Time is Short in Montreal

It should come as no surprise that two days in Montreal is far too short to truly enjoy this city. We barely scratched the surface of Viuex Montreal, haven't had a chance to go up to Mont Royal, didn't eat outdoors on Crescent Street (though we may fix that today) and didn't get a chance to head over towards the Montreal Jazz Festival. That may get resolved, too, but all of it will be a teeny taste of "the real thing". Such is life - it just spurs us to come back another time.

This morning, we grabbed breakfast at Vasco da Gama, a little Portuguese cafe' recommended by the concierge at the Sofitel Montreal. Located at 1472 Peel Street, inside you'll find a nice assortment of pastries, sandwiches, omelettes and other light fare. Be sure to include a Pastel de Nata, a custar-based pastry, with your meal for only $2.00 CAN. You can pull up a chair by the front or out on the sidewalk.

Typical Pastel de Nata - only $2.00 at Vasco da Gama

Afterwards, we wandered along Rue Sainte Catherine where there are scores upon scores of shops - you'll find plenty of Canadian and International brands. For some nice Canadian souvenirs, stop by the Roots store 1025 Rue Ste-Catherine Ouest. Roots is a nature-themed Gap-like store with branches all over Canada and four stores in the U.S. We made it down to a central square, across from a Hudson's Bay store but then headed back as we had to check out.

This afternoon? We'll see... if anything, we'll be heading back to Cardinal later today and then probably dinner in Brocksville.

A Dining Feast in Montreal

A Slice of Europe (and pastry) in Montreal

We've only been in Montreal a day but it doesn't take one long to figure out that dining in Montreal can be a delectable experience. Technically, we've only had two meals with a snack thrown in for good measure. For lunch, we went to the Plateau to a pizza place on Boulevard Saint Laurent called Pizzadelic. Recommended by several guidebooks, Pizzadelic is not a run-of-the-mill pizza place. Selections range from traditional pizzas like margherita to selections that have fresh seafood. These square-shaped wood-fired pizza come in 8" and 11" sizes and tends to range around $9.50 CAN to $15.00 CAN, give or take. The massive menu has other selections like sandwiches and pasta courses like Fettucine Alfredo with Filet Mignon. If you can, nab a spot facing the street (they'll slide open the glass wall on nice days) or a seat on the back terrace. The atmosphere is otherwise dark but elegant.

For lunch, we stopped in a small pastry shop in Vieux Montreal for tarte tatin and apple turnovers. Delicious. I wish I had grabbed a card... I can tell you it was two doors down from Marche' de la Villette at 324 rue St-Paul Ouest.

Dinner was back at the Plateau where we had an amazing dining experience at Primadonna. The restaurant attempts and pulls off a menu of Italian and sushi. Yup... one restaurant... two polar opposite menus. They do pull it off though prices for sushi are steep. I hadn't eaten sushi in a while so I had tako and sake sashimi (the portions were quite small) and a rainbow roll. Again, all very good but just not completely filling. My wife had an excellent arugula salad and pasta with lobster in a very tasty mushroom and tomato sauce. Dessert was a diminutive but addictive mascarpone cheesecake with key lime sorbet. The bill for the four of us was steep - a little over $100 each before tax and tip.

So far, so good. Now we're off to breakfast.


Staying Productive Internationally

Part of the agreement I had with my boss about this vacation to Canada was that it be a working vacation... one that allowed me to get some work done while also enjoying some downtime. Nowadays, doing so seems to be so much easier than in the old dial-up days. Let me tell you about my set-up... it may provide some insight on how you can take care of business internationally the next time you travel.

  • Access to Clients - First and foremost, you need access to your important data, be it access to servers, client contact information, whatever... in our case, everything we do is via an Internet-based CRM program so I can access my customer data anywhere with an Internet connection. Clearly, that means you should travel with wireless and, just in case, an ethernet cord. First and foremost, check if your hotel has Internet access. If not, take a look at my links to the right and find wireless locations at your destination.
  • Access to Phone Calls - My TMobile service charges an absurd $.49/minute to make calls from Canada to the U.S. Yes, that's even if I'm standing on the northern bank of the St. Lawrence River and looking at the U.S. on the other side. So, I set myself up with Skype. If you haven't used Skype, it allows you to make free international calls to other Skype users via the Internet. It has good sound quality and works well with wireless. Now, if you plan on calling landlines, you need SkypeOut. Phone call rates are as little as $.021 a minute with no connection fees so the required $10 - $12 you have to spend to buy credit goes a long way. I've made quite a few calls and still have $9.96 in credit. You can even use Skype on a cell phone though I can't speak from experience.
  • Access to "Equipment" - Besides wireless and an ethernet cord, there are a couple of other things you might want to bring. First, Targus and Logitech make great mini mouses that can be used with laptops with USB ports. Some people prefer a wireless mouse but I find that the little thing that sticks out of the USB port just gets in the way. Second, Skype sounds much better if you use a headset. I picked up a Logitech headset from Amazon that cancels out noise and sounds good not just on my end but for my caller, as well.
In the end, I can sit in the lobby of the Marriott, make calls, check e-mails and pretty much do everything I need to do to stay in touch. Save for the time difference issues, I could've done the same thing in London, Milan or Tokyo.

Of course, once we head back to the Thousand Islands region, I'll be back on "radio silence" but, for now, this seems to do the trick.


A Steamy Day in Ottawa

It was a scorcher today in Ottawa... our jokes about "steamy" Canadian summers apparently fell flat as it truly was hot today.

