Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Random Photo: Killarney Ireland

Overlooking the lake at The Lake Hotel, Killarney, Ireland. This was one of the most amazing places I have ever stayed. We were there in October and it was so peaceful and quiet. The grounds, the rooms, the staff - all were amazing.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

TSA in the International Terminal at SFO

The security line tonight was very short in the international terminal at SFO. However, they were directing everyone to the body scanner vs. the metal detector. I refused the scan and went through the metal detector and then waited. 

The TSA agent who did the pat-down recorded it and asked why I did not want to go through the body-scanner. I actually found this the most invasive part of the whole process - none of their business why I don't want to go through!

The secured my belongings and then took me over to the chairs - it was a public pat-down but I was informed if I wanted it to be private it could be. The TSA agent was polite and it was over fairly quick and wasn't as invasive as I expected. What was interesting is she then put her gloves through the machine that tests for bomb and explosive residue. I had to wait for that to be completed and then could gather my stuff and leave. 

-- Happy Travels!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Heading to London

It has been ages since I was in London and I would be looking forward to the trip except for:

  1. TSA groping (I will be opting out of the body scan if requested to go through it)
  2. There is snow in the UK currently. Lots of it. 
Good news - it is a direct flight so no delayed or cancelled connections!

-- Happy Travels (?)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Full body scans at the airport

I can't say I have all the facts in this one, but I do find it interesting the New Jersey government is standing up to the feds on this topic.

Does anyone out there actually enjoy flying anymore? I love to travel, but flying has just become more and more depressing and demoralizing. Rude staff, problems with online technology, higher fares, fees on top of fees on top of more fees. Now add the new security screenings to the list.

Is it necessary? Last I heard, x-rays are bad for you. Even pilots are balking at the invasive technique. This all feels like something where one guy knows another guy and the are BFFs. Guy #1 owns a company that makes full-body X-ray machines while Guy #2 is in power at the TSA. Suddenly, viola! Everyone needs a full-body scan to make us all "safe".

Here is an idea: use dogs. Dogs can smell drugs, explosives, money and even bed bugs. And don't give me the excuse it takes too long to train dogs - it has taken how many years for these x-ray machines to be rolled out?

On final word: I'm buying one of these t-shirts. I love the sarcasm!

-- Happy Travels?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Wine and Spirits: Alameda, CA

Sometimes there is just nothing like being a tourist in your own local area. Here in San Francisco, we tend to stay in the city on the weekends and avoid the traffic and toll booths. During Fleet Week in October, we decided to get out of the city and see what kind of trouble we could find.

We journeyed across the Bay Bridge to Alameda. Technically Alameda is an island, but it is pretty well connected to the mainland. Formerly a naval post, it is also blessed with some great views of the city.

View from St. George Spirits

Our first stop was St. George Spirits. These guys were the first to start distilling absinthe when it was re-legalized in the United States. Housed in an old hanger, their vodka reflects their home: Hanger One Vodka. This is consistently one of the best vodkas I have ever had. The "Straight" vodka is so smooth you won't know it is vodka. The infused vodkas are amazing - many infusions have a "fake" taste to them, as if the artificial flavor was added after distillation. Hanger One actually distills the fruit for the vodka and you can taste the difference. The Buddha's Hand vodka is superb. Frankly, I can't name one that isn't. They do limited releases and I'm still pining over the Chipolte Vodka - I so want another bottle but it is all gone and they don't know if / when they will distill it again.

Buddha Hand Vodka
Another big hit from the distillery is the new Firelit liquor. Brandy based, this is infused with cold-brewed Blue Bottle coffee - a Bay Area favorite. I'm not usually a fan of coffee liquors, but this one is extremely good. You can sip it alone and skip the espresso on summer nights!

We took the pup with us, and unfortunately St. George will not allow dogs into the tasting room. We didn't get an reason behind this, but I suspect it is because the tasting room and the distillery are all in one building.

Less than a mile away from St. George is the tasting room for Rosenblum Cellars. Very friendly crew here and they are dog-friendly, allowing dogs into the tasting room! Their strength is their zinfandels, but be sure to try the dessert wines also. Everything is reasonably priced and the staff are very helpful.

At this point you should be pretty hungry and need food to keep going. Downtown Alameda has a plethora of restaurants, but for some reason we always end up at La Pinata 3. A local chain, but I can't say the food is the greatest. However, it is cheap and the margaritas are huge and pretty potent.

-- Happy Travels!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Surviving Paris: Trains and Automobiles

In September, we spent a week in the Loire Valley of France. When it came time for us to head out to Paris, we went into Angers and booked tickets to Paris on the TGV. These high-speed trains have limited stops and reach up to 200mph. Woo-hoo!

I loved the TGV - the drive from Paris to Le Moulin took over 3 hours, much of it on country roads. The train trip took about 1 hour 15 minutes. Smooth as silk, easy as can be. Except luggage storage. We had two fair-sized hard-sided bags stuffed with wine and each was maxed out at 50 pounds. They weren't big, just heavy. Still, the luggage storage space was full with all 5 people in our compartment hogging it all. I can't imagine what it would be like when the train is full!

Helpful signs for the TGV.
One final note on the TGV - first class doesn't seem worth it. Second class can be fairly pricey as it is, so on the shorter trips, I would recommend skipping the deluxe accommodations. 

We arrived at the Montparnasse station on a Saturday afternoon looking forward to a couple days in Paris. It was our first trip to Paris and we were very excited. The confusion that day nearly killed that excitement (and my husband).

