Posts Tagged ‘travel’

On the surface, the idea of frequent flyer miles is a great one: rack up a bunch of miles for every flight you take or associated credit card you swipe, and before you know it, you have enough miles to fly somewhere on this planet for free! It’s a system that has allowed my family to travel far more often than we could otherwise. We flew on points to Spain…New Zealand…Paris…Lithuania…Greece and more.

But the battle to get there can be a tricky one, and you need to know how to play the game…a game where the rules can change without warning.

image

 

Rule 1: One airline, one card. If I’d collect points from a handful of airlines, I’d have just as many points, but they’d be spread out–not enough to get anywhere on any one airline. And airline cards can be expensive. When Delta raised the yearly fee of their card to $185, I told them to go pound sand. Now I only use an American Airlines Aadvantage Mastercard and literally put every single possible purchase I make on that card because American Airlines is convenient for me. All the airlines have some kind of card, so do a little research and decide which one works best for you.

By the way, I do cheat on the “one card only rule:” I also have a Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card. I’ve found that I get the most bang for my buck with the Starwood group of hotels. They include Westins, W’s, Sheratons, St. Regis, and more. And now, Starwood has joined forces with Marriott, increasing the number of hotels I can use.

Rule 2: No expense is too small to put on the card. A burger at a drive-thru, a couple of things at the supermarket. Every point counts, and once you get that ingrained in your brain, you’ll make serious headway. I pay all my bills with my credit card, when possible: utilities, cell phones, the post office, doctors visits. Even most appliance or house repairs can now be paid by credit card, so why write a check?

Rule 3: Pay your credit card off on time. The reason why it’s worth collecting points with your credit card is because you’re making purchases you would’ve done with cash anyway. The moment you get to the point where you’re paying interest on your credit card, you’re paying more per point, and then you may as well give up the fight and just buy your plane ticket.

Rule 4: Don’t let your miles expire. You worked hard to collect them. Always check to make sure your miles aren’t going to expire before you can use them. Sometimes all it takes is a simple credit card transaction to buy yourself and extra year’s life on your miles.

Rule 5: Do the math. If you’re flying somewhere and have enough miles for a free trip, check out the deals on your flight before you use your miles. If you can get a really cheap flight, you’re better off paying for it, and saving your miles for a future trip that might cost a lot more.

Rule 6: Look into upgrades. Sometimes you don’t have enough miles to buy a whole ticket but you might have enough to upgrade yourself from coach to Business Class. A nice perk if you’re going on a long flight!

Rule 7: When possible, book it yourself. Sometimes you can do all of your trip planning online. If you’ve got a simple round-trip flight, you can save yourself some money by booking it yourself. If you use a representative on the airline’s 800-number, there could be a fee of $40 or more for them to book it for you. But if you’ve got a more complicated route, with several stops and different cities, you may decide that a live person on the phone is the way to go.

Rule 8: Go First Class, even if you’re not flying First Class. When looking for flights online, I’ve found that I get better flight choices if I say I want to go First Class, even though I know I don’t have the points to do it. If I tell the airline upfront that I want to fly coach, they automatically treat me like a second-class citizen and show me trips that require several stops to get to my destination. If I tell them I want to go First Class, lo and behold, I get non-stop flights! Once I get to those flights, it’s often easy to downgrade to coach, but now I have a non-stop flight instead of a 2 or 3-stop flight.

Rule 9: Computers won’t give you answers to questions you don’t ask. I was trying to book 3 Business class seats. Every time I looked on-line, I was told no. Then it dawned on me: see if there are 2 Business class seats on the flight I want. Bingo! The computer only told me what I asked for: 3 seats not available. It didn’t volunteer info for any alternatives. So I booked the 2 good seats for my wife and daughter, and I grabbed a 3rd seat in coach for myself. A little sacrifice, but worth it since we had the flight we wanted and we were all on the same plane.

Rule 10: Hang up!! This rule has helped me the most with hotel reservations and especially with airlines. If you call the 800 number, and the representative that answers the phone seems clueless or refuses to help you to your satisfaction, HANG UP AND DIAL AGAIN. There are hundreds of people answering those phones. Some will be good and some will be totally clueless. I’ve found that younger people are hard-working but are afraid to bend the rules even a little because they want to impress their boss and keep their jobs. The veterans are more interested in impressing you and are experts in finding ways around the rules that the young people haven’t figured out yet. Don’t ever settle. This is your big trip! A great rep on the phone can make all the difference.

 

WE BROKE 1000!

Posted: February 28, 2018 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

My thanks to you for following this blog and getting it past 1000! If you haven’t signed up to follow, go to livethelive.com, look left and click!

I’ve been to Grand Cayman before. It was 16 years ago…I was single and found myself “stuck” on the island for an extra 4 days at the end of my vacation because of 9-11. (I was due to fly home on September 12, 2001.) The airport security systems we don’t even think twice about today didn’t exist back then, and I remember getting to the airport at 6AM to stand in a security line for a 1PM flight. Every piece of luggage was hand-searched…twice. It seemed like forever.

Coming in for a landing!

What I remember from that trip was how empty and primitive the island was…and how ancient the airport was, even for the Caribbean. Sixteen years later, the island has changed drastically: massive construction everywhere you look…huge investment properties are built, then stand empty, waiting for buyers. One “for sale” sign after another along the roads that line the island’s waterfront properties. A giant, soulless shopping center called Camana Bay is a stone’s throw from a very crowded 7-Mile Beach. And the airport? It now gets my award for one of the worst airports in the Caribbean: low-tech, crowded, disorganized, dirty.

