Why stay at an airport hotel, when you can stay very near walkable activities and see more? Come with me and I’ll give you some tips for turning that layover into something great.
Have you ever connected through a city, or arrived to/from a meeting and told yourself, “I’ll just stay at the airport”? I’ll admit, I’ve done it. And, at the time, I thought I was right to do it. In looking back, I missed some pretty great opportunities. So, I’m not going to let that happen to you. Without further ado, here are my thoughts on making your London layover SO much better.
Where to stay?
London is geographically large enough that one night isn’t going to do it justice – admittedly. But, you’re not there to see the whole city. Mainly, you’re just looking to avoid another night of room service and future embarrassment (having seen nothing) when someone asks about your trip. To narrow it down, let’s say you pick an attraction you’re interested in and focus on that:
What about the London Eye and observing the Thames, Big Ben and Parliament?
You could easily take in a live show with little or no advance planning
Are you a shopper? – Harrod’s can more than deliver and you won’t even have to leave for dinner
Near each of these attractions, there are options for lodging, food, and a libation (or 2)…. Here are some excellent options:
This Marriott is in the shadow of the London Eye and offers amazing views. It’s a luxury property, so the pricetag might not be for everyone. Also nearby, is this Radisson property, right at Westminster Bridge.
The Radisson Blu Edwardian offers several luxe locations. One of which is nestled in Leicester Square where you can take in the British Museum or a show, and a terrific meal.
Knightsbridge is a location that puts you near Harrod’s, the V&A Museum and this adorable boutique townhouse. If you want to really feel like your brief stay was out of the ordinary, this will do it.
Finally, don’t rule out an economical alternative. Premier Inn is all over town and is routinely recommended to me by friends and colleagues. I haven’t yet stayed at one myself. Yet, I guarantee there is one near anything you want to see.
What if I can’t get to London until 5-ish?
Definitely. I’ve gotten in that late and made a bee-line for Harrod’s, which closes at 9 most evenings. You can start with a cocktail at their champagne bar, do a little shopping for yourself (obviously) and friends back home if you’re feeling generous. Before calling it a night, make your way down to the Food Hall for literally anything your heart desires. You could try something new, sample something you’ve been missing, or stick to a staple. There’s no shortage of options here. Eat there, or take it back with you.
Arriving that close to curtain time, you might be apprehensive about buying show tickets in advance, so TKTS offers last-minute tickets, too. In any case, most box offices will have single tickets available for purchase. Grab a quick bite, and then sit back and enjoy something truly spectacular. What a way to live it up on an evening that was just a place-holder for a meeting tomorrow, or an early morning flight.
What says “London” more than a traditional pub? In my opinion, not much – and, if you haven’t visited a true pub lately, you’re missing out. They have a few. You can’t throw a stone without hitting one. Furthermore, each one is unique and worth a stop. And, if you’re hungry, many serve food – really, really good food.
I’ve written before about my love for the neighborhood of Clerkenwell. Within its walls, I can walk along streets that sing “London” to me – the vibe is rich and authentic. I have a favorite hotel, restaurant and bar. I don’t need more. If I’m leaving out of a London airport in the morning and coming in from the English countryside, I’ll always choose to stop here.
Are you nearly convinced?
My point is simply this:
If you’re flying in, pick a spot outside of the airport and see a LITTLE something; taste something.
The city is the perfect, vibrant stopover en route to the airport. You’re nearer than the countryside, so it’s a productive option.
You’re not adding any more time away….unless, you want to, and I would never discourage that. As I’ve said before, you’ve already invested the time it takes to get there – pay yourself back by adding some vacation on top.
Since you’ve probably already missed something at home just by being gone, don’t make it worse on yourself by limiting your experience to simply: the office and the airport. If nothing else, think of the fun you’ll have all year long pulling out gifts of little trinkets you’ve collected on your travels. With every one you wrap, you can relive a fond memory of the brief trip you made. These little excursions are out there for the taking – grab one.
Rainy days can be cozy and contemplative. A little drizzle outside can provide a terrific backdrop for a hot cup of tea, a good book and curling up in a warm spot. Nevertheless, it’s not always optimal when your plan was to tour a new city. Are you just a little disappointed when that happens? I am. Obviously, rain means wet clothes, bad hair, umbrellas….and let’s face it: The same is true of snow. Sure, it’s pretty for a second and it would be great if snow stayed in solid state. Unfortunately, though, it’ll turn to wet momentarily, which means everything I just said about rain. Inclement weather days can be to your advantage (i.e. fewer crowds) if you know how to structure them. Here are my ideas for salvaging a wet vacation day in Washington, D. C.
I’ll walk you through a day that I think could suit the most disheartened traveler and one that she’ll come to remember fondly. Reminder: Always know the local weather and look it up before you pack. Just like we’ve talked about before, keep a travel umbrella stashed in your suitcase …always. And, wrap it in a reusable plastic bag. This way, when you transfer it to your carryall for a rainy day, you’ll have a way to store your wet umbrella without leaving it at a storefront, or loose (and dripping) in your bag. Before you even leave home, you’ll want to know the rain and snow chances so that you can pack shoes and jackets accordingly. With this safely accomplished, I feel certain you’re dressed appropriately and ready to stroll out your hotel door.
Where to start:
My favorite place to stay in DC lately is The Mayflower Hotel. It’s part of Marriott’s Autograph collection, which means it’s a boutique hotel with special little touches throughout. We once spent Christmas in one of their one-bedroom suites. The separate living area was a spacious room with a sectional sofa that pulled out into a bed. And, it surrounded a working fireplace. The rates are surprisingly affordable. So, say you switch off your fireplace and pull on your galoshes, head down to the lobby and get a cup of complimentary joe to go. Assuming you want to start your day with a hot breakfast, I’m going to direct you to Kramerbooks and Afterwords Cafe. It’s walkable from the hotel and open for breakfast until well past dinner. Aside from having really good food all day, the café is nestled within a book store.
DC is easy to navigate by train, and I’ve started you out between 2 convenient stations. Pick your favorite topic and I assure you the Smithsonian has a FREE museum to interest you. Ask my son his favorite stop, it’s always the Air & Space Museum, followed closely by the Botanical Gardens. I can’t pass up a chance to see Marie Antoinette’s jewelry in the Natural History Museum. And, you can explore American pop culture through the ages at the Museum of American History. Avoiding crowds probably isn’t much of a possibility, but I always find the Portrait Gallery to be calming – at least it’s usually quiet. This is also true of the National Archives.