We had breakfast at the hotel and then drove across the river to the Canadian Museum of Civilization - an absolute for anyone visiting Ottawa. While the museum has a handful of the usual dioramas and interpretive exhibits, what really makes it stand out are its life-size exhibits of life through Canadian history and the stunning great hall with its towering totems. We spent about 3 hours at the museum but I can see how someone might pass the whole day covering all the exhibits. After your visit, you can grab a bit at one of the museum's cafes or grab a bite on the park overlooking Ottawa.
Nighttime View of the Canadian Museum of Civilization

In case you didn't know, the Canadian Museum of Civilization is actually in Gatineau and is located in Quebec. Unlike bilingual Ottawa, pretty much everything turns French in Gatineau. Stores suddenly drop any bilingual pretenses and display French signage. This was definitely the case in SAQ Depot, a Quebecois wine shop in Gatineau (more on that later...)

Anyway, we headed back to the hotel around 4:00 to kick back for a while. Later, after some errands, we worked out at the hotel's gym - a bit steamy and crowded with aggressive members (it's also a membership-based gym) who were dead set on getting a Swiss ball or barbell when they needed it.

As for dinner, a great choice is Metropolitain Brasserie... located at the corner of Sussex and Rideau. The restaurant is set in a depressed plaza, adjacent to great shops on Sussex. The interior is well-appointed and elegant but sitting outside is the way to go, particularly if you happen to be in town during some type of music festival. The menu had a great mix of fish, meat and some of the best salads in town. It also has a very extensive wine list. I had sauteed Halibut with fennel, slivered almonds, roasted potatoes and market vegetables. My wife had a delectable grilled chicken salad. All very good.

Now... something interesting. One thing we've noticed is how high taxes are on food. An example from our bill at Metropolitain:

Food and wine - $64.17
GST - $3.86
PST - $4.40
Liq PST - $.93

That's a little over 14% in taxes. Yikes!

Nonetheless, we're finding some very good food in Ottawa. We can't wait to see what we'll find in Montreal!


Outdoor Dining in ByWard Market

Just took an evening stroll back to the ByWard market area. There's a grouping of restaurants just off of George Street that are worth visiting...each one surrounds one of the oldest courtyards in Ottawa - Social, The Black Tomato, Courtyard Restaurant and Mamma Grazzi's. We ate at Mamma Grazzi's after seeing a good review in a Frommer's Guide. Despite the cheesy Italian name, it was very good. The caprese is a good bet as an appetizer as it comes with caprese and nice-sized mixed greens salad. The menu also includes pizza, four meat dishes and 30+ different pasta options. Eating in the courtyard area is an absolute must, particularly in the summertime when the weather, like tonight, can be ideal.

Confusion and Resolution in Canada

"I like any kind of weather. It's the joy of being alive and some people forget that"

- Man interviewed on a local Ottawa newscast when asked about the heat.

...and here we are in Canada.

First off, I'm going to add pictures to these entries later. Right now, I don't have the means to upload pictures. In fact, it's a blessing that I even have Internet access. Let me explain...

The drive from Syracuse to Cardinal in Ontario was a breeze - about two hours long and very straightforward. The house itself was beautiful - a late 1800s brick Victorian house with a privileged location overlooking the St. Lawrence River. The three-story house had 7 bedrooms, all decorated with family heirlooms and various fascinating bits of history. What the house did not have was cable TV or Internet access. Now, since I had planned on making this a working vacation, no Internet access was a problem. It is the end of the quarter, after all, and I had all kinds of stuff I was working on.

Well... OK... the 730 Truck Stop, as far as I knew, had wireless so at least I could work there with Skype, right? Wrong. Turned out that wireless at the 730 Truck Stop hadn't been working for about 6 months. Other options? The waitress at the truck stop thought that Tim Horton's in Prescott or Morrisburg might have wireless but she wasn't sure. Hmmm... not reassuring. While my wife was eating, I walked over to the entrance to use the ATM. Ah... no go. The ATM didn't like my card.

No Internet (problem for work)
No access to cash

Since we'd planned on a day trip to Ottawa on Sunday, we instead decided to pack up a few days' worth of clothes and make it a three-night stay. Less than an hour later, we pulled up to the Marriott Ottawa, parked the car, and started checking hotel rates. The Marriott was more than we wanted to spend so we started digging around for options. In the midst of my digging, I finally realized... hey, I have Marriot points! Lo and behold, we had enough for 3 nights and booked a room.

Parliament Hill, as seen from Hull

We spent Sunday getting to know our way around town. Lunch was spent wandering around Sparks Street Mall where a BBQ cookoff was taking place - apparently U.S. vs. Canadian teams. We worked our way to Elgin where we paid $30 CAN each for a Lady Dive "amphibus" tour. If you haven't been to Ottawa before, taking one of these tours is a great way to get a quick intro to the city. The bus/boat winds its way past the most popular sites and then takes a plunge
into the Ottawa River. Listening to the bilingual narration was quite funny (everything here is in French and English). It also gave us a better idea of what sites we might want to explore
in greater detail.

Afterwards, we watched a boat works its way through the locks at the Rideau Canal and then took a leisurely stroll along Parliament Hill. If you didn't know any better, you'd think you were in England. The neogothic architecture is stunning. We were quite tired by the late afternoon so we headed back to the hotel.

For dinner, we opted not to wander too far from the hotel so we took the elevator up to the 29th floor for dinner at Merlot, the Marriott's rotating restaurant. The expensive but wonderful restaurant takes two hours to make one rotation of the city skyline. The food was excellent and the restaurant's wine list was recognized by Wine Spectator as one of the country's finest wine lists. My wife had a delicious crab salad as an appetizer and I had the eclectic salad. Both highly recommended. We both opted for salmon for dinner. It was scrumptious - served with a in a ginger maple dressing, bok choy and drizzled with pears and herbs. Very very good. Dessert was a delectable 3 citron cheesecake with a coconut caramel dipping sauce. Not light... not by any means... but very good. The entire meal, with a glass of wine and tax, came out to $113 CAN. Oh, and yes... we made a full revolution.

