Archive for the ‘Lodging’ Category

Well Hello N’Awlins

January 8, 2012

If you’ve never been to New Orleans, you probably have a vision in your mind of live, boisterous jazz; females with semi-loose morals begging for colorful beaded necklaces; gawking men hanging from balconies in the French Quarter with said necklaces; and – essentially – debauchery galore.

You’d be right.

But you may not know about some of its other charms:  incredible mansions, horse-drawn carriages, old-time trolleys, multi-level wrought-iron balconies overflowing with lush plant life, rich history and even a cemetery that looks romantic in the rain.   New Orleans can offer a completely different experience if you’re aged 22, 42 or 102 – and there is certainly something for everyone.  On a long weekend trip to this famed locale – my first ever – I was determined to experience it like I was ageless.  That meant a fair share of jazz clubs, fried seafood, museums, mansions, shopping, iconic New Orleans concoctions (both liquid and solid), some…let’s say “bead-related activities,” and all around general soaking in of the culture.

The French Quarter is defined by hundreds of balconies that are truly charming and truly New Orleans

In doing research for this trip, TripAdvisor was again a go-to resource for finding moderately priced and conveniently located lodgings.  James and I (and our traveling companions Mike and Laura) settled on the one-of-a-kind Le Pavillon Hotel just a few blocks outside the French Quarter.  This iconic hotel – listed on the National Register of Historic Places – is over the top with massive crystal chandeliers, a rooftop cabana oasis, highly attentive service, and is certainly worth a try if you want that old-time Louisiana feel.  And who wouldn’t want to be treated at 10pm every night with a complimentary peanut butter and jelly bar, ice cold milk and hot chocolate?  Click here for the back story on that one!

Le Pavillon Hotel Lobby

I’m also lucky to know a few people who are originally from Louisiana, and were more than happy to offer up suggestions of “must do’s” in New Orleans.  The lists were actually a mile long – and those were just the highlights of the city!  You can’t really go wrong whether you focus on eating, drinking, sightseeing – or all three.  A couple of my don’t miss suggestions:

Cafe au lait and fresh beignets (glorified donuts) at Cafe Du Monde.  Here’s a tip – bypass the long line (can you say tourist trap?) – which is actually for take-out – and make your way into the cafe, where you can grab your own table and order from the overly simplified menu.

Beignets and Cafe au lait at Cafe du Monde

 

Order a Pimm’s Cup at Napoleon House.  First, a little history about Napoleon House – this is a New Orleans landmark made famous when its first occupant, Nicholas Girod (mayor of New Orleans from 1812 to 1815) offered his residence to Napoleon in 1821 as a refuge during his exile.  Famously, Napoleon never showed, but the name stuck.  Honestly, it doesn’t look like much from the outside, but as soon as you step in – if you happen to go when it’s open – you can tell there’s something special about the place.

Napoleon House (credit - NOLA.com)

A Pimm’s Cup is a gin-based mixed beverage with 7-Up and a slice of cucumber – perfectly refreshing on a hot day in New Orleans.  Explore the bar and make sure you try to get a table in the courtyard out back.  And if you really want a treat – order a muffuletta sandwich, which is a New Orleans specialty made on Sicilian bread with a marinated olive spread.

I realize the tips above are both food-related, but I’m probably underplaying the role that food played on this trip.  I’ll share some more highlights from New Orleans soon!

Hip Hip Kihei!

May 10, 2010

Maui draws a diverse group of tourists – newlyweds, families with small children, and lots of old folks on tour buses.  This is no surprise though, since the destination has something for everyone (tons of water activities, beautiful scenery, endless beaches, amazing resorts, whales).  Maui is the 2nd largest Hawaiian island at 727sq miles, but most people don’t realize just how expansive it really is – there are essentially no roads cutting through the 2 mountains on each end, so you’ll need to circumnavigate Mt. Haleakala if you’re exploring the entire northeast, and the West Maui mountains in you’re up near Ka’anapali on the west side.

That is why choosing your home base is so important!

When you start researching Maui you’ll notice that there are many wonderful places in which to plant your suitcase.  Wailea is a landscaped paradise for honeymooners, and Lahaina has the family amenities like safe turtle beaches and luau’s.  It’s likely you’ll want to do at least one boat activity, which will leave from Maalaea Harbor in the south, and you’ll want to drive the Road to Hana in the northeast.  Being that we knew we’d be all over the island exploring all of these areas, we chose a central location for our base – Kihei.

Choose your home base wisely, or you'll have a very long ride home from Hana...or Ka'anapali.

Kihei isn’t the sexiest of Maui towns – it has a lot of strip malls and traffic. But, it also has some of the best restaurants on the entire island (in fairness, so does Lahaina, but that town is on the west coast, a major haul from the Road to Hana).  Wailea is…well, just pretty and landscaped. It’s mainly comprised of resorts and golf courses, but you’ll know when you cross over from Kihei into Wailea (see: landscaping).  We researched hotels on TripAdvisor.com and private condos on VRBO.com (there are tons of timeshares in Kihei), and found a very reasonable one-bedroom in a low-rise complex with a pool (oh, and a lanai – a standard feature in Hawaii) right across from a beach.  It was also within walking distance to a dozen eateries, a few bars, convenience & grocery stores and a delectable ice cream parlor.   It was perfect for us when we didn’t want to drive to dinner (see: Fred’s Mexican next door to our condo) or just got sick of being in our rental car all day (see: Road to Hana).