What made–and still makes–the Caymans shine are the beaches and the people. Despite the oversized resorts lined up on 7-Mile Beach, the sand and water are pristine. It’s still a scuba diver’s and snorkelers’ paradise. And the people, if you go out of the crowded tourist areas to find them, are as friendly and helpful as ever. They just seem a bit lost in their own home.

The waters of 7-Mile Beach are still beautiful.

 

The Caymans were hit by a hurricane in 2004, and a billionaire investor by the name of Dart decided this was his opportunity to make the investment of a lifetime. The people of the Cayman Islands no doubt looked at him as somewhat of a savior–at least in the beginning. Here was a guy that was willing to invest a lot of money in rebuilding their beautiful island. And though he did invest a lot of money in real estate–it’s estimated that he now owns 25% of all the real estate on Grand Cayman–sadly that money went into condos, shopping malls, and hotels. Little by little, the real heartbeat of the Cayman Islands was being replaced by large, sweeping generic slabs of concrete and glass reaching for the sky, and huge roadways connecting them to each other.

Georgetown, the capital and where the airport is located, is crowded, dirty and hosts several cruise ships every day, dumping thousands of passengers for a few hours to buy the typical souvenirs and duty-free goods every cruise ship port holds.

 

 

OUR TRIP

We chose to stay off the beaten path for our first couple of nights, finding a cute waterfront condo on AirBnB in Boddentown, the original capital of the Caymans, and much quieter than 7-Mile Beach or Georgetown to the west. The condo was clean, but the beach in front of it was full of weeds. Winds and currents were strong. We realized that it was a good home base to settle in at the end of the day, but that’s about it. We would spend our first couple of days exploring the rest of the island, from Boddentown to the East End to the North Side to Rum Point.

A simple map of Grand Cayman.

There’s nothing better than finding a great little food place just steps from your condo, and the Czech Inn Grill hit the spot. They don’t sell alcohol, so it’s another few steps to a liquor store to pick up a few bottles before we finally sat down at the bar.

Celebrating its first year the very weekend we arrived, we met the owner, George, and sampled several dishes from his extensive menu which did feature a half-dozen hearty Czech dishes. We passed on those and enjoyed more local fare: a delicious freshly caught wahoo ceviche, smoked ribs, and a huge cheeseburger for my daughter. It was a very welcome meal, along with my Mount Gay Rum that I purchased a few doors down, after a long day of flying and settling in.

 

 

That evening, we headed for Tukka, a restaurant on the East End that got good reviews. It was already dark, so we saw no scenery, but we knew we’d be back this way the next day anyway. Among other things, Tukka boasted they had the largest rum selection on the island.

 

The rum bar at Tukka.

 

What we found when we got there were a couple of truths that guided us throughout the rest of our trip. First, though Tukka’s rum selection was excellent, many places layed claim to the biggest rum bar on the island. And second: the majority of menus at the so-called better restaurants on Grand Cayman are very similar. Only a handful of dishes really separated them. Part of the reason for that is that everything comes from off-island, and everyone uses the same companies to deliver their ingredients.

As for Tukka, we all thought the dinner was good, not great. The only exception was my lion fish tacos, which were a highlight. Lion fish is a nasty little invasive bugger, and requires hand protection when touching them, making them difficult to harvest and clean. But their meat is absolutely delicious, and I was very glad I tried it.

 

 

Leaving Boddentown the next day, we headed east again, and started exploring the coast. The south coast was too rough for swimming, but we enjoyed stopping at local fish shacks like Captain Herman’s for a quick snack of fried snapper with freshly made juices of cucumber, and carrot. I say “quick,” but I mean island-time quick. We were the only customers there, with 3 women serving, and it took an hour. Still, it was a beautiful day and they were fun to talk to.

Our next stop: the Blowholes. Fun to watch these ocean-carved tubes pressurize and blast water high in the air.

We searched for more local eats, wanting to stop at the “famous” Vivine’s, but my daughter craved a ham and cheese from Subway instead, and there was one located on the property of the Windham Reef Resort on the East End. (There are Subways and Burger Kings all over the island.) There was also an out-of-service ATM across the street, surrounded by a strip mall of closed stores. (It was Sunday.) Lesson learned: if you need cash and you see an ATM that works in the town you’re in, don’t think you’ll find one later…you won’t! Grab the cash while you can!

We stopped when we saw a local fellow selling coconuts and enjoyed his highly skilled demonstration of how to crack one open with a machete.

 

A stop at Old Man Bay, another possible snorkeling spot listed in various books and websites, was disappointing: strong winds and currents and trash on the beach. We saw that elsewhere, too. One brochure even said that the trash “comes from cruise ships and that if you can get past it, you’ll find great snorkeling!” Uh…no, thanks.

We made a stop for lunch at Kaibo Restaurant Beach Bar and Marina, just a turn away from Rum Point. We enjoyed an excellent lunch–the jerk chicken was a standout–and contemplated returning there for dinner at their finer dining restaurant on the second floor. It, too, boasted one of the largest rum selections on the island. We never made it back to find out.

 

After lunch, we headed to Rum Point, where we finally had our first attempt at snorkeling. A small reef off the shore offered us a chance to see some tiny, colorful fish, and Rum Point itself offered beach chairs, sand, food, and bathrooms…everything we needed to spend the rest of day in the sun.

