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!