If you’ve planned ahead, you should also consider the Holocaust Museum. It’s not part of the Smithsonian system, so you’ll need to obtain an entrance time. This museum is not to be missed.
If you’re undeterred by the weather, and conditions are not worsening, I’d say head over to the Jefferson Memorial. You can’t walk there from the mall, but you can take a train ride or an Uber. I delayed seeing this monument for a long time because it’s not as walkable or readily accessible as the others. I’m assuming that you spied the vast majority already while moving amongst the Smithsonian museums. So, take the time to drop in on Jefferson – he’s got some pretty good digs. We were surprised by how large the monument is both inside and out. As compared to the Lincoln Memorial, which you can pretty much walk up to and say you saw it, Jefferson encourages you to stay and explore a bit with interior exhibits, giftshop, etc.
No time or energy for more sightseeing? I highly recommend settling into the E Street Cinema. It’s one of my favorite art house cinemas. They have a full bar and snacks that are not your typical movie theater fare. Their film selections are exceptional. I’ve been known to see one….or two…films on a bad-weather day. And, I’m not at all complaining.
Winding Down for the Evening:
No matter how you feel about the President, and chances are you’ve felt one way or the other about each one, the White House is an impressive sight at night. I always walk past it in proximity to the Willard Hotel. You’ve seen a lot of history today – even if you only made it to the cinema – you can’t throw a stone in D.C. without hitting a historic landmark. But, I’m awed every time I enter the Willard. Leadership from both sides of the Civil War sat down together in their lobby to discuss terms for ending the conflict. Let that sink in. The north and the south. Sat there. Talking. During some of our nation’s darkest hours. To me, this epitomizes the history that surrounds me in D.C. That’s a lot of thought and introspection…so, head up to the Round Robin Bar for a pre-dinner cocktail.
I don’t often recommend chain restaurants. I think most of you know my position – I love for each city to be unique. But, occasionally, a small chain catches my eye. In this case, it’s Mari Vanna. We went the first time simply because it’s next door to the Mayflower. It’s since become a favorite D. C. spot – the opulence when you walk in is present throughout. The staff has always been authentic, too, as are their dishes and their VODKA. How about more than 100 flavor-infused vodkas to sip? You might be there awhile. But, it will be worth it. And, if you’re thinking right now that you don’t like Russian food, I’d challenge that maybe you just haven’t really had it. We’ve dragged our kids there under extreme duress only to have them change their tunes as they dug into caviar, or tender meat-filled dumplings. Trust me.
One Last Thing:
Well-satiated, you need only walk a few steps from your excellent meal back to your hotel where the doormen will great you warmly. Treat yourself to a nightcap (…or cup of tea?) at the Edgar just inside the lobby. Legend has it, and their website confirms, it’s so named because J. Edgar Hoover dined here daily. Hm. I don’t know about all that, but I can tell you, we’ve overheard an intriguing conversation every single time we’ve been there. Stopping in is an imperative. Keep your ears and eyes open – I doubt you’ll be disappointed. And, when you’re done, make your way back to your room and that cozy fire you left this morning. You earned it.
I was grounded last year. Has it been awhile since you considered “being grounded”? In the business travel world, it’s not necessarily punitive the way it was when you were a teen. I wasn’t caught smoking or staying out past curfew. We had a re-prioritization of funds and discretionary travel was off the table. Twenty years ago, curtailing “discretionary travel” was different. Just to have a productive meeting meant traveling hours to be around a table together – that’s not now. Nowadays, you can, in fact, have a pretty productive meeting using Skype. You’re all talking in (almost) real-time with only minor delays. And, if you can muster the energy to dress from the shoulders up, you can use your camera and even see faces. So, it is literally the next best thing to being there. Thus, “essential” travel NOW means – there was no way to accomplish what I needed without being there. And, that’s few and far between these days. So, for those of us who truly love the nature, process, and experience of actual travel – it’s a little less fulfilling. How do we spend our time? Planning the next excursion.
I mentioned in a prior post that I had 7 trips on my TripIt for 2020 so far. One has now been completed, and there are 7 new ones on the horizon. A few of them require pretty extensive exploration and consideration, so that’s been an active process. Active in the sense that I use all my resources:
Plot out open/closed dates for attractions; this is key
If you believe that the adventure is in the journey rather than the destination, then this is it – at least half of my journey begins well before I ever approach my Clear ambassador. And, I’ve found through trial and error that the destination is made exponentially better by having a plan in-place prior to arrival.
We used to laugh that my Disney trips came with Excel spreadsheets. By “laugh” I mean, they actually came with spreadsheets and some people laughed at me. But, you know what didn’t happen? We didn’t languish amongst the parks missing shows, lacking coveted dinner reservations, etc. We don’t live and die by the schedule, mind you. I provide a structure that becomes our fall-back. If your fall-back is pretty desirable, then you have absolutely nothing to lose. If, however, you say “let’s wing it” and you find yourselves eating dinner at a counter-service restaurant dining over high-boy stand-up pub tables, you’ve done it wrong. The goal on a “nice” vacation is not to get the food in as quickly as possible on-the-go. At least, it’s not for me.
So, I plan. I’ve recently decided that having 1-2 touristy adventures per day that are scheduled (booked with tickets purchased if necessary) and 1 sit-down dining experience per day is sufficient. That gives us a lot of time to flex and build in whatever catches our fancy. In Hawaii, this means that my husband and I might hike Diamond Head and then explore Pali Lookout one morning and spend the rest of the day on the beach, or taking a massage under a cabana while listening to the waves. Leisurely, we can make our eventual way to cocktails on a lanai somewhere en route to a dinner reservation I’ve been holding for weeks. If, as we did on our last trip, we decide to switch up the dinner location for another that’s caught our eye, we can. At worst, we end up at a place we carefully selected awhile back. What doesn’t happen is our ending up at Burger King or some walk-up window for fried shrimp because all the restaurants are booked up. The same was true in Paris – I scheduled a tour that would span a few hours and check off several must-see boxes on our wishlist while the rest of the day was ours to shop, sip, and wander until dinner. Each night before we wrapped for the day, my girlfriend and I would review the next day’s itinerary and decide what to keep and what to switch up. My point is, planning ahead gives you options. Keep them, or change them up. If you know me, you know that having options is one of my defining characteristics – being left with NO options is just the worst, IMO. THAT’S when I get flustered. And, grasping for a solution can lead to my ‘shut-down’, which manifests in my being short-tempered and irritable. It’s pretty ugly if I’m completely honest. To avoid this, just plan. It’s that easy.