This morning, I went downstairs nice and early to take part in a couple of conference calls and to get some work done. We then started our day by heading to ByWard Market. What a great area. The old city market still buzzes with stalls selling fresh fruit, flowers and other assorted items. Other food stores and gourmet shops line the area. It also contains one of the greatest concentrations of restaurants in the city of Ottawa. Rather than sitting down at a traditional restaurant, we stopped by Moulin de Provence and picked up some sandwiches to go. We also grabbed a basket of cherries at a stall and then made our way to a bench by the Rideau Canal.

The weather, while a bit sketchy yesterday, turned out to be quite nice - actually warmer than Houston, if you can believe. We're now taking it easy in the room... catching up on a little bit of work, a little bit of registering, a little bit of working out, etc. We're about to head back out to
ByWard Market to shop along Sussex Street before heading to dinner at one of the many restaurants.


"Take Him to Detroit!"

"And as for my American friend, the CIA thinks it can infiltrate the mountain of Dr. Klan."

"You can't scare me..."

"Take him to Detroit"

(Yelling) "No... not Detroit. No... no, please... anything but that! No, no, noooo..."

That was probably one of the most famous scenes in the cult classic, The Kentucky Fried Movie, and probably the first thing I think of when someone mentions Detroit. And yet, that's where we find ourselves today, waiting in the Northwest Airlines lounge for our connecting flight. We're flying from the land of eternal spring, Detroit, to sunny Syracuse.

I can't speak for the city... I don't really ever have any business in Detroit and wouldn't know what to do here if I did. I know that the health of Detroit's economy (and many other manufacturing towns in the north) is not that great but that's about it. Thousands upon thousands of laid-off auto industry employees can't help.

Zipping through DTW (airchive.com)

Otherwise, my sole experience in this city has been at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. I can't speak for the other terminals but Concourse A is really well laid out - about a mile long but connected with a slick red NWA train that moves from between one of three points in the terminal. There are several shopping options and several restaurants, including a good Mediterranean option for those who eschew fast-food.

The NWA lounge, though a bit cramped (it's large... just filled with seating, which is a good thing), has a coffee/cappucino machine (nice), cookies, juice, water and fresh fruit. A nice place to take a break and catch up on e-mail via wireless. In a few short hours, we'll be driving through in upstate New York and then across the border into Ontario.


Surprising Traces of the Past in Italy

There's no need for me to go into the history or background of fascism in Italy during the 20th century. Hundreds of books are available on the topic and I'm no history teacher. When visiting Italy, you'll be surprised to find leftover traces of fascism across the country. Towns like Sabaudia were built from the ground up by the fascist regime and, to this day, are thriving communities. Entire areas of Rome like EUR were built to "show off" Italy's brand of fascism to the world. EUR, in and of itself, is a lovely part of Rome and, despite its background, a thoughtfully planned area.

Fascism, in a sense, gave birth to rationalist architecture with Giuseppe Terragni's Casa Del Fascio . The style is clean and recalls classic architecture, namely ancient Roman architecture. It is clean and simple and, in some ways is similar to art deco and moderne. Near Piazza Bologna and the Via the Nomentana, one can come across several fine examples of residential and institutional rationalist architecture. One of the more famous examples is a monumental apartment building, Case Federici, designed by Mario De Renzi on Via XXI Aprile. The building is not only one of the more notable rationalist designs from the 1930s, it also appeared in the Italian movie, Una Giornata Particolare.

So... where am I going with this? If you keep your eyes peeled, you can see some interesting and often less noticeable, traces of fascism in these buildings. The front of Palazzo Federici, by De Renzi, provides a perfect example.

The faded but clearly legible writing on the photograph is visible when one approaches the building from the main entrance into a large courtyard. The "A" stands for anno or year. The "XI" is clearly the Roman numeral for 11. The "E F" stands for era fascista or, clearly enough, fascist era. If you keep your eyes peeled, you might spot these markings on rationalist style buildings or monuments.

A more surprising example is not only the 55 ft obelisk near the Ponte Milvio but many of the inscriptions and mosaics around the Foro Italico. These are very surpising traces of the past which, rather then being obliterated, are there to remind us to remember history lest we repeat it. The next time you see these markings in Rome, you'll know what they mean.



  • Great meetings
  • Lost my cell phone (found it later at the hotel in the concierge lounge)
  • Two delayed flights
  • One brutal drive home in traffic

It's good to be home!



Looks like I might have some fun in front of me on Wednesday... greeeat. (hmmm... now that I think about it, you may see a picture that looks fine since it is a real-time image) Well, as of right now, it looks like plenty of delays in Atlanta.

Richmond, For the Night

Historic Richmond, VA

It's 7:40 in Richmond. I just finished grabbing a bite with some colleagues at Shula's 2, here at the Sheraton West. The weather in Richmond is just as hot (if not hotter) than Houston. I'm about to head outside to workout - a good sweat session, I suppose.

I'll be heading back tomorrow. Hopefully I won't get too tripped up by the storms rolling across the country. We'll see...

By the way, I picked up the latest copy of Outside Magazine in the airport. There are some good articles in there on the base camp at Mt. Everest and desert island survival. Check out the magazine's web page to listen to podcasts that build upon the articles.

