The Best Store in Houston

Two Saturdays ago, we met up with one of my clients who happened to be visiting Houston from Plantation, Florida. Here are a couple of tips on what to do in Houston, based on our activities from that morning.

One of our favorite places for breakfast in Houston is Buffalo Grille - an always buzzing breakfast place with two locations - one at 3116 Bissonnet (the original near Buffalo Speedway) and one at 1301 Voss (near Woodway/Voss). Now... mind, you... I call it a breakfast place. Tuesday through Saturday, both are open until 9:00. If they serve anything other than breakfast, I wouldn't know. I've never wandered from the breakfast menu.

Anyway, either location is a great place for a nice filling meal. Chances are that when you get there, the line will be out the door. Yes, it's that popular. Just remember three things... the line moves quickly, don't hold the door open (you'll let the A/C out) and don't hold a table until you place your order. The third point is particularly worth noting as it's considered poor form at Buffalo Grill to snag a table before you've actually ordered.

The pancakes are Buffalo Grill are legendary - unless you have a big appetite, you'll only need one. Waffles are quite large, too. I normally opt for migas (although not liked I used to before I lost weight), an omelet or breakfast tacos. Prices are reasonable and the menu is huge. Whatever you choose, you won't leave unsatisfied.

Now, when we went, we were at the Bissonnet location. From there, we drove east on Bissonnet, turned south on Kirby, headed under 59 and turned right on West Alabama until we got to the best store in town - Kuhl-Linscomb. Located at 2424 West Alabama, Kuhl-Linscomb offers a unique shopping destination with an overwhelming number of products. You could spend all morning here... housewares, furniture, fine china, bath and body products, accessories, linens, baby products, pet products, books, etc. etc. etc. Really, it goes on and on and on. The selection is dizzying. I can't even begin to list the product lines and many of them are completely foreign to me (that's because they are foreign). It's not a run-of-the-mill selection as many of the products are hard to find. Their web page offers a glimpse (and then some)

When you walk into the store, you'll soon realize that you've only scratched the surface. In fact, Kuhl-Linscomb is not only made up of the main storefront at 2424 West Alabama, it also encompasses four other buildings. These other buildings are actually houses that have been repurposed into retail storefronts. Buildings one and two, for example, house antiques, high end modern furnishings, linens, china, Alessi, baby furniture and accessories, etc. Building three is filled with modern pieces like Eames chairs, Starck designs, etc. Also, outside the main building, you'll find some interesting and quirky outdoor pieces as well as the entrance into the tiny but sometimes treasure-filled clearance room. You never know what you'll find in there.

It's Easy to Pass the Time at Kuhl-Linscomb

The national press caught on to Kuhl-Linscomb a long time ago and even international publications sing the store's praises. Whether you live in town or just happen to be visiting for the weekend, Kuhl-Linscomb could very well be considered Houston's most interesting and worthwhile store.


No Excuse on the Road

Here's a good one from Men's Health - The Workout that Travels With You. Other than your bodyweight, the only thing you need is a jump rope. If you can't swing traveling with a jump rope (not a huge undertaking), there's other options for you, as well. No excuses...

Help for Those Stuck on a Plane

I just spotted an article called Lessons from a Summer Flight Nightmare - something eerily reminiscent of my wife and I went through in Newark earlier this year. Our situation, three hours, was comparatively speaking not as bad. However, situations do get out of hand. This article shares some good stories on how these situations happen and what you can do before and during a flight. I found it helpful.


History and Charm on the Rhine River

Visitors to Germany typically count a trip along the Rhine River as the highlight of their vacation. Having visited the Rhine twice - once in 1998 and another time in 1999 - I found the area fascinating. The rich history and stunning scenery make it an absolute for those visiting Germany.

During my trip in 1999, I visited Bacharach with two of my business associates. While there, I picked up a copy of a two-page flyer on the area. Since the flyer does not attribute the information to any one person, I thought I would reproduce it here. The little flyer is quite lengthy so I've typed up the first page below. I'll include the second page later. As you'll see, particularly in the last paragraph, some of the English is quite colorful.

Bacharach: History and Interesting Sights

Celtic Foundation: Passed later in the the possession of the Archbishops of Cologne. The latter granted the region of the four valleys of Bacharach together with Burg Stahleck to the Count Palatine Conrad of Hohenstaufen. After the marriage of Agnes von Hahenstaufen, it passed into the hands of the Welfs of Brunswick in 1194 and then to Wittelsbach as a result of another marriage in 1225. Until the treaty of Lunevile in 1801, it remained in the possession of the Prince Electors and the Rhenish Counts Palatine.

The well-preserved town fortifications of the 14th century (built 1322-1366) comprise the old walls with many towers encircling the old town. There is an interesting walk round the battlements along the Rhine.

The Church of St. Peter: Protestant parish church in the centre of the town. Built at various periods. Building was commenced about 1100 and completed with the church tower in the 14th century (Romanesque Gothic transition style). In contrast with the comparatively low choir, built by an earlier architect, the nave of the church rises to an impressive height. There are two side galleries and one organ loft, romanesque triforia, transept, continuing over the small side naves, medieval fresco paintings, half-columns on remarkable pedestals, decorative pendants on the keystones of the arches, a number of interesting tombs of medieval knights and noble families. The Catholic parish church on the southeastern corner of the town is a simple but impressive building erected by the Capuchin Order in the 17th century. The crenellated wall enclosing the presbytery garden forms a harmonic whole with the church. The inside of the church is simple and undecorated in the Baroque style of the 18th century. Barrel vaulting and baroque altars.