Today, I’m going to actively work on details for 2 upcoming trips. For me, this provides a diversion from my routine and it’s productive. It’s going to save me time and hassle in the long run and improve the relaxation we enjoy when the expensive trip kicks in. I don’t know about you, but when I’m buying hotel nights and every meal out (as you do on vacation), I want it all to be pleasant, not ‘serviceable’. There’s a time and a place for both.
So, back to being grounded. What does a road warrior do when her wings have been clipped? Getting the neglected house in order covered about the first weekend at home…..then, I started plotting. In the end, I made the most of the rest of the year by visiting friends and family, and thoroughly decompressing at a nearby destination spa. Come to think of it, I did that twice – once by using Marriott (or Bonvoy) points, even. Since about November, though, I started planning 2020. And, while it’s now chock full of much more personal travel than business, it’s shaping up to be a somewhat new adventure for me that incorporates more domestic destinations for a change AND the prospect of some potential and novel career avenues. There’s no telling where travel will lead you – one is never made lesser by getting out and seeing the world.
“You’ll lose him – you’ll lose him for sure”, is what everyone said when we announced plans to take our 6-year-old, ‘spirited’ child to Times Square for New Year’s Eve. Guess what – we didn’t lose him. In fact, he actually turned 21 today, so I guess I’m not that bad a parent after all….I mean, he’s not HERE, but I know where he is. For the last 13 years, my office has been in New Jersey while I work from Texas. And, before that, I spent treasured times in the city with close cousins – we commuted, by train, ALONE, from Long Island, ….when we were children. Can you imagine? Times were different (we tell ourselves). Nonetheless, New York City has always had a special place in my heart and if pressed, I honestly could not tell you how many times I’ve been there. Whether it was for a luxe vacation, a budget vacation, just a dinner, summer or fall, I’ve seen it all there. But, I can confirm for you that there’s no city I’ve seen that compares to NYC during the holidays.
Take the picture of Radio City above. If you were standing in this spot right now, you could literally pivot around and see Rockefeller Center with its skating rink serving as the most luxurious and well-tread tree skirt any Christmas Tree ever had. Pivot again and spy Saks Fifth Avenue’s windows and light show. If you picture in your mind’s eye the scrolling electric beacons that dress Times Square and the Theatre District, that’s just a sampling of what you’ll see at Christmastime across entire swaths of the city. And, it’s sincerely holiday cheer – ok, fine – the commercial side is probably manufactured to some degree. But, you certainly get the impression the city revels in it, too. It’s not just for show – the city, its inhabitants and its tourists, find a way to get along and actually, dare I say, share some good will. Even if it’s only for a moment. There are lots of cities where you can go outside and just walk. But, few cities where you can bundle up and walk among the tourist traps and the honking horns of midtown, into the pristine rolling hills of Central Park, and then on to shopping that rivals Rue de Faubourg of Paris in a single stroll. It’s a long stroll. Work with me on this.
Think ahead (as always) on what you’ll want to do while you’re there. Is it all casual? Or, will you also need to fit in some dress clothes for The Rainbow Room or Lincoln Center? You can always adapt your activities around what you’ve brought, or buy more (my preference), but you will want to look smart and be comfortable regardless.
How does a Texan dress for snow?
Dressing for your walking trip through NYC is directly proportional to your level of enjoyment. There’s an art to this:
Dress in layers – this isn’t just something to say – it’s a fact
I recommend silk underwear – it breathes in a way cotton doesn’t. And, if you’re new to the northeast at winter, you don’t yet know that they like their interiors to be a balmy 92F at all times. Layers.
Casual top of any variety – I like flowy, my men wear T-shirts
Scarf (or, 2 – they’re $5 each on the sidewalk)
Coat – I had a nearly frozen southerner in NYC once tell me “You know how they say leather coats are the warmest in the world?” No, no one has ever said that who experienced actual cold. Get wool, get quilting, get down….get smart.
A hat – Texans don’t understand the hat part, but it’s key. I have a HUGE head and a ton of hair. So, I’m usually comfortable with ear muffs, but cover your EARS
Cute shoes? – leave them at home. You need at least 2 pair of durable boots and comfortable socks. I really can’t overstate how much you’ll be walking. Just assume you’ll never get a cab – then if you do, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
If it’s going to be REALLY cold, grab some foot warmers. I discovered them last year in Montreal – Heaven in a self-activating pouch
If you DO have to bring fancy shoes for an event, note that New Yorkers commute around in sensible footwear – you’ll carry your nice shoes in a bag that gets coat-checked, after you swap-out, with your outer coat when you arrive. They think of everything.
Packing mix and match pieces that all coordinate has never been so vital – you might find yourself wanting to wear everything at once someday – and, if they all match, you’re in business.
Bring cash – most places will encourage/require you to check your outerwear – you’ll want to tip at least a little
I recommend a plastic bag you can stick your gloves and hat into that they can sling over the hanger of your coat. Otherwise, shove those pieces into the coat pockets and slide one end of the scarf down the arm of your coat – less likely to fall off and get lost that way.
I’ve chosen to pop over to the city from New Jersey for dinner on more than one occasion – it’s always worth it. But, this is especially true November – December. Maybe you’re bridge-and-tunneling it, so you’ll likely stay close to train stations. There’s the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station (with Holiday markets popping up left and right). Then, you make your way back down toward the PATH and find yourself near Bryant Park, with alas, more Holiday shops. Sip, stroll, repeat.
Say you have just enough time for dinner, but you gravitate near the Park. Plan ahead and make reservations at Tavern on the Green. Yes, it’s back and better than ever – but, don’t forget your reservations. And, if you’ve never done it before, I recommend a carriage ride through Central Park. It’s in fact controversial these days – are the horses well cared for? There are 2 sides to that story, so I won’t direct you either way – do your own google-search and decide. I will say that doing it once is enough for me – I’m not going to use it as a standard mode of transportation. But, as a slice of Americana – I just couldn’t say no.
“Better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times.”
Asian Proverb (I can’t confirm it’s referring to New York, but I think it is)
Not a shopping fan? How about pop-up ice skating – right in the middle of things. Bryant Park, Central Park, again – Rockefeller Center beneath Prometheus? That’s all pretty Christmas-y. The latter costs the most and has the longest lines. Among the 3, if this is your cup of tea, I’d aim for Bryant Park.