If you’re spending more than just a few days on Maui – and you should – you might want to consider a central location like Kihei.

Some restaurant suggestions (even if you don’t stay in Kihei, you should go for a meal or two):

Kihei Cafe for breakfast – come early and come hungry.  Maui is an early-to-rise kind of place, FYI.

Pita Paradise for fresh fish and mediterranean dishes. Get the skewers with the fresh catch of the day.

Cafe O’Lei for the mahi mahi with papaya and mango salsa.

Cafe O'Lei serves up some "delishes fishes dishes"

Oh…and ABC Stores to stock up on chocolate-covered macadamia nuts and pineapple wine (actually, skip the pineapple wine – it’s gross).

Maui's finest Pineapple wine. I was suckered into this one. Sorry Maui...you gotta try harder. Grapes work well in wine. Try that.

Game ON!

March 7, 2010

Who just booked two free tickets to Hawaii??  We did!  After months of finagling the Thank You network rewards points system, we racked up just enough (a mere 158,000) to get two tickets to the 50th state, AKA paradise.  This is such a nice surprise because I honestly didn’t even think we’d be going on any trips for quite some time (we are in super saver mode), but we’ve gotten a huge head start with this flight bonus.  We chose to go right when the official low season begins, and noticed VRBO.com has a ton of private condos available, and owners are very willing to negotiate.  We were able to find a gorgeous condo near the beach for only $75/night!  Newsday recently ran a piece on finding bargains in Hawaii, so if you have a subscription, you can check it out here.

Which islands will we visit?  I’ll fill you in on that and why we chose them – soon!

In my dreams for the next six weeks...the Hawaii sunset.

Nope, Not Yet!

November 16, 2009

I’m still withholding all of my amazing, fun and awesome trip anecdotes and photos from you. Why? I figure you should have to wait for at least as long as it took us to actually GET to New Zealand. We left on Saturday afternoon and arrived on TUESDAY. Almost 3 days of traveling (with surprisingly just two airline flights) in order to get to our first stop – Rotorua. I have so much to say about this unique and beautiful area of the North Island, but first…the journey.

We left for JFK knowing already that our flight was delayed – Qantas had a mechanical issue with our plane which caused a backlog. However, they expected us to be able to make our connection in L.A., so we didn’t worry. Then New York experienced Noah’s Arc-type rain and we sat in the airport, and then on the tarmac for 2 hours, staring out the window at the torrential downpour. The pilot was honest and finally told everyone that it was unlikely we’d make our connection at this point, and that everyone was re-booked onto a later flight to Sydney, Australia, and would be re-routed to their final destinations from there…

Uh oh. Sydney? That was the last place I wanted to go – it wasn’t even in our itinerary since I had already been there, but the worst part was that we chose to fly to New Zealand first because it is much closer than Australia (3 hour time difference). Now we would have to take a longer flight to Sydney and then another flight to New Zealand. God knows when we would actually arrive! But, we accepted our fate and flew to L.A. to see what would happen next.

Definitely not what we expected!

Delayed, indeed...and that's 5:10AM ET to you time zone math geniuses!

When we landed, the story had changed, and it turned out there wasn’t enough room on that 2AM flight to Sydney, so we would all be booked into a local hotel and put on the next flight to Auckland, New Zealand (which is once a day at 11:45PM). So that would put us behind schedule by exactly one day. It wasn’t the end of the world, and actually we didn’t mind THAT much (we were hung over and exhausted from the wedding, so we just wanted to sleep). Qantas tried to shoo us on our way to the Holiday Inn, but I wanted my luggage (besides, what were they going to do to it, send it to Sydney?). I am not one of those people that packs a spare outfit in my carry-on, and it had already been a super long day. I wanted my comfy PJ’s and my travel-sized toiletries, dammit! After a bit of a brouhaha, we were allowed to “wait” for almost 2 hours to get our bags. So at 3:30AM, we headed off to get some zzz’s.

Lodging Rave! Holiday Inn Los Angeles Airport (HILAX) Ok, maybe I was just deliriously tired, but I loved this hotel. I haven’t stayed in a Holiday Inn in many years, but was surprised by how high-end the hotel felt (or maybe I’m just a sucker for dark wood furnishings). The bathroom was new, the bed was super comfortable, and it had a huge flat-screen TV (isn’t it sad when you stay in a hotel that has a 20-something inch old school TV?). We also received vouchers for their restaurant, Landings (Get it? We’re by the airport!), and the food was phenomenal (but free food always tastes better). Well done, HILAX.

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Unexpected honeymoon pit-stop! Holiday Inn LAX

After sleeping in for a bit, we decided we would try to take advantage of the full day in L.A. and do something / see some sights. James had never been to the city, so instead of renting a car or taking a taxi to just one location, we hopped on a 1/2 day bus tour with VIP Tours of California. In the span of a few hours, we visited Venice Beach, the Farmer’s Market, Hollywood and caught glimpses of Rodeo Drive, Santa Monica, and a bunch of other L.A. sights.