 

One of the signs at Rum Point.

At the end of our day, we headed back toward Kaibo, because that’s where we found Starfish Point, a pretty patch of sand that attracts a large number of starfish. It was fascinating to see them. It’s OK to touch them, but never lift them out of the water. They need to stay underwater to stay alive.

Rather than going to Kaibo for dinner, we chose to head back to Georgetown and dine at Guy Harvey’s Bar & Grill. The food was mediocre at best, as was the service. We should’ve known, because its location was right where the cruise ships drop off their passengers. As we would find out the more we ate on this island, it was pretty much the same food as everywhere else: Ceviche of the day? Wahoo. Special of the day? Snapper. Etc., etc.  And with the Cayman dollar worth $1.25 US, even bad dining became an expensive part of the vacation, about $250 and up USA per dinner for 2 adults and 1 child.

Our third day, we stopped in Georgetown for lunch, making a stop at The Rock Hard Cafe. (Just a stone’s throw from Guy Harvey’s.) I have only myself to blame for being in this tourist trap: I got my daughter hooked on visiting Hard Rocks when I took her to the one at Universal Studios in Florida last year. After that, she wanted to visit every city with a Hard Rock! I promised her I’d take here to the one on Grand Cayman for lunch. We enjoyed good burgers and salads.

 

We continued north after lunch and eventually arrived at the Westin Grand Cayman 7-Mile Beach Resort and Spa, where we would spend the next 5 nights. 7-Mile Beach is crowded, with one resort lined up after another. But they’re not stupid: they know their money comes from tourism, and despite the crowds, 7-Mile Beach remains pristine.

 

 

Dinner that night gave us our first glimpse at the massive investment and construction that was moving at full speed in Grand Cayman. We dined at Mizu Asian Bistro + Bar, a sushi restaurant located at the sprawling (and sterile) Camana Bay shopping center. We (again) read good reviews about this restaurant and we (again) were disappointed. The sushi wasn’t bad, just not great. My daughter’s cooked dishes were better. And the price of half-decent sake was outrageous! I joked about how we should’ve brought sake from the States. Price gouging was apparently common at restaurants in the Camana Bay shopping center. I’m guessing they have huge rents to pay.

 

 

Clever little gadget. A button attached to each beach umbrella. Press it, and you get food and drink service without searching high and low for help!

 

Once we settled into the Westin, we enjoyed several days of simply swimming, snorkeling and being lazy on the beach. The Westin is one of the headquarters for Red Sail Sports, a company that rents any water sport equipment you can imagine. They also have a fleet of boats for snorkeling and diving trips. Everyone (and we) agree they’re the best on the island. My daughter rented a bicycle, literally a bike on a pontoon boat that you pedaled in the water! And she and my wife enjoyed a wild parasail ride as well.

 

Balcony views at the Westin.

Good cheap eats across the street from the Westin at Eats Cafe.

 

 

 

Scattered throughout our stay at the Westin, we took on a few trips. Probably the smartest way to see the stingrays at Stingray City, a must if you’re going to Grand Cayman, is to go first thing in the morning. Red Sail Sports offers a “Breakfast with the Stingrays” trip that gets you out there before the real crowds arrive…and it can get really crowded with cruise ship passengers showing up by the boatload. The staff on our beautiful 65′ catamaran was friendly and helpful, and they literally bring the rays to you, grabbing the attention of the stingrays they’ve handled many times before. The rays themselves are extremely gentle, and even though it wasn’t my first time swimming with them, it’s never anything less than amazing to bond with them. The females are the large ones, and we were fortunate enough to hang out with everyone’s favorite, Sandy, for some time.

 

 

Another great trip was with George’s Watersports (www.stingraycitygrandcaymans.com). George is a young guy that runs his own company. He’s literally a one-man show, from the van driver that picks you up at your hotel, to the captain of the boat. But he’s energetic, upbeat, and a young businessman I was glad to support. Among the many trips George does every day, he offered a nighttime snorkel in the bioluminescent bay. A fast boat ride from the marina got us to the “Bio Bay,” as they called it. Nighttime settled in, the stars came out, and we jumped in the water with our snorkeling gear to swim among the billions of bioluminescent plankton that live in the bay. It was a wild experience to see your whole body sparkle as you swam through the water! My daughter was particularly thrilled, waving her hands through the water, her fingertips sparkling like some character from a Harry Potter movie. Sadly, photos just don’t pick up the bioluminescence. You need to put on a snorkel mask and dive in. It’s worth it!

 

 

We took a road trip up the 7-Mile Beach coast and made the mandatory stop in the little town of Hell. Of course, we did all the silly tourist things you do when you go to a town named Hell…

 

 

On our way back, we made a stop at Cemetery Beach. Park your car along the street, then walk the marked path on the side of the cemetery to the beach. The water is beautiful, and the snorkeling was the best we had on our entire trip.

It’s pretty common to find beaches located behind the cemeteries, even fast food restaurants. For example, there’s one beach, appropriately called “Cheeseburger Beach,” because it’s located behind a Burger King.

 

The cemetery at Cemetery Beach.

 

…And the beach at Cemetery Beach.

Heading back south toward Georgetown, and then further east toward Boddentown, other snorkeling adventures included stops at two public beaches: Smith Barcadere (or Smith’s Beach) and Spotts Beach, a favorite of locals and a hangout for sea turtles. The waters were a bit rough…we didn’t see much of anything. But it was a fun adventure nonetheless. Both beaches are clearly marked, with parking nearby.