Leaving our TGV train, it was easy to find the taxi stands. All seemed to be going well. Our hotel wasn't far, but with two heavy bags we were advised by friends to take a taxi and skip trying to get through the Metro. Unfortunately, the fates were against us. After standing in line about 20 minutes with no taxis, a driver showed up and began to speak very excitedly in French. The man in the couple in front of us spoke some French and I overheard him saying the streets were closed, no one could get anywhere. Oh. Oh no!

In my other post, the The Kindness of Strangers, I wrote about this couple and how helpful they were that day. What I didn't mention was the joy of dragging heavy suitcases through the Paris Metro. I managed to get stuck in a turnstile once (the bag couldn't pull through correctly, had to be turned sideways) and I know we must have walked two miles in tunnels. The worst part was for my husband - there were stairs all over. Up, down. Up, down. He was carrying both suitcases up and down each set of stairs the whole way. Up, down, up, down. At one point I began to think we were trapped in a hellish maze of stairs and would never see daylight again.

We finally reached our platform (up some stairs, down some more) and took the Metro two stops to our hotel location. Yeah! We did it........except there were two final flights of stairs up to street level. My hubby is a pretty strong guy, works out all the time, and he finally broke just before we reached daylight. He had to stop after the first flight and rest. But - we could smell fresh air and we were determined to escape up into the daylight.

Deceptive picture: looks clean and nice smelling.

Thankfully our hotel was only half a block from there. But there were stairs into the lobby and down to the elevator. SERIOUSLY??

So - word to the wise - know what is going on in Paris on the day you arrive and do not attempt the Metro with heavy bags.

We recovered pretty quick from hating the Metro and Paris (hubby's first words about Paris "I hate Paris") and reached the point where we pretty much want to move there and live forever. But I will say the Metros have a bad habit of smelling strongly of piss. Nasty. Watch where you step. Overall though, they are easy to figure out and reliable and far better than a taxi.

Which brings me to taxis...goodness. We took a cab to the airport on the morning we left and it was crazy expensive. We left from near Notre Dame and it took about 50 minutes in traffic. The meter was off the charts. We expected this, but were not about to try the Metro and trains again and had requested a cab that would accept credit cards. When we arrived at the airport, the cab driver ran my card and said it was declined. Ok, credit card security probably kicked in - try another one. Declined. My husband tried two cards - also declined. I'm about to get violent with the taxi driver, clearly his credit card machine has an issue and he won't let us out of the cab. I finally get him to understand I needed to go inside the airport and find an ATM and he lets me out. Luckily, the debit card that had just come up "declined" really did work and I was able to withdraw some euro to pay the bill. I have no idea what would have happened had that not worked.

Next time I'll look for a pre-pay shuttle or something. Or maybe pack lighter and take the trains. But, you know, we really needed to bring all that wine back home. :-)

-- Happy Travels!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Random Photo: Beijing

Beijing is a striking contrast of the old and new - and personally I prefer the old. I'm a history buff, so I enjoy seeing the cultural history of a place when I travel. One of my best experiences when visiting Beijing in 2008 was wandering the hutongs near the Forbidden Palace. 

Hutong area, outside the Forbidden Palace
-- Happy Travels!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A country walk in France: Le Moulin Bregeon

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, sometimes video is even better. For the full details on Le Moulin, visit my blog entry here.

I fell in love with the French country-side on this visit and captured as much video as possible. The slower pace of life was charming, but I really enjoyed the ability to walk out into the fields and not hear cars and the hum of electricity. Instead I could hear the birds, the stream running over rocks and the farm puppy bounding through the bushes as she led us on our walk.

How I miss this place!

-- Peaceful Travels!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Clos Cristal: Growing grapes on the wall

The last winery we visited in the Loire Valley was Clos Cristal. This stunning property in the Saumur area grows primarily cabernet franc with some chenin blanc mixed in. One of the things that makes Clos Cristal unique is how they grow some of their grapes.

Guided by Marc, we walked out into the vineyards. The land slopes up slightly to the forest at the top of the hill and the views are spectacular. But you'll notice something odd as you look over the vineyards, there are walls built in them and there are grapes growing on them.

The founder of Clos Cristal, Antoine Cristal, decided to try something new when he was building out his vineyard. Using walls that run east-west, he planted vines on the north side of the wall and pushed the main trunk up through the wall. The leaves and grapes grow on the south side of the wall. What does this do exactly? The roots stay cooler due to their northern exposure, while the grapes get the most sun. The wall retains the heat of the day, causing the grapes to be exposed to higher temperatures than regular vines. This causes the fruit to mature faster. The winemaker allows the grapes to begin to whither on the vine - they dry out to the point of looking very raisin-like and are still able to be harvested a few weeks before traditional vines.

This on-the-vine concentration of the grapes produces incredibly robust cabernet franc wines. Only xxx cases are produced a year and "Le Murs" was a pleasure to taste. Of course I bought a couple of bottles which I will horde in my cellar for as long as possible! The traditionally grown cabernet francs at Clos Cristal are also superb and their Chenin Blanc was a pleasant surprise. They don't grow much of the Chenin Blanc, so if you can find it, I encourage you to buy it.

Something else I learned: you'll notice their sign says "Hospices de Saumur". I was fascinated by this concept in France. The founder died without children and left his vineyards to the hospital. The hospitals use the vineyards as a way to generate income to run the hospitals. I am guessing this brilliant idea helps provide good medical care for everyone in France, though from the American viewpoint I can see some teetotalers arguing that the hospitals sell wine which ensures they have patients in the future. Whatever belief you hold on this subject, I encourage you to visit Clos Cristal for the lovely scenery and the beautiful wines.