The Chapel of St. Werner (ruins): is the symbol of Bacharach; staircase with 100 steps leading up to the Church of St. Peter. This was once the site of the chapel of St. Cunibert. The new church - with the name from the boy Werner - was commenced in 1294. It took 140 years to build, as the cost was met solely from donations offered by pilgrims.

The body of Werner was found near Bacharach. The research from the professor of diocese - history, Pauly in Trier, have resulted that the boy probably was killed by a sexual murder. Soon after this incident Jews were accused, they have killed the boy and take his blood for rituals. Werner was venerated as a saint from the people. The chapel, which was building to his honour, attracted many important pilgrims. The historian Iserloh Munster of catholic church has refuted final the accusation and proved as a fiction of the racial delusion. Werner was canceled in saint-calendar of the catholic church. The chapel of St. Werner was destroyed in 1689 during the Palatine war of succession with Bacharach. Since then, it has been protected as an ancient monument. In the 18th century the northern wing was removed as it was in danger of falling down.

Part two... coming soon.


The View Tastes Good at La Vista

How about a tale of contrasting posts? Well, you've seen me mention La Vista as a great place to eat on Memorial Drive in Houston. Similar to their original location on Fountainview, La Vista is wildly popular. The night of the week is irrelevant - unless it's pouring outside, you can expect the restaurant to be filled to the gills with diners and a hearty line of customers waiting to be seated. Neighborhood locals, young couples, families and frequent "girls night out" groups flock to this cozy Italian restaurant.

Some friends joined us for dinner last night. Armed with three choices for dinner, we opted for La Vista. It was somewhat muggy outside so rather than sit under the large covered patio (a delight when the misters are on), we opted for an inside table.

The food at La Vista is not completely authentic as far as Italian goes (I'm as picky as you can get) but excellent nonetheless. For example, you'll never run across something like Cinnamon Coffee Cumin Crusted Pork Tenderloin in Italy but that doesn't mean it's not good. They're inventive and the food is tasty and reasonably priced. I had the medium rare Beef Tenderloin - "Port wine apricot and cherry sauce with roasted potatoes and wilted baby field greens" - and it was exquisite! Really... it was good! Our friend, Clint, who infamously cleans up other people's plates, can attest to the quality of the meat. And, yes, the apricot and cherry sauce was somethin' else! It washed down well with a nice pinot noir.

This was the third time we'd dropped by La Vista over the past 2 weeks - one night for pizza to go (great personal pizzas like the Del Bosco with mushrooms, asiago cheese, sweet sugar, caramalized onions and sage) and another for pasta on the patio. If you're trying to eat healthy, you can get inventive with the menu. Beef tenderloin, for example, is a lean cut of meat. Rather than roasted potatoes as a side, I requested grilled veggies. While wine is loaded with antioxidants, alcohol is mostly empty calories so limit how much you drink (sensible advice no matter what). The desserts are huge so either skip dessert or order one dessert with four forks. Entrees come a house salad and a vinaigrette so you can get your greens, too. As for pasta, stick to non-cream sauces. No matter how many times I forget, they don't have wheat pasta so you'll have to make do with regular pasta.

A couple of notes... the restaurant has a wine list and beer but it is BYOB. Corkage is $7.00/bottle. If you get there at 6:00, you can probably find a table. If you can stand the heat, outdoor seats are usually filled last. They don't take reservations and it seems quite popular for groups so keep that in mind.

No matter which location you choose - 12665 Memorial Drive or 1936 Fountainview Drive - the food is excellent, the atmosphere is nice and the crowd is always lively.

Eating Right, Part Deux

Two months ago, I posted an entry on Eating Right on the Go. I included some of my personal tips on how to avoid eating garbage while traveling, particularly on business. Men's Health also has an article called The Traveling Man's Eating Plan with some additional sensible advice. If you are stuck ordering take out, there are ways to minimize the damage.


Smooth Skies in Denver

Well, as I posted yesterday, flight delays are up but for today, they don't seem to be happening to me. Am I speaking too quickly? Houston is clear... Denver is clear... could it be that I finally take off and land on time for the first time in who knows how long?

Headed to Denver this morning for a quick visit with one of my clients. We had a class taking place at a hotel in the Denver tech center. A great session, from what I saw. Thrifty was actually easy to work with today (another miracle) and the security line... well, it was miserably long this morning when I arrived in Denver - it was a breeze at 3:00. Denver's lines can be notorious.

So far, so good... let's pray that my streak keeps going. Just a few more e-mails from the President's Club. By the way, if you ever stop in Denver and are a President's Club member on Continental, the club is on the 4th floor in Terminal A - a really odd location (you'll see what I mean) but at least they have one.


Flight Delays are Up

Found yourself stuck at an airport, dealing with a flight delay or canceled flight during the past month? Looks like you weren't alone...

Three Tips: Munich

Three Tips on
Munich, Germany

Provided by Horn Fans poster LonghornLawyer

1) Use Public Transportation: You can take the S-Bahn from the airport into the city. Once in the city, the subway and bus systems are remarkably easy to use, even for Europe. The only reason you would need to get a car is if you want to do a side trip outside of the city. Of course . . .

2) Munich Is A Great Base For Day Trips: Dachau, depressing though it is, is well worth the visit and is a very quick drive outside of Munich. Also, you can take the Autobahn toward Salzburg and visit Schloss Herrenchemsee, built by King Ludwig II to resemble Versailles. Ludwig's other castles at Neuschwanstein and Linderhof are also well worth a visit, though it would be a long day to do them all in a single day out of Munich.

