Archive for the ‘Tips’ 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!

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Binoculars – Check!

June 17, 2010

I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice (you might remember the dire oversight I made on my trip to Botswana by forgetting binoculars on safari).  In the event of a majestic breach by one of the thousands of Maui humpback whales, I wasn’t going to miss it!

A quick primer on buying a pair of binoculars:

  • What the numbers mean when looking at binoculars: 8X32 essentially means 8X magnification and 32mm lens.
  • Don’t go crazy for magnification – the higher the number, the shakier the view will be.  For whale watching, stick to around 7-12X magnification.
  • The bigger the lens, the more light you will get, but they will also get bulkier the larger you go.
  • We found this Tasco 8X25 pair to be ideal for travel – durable, with a neck strap, and comfort lenses for easy viewing on a moving boat.

Spotting whales from the shore in Maui.

We booked a whale watching cruise through the Pacific Whale Foundation.  The price was super reasonable, and they had several knowledgeable experts explaining the behaviors and biology about humpbacks.  They even dropped a “hydrophone” into the water so we could listen to their whale songs.  Being that it was the very tail-end of the season, we weren’t expecting to see much of anything (however, they do guarantee sightings through May).  We spotted several different groups of whales – first evident by their exhalations (BLOWHOLE!) – typically a mother and her calf, since the calm waters of Maui are ideal for nursing.  Immediately after the blowhole sighting, you’ll see their “humped back” as they swim along, and then after a few exhalations they usually dive back down hundreds of feet under the water.  This is the point at which you’ll see their flukes, or tail. Sometimes they’ll play at the surface and wave a fin in the air, and on very special occasions a whale will excitedly breach above the water. Unfortunately, we weren’t lucky enough to see this from start to finish close up, but we saw some breaches from far away and caught the tail end of a few.  It must really be a sight to see right by the boat (if you’re as obsessed with whales as I am).

I sooo did not take this photo, but whoever did is a very lucky (and talented) person.

In traveling to Hawaii during whale season – October through May – there’s a good chance you’ll have a sighting just from shore, if not from a whale watch cruise.  You can park along the Maui bay and just wait for the action, like James here:

Waiting....

Even with the clear waters of Maui, it’s still difficult to see the entire creature and appreciate its enormity. I sometimes wish I had the means (and courage) to see a whale up close, but in the meantime I’ll get my fix from Youtube:

Open Air Jeeps Are Awesome….Except When They’re Not

June 4, 2010

When our friends found out we were going to Hawaii, they all said, “You HAVE to rent a Jeep!”  Indeed, Hawaii has a surplus of rugged Jeep Wranglers for your renting pleasure, but before you subscribe to the open-air Jeep fantasy, I need to let you in on the reality.

Do you like power windows?  Air conditioning?  Power locks? Shocks? Air conditioning?  How about not getting rained on? Do you like that?  Then, don’t rent a Jeep.

Now, I’m not a car snob – I don’t even own a car – but, when you’re renting a vehicle on vacation, those simple pleasures can make the difference between not even thinking about your mode of transportation (preferred) to locking 3 out of 4 doors when you have your dad’s borrowed GPS stuck to the dashboard (oops).

But let’s talk about rain, because that was the main reason our rented Jeep became the bane of our Maui existence.  When we planned the trip, we had visions of open-air Jeep-ing through the mountains and along the coastline.  Exhibit A:

From an actual car rental brochure...so not as awesome as it looks.

But, we didn’t actually think about the unzipping/tucking/pulling/folding part of the Jeep. Do any city folk know how to make their Jeep a top-down dream in 1-2-3 steps? Not that I know of.  While driving along the climate-surprise Road to Hana, the best we could do was to unzip the sides flaps and as soon as we figured that out, some random clouds rolled in and the rain started.  So we pulled over and zipped everything back up.  Then the sun came out and it was 90 degrees in the Jeep within 5 minutes.  So we rolled the windows down and then up, based upon whether it was raining, sunny or windy. Despite our climate control issues, the scenery in Maui usually made us forget that we hated that Jeep:

Clouds...and rain.

Wait, now it's sunny! Roll the windows down!

Oh crap. Look at those clouds around the corner.

......SUN!?

When we got to Kauai, we switched our rental car to something with all the options – A/C, power windows and locks, the works!  It felt like quite a treat after 5 days in a bumpy hotbox.  However, we noticed hundreds of other Jeeps driving around the island – most with their tops and sides all zipped up, likely fresh from a drive through the rain in the mountains.  Amateurs!

Just a tip – you’ll read in some guidebooks that you need 4X4 to navigate the Road to Hana or drive all the way around Maui – not true.  The road is bumpy, but most of it is paved and fairly well-traveled.

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.

Seven Degrees of JFK Delays

March 1, 2010

If you haven’t already heard, JFK airport is closing one of its runways for four months due to re-paving.  Don’t live in NYC?  The closure could still affect you by way of more expensive airfare as airlines decrease their flights, or via longer delays for layovers at JFK as planes wait for the other available runways.

I was just thinking about airport upgrades (really!) when landing at LaGuardia Airport (LGA) last night.  Man, that airport is ugly inside and out.  But beyond its aesthetic qualities (or lack thereof), it also “ranked dead last out of 66 airports in the United States in a passenger satisfaction survey compiled by J.D. Power and Associates (Wikipedia).”  I cringe to think about foreigners’ / tourists’ first experience of NYC as LaGuardia airport and its rundown / cramped gates, inadequate / dirty lavatories, poor amenities / food services, and lack of overall “Welcome to New York” feel.  The problem is: how would we go about a complete overhaul of this very busy airport when there is no room to even breathe around here?  There would be no building a new airport in the parking lot à la Citifield, and the runway is already too short. But whenever I arrive in places like Madrid, Amsterdam or Denver, I’m in awe of these modern, clean structures and instantly feel safer, and that my flight will be on time (when there is, in fact, absolutely no correlation between the two…).

The takeaway here is to be prepared for longer-than-usual delays if traveling via JFK and plan accordingly (i.e. don’t pick that 30-minute layover you will probably miss).  And if you choose LaGuardia instead, eat before you get to the airport!