Flying at the Crack of Dawn

4:00 AM!? Anyone who knows me even remotely knows that 4:00 AM is for sleeping, sleeping or sleeping - not for waking up. And yet, that's when I had to get up this morning to catch a 6:00 AM (another dirty word) flight from Houston to Atlanta to connect to Richmond, VA.

First off, let me say that I'm surprised by how many cars can be on the road at such an ungodly hour... particularly on I-45 south. Admittedly, the view of downtown Houston at that time is particularly impressive. I flew out of Hobby for the first time in a couple of years - I actually had to leave a Post-it Note in my car to drive to make sure I drove to the right airport. I didn't realize how nice the new gates at Hobby were - nice and spacious. Again, I'm never there so the last time I flew there was out of some ratty gates to the far right of check-in.

So... the flight. For the most part, it was fine (other than being one seat away from a smelly toilet... somewhat a la infamous Seat 29E e-mail). Yes, we had some turbulence and I'm used to that... however, even the most seasoned traveler will get nervous when faced with the very strong smell of smoke. Shortly after takeoff, the cabin stunk like something burning and you can see most of the passengers looking around nervously. It was nothing but still not pleasing. I put on some Chet Baker on the mp3 player and half-slept for most of the flight.

The good news is that I found a Delta Crown Room directly across from the gate for my next flight. I'll be here a bit longer and will then head up to Richmond for some meetings. Barring any weather issues, I'll be back on the ground tomorrow at 3:00ish.


The Story Behind the Shot:Tamarindo, Costa Rica

I love this shot because it just typifies what we saw every single night from our lounge chairs at the Tamarindo Diria in Tamarindo, Costa Rica. Each evening, we would pick a spot facing the beach and just relax with a drink in hand as the sun went down. Not bad, huh? A local told us that living there was like being stuck in a time warp. Save for the rainy season, every day was the same - beautiful weather, clear skies, gorgeous sunsets and relatively constant daylight hours due to its latitude.

Flights from Houston to Liberia in Costa Rica are about 2 1/2 hours long on Continental - convenient enough for a week-long trip or a weekend getaway. From Liberia, a car can take you to Tamarindo in about an hour. Tamarindo makes for a good introductory trip to Costa Rica.


Understanding Houston

Downtown Houston (from blog.kir.com)

June in Houston can be relatively predictable. If there isn't a high pressure system parked over the city, chances are some thunderstorms will pop up across the cities. Right now I'm sitting at the kitchen table, eating a post-workout meal of Dan Dan Noodles from Pei Wei while listening to some Ornette Coleman - the sky turned dark a while ago and thunder keeps blaring in the distance. Yeah... that's Houston in June. It wouldn't feel right without some hearty storms to punctuate the day.

Yup... Houston definitely has its own thing going. Not just in storms but in the people, the climate (definitely the climate), the international scene, the museums and so much more. The thing is, Houston is hard to understand or appreciate by someone who lives out of town. You have to live here to "get it" The New York Times finally got it in 2004 and others are starting to catch on, as well.

Joel Kotkin, a Los Angeles-based urban expert was recently hired by the Greater Houston Partnership to conduct a study on how to keep Houston growing. Kotkin sat down with the Houston press for what I consider to be a very interesting interview. He points out both the good and the bad about the city but definitely makes it clear that Houston has a great deal to offer for those who would get past their preconceived notions and approach the city with an open mind.

JK: I’ve always said if you need a campaign to prove you’re hip and cool, you’re not. Personally I think Houston’s very cool. I don’t think that’s what’s going to drive people to Houston, but what I think is cool about Houston is what happens in the grassroots: The neighborhoods, the Harwin corridor, Montrose, all the little nooks and crannies of Houston are quite interesting. And I’m sure there’s many things I don’t know, even though I’ve been there lots of times.

I sort of make fun of the hip and cool thing, like you know Cleveland has the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and they can’t get artists to go there. They have to do the awards in New York.

...and for now, the skies have opened up and rain is pouring outside. The gutters are suddenly overflowing and the patio is a little lake. It's the kind of rain that tends to really freak out tourists but locals expect in the summertime. The lawn is getting a nice dose of summer rain and the heat, for the moment, is kept at bay. But hey, that's just life in Houston.


Surfing in Texas

It gets relatively annoying when someone who doesn't really know what they're talking about says there isn't any surf in Texas. I've been surfing and bodyboarding for 20 years so either I've been deluded or I've joined thousands of other Texans in making do with what we have on the Texas Gulf Coast.

Now, granted... Texas surf doesn't compare to California, Hawaii or even Florida. However, we do get some decent surf. Springtime and autumn are particularly nice and winter, at times, can be big and clean (but cold!). Despite the summer doldrums, we can get some excellent storm-generated surf... be it a nice low pressure system or a tropical system.

Cold fronts clean up winter waves - Surfside, TX

Now, I'm not going to give you a break-by-break rundown. I'll just leave it at the basics. Some of they main areas, going north to south, (not exhaustive) for surfing in Texas are:

  • Galveston
  • Surfside
  • Matagorda
  • Port Aransas
  • Mustang Island
  • South Padre Island
Being in Houston, clearly the ones that I'm most familiar with are Galveston and Surfside. The lower Texas gulf coast has larger waves due to the shallower waters but I can't always manage four+ hour drives to get to bigger waves in Padre or Corpus.

The biggest wave you will ever see in Texas
South Padre during Hurricane Katrina

Galveston has a few main spots where you will typically find the best waves on the island - on either side of the Flagship Hotel (west side is better, more crowded, but both sides break), around 53rd and 37th street by the jetties and on the west side of the 61st street pier. No one surfs at east beach or really anywhere east of the Flagship. The Balinese used to have serviceable waves years ago but that's no longer the case - I think you can get in trouble for it, too. The west end of the island has some waves along the pocket parks or near Pirate's Beach and Jamaica Beach but that's where it ends. You don't want to surf by San Luis Pass... bad currents and plenty of sharks looking for a snack.

