The Best of Accommodations

Since we started traveling together around the time we married, my wife and I have unpacked our bags in a wide range of quarters. We have stayed in cabins, cottages, Air B&B houses, condos, and any number of hotel and motel rooms. We have even experienced the nightmare of getting “bumped” a couple of times. On one of these occasions we were in a rural area with very few options, so we wound up at a low-rent motor lodge where the price of the room was literally less than the cost of our dinner earlier that evening. There was a loud party in full swing behind the building, and as I discovered later, most of the participants were not paying customers of the establishment. We had to wear ear plugs just to get to sleep, and even so, I heard several guys two doors down as they were setting up their Hibachi grill outside their room at about midnight. Let’s just say the star rating system usually used to measure the quality of motels was not applicable here.

The aforementioned example notwithstanding, we have been quite lucky with our accommodations through the years. From time to time we have really splurged on the price of a room, and a few of those places have been especially luxurious. I have narrowed the list down to five, in no particular order, and highly recommend each one.

Number 1: Old Edward’s Inn in Highlands, North Carolina

Old Edward's Inn, Highlands, NC
Old Edward’s Inn, Highlands, NC

We selected Old Edward’s Inn for a wedding anniversary weekend and opted for one of their cottages with a comfortable bedroom, spacious living area with a gas fireplace, and a beautiful bathroom with heated floors. It rained off and on, but the screened porch was perfect for relaxing and reading while listening to the rainfall. We indulged in a couple’s massage at the spa, which is rated as one of the best in North America. It was our first massage together and was a highlight of the weekend. There are several restaurants in Highlands that are surprisingly good for this small remote town in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Number 2: A casita on Canyon Road in Santa Fe, New Mexico

Our casita on Canyon Road in Santa Fe, NM
Our casita on Canyon Road in Santa Fe, NM

We spent the better part of a week in Santa Fe one summer in a grand casita with generous living spaces inside and a private outdoor courtyard with umbrellas, lounge chairs, gardens, and fire pits. The casita was within easy walking distance of dozens of art galleries and the charming downtown with museums, shops, restaurants, and other attractions. It was so invigorating to head out at sunrise for a brisk walk, explore the downtown area during the day, and relax by the fire under the stars at night.

Number 3: Charlemagne apartment in Paris, France

Charlemagne apartment in Paris
Charlemagne apartment in Paris

I call our apartment in Paris by the name of the street where the building was located, two blocks from the Seine River in historic Le Marais district. It was actually a flat jointly owned by some folks in America and France. Accommodations in Europe are typically cramped with few if any indulgences, which is why we were so pleased to find this fourth-floor spot with a small but adequate kitchen, a respectable bathroom, and a combination sitting, dining, bedroom space with soft lighting and tasteful décor. We were able to keep the windows open to enjoy the cool air and the sounds from the sidewalk café directly below us. As in Santa Fe, we were within walking distance of the finest bistros and bakeries the city has to offer.

Number 4: Hyatt Zilara, Montego Bay, Jamaica

Hyatt Zilara, Montego Bay, Jamaica
Hyatt Zilara, Montego Bay, Jamaica

Due to my struggles with a malady called Mal de Debarquement Syndrome (post travel vertigo), I avoid cruise ships like gas station sushi. However, I love the concept of all-inclusive resorts. There are very few in the states at all, but they are abundant in the Caribbean. We found an adult-only version in Montego Bay, Jamaica that was magnificent. Our room had a large bathroom with a separate spa tub and shower. The bed was heavenly and looked directly out the sliding glass doors onto the large balcony, which featured cut-above-the-rest plush lounging furniture. The view from that perch of the expansive pool complex, swim-up bar, and the ocean was absolutely stunning.

Balcony view, Hyatt Zilara, Montego Bay, Jamaica
Balcony view, Hyatt Zilara, Montego Bay, Jamaica

The Hyatt Zilara is located directly adjacent to the family resort, the Hyatt Ziva Rose Hall, and both places share bars, restaurants, shops, recreational facilities, and some beach activities. We enjoyed our share of good meals and creative cocktails (the dirty banana was a perennial favorite) while also spending hours just basking in the sun by the pool. One of the highlights of the trip was yet another couple’s massage, but this time in a white-curtained cabana on the beach, just a few yards from the crashing waves — bliss.