 

 

OUR TOP 3 DINING EXPERIENCES ON GRAND CAYMAN

Great food is an important part of any trip we take. It doesn’t have to be fine dining…a shack on the water is totally fine, as long as the food is fantastic. Most of Grand Cayman lacks that old island charm, with the exception of the few places I mentioned earlier on the East End.

7-Mile Beach is where the luxury resorts are located, and that means fine dining, or at least the Cayman version of it. As I mentioned, because everything is imported to the island, the menus at most of these restaurants is pretty much the same. What varies is the dining room and the view. So despite the fact that the Cayman Islands tourism board brags about being “The Culinary Capital of the Caribbean,” there are really very few excellent restaurants. They are, for the most part, nice hotel restaurants. (And that’s not a complement.) It probably should come as no surprise, then, that the 2 best restaurants we found are at the fanciest hotel: the Ritz Carlton.

Blue by Eric Ripert. A newcomer to the island, Blue has made a big splash, totally reinventing the idea of fine dining. Eric Ripert is the Michelin star award-winning chef of NYC’s Le Bernardin, widely considered one of the top restaurants in the world. For him to put his name on another restaurant had to mean drastic changes in the way they do business in the Cayman Islands.

For one thing, the same importer that brings all the same mediocre products to the other restaurants, was not going to cut it. Ripert uses exotic, expensive, hard-to-get ingredients in his recipes that certainly required a new source, someone who could consistently bring him the highest quality tuna, foie gras, and other luxury ingredients.

The staff at Blue is well-trained: the service is beyond reproach, yet they don’t hover over you while you try to eat. And the kitchen staff was hand-picked by Ripert himself, who visits regularly.

What it all amounts to is the finest dining experience on the island: impeccably fresh seafood with the lightest touch of the finest ingredients to make the dishes really shine. One example was the tuna with foie gras, a combination that couldn’t possibly work on paper, but turned out to be a mindblower.

Tuna with foie gras. Tuna pounded thin, with a foe gras “wafer” underneath.

Of course, you pay a hefty price for all this luxury, and as expensive as dining is on this island, Blue kicks the price tag up a notch. All I can say is, go cheap somewhere else and treat yourself to Blue.

 

Taikun at the Ritz  Carlton. The fact that Taikun is the best sushi restaurant on the island is no doubt in part possible by the influence of the new and exotic ingredients imported for Blue by Eric Ripert. Hey, if one restaurant at the Ritz is getting them, why not two? They even had their own version of tuna with foie gras on their menu. Beautiful sushi, and an excellent, though expensive sake list.

The dining room at Taikun.

 

 

Ristorante Pappagallo: Our third favorite restaurant caught us by surprise. We thought for sure that it would be touristy, yet they served some of the most delicious and authentic Italian food we’ve had in a long time: handmade gnocchi, fabulous beef carpaccio, eye-rollingly good risotto…and an excellent wine list. Also, one of the best bars and bartenders on the island…real mixology.

 

The bar at Ristorante Pappagallo.

Plus, a wonderful old parrot that’s been there for 35 years!

 

 

The worst part about our trip to the Cayman Islands was the airport. For all that money invested in this island, you’d think they would have a state-of-the-art facility. Quite the opposite. It’s crowded, disorganized, low-tech, and dirty…enough of a negative that it makes you think twice about coming back…which is too bad, because it’s the last memory you have of your vacation.

 

With so many other island choices in the Caribbean, it’s hard to say whether we’ll be back to Grand Cayman any time soon. But we needed the rest and relaxation…and despite a few snags, we got that!

 

 

 

 

 

Mystic, Connecticut has been a favorite day trip here in New England for years, with its charm as a historic seaport with an impressive aquarium. But over the past decade or so, food, which has never been a strong suit of this small community, has taken the forefront. There have always been the pizza joints and the fish shacks, and staples like the generic Steak Loft, but in recent years, food lovers have found Mystic to be a destination for dining alone. It’s no surprise, then, that this community, which would be busy for only 2 summer months out of the year, is now teaming with visitors year-round.

One of the best dining destinations in Mystic is The Oyster Club, (www.oysterclubct.com), a farm-and-sea-to-table establishment that features ever-changing menus based one what is truly in season at the moment. Add that to genuine creativity in the kitchen and bar, and you get a really fun and delicious dining and drinking experience often found only in larger cities.

We recently had dinner at The Oyster Club on a Saturday night, and loved it so much, we returned the next day for Sunday brunch. Neither meal disappointed.

Our friends at FireFly Farms, a certified humane farm that raises pigs, cows, chicken and ducks in nearby Stonington, Connecticut have contributed to The Oyster Club menu on occasion, including a pig roast next month. Despite that the duck wasn’t from their farm this time, it was a dish that 3 of us just couldn’t resist. Only I veered from the meat and went for a beautifully pan-sauteed black bass. And my daughter was perfectly happy with house-made tagliatelle with Bolognese. Appetizers included fresh local oysters (of course).

House-made everything bagel, cream cheese, red onion, fried capers, parsley, and smoked conger eel.

For brunch the next morning, my wife and returned to enjoy food and a few cocktails. My wife ordered a delicious frittata, while I just had to order the eyebrow-raising house-made everything bagel with cream cheese, sliced red onion, fried capers, parsley, and smoked conger eel! Yes, eel! It was fantastic! A delicious salad of apple and blue cheese rounded out our brunch.