Museums? Um, they’ve got your museums. Here are just a FEW of my favorite NYC art museums:
Metropolitan Museum of Art (ok, fine – yeah, duh….but, even if you’ve been a million times. Go see the Angel tree at Christmas) BTW – if the lines are insane, and they will be, as you face the museum, you’ll see a small entrance down below and to the left….it’s for groups. I play dumb and use this entrance; I haven’t been turned away yet. Good luck.
Natural History Museum – I’ve grown weary of the crowds at this museum, but if we’re talking Christmas, their Origami tree is really worth the hassle. OK fine. There. I admitted it….I’m looking at my origami souvenir ornament right now.
Museum of Modern Art (and, an amazing hamburger just nearby @ The Burger Joint in the Parker Meridien Hotel….let your nose guide you….bring cash)
And, don’t miss the museum’s LARGE gift shop across the street from the museum itself.
The Guggenheim – Frank Lloyd Wright – if all you do is stare at the building, it’s worth the trip. But, while on the upper east side – stop by a cozy wine bar. Rest your feet. You earned it.
The Morgan Library and Museum – Not far from the New York Public Library and what a pleasant little surprise. For decades, I didn’t even realize it was there just waiting for me to discover it.
Cooper-Hewitt – a hands-on Design museum. I wasn’t initially enamored, but it sucks you in, where you stay for hours. And, their gift shop has some of the best and most unique shopping in town.
Neue Galerie – New to me (I’m not trying to be funny….I’ve really just discovered this gem). Klimt. Enjoy.
I don’t need to tell you there’s nightlife in Manhattan, right? You’ve heard the song: it doesn’t sleep. Well, that’s not exactly been my experience. But, I will tell you that if you’re looking for dessert or a cocktail at midnight, you’ll have no trouble. So, break out of your routine and live like a New Yorker – sleep a little later, eat a little later, be a grown up a little later and squeeze in a show in between. New Yorkers also see shows. And, whether you’re interested in a top-billed ticket like “Hamilton”, or what’s now a tried and true staple like “Wicked”, they’ve got you covered. If it’s “Hamilton” you want, you might want to call your American Express Platinum Concierge (still….in 2019…but, it’s Christmas). Go checkout your options. My advice is to buy at least 1 set of tickets on-line to your dream show right now – before you leave. And,then while you’re there, see what you can pick up on the fly. There’s always TKTS and there are box offices at every venue. You’ll have options. I’ve even picked up tickets outside of a theatre from groups who pre-purchased a block of tickets and a few guests couldn’t make it. Someone always has to cancel during cold and flu season. For face-value, that’s reasonable and fair – I didn’t get taken. But, use your judgment. And, if you’re not down for a live show, check out the numerous cinemas around town. I really like the IFC in Greenwich Village. In addition to first-run films, they’ve got a curated collection of off-beat Noir-ish Christmas offerings. And, in a city of X-million people – there will be a theater showing “It’s a Wonderful Life”, I have no doubt.
If you’re there for Christmas, you’re probably already thinking of visiting St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I guess it’s my upbringing, but celebrating the season in church just brings it home to me – dogma aside. It’s the spirit of togetherness, celebration, and new hope. Even if you’re only there to take in the structure, the art, or the music – it’s always an experience that reminds me for at least a short time each year, that we can be collectively reverent whether it’s for spiritual or just nostalgic reasons, it’s still there inside us.
Where to stay is a question of no small concern – NYC is one of your pricier destinations and you’re going at one of its busiest times of year. You see where I’m going with this – if you didn’t book early, you’re going to be staying out or paying $$$. Still, I’d encourage you to think long and hard about where to stay if you’re looking to economize and consult someone who knows the city. To someone who says, ‘I don’t mind staying out a bit’, I’d say: Trains are a great option in NYC – download the CityMapper app and hope for the best. But, trains breakdown, they get delayed, they’re crowded, they have maintenance at the MOST inopportune times (read: just when you’ve planned your curtain time down to the minute). Cabs can get expensive, but they’re usually abundant….except during shift-change, which is right before your dinner reservations. And, pray that it doesn’t rain – you’ll never get a cab in the rain. Theoretically, someone does, but I don’t know who. And, Uber/Lyft are a great option now, but be aware of “peak time”, which seems to be my waking hours. Point is – you’ll want SOME things to be within walking distance. Don’t plan the whole of your 3-4 night vacation to be very far from where you want to do your sightseeing. There are a TON of New York City hotels – you can find one within your price range-ish. And, be wary of those bearing only a few stars. I’m an intrepid traveler and I’ve had to pack-up and leave a few times when the 3 stars I was “OK” with were discovered to be either ill gotten or just far too generous. You have your health and safety to think of; I’m not just referring to the absence of a Nespresso machine. If you’re staying near Times Square for New Years Eve, or the days leading up to NYE, give consideration to the crowds. We were once greeted at a 5-star hotel with a disclaimer that said the elevators might be quite delayed due to the volume of guests – I kid you not….30min to get an elevator at times. By contrast, I offer the Michelangelo Hotel. I’ve stayed here a few times for NYE and was surprisingly insulated from the crowds and chaos. When I’ve been before, I was always able to walk the sidewalks of Times Square on the big night without being corralled into the barricades you see on TV. I called this year to ask whether brandishing their room key would give me the same advantage – they said it’s dependent on NYPD who will decide day-of. That’s a bit of a gamble at their prices, but it’s an option. A comfy one that allows you to watch the lights and crowds from your window, follow the ball drop on your TV, and pop a bottle of fine champagne in bed. There are worse things.
I’ll follow-up with a post profiling some classic Holiday films set in New York City. I’m not letting this one go – there’s no place like Manhattan at Christmas. You have to see it to believe it. The vibrant spirit, the crispness on your face, maybe some snowflakes in the air, and familiar tunes played by sidewalk buskers. For goodness sake – carts hawking CHESTNUTS on 5th avenue.
I’m not naive – I know there’s a bit of a racket looking to cash in on some of the sights and sounds I’m encouraging you to take in. (I’m picturing Charlie Brown admonishing me for over-commercializing Christmas – thunk-thunk on the metal tree). And, while I’m a bit of an off-beat, boutique shopper, myself, and while I abhor crowds, there is still something magical about just standing still in the Macy’s on 34th Street and knowing that Santa Clause once worked there.