Number 5: Tickle Pink Inn, Carmel-by-the-Sea, California

Balcony, Tickle Pink Inn, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA
Balcony, Tickle Pink Inn, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA

I know, the name conjures up visions of a roadside stucco-style row of rooms that are rented out by the hour. In reality, Tickle Pink Inn is rated as one of the top ten hotels for romance in the U.S. by TripAdvisor and voted one of the top 500 hotels in the world by Travel and Leisure magazine. Our room was easily the most luxurious place we have ever stayed, even if it was for only one night. We were greeted with a chilled bottle of champagne next to our grand four-post bed. Our room had a balcony with a breathtaking view of the Pacific and a wood-burning fireplace. Combined with one of the best dining experiences I have ever had in the village of Carmel, our stay at Tickle Pink Inn ranks as one of my all-time favorite travel memories.

Want to Really Experience Paris? Bon Appetit!

After visiting a city like Paris, most people when they return home will talk to friends and family about the famous sights they saw.  Why not?  Paris is filled with internationally-famous landmarks, museums, churches, historic places, and all kinds of other attractions.  My wife and I took our first but hopefully not our last trip to Paris during the summer of 2016, and as anyone would expect, we spent plenty of time planning our visit to ensure we saw as much as possible during the short week we were there.  Several weeks before we left for Paris, we were talking to a colleague about our upcoming trip and all the sightseeing we had planned.  He had been to the city more than once, and as a travel veteran, he gave us some valuable advice.  He told us to schedule plenty of time to sit at a sidewalk café and soak up the Parisian atmosphere – the people, the sounds, the smells, and of course, the flavors.  At the time of our conversation, I was thinking “we have too much to see to waste time sitting at a table sipping wine.  We can do that anywhere.”  I was wrong.

As is the case in many European cities, a meal in Paris involves much more than eating and drinking, especially in the evening.  It is an opportunity to relax, reflect on the day, participate in engaging conversation, and enjoy some of the best food anywhere.  There is absolutely no rush.  The wait staff is not the least bit concerned, as in America, about turning the table.  There is no sense of urgency to order as soon as you are seated, but getting a drink to start things off is certainly not a problem either.  Depending upon the establishment, its location, the time of year, and the weather conditions, you may prefer to dine inside, but almost every bistro has sidewalk seating.  We had some of our best meals in Paris at tables set just outside the door of bistros.  There were a few exceptions, such as the Metropolitan, located in the section of Paris called The Marais a couple of blocks from where we were staying.  This cozy little restaurant lives up to its name with wooden benches and other interior décor that are reminiscent of the train platforms from the early years of the Metro transportation system in the city.  Chef Paul-Arthur Berlan, a semi-finalist on Top Chef in 2011, creates a limited but impressive collection of dishes.  The menu was printed completely in French, and we were clueless.  But, when we asked our attentive waitress for help, she was so gracious and said, “Even French people have trouble with our menu!”  The food was excellent, and the atmosphere in the restaurant was perfectly reflective of what we observed about Parisians in general: they are such happy and vivacious people.

Metropolitan Restaurant
Metropolitan Restaurant, Paris

A significant part of the adventure of visiting a city in a foreign country is trying something new, and for me in Paris, this meant eating escargot for the first time.  Someone told me that ordering escargot is simply an excuse to eat lots of garlic butter.  I’m fine with that!  Actually, the snails reminded me of another mollusk, saltwater mussels, that I have eaten many times on the Atlantic coast in the U.S. – incredibly delicious.  Another important aspect of dining in Paris is the variety of cuisine you find there, which is usually the case in most cities with such ethnic diversity.  One of our best meals was at a Roman bistro on the sidewalk under a large canopy within sight of the Arch de Triumph, where we feasted on grilled chicken over pasta with the lightest and most flavorful cream sauce I have ever tasted.  Magnifique!