For a video tour of the vineyards, check this out:

-- Happy Travels!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Le Moulin Bregeon - Loire Valley, France

I find it hard to gather the words to explain the experience at Le Moulin. Located between Noyant and Vernantes, south of Tours, 30 minutes out from Saumur and located in the tiny village of Linieres-Bouton is Le Moulin Bregeon. An old water mill used to grind grain, has been converted into a ... well, I'm not really sure it fits in any class of accommodation. It akin to being invited to the country home of your dearest friends who wish to make your experience one you will never forget.

Le Moulin Bregeon and the stream running under the building.

Resident Chef Pascal, is truly amazing. Assisted by sous-chef Elissa, he treated us each night to a four-course traditional French country dinner. We had cauliflower with smoked duck, confit de canard (duck confit), boeuf provencal, apple tarte tartine, lentil puree soup ... and that is just a sample! Everything was in season and most of the ingredients were from the gardens there on the farm. One morning at breakfast Elissa asked if we wanted an egg - when we said "yes", she headed out to the chicken coop to see what was available! They focus on local ingredients, seasonality of the food and dishes seeped in tradition.  The chefs truly live the "farm to fork" concept and beyond, gathering ingredients locally and from the farm, composting all the food waste and using it in the organic gardens, shopping only at local farms and markets and then being there when you taste the food to tell you about the dish. It was truly a culinary experience beyond belief!

Afternoon snack - simple elegance
Our suite was on the second floor of the Mill and was stunning. Old gears from the days when it was a working mill remained in the ceiling. The stream still runs under the mill and we could hear it in our suite. The furniture were all antiques, right down to the linens on the beds and the tiles on the floor of the bathroom. There are no TV's, clocks or phones in the rooms. There is a hair-dryer if you ask for it - but don't expect a coffee maker or a mini-bar. The kitchen is just right downstairs, make yourself at home! (Which I did one night, searching for a glass of water). Speaking of water - the tap water is safe. I swear it must come from a spring because it tasted better than many bottled waters.

Our suite - master bed
Our suite - second bed
The bath. I fell in love with this sink!
Big enough for two - but there is a rain shower also!
If you truly cannot disconnect from the digital world, you can cross the bridge over the stream and head into the living room. If it is chilly, Bernard will have built a fire and you can relax there and get on the wi-fi network. Just do take a moment to notice all the interesting items on the walls and in the glass cabinet. There are surprises everywhere.

Le Moulin isn't just a refuge for people, but you'll notice the animals have free reign also. There are a flock of geese who will not ever be part of dinner, ducks who swim in the stream, Mona the mascot dog and her two puppies, the chickens and the goats. Explore the outlying buildings and take some time to walk along the stream. It is a peaceful and amazing walk. We had the chance to walk at midnight, under the full moon, with one of the puppies guiding us. It is a memory I will hold dear - it was simply enchanting!

The view from our bathroom window early one morning
With amazing surroundings, isolated from the world and stunning food, Le Moulin Bregeon still wouldn't be half the experience it is without the people who pull it all together. Pascal and Elissa bring cooking and dining to life. They clearly have a passion for what they do and instinctively know what is right (and wrong). If Pascal does not publish a recipe book soon, I will be very angry with him! Jonathan is a gracious and entertaining host - we were sincerely flattered by his request to visit him in his atelier in the village and learned a great deal from him about modern architecture. The daily operating of the Mill could not happen without Bernard. He is grace under pressure and makes it all seem easy while being truly charming and welcoming. He was there to match the wines to our food, he set an amazing table with centerpieces he found on the farm (grapevines, chestnuts still on the branch), helped us find tickets for events and advised us on places to visit.  And last, but certainly not least, our friend Adam: he was full of energy, sincerely accommodating and resourceful, and willing to answer our endless questions. He made us feel completely at ease and went out of his way to make sure all the details were perfect for our visit.

As we left the Loire Valley on the TGV train headed for Paris, I was quite sad. I was leaving friends who I won't see again for some time and who I will dearly, dearly miss. Which gives me all the more reason to plan the next visit!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Exploring Loire Valley: Wineries near Saumur

Living in California, I have a definite bias toward California and Pacific Northwest wineries. I adore American wines - they are close to me and familiar. After traveling in Italy, I was able to round out my wine tastes with some Italian wines that I enjoy. French wines have remained a mystery to me, mainly due to their astonishing price point here in the U.S. and the fact that I know very little about them.

Now with friends living in France and a couple of friends in the wine business, a rather ad-hoc trip to the Loire Valley sprang up over the summer. Not only were we headed to France, but we were going to the lesser known (in the U.S.) wine region. So - let the adventure begin!

Loire Valley is mainly a cabernet franc and sparkling wine (Cremant de Loire) region. Chenin Blanc turns up (especially in the Cremant), depending on the area. We spent most of our time in the Anjou region of the Loire - this Valley is much, much larger than I expected!

Mmm... look at all those bottles aging and waiting...
So let's start with our first day: We left the Mill and went into Saumur on the Loire river to visit Les Caves de Louis de Grenelle. Not much of a looker from the outside - it is in town - but the staff were very helpful and the sparkling wines were superb. Then came the surprise - the actual caves. Dug out of limestone for building the chateau, they are massive and very, very extensive. I could have wondered in here for days, but we had more places to visit....

Next up was Chateau du Hureau, where cabernet franc is the ruling grape. The Chateau sits up on a hill with the caves dug into the cliffside. It is a beautiful place that produces bold, robust wines. Cabernet franc is not an easy grape to grow and seems to be one that needs to be aged to bring out the subtleties in it. For American palettes, accustomed to cabernet franc turning up only as a blending grape, these French wines may be a bit startling. A good cab franc really needs food to bring out the nuances and showcase what is best about it.

Our final stop along our Saumur path was Chateau de Villeneuve. This winery focuses on organic growing and produces superb Saumer-Champigny reds and an excellent dessert wine.

