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Review: Lisbon’s Miraparque Hotel


Lisbon is a subtle, stunning city along the Atlantic coast of Portugal in which you can find many wonderful surprises. When choosing a hotel is this gem of a city, you want something that is going to provide access to the best food, music and drinks the city has to offer. You want a location that will enable you to experience all that Lisbon has to offer. You will want, if you can find it, one of the cheapest hotels in Lisbon, and also one of the most perfectly centered.

What you want is the Miraparque Hotel.

Located within a few hundred yards of the central Marques de Pombal Square, a roundabout area that serves as both a business district and thriving tourism area, the Miraparque stands as one of the best located hotels in which we’ve stayed in Europe.

Quaint and affordable, the Miraparque sits just up-hill from the Square as is aptly named for its location alongside the popular Parque Eduardo VII in the city center.

Upon entry, the Miraparque Hotel has a slightly dated, older feel, however obviously clean. The front desk staff was accommodating, helping us to find information on the local tours and hop-on, hop-off bus that departed at the park across the street.

After some time waiting for our room to be prepared, we were allowed inside (still prior to our planned check-out time) and were greeted by one of the more spacious European, budget hotel rooms in which we’ve stayed. The room was vast, with a courtyard-facing window that, while not scenic, allowed for a nice breeze to sweep across the room.

The hotel offered the standard amenities, from a small, pleasant hotel bar to a fitting hotel breakfast buffet that was prepared in time each morning about 6:00am. The breakfast offered standard European breakfast far, with simple, cured meats, popular cheeses, scrambled eggs and various fruits and cereals. In addition, the coffee was hot and fresh, served with local milk used as creamer. Typically before our morning breakfast, we would enjoy a quick workout in the hotel’s roof-top gymnasium.

The hotel bar could serve 6-8 people, but was an excellent place to have a drink or two before heading out for a night on the town. We were pleased with the results on a few classics such as the Negroni, and with their Sangria being homemade.

The biggest advantage to the Miraparque was, quite simply, the location and the price. It is another in a long line of boutique hotels in which we’ve stayed where we were able to find an excellent location in a popular city for under 100USD per night. Convenience was key about our stay here, and provided us to have memorable, late nights on the town without having the fear of wondering how we would be able to make our way back beyond the time when the Metro was running.

From the Miraparque, you are within a short walk to countless bars, restaurants, markets, and museums. Not only this, but within minutes you can be ocean-side and enjoying the wonderful vistas along Portugal’s Atlantic coast.

While not flashy or stunning, the Miraparque is a perfectly comfortable hotel that is secure, clean and most of all, overwhelmingly close to so much of what Lisbon offers. If you are like us, and judge a hotel based on what you get in return for the cost, you’ll make the Miraparque your home on your next stop in Lisbon.

Our verdict: Recommend.

Contact:

Website 

Address: Av.Sidónio Pais,12
1050-214 Lisboa Lisbon
Portugal

Phone : +351 213 524 286

 

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Review: Amsterdam’s A-Train Hotel


No matter where we travel, we look for the same three things in the hotel where we stay – location, affordability and security. We’re far from high-brow, mind you, as what we’re really seeking is a trust-worthy location that allows us to enjoy the area in which we’re traveling. Sometimes, however, we get surprised by the small, boutique establishments where we call home during our short visits. Somehow, we find hidden gems.

The A-Train Hotel was one such gem, and its undoubtedly one of the best hotel deals in Amsterdam

Located on the Prins Hendrikkade, a prime location facing Amsterdam Centraal Station, the A-Train is a warm, beguiling place. While seemingly blending in with the shops and restaurants along the main thoroughfare where bicyclers, tourists and revelers of the day and night wandered, the A-Train enraptures you upon entry. The small entry gives way to a shotgun-style lobby with old, stained wood supporting a mammoth collection of travel memorabilia – true to the thematic title the A-Train bears. The entire hotel has a great feel as a type of old train car, itself,

The reception was warm, with multi-lingual host staff manning the entry desk and a secure front entry that made us feel both at home and secure. The tiny elevator, adored with more early 20th-century travel collectibles, opened to a well-lit hallway where we found our room adjacent to the opening of the doors. The rooms? Small, in a general sense, but none-the-less cozy and comfortable. The room had a feeling of crisp cleanliness, and we were surprised to see a widely outward-opening window which gave us a bird’s-eye view of the warm rooftops of the neighborhood that lay behind the primary street on which we were staying. This only added to the feel of “home”.

Our view from the room- quaint and idyllic.

First, let me say that the location was splendid. Not only were we within steps of the Centraal Station, but in front of the station was the primary canal that separated Amsterdam by north and south bank. Here, you could rent canal passes, sunset cruises and hop-on, hop-off canal boats that made for easy access to the greatest sites around the city.

To our right, within 50 feet of the entry way, was the more than 400-year-old Cafe Karpershoek – an Amsterdam landmark that opened in 1606. Beyond that was a number of excellent restaurants, pubs, coffee-shops, and the primary walkway that led approximately ten minutes to the Red Light District. Lastly, we stocked our room on numerous occasions with the groceries and beer sold at the Albert Heijn market, which was directly next door. We used this ideal proximity not only for groceries, but also to get cash, ask for directions and even for aspirin to help us get over our first Amsterdam hangover!

You simply couldn’t get a better location.

The affordability of the A-Train can’t be overstated. We actually booked our trip through Tripmasters, a site we have used myriad times to explore the world, and A-Train was one of their favored locations. If you are booking independently, the A-Train can be had for less than 100USD per night. The hotel next door? More than twice that amount. I’m not sure about you, but I’m not paying double for 30 extra square feet in my hotel room. When all was said and done, we paid about 65USD per night through Tripmasters for our room at A-Train, which really is one bar-tab more than the cost of a hostel. I’ll take the security, privacy and coziness over the bunk-beds, thank you.

The room was comfortable, clean, and cozy.

Lastly, our room included a morning breakfast that was more than simply continental fair. Fresh, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage and a litany of fruits, breads and juices were available each morning upon arrival – even when we had to leave at 6:00am for our early trip back to the airport! The coffee was strong and hot, the food was delicious, and it had us well on our way toward exploring the city.

In all, you simply can’t do any better for the price you pay than to stay at the A-Train. Along with Venice’s Hotel Vecellio, it’s among the happiest we’ve been with a hotel selection in the entirety of our travel experiences.

Our verdict: Highly recommend.

Contact

Website 

Address: Prins Hendrikkade 23, 1012 TM Amsterdam, Netherlands

Phone : +31 20 624 1942

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5 Free Things To Do In Munich


Munich is a rare city that one could say is, in fact, uniquely its own. The history, each the good, bad, and notoriously dreadful, are all uniquely her. The site of the nationalistic uprising that resulted in Hitler’s Nazi Germany, Munich has grown from its treacherous past and is today an impeccably serene, peaceful and idyllic place. From Bavarian architecture and face-sized pints of Weissbier to its understanding and growth from its war-torn history, Munich is utterly unmistakable from any other.

What few know and understand about Munich is that it’s also a great budget travel city, and one in which you’ll find yourself often dumbfounded by brilliance simply by standing, walking or looking up. Here, we’ve covered five great, free ways to make the most of the Old Bavarian capital.

Free Walking Tour

One of the most enjoyable and rewarding experiences in Munich is the Free Walking Tour, offered by a handful of independent crews that work by donation throughout the city center. Mostly beginning in front of the Marienplatz, the city’s main square since 1158, you’ll have the opportunity to tour Munich by foot and learn about the deep, rich history of the city.

The one we chose was Sandeman’s, which convened in the city center in front of the Marienplatz. It’s best to check ahead for availability and space, especially weather pending, but actually setting up to attend the tour is quite easy. The tour guides are fantastically knowledgeable about Munich, and will share with you the epic details behind locations such as Marienplatz (and the Glockenspiel that adorns its tower), Englischer Garter, Munich Residenz, Altes Rathaus and the five famous Munchen breweries including the ubiquitous Hofbrauhaus, which dates back to 1589! Other spots include Odeonsplatz, the site of numerous early Nazi speeches and beside the area where Hitler was allegedly shot during the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. Truly, Munich comes alive on this tour that brings all stories to the forefront – both the known and the unknown of the city.

