run by LXR Resorts, one of our company's clients, the resort truly offers a full-service experience that appeals to most tastes and budgets.

Before we talk about the Spa, let's talk about the resort. First off, you can choose several levels of rooms. West of the Intercoastal Waterway are the Yacht Club, the Tower, the Cloister, the Boca Bungalows and the Boca Beach Club. The only beach-side option is the Beach Club, where we stayed. We had an ocean view room with a great view of the sea.

The Cloister is in the oldest and most classical section of the resort. The architecture of the main buildings is stunning but, from what I've heard, the rooms are not as nice. I know someone who stayed in the tower and really liked his room. To me, the choice is simple - on the beach or off the beach. We wanted to be next to the beach and the rates were pretty reasonable.

For dining, there were several options on the resort. Lucca has excellent Italian food and the scallops are highly recommended (they were recommended to me so I'm passing it on...). Bar Luna is a nice place for an evening drink. Cathedral has stunning vaulted ceilings and great windowside seating but the breakfast buffet is a bit overpriced, especially if you get there late and get somewhat "pushed out". I would not recommend Cappy's or Cabana at the Beach Club - they'll work in a pinch but otherwise, you can do better. No matter what you choose, prices will be high - just expect that to be the case.

Breakfast at The Cloister

The beach by the resort is nice and wide - crushed shells and coral and fun for kids who like to rummage for shells. You can also rent jetskis for half-an-hour and hour via a beach side shack. Two pools are located right by the beach - one is more adult-oriented than the other. Both are surrounded by pool side cabanas but the prices are not worth it. The clientele, while we were there, were mostly from the northeast but you'll find that to be the case in south Florida - both tourists and residents. There is a bit of a vibe with an attitude - so much so that a waiter in town thanked us for thanking him. He said he was used to being ordered around.

So... the spa. My wife really wanted to attend a spa while we were in town and, rather than looking at options off the resort. we opted for Spa Palazzo. Signature treatments and Spa treatments are pretty expensive but probably comparable to other high end spas. There is a reason to overpay, though. If you purchase a spa treatment - and it can be something as simple as a 25 minute back, neck and shoulder massage for $75.00 (!) - you have access to spa facilities for the day. That includes very nice locker rooms and lounge areas, separate food options and an amazing pool area. To me, it was worth it just to enjoy their luxurious pool area. The atmosphere is drastically different than the "common" pools. We felt it was the best part of our stay at the resort.

The pool area at Spa Palazzo

Our last shot in Boca... you had to pry us from the pool.


Recognizing Brisbane

My brother is in Brisbane this week... I've never been down under though it's on "the list". Anyway, in honor of his visit, I added a blog on the right called I Love Brisbane. Looks like a cool city... very nice and modern.

If you plan on visiting, here is a city map I spotted that shows some hotel locations in the downtown area. Maybe I'll have more to post once my bro gets back.


Flying with Your Baby

"Hello. Perhaps a glass of wine will dull the senses while your baby cries..."

OK... no, that's not recommended... BUT... flight attendants do have some good tips on how to make a flight with your baby smoother.

A British flight attendant offers ten tips when traveling with kids.

One of the best tips I saw was...

"5. Ear pressure - If your baby is on a bottle or breastfeeding, give them the bottle or the breast for take-off & landing. It's the best things for their ears and they will also be relaxed. If your child is big, then carry cotton or ask for earplugs as soon as you board the aircraft. Make use of them for take-off then save them for landing as the crew may not have any fresh ones left by then. This helps the kids tremendously if they don't know how to pop their ears."

The article was on the Flying with Kids webpage. I spotted other sections on Travel Tips, Travel Health, Travel Planning and Q&A.

Here's another good tip from the Travel Planning section:

"Where to sit depends on the age of your children and whether you are flying with a partner.

If you are flying with a partner, consider booking seats apart from one another so that one can get real rest while the other attends the children for a while. This way, neither of you will get too exhausted on a long-haul flight.

If you're travelling with an infant less than 10kg in weight, your airline may provide a sky cot or bassinette for you. This will mean you are seated in bulkhead seats at the front of a section of the plane. Some airlines provide bassinettes on a first-come, first-served basis at check-in; others give priority to the smallest infants; others don't provide them at all.