The wineries of Saumur were an unique experience for me. The red wines being used in the tasting rooms were all young. While drinkable right away, you could tell they would benefit from aging. The sparkling wines of the region were a delightful surprise. The best part of it all: the most expensive bottle was 17 euros. Most bottles were under 10 euros. Now if it weren't for those pesky customs rules coming back to the US....

-- Happy Sniffing, Swirling, Sipping!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Château du Petit Thouars: Wine and Twitter

It started with a tweet from our friend, founder of Corkbin: she mentioned we were going to the Loire Valley in September and she quickly received a response from @ChâteauPetitThouars suggesting we visit their winery while we were there.

It turned out the winery was in our area, so we decided to make sure we stopped by. Once we found the turnoff, we drove up a lovely tree lined driveway.  Chateau du Petit Thouars sits up on a the hill at the end of driveway with astonishing views from the top. The grounds are immaculate and the chateau appears to be very well maintained.

We were greeted by Gwendoline Pinard, daughter of Michel Pinard, the winemaker at the Chateau. She provided us a tour of part of the chateau - absolutely gorgeous! I was completely envious of the library and took tons of pictures. I may just sneak back and move in there...the dining room alone was enough to convince me.

After the tour we had our wine tasting across the courtyard. Cabernet franc is the ruling grape in Loire Valley, but we did start with two sparkling wines. Both were delightful though I preferred the Cremant de Loire Brut over the rose. Rose's tend to suffer from my American bias against them - I think "too sweet" and syrupy due to all those bottles of Gallo running around in my Mid-western background. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find the roses in Loire were dry, not sweet.

The tasting room
 My favorite was the Touraine 2005. I was impressed by how smooth it was, though I think it will benefit from a bit more aging. In general I found the tasting wines in Loire to all be a bit young - probably a factor of cabernet franc and the style of wine-making in France. Since I have a hard time not drinking wine if it is in my house, I need the older wines right away.

We truly had a wonderful visit - and it was the power of social media that brought us to this place.  We would not have found the Chateau without Twitter. It is an interesting meeting of the old world and the new when social media allows a winery to reach a potential audience and customers.  Traveling wine tasters are alerted to places they may not have found in a guidebook. Overall, it feels like a good thing all around. If you have an iPhone (and Android devices soon), check out the Corkbin App. It brings this theory to another level, allowing you to see what wines people near you are drinking and their feedback on them.

-- Happy Travels!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Loire Valley: Hot Air Ballooning

I would like to mention that I have "issues" with heights and vertigo. Airplanes don't bother me, but glass elevators with a view make my feet tingle and my palms sweat. High-rise buildings with ceiling to floor windows freak me out and roller coasters where my feet dangle are out of my ability. I'll ride roller coasters that have a bottom to them, but scream the entire time.

So, on our visit to France, my darling husband asks our friends there to set up a hot air balloon ride for us over the Loire Valley. Huh? Since I know my fears are completely irrational and only in my mind, I agree to the adventure, silently hoping the weather will rescue me and the ride will be canceled.

The weather did not meet my expectations. So we headed to Amboise for a balloon ride.

Take a look at the video I captured. A few notes:
  • The jitter is not from the balloon ride. I was shaking the time we were in the air. 
  • The first part of the video shows the filling of the balloon. This was a totally awesome process and fast, even though the first time they turned on the fire to heat the air I freaked out. Seriously - that is a wicker basket there with fire like 3 feet away from it!!
  • You'll also notice how silent the video is in the air until the jets come on. They are loud and very, very hot. You feel the heat and the taller guys in our basket (just thinking about that basket makes my palms sweat again) felt a bit singed. 
  • Please also note there is no bathroom on-board the basket. If sheer terror makes you feel like you have to pee -- too bad. 
  • You stay up in the air about an hour, but the whole adventure takes about 3 hours. 

Our balloon crew were France Montgolfier and were truly lovely people. Our pilot, Pierre, was fantastic and had a wicked sense of humor. When the balloon landed, the guys in the basket were asked to help move it closer to the truck and then everyone pitched in to roll up the balloon. We were treated to some fruit bread and sparkling wine afterwards, while hanging in the field in which we landed.

It was an experience I will never forget - I am very happy I braved it and conquered my fears. It was incredibly memorable, I would honestly recommend it to anyone who isn't terrified of heights and even to those who are but think they can manage it. That being said, I don't expect to sign up any time soon for the balloon rides just north of my home in Napa Valley.

-- Happy Ballooning!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Travel Story: The Kindness of Strangers

Last Saturday we arrived in Paris from the Loire Valley on the TGV. At Montparnasse we joined the queue for taxis since we were lugging two heavy bags filled with wine and everything else you need for a long trip in France. After a lengthy wait, a taxi driver pulled up and started talking in French. The couple in front of us begin to discuss this in English, with the guy saying the taxi driver was telling everyone the streets were closed and taxis could not go any where.

And so the fun began....

I asked the couple what was going on, and he repeated what had been said. He had some basic French and was able to get the gist of it. We all decided to head to the Metro (they also had two heavy suitcases) and try our luck. Along the way, I found out they were from Canada.

We all found the Metro together and after the guys lugged the heavy suitcases up / down some stairs, we went our separate ways. And then there we were all in the same ticket line - they had gone the wrong way and ended up back in our area of the Metro and in the same ticket line. The line was huge - tons  of people were being diverted to the Metro. Finally, I took my turn at the kiosk and more frustration set in. The damn thing wouldn't read any of my credit cards. I had euro, but only bills and it required coins. I honestly think I just blanked out for a minute and stood there staring in frustration at the machine. I turned to the Canadian couple behind me and told them the issue (why I was taking forever to get tickets) and the women offered me the 3.40 euro to get tickets.

