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

Galveston Beach Deserves Better Press

Being a lover of the seashore and all things beach-related, I take every opportunity to dig my toes in the sand and soak up the salt and sun.  We try to make a trip to the beach at least once a year if possible.  I even play the sounds of waves on my computer at work for background noise.  It’s better than music sometimes.  For a good portion of my life, the highlight of my summers was a trip to Florida, usually to Daytona Beach, for a family vacation.  I have also visited beaches in Alabama, South Carolina, California, and southern England.  I know people who drive 24 hours from Texas just to spend a couple of weeks on the beach in Daytona, passing by numerous other locations along the Gulf to get there.  They say that Texas beaches are dirty and run-down.  They claim there’s no entertainment.  Specifically, they are talking about Galveston Island.

This summer, my wife and I were invited to spend a week at Galveston Island with some close family who live in Kansas.  We don’t get to see them very often and really enjoy spending time with them.  The plan involved them driving down to the Gulf in a couple of vehicles, loaded down with everything we could possibly need for a week at the beach.  We flew into Houston, rented a car, and made the short trip down to meet them at a large, rambling house on the beach we had all rented for the week.  I was expecting to be underwhelmed when we got there; however, I was pleasantly surprised to find Galveston’s beaches full of life with plenty of attractions.  There are water parks, an impressive amusement park on a huge pier, gardens, theaters, historic areas, some good restaurants, and more.  The beaches are clean, the waves are better than the Florida Gulf, and the house was perfect for our group of ten people, which included two children under the age of three!

Galveston Beach
Galveston Beach

The house was separated from the beach by a lawn and a some grassy dunes, but the sand was easily accessible by a raised, wooden walkway.  There was plenty of beach area to set up a permanent tent canopy for relief from the mid-day sun.  The porch looking out to the ocean extended the entire width of the house.  There was a large kitchen/eating area, numerous bedrooms, three bathrooms, two televisions on either end of the house set far enough apart to avoid any bleed-over effect.  It was such a relaxing place that was well maintained and nicely furnished.  We had a wonderful time with people we love in a setting that was just perfect.

Before heading back to Houston to the airport, we drove around the more developed area of the beach.  The hotels and condos looked very nice.  Most were probably built after Hurricane Ike devastated the area in 2008.   There are even a few resorts on the far east section of the island and what looks like a residential community development that is just getting started.  The old downtown section of Galveston is full of character typical of a port town.  There are even a few structures that predate the huge storm of 1900,  America’s worst-recorded hurricane disaster, that brought a massive surge across the island killing at least 8,000 people. Now there is a substantial sea wall that serves as the foundation for the major highway that runs along the beach, which helps protect the town from surges.  The highway separates the hotels from the beach, but it is a necessary barrier in case of storms.  For those who still think Galveston is not such a great destination, I suspect they are thinking of an older Galveston that doesn’t exist anymore.  The place has reinvented itself, and it is definitely worth considering.  Galveston is too far away from us for regular beach trips, but if this opportunity came open again, I would definitely want to go back.

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.”


Of Beauty and Bridges

I took a recent business trip to Connecticut, a state I had never visited.  I flew into Hartford and drove an hour or so to the charming little hamlet of Cornwall in the northwest part of the state.  I stayed overnight in a garage apartment of the across-the-street neighbor of the person I was there to see.  This was late September and a chill was starting to settle in the air, though the leaves showed not much sign of color yet.  I had just enough free time while I was there to spend a few hours driving around the countryside and was delighted by the abundance of forests and hills in which the small towns in that portion of the state are nestled.

Covered Bridge in West Cornwall
Covered Bridge in West Cornwall

Again, I found myself wandering around in places where it is nearly impossible to take a bad photograph.  I somewhat regret that wall calendars are no longer very useful in this age where today’s date is so easily ascertained with a mobile device regardless of one’s whereabouts.  The vistas afforded me on this trip could fill up the top half of wall calendars for decades to come.  This covered bridge, which I crossed a few times, is a perfect example, along with the river that flows to and under it.  The bridge was built in 1841 in Litchfield County, in the Berkshires region of Connecticut, to cross the Housatonic River.  With the last remaining fog of morning rising from the water and through the trees, the image below looks more like a painting than a photograph.

Housatonic River in West Cornwall, CT
Housatonic River in West Cornwall, CT

Wide Open Spaces

Recently, I took another one of those “trips of a lifetime” with my wife and one of my sons — this time to Yellowstone National Park.  Although my wife had briefly visited some years back, my son and I had never been.  We stayed for three full days in a cabin just a few miles from the south entrance of the park, which afforded us great access not only to Yellowstone but also to the Grand Tetons National Park as well as Jackson, Wyoming.  Like my other experiences traveling to the west, I was most taken by the enormity of space in this portion of the country.  The sky goes on forever.  The landscape melts into the distance in a blue haze.  The vistas are simply overwhelming.

Yellowstone National Park

Of course, like many visitors to this National Park, my son and I were hoping to see plenty of wildlife, which is practically unavoidable.  In fact, there have been several recent incidents of people/wildlife encounters that have ended up not too pleasant for the humans involved, especially with bison.  At a safe distance, and in the protection of an automobile, it is so rewarding to see animals in their own habitat, protected as they are from most human threats.  We were fortunate enough to see bison, elk, prong horns, and an otter.  We desperately wanted to see a grizzly bear but were not willing to hike in the back country where one would typically find them.  However, on the last day, we were lucky enough to see a mother brown bear and her playful cub resting in the shade of some trees, just a hundred or so yards from the roadway.

I will write more posts about this trip in the weeks ahead, so we will consider this short piece an introduction.  For those who haven’t been but have contemplated a trip to Yellowstone, I would strongly encourage placing it near the top of your bucket list, especially if you have an appreciation for the great outdoors.