3) Spend An Afternoon At the Bier Garten In The Englischer Garten: Along the way there, you can see the meadow where everyone in Munich gets naked to sunbathe. And even if you aren't there in September for Oktoberfest, you can get a bit of the Oktoberfest spirit at the biergarten under the Chinese Tower.


Great Italian Surf Spots

Surfing at Forte Dei Marmi

I'm starting to think that I need to bring my board the next time we hit the beach in Italy. Looks like quite a few places have great waves, particularly in Sardegna. Below are a handful of videos from YouTube that provide a glimpse of some of the better spots in my homeland. GlobalSurfers includes a good listing of surf spots around the country and SurfReport.it has a Google Earth driven web page with tons of spots - from the mainland to islands like Sardegna and Sicilia.

Going from top to bottom...

Pontile Forte Dei Marmi


Wine Flows Freely in Quebec

I'm always fascinated by visiting grocery stores in other countries... they always provide an interesting glimpse into the everyday products people use, the local cuisine and much more. You also get a sense for prices and the differences from country to country. For example, buying extra virgin olive oil in Italy is much less expensive than the U.S. The same goes for maple syrup here in Canada vs. the U.S.

So, we stopped in a SAQ Depot store while in Hull, Quebec (right across the river from Ottawa). When we drove past it, I saw that they were a wine and spirits store and I wanted to pick up a bottle of Canadian wine as a souvenir. By the way, if you haven't heard of SAQ (I hadn't)...

The Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ) is a state-owned corporation responsible for the trade of alcoholic beverages.

As a state-owned corporation, the SAQ provides a major income stream to both levels of government in the form of taxes, duties, and a dividend payment to the Quebec government.

Now, the SAQ Depot wasn't just any old wine store. Yes, you can buy a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc or rum. However, if want to buy several bottles of everyday wine, SAQ allows you to pick and bottle your own wine in bulk.

As you come into the store, you'll spot a long wall lined with wine "stations" as I'll call them. Each station provides information on the wine, pricing and a tap for tasting and filling bottles.

After you've selected the wine you want, take a taste to make sure it lives up to your standards. I selected a nice red wine.

If the wine works for you, you can fill up as many bottles of wine as you need. We watched someone fill a case while we were there.

You then walk over to a contraption that allows you to cork the wine before you take it to the front and check out. If you'd like, you can even buy foil for the neck or labels. They pretty much have it all.

There are 6 SAQ Depot locations in Quebec including in Hull (Ottawa), Montreal and Quebec City. You'll also come across other SAQ locations like SAQ Express, SAQ Classique, SAQ Selection and SAQ Signature. Each one has a slightly different emphasis. SAQ Convenience stocks about 400 different products that can be quickly purchased while SAQ Signature focuses on more exclusive options.


Weather Wisdom from a Guest Blogger

One of my colleagues, Jason, is a seasoned road-warrior... much more so than I am as he is constantly criss-crossing the lower 48. Traveling that much, you need to have a good grasp on the weather so you can avoid flight delays and act accordingly when the right storm is in the wrong place and your plane is going to be grounded. Below is a blog entry from Jason on how to keep tabs on weather... much greater insight than I could ever provide on the subject...

Many moons ago I had to fly to Boston for a business trip (where I am now actually…) It was my first trip to the city, and I had many people advising me on what to see (it’s crazy, they never seem to get that on business I see the airport, the highway from the airport to my final destination, and the inside of a classroom – I’m too tired or rushed to do much else.) and what to eat (I never turn down a good food recommendation.)

In addition to the "advice" bestowed upon me, I was under some pressure to perform. At the time, I had to teach a particular software platform (that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with) to people who just joined my company (we bought their firm, and boy is that a story in itself!) In essence, I was their first ambassador from my firm and I was under just a little bit of stress.

I have a great fleece jacket as a souvenir of that trip – specifically because I was so wrapped up in preparing for the business side of the trip, I was on autopilot in my packing. Hey – it was 80+ degrees in Atlanta, surely Boston would have the same beautiful weather! Um, not so much. Boston was overcast and COLD, so after swallowing my pride, I swung by a Burlington Coat Factory (headquartered in a ‘burb of Trenton, New Jersey, not the Burlington of Boston, Massachusetts fame.) and bought my wonderful fleece.

Don’t even get me started on the cost of coats when you buy them "out of season." Trust me; don’t forget to check the weather before you travel. Here are some of my favorite weather sites I visit – some of them are even on the useful site list the Travel Addict has posted in the right column!

From what I understand, the granddaddy of all weather information comes from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration Uncle Sam has deep pockets and has the time/resources to launch satellites and sponsor research helping us to "predict" the weather. Basically, everyone receives their weather info from NOAA and repackages it out to other companies. Frankly, this site is a burden to navigate, laden with facts and figures that only a Meteorologist could understand. But it’s fascinating to see what’s going on off the coast of Mexico and info about the latest El Nino. Oh yeah – they can give you your local forecast and weather warnings too. It ain’t pretty, but because of the depth of info here along with the respect that "the source" deserves – I give it an 82 out of 100 – worthy of the serious weather nut.