When you travel a lot for work, the very last thing you want to do on the weekends and holidays is deal with airports. I honestly wouldn’t mind being teleported places – truly, I like discovering new places. It’s just the getting there (and back) that starts to wear on me. So, when it comes to anniversaries – that one time a year that belongs JUST to the 2 of you, your spouse can start to feel pretty second-rate when you say (again), let’s just have a quiet dinner at home. So, staycations start to look pretty good: first-class accomodations, pampering spa treatments, sitting in a hammock by the lake breathing in natural beauty…..ready to plan a romantic, low-stress getaway? Lemme show you around.
So, I can see some husbands’ eyes roll when they hear: Let’s plan a spa vacation. I mean, that’s where you go to have a girls’ weekend, right? RIGHT – if you can assure me of the following:
You don’t enjoy all-inclusive meals and snacks; made to order (with access to wine and champagne accompaniment)
You’re averse to water sports (e.g. kayaking, stand-up paddling, canoeing, ….sun-bathing)
You don’t like to swim – and, especially not in a variety of indoor and outdoor pools
You have no interest in working out, stretching, or long guided hikes in nature
Reading a book by the lake doesn’t appeal to you
Lying down on a heated-water massage table while skilled technicians massage out the stress of work sounds unappealing
Cooking demonstrations by chefs who only need you to lift a fork (taking in more food and wine) don’t interest you
Retiring to your private, well-appointed room with a video from the extensive free lending library just doesn’t compare to watching “Law and Order” on your own couch
Are we on the same page now? I mean, what’s not to love, right? We happen to be lucky enough to live within driving distance of Condé Nast’s #1 spa destination in America. Every time we go, though, we meet people from around the US, so it’s most certainly not just locals or people who find it convenient. I’ve been indulging in their luxury – on a day-pass basis – for years. And, taking even a day to strip off your normal daily routine to don a robe, sit in peace and just “be” while you get a facial, a massage and EXCELLENT food, can nourish your soul. Becoming an overnight guest is something that’s been a special treat my husband and I give each other once a year. I think you have to have these special getaways that belong only to you. They don’t have to be the same place over and over – maybe it’s the theme you enjoy and don’t invest in everyday – like maybe you want to take in a cruise once a year from a nearby port where you float around for a few nights only to arrive back at the same spot. Or, maybe you like a cabin in the woods when it’s snowy. When you combine work travel with visiting-the-kids travel, it all adds up to a lot of one of you gets left behind, or a lot of playing Mom & Dad. Regardless, it’s nice to unplug and remind yourself why this is the person you picked to share your life with.
For us, the spa theme works well because when done well, like at Lake Austin Spa Report, it’s the ultimate indulgence: As much aloneness as we want, as much involvement as we want (there are lots of group activities if you’re interested) and as much pampering as we want. If I’m completely honest, massages and facials as a matter of routine are a necessity. But, driving through traffic to get to my appointment, sitting for an hour or so, while “is there anything at home for dinner?” and “did I reply to that e-mail?” plays through my head leaves me feeling a little conflicted at times: Was this just another thing I had to squeeze into my day? It’s certainly not a tooth extraction or a trip to the DMV. Wow – I’m seriously complaining about how to find just the right amount of pampering to count….. But, my POINT is that waking up and thinking “all I have to do today is a hike and a facial” is a very different paradigm.
Obviously, spa destinations haven’t cornered the market on romantic getaways. America’s playground – Las Vegas isn’t a bad spot for a couples’ getaway. And, most people can manage to get there non-stop, which is at least helpful. It’s not all gambling, smoking and bad choices. It can also be fine dining, amazing shopping, extraordinary food and live entertainment – of quality. Here’s what I mean:
Pools – lovely pools open all day and right up until it’s time to go to dinner….just sit, read, people-watch. They’ll bring you food and beverages if you ask
Shopping – not the cheesy fashion malls (note: If it says ‘fashion’ on the outside, be dubious)
Bellagio – always the first place I head for window shopping and, let’s be honest – shopping shopping
Craft cocktails – Sweeping Las Vegas as they are the rest of the world right now. Nonetheless, a much quieter Vegas than what normally springs to mind, and a relaxing pre- or post-dinner pastime
Excellent meals – Can you find cheesy restaurants in Las Vegas, yes. Can you find buffets, yes. Do you have to, no. There’s a Le Cirque and a French Laundry there. Picasso has actual Picassos hanging on the wall. Sure, every chain has a presence there – you don’t have to eat at them. Look for the gems – they’re there.
Live entertainment – Yep – there’re talentless topless shows. I’m not trying to trick you. But, you can find amazing shows, too, because entertainers go where people go and people go to Vegas – Elton John, “Love” featuring Beatles’ music and extraordinary French-Canadian acrobats, most touring bands (e.g. checkout who’s playing at Brooklyn Bowl). If you want cheesy, you won’t have to look far. And, we’ve certainly squeezed in our fair share of stars from our youth: Donny & Marie, Olivia Newton John….but, we manage to strike a balance.
What does all this have to with business travel? Well, I’m glad you asked. Because we’ve had a million little get aways and staycations thanks to business travel – Hyatt, Marriott, Hilton….have you looked at what all they own these days? You’d be surprised – historic hotels are now in their ranks even. So, formerly privately owned places you’ve always wanted to stay…..are now only points away. (Royal Hawaiian on Waikiki, now part of Marriott….I’m heading your way again soon) So, download their apps, monitor your points and see what might be available to you for FREE. Here are some ideas:
Book a lazy-river kinda weekend: Hyatt Resorts – very generous with the points and gracious (in my experience) with their loyal members, have honored us on numerous weekends with free amenities for being loyal customers even when, and maybe especially when, paying with points.
How about a night on the town: Marriott – Downtown has a new feel when you’re empty nesters. Drive 10min to downtown, check into a lovely, urban resort, sit at a rooftop pool, take in a spa service or 2 and then hit the town. Which is to say, a fine dinner and an early evening. In MOST cases. But, maybe it’s New Year’s Eve or a live event and you won’t want to drive or head home early. Relax, treat yourself.
Rent a house and work remotely for a few days: Airbnb has many options for couples with dogs – I wouldn’t want to take the kids on a romantic excursion (no offense kids…you wouldn’t want to come anyway), but the dog is THRILLED to come with us. He’s been on 2 whole vacations, you know…he’s quite well-traveled.