Make sure to have a camera handy, as the walking tour offers much of what you expected to see in Munich, a few surprises, and plenty of scenic beauty around this beautiful city center. The free walking tours are a must see, even if you’re only looking for something to fill up one day in Munich.

The Gardens at Nymphenburg Park

Nymphenburg Palace is a place of unspeakable beauty, finished in 1675 and once home to such luminaries as King Ludwig II, who was born there in 1845. While the palace itself is a for-pay attraction, the gardens outside are stunning and free to walk about.

Nearly 500 acres in size, the Gardens at Nymphenburg are bejeweled by stunning fountains such as The Grand Cascade, impeccably manicured hedgerows and beautiful lakes that can be viewed year-round. The grounds retain much of the old Bavarian feel, as they’ve remained largely unchanged beyond a few minor additions and alterations made in the latter 19th century. There are numerous attractions on the grounds, including the Royal Bathing House known as Badenburg and Pagodenburg, a royal teahouse built in beautiful, traditional 19th century majesty.

While there are entrance fees to enter Nymphenburg much of the year, off-times of the year where entry can be had for free – especially if bundled with the palace.

Stroll the Englischer Garten

A popular site on the walking tour, the Englischer Garten shocks one at its mere size – which is larger than both London’s Hyde Park and New York’s Central Park.

Englischer Garten surprises, as it’s both fantastical and diverse – including a Japanese Teahouse given to the City of Munich by Japan during the 1972 Summer Olympics as well as the popular Eisbach, a standing wave artificially produced in a stream and serves as a popular spot for surfers who long for the ocean.

Most commonly, Englischer Garten is a wonderful place to relax. Revelers can be seen soaking in the sun in summer months, either resting on a bench to read a book or decompressing on a blanket with perhaps a few sandwiches in hand. It is this that makes the garden an ideal place to sit, renew the soul and simply watch the city pass you by.

Hofbrauhaus

The already-mentioned Hofbrauhaus is central to Munich’s history, as the site of the city’s most famous brewery since 1589.

Forcibly restored since sustaining extensive bombing damage during the raids of World War II, Hofbrauhaus maintains its original character including vaulted, masterfully-painted ceilings and authentic Bavarian music played live alongside the gigantic steins of liquid courage. Yet, you don’t need to have a pint of the good stuff to enjoy Hofbrauhaus, as its halls and historic upstairs dining area are all must-see attractions that are free and open to tourists year-round.

If you do want to shell out a few Euros while on site, Hofbrauhaus is an essential place to experience one of those over-sized beers along with your first helping of schnitzel! Tracy and I sat for hours, sitting the beautiful, golden lager and listening to a traditional polka band play in the lower hall of Hofbrauhaus, a massively stunning work of art that also boasts excellent acoustics for such a performance.

Olympic Park

Olympiapark, built for the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics, still is operational, beautiful, and open to the public. During the summer months, Olympiapark serves the city with a series of free concerts on its beautiful grounds. The stadium still hosts numerous annual events, such as Holiday on Ice and the Six-Day-Run, both of which are widely attended and fantastic for tourists.

Outside the stadium itself is Olympiaberg, another great free attraction and a high hillside that serves picnickers as well as blanket-toting music lovers who would rather hear the sounds of Olympiaparks major concerts from afar – and without cost. These free attractions are where Munich begins, but certainly not where it ends. Full of mystery, beauty and historical significance, it’s a city that presents boundless opportunities to delve deeper.

What are your favorite free things to do in Munich?

 

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Review: Cliffs of Moher Day-Trip


Ireland is a beautiful and aptly green landscape of peaceful fields as well as bustling downtowns and classic structures everywhere you look. On our last trip into Dublin, we took a day trip across the country to see the famous Cliffs of Moher in County Clare.

As a relatively small group tour, it was a pleasant excursion to the Cliffs of Moher from Dublin in a large air-conditioned passenger van. The trip is a meandering one, full of pastures and farmlands, family farms and the kind of green I can honestly say I’ve never seen along a landscape in the U.S. Bright and calm, after a four hour journey with a stop in between, we arrived at the Cliffs! The guide, organized and quiet on the ride there (which allowed us to take a quick nap), instructed us to meet back at the appointed time, after which we were free to explore.

Quick tip: Take a backpack or bag with water, drinks, and snacks as you make your way to the Cliffs! We brought along some bottles of iced tea, cheese sticks and crackers to satiate us along the way.

Upon exiting the tour van, we felt the brisk winds kick in, which was quite refreshing! The cliffs themselves stood out in front of us in the sunlight, and are immediately stunning. It’s easy to see why the Cliffs of Moher were chosen as a filming location for numerous films, such as Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. After a long trip, we were hungry, and found our way to the restaurant in the main visitor’s area.

Prior to taking in the scenery up close, we entered the quaint (and faintly Hobbit-like) dome built into the earth which houses the visitor center as well as a cafeteria with quick bites and hot food. After the long ride we partook in the Guinness steak dish with mashed potatoes, quite good, and a large portion! While in the center, we walked through the Exhibition, a fun and interpretive area in the lower part of the center that shows visitors the nature of the Cliffs with exhibits and displays. The dome itself is set up to highlight the four elements of the Cliffs: Ocean, Rock, Nature and Man.

Taking in a moment at the signpost which marks the entrance to the Cliffs of Moher.

Soaring above the sea at 702 feet (at the highest point) the Cliffs go on for five miles against the coast of the Atlantic. As we approached the mountainous range we found a bordered pathway, lined with waist-high slabs of slate that create a rustic and historical fence line just behind the edge of the cliffs for safe passage as you take in the view from the skyrocketing wonder. For the more adventurous, take a step over the slate and walk along a path facing the edge of the cliffs themselves with no safety features!

Although discouraged from doing so (and not quite sure if it’s technically “allowed”!), we decided to take the challenge and meander along the un-fenced border. With the winds whipping around us it was a bit trepidacious, but also exhilarating and a once in a lifetime experience!

The epic vista shows the eras of erosion that over time created the massive, rocky sea-lined pillars that only the environment could create. The human intrigue of the Cliffs only makes sense in person – we have never felt so small yet so inspired standing atop the green grass with certain infinity below. As we stepped along the border, little yellow flowers popped out along the grass; a beautiful juxtaposition between the deep dive of the danger at the edge and the nature that created them.

The view from the cliffs is honestly one that made us silent and contemplative while we moved slowly along. “Breathtaking” is a word most likely designated for this experience along the coast of Ireland. As you traverse the coast, you’ll be greeted by a spray or two of upwards waterfalls, inexplicably blowing up and then raining down from the sea itself, a seeming impossibility! The misty upwards/downwards waterfall hits you twice – once as you go up the Cliffs and once as you make your way to the castle.

Along the walkway, sea spray showers.

Quick tip: In addition to the winds, the Cliffs of Moher have upward spraying, misty water spouts from the sea, so bring along a scarf or hat, and enjoy the experience up close!

After walking along the precarious open face of the Cliffs, we ventured around to O’Brien’s castle, a small structure that for two euros you can ascend the winding spiral staircase to the top. From there, the view is striking! Built in 1835 by landlord Cornelius O’Brien as a way to watch the visitors that came to see the cliffs, the weather was beautiful and clear enough to see the southern tip of Clare, and even as far as the mountains of Kerry. To the west we viewed the three Aran Islands, where we were informed by the friendly tower concierge, the 1,200 or so residents speak almost exclusively Irish Gaelic (in addition to English)! These islands are also home of the famous Aran sweater, which gained worldwide popularity during the mid-twentieth century.

One way to get even more up close and personal with the cliffs and their history, book a guided tour! These small group tours are ideal for anyone interested in geology and geography, conducted by trained local rangers. The cost is about 45 Euros per group, and they advise to book at least a week in advance!

Beautiful O’Brien Castle with our friends posing!