One day around noon after taking a dozen photographs of the Eiffel Tower, we wandered across the Pont de Bir-Hakeim (a bridge crossing the Seine River near the Tower) and up a series of steps just beyond the Passy Metro station where we discovered what was once a separate village known as Passy before it was incorporated into Paris in the 1860s under Napoleon III.  At a round-about intersection, we walked up to a bistro to have lunch.  We didn’t know at the time, but the place is called Le Passy.  We had scrumptious salads at a small sidewalk table, and I indulged in a Mojito (or two).  We were fascinated watching people walk by, coming from local markets and stores with packages in their arms. Other patrons were also having lunch, reading, or chatting. We were doing exactly what our colleague back home had suggested, immersing ourselves in a neighborhood of Paris and soaking in the culture of the place. To my way of thinking, this kind of experience makes the difference between touring and traveling.

Le Passy Bistro
Le Passy Bistro, Paris

I cannot end this recollection without mentioning our favorite breakfast spot, a small bakery just a few blocks down from our apartment.  Miss Manon is not unlike a hundred other bakeries all around the city, but this one was so convenient, and the chocolate-filled pastries were exceptional.  The women who manage the shop (could one of them have been THE Miss Manon?) were patient with us, even though it took us a few visits to understand the proper dine-in protocol: patrons look at the mouth-watering selection of goodies in the glass cases, make their selection, then find a seat and wait for the staff to bring their food to them.  I think they told us several times, but here again, we don’t speak French, and their English was limited.  We still got along marvelously.  It was a bit cool in the early mornings, so we sat inside.  It was fascinating to hear the interaction of the women out front with the men who were baking in the back and bringing out trays of fresh pastries, breads, baguettes, and tarts.  At times the women sounded irritated with the men, but then they would laugh and shake their heads, and greet the next customer with a cheerful “Bonjour!”

Miss Manon Bakery
Miss Manon Bakery, Paris

We were able to learn about Paris from tour guides, museums, books, maps, and videos.  We saw the amazing attractions, walked through the churches, strolled around the gardens, and wandered through the streets to experience so much of what the city has to offer.  Even then, we did not get the sense that we were connected with the city. Only when we stopped, sat at a table, ate and drank, and watched and listened did we begin to hear the heartbeat of this enchanting place.

The Garden at Musée Rodin

Visitors to Paris will often want to include in their itinerary a side trip to the Palace of Versailles, which is about a thirty-minute train ride from the city.  The round trip isn’t so time-consuming, but actually seeing the palace and grounds takes a minimum of half a day, even more if one truly explores the garden, which is 800 hectares (over 1,900 acres) in size. Unfortunately, some travelers are on a tight schedule and hardly have enough time to see the major attractions in Paris, much less places outside the city.  There is no substitute for seeing the Palace of Versailles, which is quite magnificent and offers a visual representation of the wealth and power of the monarchy in the 17th and 18th centuries. The garden is certainly spectacular and difficult to match; however, if there is a substitute in Paris that can serve as a rival, albeit on a smaller scale, the garden at the Musée Rodin must be near the top of the list.

Rodin gardens from mansion balconey
Rodin gardens from mansion balcony

The Musée Rodin is housed in a mansion, formerly called the Hôtel Peyrenc de Moras, now known as the Hôtel Biron. Auguste Rodin was a 19th-century French sculptor who is known for creating several iconic works, including “The Age of Bronze,” “The Thinker,” “The Kiss,” and “The Burghers of Calais.” The collection in the restored mansion is interesting for the novice and probably a treasure for artists and art historians, but almost everyone can appreciate the beauty of the garden.  Its size is minuscule compared to Versailles, but it is still impressive. The grounds are divided into a rose garden, north of the mansion, and a large ornamental garden, to the south, while a terrace and hornbeam hedge backing onto a trellis conceal a relaxation area, at the bottom of the garden. Two thematic walks are also part of the garden: the “Garden of Orpheus,” on the east side, and the “Garden of Springs”on the west side.

Rodin garden roses and shrubs
Rodin garden roses and shrubs

In addition to the abundance of plants, the garden is also decorated with some of Rodin’s sculpture.  Rodin started to place selected works in the garden in 1908, together with some of the antiques from his personal collection. Male and female torsos, copies made in the Roman or modern period, after Greek works, were presented in these natural surroundings. Other pieces were added after his death. The first bronzes were erected in the gardens before World War I. Since 1993, they have been regularly cleaned and treated so as to preserve their original patinas.