The bar at The Oyster Club. Wish I lived closer to this place…

For drinks, I sipped on a mushroom infused bourbon cocktail called the Fun Guy…and my wife enjoyed the Downward Dog, featuring cold-brewed coffee.

Fun Guy (left) and Downward Dog (right.)

With an exterior raised deck area they call “The Treehouse” in the back, open in warmer weather, The Oyster Club is a place we will gladly return to!

 

If you’re craving sushi, ironically, the best sushi can be found across the street from the Mystic Aquarium at Johnny’s Peking Tokyo. (www.pekingtokyomystic.com) As its name implies, you’ll find Chinese and Japanese cuisine here, and everything is top-notch. It’s the best sushi between New York City and Boston.

 

And what visit to Mystic would be complete without hob-knobbing with the rich folks? The Spicer Mansion (www.spicermansion.com) is a beautifully refurbished Relais and Chateaux property, where you can dress up and sip cocktails by the fire. Join the special club here and you’ll have access to a “secret” speakeasy located in the basement! Excellent pampering service, as you’d expect.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s all about the salt.

I fell in love with Fleur de Sel, the rare hand-raked salt, years ago. I’ve got high blood pressure, and unfortunately, I need to limit my intake of salt. So my discovery of “finishing salts” allowed me to cook completely without salt until the very end, where I can then sprinkle just a few crystals of this moist, hand-harvested miracle on my plate, enjoying every tiny burst of salty ocean flavor without a lot of guilt.

Inspired by an episode of “No Reservations” where Anthony Bourdain journeyed to Brittany, my wife and I dreamed of traveling to what is arguably the epicenter of Fleur de Sel production, the small town of Guerande, France. Located on the Atlantic coast in the Pays de La Loire region just south of Brittany, it’s about a 5-hour drive from Charles de Gaulle airport outside of Paris.

A salt flat in Guerande

 

Some of the articles we read about the medieval town of Guerande said it was too touristy, but we found that it had a lot of charm: the perfect combination of old and new, with many interesting shops and eateries inside its ancient walls. Built in the 15th century and fortified in the 19th century, the surrounding wall around Guerande is one of the best preserved in all of France.

The salt marshes outside the city walls have been around a long time…the last of them built around 1800. Salt production here declined soon after, because salt was available more cheaply from salt mines. But you gotta love foodies…the influence of chefs and food lovers around the world have brought back the demand for this very special product. Salt workers now harvest about 15,000 tons of cooking salt a year, and about 300 tons of the very precious Fleur de Sel.

 

Worth its weight in gold!

 

The process is simple: the ocean tides bring the salt water in and channel it into shallow pools where the water then evaporates, leaving behind the beautiful sea salt Guerande is known for. When just a few inches of water remain, a salty crystalized film floats on the surface of the water. This is very gently hand-raked and produces the much sought after Fleur de Sel. Traditionally only women were allowed to rake this salt because it was believed they had a gentler touch.

Driving through the salt field was a wonderful experience. The roads are narrow, and wind almost endlessly through these flat marshes where salt workers spend their days raking, gathering and then bagging their precious harvest. You can stop anywhere along the way to buy your salt directly from these salt workers, which we did. It was easy to get carried away…we brought home over 20 lbs. of salt! Of course, we shared it with friends.

 

Harvesting and selling salt in Guerande is a family affair.

 

One taste of Fleur de Sel, letting it gently melt on your tongue, and you’ll know what the big fuss is all about.

Our Fleur de Sel journey did not end in Guerande, however. After a couple of nights in that region, we headed south to the island of Ile de Re, just off the coast of La Rochelle, France. Connected by a 3km bridge, Ile de Re is a beautiful world unto itself, with an intricate network of bicycle paths that allow you to travel safely from one end of this flat island to the other, enjoying beautiful views as you ride through vineyards, salt marshes, beaches and small port towns.

As in Guerande, not only can you sample the local salt, but also the abundant supply of incredibly fresh seafood, especially their famous oysters. The salt flats seem somewhat newer in Ile de Re, but still very much a large part of the local economy. The salt itself differs in only the most subtle of ways from its Guerande counterpart and I would find it difficult to say which I liked better.

 

Ile de Re is long and flat, so many of the salt pools are larger than those in Guerande.

 

It may seem a bit silly to travel all this way for something is simple as salt. But it’s a journey I’m very happy I made…and will gladly make again.

Why is it that we rarely visit historic sites that are in our home town?

Though I grew up in New York, and I visit often, it’s been over 40 years since I made the trip to the Statue of Liberty. But now that I’ve got a 10-year-old daughter, I thought it was an important trip for us to make together. That, combined with a trip to Ellis Island, where my father and his siblings arrived in this country, is a must-visit for anyone who may have forgotten in these politically heated days that we were once a nation that welcomed all those in need of sanctuary, including, perhaps, our own parents and grandparents.

If you’re going to go to the Statue of Liberty–and you should–here are some tips to make that trip as easy as possible…

Despite all the websites you see, there is only one sanctioned service that takes you to the Statue of Liberty, and it requires that you buy your tickets several months ahead of time. The website is: http://www.statueoflibertytickets.com.