If you are traveling with an infant and a toddler, having the bassinette and bulkhead seats is a good option. You have more room for your stuff and the toddler is able to curl up on his/her own seat. But, if your child is not a curler or is older, note that the armrests that divide the seats do not raise on the bulkhead seats. This means that you can't cuddle your child very easily and they certainly can't lie with their head on your lap. In this case, consider seats elsewhere and hold the baby on your lap."


Anatomy of a Road Trip

College football fans are very familiar with the 2005 football season - that year Texas, the heavy underdog in the BCS National Championship game, upset USC, ESPN's sweetheart and "the greatest football team ever". Many forget that the road to the 2006 Rose Bowl began in 2004 and, oddly enough, also passed through Pasadena. It was that year that the Vince Young-led Longhorns rolled into the Rose Bowl and battled Michigan in a hard-fought victory.

The 2005 Rose Bowl was a truly special match-up. The game would finally pit Texas and Michigan, two storied football programs that had never played against each other. It also marked the first time that Texas would visit "The Granddaddy of them all". That's what I kept telling my wife... "We have to go. It's the granddaddy of them all. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!" Never mind that we went back the next year... that's not important right now.

Anyway, we managed to get tickets through The Longhorn Foundation but found that airfares were going through the roof. It was at that point that I hatched the brilliant idea to drive to Pasadena from Houston.

Look at a map.

That's roughly 1,500 miles and some change. Half of the trip is in Texas and as anyone who has driven through west Texas can tell you - it's not that interesting. Don't get me wrong - it's actually kind of cool (not as bad as I expected) but it's not like you're driving for the Pacific Coast Highway for 700+ miles.

Anyway, my wife was a trooper and agreed to make the long drive in my Jeep Grand Cherokee - an extremely noisy Jeep Grand Cherokee, at that. I would do most of the driving and she would be my copilot providing "emotional support." The jeep was loaded with everything we needed - a car-powered cooler with snacks, coffee, water, etc.; maps with details of all the ExxonMobil's and Chevron's along the way; a DVD player with a handful of DVDs and plenty of books, magazines, etc.

Our plan was simple:

1. Leave at 6:00 AM on December 30th and drive all the way to Tucson. Stay in Tucson for the night
2. Leave at 6:00 AM on the December 31st and make the rest of the drive to Burbank, CA (hotels were sold out in Pasadena as the Longhorn nation had booked all the rooms)

Something happened somewhere between 1 and 2. Essentially, I couldn't stand waiting. By the 28th, tons of Longhorn fans were starting to head to California. I couldn't wait to leave so my wife agreed to a harebrained plan. Essentially, 1. changed to...

1. Leave at midnight and maybe drive until Tucson
2. Unknown but make it to Burbank from "somewhere"

In fact, this a very annotated idea of how our drive turned out:

December 30th
Midnight - Get in the car and say a prayer for God's protection on the road. Since we had been in the garage for a while, the light over the door shut off. Not paying attention, I put the Jeep in reverse and hit the garage door. Good start!
5:00 AM - Decided to stop in Junction for gas. Not paying attention, I run a stop sign on the access road and a cop pulls me over. He can tell I'm bewildered and sleepy so he lets me off with a warning.
6:00 AM - Pull over at a rest stop just past Sonora for a 1/2 hour nap. I feel "one" with the truckers.
7:00 AM - The sun is starting to rise - thank, God! I realize that I'm driving past a lot of nothing... mostly rolling hills with scrubby brush.
Mid-morning - Somewhere around Fort Stockton, I relinquish the wheel and let my wife take over for a while. I only manage about 1:45 minutes and take back over in Van Horn.
11:00ish AM - El Paso. Yup... El Paso. Drove it straight with only 1/2 hour of sleep
Around noon - What is that horrid smell? Welcome to New Mexico and the absolute stench of dairies.
2:00 PM - When does New Mexico end? This is terrible! The rest of the state must be nice but anything along I-10 should be passed 20 mph over the speed limit. It was probably around this time that we started seeing signs for "The Thing". It was somewhere in New Mexico that we canceled our hotel in Tucson and booked a room at the Caliente Tropics Resort in Palm Springs.
Early Rush Hour - We make it through Phoenix without too many issues. Dang... my knees really hurt.
8:00 PM - The Coachella Valley is within sight. Stop at Carl's Jr. is our last stop before making it to the hotel.
8:20 PM - Thank God... we park the Jeep at the Caliente Tropics.
10:00 PM - Lights out

By 10:00 AM the next day, we were back on the road and on the way to Burbank for the last leg of the first half of our road trip.