After our walk along the cliffs and a visit to the O’Brien castle, we visited the visitor center once again, this time to get souvenirs! The staff at the center is accommodating and helpful, and it’s no surprise that everywhere you visit here has that traditional Irish friendliness and charm. Pick up a key chain, a magnet, or some fudge (like we did!) and watch the sun start to wane against the sky of the ancient scenery.

The return trip didn’t lack in beautiful scenery.

The road back from the Cliffs of Moher was just as breathtaking and contemplative – vast expanses of green fields and towns that roll along at a peaceful pace. Though we could’ve slept as we meandered along the quiet roads, the experience itself kept my memory – and vision – going for the rest of the journey. Arriving back in Dublin from the cliffs, we felt refreshed, inspired, and in love with Ireland even more!

 

 

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A Day-Trip with Dali


While visiting new cities, taking a day trip is a great way to maximize your experience. During our recent trip to Barcelona, we found such an opportunity to take a small group day trip to the Salvador Dali Theater and Museum in Girona, as well as his beautifully and personally designed house in Port Lligat, along the enchanting northeast coast of Spain. As a student of art, and a lifelong fan of Dali, I was exuberant for this excursion, and it did not disappoint!

Starting out at the tour office in downtown Barcelona, just a few blocks walk from our hotel, we met up with the other eight or so fellow tourists. Everyone in our group was English-speaking, so the guide introduced herself in our native language and explained the details and timeline of the tour. She was extremely friendly and answered any questions we had before departing, as well as throughout the day!

Around every corner – another masterpiece.

The drive itself takes you around beautiful coastal areas while the experienced tour guide narrates along the way, telling the history of the areas you’re traversing as well as interesting and unique facts about Dali himself. We were quite impressed with her knowledge of the artist as well as his museum and home.

The Dali Theatre and Museum

After about a two hour ride, we arrived at the astounding Dali Theatre and Museum in Figueres, Girona. Opened in 1974, it naturally houses the largest collection of his works. Adorned with large sculptures of eggs atop the parapets, and pink-hued walls covered with loaves of bread, it is surrealism personified. Take a minute to admire the uniqueness of the external façade; it is just the beginning of the amazing artwork sprung from Dali’s imagination.

Upon entering the museum, our first experience was quite mesmerizing. A 1941 Cadillac, complete with a non-sentient passenger, has been transformed into a rainstorm – on the inside. A quirky coin-operated attraction, Dali’s vision for this piece was a comment on how he could never seem to get a cab when it was raining! From there you’re free to roam the museum itself, and upon entering, you’ll find yourself in the presence of one of his most famous works, “Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea”. Although, at first glance, what you’ll most likely see is the bust of Abraham Lincoln instead of his much beloved wife, Gala.

Dali’s surrealistic impression of his muse – Gala.

Quick note: You’ll see Dali’s wife Gala represented frequently within his works. She was his muse, and lived in the house that he built on the coast in Cadaques, where she died in 1982.

Dali used any medium, even Cadillacs, to express his genius.

Make sure to meander through every corridor and hallway in the museum, every wall conveys Dali’s genius and, perhaps, eccentricities. Another famous piece is the Mae West room, where a couch and other objects turn into her face once you ascend the short staircase at the back of the room to view it from its intended perspective!

This unique museum houses not only his largest collection, but some of his most prolific works, including Soft self-portrait with grilled bacon (1941), Poetry of America—the Cosmic Athletes (1943), Galarina (1944–45), Basket of Bread (1945), Leda Atomica (1949), Galatea of the Spheres (1952) and Crist de la Tramuntana (1968). In addition to the main gallery, the structure dedicates a room to Dali’s unique optical illusions and anamorphic art, as well as his final complete painting, The Swallow’s Tail, created in 1983.

At the center of Cadaques, at Dali’s Statue.

As we walked through the winding hallways there was history at every turn. From early sketches to sculptures, it was hard not to feel a sort of drunkenness in the midst of his genius, every viewpoint was just one more indelible impression to take home with us.

Quick note: Make sure to look up as you make your way through the different areas of the museum, not all the art is hung on the walls!

Which do you see – Lincoln or Gala?

In addition to Dali’s paintings, the most recognizable of his works, we visited the adjoining gallery of jewelry designed by his artistry. Glittering and thought-provoking, this small gallery lets you view these priceless pieces up close behind glass. Truly not to be missed!

After we took our time to take in all that the museum has to offer, we ventured outside to grab a bite to eat at the small café across the street where we got a couple small sandwiches from a welcoming owner. After relaxing outside, it was time to keep going… on to Cadaques!

Always remember to look UP!

Dali House in Port Lligat, Cadaques

A short drive from the museum is the quaint coastal city of Cadaques, where you can see a cheeky statue of Dali (a great photo op!) and find delicious food while you dine right next to the shoreline. Located on the Costa Brava on the Mediterranean Sea, the town is quiet with a serene and classic stretch of white-walled shops and restaurants against a mountainous backdrop.

Walking down the winding roads to the water, the view is breathtaking from the rocky shore, and despite the chilly weather, we buttoned up our coats and happily sat outside to enjoy our lunch.  After a few glasses of wine, some sardines on toast, and meeting a friendly local cat, we made our way back up the misty streets and rejoined the group for the short ride to Dali’s house.

Meeting a new friend in Cadaques.

Salvador Dali’s house and museum in Port Lligat was designed by the master himself, a labyrinth of passageways and rooms so unique we were astounded at every turn. Built on the water in a remote fisherman’s village, it stood as Salvador and Gala’s main residence until 1982. Purchased in 1930, Salvador and Gala began building onto their initial space until it reached two stories and six connecting cottage spaces where they showcased their surrealistic tastes. He was especially drawn to the light and the landscape of this beautiful location, as well as it’s distance from the busy city streets.

Upon arriving at the small road that leads to the house, we came upon the calming and serene view of the port to the left of the path. The house itself is stark white, a striking contrast against the grey skies that day, while also quite minimalistic at first glance… on the outside!

The entry of his home brings you to the beginning of the whimsical experience ahead – a large bear figure holding a lamp in a sitting area. Though this initial living space, as well as other areas, are roped off to the public, most of the house is open for exploration where you can take as many photos as you like! We were free to roam the whole of the house, including the impressive pool area at the rear, where the famous sitting area showcases a reinvented Mae West lips couch surrounded by Pirelli Tire placards.

Dali’s interesting perspective was everywhere – even the pool!

One of the most fascinating rooms within the Dali house was the round room, another living space designed as a domed circle, and while appearing cozy and colorful with couches and pillows surrounding the sphere, we made sure to stand in the center for its best feature. While in the middle of this circular space, start speaking out loud… you’ll hear your own voice echo against the walls! It’s a quirky and slightly mind-bending experience. As soon as you move to the periphery, that echo effect disappears. Quite astounding (and fun)!

Dali’s echo room – a beautiful sitting area in the center of the home.

The main bedroom features two separate and colorful beds, decorated in pink linens and small overhead canopies, its window facing the calming port waters. We could imagine the view each morning as they rose to see the calming view. As you meander, you’ll find yourself winding through the small halls and staircases, one of which leads down to a room where his paint and other supplies are shelved. Near this deeply historical display is his actual art studio, complete with a wall-mounted mechanism that allowed his canvases to be lifted and lowered into the floor as he painted. The guide informed us that, still sitting in this space, his last incomplete work hangs from the lift. As with almost all windows in the Dali house, his studio faced the shore of the port to capture the best light.

A peek into Dali’s equipment storage – left as it was the day he died.

After meeting back up with the guide, who continued to narrate our experience with the history of the dwelling, she enhanced our visit by discussing interesting features and unique anecdotes about the owners, both Salvador and Gala.

Moving past the impressive and eclectic interior, we made our way out to the pool area to take a walk around the water feature as well as the additional pieces and spaces he’d created. At the rear of the pool is a covered sitting area full of plush and colorful cushions. It was all we could do not to sit down and relax for the rest of the day!

As an art enthusiast, I had one request at the end of the day – that I would have the time to sit on the shore of the port and sketch out a picture from what would’ve been Dali’s point of view. I’d brought paper, but at the time the bus from Portlligat to Barcelona was no longer parked at the entry, and not being able to access my sketch pad I was quite dismayed!