You’ve got several choices for tickets: a reserved ferry ticket, a reserved ferry ticket with pedestal access, and a reserved ferry ticket with crown access (seasonal.) I signed my daughter and myself up for the crown access tickets. (Climbing up to the torch has been closed off for many years now.) The climb to the crown requires that you take the elevator to the pedestal where you go up one flight of stairs. From there, you show them your special wristband, and they allow you access to a winding staircase that leads you up to the crown. The steps are very narrow–about 19″ wide–with about 6’2″ of headroom. Though it’s a sturdy staircase, you’re bound to get a little dizzy if you look over the edge as you slowly ascend to the crown. There are a couple of points on the way up where you can step out to take a breather, but once you’re going up, there is no way to change your mind and go back down. It’s one way!

Going up!

 

When you reach the crown, you’re greeted by two park rangers who will give you a lot of information or just simply take your picture. Linger for a bit, soak in the view, but don’t stay too long, because there’s a line of people behind you waiting their turn. The stairs seem to be even narrower on the way down, posing as much, if not more of, a challenge.

 

Temperatures in the crown can be 20 degrees hotter than outdoor temps, and we visited on a 90-degree day, so we certainly worked up a sweat.

 

 

Back packs and other cumbersome items are not allowed on the steps up to the crown (but a bottle of water is allowed), so lockers are offered for a few bucks for you to store your belongings for the ascent.

 

A view of Manhattan from the crown.

 

Some tips if you plan on visiting the Statue of Liberty

 

Ferries leave from Battery Park in Manhattan, though you can also leave from New Jersey. See the website for details.

You will be screened twice, airport TSA-style. The first screening takes place before you step onto the ferry from Battery Park. Just like at the airport, you’ll need to remove belts, and place all metallic objects in a plastic container that rolls through an x-ray machine. The second time, you get screened before you’re allowed into the pedestal area of the statue.

Tickets are non-refundable. Crown tickets require that you show up at the ticket booth with ID, so give yourself extra time for that. Otherwise, you can just print your tickets online.

Get the earliest ferry you can. The crowds get bigger and crazier as the day goes on, and you’ll be standing in long lines if you get to Liberty Island in the afternoon. It’s especially important to get there early if you’re planning on climbing to the crown. Standing on that winding staircase jammed with hundreds of people above/in front of you is not where you want to be!

Don’t be late but don’t be too early for your ferry, either. We had a 10AM ferry, but got there at 8:40. They wouldn’t let us in line until 9:20.

Although access to Liberty Island is year-round, crown access tickets are seasonal. They shut down during some winter months. So plan ahead.

Snack bars and gift shops are located on the ferries, Liberty Island, and Ellis Island.

Ferries run from Battery Park, to Liberty Island, then to Ellis Island, then back to Battery Park about every 20–30 minutes.

 

 

 

 

I was cleaning out the pantry recently, and there, in a corner where I haven’t looked for years, was a green 5-liter jug with a plastic cap on it. It brought a smile to my face because although I haven’t seen it in many years, it reminded me of a wonderful trip my wife and I took to Italy when we were still dating.
Our first European trip together was to explore Rome, the Isle of Capri, and the Amalfi coast. We stayed at many wonderful hotels, including an old castle, and we made an effort to sample the local cuisine when possible.
At one of our stops, we walked through a small, quaint village and found a local eatery named Da Roketa (The Rocket.) As I recall, the food was homemade and fantastic, the bread to die for, and the homemade olive oil from the family’s own olive trees something you wanted to drown in.
Much to the surprise of the owners of the restaurant, we asked if we could buy their olive oil to take home to the states with us, and we somehow wound up with this massive 5-liter jug, which we carried with us throughout the rest of our trip.
Although this was after 9/11, the limitations about carrying on liquids had not yet been established, so I ducked taped the plastic cap securely, making sure there’d be no leaks, and I placed the jug in a small duffel bag, cushioned by clothing. I carried that bag right onto the plane!
But first I had to get through security…
Placing my duffel bag on the conveyor belt in Rome as we walked through the x-ray machines, one look at the security agent’s face and it was clear I was going to get pulled side.
The female agent asked me what was in the bag and I matter-of-factly told her: olive oil. She didn’t believe me, so I opened the bag for her and there was my beautiful 5-liter bottle, nestled in some “fragrant” dirty laundry. She looked at it, and her stern look morphed into a smile: “It looked like a bomb on the x-ray screen!”
I explained about the amazing food at Da Roketa, and how we were obsessed with the olive oil. She chuckled, shook her head, and let me zip it up and walk away with it.
The rest of our journey, even when we landed at customs in the United States, was uneventful.
I doubt that even now, even if I checked my luggage, I’d be allowed to bring in an un-hermetically sealed container of olive oil into the states the way I did that day.
We used that olive oil every opportunity we had, and yes, we did eventually finish it.

I get a lot of travel and food magazines, and for whatever reason, when they talk about where to stay in Providence, The Dean Hotel seems to be everybody’s new favorite. When they talk about where to get a great cocktail, The Dean is listed again. (I did notice that the cocktails article info was submitted by someone who has a financial part in the operation of the hotel…a bit suspicious.)

But, nonetheless, I decided it was time for me to check it out for myself.

Those of us that have been in Rhode Island for some time might remember what was previously at The Dean’s address back in the day: the legendary Sportsman’s Inn, a roach-infested whorehouse, to put it plainly. As as one reviewer put it: “Don’t go there without antibiotics!”

So The Dean is a serious improvement! I was told that to keep its historical value, The Dean had to leave the tiny hotel rooms exactly the same size as they were before. The result is a very cozy room that is clean and modern…just really small…as is the bathroom. But it’s got everything you would need to spend the night here, no complaints.