Rodin mansion 3

Anyone who has visited Paris knows the frustration of wanting to see more, to do more, than limited time will allow. Tourists have to be selective, discriminating, and reasonable about what they will be able to cover during the time they are in the city. Any attraction that offers more than one type of experience is probably worth including. The Musée Rodin fits that description with historic architecture and provocative sculpture but also a landscape that is in itself a work of art, offering the visitor an opportunity to rest and reflect.

A Valuable and Valued Experience

In recent years, the literature about travel has been focusing on the importance of creating or taking advantage of experiences rather than seeking the traditional rewards such as entertainment or relaxation.  Of course, how we define a memorable experience is all over the board.  Foodies may be looking for something much different than hikers, and history buffs may not appreciate the same experience that is meaningful to a photographer or painter.  Then again, there may be significant overlap.  In any case, if we want to learn as much as we can about a destination while we are there, we have to be willing to invest.  We have to spend time doing some research before we ever leave home, but even so, that preparation may not be enough in some cases to get a true appreciation for what we are seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching.

If we want to make sure we are doing the best we possibly can with our financial investments, we seek the advice of an expert.  If we want to take full advantage of the time we have to exercise and stay fit, we may pay a trainer or an instructor.  We may also pay teachers to help us learn particular skills or develop our hobbies.  And, there are times when it makes sense to pay someone to ensure that our travel experience is as rich as it can possibly be.  Yes, travel agents come to mind, but web-based services have almost made this profession obsolete, although they do still offer a valuable service for many individuals and groups.  I’m thinking of a service that is a bit more, well, personal.  On several occasions, we have paid to have a guide at special places of interest.  Some places are just impossible to completely enjoy even with such assistance because of poor crowd control, cheap audio equipment, or an inexperienced guide.  The Vatican Museum comes to mind — they pack way too many people in at a time, and it becomes a real challenge just to stay with your guided group.

For the most part, we have been very pleased with the guides we have had and felt that this investment provided us with a deeper appreciation for what we were seeing.  The two best examples that come to mind of where guides were invaluable to us are the Colosseum and Forum in Rome and Versailles Palace outside Paris.  In Rome it would be almost impossible in a short time to see the most historically-significant parts of the Colosseum and the Forum without an experienced guide.  I don’t remember her name, but our guide’s knowledge of these two attractions was certainly impressive.  We hired her for an individual tour, which was not cheap but worth every Euro.  She was able to answer in detail each question we asked.  She spoke fluent English.  She had a sense of humor without being silly.  She took us on a walking tour, and she managed to cover essential ground, literally and figuratively, while also adding interesting anecdotes, myths, and fascinating details.  It was such a rich experience.

Colosseum in Rome
Colosseum in Rome


The Palace at Versailles is a short 30 minute train ride to the west of Paris and well worth the time and effort to get there.  Because the Palace is so huge and we only had about four hours to spend there, we decided to pay for a guided tour.  This time, we were part of a group.  We still had bad memories of being shuffled through the Vatican Museum, shoulder to shoulder, like cows being herded to the slaughter.  We were prepared for the worst at Versailles.  Pauline was our host, and we could not have been more pleased.  She met our group at a building where tickets are sold about three blocks from the entrance to the Palace grounds.  She held in her hand a brightly-colored cloth blue flower on a tall green stalk, which she held up high enough for everyone to see to make following her a bit easier.  As is usually the case with guided tours, Pauline was able to bypass the longer general admission line and get us in the Palace promptly, which is almost worth the price of the tour alone.

Pauline distributed our audio headsets shortly after we entered the Palace and tested them all.  The technology was much better this time than when we were at the Vatican Museum, and our ear phones allowed us to hear every word she said.  Taking us through each of the rooms of the Palace that are open to visitors, Pauline not only explained the significance of the rooms, but she was always careful and creative about weaving the information back into her chronological theme of the royal families that resided at the Palace.  Her approach was similar to that of a school teacher, asking questions from the group and using responses to deliver her narrative.  She managed to do so without dumbing down the story so that people of all ages and education levels could appreciate the tour.  She was really talented.  Another skill Pauline exhibited was aggressiveness.  There are always rude people in museums who will insist on edging their way in front of others to get a better view or to take a photograph, or even worse, the obligatory selfie.  Incidentally, selfie sticks are prohibited in the Versailles Palace and in many museums and galleries in Paris, thank goodness.  When our group encountered anyone attempting to push in front of us at the railings while Pauline was talking to us, she would quickly and firmly say, “Excuse me, this is a group tour, would you please step aside?  Thank you!”  It worked every time.