And, while I really wanted to talk about the value of a staycation, which even in its briefest form, can be restorative, I end on a note of: stock up on your points and work your miles. I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve looked at each other on a Thursday night and said: Do you have any points we could use for the weekend? Those are some of the BEST weekends. Your credit cards really can work to your advantage if you use them wisely, too. You’re spending the money anyway – why not put it on a card that will reward you with free nights or free airfare (just don’t incur interest or fees). It takes discipline, but doesn’t everything? I’m not eating a Justin’s almond butter cup right now because of discipline – it can’t all be fun and games; I drank the extra glass of wine – I’m not a masochist.
This is what I’ve learned: it’s important to just BE. Live in the moment – appreciate your surroundings. Enjoy the people you’ve chosen to spend your life with. Even the most staid and stoic partners need some variety – and, so does a relationship enjoy a change of scenery. Use your travel savvy and make a weekend special. It doesn’t have to be a huge endeavor and if you’re smart, you can even off-set the cost. But, the memories are yours to keep – at no additional cost.
Going to Paris for work cannot begin and end with a business meeting. My trip began with an historic side trip and ended with an extravagant, no holds barred, break-neck tour of all things Paris – with a business meeting sandwiched in the middle. And, with the 7 hours time-difference from US Central time zone, you can awaken in Paris, catch up on yesterday’s events state-side before getting dressed, and still manage to squeeze in touring while the states are sleeping. It’s an ideal situation for a work-play balanced trip. If planned well, you can keep a handle on everything back home/work and still accomplish superior sightseeing.
In this post, I’m going to discuss:
To tour or not to tour (with a guide)
Planning an ambitious itinerary
Selecting your launch point
I’m often asked whether I recommend booking tours for various places. In most cases, I d0 book a tour – and, I’ll tell you why. When I used to take my son places, there was so much I wanted to show him wherever we were going. My niece calls this: March or Die. I quickly learned that dragging him through each adventure was, while totally worth it in the end, WORK during my VACATION. So, I started turning it over to professionals. Can you pick where to go, what to see, and even enhance the experience with historical context? Of course you can, but for an added fee, someone else can do that FOR you (and your party) without your having to wear your bossy pants all day. Enter Viator, owned by TripAdvisor.
I’ve talked up TripAdvisor before. I find them to be a thoroughly well-informed app (crowd-sourced) that helps me pick where/what to see, stay, and eat within a city or even a neighborhood based on users’ reviews. I’ve written nearly 300 reviews myself. Their enhancements to include tours and restaurant reservations has been well worth it for me. Between them and Airbnb Experiences, I don’t have to look very hard to find someone who will come collect me, tour me, and bring me back again – and give me a pocket full of local tips and recommendations to boot. I’ve yet to ever book a trip through a travel tour company. They call to mind old couples with matching shoulder bags emblazoned with the tour company’s name so that they’re easily identifiable moving in lock-step with strangers onto buses and into hotels in unison. Rather Viator’s and Airbnb Experience’s individualized tours have become a great way for me to preserve the sanctity and serenity of my vacations while missing NOTHING. My vacation goals: Think less, worry less, organize less, enjoy more.
“If we arrive a day early, we could go to Normandy”, said my friend. My dad flew over Normandy on D-Day, so I was like: Yes, please. But, everyone’s always told me how far away from Paris Normandy is and everyone I know who’s gone has rented a car (ugh – driving). Once there, it’s a beach with a cemetery. This sounds like a lot to organize….there’s a solution for this.
Collected us from our hotel and brought us back in time for dinner
Told us great stories along the way
Provided cultural context about France and current events
Gave us tips and recommendations for restaurants, sights
Stopped along the way for refreshments
Took us to a local lunchery while in Normandy
Personally toured us through the cemetery, beaches and 2 museums
Shifted gears to accommodate poor weather – what a pain that would’ve been on our own….
It wasn’t cheap, but it was 100% worth it. Look at all we got (above). These same friends took a similar Viator tour to Giverny and were equally satisfied. Again, Giverny is a place other friends had rented a car to visit – that’s really not what I want to do on vacation, but that’s a personal preference. I think you pay for the convenience of being pampered – and, the private tours on Viator provide pampering in my opinion.
Fast-forward to our aggressive itinerary. You can see (if you blow it up like 200%) that we blended guided tours with individual exploration. Our guide for Normandy said: You’ll never accomplish all of that. Nay-nay, we TOTALLY did.
We arranged our days by neighborhood to save transit time
Pick your days based on when attractions in that area are open. My first draft had us going to museums on days they were closed….not helpful.
We bought skip-the-line passes everywhere
If you buy combo tickets, be sure to read the fine-print/rules regarding when and how the tickets are valid – e.g. do they have to be used on consecutive days
We pre-arranged guides to the larger, busier, more overwhelming places
Versailles, The Louvre, Montmartre (where we didn’t really know what we wanted to do)
Guides hit the highlights – he/she knows his way around and explains what you’re looking at saving you time reading plaques, maps, guidebooks
We toured smaller sights on our own
L’Orangerie, Musée Cluny, The Conciergerie
Timewise – if I can explore a place efficiently without a guide, that’s my route – we spent only 30min in some places
We really only had 1-2 planned/timed events per day
Perhaps most importantly, we stayed in a great location. In talking with friends with a lot of experience in Paris, the Marais was most highly recommended as our launching point. It didn’t disappoint. We got an Airbnb directly across from the Picasso Museum (a great landmark for Uber drivers) and walkable to a variety of shops, groceries, cafes, bars, macarons….. It was a short Uber to anywhere and a longer, but doable walk to tons of places from St. Germain to the Tuileries. We even meandered back from the Louvre on foot one day – so much to look at along the way.
To further economize time, we did a lot of walking and Ubering. While the metro is very accessible (and economical) in Paris, we opted to not be on a train schedule and dependent on specific drop-off and pick-up stations. There’s a bit of a trade-off here, though, because traffic in Paris is notoriously bad. Use the CityMapper app and weigh your options. Information is key – you have lot of alternatives. Of note – there are some local ride-hailing services in Paris. I tried a couple and found Uber to be easier for ME – it informed me ahead whether the driver spoke English, tracked their location on the app more precisely, etc. We also found cabs to be equivalent in price within the core of the city. So, if you’re wanting to be picked up and there’s a cab nearby – hop in. For the business portion of our trip, we stayed 3 km outside of the city limits in a part of town called La Défense – expensive to get in and out of, difficult to navigate on foot and impossible by car (professional drivers made circles for 20min almost every time we got dropped off). You can probably save money by lodging out a bit, but you’ll make up the difference in cost getting to and fro and in aggravation in my opinion.