My small but very clean room at The Dean.

 

The Dean has many of the amenities you’re looking for in a nice city hotel: valet parking, a coffee shop (Bolt Coffee) for your morning wake-up, a very good cocktail lounge (The Magdalenae Room), a restaurant (Faust) and Boombox, a karaoke bar. Okay…in all honesty, I was glad to hear that the German food of Faust is being replaced this fall with the truly creative food of one of Providence’s best: north. (www.foodbynorth.com) And as long as I don’t have to hear the karaoke bar when I’m trying to sleep, I can deal with that.

I had dinner elsewhere in town the night I stayed at The Dean. (Faust was already closed.) But I did stop by to have a cocktail–or three–at The Magdalenae Room. The choice of spirits is limited, but the essentials are there. A nice chat with the bartender who knew his drinks and knew his way around Providence. Even someone like me that has lived here for almost 30 years learned a few things! (Was it the best crafted cocktail in Providence? That honor still remains with The Eddy.)

All in all, my experience at The Dean was a good one. I don’t know if it deserves all the attention it’s been getting in those magazine articles I’ve read, however. But it’s clean, it’s not expensive, and when north opens up, it can very much be an ideal one-stop in Providence.

Despite working in a pretty decent food town (Providence, Rhode Island), and despite being just an hour away from another decent food town (Boston, Massachusetts), when we want to go to a place where we park our car once and can easily walk to dozens of great eateries and bars, where each place is more creative than the next, and where genuine friendliness and enthusiasm for what they’re doing shows in every dish, the answer is Portland, Maine.

My wife and I visit Portland at least once a year and it’s amazing to see how many new restaurants have opened since our last visit. Every time we think we’ve crossed a few off our list, a half-dozen new ones show up! Last year, we hit 10 restaurants in 48 hours. This last visit, it was a mere 6 restaurants in 48 hours. I guess we’re getting older…!

solo2

Our weekend started on a Friday afternoon with a quick bite at Solo Italiano, near the water on Commercial Street. We really enjoyed a light-as-air Carpaccio di Tonno: thinly sliced yellow fin tuna with stracciatella cream, herb oil, and crispy onions. And after we were told that the chef at Solo won the World Pesto Championship, we had to have the Mandilli di Seta al Vero Pesto Genovese: house made silk handkerchief pasta in a traditional Genovese basil pesto…amazing! Solo has some great house cocktails to choose from, too. Definitely worth a return visit.

The bar at Solo.

The bar at Solo.

Our Friday evening dinner was at Hugo’s. Originally owned by chef Rob Evans, a three-time Food Network “Chopped” champion, Rob sold it a few years ago and now runs Duckfat, a small sandwich shop famous for its Belgian-style fries that are fried in duck fat. (Though it gets write-ups all the time, my experience at Duckfat was disappointing.)

hugosign

 

The folks that own the nationally acclaimed Eventide Oyster Bar now own Hugo’s (it’s next door) as well as The Honey Paw (next door on the other side.) For us, every visit to Portland must include this amazing restaurant trifecta on Middle Street, that, in fact, have connecting kitchens.

The connecting kitchens at Hugo's, Eventide, and the Honey Paw.

The connecting kitchens at Hugo’s, Eventide, and The Honey Paw.

 

Hugo’s is fine dining at its creative best. Though we hadn’t been there in over a year, Brian, a manager and our wine guru, immediately remembered us and greeted us with a hug, showing us to our seats and treating us to a glass of bubbly. He guided us through the wine list and offered us a bottles that were simply out of this world. Though we’ve done the tasting menu in the past, we decided to go a la carte when a beautiful fried whole black bass, with roasted mushrooms, cabbage and hoisin vinaigrette, was calling our name. After a few wonderful appetizers that included peekytoe crab, reblochon (a local cheese), and lamb tartare, we were ready for the black bass. Even our server, Patrick, was impressed with how well we devoured that fish right down to the bone.

Fried black bass at Hugo's.

Fried black bass at Hugo’s.

 

Polishing off that amazing black bass!

Polishing off that amazing black bass!

 

Paul, the bartender at Hugo's.

Paul, the bartender at Hugo’s.

 

Dinner at Hugo’s wouldn’t be complete without a discussion about bourbons with bartender, Paul, and he let me sample a couple of special bottles he had behind the bar. A great way to end a wonderful dining experience on our first night in Portland.

Bourbon tastings.

Bourbon tastings.

 

The next day, Saturday, our food adventures began with lunch. Don’t get me wrong: there are some great breakfast choices in Portland, like the Porthole (featured on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives”) and Becky’s Diner. But when you’re in town to feast, you bypass the bacon and eggs.

Lunch was at Eventide, which shows up on every “best oyster bar” list, and the reason is simple: a nice selection of fresh oysters, a great bar, and creative side dishes that change all the time.

Oysters at Eventide.

 

The Eventide brown butter lobster roll is elevated to new heights when it’s placed on an Asian-style steamed bun. Blackboard specials change every week, and always include what’s right off the boat: from fried squid to pickled lox. If you’re less adventurous, you can’t go wrong with the buttermilk fried chicken bun, the house pastrami bun or their impressive fish sandwich.

Pickled lox (left) and the lobster bun (right.)

 

If you go to Eventide during peak hours, you can expect a wait. The place isn’t huge and it’s wildly popular. Give them your name, tuck yourself into a corner with a drink, and wait, knowing that it will all be worth it!