22 hours on our first leg with only a 1/2 hour stop
1546 miles
A few breaks along the way... Junction, Sonora, Fort Stockton, Van Horn, Deming (NM), Wilcox (AZ), Phoenix and Palm Springs, CA. I probably missed something as I was relatively delirious by the time the trip was over.


Paradise Found

Early last year, we came awfully close to booking a trip to Moorea in French Polynesia. If you're not familiar with Moorea, then you've probably heard of Tahiti and Bora Bora, neighboring islands. Well, Moorea is kind of in the middle of nowhere. This map will give you the general idea... off in the middle of the Pacific and about an eight hour flight from Los Angeles.

When we were looking, we found that Air Tahiti Nui had the best fares. In fact, if you stay on top on the site, they tend to run specials all the time. Most include an overnight stay in Tahiti and then go onto multi-day packages to the various islands.

During our research, we had settled on Moorea over Tahiti, Bora Bora and some of the other islands like Huahine, Tahaa or Rangiroa. Why? We factored in components such as ease of travel, things to do, natural beauty and cost.

Bora Bora did look amazing. Tell me this photo doesn't look simply unreal... I mean, look at that water! Apparently, out of the three main islands (Tahiti, Bora Bora and Moorea) Bora Bora is tops for snorkeling. You can see why. The overwater cabins at places like the Pearl offer an unreal experience (for a price, of course). But... we had heard Bora Bora was a bit more built up and there just wasn't as much to do as Moorea.

As for Tahiti, we ruled it out because it sounded like it wasn't as pristine as some of the other islands. It was better as a jumping off point. So, that left us with Moorea.... a smaller island just a short flight away from Papeete, Tahiti.

Moorea offers snorkling... perhaps not as stunning as Bora Bora but still amazing by just about anyone's standards. The volcanic landscape is stunning and offers tourists with all kinds of hiking and exploring opportunities as well as local cultural activities. Moorea also has some interesting history as Cook Bay was the sight of the Mutiny on the Bounty.

Prices, in general, are very high in French Polynesia. No matter where you look, you'll find hotel rates tend to be higher than most locations. Paradise does have a price. Besides, being in the middle of nowhere means that just about everything you see has to be imported from somewhere else. If you're looking for a comprehensive resort, there were are three main ones on the island worth considering:

This was going to be our first choice. It had the best mix of activities (including a "swim with the dolphins" center!), nice bungalows, larger on-site beaches, decent snorkeling and "reasonable" prices. Let's face it, prices everywhere are exorbitant. You just have to pick different levels of exorbitance.

This was going to be our second choice... a very close second as I kept vacillating between the two. The location apparently was closer to a local village with other dining and shopping options. Cost-wise, Garden Bungalows or Deluxe Garden Bungalows (with tiny private pools) are your best bet and the grounds are supposed to be amazing.

My recollection of the Sheraton is a bit sketchy - I just remember it being our third choice.

You can go to TripAdvisor and check out their reviews of hotels in Moorea. None of the hotels truly "shine" as all of them tend to have subpar service. Still, I would overlook just about anything to be able to enjoy a week or two in such a stunning environment. Ultimately, we weren't able to make the trip but, when we do go (and we will go), we already have a plan in place. Check out French Polynesia and if you do make it out, please share your insight.

Amazing Fares to South America

Got an urge to visit South America? It looks like United Airlines is running a terriffic sale to some of your favorite cities... Buenos Aires, Sao Paolo, Rio de Janeiro...

Doing a quick search on-line, I found a fare from Houston to Sao Paolo, leaving in two weeks (less, actually) for $597. That's a flight from Houston to Washington D.C. and then from there to Sao Paolo. Buenos Aires is under $800. If you can stand making two stops, Rio is $605 with United or $789 on American Airlines with only one stop.

I used Orbitz to take a look at the fares (found the deals via one of my links to the right). If we weren't going to Spain soon, I would be really really tempted to jump all over this deal.

We can't... you should...


Sushi Time at Rickshaw in Houston

Despite receiving numerous recommendations, it took us forever to finally check out Rickshaw Far East Bistro in Houston. Located on Westheimer, between Buffalo Speedway and Kirby, a colleague of mine would often tell me it was his third choice after Uptown Sushi and Fish. So, we met up with my cousins and made it out there on a rainy Saturday night.