After hearing of my disappointment, our genial and compensating tour guide surprised me by hunting down a blank piece of paper and a pen so that I could complete my mission to sketch where the great artist sketched. Sitting along the stone above the calm waters while I drew the scene before me is one of my most cherished memories of travel.

Sketching the view from Dali’s perspective.

If art moves you, if history intrigues you, take the time to visit this area of Spain and experience Dali in person. Though his work is seen throughout the world, there is nothing like actually seeing his collection in a museum he designed.

There is an indescribable feeling when walking the halls where he lived for more than 40 years, to see the studio where he crafted his timeless art, and to sit on the shore where the light inspired him. Watching the landscape disappear out of site as we made our way back to Barcelona was closure to a lifetime of admiration that I will never forget.

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Review: Ibis London City Hotel – Shoreditch


London is a city with endless possibilities for discovery and entertainment, as well as art and history. With tourism continuing to rise significantly over recent years you’ll also have endless choices for hotels!

On our most recent trip across the pond we stayed at the Ibis London City hotel, a funky and accommodating place near the Whitechapel area of the city. A few steps away from the Aldgate East tube stop, we found everything we needed within walking distance, as well as by short underground trips around London. Just fifteen minutes on foot to the Tower Bridge and the famous River Thames, you’ll find its location convenient no matter what your plans for the city.

Convenient lobby bar with great, full service.

Upon entering the lobby, the décor is strikingly modern and colorful, rife with reds, blues, artistic geometric dividers and warm brick walls. Combined with comfortable chairs and beautifully lit sitting areas, we utilized this space quite a bit in the mornings before we headed out to our destinations, as well as in the evenings to relax and have a drink before retiring. In addition to the casual and inviting conversation areas, the Ibis is home to Fogg’s, a full service bar right in the lobby with friendly and attentive service. After a long ride from Heathrow into the heart of the city, that was our first stop, even before checking in!

We arrived earlier than the typical check-in time, as many travelers do, but the staff at the front desk was accommodating and helpful, finding the first available room for us to check into after such a long day. Available 24-hours a day, you’ll never find yourself without assistance if need be! One early morning I found myself needing a pair of scissors, of all things, and they gladly lent me a pair. Next to the concierge desk they also have free Wi-Fi stations where you can search for things to do around London, send an email, or just check Facebook.

The rooms at Ibis are clean, comfortable and conveniently located in Whitechapel.

The room itself was quite modern, clean, and cozy. As with many of our hotel experiences in Europe, the room’s design and efficiency were outstanding, with enough space to comfortably unpack, relax, take a shower and watch TV after a long day. Electrical outlets are conveniently placed next to the nightstands so you’re able to charge your phones and browse your computers while reclining. The bed was comfortable and we slept quite well after each day of city-wide excursions. We rarely spend more time in the room than while we’re asleep when traveling, and the Ibis’ welcoming décor and warmth definitely exceeded our expectations.

The hotel offers a generous spread for breakfast for a nominal fee (I believe we paid around ten Pounds), where you can find everything from eggs, bacon and sausage, to yogurt, cereal and fruit (in addition to many other options!). To find a quick bite when the Ibis’ restaurant isn’t available, simply walk next door to the conveniently located Tesco Express where we visited quite often whenever we needed snacks, toiletries, water (and, of course, beer!) or a quick sandwich to tide us over on a tube ride.

The fun and festive Spitalfields Market, walking distance of the Ibis London City.

The Ibis is located an easy walk away from the lively Whitechapel area, home of the expansive and bustling Old Spitalfields Market (one of our favorite places to visit in the area) as well as the infamous and legendary scenes of Jack the Ripper’s mysterious reign of terror in London. While in the area, make sure to check out the historical Ten Bells pub, directly across the street from the Spitalfields Market, our staple watering hole when in this area of London – and also one of the places where Jack the Ripper is rumored to have found some of his victims! For a quick drink – and an additional Ripper experience – check out the White Hart Pub, where we started a few of our daily journeys with a pints and delicious potato soup!

Stay at the Ibis, and have a few drinks with friends at the Ten Bells – where the Ripper roamed!

Our experience at the Ibis London City was welcoming, convenient and comfortable. With around the clock concierge we found it easy to come and go as we pleased, and with an on-site bar we found it easy to imbibe as we pleased as well! The location is excellent, the rooms inviting, and the staff accommodating.

Our verdict: Highly recommended

Contact

Website 

Address: 5 Commercial Street E1 6BF – London, UK

Phone : (+44) 207/4228400

 

 

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8 Hours in Paris: A Raw Review


It is no longer Hemingway’s Paris.

No longer that romanticized epoch of clinking champagne glasses and Can-Can Girls, backlit with the swirling of sweet cigars and bawdy revelry. Where the beauty drifted, we don’t know; perhaps to the fate of time and erosion, or perhaps to the city’s reliance on old paradigms that just don’t work with the present population. The Paris we experienced in person was much different than that of the misty, lovelorn images dreamed of in well-worn novels.  To us, it presented itself as a self-righteous, spoiled  stepchild of what it once was –  tattered, rude, and disconcerting.

To Tell the Truth

This is not one of those cheeky, double-speak reviews of Paris which ends up praising the beauty and uniqueness of the city in the end. I have to be honest.  Furthermore, if you plan on traveling to Paris’ tourist attractions for a day via the Eurostar or into the train station at the Gare du Nord in general, as many do, you need to know what to expect if you want to feel safe and enjoy yourself, even if just for a few hours.

I know there are millions who have different experiences in this city, but as a first time visitor (as many people are) it’s important to depict a personal and real picture so other first-timers can be prepared for the shadows they may find  within the City of Lights!

Our Paris Experience

Our main goal during our excursion was to fit in as many attractions as possible in the handful of hours we had in the heart of the city. So, to be fair, we were not out to see the quaint tree-lined outskirts or the coffee houses neatly tucked away in distant and charming arrondissements. We went with purpose due to the short amount of hours we had available, expecting the tourist experience like so many others: art, history, a walk along the Seine and a few glasses of red wine. What we found involved all those things, but in an unexpected way.

An unexpected view of the Eiffel Tower.

Arriving mid-morning at the Gare du Nord on the train from London, we stepped off into a sea of pedestrians, to be expected. Despite the crowds, we managed to find what we thought would be our way around the city – the ticket machine for the Metro. Having very few Euro coins and mostly bills, we were disappointed to find that this antiquated kiosk accepted only the former after waiting in a long line behind similarly-minded visitors. After exchanging some money, we purchased two Metro tickets. We should’ve just saved our exchanged coins.

Quick Note: the Gare du Nord, like many other places in the city, charges you to use the restroom once you arrive, so keep a pocketful of Euro coins handy for this purpose as well.

The Metro itself was, to be honest, one of the most crowded and sardine-can like looking undergrounds we’ve ever experienced. Even past what would be considered rush hour, around 11am, people packed themselves like cattle into unkempt, graffiti-littered train cars and shuffled off to whichever destination they chose. After the general push and pull of the crowd as well as the lack of helpful signage (we both speak enough French to get around… it was the confusing directional signage much more than the language), we actually abandoned our plan to join the masses moving to and fro in the underground and walked out of the main station gate instead, hoping to traverse the city by foot like we’d done so many times in other major cities.

Walking the Streets

For our first experience on the Parisian boulevards outside the Gare du Nord, we were greeted by what I can only assume were two eight-year-old children holding clipboards, aggressively asking us to sign up and pledge “money for the deaf”. When we politely refused and turned to move on, not only did they reach for Justin’s back pocket (we knew to keep our documents in our waist packs instead), but after finding nothing to steal, they screamed and berated us as we walked down the street in search of the Paris Opera house. Apparently, the laws in the city allow for those who are underage to get away with stealing, panhandling, and the like, with very little recourse. Be forewarned!

Quick Note: Carry your passports, money, train tickets and any other documents in a waist pack that is tucked under your shirt in the front. Pickpocketing is so rampant in Paris that there are even signs warning you to be aware of it at the entrance to the Louvre.