I have an old boss that happens to be a licensed pilot – he swears by the Aviation Weather Center . It’s an offshoot of NOAA, and although it has some pretty detailed charts of the current weather system, it is moderately useless for business travel planning. For that reason, I give it a 50 out of a 100)

The two big competitors out there are The Weather Channel and AccuWeather and constantly try to one-up each other. Both of them give me 15 days forecast (like I believe anything after 3 days!), hourly forecast, precipitation expectations, weather alerts, weather "news", and radar among other things. I like the interface of AccuWeather and I truly think they are a tad bit more accurate with the weather predictions. The Weather Channel has many many many ads on the site, but they just came out with a radar/Google maps mashup that really works well (try it out, it’s wicked cool!) Locally, The Weather Channel (92 out of 100) now has my vote because I can see a storm cell right above my house, but until they find a way to make the ads less intrusive, I’ll still pick AccuWeather (93 out of 100) for travel updates.

The Weather Underground has a great gimmick that allows the common person to set up weather stations and report conditions on their site. They have found a decent balance between the ads and info, but the site design reminds me of the Geocities era – very clunky. A good site for children…. I give it a 79 out of 100.

Intellicast is your basic site giving you what you need. Some ads to slog through, but I have to tell you, they give a nice snapshot of my local weather and this is the site I visit to check on severe weather – great info, current with a good interface. They get a 89 out of 100 from me.

It’s worth noting that almost every major website has some sort of weather info available. While that works for me on some trips, I really go to "the experts" for my travel planning.

Oh yeah, earlier in the blog the Travel Addict posted several flight tracking websites given. Check out this site from the FAA – it’s updated every 5 minutes, and I can’t understand everything on it, but I do recognize national delay patterns – usually due to weather, or "WX" - when I see them.

Bonus – The Storm Track – who would have thought that weather could be so interesting (or so scandalous?) Run by a couple of guys that really get off on tracking severe weather development – hurricanes, tsunamis and the like. Plus they are tracking the ouster of the head of the National Hurricane Center. And did you know that THE critical weather satellite used to track and predict hurricanes "could fail at any moment" and the government has plans to launch a replacement in 2016. Yup, those last two points are related, read on to find the connection.

Who needs reality TV when I have this to track? Safe travels everyone!


More privacy issues in London

No sooner did I post something on privacy issues in London that another article came out about additional camera concerns. Amazing what's happening in London - people are apparently quite upset about it but the public seems powerless to stop it. Scary.

"Big Brother" plans to automatically hand the police details of the daily journeys of millions of motorists tracked by road pricing cameras across the country were inadvertently disclosed by the Home Office last night.

Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, said: "It is one thing to ask the public for special measures to fight the grave threat of terrorism, but when that becomes a Trojan horse for mass snooping for more petty matters it only leads to a loss of trust in government."


Privacy Falls Down in London

Is privacy becoming a thing of the past in Britain? The number of closed-circuit cameras in the UK is actually stunning...

Britain is already the most tightly surveilled country in the world, according to civil liberty groups and security experts, with an estimated 4 million closed-circuit television cameras spying on roads, buildings, stations and shops.

Not only does that equate to one camera for every 14 people, it also means that in a major city like London -- where CCTV is ubiquitous -- people run the possibility of appearing on camera up to 300 times a day as they move around.

During a business trip to England in 1998, I remember my colleague pointing out all the cameras in his small town. I was surprised. Others have been for a while, too. Unfortunately, it looks like these issues may be coming to the U.S. as New York prepares to roll out 115 cameras that report to a central surveillance facility.


$99 Rates at the Hyatt Lost Pines

You'll remember that my wife and I stayed at the Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort this past March. I posted an entry our our very enjoyable stay. Well, it looks like all the rain this summer left the Hyatt with fewer guests... so ,they're running a $99.00/night promotion through July 31st. Just go to their web page and book a room a Sunday through Thursday. Use RAIN as the promo code. Rooms at this price are limited but, if you have a few spare days, it's worth checking out. We really liked it.

Looong lines at Hartsfield

Flew in and out of Atlanta earlier today to visit with a client. Here's just more proof that it's worth getting to the airport early... after having lunch at Joe D's, an Atlanta steakhouse, I headed back to Hartsfield only to find the longest security line I've ever seen in my life. Just downright brutal. The security line for elite and first class passengers took 1/2 hour - I can only imagine what the regular line was like. I made it to my flight after it had been boarding a while... no thanks, I'd rather get there early and check e-mail in the President's club rather than stress out over possibly missing a flight. Anyway, I heard the same was true yesterday - keep that in mind if have to catch a flight in Atlanta.

I'm off the road... for now. I may be heading to Denver for a day trip next week. We'll see...


Kitschy Name but a Nice Hotel

Wrapping up New Year's Eve at The Sherlock Holmes Hotel

During our January visit to London for New Year's Eve weekend, we stayed at a boutique hotel in Marylebone called The Sherlock Holmes. Despite the somewhat kitschy name due to it's convenience to Baker Street, the hotel provided us with a reasonably priced and very convenient stay. Below are my notes from our stay at the Sherlock Holmes.

The Location. You simply can't go wrong with the location - right in the middle of Marylebone and a short walk to Marylebone High Street (pictured to the left) with its countless shops, restaurants, markets and pubs. Next door to the hotel is a supermarket, liquor store, magazine stand and ac couple of casual eateries. For those who need their fix, Starbucks is one block north and Nando's, an excellent Portuguese chain, is right across the street. Several buses run in front of the hotel and the Baker Street tube stop (Picadilly line) is about two blocks to the north. Pretty much everything you might need is within a five minute walk. Slightly further afield are Oxford Street and Bond Street. Excellent nearby options without some of the absurd prices found elsewhere (relatively speaking, of course).