Real women in Maine shuck oysters!

 

We skip the usual cocktail sauce when at Eventide. Our favorite accoutrements are the pickled red onion ice (great for an oyster shooter!) and the chilera ice.

Before…and after.

 

After our leisurely lunch, it was time to walk off a few calories. Heading down Fore Street, we tucked into several art galleries and shops, slowly making our way across the center of town to the newly redesigned Portland Art Museum. By the time we stepped out of the museum, it was time for more food. Just a few blocks, and we arrived at Boda.

 

Labeling themselves as a “Very Thai” kitchen and bar, Boda delivers. Though we only had a few apps, like the apple and shrimp salad and a plate of authentic pad thai, it earned two thumbs up. A plate of fried quail…not so much.

The bar at Boda offers the standards (like my Chopin martini) and some interesting Asian herb-infused cocktails. Definitely worth a return visit, especially when Boda is open until 12:45AM, serving tasty skewers for the bar crowd.

A short stop at our hotel, and it was time for our Saturday dinner. We headed to what many claim is the best sushi restaurant in Portland: Miyake. We soon discovered that the label “best sushi restaurant in Portland” didn’t necessarily set the standard very high.

 

Though we found a beautiful bottle of sake on the menu that we’ve had before, the food was a disappointment. Having had a few great sushi experiences in my life, I wanted this place to be among them. But after trying 2 different 4-course menus that featured tastings of salmon, tuna, uni, duck, and even Miyake’s own farm-raised mangalitsa pork–a rare heritage breed–which, though fatty, was very dry…it’s safe to say that we won’t be returning to Portland, Maine for its sushi.

The sake, at least, was amazing.

In a town with many creative restaurants, this one didn’t cut it. Some locals told us that Miyake used to be better when they were in a smaller space. The move to a larger space meant a beautiful room, but the food suffered.

Our weekend ended with Sunday brunch. If we wanted a more typical Sunday brunch, we would’ve gone to Five Fifty-Five, where we’ve enjoyed dishes like lobster eggs Benedict in the past. But when we heard that The Honey Paw was now serving brunch, there was no question where we needed to go!

 

My kind of Sunday brunch: Asian fried ribs, pork and fried oyster pot stickers, a bowl of beef shank pho, and a breakfast sandwich with house made scrapple and egg on a kimchi croissant.

Beef shank pho.

 

The Honey Paw breakfast sandwich.

 

My wife took advantage of a full bar with creative cocktails. Unfortunately, I had a 3-hour drive home behind the wheel, so I had to refrain from the alcohol.

The bar at The Honey Paw.

While we dined at The Honey Paw, I ran next door to Eventide and ordered 2 of their buttermilk fried chicken sandwiches to go. Our 10-year-old daughter was not happy that we went to Portland without her this time, and we knew that bringing her favorite sandwiches home would help ease the blow.

 

We’ll be back to Portland this summer. Already counting the days. For other great places to dine in this town, use my search engine under “Portland.” And feel free to drop me a line with any questions about where to stay, eat, visit, etc…

Cheers!

 

You may know my friends as Ativan and Ambien.

The fact is, despite all the places I’ve been to in the world, it’s a struggle for me to travel. I’m not a control freak, but I am a bad passenger. I always choose to be the one behind the wheel on family trips. I sit in the front of the bus so I can monitor the driver. I instinctively choose the bar car when I take the Acela into New York City. And I’m a lousy flyer. Sure, I know that statistics say flying is the safest form of travel. I’ve purchased a variety of CD’s and DVD’s to help me get over it. But there’s something about the fear of being in the air–and not in control–that I can’t shake.

But…I don’t want to stay home.

image

Enter my friend: lorazepam. Whenever I have a big trip planned, part of the pre-flight preparation is serious medication. But lorazepam itself doesn’t do the trick, of course. I’m a big guy, and if anyone thinks that a silly little pill is going to knock me down, they’re in for a surprise.

My standard medication routine goes like this: half a lorazepam the day of the flight to ease anxiety. I take a full pill once I’ve found my seat on the plane and I know it’s going to take off. This doesn’t knock me out. It simply eliminates “white knuckle” syndrome. And then I start drinking. By the time I’ve had a few, I’m feeling no pain as dinner rolls around. I have my meal, wash it down with another drink, and then, when I check with my wife to make sure that she and my daughter will be OK without me, I take a zolpidem. I’ve been told that this self-medication would knock a horse flat on its ass. It usually keeps me down for about 5 hours, just in time to have breakfast before landing the next morning on my trans-Atlantic flight.

Ironically, I prefer longer flights because with shorter flights, I just have to tough it out without the meds. (OK,  maybe I’ll sneak I half a pill in there.)

My wife and I have a deal: she takes care of our daughter on the plane, and then it’s my job to do so on land. And that system has worked well for us. It’s also allowed me to have incredible experiences I would not have had any other way:  riding an elephant in Thailand, exploring the souk in Marrakesh, landing with a helicopter on a mountaintop glacier in New Zealand (that took a record of three lorazepam’s, and I was still able to video the whole thing!), seeing beautiful sunsets in Santorini,  flying in a hot air balloon over the vineyards north of Barcelona, swimming with dolphins in Moorea…and more.

If course, I don’t recommend this combination of drugs to anyone. You need to talk to your own doctor. But I’m all set…because my doctor hates flying, too.