Don’t keep personal items in your pockets anywhere in Paris – not even at the Louvre!

Our first stop (after walking briskly through the eerie and abandoned Stalingrad area of Paris) ended up being the Galeries Lafayette, a strikingly beautiful indoor mall where we stumbled upon a quaint restaurant we decided should be our first official stopping point. And having just been mildly assaulted by the wallet-grabbing kids, we thought a drink or two might help temper our initial experience!

We were greeted warmly by the host and seated by the window overlooking the street, which was a welcome reprieve from our newly formed expectations of the day. The food was excellent as was the wine. Excellent perhaps in quality, but also in it’s warming presence against the din and dirt of the downtown. Unfortunately, despite the fact that we spoke in French while ordering (and while the restaurant was not at all busy), the waiter was clearly tired of foreign visitors and did no more than he had to in order to attend to our table until we paid the check. Luckily the food made up for it! We split a well-made ravioli dish and had a few glasses of wine before heading back out into the mean streets.

Quick Note: If you’re from the U.S., you’re probably used to tipping 15-20% on top of the overall tab. We still tip in Europe but one to three Euros is the norm, unless you’re at a less casual restaurant, where 5% of the tab is customary. No matter what, if your service is good, make sure to tip as much you feel is appropriate!

Smile to savor not being pick-pocketed!

I was hoping our next walk down the boulevard towards the beautiful Opera National de Paris would alleviate my trepidation, but unfortunately it was just another shockingly unpleasant view of the once beautiful heart of Paris. During a very busy time of day on the main thoroughfare across from the Galleria, a homeless man sat on the sidewalk asking for money with his bags, a blanket, as well as a cat and a small dog positioned next to him, sleeping. Obviously, in any major city we face the reality of the less fortunate and those who find themselves without means for food and shelter, it’s a universal truth and one that we try to help, if and when we can. The problem in this particular instance was, the animals on the street next to this man were real, but clearly not alive.

I honestly debated whether or not to write about this, because as an animal lover it disturbed me so much that conjuring up the memory makes me cringe (to say the very least) and hope that what I saw was an illusion, but we both saw it, and unfortunately, it was not. I cannot understand any society that allows this disgusting display, and especially one that purports itself to be as “cosmopolitan” as Paris. We walked on before I lost my lunch.

Having put that behind us, for the moment, we happened upon the intended location of the Paris Opera House, a beautiful structure, to be sure. There was a smattering of people sitting along the steps to the entry, and a lot of good photo ops, but we weren’t able to find a way to actually tour the building. Our first time being there, I’m sure it was user error, admittedly, but we were time-crunched and wanted to see the typical tourist sites at the time.

Our only repose of the day – the hop-on hop-off.

After pausing on the Opera steps, we luckily found one of the many hop-on-hop-off bus tours that had a stop just across the street.  Running to catch it (you can pay for the ticket on the bus itself, no need to go online), we dodged the mad rush of traffic to get on board. This was our saving grace for the day!

Quick Tip: The hop-on-hop-off buses in Paris pick up and leave from many destinations around the heart of the city. Find one that’s best for you and take advantage of the convenience! It picks up about every 15 minutes from each destination so you’re able to go at your own pace.

This city-wide bus tour takes you to the main points of Paris. One of our first stops was the Carousel next to the Eiffel Tower. The city and river views on the drive there are beautiful, and the Carousel itself is a relic that reminds you of those festive Parisian Can-Can days now gone. Being there in winter had it’s downsides, however, and we stayed on the bus for this particular attraction to avoid frostbite (not really, but it was very blustery).

The next main attraction was the quintessential Eiffel Tower itself. It’s an impressive structure, eternally beautiful for it’s lines and history, and personally surprising for it’s stunning deep copper-red color –  one I’ve never seen correctly depicted in pictures! During the summer months I’d wager that the experience of simply sitting on the lawn beneath it with a baguette and a bottle of wine is worth the price of a ticket to Paris, but in the winter… it looks nice enough from afar! Taking a tour of it involves many hours spent in line, also, so that wasn’t in the cards for us. But, just to view it against the backdrop of the winter sky was an experience in and of itself.

To get that Eiffel Tower experience as best we could given our time in the city, we jumped off the tour bus momentarily to brave the sleet and rain and capture it’s stature in modern history on film. The romance of that moment was abruptly interrupted, unfortunately.

The Eiffel Tower is still a sight to behold, despite the surroundings.

When it was time to leave for the next stop on our tour bus, Justin was already seated, but as I attempted to step back into the bus, the driver shut the door on my arm and started to drive off. Luckily, Justin – as well as the other passengers – alerted him to the problem and he stopped to open the door so I wasn’t dragged down the road. Yikes. In hindsight this is a funny memory for me, though a bit unsettling at the time! Make sure you alert the driver thoroughly before you hop back on!

On to the Louvre!

The next hop-off for us started at the famous Pont des Arts, down the street from the Louvre, which is the location of the famous “Love Locks”, where locals and visitors alike attach locks to the structure of the bridge’s side grate. Now defunct due to safety reasons, we were able to see the massive and touching display first hand before we made our way to the Louvre.

While massive and well-known, if you’re trying to find The Louvre as a first time visitor by walking down the main road you may find yourself confused, as it it’s famous main entryway sits in the center of the square and is hidden from view if walking from the Love Locks bridge. On the walk there we decided to stop a local and ask (in French) which direction the Louvre was, and ended up pleasantly surprised with his genial and friendly response; his helpful demeanor brightened up our day despite the drizzle. Maybe it just goes to show that if you look for the light in Paris you’ll end up finding it!

The Louvre museum itself has a breathtaking entry. After our travails of the day it was a welcome sight to crest the corner of the structure and see those triangular glass domes beckoning us to enter.  For only twelve Euros, you can experience not only the Mona Lisa, but the Venus de Milo, one of the most famous works of ancient Greek sculpture.

The statue, casually roped off to the public, is so close you’ll feel like you’re viewing an antiquity in it’s original time. The Mona Lisa, while the most famous, is actually much smaller than most people expect! Restricted behind glass and a railing barrier (understandably), this painting is still a beautiful sight. In addition to these most famous works, the Louvre’s treasures are immeasurable, and the absolute highlight of our day in the city.

Quick Note: Expect large crowds in the Louvre as well as long lines at the facilities in the museum. I normally wouldn’t mention this particular aspect of a museum experience, but if you’re a new visitor, it’s important to know that the restrooms there are not (how do I put this…) modern. There are myriad visitors from tours and buses and the Louvre does not have adequate restrooms when it’s busy, especially for women. Just a quick tip!

Saying hello to the tiny Mona Lisa

 

After we’d toured the Louvre, we had to catch our bus back to the Gare du Nord for our train back to London. The hop-on-hop-off  tour we’d used wasn’t arriving on time for some reason, so we decided to catch a local bus back to the train station as he was departing from the roundabout of the Louvre. Luckily, the driver was extremely congenial and saw us running after the bus! He stopped to pick us up as he left for the next destination, much to our relief, and, for less than eight Euros, we were able to make it back to the station downtown in a clean bus with friendly people.

During the ride to the station we sat by the window, and despite the rain, the impromptu tour of downtown Paris was mesmerizing and peaceful for the first time, the streetlights bouncing nicely off the building facades and rain soaked pavement as we meandered and bounced along the bustling roads.

Our Last Glass of Wine in Paris

Next to the Gare du Nord was a French-themed restaurant offering a full menu including crepes and wine, the typical expectations of a visitor for the first time, like us. We were understandably hungry at that point and looking to balm our wounds with a glass of vin, so we ventured in. The service was impeccable and graciously accommodating.  At the end of a long day it was a welcome change – a friendly server and a window side table tucked into a quaint corner. We ordered food and several glasses of wine before beginning our journey back. Our ham and cheese crepe was hearty and warm, and we had some house red wine to start out – of course! The wait staff was considerate and understandably used to tourists, speaking English as well as French. And, despite being busy that evening, they offered to take our picture for us (several of them, to make sure it was good enough) to document the end to our very long day!

8 hours in Paris drives one to drink.