I'll give my brief impressions. We split lettuce wraps, edamame and summer rolls as appetizers. I really liked the lettuce wraps with excellent chicken and a good range of other toppings like julienne carrots, sprouts and wonton strips. The summer rolls were good but the peanut sauce shone as it had a somewhat Indian flavor I couldn't place.

For dinner, I had three types of sashimi - salmon, tuna and octopus. Very nicely done - good-sized pieces and excellent flavor. My wife had the Tamari Snapper (which she loved and I tasted - excellent!) and my cousins had sashimi and I'm not sure what else... I wasn't that focused on their meals.

Atmosphere is dark and elegant with tables, booths and a sizable lounge area dubbed "Bambu' Lounge". Service was a bit spotty. Despite a relatively slow night due to the rain, our waitress seemed to be pushing us out, as if there was a strong need to turn the table. In one case, rather than getting some low sodium soy sauce, our waitress went to the front and chatted with some coworkers. Still, despite our waitress's less-than-stellar service, we would gladly go back.


Beach Time in Gran Canaria is Calling...

It feels like it's been forever since we've been on a vacation even though the reality is that we were in London just three months ago and in Costa Rica four months ago. Maybe I should stop whining. Nonetheless, we'll be heading to Spain and Gran Canaria before we know it.

Not having been to Gran Canaria, we can't provide any true insight... not yet anyway. We can point out where we'll be staying - The Sheraton Salobre Golf Resort & Spa just fifteen minutes outside of Maspalomas.

From everything we've seen, it looks like a great spot that provides a tranquil retreat from some of the more crowded places on the southern end of Gran Canaria. My cousin works for Starwood and got us the hook up with a great hotel rate. So far, the feedback on the resort sounds excellent - we'll see what we find out on our own.


New Tips and Comments

May of 2000 was the last time we visited Madrid. On the way back to Houston, we caught a connecting flight at JFK (in probably the crappiest part of the airport). I couldn't figure out why our connection seemed to be running late and yet everyone was acting like nothing was wrong. My watch said the flight was late even though the monitor stubbornly said, "on time". Was it on time? Was I going crazy? Why hadn't they started boarding, yet? I soon received an education in the wackiness of time zones. You see, even though the U.S. had "sprung forward", Spain had not. So, I had adjusted my watch back 6 hours from Spain but then reality was that the time difference was more like 5 hours.

It turns out this is more common than you might think. Another example, this week I had a conference call scheduled for 10:00 AM with a client in Mexico City. I called at 10:00 and he told me, "OK, let me confirm that the call is still on at I'll send you an e-mail". Hmmm... OK. If it's on for 10:00, shouldn't you just call me back? Well... it turns out that while it was 10:00 here, it was still 9:00 in Mexico City.

That being said, don't make time zone assumptions when traveling since there may be variations in what you think the time might be. To help avoid confusion, you can check out current local times in major cities around the world. Yes... I'm typing this at 10:23 in the morning - that would lead me to believe it's 5:23 in Rome. Well, it's actually 4:23 - a 6 hour time difference and not the usual 7 hours.

A New Planning Site

On to a different topic. Today I found out about a page called Airfarewatchdog.com - I'm adding this to my links on the left. The site provides insight on last-minute deals and the best fares running from your home airport. Looking at it today, I found two week advance fares on Continental from Houston IAH to LaGuardia for only $158 (!) - that's a great deal. It also provides updates on new airline-run specials like a current sale from LA to Auckland, New Zealand for only $798 with a stopover in Fiji or the Cook Islands.

Getting Your Tango On...

A couple of posts ago, I had provided some tips on enjoying tango in Buenos Aires. As we were looking through some old papers, I found a brochure for TangoStore.com - a store we visited in the Congreso area of BsAs. If you go to Buenos Aires, you can drop in the store and pick up your fair share of tango CDs. You can even order from the U.S. - CDs will run you about $8.00 - $12.00 with shipping via DHL.

And now... a tango clip from La Viruta in the Palermo Viejo district of BsAs, courtesy of a poster on YouTube. Prior to the lessons, the instructors demonstrate various styles of tango. It's very impressive and this video seems to capture the experience relatively well...


Antiques Weekend in the Texas Countryside

The tiny town of Round Top, Texas has an "official" population of 81 people. For two weekends each spring and fall, Round Top and other nearby towns like Warrenton, Carmine and Shelby swell and tens of thousands of people descend on the area's Antique Weekend. The event hosts an estimated 2,500 dealers and draws visitors from all over he country - it's considered to be one of the largest antiques events in the world.