Let me repeat that - she freely offered up the coins I needed to get the hell out of there and continue my journey. I gratefully accepted and tried to offer her paper euros or American dollars and she declined both.

We ran into them again heading to the train lines and finally departed at the split for different directions on the #4 Line. I never got their names, they didn't get mine - but I was sincerely touched by their help. It wasn't a lot of money, but it was far more than most people would ever offer to a stranger in need.

I hope they enjoyed Paris and I hope their good deed comes back to them soon.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Random Photo: Bologna, Italy

Through the window at via Piella, Bologna
As I count down the days to France, I was thinking about other visits to Europe. This photo was taken in 2004 in Bologna, Italy. We have a copy of this hanging in our entryway and most people guess it to be Venice. However, Bologna was also a canal city - though now most of the canals are covered up. There is a walking tour that takes you to the "windows" looking out on the remaining areas where the canals are above ground - we captured this photo from one of the viewpoints.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Biz Travel: Boston Waterfront Convention Center

Back in June I had the opportunity to attend a trade-show in Boston at the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel and Convention Center. I'm really not all that familiar with Boston, but word has it this area, South Boston Waterfront, has been recently developed and it all certainly looks new and shiny! A co-worker who grew up in Boston said this area use to be just the fishing area - it still is, but now there is a plethora of restaurants and hotels!

If you walk down to the waterfront, you see plenty of evidence that this is still a working fishing pier and area:

About the Westin: overall, this was a good location for a smaller convention or trade-show. The main areas are in the "basement" so cellular coverage is question. However, the Wi-Fi was strong (and fast) in every part of the hotel and center. The rooms were clean and comfy. All goodness there.

My challenge was the food (always important to me): The only place open for dinner was the Irish Pub, MJ O'Connor's. Even Starbucks closed in the late afternoon! Sauciety was the breakfast / lunch place as was average overall. The service was slow and indifferent. The lunch food was pretty good but pricey. The Birch Bar was open into the evening with some very limited snacks but after eating the same thing two nights in a row, I needed a change.

So - we journeyed out on night on foot to Legal's Test Kitchen and had superb drinks and food. Great service and the wait for a table wasn't too harsh.

There is a train stop close to the hotel and for those who enjoy lots of walking, the main sites aren't that far away. Overall - not a bad location. The big problem: cabs are extremely expensive and while this location seems close to the airport it still generated a "cha-ching" cab fare: about $25 each direction!

Park for the Prez only!
Evidence this isn't just a tourist trap but a working dock

-- Happy Travels!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Random Rant: Outlets in Hotels

Hanging out in the JW Marriott in Beijing - lovely hotel and more on the details in another post. But this morning I needed coffee in order to even begin to function enough to go downstairs for breakfast. I found this cutie in the mini-bar area:

Minor detail: that is the full length of the cord. And the hotel room has three plugs I can find:
  1. By the bed where the alarm clock is plugged. I had already swiped that plug for my cell phone to charge. 
  2. At the desk. Uh, charging my laptop there. And the little short cord wouldn't reach it even if I wanted to plug it there. 
  3. In the entryway, on the wall, about a foot up from the floor. Again - not gonna reach. 
Finally I unplugged my phone and plugged in the teakettle there. Barely - the cord JUST reached the outlet. I had to move the lamp to make it happen.

Now - this is a very specific example but I am consistently surprised by how even newly remodeled hotels forget to add outlets. I use my cell phone as an alarm clock and have it by my bed and rarely can find an outlet near the bed. The desk / workspace areas often don't even have an outlet!


-- Happy Non-Electronic Device-Using Travels!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Ft. Funston - San Francisco Dog Friendly spot!

If you are a dog owner in the Bay Area, you are about 98.9% likely to have heard of Ft. Funston. Just south of Ocean Beach on the Pacific, this is a huge multi-purpose area.  Hang-gliders take off from here, there is a golf course up on the hills and there are ... the dogs!

This is the most note-worthy dog beach in San Francisco - and while it's ongoing "off-leash" status continues to go through legal battles, for now it is an amazing place for dog owners.

Warning though: it isn't easy to get to the beach. This is the view from the top of the sand stairs:

It's a long way down!
But the beach goes on forever once you get there:

View south down the coast - only one small part of the beach!
You'll see fisherman down on the beach and plenty of dog owners - but the extent of this beach makes it such that it never really feels crowded, especially here on the south end.

There is another route to the beach, if you head north out of the parking lot through the dunes. Keep to the left, you'll see the "beach access" signs. This isn't as steep of a walk for most of the way, but the access to the beach is a more or less a ditch in the cliff that you climb down (and back up). It is usually wet and a slippery, so be ready for it. Of course, those sand stairs will test your endurance too!

-- Happy (woof!) travels!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Buena Vista Park - San Francisco

Very beautiful park but word has it is a bit dicey at night. You could truly get lost in here  - but the intricate stairways and multiple paths all lead you to stunning views at the top of the hill.

Stairway through the trees
This is a man-made hill and the drains along some of the walls are paved with marble - marble reclaimed from the headstones of a cemetery that was moved out of San Francisco.

Faint inscription from a headstone
 Bonus: There is an off-leash dog run in the park and dogs are welcome on leash in the entire park!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Touring Mazatlan, Mexico

This is city where cruise ships dock (typically on Wednesday and Thursday) and they know their audience.

A trip into Old Mazatlan on a Monday was incredibly quiet. The Mercado was fascinating and lively, but it was almost too hot to be inside. I did capture a bit of video that gives you a feel for what you can find:

As we walked down toward the waterfront, it was clear that Monday definitely was a slow business day and many things were closed up. We didn’t make it back to Old Mazatlan on either of the days when cruise ships were docked, but I suspect it was a very different atmosphere on those days. On a Monday in “low-season”, it was pretty sleepy and empty. There were a few restaurants open along the waterfront, along with a very over-priced silver store.