Where Impression Turns to Hope

The quiet, the rain, the lights against the umbrellas in the street. The hope is that this city is more than a tiny Mona Lisa and a plate of tasty but hastily made crepes now that the recipe has been lost to time and waste.

The warm seat in a café, looking through the mist and midnight of what now yearns to become what once was. The hopeful glance through a tour bus window is now the Moveable Feast that the new Paris has lost.

There is much that Paris has yet to recall and reclaim. It may never move the same way as it did when artists flooded the bars and feathered brothels, but to ignore it’s original brilliance is, at the end of the day, folly. To pretend that the rose-colored-glasses-ideals through which we once viewed Paris aren’t rooted in truth and clutched to the heart is a fallacy.

It will remain la vie en rose, but when will the pink light return?

 

 

 

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5 U.S. Airlines We Love (And 2 We Don’t)


We fly a lot. We haven’t always, but whether through business, seeing family or traveling, Tracy and I have spent a lot of time in the air over the past few years. New travelers have a hard time telling the difference between good and poor carriers, as they should, but it doesn’t take long before you can start to separate the wheat from the chaff. What are the best airlines in America, and which are the worst in the U.S.? We have a few ideas.

Everyone has their own bugaboos when it comes to air travel that makes for either a great or not-so-great experience, and Tracy and I consider ourselves fairly low-maintenance. Get us where we’re looking to go generally on-time (if you can help it – weather and maintenance are things that just tend to happen), reasonably comfortably at a price that doesn’t break the bank and we’re happy campers. Little things like not losing bags is quite a boon. Being able to make a decent drink doesn’t hurt either, but that’s not a determining factor.

To others, there are a lot of other reasons to fall in love with an airline or have them on your personal no-fly list. A personal issue for me, as someone who is 6’3″, is having a little leg-space. For others, especially on long-haul flights, food is a big factor. Maybe you have another reason why you frequent your favorite carriers, but whatever the case may be, we believe that what people generally want is fairness and reliability.

There are some great carriers, out there, many of whom we’ll discuss in just a moment. What’s more important, however, is avoiding the bad ones. The ones that ruin your trip because you never take off. The ones that suck you in with a cheap price to only eviscerate you with petty charges (up to $80 for a carry-on?) You know, the ones that have you in a bad mood before you ever land at your destination.

It’s amazing to see people get fooled by bad airlines so frequently, either through slick marketing, perceived cost (which is far different than actual cost) or presumed accessibility. We’d like to put a stop to that, so, for those looking for the best (and worst) the U.S. has to offer, we’ve broken down the list.

As a disclaimer, this is based on our experience. Maybe yours differs, and if so, that’s great. If it works for you? Don’t change a thing until you have to. Ultimately the goal of this post, and this blog, is to help people travel more often and enjoy better experiences. We hope this helps you accomplish just that.

The Ones We Love

JetBlue

You really have to start with JetBlue if you want to talk about the best carriers in the U.S., as they have a 12-year streak of being voted #1 by J.D. Power. It’s with good reason, too, as JetBlue place outstanding emphasis on service. The entire process, from check-in, to boarding, to comfort on the plan and baggage claim, is generally flawless.

We’ve flown JetBlue countless times, especially to Boston and New York, and the flights are comfortable, with ample entertainment, decent food, reasonable drink prices and an overall inviting and welcoming environment. Those that work on JetBlue flights are always pros, warm and kind to even passengers that might not deserve the patience.

The differentiator for JetBlue really is the on-board experience, which you have a hard time believing for the overall cost. In fact, while some airlines tout lower fares, we’ve found that JetBlue is consistent with their pricing – maybe a little more for the shorter trips, but much less for flights in the 90 minute to three hour range. Another plus? All those miles you gather flying frequently on JetBlue keep storing up for you – even after the calendar year ends.

You get more than what you pay for, and I say this as someone who isn’t being compensated for writing it. I’m saying it because, if you aren’t flying JetBlue, you should be.

American Airlines

I hear some people with mixed emotions about American, but we love it. AA is our go-to carrier between the U.S. and London because it’s extremely comfortable, their rewards program is excellent and we’ve never had a delayed flight by more than 15 or 20 minutes. The food on the long-hauls are always fair (sometimes, actually, they’re quite good) and the entertainment, even in coach, is enough to help you peel back 7 or 8 hours pretty easily.

In recent years, American has lurched ahead of some of it’s established competitors by upping their rewards program, making it more rewarding to fly frequently. To be frank, the major draw of American is the reliability. If we’re booked for a flight, the flight takes off close to that time. It’s a fair to enjoyable experience where we get our points, a decent meal, some good entertainment and enjoy the transit. In addition, as an old-guard, behemoth carrier, they’re route network simply cannot be beaten. You can fly nearly anywhere on AA.

Their reviews? Not great, admittedly. But, when is the last time anyone you knew actually left a good review? For anything? It’s not in human nature to talk about the “awesome experience they had flying” because they expect greatness in whatever they pay money for. From our experience, AA does the job and they do it well. That’s all we ask.

Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines is another “AA” that’s doing something right, as they were named #1 by Wall Street Journal in 2015 and have continued to rank highly in 2016 and beyond.

Alaska is almost devoid of customer complaints, continually rank high in on-time arrivals and are one of the least-likely to lost your luggage. I can’t say they’re the best, but it’s nothing to do with them. Honestly, it’s mostly on the part of familiarity. Alaska Airlines is an airline we’ve seldomly flown, but what we have experienced has been excellent – clean environment, comfortable, great staff, timely, and that old word that keeps coming up – reliable. 

A great thing about Alaska is that they truly innovate, having pioneered Required Navigation Performance (RNP) in the mid-1990s to give them a competitive advantage in flying accurately through low-visibility weather and into airports within difficult terrain. That’s beyond reliability – that’s taking a great airline and making it game-changing.

Southwest

I can hear you now. “What? Southwest?” Yeah. Southwest.

Southwest is the low-cost carrier that other low-cost carriers strive to be. Are they the cheapest? No, but they’re close. Are they the most comfortable? No, but they’re not the least comfortable either. Their prices are fair. The experience is fair. The comfort is fair. You may dislike Southwest, but we love it.

I flew Southwest for years, on a weekly basis while traveling for work, and I can say that they have the best rewards program I’ve seen in terms of how many points it takes to get a free flight. Yes, you’ll be stuck with a pack of peanuts as a meal, but with the money I save on Southwest I’ll buy whatever I want to when we get off the tarmac.

It’s true that Southwest does have the occasional delay, but I’ve found that most of those delays happen on the same flight schedules, at the same times, on the same days, between the same cities. It’s predictable, is what I’m saying, and I can deal with predictability.

Southwest gets our vote because they won’t nickle-and-dime you. Need to change a flight? No arbitrary charge for making someone do some typing. Need a checked bag? We’ll give you a couple – for free. Low-cost flight with wi-fi? Priority access and avoid the Southwest check-in? How does $12 sound for the best seat on the flight?

Dependable? Reliable? Honest? Yes. Flashy? No, and that’s part of the appeal. We love Southwest, and we say it proudly.

Virgin America

Everything is better on Virgin America.

This feels like cheating because A) they’re owned by Alaska now and B) Richard-Freaking-Branson.

We’ve flown a decent amount on Virgin, most recently on our way to London, and Virgin is just awesome. A little pricey? Sure, you can say that. But, sometimes you get what you pay for. Virgin is more than clean, it’s futuristic. It’s more than comfortable, it’s soothing. Price not-withstanding, it’s the best airline in the U.S. and the best transatlantic flight we’ve ever had.

The entertainment on Virgin is outstanding, with an excellent array of music and films, and the food is way above-board for an airline carrier in coach. Say one thing about Mr. Branson, he knows refinement and he knows class. The on-flight entertainment and e-commerce reflect that.

Additionally, we’ve never had a flight delayed because of maintenance or mechanical issues, and every plane we’ve been on is so pristinely kept that it feels brand new. Well, with Branson’s money, maybe they are all new.