Most of the dealers and shows are free to visit while some tents require an entrance fee of $5 - $15. We've never paid a cent to go into one of the big tents as there are all kinds of options that don't require a fee. You'll probably pay $5.00 per car to park on someone's property but some free lots are located on the outskirts of towns like Warrenton.

What can you find there? Thinking back to our previous visits over the years, we've come across all kinds of things...

  • A Heywood Wakefield moderne-style bed from the 1950s for about $200
  • A 1920s German desk chair for $20
  • A 1950s pole lamp for about $20
  • A small calf-hide for use on a chaise lounge for $50
  • An "as-is" Hoosier cabinet base that we eventually restored as a kitchen island for $40
  • "Refurbished" grain baskets made out of wood for $25 - $35
Well, that's your basic idea. Going out there makes for a nice day trip, especially when the weather is nice. You can kill all kinds of time there and there are plenty of places to eat, drink and see just about every random item under the sun.

If you decide to visit Antiques Weekend (technically two weekends) and want to make it a true weekend outing, we suggest staying at the Wellspring Retreat. This bed and breakfast is run by good friends of our family and is a two-minute drive from "downtown" Round Top. The retreat offers three types of accomodations - three rooms in the main house, a large loft-style room in the "Art Barn" and two rooms in a restored train depot from Hempstead. Our choice would be the train depot with two bedrooms that open up to a common living room - perfect if you plan on heading out for the weekend with some friends. The B&B is also available for church retreats and other group gatherings.

Spring or fall... either option is a good one but, let's be honest, springtime means bluebonnets and other Texas wildflowers. Make sure to take back roads to make it to Round Top... just get a good Texas map and wander through random towns like New Ulm, Bellville and Fayetteville to see a little slice of Texas.


Surf Spots in Tamarindo

One of the things I really enjoyed about staying in Tamarindo was having a surf spot or two right at your front door. Now, Tamarindo proper is not necessarily known for world-class waves. Yet, if you're itching for some surf and don't feel like bouncing around on some of the more notorious backroads of Guanacaste, you'll have at least three options within walking distance of most of the hotels in Tamarindo.

Let's start with Tamarindo. There are two primary spots located right in town - the first is directly in front of the Tamarindo Diria...

Of the breaks I'm going to list, I would say this was the lesser of the three. But let's be honest... it was right in front of our hotel (the picture was taken from one of the hotel restaurants) so how can you pass it up when it's right there!? This picture was taken on the heaviest day... maybe head high on some sets. The waves had quite a bit of power on this day but were usually relatively mushy and not that hollow. The break hits in a couple of different spots - one in the middle of the lava reef and one directly over the right part of the reef. The middle part tends to be more crowded - the lineup is full of locals as well as a handful of surf schools. The right is less crowded but is more shallow with rocks just below the surface. Just visit the spot during low tide and you'll know exactly what I mean.

Five minutes down the beach and across from the Witch's Rock Surf Camp is a rivermouth break...

Looks nice, huh? Admittedly, this was a relatively small day and there were only a couple of people out. This shot was taken from a beachside hotel so the perspective makes it look like shorebreak but it's the actual break. However, it makes it clear that the rivermouth was faster and hollower. I don't know that the size was that different from the Diria but you can expect better quality waves. Of course, as with any rivermouth, the area can have a few "sea critters". Watch for crocs after heavy rains.

Further afield is Playa Grande, by far the best spot in the area and known as one of the better waves on the Pacific side of Costa Rica...

There are a couple of ways to get to Playa Grande. The first way to get there is to drive from Tamarindo. Theoretically, the beach isn't that far away but roads being what they are in Costa Rica, it's more of a 20 minute drive. Mind you, you can see Playa Grande from the rivermouth. The other way to get there is by foot... you first walk to the river where you can catch a ferry for about a buck. Now, some people will paddle across the rivermouth but I'd just as soon pay a pittance to dodge the crocs. From there, you start walking.

A note about walking. We were told at the Iguana Surf Shop that the walk to the spot in front of Las Tortugas hotel was about 15 minutes long. Don't buy it! Walking along the crescent shaped beach during low tide to the spot across from Las Tortugas takes about 45 minutes. Now, you'll cross several spots along the way and there will be random pockets of surfers here and there. The most popular is definitely across from Las Tortugas because it tends to be the best break on Playa Grande.