The Hotel's Common Areas. The front entrance leads directly into the hotel bar where a dozen or so groupings of tables and chairs are usually filled with hotel guests or patrons enjoying a drink or tapas served from the bar. The atmosphere is lively when the bar is busy - otherwise, it is quite comfortable and soothing. Just past the bar is the front desk.

Sherlock's Grill is to the left of the desk. We're not sure about the food since we didn't eat there save for breakfast (which was pleasant enough but not splendid). Hotel guests can opt for a rate that includes continental breakfast - fruit, cereal, breads, pastries/crossaints, yogurt, cheese and meats. Also included are coffee, tea or juice. You can order from the a la carte menu, as well. Service is a bit sketchy but since the food is self-serve, you don't need much once you order coffee. Adjacent to and behind the grill is a second, quieter lounge. This area is usually empty or, in some cases, occupied by small groups. There are couches, leather-back club chairs and upholstered armchairs. Walls are decorated with original art interspersed with tasteful Sherlock Holmes memorabilia. A great spot to chat or read a book. The piped in music can be a bit distracting if you're trying to read. Bar service is also available.

The basement level had a gym with two treadmills, an EFX, a recumbent bike, dumbells and exercise mats. Down the hall were a sauna and steam room. By the gym was a computer that could be used as an Internet point for 50p a minute (!)

The Room. We paid 114 pounds (about $220) a night for an executive room. The rate included continental breakfast, a welcome tray with wine, water, snacks and an upgraded room. If this is an upgraded room, I'm not sure about their regular rooms. The room itself was oddly-shaped... long but somewhat narrow. It had plenty of space, though, particularly by European standards. The full-size bed was also very comfortable - a rarity in many European hotels (and now, it wasn't two twins pushed together). The room also included a writing desk, two high-back chairs with a table and a limited amount of storage space. The closet was tiny as it was. This was made worse by the ironing board and in-room safe.

The bathroom was quite nice - well-appointed and spacious with the nice materials used were starting to show their age. Rather than the ubiquitous European glass partition, the tub/shower didn't have anything to keep water from splashing all over the floor and walls. Toiletries were by Moulton and Brown.

Overall. We were really happy with the location because we felt like Marylebone High Street offered so much. The hotel was nice enough - the amenities served us well and, yes, the room wasn't ideal but we did have space and, for 114 pounds a night, who can complain. Would I recommend it? Yes... just double-check your room.


Calle Campomanes - So Much in Central Madrid

One of the best ways to get to know a city like Madrid is to stay in the center of town, smack dab in the middle of the best restaurants, shops and historic sites. Typically, doing so comes with a cost as quality hotels in central business districts are often quite pricey. On the other hand, Calle Campomanes, a curvy little street located right by the Madrid opera house, offers a reasonable and hip alternative.

Click the photo for a larger view

The alternative is the Hotel Mario, run by Room Mate Hoteles. In fact, Campomanes offers more than just a hip hotel. Along this tiny street is a great restaurant, a quirky bookshop and a couple of other lodging options.

Hotel Mario - Cozy, quirky and a relative steal in central Madrid

To begin with, we loved our stay at the Mario. The size is totally manageable with a labyrinth of rooms spread across three floors. The design of the hotel is clean and modern with a few surreal touches thrown in for good measure. This is eminently noticeable in the hotel's common areas as well as in each guest rooms. Service at the front desk is friendly and attentive and the included buffet breakfast is more than satisfying. The breakfast room is a bright granny smith green with Starck-like chairs and bright windows overlooking the street. Rooms are "cozy" but comfortable and have nice modern bathrooms. Our room had a tiny balcony that opened to Campomanes. Rates are reasonable and can at times be secured for under 100 Euro... a true bargain.

The building at Campomanes 5 - just across the street - is the home of a hip restaurant, Chic Restaurant and Bar, and a bookshop, Libros Madrid.

Chic Restaurant Offers Style and Substance

The first thing you'll notice at Chic is the restaurant's uniform pink, white and gray color scheme. Stylish but comfortable. What will keep you there is the restaurant's excellent food - be it the restaurant's 11,50 EUR prix fixe lunch menu or their dinner fare. The prix fixe includes a primo, a segundo, a postre (dessert) or a coffee and bread. I had the bean and shrimp potage and calamari in squid ink with rice. My wife had the ensalada Mediterranea and the sauteed chicken breast with grilled vegetables. Tasty and well-priced.

Libros Madrid, Next Door to Chic

Libros Madrid is just next door and offers rare books, first editions and other antique titles. You have to ring a buzzer to enter the store. Once there, don't be surprised if the owner watches you like a hawk while milling at his writing desk with a cigarette in hand. The books are stacked from floor-to-ceiling with countless volumes, mostly in Spanish. Also available are antique Ottoman prints, vintage photographs, postcards and other paper ephemera.

Campomanes also offers food worth visiting at La Viuda Blanca and the four-star Hotel Meninas. Nearby are small Greek and Chinese restaurants, a paella restaurant by the opera, a metro stop (two minutes away - so convenient!) and Calle de Arenal. Budget-minded travelers can stay at the Los Amigos Backpackers' Hostel. So much, so close by. If you can get a room at the Mario or at the Meninas, you'll be glad you did.