A good day in Galveston at 51st street

Surfside is further down the coast - definitely not as much to do in town but there are waves by the jetty (and area called The Octagon even though the actual octagon is gone and it never really was an octagon), by A-Frames (never really spent any time surfing there) and further up the coast at A-holes. If you're coming from the causeway, you turn right at the main road and eventually turn into the neighborhood at the left. To get to A-holes... well, it's further up the coast towards Galveston in a beach community. I wouldn't know how to describe how to get there but, well, it's there. On certain swells, you get large crumbling waves inside the channel... just you, a few surfers and an oil tanker or two. Surfside is usually bigger than Galveston but sloppier, too. A good day will bring out a ton of heads at the Octagon.

Sloppy chop at the Octagon

More consistent waves can be found further south with Bob Hall Pier known as some of the best waves on the Gulf Coast.

Hollow waves at Bob Hall Pier

The water on the gulf coast, though typically a rich "Chocolate Yoo Hoo", is actually relatively clean. On some spring and fall days, the water is nice and green and you can clearly see your feet while sitting on your board. There aren't too many issues with localism and the vibe is pretty mellow.

For more on surfing in Texas, check out the following links:


Bret Baier Blog on Mens Health

I spotted a great blog earlier today - the Bret Baier Project - on Men's Health. Looks like Bret, the Chief White House Correspondent for Fox News - is tracking his travels, his weight loss and the upcoming birth of his baby. Sounds familiar.


Cheap Eats in London

If you've ever traveled to London, you know that the city is dreadfully amazing. This applies to everything - hotels, petrol (boy does it apply to petrol!), food... just about anything you can imagine. Let's think about food... a $9 burger and fries at a restaurant in the States would run you 9 pounds in the UK - essentially $18! That $3.00 Starbucks latte in the States? 3 pounds in UK... and easily found now that Starbucks is everywhere in London.

Really "Cheap Eats"... a Picnic in the Park

Any help you can get when it comes to saving on food in London is welcome help. When we went over New Year's Eve weekend, we found the Time Out Guide to Cheap Eats in London to be a true blessing. Of the restaurants we tried, as recommended in the guide, all turned out to be a good value.

Divertimenti, at 33-34 Marylebone High Street, is kind of like a small Crate & Barrel, sans the furniture. In the back is a small cafe that is nice and casual but offers a selection of healthy sandwiches, wraps and salads.

Nando's, a British chain found throughout London (we visited the location on Baker Street), offers great affordable Portuguese food. The concept is reminiscent of Houston-based Cafe Express. The Peri-Peri chicken combinations are a good value.

All in all, you'll find over 300 restaurants, all of which can be visited for under 20 pounds per person. Yes, that's $40 a person . South of that is considered cheap in London. You'll be sure to find plenty of options that will be pleasing to your palate and your wallet.

While you're online, check out a recent article from Time Out on 20 Cheap Eats.

Double-Checking When Making Reservations

A quick observation and a word of warning... calling a hotel to book a room will not always yield the cheapest or most accurate results.

Last week I starting planning a trip to visit a client in Richmond, VA. My plan was to stay at a Sheraton hotel by my client's office. I first went to the web page and found that the hotel had plenty of rooms and rates ran around $199/night. My client had discounted rates but I couldn't access them through the web page so I called the hotel to line up the reduced rate.

When I called, I was told by the reservations agent that the hotel didn't have any rooms and I was referred to a different Sheraton location. I told the agent that there were several rooms on the web page so there should be something available. She said that the web page pulled from different rooms and I responded, "This is Sheraton, right? Shouldn't you have access to all the rooms?" She then said that she would try a different code to look up the rooms. Voila... rooms were "suddenly" available and I was able to secure a club room for $129.

Moral of the story - verify what you're told, especially when you have conflicting sources of information. If you have to use a reservation agent, first check the hotel's web page to see what is available. The rates may be lower and you might be able to negotiate a better rate, too.

By the way, this has happened to me with flights, too when I found the flight I needed via the web page and literally had to walk the agent through the process to find a reward seat.


The Beauty of Venice

There simply is no other place in the world like Venice. Places like Bruges in Belgium and Tigre in Argentina try to compare themselves to Venice. Casinos like the Venetian create synthetic versions but fall far far short. Nothing comes close to the original. I simply wanted to include a post with pictures from this amazing destination. All of these pictures were taken during a Thanksgiving-week trip in November 2005.

Pardon the layout - I was having "issues"


Back Home

Woo hoo... caught an earlier flight home from Philly today, making it back to the house 1 1/2 earlier than I would have. Whew!

It was all I could do to keep my nerves when stuck in traffic in Philadelphia knowing that I had to hurry to catch my flight. Of course, the security line was slow but what's new? Anyway, back home for a couple of weeks.

On a random note, the British version of Men's Health had an article on playing elephant polo. It was the magazine's latest installment of things one should do before dying. Pretty cool. The article points out another option that is decidedly less cool and, well, downright dorky.

"Heavy" action in a polo match


Back in the Keystone State

It's 11:45 and I'm plugging away in my hotel room at the Hilton Garden Inn west of Allentown, PA. I'm mostly caught up with my e-mails but I'm sure I'll have a fresh batch in the morning - such is the reality of business travel... always trying to catch up with e-mails.

I flew up to Philadelphia earlier today. I knew the trip would be off to a good start when the gate agent called my name and upgraded me to seat 1B - a much more comfortable spot in first class. Thank you, Lord. I was feeling especially confident for this trip - not my own confidence but confidence that comes from a different source than myself. The upgrade just helped solidify that feeling. Anyway, the flight was smooth and trouble-free.