From there, we visited the Cathedral – a beautiful and very welcoming structure. Take notice of the lamp posts outside. Inside, the alcove to the right is dedicated to Maria (Mary) and the alcove to the left is dedicated to Jose (Joseph).

Afterwards, we wandered into Zona Dorado (Gold Zone) is also often called "Tourist Zone" on some maps. We visited the Zona twice - once on a day when there was no cruise ship, and once when there was a ship in port. VERY different atmospheres. The day without the cruise ship was nice, most things were open and bargaining went well with the vendors.

When the cruise ship came in, there were more vendors out and about, but we also were pressed more to buy. The pace picked up in shops and restaurants, but things still weren't packed. A number of places had specials running for the cruise ships and the silly tourists walking around with name badges on diverted the timeshare sellers from us. Yeah!

Happy Travels! 

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Mobile Boarding Pass: United

I have something nice to say about United Airlines. I know, I know, a certain very hot location may have just frozen over.

On a recent trip to Las Vegas, I gave the mobile boarding pass a try. I have a Blackberry Storm with a cracked screen - probably NOT the ideal candidate for such a thing. However, it all went well. At the SFO airport security line, I was mostly worried about losing my signal and not being able to pull up the barcode again. At the kiosk, I was asked to hold the phone to a scanner. First take - nothing happened. I tried again and I received a green light. Yeah!

At the gate I had a moment of panic when I lost cellular connectivity and couldn't re-open the saved web page. There may be a way to save the barcode page as a file on the phone - if not, maybe I should read the FAQ on United and learn what happens if I can't! Again at the gate the first scan didn't work so I zoomed in on the barcode and tried again - GREEN LIGHT! YEAH!

Overall, it was fairly easy to use. I'm trying it again on the way home.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Blue Agave Distillery Tour: La Noria, MX

Technically, you can't call it Tequila because it is not in one of the three states licensed to officially sell Tequila. However, blue agave is blue agave. Distill it and you get something that looks, smells and tastes like Tequila.

The Los Osuna Blue Agave Distillery just outside of Mazatlan is a very happy place. Getting to the property is easy - follow the signs off highway 15 to La Noria. Just before you enter the town, you'll see the sign to the left. The road from here is dirt, but not too bad overall. You'll pass the canopy zip-line place and keep going to the Distillery.

We arrived before the big tour groups arrived and received a very detailed tour - I noticed the bigger groups didn't get to go through some of the tighter spots in the distillery (probably for safety reasons). The tour provides information on how tequila has been made historically, as well as showcasing the huge newer stainless steel distillers.

Free tequila shots at the end - all you can drink. Total cost? $2.50 a person. Not joking - best value we found in Mazatlan. We tipped our tour guide and the bartender generously. There are a few small shops by the bar and while I didn't buy a thing, everyone else in our party walked away with good prices on silver and titanium jewelry so the bargaining must have been good!

To get a feel for the place, check out the video:


** Interesting fun fact: the tequila is 65% alcohol after distillation. They water it down to 35% in order to make it more palatable. I asked our guide if you could sell it at 65% and she laughed at me and said "no". I'm guessing it must just be awful ... either that or gringos can't handle it!

Eatin' and Drinkin' in Mazatlan, Mexico

You know what they say: when in Rome…. So if you hate chips and salsa and margaritas, um, well – Mazatlan may not be for you.

Plaza Machado in Old Mazatlan has a cluster of restaurants.  We needed some refreshment and food and settled on Pacifico taco bar, which didn’t really have much in the way of tacos. The food wasn’t bad and the beer was good. It was charming to see Coca-Cola still served in the returnable glass bottles. Ahh… the good old days! Also around the square was  Pedro y Lola’s. P&L’s comes up on most of the guides as a great place to stop, but the menu didn’t impress me: lots of “American” dishes like hamburgers and such. The people watching in the plaza can be fun: we saw three different groups of school kids go by and all sorts of locals and U.S. retirees.
 Coca-Cola in a bottle: so retro and awesome

North of the Old town is Zona Dorado (Gold Zone) - which is also often called "Tourist Zone" on some maps. In the Zona, we had the worst timeshare hard-press sell of our entire trip in Mazatlan. Unfortunatly, we were at a restaurant when it happened and we were trapped. We had a very good dinner at Gus y Gus: the garlic shrimp was to die for and the salsa was spicy with good flavor. The corn tortillas were a bit bland, but the margaritas made up for that. We were one of about three tables with customers, so it was a quiet night. We'd enjoyed ourselves and were waiting for the bill when the manager on duty (or whatever he was) came by to see how things were ... and then it happened. A good 15 minutes of timeshare blah blah blah blah blah blah. I was livid. We were paying customers in the restaurant, we couldn't leave because our bill had not arrived and the guy ignored all of our "not interested" statements. So while the food was good, that soured the whole group on ever going back.

Also in the Zona, we stopped in for some guacamole and drinks at Arre Lulu. Not bad, the guac was a bit bland but the margaritas were good! We journeyed to the The Sheik one night at the south end of the Zona, only to find it padlocked. It was a Friday night, so I'm not sure what was going on - they may have been shut for low-season. If anyone stops by there and they are open again - let me know! The Sheik came up a highly recommended, most romantic, etc. so we were really looking forward to trying it. With The Sheik closed, we wandered until we found Las Lupitas. It looked nice, menu looked good so we tried it. Big fail. The service was friendly but they forgot about 50% of what we ordered or got things wrong. The food was over-priced for what it was and boring at best, bad at worst.
Outside of the Zona, we visited Seafarer, on the El Cid Marina. This is a sister restaurant to Pedro y Lola and has a nice atmosphere, built on the water and over the water. The wine menu was "meh" but the steaks were decent. Mine came with a white sauce that was actually a little bland, but the steak didn't really need it. Heading further north, the Palapa bar at the condo resort, Paraiso Costa Bonita, had an AMAZING fish and chips: the fish was a whole filet, lightly breaded and pan-friend. Very, very tasty.