Pauline at Versailles
Pauline, our guide at Versailles

Traveling is a luxury that many people cannot afford, which is unfortunate.  However, there are ways to make tourism more affordable.  There is a considerable range of prices for transportation, lodging, meals, attractions, and incidentals.  It usually makes sense to pay for many services in advance, including admission.  The Paris Pass is highly recommended for visitors to the city who plan to be there a few days and want to see multiple museums and galleries.  Other major cities have similar deals, and they are definitely worth considering.  Most of the time, we don’t feel a need to have a personal guide or to even join a group tour, both of which can be expensive.  We tend to like the freedom of seeing what interests us most and skipping the rest, which is practically impossible with a guided tour.  But there are times when having a knowledgeable narrator can provide that memorable and meaningful experience that so many travelers seek.

Deciding Where To Stay

A significant part of the expense of traveling is the cost of lodging, especially if you are in a large city or a popular destination.  It really is worth the time and effort to find a place that suits your needs and fulfills your expectations.  Sometimes hotels are the best option, especially if you are staying for only a night or two.  There are times when the hotel itself may be what attracted you in the first place, which was the case when my wife and I decided to spend our most recent anniversary weekend at the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel in Atlanta.  We looked forward to having dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, hanging out in the bar, and relaxing in a plush bed covered in sheets that, in retrospect, must have been imported from Turkey.  We also stayed in an over-the-top place when we visited Carmel, California.  The name would suggest a cheesy roadside motor lodge, but our room at Tickle Pink Inn had a small balcony looking out over the rocky cliffs of the Pacific and was equipped with a canopy bed and word-burning fireplace.  It was incredible, even for the one night we were there.  We don’t usually splurge like that, but in both cases, the experience was worth the extra money.  And, the experience is what we’re really after when we travel.

If your travels take you to major cultural centers, such as large cities or places of historical significance, then I suggest skipping the hotels and seeking out accommodations that will permit you to be immersed in the locale.  This option is especially preferable if you plan to stay for more than two nights.  It would appear that more travelers are embracing this idea with the rapid rise in popularity of Airbnb, VRBO, and many other agencies that provide listings of homes, apartments, villas, condos, and cabins for rent.  If you want a taste of what it is like to live in a particular place, then staying in a neighborhood or borough or barrio among the people who do actually live there is the best choice, especially if you are in an area where the language and customs are quite different from your own.  Shopping in local markets, eating in nearby cafes, strolling the streets and the parks, and taking in the local entertainment affords you the opportunity to get more integrated with the surroundings, to embrace your temporary milieu.

On our recent trip to Paris, my wife and I stayed in a lovely studio apartment in Le Marais, a trendy historic district that spreads across parts of the 3rd and 4th arrondissements.  The area was in terrible shape by the 1950s but was revitalized in the 1960s and is now the section of the city known for a high concentration of Jewish residents and also of gay and lesbian Parisians. It also hosts some of the most popular small, independent clothing and fashion shops in Paris.  We found out about this particular apartment from a friend in the states who had stayed there the previous summer and loved it.  So did we.  Our fourth-floor room was tucked away in a collection of early twentieth-century buildings between a busy thoroughfare and a side street about two blocks from the right bank of the Seine River.  The first floors of several of the buildings housed offices that looked out to a lovely courtyard, and the whole complex was somewhat secured by combination-code locked gates.  One of the entrances was less than fifty yards from a Metro station, which was most convenient.  Our apartment had a fair-sized bathroom and a small kitchen in addition to a spacious (by European standards) bedroom/sitting area.  It was accessible by a circular wooden staircase that wound its way around an elevator shaft with a car just large enough for two people with healthy BMI frames — it was tiny by American standards but typical for Paris.  The only times we used the elevator were to haul our luggage up when we arrived and back down when we departed.