Car rental advice - we get great deals on Thrifty car rentals - our corporate rate works out to $41/day for full-size cars. This is often 1/2 the price of other companies. These great rates come with a catch - I sometimes watch 2-3 buses for all the other rental companies go by before a Thrifty bus comes along. It can be very annoying... and, despite being a Blue Chip member, once you get to the counter, the process can be pretty drawn out. It's annoying but I guess that's the price you pay for drastically lower rates.

Once I made it to my hotel, I decided to check out a local Barnes & Noble. Well, if you've been up here, you know that there are spots when I-78 and SR22 can get a bit confusing... and I ended up getting lost and driving in one big time-wasting circle. I made it Barnes & Noble in Whitehall where the town, for some insane reason, doesn't allow any left turns on McArthur. Want to go left? Make a right, take a big ole loop and then turn south onto McArthur. It made no sense.

I had dinner at The Maxx Regal (once known as the 1760 House) in Trexlertown where I once again found out that it's hard to eat healthy up here. The "seasonal veggies" were covered with cheese, the potatoes were slathered with butter and the steak had plenty of fat that needed to be trimmed. Oh, and if you order your salad with balsamic vinaigrette, expect a bottle of balsamic vinegar - you'll have to ask for the olive oil.

Old View of Main Street in Trexlertown

On one note, Trexlertown is really a cute little town - I love driving down the old two-lane road that cuts through "downtown". It has a certain charm and a historic character of its own. It's a tiny 17th century village now more known for being the site of a well-known velodrome and the headquarters for Air Products and Chemicals. But it looks like there's quite a bit to do in the Lehigh Valley. Next time you're up here, these are some options to explore...

There's actually quite a bit to do but that will give you the general idea.


My Favorite Colorado Mountain

Most people who plan to go skiing in Colorado set their sights on resorts like Vail, Breckenridge, Telluride or Steamboat Springs. Each resort has plenty to offer the avid skier - some like Vail offer great skiing and a great atmosphere while others like Copper Mountain are more about the mountain and less about the village. When it comes to pure skiing, my favorite (and the favorite of many Colorado locals) is Arapahoe Basin.

A Beautiful Day of Skiing in May of 2003

Located just a short drive up the road from Keystone, A-Basin has the highest base of any mountain in North America, over 10,000 feet. That means A-Basin has a long season, lots of snow and plenty of great above tree-line skiing. So, what's so great about A-Basin? Below are my top 5 reasons.

Taking a Break on the East Wall

Great Skiing - A-Basin is not too big and not too small... that means you get plenty of great skiing on a varied mountain with above tree-line skiing, plenty of steeps, moguls - just a lot of variety. I messed up a pair of demo skis on Pallavicini (site of a big avalanche during the 2004-2005 season) It's not for beginners which means...

Smaller Crowds - Since the mountain isn't covered with greens and blues (yes, there are some so an intermediate skier will find plenty to do), there aren't a ton of families. You'll see lots of good skiers and snowboarders but not long lines. I don't think I've ever waited in a line longer than a couple of minutes at A-Basin.

A Long Ski Season - October 13, 2006 marked the earliest opening for A-Basin in its 60 year history. The resort is know for fantastic late season skiing with hefty bases. Of the times I've skied A-Basin, one time was early May (over a 90" base with a snowstorm) and another time was over Memorial Day weekend in 2003 (the pictures you see in this post). This past year, A-Basin closed on June 3rd and it has been known to stay open as late as July 4th weekend.

Reasonable Lift Ticket Prices - Nowadays, lift ticket prices are absurd. Fortunately, A-Basin has kept costs relatively low. Daily lift rates are still within reach and season passes are as low as $259.00 for adults, $169.00 for youth and $99 for a child.

No-Frills Skiing - If you've been to A-Basin, you know it's all about the skiing. There isn't much there save for a base lodge, a big parking lot known as the beach (where people hang out and even camp out to save money), a big mountain and not much else. If you want to go shopping for souvenirs, head towards the other Summit County resorts. If all you care about is hitting the snow, you'll do fine at A-Basin.

Locals Hanging Out and Camping on "The Beach"

At the end of the day, it all depends on what you want in a resort. You can stay in Keystone for a more family-friendly experience or Breckenridge for the ski town experience and know that A-Basin is a short drive away and is always worth adding to your itinerary.



Things are getting a little calmer so here's something I wanted to share with you. I don't know about you but I love to visit grocery stores in other countries. You come across all kinds of random products, funny names and then those items that you had to see to believe. Well, here's one of those items, found in Spain.

Behold Conguitos...

So, what we're looking at here is the white chocolate version of the product (picture taken on my backpack while sitting in the airport in Madrid). These are white chocolate covered peanuts. You can just imagine what the character for the milk chocolate covered peanuts looks like. Am I the only one who finds the packaging for Conguitos unbelievable? Check out their web page to see more.

And now, to erase possible doubt, Conguitos will have their own signature: each and every Conguito will have a Conguito face so you will know that you have not made a mistake!

Well, they are indeed unmistakable.

Pregnant Travel Tips

Having a tough time getting caught up this morning - if it wasn't for meetings... too many meetings... I'd be free and clear.

Here is something that came in our e-inbox this past weekend... Eight Steps for Safe Travel During Pregnancy from BabyCenter.com

Pretty straightforward stuff. We just went through this to Spain and will go through it again so it's worth keeping these tips in mind.