The best experience though, was in La Noria: the molcajete at El Sazon de la Abuela Tina. This was so good, I wrote a separate blog post about it (with video). It was, by far, the best meal I had in Mazatlan. 
Molcajete - the best!!

Overall, chips and salsa and margaritas were everywhere. Most of the salsa fresca was very mild, though occasionally we'd come across something with some kick, like the salsa we got at Gus y Gus. The margaritas varied: a couple of places seemed to use seltzer water or Sprint in the drink, most places used lime juice and only once or twice did we come across a place that used the nasty "sweet and sour" mix that is used in the U.S. The guacamole was usually just avocado and maybe some cilantro and a touch of lime. I like mine with jalapenos and tomatoes and onions, so we would often mix the salsa fresca with the guac and ended up with a winning combo.

Mazatlan bills itself as the "shrimp capital of the world" and it did live up to that - the shrimp was extremely good everywhere we went. Skip the burritos and enchiladas if you find them, go with the local seafood and dishes when you can and try to find the places outside the tourist zones!

-- Cheers!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Airport Report: Mazatlan (MZT)

Tiny little airport! It is so small, it is actually kinda cute. Overall, I have to say it was better than the Cabo San Lucas airport. When we landed, there was not a swarm of people trying to "help" us and then box us into a timeshare tour - in fact, we only had one guy chase after us for a couple of minutes. Also the air conditioning seemed to work much better in the Mazatlan airport. Yeah!

Arriving in Mazatlan:
Landing and getting through customs was pretty simple - we played the "push the button" game and won! Yeah! No customs inspection for us. Not familiar with this? As you go through customs you will be asked to push a button. If the light (which is suppose to be random) comes up green, you get to go - red, you get your luggage searched.

Once you clear customs, there is a bar just outside the arrival area near the ubiquitous Senor Frog's, along with an ATM and currency exchange counter. The car rental counters are also right here and the actual car lots are just up the way. On a good day or when the heat isn't too bad, you can probably walk over there in 10 minutes or less.

Leaving Mazatlan:
Coming back to the airport, plan some extra time. Traffic can be heavy getting through Highway 15 in Mazatlan but the route is clearly marked and very direct. Depending on the airline, you may be in for some long lines at check-in. Mexicana was showing their stellar service with humongous lines on the day we left. US Airways only had a few check-in counters but things went relatively smoothly. Alaska Air had the self-service kiosks and a few more counters and seemed to be going well.  All airlines will do the hand search of your checked luggage before you get to the ticket counter. This slows things down and if you had trouble getting your bag to zip close before you went to the airport...well, just be ready to sit on it again to get it to zip up.

Once you are checked in, there are a couple of places to grab food upstairs, but Medas was not impressive. Service was slow (not just for us, but those around us too) and the food and drinks were seriously sub-par. Do NOT buy water or soft drinks unless you plan on finishing them before you get on the plane - TSA will not allow you to bring these onto the plane even if you bought them after the security checkpoint. I cannot actually find this clearly documented, but the rule seems to be if you buy beverages or liquids past security in countries outside the US, you will not be able to board with them.

The security checkpoints do not require you to remove your shoes, but the prepartion area for the x-ray is small and the baskets are tiny compared to what you find in the US. There are no reminders to remove your 3-1-1 baggie of liquids and your laptop, but we took things out anyway and didn't get in trouble. ;-) Once through security, there are restrooms but I did not see any food, drink or newstands. There is free wi-fi advertised, but when I tried to connect it was pretty slow and it appeared that only the first 15 minutes were free.

If you have a "SSSS" on your boarding pass, you will get the extra - special - additional security search at the gate. Your whole party won't be searched and cannot stand with you while it is done. Your carry-ons will be searched, you'll get the wand and maybe a pat down, and might then be asked to sit down and remove your shoes.  How do I know this? What do you think? I won the random boarding pass printing of SSSS, looked suspicious, or both and was thoroughly searched.

Your plane may not have a jetway, so be prepared to lug your stuff up those lovely rickety stairs that are provided for you to get up to the door of the plane. On the day we flew out, Mexicana and US Airway had jetways, Continental did not.

Best advice: give yourself plenty of time so you aren't rushed and plan ahead. Be ready for the differences in security and things will go smoothly... um, assuming your plane takes off on time.

-- Safe Travels!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Molcajete: Best. Ever.

While at Los Osuna blue agave distillery, we asked for a recommendation for lunch. We were sent to "El Sazon de la Abuela Tina" - jut past the archway into La Noria. This truly felt like a locals' place - spoken English was limited but they did have menus printed in English. Problem: Molcajete was translated as "Molcajete". LOL! Some quick look-ups on the cell phone said it meant "mortar" as in mortar and pestle. Hmm. When I asked our server for details, she really didn't have the English (and I didn't have the Spanish) to figure it out. She finally said "it's very good". What the hell - I ordered the shrimp molcajete.

What came out was this:

Tomato sauce with maybe some cream, shrimp, whole jalapenos and some subtle spices I could not place. It was served with fresh blue corn tortillas and was so amazing! There were wood-burning ovens in the back where the molcajete was cooked, then it was placed on a wood platter and brought out. It bubbled and and boiled a good 20 minutes after it came out and the heat coming off it was stunning.

