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Archive for July, 2009

A little look at gran Paris (part 2)

Last week I gave you a little taste of beautiful Paris, through the eyes of my friend Leanna. When we left off, Leanna had described a diverse segway ride past many of the most incredibly attractions of Paris. She continues …
Our Segway tour guides, Simon and Billy, prepared a double-secret list of “best restaurants” not generally known to tourists. We seized immediately upon that. Our favorite restaurants that week were on that list. That was a much-appreciated extra “tip” from the guides to us!
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That same day, after exploring the Jardins du Luxembourg, we embarked on a night bike tour. The bikes were without lights, but we did have reflective jackets to warn any other tourists that we approaching.
We rode at breakneck speed from the Eiffel Tower to the Latin Quarter, over the bridge to the Ile Saint Louis, past Notre Dame, down the Champs Elysee to the Seine, where we took a midnight flyboat up and down the river. The boat trip treated us to sights along the riverbanks — folk dancers, rows of young men mooning the boat, lovers leaning against the walls with wine, the twinkling lights of the Eiffel Tower on the hour.
Next, we enrolled in a wine and cheese tasting class, held in an old subterranean cellar, formerly some sort of prison. Our sommelier was very French, very knowledgeable, and the wine was delicious (we scored a bottle of Sancerre). The other folks in the class were fun, and we ended up sitting with the family of Ted Nugent (remember “Cat Scratch Fever”?).

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Of course, Leanna’s description of delectable French delicacies doesn’t stop there. Stay tuned for the final post tomorrow, when Leanna will tell you all about the romance and flavor of dining in Paris.

A little look at gran Paris

In my travels over the years, I’ve had numerous opportunities to visit Europe. I’ve toured lots of cities and have rarely found a single one that I wouldn’t want to visit again. However, Paris remains in a category all by itself.
I admit that Paris is my favorite, and each time I go there, I expect to be disappointed in some way, so that I can finally bump Paris from the top of my favorite places list and give that revered spot to another city. But it never happens. Paris never disappoints. It only inspires, entertains, enchants, engages, and always makes me fall in love with it all over again.
A business associate and friend, Leanna Johannes, spent a week in Paris last month for vacation. Like me, Leanna knows a great city when she sees one. She agreed to write about her journey, which I’ll post here on our blog. Enjoy, and see if you can resist planning your own visit to Paris after reading! The following was taken right from the pages of Leanna’s journal …
Although our entire week in Paris was filled with sunlight, romance, and good food and wine, certain occasions deserve particular note.
First of all, our hotel, Relais Hotel du Vieux Paris, was the perfect place to spend our time there, as it was located in the heart of the St. Germain de Pres, not far from the Latin Quarter, near the Place St. Michel and Metro. It is on a quiet street, just around the corner from the action and romance of the night cafes and street scenes.
Our windows opened to fresh air and a view of the Seine. Our room was spacious (by European standards), air conditioned (an important question to ask if you are making a reservation,) and had half-timbered beams exposed in the ceilings and walls (and even the bathroom with a tub).
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The attention to detail was impressive, from the Brunschwig & Fils fabrics to the piping lining the draperies and beams. The owner, Madame Odillard, and her staff were extremely helpful everyday. We agreed that this will be the hotel we return to, as there is nothing to improve upon.
FP_Paris2.jpgWhile in Paris, we spent our days taking in as much as the Parisian culture and sites as we could. The first sightseeing tour we took was the City Segway Tour of Paris. What a sight! I mean us on Segways — that was the sight. We tried so hard not to look like tourists — no athletic shoes, no jeans — and there we were, in a pack of obvious tourists, Segwaying at high speeds through the beauty of Paris.
We started at the Eiffel Tower, motored by Napoléon’s Tomb (originally built by King Louis XIV in 1676 as an exclusive place or worship for the Royal family, now the resting place of the most famous Frenchman in history), Ecole Militaire, Les Invalides, Alexander III Bridge (my favorite bridge of all), Grand and Petit Palais, and on to Musée D’Orsay, through the plaza of the Louvre, the Tuileries Gardens (where we had lunch at a café nestled in the chestnut trees), down the Champs-Elysées from the Place de la Concorde, and past the Arc de Triomphe.
That’s a lot to see but we covered it all on those fast-moving, foot-friendly Segways! We booked our tour through Fat Tire Bike Tours, and found our young guides very helpful and friendly.

Stay tuned, because I’ll continue with Leanna’s trip through Gran Paris next week!