Spanish Rundown - Our May Trip to Spain

The Always Buzzing Plaza Mayor

It's Saturday night... we're still jetlagged and tired from our trip so rather than doing something this evening, we're chilling out, watching shows on our DVR and pining for some evening Starbucks. Now is as good a time as any to catch you up on our trip to Spain.

We arrived in Spain on the 23rd... save for a few bumps in our travel from Houston to Madrid, everything went smoothly. While in Madrid, we hooked up with family and also just spent some time enjoying the city. Since our Madrid stop was spread out over two different stays, we stayed in the Room Mate Mario hotel for two nights and the Hotel De Las Letras for one night. Even though the De Las Letras is a higher end hotel with great reviews on TripAdvisor (both are listed in the top 10 on TripAdvisor), I enjoyed the Mario better. The service was much better and we just dug the lower-key atmosphere. I liked the neighborhood near the Opera better than being on the Gran Via.

A Rainy Stop in Plaza Del Oriente

From a tourist standpoint, we didn't have a ton of time in Madrid. The first two days were surprisingly rainy so we were somewhat limited in what we could do. We did enjoy some time at the Plaza Mayor (a must-do in Madrid), tapas with family, plenty of shopping and a great tour of the Palacio Real. While my cousin's Spanish husband tried to discourage us from visiting the Palacio Real, it was well worth it. Not only is the palace itself an astounding building, the armory had to be the most impressive I have yet to visit.

On Friday, we took a flight on Spanair from Madrid to Las Palmas, Gran Canaria. Our fare was only 107 EUR per person - much cheaper than competing flights on Iberia. The 2 1/2 hour flight seemed to drag but we were rewarded with a great vacation once we got to Grand Canary. Now, if you're not familiar with the Canary Islands, that's not surprising. While the islands are packed with Brits, Scandinavians and Germans (lots of Germans), we only heard one other American during our stay. In fact, a waitress at a restaurant in Puerto de Mogan told us that we were the second Americans she had met in two years (!). The Canaries are big with Europeans but virtually unknown to Americans.

From Friday until the following Wednesday, we came to find that the Canaries have amazing weather. For an island like Grand Canary (and this applies to Tenerife, Fuerteventura, etc.), the southern end is typically dry and sunny while the northern end tends to be cooler but damper and lusher. Grand Canary's southern end, particularly our location at the Sheraton Salobre, was very reminiscent of the landscape in Palm Springs. Still, each and every day, there might be a few clouds here in there but we were typically blessed with plenty of sunshine, temperatures in the 70s and a comfortable ocean breeze. Evenings were relatively cool and dry - overall, really really nice.

Stylish Sun Loungers at the
Sheraton Salobre Offered Stunning Views

At the Sheraton Salobre, we found a very tranquil environment in a hotel that, frankly, we really enjoyed. I'll provide a more extensive write-up on the Sheraton later but suffice it to say that it really had so much to offer - great design, tons of amenities, several food options, excellent service... the list goes on. The views from the hotel were stunning - each room had a balcony and the pools (especially the sunset pool on the 11th floor) all faced gorgeous scenery. The hotel offered a daily shuttle down to their own beach house on Maspalomas. The bus ran from 10:00 - 7:00 each day - very convenient.

Loungers Along Maspalomas Beach

Maspalomas offers a nice long golden sand beach with plenty of room, be it on rented chairs (2 chairs and an umbrella are 7.50 EUR for the day) or with your own towel and umbrellas. The beach stretches from the lighthouse, runs in front of the massive Maspalomas dunes and eventually connects with Playa Del Ingles. Starting at the lighthouse is Meloneras beach, a rocky coastline that is more conducive for surfing in the summer months. The beach closest to the lighthouse is more family-oriented beach but you will come across topless women. Don't get too excited, guys... you're more likely to see a topless Bea Arthur than a topless Heidi Klum. You'll also hear a lot of German and a humorous roaming fruit salesman (wassermelon...)

When it comes to eating, you can take a taxi from pretty much anywhere to the "faro de Maspalomas" (faro is Spanish for lighthouse). From the plaza in front of the lighthouse, you can go one of two ways... Heading to the left of the lighthouse will take you to a cheesier grouping of restaurants and tacky tourist shops. You're more likely to find cheesy T-shirts, knock-off VW hats, Grand Canary towels and the like.

The Promenade to the Left of the Faro by Meloneras Beach

Heading to the right of the lighthouse will lead to higher end restaurants, bars and shops. The shops tend to lean towards more expensive items and, in many ways, are more reminiscent of airport duty-free shops (think plenty of high end clothing lines combined with shoes, accessories, etc.) There are also individual boutiques like Izod and Hugo Boss. The restaurants are of a better quality with nicer outdoor seatings. Two of the more popular ones are Grand'Italia (recommended to us by a taxi driver) and Faro (great paella!). Grand'Italia is extremely popular so you might feel somewhat rushed. Faro (next door) was not like that at all. Both had very friendly staff. One staff member at Faro is obsessed with Area 51 and Roswell so if he finds out you're American, you'll hear him talk about it all night. It was quite funny.

Just past the restaurants to the right of the lighthouse is the Centro Comercial (mall) Varadero with a mixed bag of stores. Heading through the centro comercial, you'll pop out at the other end to where there are other stores, restaurants, etc. Ultimately, if you're hitting the beach, you'll spend more time to the left of the lighthouse. If you're going out in the evening, you'll spend more time to the right.