Feel more like flying by the seat of your pants? A kind of non-schedule is “vacation” to some people and I get that. There are options for that, too. Lots of services allow you 24-hour cancellation without penalty. Viator is one of those, surprisingly. One friend recommends the Hop On/Hop Off buses. They go everywhere – once you buy the pass, it can be free transportation all over the city. There’s also Paris Walks. They have a set schedule that they post and those walks occur whether you’re there or not. Interested in one of their many 2-hour walks? Just show up at the train station they designate and join (you pay cash at the start). I’ve used their London-based sister too often to count and across a WIDE swath of topics from gardens, to museums, Ripper locations and cultural neighborhood tours. They’re just as knowledgeable in my experience to include experts by passion, education and even licensure. Relax and enjoy the freedom of being less committed upfront – wait, we’re still talking about tours and not relationships……right…?
Great things await you in this world if you are open to them. I know tons of people who travel to amazing locations for business, but don’t see anything beyond the airport and the hotel. Please don’t be one of those people – travel is a gift. Choose how to embrace it.
Think that the Happiest Place on Earth is any less happy when you’re there for work? It doesn’t have to be. There are lots of options if you’re in the area for work and with a little know-how, you can treat yourself to a mini vacation after hours that doesn’t break the bank or leave you feeling deprived of fun.
So, I’ll admit – traveling to Florida for work can feel like a real drag at times. I remember once when I was sitting in the hotel dining room for breakfast, wearing a suit, hoisting my briefcase over my shoulder and suddenly having the sensation that I was the only person in the whole room who was NOT on vacation. This feeling is increased exponentially if you’re staying near Disney World in Orlando and the same is true if you’re working in Anaheim, CA near Disneyland. I’m such a die-hard fan of these parks, though, I’ve gotten to where I just embrace it and stay on-site whenever possible – even if I’m not able to go to the parks during the day, which is a given unless you take the day off. But, this way you can absorb some of the vibe after hours at no additional cost. There are in fact many options.
So, let’s say you’re in Orlando and you want to ride some rides. Disney World has just launched afternoon and evening tickets at a reduced price. Fall and Spring are 2 times of the year that you can really enjoy the parks as a grown-up without being inundated by families (I’m usually one of those families, so I’m not discriminating), which means you can get a LOT more done in only a few hours. Arrive by 6pm, ride some rides, maybe take in some fireworks or a show or 2, and then head over to one of restaurants for dinner. Going for dinner AFTER rides buys you a little extra time even if the parks are closing early that day because restaurants stay open later than general park hours. Putting dinner at the end of your visit makes the most of the time you’re there for all of the other attractions.
If you don’t care about rides, try heading to Disney Springs, which offers more stores, restaurants and entertainment venues than you can really imagine and there’s NO admission required. Anyone is welcome. But, make no mistake – they’re affiliated with the parks. If you’re a park guest with a meal plan, your plan is good at these restaurants. Many of the stores sell exclusive park merchandise, too, so you’re not dealing with knock-off souvenirs, or the “I just picked this up at the airport” version, which is legit merch in many cases, but let’s face it – a little like cheating. There’s no line to get into Disney Springs and the same is true of Downtown Disney at Disneyland. However, Downtown Disney in California and Disney’s Boardwalk in Florida have something unique about them – they’re nestled amongst some of the on-property hotels where you can enjoy the sights and sounds of the parks, too. Treat yourself to an excellent dinner at one of the free-standing restaurants and then maybe take in some dueling piano bar action, for example. You’ll quickly forget that you’re traveling on business. Your FOMO will be banished – because you actually ARE having fun. And, still getting the job done.
The Disney resorts (aka hotels) are spectacular. And, their restaurants are extraordinary. They’re usually expensive, but in my opinion, they’re also held accountable for a very high-quality experience. Take the time my friend and I popped into California Grill at Disney’s Contemporary Hotel without reservations or park passes. We waited a bit for a table (~an hour?), but we had cocktails while waiting, so it’s a little hard to tell. When they finally grabbed us to say they had a 2-top open up, but that it was only 4 feet away in the lounge area, we thought: Oh, this didn’t pan out too well. But, the picture above was taken during the Magic Kingdom evening fireworks – I don’t think there was a better table in the house. And, the dinner was fabulous. Another time, we wandered over to Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort to duck into Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto – talk about an escapist experience. Work was instantly OVER for the day! They have a similar bar/restaurant at the Disneyland Hotel in California, in fact that was the inspiration. And, it’s similarly free to get into.
“All of our dreams come true if we have the courage to pursue them.”
Here’s a great option and the one that I’ve come to tap into the most lately – do your work and THEN grab a like-minded colleague and pick up a night or 2 yourself at a park hotel. It’s barely a splurge if you’re able to split the hotel expense. And, your airfare is covered by the business trip, right, so it’s really quite economical? If you’re not traveling M-F, you’re probably saving the company a little bit of money, too, with the Saturday night stayover. There are so many fun reasons to be a kid again for a day – or, be an adult by indulging in excellent food, wine and shopping sans itty-bitties. As I mentioned, not only is the fall a great time for the parks, but you can take in the transition of the parks as they transform themselves for Halloween and then for Christmas. I really think the parks are at their finest during these phases – and, they go on for a long time each year. Plenty of time for a savvy business traveler like you to sneak a peak before the holiday travelers arrive (e.g. Christmas starts happening on Nov 8th….they just need the briefest breather after Halloween).
There are so many events every year, ONE of them is right for you:
Food & Wine Festival (Sep – Nov)
Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween (Sep – Nov)
Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas (Nov – Dec)
Disney Marathon Weekend (Jan)
International Festival of the Arts (Jan – Feb)
International Flower and Garden Festival (Mar – June)
…….and, these are just what’s happening in Florida. California does much of the same.
And, this doesn’t take into account all the little touches they do for day-of holidays like St. Patrick’s Day. I was once in Orlando for a meeting that ended on March 16th, so a travel partner and I thought: Why travel on St. Patty’s when we could just move over to Disney World for a day? There’s no month-long build-up to this long feted holiday where EVERYONE is Irish for the day. Yet, there was no shortage of green beer (extra stands set up every few feet) and Irish bands played all day to a less and less intelligible, kilt-clad crowd on March 17th.