Tips from the Practical Traveler: How to avoid the snarls of a cancelled trip

Obviously, a lot of planning goes into putting together a vacation package. Operators set dates and prices more than a year ahead of the departure date so they can be printed in brochures. Today, planning that far ahead comes with a risk.

A few years ago, travelers were smart to book trips as early as possible. Vacations such as cruises and group tours filled up quickly. But that was before the economy took a nose dive. There are far less people with the extra financial cushion to spend on vacations today, and tour operators are worried about finding enough paying customers to cover costs.

As Michelle Higgins says in today’s Practical Traveler, vacationers that are making moves are holding out for last-minute deals. This is forcing tour operators to revise their budgets and cancel more trips.
And as tour operators cancel trips, travelers who have already booked are stuck with airline cancellation fees, botched vacation plans, and other unexpected fees. In her article, Michelle lets readers in on some of the system’s tips and tricks to avoid getting slammed, and called on me for my two cents. Have a look at the article, and keep it in mind when booking your next vacation!

My journey through Vietnam (part 4)

In the fourth part of My Journey through Vietnam series, I’m going to take you to the Halong Bay. If you want to catch up on my Vietnam travels so far — from the streets of Saigon to the waters of the Mekong Delta — you can have a look.
After our wonderful visit to the Mekong Delta, we drove from Hanoi to Halong Bay, where a dense cluster of about 3,000 limestone islands and islets rise spectacularly from the sea. The islands are topped with dense vegetation, and a few have huge caves with gorgeous stalactites and stalagmites, one of which we visited later that day. Without a doubt, Halong Bay is among Vietnam’s most beloved and visited tourist attractions, and definitely deserving of its appointment a World Heritage Site.
En route to Halong to board our cruise, we stopped at a special embroidery and handicrafts factory and showroom. Aside from being the best restroom stop of the trip, it was a chance to purchase souvenirs made by young handicapped Vietnamese artisans. The embroidered wall hangings and table linens were particularly beautiful, and — like everything else in Vietnam — very inexpensive.
I bought a wall hanging was able to have my picture taken with the artist. He is deaf, and this job is one of the few, apart from rice farming, that he can do to earn money to support himself.
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We arrived at Halong Bay around midday, and settled into our cabins aboard the cruise ship Emeraude, then joined others in the ship’s dining room for lunch. I think I discovered my dream menu there in Vietnam. I couldn’t seem to get enough of pho, a light, delicious Vietnamese soup made with a lovely, delicate beef stock, rice noodles and aromatic herbs.
The lunch buffet also had spring rolls, which are artistically wrapped with bits of shrimp, sprouts, green onion, basil, and cilantro, along with several types of sauces for dipping. There are other choices as well, but who cares, when I can enjoy pho and spring rolls?
After lunch, we headed for the Hang Sung Sot Cave. This cave, whose name in English means Cave of Surprises, was named by a French explorer who was amazed by the size and beauty of the cave’s interior rooms. It is probably the most beautiful of all the caves found in this region of Vietnam, with amazing stalagmites and stalagtites.
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When you exit the cave, you find yourself high above Halong Bay, peering at a gorgeous panoramic view of the water, the mist, the limestone karsts, and the women paddling boats laden with all sorts of things for sale — from conical hats to Ritz crackers and Oreo cookies. It was truly an amazing site.
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We returned to the Emeraude full of awe at the cave’s spectacular interior chambers, and I was again left wondering how I could be in such a beautiful place with such a painfully inadequate camera. But the images of the cave and the incredible views of the Bay from high atop the water are very clear in my mind.
That afternoon, while I took a cooking class conducted by the Emeraude’s chef to teach the art of making a spring roll, others in our group took advantage of a kayaking adventure offered aboard the ship.
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Many of those aboard the Emeraude enjoyed the rest of the afternoon and evening in the experienced hands of a Vietnamese masseuse. People were lined up for a treatment (more like a treat), and the women were booked up right through dinner. It wasn’t until after dinner, when everyone assembled at the ship’s bar and took their seats for the movie, Indochine, that the woman giving massages left the boat, hopefully having earned lots of money in well deserved tips.
Finally, I settled into my seat for an evening of Indochine under the stars on Halong Bay. There was a gauzy fog draped haphazardly over the limestone karsts. But that didn’t obscure them or dim their beauty. As the movie progressed, the familiar karsts of Halong Bay appeared, as lovely and mysterious on the screen as they are in real life.
The next morning, we reluctantly disembarked and returned to Hanoi to continue our tour. We were already regretting the moment we’d have to leave Vietnam, and we still had some days to go. That, my friends, is the test of a truly wonderful destination. Not ever wanting the day of departure to arrive!