The Quaint Streets of Vegueta in Las Palmas

Now, from Maspalomas, you can catch buses to several spots on the island. One worthwhile trip is to Las Palmas, the capital of the island and the 7th largest city in Spain. I'll talk about that in another post. Your best bet is to take the number 50 or the number 30 bus. The number 50 runs less often (5 past the hour) but makes fewer stops. The number 30 runs more often but also makes more stops. Buses are a great value, especially since taxis in the Canaries are not cheap. A one-way ride from the faro to Las Palmas was a little over 5 EUR per person. With a taxi, you would probably be looking at 70 EUR. We took the bus to Las Palmas and it made for a great day trip.

Sunny Times at Puerto De Mogan

Another excellent day trip is Puerto de Mogan - a picturesque little fishing village that has grown with tourism. You can dedicate half a day to visiting Puerto de Mogan or make it an evening visit. You can take a taxi there or catch a boat that runs there from Puerto Rico and Arguinequin.

If you rent a car, you open your options up and can get to scores of smaller towns or deep into the mountains to go hiking. Really, there is so much to do in Grand Canary. This applies to the other islands, too. While we enjoyed Grand Canary, I think our next visit to the Canaries would be to Fuerteventura, Lanzarote or one of the smaller islands like La Palma. All have plenty to offer and, if you like to surf, you'll find great breaks on all the islands.

On Wednesday, we headed back to Madrid for our stay at the Hotel De Las Letras. That night, we met up with my cousins for tapas in Plaza Santa Ana. It was a great way to cap off our visit and get ready to head back to the States. As you know, our experience flying home left much to be desired but, overall, we had a great trip.

More details to follow. Next up, Canada...


Hotels to Check out in Spain

Inside the Room Mate Mario

I'm slowly digging myself out of this post-vacation hole. Being a planner by nature, I left myself in a situation where I wouldn't be too overwhelmed upon our return. I see the light at the end of the tunnel and it's only noon on the day after we returned. I did have 360 e-mails waiting for me but I was able to nuke most of them - you get to realize how much crap you get via e-mail each and every day.

Anyway, our itinerary was as follows:

May 22 - Leave Houston to Madrid (via Newark)
May 23 - Arrive in Madrid (mid-morning arrival so 1/2 day in Madrid)
May 24 - Madrid
May 25 - Madrid to Gran Canaria (morning flight so 1/2 day in GC)
May 26-29 - Gran Canaria
May 30 - Gran Canaria to Madrid
May 31 - Madrid back to Houston (via Newark)

We stayed in three hotels during our trip. I would recommend all three as good options. I'll provide more detail later but here is a quick blurb on each one:

Room Mate Mario Hotel - As the taxi driver put it, we were in the "centro, centro, centro" of Madrid. Pleasant service, a cozy but comfortable room, hip modern design, an outstanding location and a good rate. Located a minute away from the Opera metro stop and just a few paces away from Calle Arenal. A short walk to the Palacio Real and the now pedestrianized Plaza Del Oriente.

Sheraton Salobre Golf Resort and Spa - A 10 minute taxi drive from the faro in Maspalomas but feels like a world away. The hotel offers a much more luxurious and tranquil alternative to the tourist-jammed resorts of Maspalomas and Playa Del Ingles. The hotel's design is stunning with great attention to detail in materials, amenities and pools... 7 pools. We really loved staying there. The rooms were well-designed and the bathrooms were cavernous by European standards. Service was excellent, an outstanding breakfast buffet and the hotel's beach house was terribly convenient. Highly recommended.

Hotel Del Las Letras - A prestigious address on Madrid's Gran Via. The hotel is focused on sleek, modern but comfortable design with an emphasis on the literary world. Service was not as warm as our other hotels but we really enjoyed our "plus" room with a private terrace. The hotel has 7 rooms with terraces - they're worth the extra expense. The breakfast buffet was reasonable but not included in the rate. The hotel is right by plenty of shopping, metro stops and a 10-15 minute walk to Puerta Del Sol or the Plaza Mayor.

If we were to pick our favorite, it would easily be the Sheraton Salobre - hands down.

Shopping Tip

Most first-time or repeat visitors to Madrid or other large Spanish cities typically stop by El Corte Ingles, Spain's largest and most well-known department store. With 70 locations in Spain and Portugal, it is the third largest-company in Spain. Visitors who stay in the center of Madrid are likely to stop by the complex of 3 El Corte Ingles buildings on Calle Preciados, adjacent to the Puerto Del Sol. The two locations closest to the plaza specialize in books and music/movies. The third and largest building is the actual department store.

Floors are divided by department - piso 0 has cosmetics, jewelry, accessories and the like, piso 1 has children's clothing and so on... There's plenty to see on each floor so take your time exploring - you're likely to come across many international brands as well as scores of local and European brands not found in the U.S. Whatever you do, make it a point to ride the elevator or the escalator all the way up to the 7th floor to the Oportunidades department. This is the sale department where reduced and clearance items from the different floors eventually end up. While we did our fair share of shopping in the store, we also found some good deals on the 7th floor. Some examples:
  • A large canvas tote bag for 19 EUR
  • Two infant onesies at 12 EUR each - discounted 33%
  • An ITALIA t-shirt for 6 EUR
The department had rack after rack of reduced clothes, luggage, housewares, etc. While on the 7th floor, stop by the store's cafeteria for a cortado or a slice of tortilla.

Tired but Back in One Piece

We made it back from Europe in one piece - our flight from Newark to Houston, though was delayed by four hours by apparently disgruntled traffic controllers. 3 1/2 of those hours were spent sitting on the plane in the tarmac as traffic control moved around from one "parking spot" to another. Fortunately, everyone was very civil and the pilot kept the situation from getting tense by informing us often and in a light-hearted manner. Kudos to Continental.

So, I'll have some good stuff on our trip to Madrid and Grand Canary. Stay tuned...

In the meantime, here is a good article from the New York Times on tips for dealing with long delays.