Cool Canadian T-shirts

Looking for a cool souvenir from Canada or a nice T-shirt that doesn't look like every other Canadian T-shirt out there? Check out the clothing section of the CBC web page - the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. They have an impressive array of well-designed T-shirts, hoodies, onesies, hats and more... even stocking T-shirts for the upcoming FIFA U-20 World Cup. I picked up a ringer T-shirt with the 1958 logo of CBC-Radio Canada (to the left). Similar T-shirts are available with the 40s and 70s logo, as well. Of course, there are plenty of hockey shirts and some weird ones like the Radio 3 Salmon-Beaver shirt... must be an inside joke among Canadians.

You can also swing by their "boutique" on the Sparks Street Pedestrian mall in Ottawa.


The Place to Stay in Austin

Made a quick trip up to Austin today to visit a client who happens to be running one of our classes. I'm sitting in the lobby of the Embassy Suites in the Arboretum, waiting for the class to break for lunch as I don't want to interrupt them at an inopportune time. Rather than flying up, I made the 2 1/2 hour drive to Austin - a bit weird and boring without my wife since I can't remember the last time I came to Austin without her. I had planned on staying the night with her but due to a variety of reasons, I'm just going to drive back today.

I had made a reservation at the Hotel San Jose - a great hotel to visit if you happen to be coming to Austin. First off, the hotel is immensely popular as it has a great sense of style and is located smack dab in the middle of the SoCo or South Congress. Finding a room here on a weekend during Longhorn football season, for example, is impossible. Yes, you can be placed on the wait list but I've never had that pan out.

If you do stay, skip the shared bath rooms and look for something like a Grand Standard or a Double Queen, located off the street and in the courtyard. The rooms are more spacious and quiet. All rooms have Internet access, great toiletries (gotta love the MOP products they use) and great modern design. One of the best features of the hotel is the grounds - whether hanging out by the pool, enjoying a drink at the immensely popular courtyard lounge ('til midnight) or heading next door to Joe's Coffee Shop for a cup o' joe or breakfast.

We just love staying at this place - it has that "it" factor that you find in cool mid-century hotels in Palm Springs but is mostly lacking in Houston or Austin. Room rates are a little on the high side but you should at least stay there once.

Back to work...


Factory People Closing

My wife loves Factory People, a funky Austin boutique located on the always buzzing South Congress. It's always been very popular and received a ton of good press, even landing on the GQ100 list. I've always admired it for its style and cool architecture but apparently style and architecture weren't enough to keep the storefront open - it's going strictly online. Factory People is open for just a few more days as the whole store is 75% off. Got extra time while in Austin, walk a few doors down to The Continental Club. Roy Head of Treat Her Right fame plays on September 1st.

Oh... and here's a great place for a casual meal in Houston - Island Grill... also known as Island Smoothie. Popular with the Memorial area set, this tiny place has great pitas, healthy meals, smoothies, fish and much more. I'm partial to the fish pita. Located in a strip center at 5709 Woodway (right at Bering), there are a few spots inside and plenty of seating outdoors.


A bit of Canadian and Texan History.

In visiting Canada, I started realizing that I either had a complete lack of knowledge about Canadian history or I had pretty much forgotten what I had learned in school. What was the war of 1812 about? How did Canada play a role? What played a role in the French experience in Canada and why are the Quebecois so adamantly French. Well, while at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, I picked up a copy of The Illustrated History of Canada, a terrific book that takes you from the "first peoples" to the present. I've made it through about 100 pages. If you care about history, the book can help put your visit to Canada in context. Not a guide but a wortwhile companion to Canada.

On a different topic, while driving back to Cardinal from Montreal, we spent some time talking about lakes in Texas, namely Caddo Lake, the only natural lake in the state of Texas. Earlier this afternoon, I noticed that the Houston Chronicle was running an article on both Caddo Lake and Jefferson, a historic town on the banks of the lake. Apparently Jefferson has a very colorful history and is filled with restored buildings and houses. The town used to be the base of a very important inland port that eventually fell out of favor due to a variety of reasons. Nonetheless, with over 60 bed and breakfasts in town (including the first in Texas), Jefferson is supposed to be a great long weekend destination, be it from Dallas or Houston. The drive from Houston is 234 miles and from Dallas the drive is about 168 miles. The Marion County web page offers a great deal of information and searching online can lead to a treasure trove of information, as well.


Here comes the rain...

There are some battles you fight and some battles when you must back down. The flooded streets of Houston are a battle not worth fighthing. A while ago, I was stuck in a parking lot across from my office... I tried leaving to avoid the brunt of this storm but the streets surrounding our building are all pretty flooded. Let's just say my car does not have much ground clearance so I headed back to the office.

Now I'm on the third floor... I just watched a mini-cooper barrel head first into the deepest part of our flooded parking lot. A tsunami of rainwater enveloped the car. What may have seemed like a smart idea at the time turned out to be bad bad news for the driver. She just pulled over after her tailpipe started spewing white smoke. Some blue car did the same thing and I watched as water poured out from under the hood. Yeah... I think I'll stick around. As for the mini-cooper... it's not going anywhere, either.

Again , it really does beat drought.

10 Things to Do in Houston

So you're visiting Houston and you don't know what to do? Here are 10 things to do in Houston... some more random than others and in no particular order.

Drive to 2500 Summer Street, just within spitting distance of downtown, and walk around the parking lot of David Adickes SculpturWorx Studio. Adickes' sculptures tend to be very divisive but like them or not, wandering around a parking lot full of his sculptures makes for some great photographs and a unique memory.

Sculptures galore at SculturWorx

It's getting harder to find a quality dive that's not likely to land you in jail or running for your life. With the demise of legendary places like The Aquarium (not the garish downtown restaurant), they're harder to come by. One place that still fits the bill is Warren's Inn at 307 Travis. Located on Market Square, the bar attracts a mixed crowd. Walk across the street into the dilapidated square and walk along the criss-crossing sidewalks for signs of how the area used to look.