Apartment complex courtyard
Apartment complex courtyard

We walked to one of the local markets as soon as we got settled into our apartment and bought all the provisions we would need for the five days we were staying in Paris.  That grocery shopping experience alone is worth another blog entry — a human comedy.  We walked to local bistros several nights that were quaint and wonderful.  We had breakfast almost every morning at a little bakery just a quick walk down the street.  The chocolate-banana pastries were like edible heaven.  We were within easy walking distance of the Seine, Notre Dame, and several museums, including the Picasso Museum and the Bastille.  On our last morning in Paris we strolled down to the Seine and walked up and down the banks of the river.  Other than the shopkeepers and other people who provided us with assistance, I don’t think we ever heard a single word of English while we were in the neighborhood where we were staying, which is such an important part of the experience of traveling to a foreign country.  From the window of our room we could hear people talking and laughing at the café four floors below our windows.  We could hear children playing on the sidewalks.  We could hear people going to and coming home from work or school.  For a brief time, we almost felt like Parisians — well, a little.  Do yourself a favor.  On your next trip, find a place to stay in a great neighborhood and soak up the atmosphere you find there.

Views from our windows in Paris

We’ll Always Have Paris

My wife and I recently took another one of those “trips-of-a-lifetime,” to a place neither one of us had ever visited: Paris.  After we had been married for a couple of years we began planning a trip to Paris for our fifth wedding anniversary; however, we changed jobs and moved to a new place.  We had to start over banking vacation time, plus we needed a year or two to get adjusted in our new location.  So we postponed the Paris trip but continued to keep it on our short list.  Then an opportunity presented itself to us last year when the president of the college where we both work announced that he would be giving an organ recital (he is a highly-acclaimed concert organist) at Westminster Abbey in London.  We decided right then that we would be in London for the event, which was scheduled for a Sunday afternoon, and then we would head over to Paris to enjoy the rest of the week as tourists.  We spent the better part of a year making arrangements: learning as much as we could about the city, finding accommodations, deciding what we wanted to see and do, purchasing tickets, arranging transportation, and booking flights.

We have never flown first or business class, except once when we were upgraded on our flight back from Jamaica last December.  For the trans-Atlantic journey to Europe though, we decided to cash in all of my wife’s Delta Sky Miles and splurge on first class, where the seats completely recline to a vertical position.  I have a difficult time sleeping upright in the typical less-than-comfortable seats on a plane, and we really needed to sleep during the overnight flight to London.  What a luxury first class was for this trip, going both ways.  With a little bit of help from a half-dose of Dramamine, I slept pretty well flying over Iceland and the north Atlantic.  I really wish we could fly first class all the time, but alas, we are travelers on a budget.  And, I’m not complaining because our budget allows us to go places that the majority of Americans only dream about or see in movies.  I am grateful.

Paris exceeded all our expectations.  It is a beautiful city with so much history, character, personality, and charm.  In London and Rome, we were never too impressed with the food, but in Paris, every meal was amazing and delicious.  The bistros and cafes are usually small, but each has its own signature appeal.  You can’t walk a hundred yards in the center of Paris without passing some place to eat.  We had breakfast every morning at a bakery just down the street from our apartment.  The pastries were so delicate, and the banana-chocolate one was to die for!  Every night we tried something different for dinner and were never disappointed.  I ate escargot for the first time and was surprised how similar it was to fresh clams.  Swimming in salty pesto, it was truly a delicacy.

Eiffel Tower and River Seine
Eiffel Tower and River Seine

Writing about our trip to Paris will certainly take more than one post.  At this point, suffice it to say that this is one of those places where it is almost impossible to take a bad photograph.  I took this shot with my cell phone, standing on the platform on the Pont de Bir Hakeim, one of many bridges that cross the River Seine that bisects the city.  I think it is one of the best places to get a good view of the Eiffel Tower and the Seine.  The tower is so tall and commanding that you really have to be a little distance away to appreciate its magnificence.  Paris is filled with scenes that present themselves to the visitor and beg to be recorded in a photograph.  It is an irresistible city on so many levels.  I look forward to many more traveling adventures, and we are already making plans for future trips.  Still, it will be difficult to top our week in the City of Love.  If we never get to return to Europe, and I certainly hope we do return someday, I will look back on this time with such fond memories and shamelessly steal Rick’s line from Casablanca, “We’ll always have Paris.”