Consistently a top 5 airline in the world, the entire Virgin Airlines flagship, and certainly VA, has excellent operations and customer service that quite frankly dominate any other operator as a total package. Want your luggage to arrive with you every time? It’ll happen. Want a great experience? It’ll happen. Want to feel more special than your ticket price deserves? Done. Want kind and entertaining staff that bends over backwards to give you a rich experience? It’s happened every time.

Yes, sometimes it really is that simple. Sometimes paying a little extra gets you a lot more. If you’ve never flown Virgin, you owe it to yourself.

Two We Don’t

Delta

I’ve flown Delta many times. I’ve given it many chances. In my experience, I would prefer not to have those experiences.

Delta has almost always been late, and this is coming from someone who flew the airline almost exclusively while traveling for several months, so consider about 20 flights into that equation. Twenty flights is enough to have shown some morsel of promise. Nah.

Delta is bad enough to have prompted one comedian we’re fond of to coin a little ditty about his feelings about Delta during his skit. The lyrics? “We’re Delta Airlines, and life is a f*&$ing nightmare.” It’s true. Look it up.

What they have going great for them is size. Delta’s route network is incredible, but their size only adds to the disdain I and some others feel for them, given our experience. To be that big, with so many routes and so many planes, how can every experience I have be so bad?

They have the resources to do better, period. Mechanically, they’re one of the best. The planes are great with a massive fleet, comfortable, and everything appears wonderful from the street-corner. Get on-board a Delta flight, have a delay, roll around the tarmac for a bit, let the on-board staff ignore you three or four times in your panicked want of water, and you start to see where it falls apart. It’s happened to me numerous times. Am I unlucky? Perhaps.

What do you get for all of this? An incredibly expensive flight. One of the most expensive in the U.S., in fact.

Spirit

Here’s the truth about Spirit – I’ve never flown with them. I’ve booked with them twice, and was 2 for 2 on cancellations on two separate occasions without inclement weather, impending asteroid or worldwide implosion.

I would rather fly Delta than Spirit. I would rather fly fold-up Wright Bros. craft than Spirit. I would rather Oregon Trail my way across the country than fly Spirit. I would rather ride side-car tractor festooned with mule manure than fly Spirit.

I would rather walk than fly Spirit. They’re so bad they had to promise to not be the worst. Publicly.

Now, “what’s so bad if you got your money back” you ask? I didn’t. Zero for two on that one as well. In fact, let me tell a little story…

About two years ago Tracy and I took a flight to Boston to visit a few friends of ours. Excited about the trip, we somewhat haphazardly booked our flight to Boston on JetBlue and booked the return flight from Boston to Fort Lauderdale on Spirit. We had never flown on this airline before, so we really didn’t fear the return flight.

Five days later, we pull into Logan Airport, walk up to the marquee and see “delayed” next to our flight indicator. “Delayed” actually meant “cancelled”, and only those who walked up to the counter were able to get on other Spirit flights out of Boston, as they seemingly failed to send the notification via e-mail, which I had selected. The reason, as we understood it, was that it was “windy in Chicago.”

Out of options on Spirit, we booked another, last-minute flight on – you guessed it – Delta. Two people, one way from Boston to Fort Lauderdale. “How much,” you ask? $1,200. When we asked the young, unattentive lady at the Spirit counter for a refund, she responded “oh, I’ve already shutdown the computer.” Yes. Computers. Those things that take mere moments to start, then pull information from all part of the globe. She was incapable of issuing a refund because she turned off her computer with a line full of angry would-be customers. Was it late? Oh, no, my friends. Closing time this fair day was apparently 4pm. We were given a number to call, that was of course never to be answered by a human, that was intended to be our source of refund. Never happened upon repeated calls to corporate.

Most recently, my wife was flying back from Tampa on Spirit (a flight she did not book, by the way). She did make it back. She did not do so easily, on time, or without a bit of a disconcerting incident.

Just before push-back, the pilot said that they couldn’t take off because the flight had been switched at the last minute (gate change) with a flight that was going from Tampa to Detroit with a major flaw that nearly went unnoticed. The Detroit flight had enough gas to make it to Fort Lauderdale. The Fort Lauderdale flight had enough gas to make it to Detroit. See a problem there? This doesn’t do much for our confident level in airline safety.

I congratulate the pilot in this instance, otherwise the flight to Detroit would have had to make an emergency landing due to lack of fuel, and the flight into Miami would have likely hard a (very) hard landing on the account of having too much fuel.

I don’t care how cheap Spirit is. Maybe you do. Maybe you love Spirit. Maybe it’s fun. If it gets you where you want to go, then great. In fact, I’ve heard that the newly appointed CEO plans massive changes, starting with the customer service. I hope that’s true, as an airline this inexpensive with upgrades in that department could really aid in the common person’s ability to travel. As of now? I know many people who avoid flying because they can’t afford anything else and don’t trust Spirit. We hope that changes, but time will ultimately tell.

Conclusion

So, my friends, take a little time to pick your flight. Price is important, but so are safety, reliability and dependability. Traveling should be fun, should be a rewarding experience and should be something to be savored. Maximize your experience and avoid the pitfalls by picking the right carrier to get you out of the gate.

 

 

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Review: Vienna’s Austria Trend Messe


Repeat after me – I do not have to stay in a hostel to save money. I do not have to stay in an expensive hotel to have a good time. When I choose a hotel, I will chose one with a great hotel bar.

There, doesn’t that feel better? If you’re looking to make good on your promise above, and you’re planning any time in Vienna, Austria, you would be wise to consider the Austria Trend Messe.

Austria Trend Hotel in Vienna (or, Wien, to the Austrians) is a hotel chain, albeit small, with additional locations in Salzburg, Linz and in neighboring Slovakia. With just over 20 locations, we aren’t talking about an overly commercialized or homogenized HoJo here, but rather a well-run, clean, fun establishment that is strategically located in a great area of Vienna near Rathauspark.

When you think of Austria Trend, think small, clean and modern.

In fact, there are numerous locations in Vienna. Among them is the Austria Trend Messe – Prater, so-called because of it’s proximity to the small, if not strange “Prater” park. The Prater is home to the Riesenrad, a 212-foot ferris wheel that played host to 1949’s film noir “The Third Man”, starring Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles.

This is where we called home while in Vienna.

Now, I fight as I begin writing this to not talk about how great Vienna really is. How beautiful the Christmas markets are or how besotted I am with this fair city. No, that will be for another time and another post. Just know that, if you’re looking for a great hotel that is close to the city center and inexpensive, the Austria Trend in Prater will give you access to anything you want.

Larger than you would think, warmer than you think, the Austria Trend in Prater isn’t flashy. You aren’t going to pull up in your cab and find yourself gripped by it’s beauty or opulence. Not should you. Great hotels for under $100 per night shouldn’t stun you. They should surprise you.

The rooms are fairly standard for budget hotels in the Euro zone – smaller in size, comfortable beds and small bathrooms that leave a linebacker-sized gent like myself a bit short on elbow space. I’m used to this when we travel, and quite honestly consider this my litmus test for hotels – if the shower doesn’t bruise my elbows, we paid too much. The style is stark, mostly white with faux wood along the headboard and setting behind desks and stands, with the basic amenities one would expect.

The location is good, not great. We cabbed regularly from the Trend, each time with the front desk agents (who were, by the way, incredibly well-trained and helpful) calling a local number for us which arrived within mere moments each time. The prices were always fair and the prices were consistent. Additionally, information about the city was easy to come by and communication was a breeze. Despite Tracy’s German ability, my relative inexperience in the language made me pleased that they did, in fact, speak English.

A view from the hotel restaurant

The Trend has a great breakfast buffet, open early enough to please the early birds and late enough for those nursing a hangover. Among the food is a wild assortment of simple fair such as bread and cereals to eggs, bacon, sausage and potatoes done multiple ways. The quality of the food is surprisingly good, and the restaurant, as well as the rest of the hotel, is supremely clean. Get your juice, get your coffee and some great grub, hail a cab and Vienna is yours for the day – from only a short distance away.