Since you've already made it to Market Square, take a short stroll to La Carafe at 813 Congress. Houston may be relatively young city but this wine bar occupies the oldest building in town. Rumor has it the bar has been around for 130 years... not sure if that's true but step inside and you may be convinced. It's a great place dripping with atmosphere - excellent for a first date, hanging out with a group of friends or whatever.

The towering entrance to the Children's Museum of Houston

This one is so obvious but it's still worth mentioning - head to the Museum District and check out the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (with a stunning modernist building designed by Mies Van der Rohe and one designed by Rafael Moneo), the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the amazing Menil Collection (a short drive down West Alabama to Sul Ross), the Children's Musuem of Houston, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum (free and highly worth visiting), the Holocaust Museum Houston and much more. If you decide to visit the museum district by passing through midtown, stop at Farrago for a bite.

Jog on over to Memorial Park, one of America's largest urban parks and go for a run, a bike ride or a round of golf. The 2.93 mile course that circles the golf course is extremely popular, regardless of the weather and is great for a workout and people-watching. Several paved and mountain bike trails are also available. The golf course is one of the best municipal golf courses in the country and, of course, there's tennis, baseball, a pool and more. Not too far away, you have other options like Bayou Bend and the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center. When you're at Memorial Park, you're in the area so you may as well drive by the beer can house at 222 Malone... everyone recommends it despite its quirkiness and the fact that some people can't stand it. Just drive by and take a peek.

Funky signage on Washington Avenue

Wander north from the beer can house until you get to Washington Avenue. You'll notice that the area is undergoing a transition from rundown and crackhousish to up-and-coming. New townhouses are being built and restaurants, stores and coffee shops are sprouting up everywhere. Some highlights include Max's Wine Dive, Metro Retro, Catalan, Cova, Star Pizza, and many many more. Start from the Wescott end and work your way east heading towards downtown.

Depending on when you're in town, you're likely to come across a festival to enjoy, particularly in the spring or the fall. There's the Houston International Festival, the Bayou Arts Festival, the Children's Festival, the Texas Crawfish and Music Festival in Old Town Spring, the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, FotoFest, the Greek Festival, the Turkish Festival and more. Granted, when it comes to festivals, we're no Montreal but you're sure to find something you'll enjoy. Of course, if you've got the time, head up to Warrentown and Round Top for Antique Weekend.

Shop and dine in two unique Houston areas worth visiting - The Heights and Rice Village. The Heights was considered Houston's first suburb and is filled with bungalows, cottages and Victorian homes. Two main areas to visit are funky 19th street and Studemont. Restaurants worth visiting in the Heights include Shade, The Glass Wall and Onion Creek Cafe'. Rice Village, on the other hand, is located just west of Rice University and is a great pedestrian area full of funky shops, boutiques, restaurants and more. This is a great area to pass the day. Three places we like are Prego, Mi Luna and Benjy's. Reservations are highly recommended, particularly at Glass Wall and Prego.

A beautiful October day at Hermann Park

It may be hot and humid in the summertime but one great way to pass an evening is to take in a show at Miller Outdoor Theatre. Bring a blanket, a bottle of wine and some food to enjoy a free show under the stars. Located in Hermann park, just south of the museums, the theater has been offering up cultural events for over 84 years. Upcoming events include Romeo and Juliet, Beehive, the Children's Hilltop Festival, Madame Butterfly and the 11th Houston Grand Taiko Festival. Get to the area early to wander around Hermann Park and even take in a day at the zoo. Bring mosquito spray.

Finding that Best Fare

Ever heard about Yapta? I just found out about it and I'm going to give it a test run to see how it works. It apparently helps you keep track of fares on specific itineraries, alerts you to new fares and can reportedly help you get refunds when fares drop below your ticketed amount. Sounds too good to be true? I'm not sure... I'll give it a shot and let you know how it works.

Speaking of things to do in Houston, you'll never see me recommend the Kemah boardwalk. In fact, it must suck to live in Kemah and have to deal with Emperor Fertitta and his persistently tacky projects.


Thoughts on Canada

I was just thinking about our trip to Canada and how much we enjoyed it. As you know, our time was primarily spent along the St. Lawrence in southern Ontario, in Ottawa and in Montreal. I thought I would share a few observations and comments...

  • If you're planning on driving into Canada or crossing back and forth across the border, you'll find that Canadian border control agents are relatively humorless. Any attempt at humor tended to fall flat. American border control agents, while more thorough (ex: making you open the trunk) at least had a sense of humor.
  • Speaking of humor, we were surprised to find most Canadians we met were relatively reserved and, in a sense, cautiously friendly. My wife referred to some as boring. At the same time, those who were outgoing were very friendly and engaging. It seemed like it was either feast or famine. Surprisingly, we found people in Montreal were much friendlier than in Ottawa. We expected the opposite.
  • Speed limits in Canada are awfully low. Major highways like 416 or 401 are only 100 k/h or 60 mph. Now, I would never condone speeding, of course, but I did notice that most people drove around 120 - 130 k/h. Reading the speed on a U.S. car is annoying since the kilometers are much smaller on the speedometer.
  • Speaking of numbers, let's talk taxes. Any perceived discount from the exchange rate (and it's not that much) is quickly wiped out by absurd taxes. City and provincial taxes can add up to 15% to a transaction.
  • Hanging out in a small town, you soon realize that, yes, you are the outsider. People definitely know that you aren't one of them. In some places, it was a good 5 minutes before people stopped staring at us.
  • Ontario is truly a bilingual province. Even in small towns like Morrisburg, we would hear both French and English. Signs are bilingual most everywhere, particularly in Ottawa. Of course, as soon as you cross the Ottawa river into Quebec, everything is French. Bilingual signs are, for the most part, out the window. While everyone will assume you speak French, they do speak English. Just like in France, I found that a little French goes a long way to earn respect.
  • The whole French and English dynamic is due to an very interesting and rich history. If possible, pick up a Canadian history book while visiting. Building up your personal knowledge of Canadian history can add a new dimension to your travels up north.