Without a doubt, this was THE BEST dish I had in Mazatlan.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Oh my gosh! I can't complain: US Airways

Please, please don't allow US Airways to merge with an airline as crappy as United or American. I flew USAir for the first time in ages and was HAPPY. That wasn't a sarcastic happy, that was happy HAPPY.

After Mexicana Airlines totally failed on our flights to Mazatlan, I booked tickeds with USAir out of Oakland International (OAK). Last minute tickets = same price as the early booking I had with Mexicana. OK, off to a good start USAir!

Checking in online: This was a bit slow, but I am willing to accept it might have been my Internet connection since I was having trouble with other sites. I switched to Safari (vs. Mozilla) and it was better but still not great. Their luggage fees pretty much suck ($23 for the first bag online or $25 at the airport) but that is comparable to most other airlines. They do hold back seats at the front of the plane so for a few extra bucks you can grab an aisle or window at check-in time.

At the airport: Oakland is so low-key compared to SFO, which is a good thing. We dropped off our luggage in no time and were able to get through security pretty fast. Of course, it was 5:00am, but you know...

The staff: In general, everyone was friendly! Shocking. I mean, how dare they like their jobs?? ;-)

On the plane: Leather(ette) seats which seemed to have a tad bit more legroom than most airlines. Food and drink are available for purchase with a credit / debit card. They had Stirrings brand drinks - yummy - which was a point in their favor. Our flights were all under two hours, so there was no entertainment but I was OK with this. I never plan on there being good (or working) entertainment on board. 

After landing: Smooth, no issues. No one was locked in the plane afterwards for hours (that we know of) and our luggage appeared in one piece with the obligatory TSA notice that it had been riffled through.

Thumbs up US Airways! My expectations may be pretty low these days, but you did well!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Spotlight on San Francisco: Bay to Breakers

Bay to Breakers - always the third Sunday in May! If you are thinking of a trip to SF around that time, you need to know all about B2B.

Touted as the "oldest footrace in America", B2B has become more than just a 12K run. Sure, the elite runners start off the race, but they are finished long before the rest of the folks starting pulling their beer carts up Howard Street. Yes, beer carts, often pulled by about 10 Elvis's and / or naked people. B2B is an excuse for a city-wide costume party and unfortunately, some of those costumes are birthday suits - usually by folks who should be covering themselves up and NOT running around naked. And then there are the salmon spawn - they run the whole race dressed as salmon and run "upstream". I so want to be a salmon one year!

Technically, nudity and alcohol are prohibited. But really, how do you control thousands of people all hell-bent on breaking the rules? Folks who love to sleep in late actually set their alarms so they can start getting drunk at 7:30am on a Sunday - this is serious business!

If you are a tourist, you'd better know the route of the Breakers because it will effect your sightseeing. Starting at the Embarcadero and heading up Howard Street, the course makes it way to the dreaded Hayes Street Hill. Once it reaches Alamo Square, there is a big party with DJ's and everything (forget about seeing the famous Painted Ladies on this day). The course is all downhill from there and continues along Fell Street and the Panhandle, through Golden Gate Park and out to the Beach where it ends. Well, the "race" ends there. There is a huge party at that end of GG Park and you will see drunk people wearing tiaras and wings stumbling around all over the city till late Sunday evening.

If all this isn't your aesthetic, I'd suggest getting out of the city early and heading up to Wine Country. Road closures start around 7am downtown (or earlier by the start line) and continue most of the morning.

B2B is an experience - if you are a runner or even an active walker - it is a blast to participate in. The people watching alone is worth it. If you just want to dress up like a ballerina bunny rabbit with wings and party, it is your type of event. 

In case you need further proof of just how crazy this is, we created a video from Alamo Square today. Notice the landmark Painted Ladies - I felt bad for the tourists trying to take pictures there today!

(For the record, I'm annoyed with the quality YouTube is doing on uploads these days. This is an HD video. Looks waaaaaaaay better on Facebook).

-- Happy Bay to Breaking!!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Mexicana Airlines: #Fail

I'm sitting here enjoying the smooth jazz sounds of Orbitz's on hold music. In all my years of using their online service, I've only had a problem with Orbitz once - and today is not that day.

No, my trouble is with Mexicana Air. I should have learned my lesson last year, but when I see cheap, efficient flights, I get all googly-eyed and buy them. Last year we had a trip to Cabo planned and a week before we left - all hell broke loose. "Swine flu" wrecked havoc on flights in and out of Mexico City and I spent hours and hours on the phone with Mexicana and Orbitz trying to find a solution. We ended up flying a red-eye out of SFO and enjoying an 8 hour layover in Guadalajara. The word "refund" was not in the vocabulary for Mexicana.

Once again, a week before our flight, I receive a lovely flight update: two layovers now, one with a six hour stop. Insane and wholly and completely unacceptable. Orbitz is working to get a refund for me. I'm sitting here thinking it will be a cold day in hell, but who knows? I might get lucky (for once) with this crappy airline.

So yes, I should have learned my lesson last year, but I assumed the swine flu was a once-in-a-lifetime weird timing thing and it would be OK this year. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

UPDATE: After over 100 minutes on the phone, Orbitz came through for me! The airline is processing the refund after Orbitz got a supervisor involved. Yeah Orbitz!

Friday, April 30, 2010

Little Blue Guy: Scenes from Shanghai

I'm a poet and didn't know it.

There is a little blue guy (and sometimes girl) all over the place in Shanghai. The World Expo Mascot, "Haibao" is dressed up and on the loose!

Haibao spotted in an office at Dawning Center

 At the Metro station, helping to count down the days to Expo

 In front of a Starbucks 

 Got pictures? Send them in!

-- Go little blue guy! Go!