The Trend in Prater lies a bit on Central Vienna’s east side – only about 1,000 feet from the River Danube. We loved the location, although I would say it was a bit further from the city center than we originally realized. Great restaurants nearby? Well, yes. One, in particular, and we had a great time at L’Osteria, just a mere 200-yard walk from the front entrance of the hotel.

However, what will absolutely stand out about The Trend were the consecutive nights, sluggish from Christmas markets and jaunts around an absolutely break-taking city, where we were greeted by masses encircling a small hotel bar that we barely noticed other than to say “oh, there’s a bar” upon arrival. The small bar comes alive, stays open late and is somehow quietly withheld from the unknowing, the tourist, and in general people like us. Dozens of locals mix in discussions with one another, somehow without the general presence of the actual people staying in the hotel, who seem to enter the front entry and walk straight to their room, missing the best part of an otherwise fairly normal, nice hotel.

A few of the new friends we met at the hotel bar – open late!

Oh, what that bar did to us.

We met one at first, then two. Then five. Then pictures happened to prove the experience, and the next thing I know I’m drinking some sort of flaming thing in a hotel bar at 4am with a stunning group of people – from artists and photographers to business magnates and models. It was strange, but it was, in fact, surprising. It was fun. It was completely unexpected. It was what we hope for.

That’s how we like hotels.

That’s how we like travel.

The Austria Trend in Prater is what you want when you travel, with few bells and whistles but completely clean, inexpensive and reliable. The best part however, about hotels, restaurants and life itself, are always the surprises – and we had a few.

Our verdict: We recommend

Contact

Website: https://www.austria-trend.at/en

Address: Messestraße 2, 1020 Wien, Austria

Phone: +43 1 72727

 

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Downtown Jacksonville – Where Art and Eateries Meet


Jacksonville’s downtown is one of our favorite familiar scenes, with good reason. Before moving to South Florida, we spent a few years living in Jacksonville and found it to be one of the most underrated cities in the U.S. From the bars along Bay Street to the Brooklyn area’s new nuances, there is something for everyone. A far cry from the over-saturated Town Center or beach areas, downtown Jacksonville is a slow beat, a riverside walk and a cold beer on a Saturday all in one.

Riverside’s Chill Side

A great way to get familiar with the city is to start out in historic Riverside where you can peruse kitschy and endearing antique shops, as well as locally owned boutiques and bars that draw in the colorful downtown scene with a vengeance.  The friendly nature of this area of downtown Jacksonville makes for a great weekend excursion as well as an exciting night on the town.

Strolling in downtown Jacksonville

For one of the best brunch restaurants in Jacksonville (or dinner, for that matter), check out Derby on Park, a contemporary American restaurant that is located in a refurbished building in Riverside – the site of the old diner that use to inhabit the space. Their back patio area is perfect for enjoying the Jacksonville weather almost any time of year, and the space itself is a Jacksonville cultural landmark. This area, formally known as the Five Points area, contains not only Derby on Park but in fact several popular eateries within mere feet of one another. Another of our favorites in the middle of Five Points is Black Sheep Restaurant, a slightly more upscale contemporary American outfit with a beautiful rooftop patio that is perfect for enjoying a glass of wine with lunch, or joining a group of friends for an unwound brunch. Their rich and tasty menu never disappoints, and includes everything from contemporary American classics to spins on Southwestern Asian dishes such as the Banh Mi Sandwich.

After brunch or dinner, Five Points offers numerous spots for a casual night cap. A spot we’ve frequented would be Raindogs or Birdie’s Bar, both just steps away from the main roundabout and again within a few dozen yards from the front door at Derby on Park. Birdie’s is known for it’s laid back attitude, interesting internal decor that features punk-inspired paraphernalia, inexpensive drinks and a jovial atmosphere with a lot of regulars who are eager to strike up a conversation! Raindogs is also a laid back, chill bar to have a drink and peruse the amazing local visual artists who display their work on the walls there.  On certain nights you’ll get to sit back with a beer while live music entertains you as well. (Try their white sangria for a real treat!) Both locations can range from the casual and relaxed to the outright raucous, depending on the time of day or night.

If you’re interested in vintage movie theaters and cinema, you have to check out the also locally-owned Sun-Ray Cinema, a virtual time capsule from the glory days of 1960’s movie houses. They offer rotating classics like Casablanca, to modern titles, but their biggest draw is the amazing independent films that are screened here. The scene inside is fantastically retro, down to the large-stand gaming machines that adorn the inside corridor. Grab a ticket, a beer, and some popcorn, and find yourself back in time no matter which movie they’re showing!

The legendary Sun-Ray

During the daytime, make sure to find your way to scenic Memorial Park (locally known as Riverside Park), a beautiful (and aptly named) river-facing grassy plateau where you can bring your coffee or lunch and sit in the shade by the St John’s River while the city walks by.  You can also take a jog around the park’s pathway or get in on a game of soccer or frisbee in the center of the expansive, well-maintained field.

The Brooklyn Beat

New to Downtown Jacksonville is the Brooklyn scene, right across from the St Johns River and nestled in between the nightlife and the vibe of Riverside. One of the additions to this part of the city is the well-known Burrito Gallery restaurant, with it’s original location in the heart of the city on Adams Street in downtown Jacksonville.

Named for it’s idea of focusing on local artists and featuring impressive paintings on it’s walls, this particular eatery was a favorite of ours. In Brooklyn, it’s now a fun and family-friendly place to get great local food with a view from the second floor that overlooks the river.

The draw of the Brooklyn area of Jacksonville is enhanced by the modern architecture that encircles the eateries, a vibrant and colorful palate of buildings that seem to stand alone in the district. Though close to both the bustling downtown and the hipster-esque lifestyle of Riverside, Brooklyn lives in a largely business area, welcoming everyone from late night party goers to families and briefcase holders. If you’re looking for things to do in Jacksonville, check out the walk across the street and enjoy the river view, you might even see a few dolphins swimming past as you stroll!

Downtown Nightlife

At night, head over to the real downtown, just minutes away from Riverside. Downtown you’ll find a mix of bars and nightclubs of all varieties to entertain you with music and excellent bartenders, ready to mix up your favorite cocktail or let you enjoy one of their signatures. For a fun and very classic Jacksonville experience, head over to Dos Gatos, directly across from the famous Florida Theater and the best bar in Jacksonville.  Owners Jay and Joy Albertelli are excellent hosts and have made this bar a local favorite for years. Try their delicious “Stolen Fish” cocktail, and tell them Tracy and Justin sent you!

For a more musical scene with live bands and a great crowd, head over a block to 1904 Music Hall. This bar offers a wide range of beers from local brews to international, depending on your taste! Check out the back patio area where local graffiti artists rotate their work, it’s a great place to sip a brew with friends and chat.

Downtown Art-life

For even more of the amazing art scene, Jacksonville has the MOCA, a modern art museum with an entryway that leads you to an expansive area where the walls are hand-painted by different artists before every opening event. Hosting some of the best modern art pieces from around the world, it’s sure to expand your mind! The museum’s restaurant, Café Nola, is also exceptional. Make sure to ask for their butter-of-the-day to spread on their sweet and delicious bread. (My favorite was lemongrass.)

Across from the MOCA sits Hemming Park, where every first Wednesday of the month the area hosts an expansive and impressive Art Walk. Everything from handmade jewelry, to local art, to performance art are on display for the evening.  Walk around and peruse the scene with a cold local beer, which many vendors have for sale around the festivities. While you’re there, make sure to step into Chamblin’s Book Store, our favorite local shop selling books of any age and genre, with genial and knowledgeable owners and a cozy coffee shop offering warm drinks, bottled beer, and vegan or vegetarian wraps and soups. We love this place, and it gets credit for about half of the books that remain in our library!

More Than Just a Beach Town

While coastal, Jacksonville is much more than just a beach area if you venture into the heart of the city. The art museums and general culture are a fresh window Take a walk along the St. Johns, sip a local brew and enjoy the local scenes, rife with art and culture. There are many hotel options in this area, many with views of the river. Check out the Hyatt, the Omni, or the Doubletree for optimum access to the city center.  Settle in to the artsy and upbeat scene of downtown Jacksonville, make a few new friends, and sample the local eats. You’ll be glad you did!