Montreal Travel Blog

More of why I loved Montreal and can't wait to go back.

Crazy weather in London

Looks like London got a taste of some Houston-like weather...

At the same time, Houston keeps getting more and more rain. While this past June wasn't as wet as last June (7+ inches), the rain just stop. From my perspective, it sure beats drought.


Towns along the St. Lawrence River

Southern Ontario is dotted with dozens of tiny towns and river communities along the St. Lawrence River. Some are more interesting than others. Below is a quick rundown of the towns we visited on our brief vacation.

Rivermede in Cardinal, ON

Cardinal - This was our launching point for our stay in Canada as we stayed at Rivermede. The town is quite tiny - maybe a couple hundred people so there really isn't anything for a tourist to do. For those interested in diving, there are a couple of submerged ships located offshore - the Wee Hawk and the Conestoga.

Prescott - About 15 minutes west of Cardinal, just past the turnoff for the international bridge, is Prescott, a town of about 5,200. The town is referred to as "the fort town" as it is the site of Fort Wellington National Historic Site. Also nearby is the Battle of the Windmill National Historice Site. The town has a tiny downtown area but does include a nice restaurant - the Grenville Arms Bistro at 513 King Street. The food there is actually quite good. Right next door is the incredibly charming Ships Anchor Inn, housed in a 175 year old stone house.

Merrickville - Just up 416 and off of 43 (or straight up the road from Maitland) is the charming town of Merrickville, Ontario. Located on the banks of the historic Rideau Canal, the town has several great little restaurants, a few charming B&Bs and plenty of shops. Dubbed by many as the most beautiful village in Ontario, it's an easy day trip from the St. Lawrence river or Ottawa. We had lunch on an outdoor patio at the Yellow Canoe Cafe - a casual little cafe across the street from the canal. Walk around town to enjoy the architecture, the Rideau canal and the Blockhouse Museum.

Downtown Brockville

Brockville - Located another 15 minutes west of Prescott is Brockville, a particularly beautiful town on the St. Lawrence. Driving into town, we were amazed by the array of gorgeous houses... just one after the other. The main square is about as pretty as you can get with plenty of charm and European character as it was founded by Loyalist refugees displaced during the American Revolution. There are several great restaurants and shops in town and some great photo opps. Oh yes, and you can take boat tours from Brockville to the Thousands Islands although you might want to take a tour from Alexandria Bay instead (on the NY side).

Morrisburg - Admittedly, there's not much to see in Morrisburg itself. Though you'll find plenty of nice houses and pretty churches by the river, you'll soon realize that the town has no downtown. It turns out that both Morrisburg and Iroquois (just up the river) were moved back from the river when it was widened. Each lost their respective downtowns. Morrisburg is really lacking in restaurants unless you count the restaurants located at the McIntosh Country Inn. For the most part, Morrisburg is known for Upper Canada Village and Prehistoric World.

Of course, probably the most worthwhile town to visit along the St. Lawrence is the historic city of Kingston. We didn't get a chance to make it there but heard it was very much worthwhile. Further downstream is Cornwall, just a short drive from Quebec. Again, if you're going to visit the Thousand Islands, common wisdom is to catch a boat from Alexandria Bay rather than from the Canadian side as you'll be able to see Millionaire's Row, Boldt Castle and Singer Castle.


Apple Ice Wine and other Souvenirs

When traveling for pleasure (or business), we like to look for unique souvenirs - something that doesn't look the usual cheesy T-shirt or snowglobe but it more typical to a particular region or country.

On our last day in Montreal, we stopped by a local SAQ Express to pick up a bottle of wine for a friend. While there, I bought a small bottle of ice cider or ice apple wine for us to enjoy. You can pick up small gift-sized bottles for around $4.50 CAN at SAQ locations or larger bottles for under $20 CAN.

The brand on the left is what we picked up - Domaine Pinnacle Ice Apple Wine. Other brands that can easily be found include...

Merridale Estate Cidery
Cidrerie du Minot
La Fache Cachee' de la Pomme
Cidrerie Michel Jodoin
Domaine Steinbach

Of course, one of the most common souvenirs picked up in Canada is maple syrup. You'll easily find maple syrup for sale in areas like ByWard Market in Ottawa, grocery stores or souvenir shops. In general, you should pay around $4.50 CAN for a 250 ml jug of No. 2 syrup (most used for pancakes, waffles, etc.) No. 1 syrup is darker, richer and more expensive as it is typically used for cooking and by gourmands. Souvenir shops will overprice for maple syrup but you should be able to find good deals. Glass bottles shaped like maple leafs are much more expensive and don't travel as well. Plastic jugs offer good value and portability while cans of syrup are usually purchased by locals and are the least expensive. Tins, while attractive, don't quite travel as well if mishandled.