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This was definitely not on the itinerary...

At the end of the day, we headed back to the airport and remembered we were (still) headed to New Zealand, so the real trip could finally begin!

Staycations

August 19, 2009

I hate this word. But, it does make a little sense. Take a local vacation and you won’t know what you’re missing! Maybe. I have a friend who does not take long, international vacations. She takes a series of short 3-, 4- or 5-day trips to places like a friend’s lake house, or other beautiful spots that are reachable by a few hours’ drive. She probably has a lot more beans in her savings account than I. While my preference is to take a long, extended trip to a faraway place whenever possible, this isn’t always the case. James and I have taken a few staycations in our time – and one that’s turned into an annual sojourn is Atlantic City. That’s right, the Las Vegas of the East. Forget what you have heard about this “seedy, dumpy” town – AC is really on the up and up! Several anchor resorts have built new luxury towers catering to every guests’ whim. We recently tried out two of those new towers, and I’d love to compare and contrast for you, should you be considering a traffic-filled journey to the majestic NJ shore in your future.

Tropicana’s Havana Tower

Tropicana's Havana Tower in Atlantic City

Tropicana's Havana Tower in Atlantic City

I have only been to Atlantic City a few times, but for the first time James opened my eyes to this gambling mecca, we chose to stay in the Tropicana’s new Havana Tower. I had been to Vegas before, but I didn’t really know what to expect from AC. We drove up and I saw the various casinos glimmering in the sunshine. There’s actually an ocean on the other side of those, if you get that far. The Trop’s valet service is prompt and efficient, as was our early check-in (which isn’t always granted, but lucky us!). The walk to the rooms includes an indoor mall which gives a tropical/island feel – slow moving bamboo ceiling fans, palm trees, and waterfalls. You kind of want a fruity drink, but even though the lights are dimmed and you’re being pumped with oxygen (already?), you want to get on that boardwalk for fun in the sun before going sin city style.

The location of the Tropicana, pardon my non-exactness, is to the right of the main boardwalk action, if you’re facing the ocean. It’s walkable to the beach hot spot – Bikini Beach Bar in front of Bally’s – but it’s a pretty long walk to the other end, down by House of Blues. However, the best part of Trop’s location is proximity to a random restaurant called Mediterranean Flames, or just Flames, to us. We stumbled upon this place after heading out onto the boardwalk for food and beach, in that order, and in 10 feet found a perfect escape. Just ignore the condemned building right behind it. But sit outside you must! Take in the palm trees, canvas lounges, and heavily accented wait staff. And I hope you like asparagus, because it’s in every dish (no complaints here!). And order the sampler appetizer – you won’t be disappointed! Just don’t expect the hostess to notice you – sit yourself down and just take it all in.

Flames.  Bad name, but good food! And slow service...but it's the best you'll find on the boardwalk!

Flames. Bad name, but good food! And slow service...but it's the best you'll find on the boardwalk!

So, back to the Trop. With the addition of the new tower, they have some pretty good restaurants here as well – Carmines, The Palm, Red Square, Cuba Libre, and PF Changs. Oh, and there’s a Hooter’s in the old part of the casino. The gambling overall at the Trop seems pretty standard, not that I’m a big roller, but the table minimums are average. Overall, the Havana Tower itself is definitely worth checking out, and if I go back to AC again, I’d like to stay here again. Well done, Trop.

Trump Taj Mahal’s Chairman Tower

Trump's new Chairman Tower is just a tower.

Trump's new Chairman Tower is just a tower.

When planning this year’s trip to AC, we wanted to try another new tower to see what’s the latest and greatest in Sin City East. We figured Trump knows what he’s doing. Maybe we didn’t find the bells and whistles, but seriously, the only new thing about this tower is…the hotel rooms. Boring! Don’t get me wrong, the rooms are VERY nice – huge walk in shower, ginormous bathroom, and spacious rooms overall, but we didn’t find anything else in the tower, like new restaurants, or shops, or even a convenience store (you know, for cups for our hotel-room mixed drinks while we watched Tropic Thunder on cable before dinner). We may have missed something, but we were pretty disappointed by the lack of amenities, so we barely spent any time at Trump, except when we were actually in the room. Also, the air conditioning is set to “arctic” here, so plan for that.

Trump’s casino is quite lavish, and there are a few good nightspots at the Taj Mahal as well. This casino is located on the polar opposite side of the Trop (such a long walk to Flames!!), but you can still easily walk to the central boardwalk area where all the salt water taffy and bad pizza is sold. Another thing we learned about the Taj Mahal – don’t even try to check in before 1PM! There was a very long line assembling of people thinking they might be able to squeeze into their rooms a little early to take advantage of the full day on the beach (us included), but we all just stood there as no less than 7 front desk clerks stared down at their monitors, as if ignoring 100 people would make them go away. Tsk, tsk, Trump!

So I think you can probably tell which resort I preferred. There are still many to try. So many staycations, so little time!