Grande is typically 1-2 feet bigger than Tamarindo but we got stuck with a small day. If anything, I got a few rides in and just chilled on the beach. No complaints here.

Of course, if you do have a car and feel like exploring, you'll have all kinds of options at your disposal... Playa Langosta (right around the corner from Tamarindo), Playa Negra and Playa Nosara. Chartered boats can take you further out to classic breaks like Ollie's Point and Witch's Rock. Ultimately, you won't run out of options and finding a wave to your liking with take little to no effort.


Catching an Early Flight

I'm not a morning person, per se. We like to go to sleep relatively late and the morning alarm is seen as more of a mortal enemy than a tool of convenience. This morning was exactly the type of morning I dread - a 4:30 AM wake up time to catch a 5:00 AM car to the airport. Other than truck drivers, policemen and workers at the Tokyo fish market, I'm not sure who else needs to be awake at 5:00 AM. Maybe nuclear power plant workers but I know I'm not one who should be on that short list.

My car picked me up a bit before 5:00... not that I really wanted him to get here that early but early is better than late. Of course, you quickly learn that at 5:00 AM, you really don't need to budget as much time for the commute to the airport as no one else wants to be awake either.

Walking through the airport at 5:30 AM, you notice the most random things...

  • Even if you're short on reading material, newsstands in the airport are still closed. Of course, the Brooks Brothers store was open... !?
  • Need to put a shine on your shoes? Better stick around because the shoe shine boy is still snoozing.
  • Apparently Indian businessmen think packets of Turkey Jerky are fascinating.
  • Starbucks tastes like liquid manna at 5:30 AM
  • Walking through a relatively barren airport allows you to take in the architecture around you. I don't think I'd ever taken the time to look at the "skeletal structure" of IAH's Terminal E like I did this morning. The more I look at this terminal (and the more I think about the small waiting areas in Terminal B), the more I realize that the architects did a great job.
So... I write all this because I'm catching a morning flight to Atlanta for a quick business trip. Call it a glorified lunch... a quick day trip to meet with some clients auditing one of our workshops. I canceled my car rental and instead opted to take MARTA today when I realized that car rental would be an inordinate hassle thanks to last night's NCAA basketball championship game in the ATL. Rather than fight for a handful of cars and inflated prices, I figured I could take MARTA directly to my meeting. In 10 hours, I'll be back on a plane and on the way home...


The Sound of Buenos Aires

You can't visit Buenos Aires without noticing tango's fingerprints on every corner. The captivating dance is truly embraced by Porteños and is celebrated nearly everywhere. You can find tango playing all across the city, whether piped in at Tango music stores or on street corners where dancers perform for tips. Hotels like The Abasto Plaza Hotel and the Casatango make the dance their central theme. Suffice it to say that visiting Buenos Aires without getting a good taste of tango is like visiting Rome and not eating pasta. It just shouldn't be done.

That being said, here are a handful of tips on enjoying tango when you're in Buenos Aires:
Get acquainted with tango music. You can't turn a corner in Buenos Aires without seeing something about Carlos Gardel - his face is more ubiquitous than Maradona's. To get familiar with Gardel, elevated to sainthood by Porteños, pick up a copy of 20 Tangos Clasicos: Viva Gardel Vol. 1. Also worthwhile is Astor Piazzola, a more recent legend who made his mark with newer tangos like Libertango. Of course, to get a fresh new take on tango, pick up the Tango Chill Session Volume I or Volume II.

See some live tango. If you go to the Sunday antiques market in San Telmo, you'll see dancers in some streets or in Plaza Dorrego. Another option is to go to a tango show. Rather than seeing a touristy show at a large hall like Señor Tango, visit a more intimate at a legendary spot like El Viejo Almacen or Cafe Tortoni. Tortoni shouldn't be missed, even if just to get a cup of coffee in the elegant 19th century atmosphere. Places like Tortoni offer more intimate shows with much lower cover charges.

Visit a milonga for a lesson or a night of dancing. Milongas, traditional tango dances, take place all over Buenos Aires. Many have free lessons on certain nights so be sure to check with each location. For a more traditional milonga, check out Confiteria Ideal in the microcentro. La Viruta offers tango classes and a large milonga in the basement of an Armenian community center in Palermo Viejo. The atmosphere is a bit bewildering but must be experienced and is only 8 pesos a person. If you decide to take a lesson, make sure you have a) good hearing and b) speak Spanish. As we can tell you, the large size makes lessons a bit overwhelming.