It’s also possible that your conference center is a Good Neighbor Hotel and they offer free transportation to and from the parks and discounted park tickets. I’ve attended more than one large meeting at Caribe Royale and, while it’s not an official Disney property, they are in fact a good neighbor – you’ll hardly know the difference and you should certainly take advantage of how easy they make it to indulge. True story – I once took my family along to a conference at this resort when my son was very young and while we were there, he came down with the WORST double ear infection. The park shuttled us to a pediatrician who saw us quickly, then they kindly took us back to the hotel to rest. They even carried my husband to a local pharmacy to fill the scrip. All at no charge – the parks and their Good Neighbors take hospitality to a new level.
I’m clearly a fan and I have work colleagues who are similarly fans – or, we’re all enablers….it’s really impossible to discern. But, even if you think you don’t “like” Disney – Do you like great food? Do you like fun drinks? Do you like to be around people having fun? Let loose, get lost in a little bit of theme for the moment and get back to your regular routine the next day (or, Monday if you’re lucky). There’s always time to be an adult – take a MINUTE and be a kid again.
I have a friend who orders mussels everywhere we go. Has for years. To me, they always seemed like a huge bowl of piping hot, black …shells. However, I was lured by the promise of fries served with mayo. Who knew, she’s been right all this time – but, I had to go to Belgium to discover it.
As mentioned in an earlier post, I had previously only spent a little over a day in Bruges (this time last year actually) and I fell head over heels in love with it. So, 6 months later, I returned with a friend for her birthday. She wasn’t sure about spending an entire week in Bruges (that’s fair), but I’d looked into Brussels and Antwerp and I didn’t want to spend 1/2 a week in either, so we compromised – we’d hit all 3, with Bruges being the grand finale. It was a rousing success – each stop held something enticing, but Bruges truly was the icing on the cake.
Brussels: HQ for the EU. Major metropolitan city. Home of Mannken Pis. We stayed at the exquisite Hilton Brussels Grand Place, which is directly in front of Central Train Station. I’ve praised the power of brand loyalty before, but here it REALLY paid off. Most of our accommodations on this sojourn were covered by my friend’s points. Not only did Hilton have rooms for us at no charge, as the Hilton Honors program promises, but they upgraded us in honor of her achieved level. That’s a very square deal. Loyalty pays off – there are lots of times that I want local flavor and something truly unique, but give serious consideration to establishing consistency for the benefit of points if nothing else. This Hilton location was ideal for getting around on foot as we were easily walkable to Grand Place (shocking – since it’s in the name….). You’ll scoff a little when I tell you that Grand Place at night, when it’s all lit up, people are milling around with beer & wine in hand, and there’s live music wafting in the air….it feels a little like St. Mark’s Square. I know, I know – but, TRUST me. I didn’t say full-on reminds me, just is a little reminiscent of. Anyway, on the square, we were directed by our concierge to ‘T Kelderke for mussels and frites. Word to the wise, don’t call them “french fries” in Belgium. Who exactly invented them is still somewhat contentious – so, just call them frites. Nonetheless – we wanted the whole spread – mussels, frites, the fabled mayo on fries (which I fully endorse), and flemish asparagus. We were in heaven – the aroma, the flavor – garlic, white wine – we ate our fill and BARELY had enough energy to drag our satiated bellies back to our stylish hotel bar, which was showing classic films. #heaven
I’ll be frank – if you’re not going to Brussels with shopping in mind, just go somewhere else. Built in the mid-19th century, this shopping mall draws you in with the promise of extravagance. Each window is expertly adorned. The shops are perfectly curated for a mix between clothes, chocolates, restaurants, home decor, hand-made leather gloves….I could go on. There’s something beautiful to see, or taste, at every turn. Then, there’s the Place du Grand Sablon. I had every intention of buying myself a diamond necklace in Antwerp because 84% of the world’s diamonds travel through Antwerp. However, walking around Grand Sablon, I happened onto a jewelry merchant with whom I connected and came to trust – that’s key when you’re buying jewelry. FYI: There are no amazing deals out there on jewelry – the internet’s just about everywhere….everyone (wholesalers and retailers) knows what everyone else is selling and for how much….. But, do you love the piece, trust the person you’re buying from and did you do your homework? If the answer is yes to each one of those and you’re happy with the price. Buy. Having worked in the jewelry business myself and having seen people get taken in the past, I was so far beyond skeptical – and, I always am.
If you’re thinking of buying diamonds abroad, here’s my advice:
Don’t get talked into stones that are TOO clear or TOO colorless
Unless you just have SO much money to spend that it doesn’t matter; that’s cool, too.
Personally, how close are people going to get to my neck? – an H, I, J is plenty white for me, and SI 2 clarity was perfect – the main inclusion is actually hidden by one of the prongs
Make sure the stone comes with a GIA grading report
I compared the details they gave me with the GIA grading report that was posted on-line (there’s a tracking #); they matched
The GIA grading report has a # engraved on the girdle of the stone – I made the poor guy read me the number AFTER it was set to ensure I got the same stone that had been graded by GIA
Walk away even if for just a second and ask yourself if you’ll be more happy having the piece or the cash – if you’re ambivalent, just keep walking.
IGI (International Gemological Institute) is not GIA
Shall I spare you all the clothes shopping we did in Antwerp? Alright, but there was much. Why don’t I tell you about Peter Paul Rubens instead – Would that be a nice change of pace? If you don’t like religious art, then I’m afraid you’re still out of luck. However, the artistry is nothing short of extraordinary. I know nothing formally about art, but I know that when I look at a Rubens next to a piece by another artist, his use of perspective, human emotion and warmth set him apart. There are several places to see his work in Antwerp, but Cathedral of our Lady offers at least 3 that you won’t want to miss. If you have to economize your time, I say go to that one and THEN start hitting the beer scene in Antwerp. You will have covered all your bases.
I’m convinced that I’ll never get all of Bruges down in only one post. I’ve praised the lodging in an earlier post: De Castillion Hotel Bruges. Everyone I send here is knocked out of their socks. I exaggerate you not.
In the Martin McDonagh movie “In Bruges“, which incidentally isn’t entirely well-received here, Ralf Fiennes repeatedly says that Bruges is ‘an effing fairytale, it is’…… and, that’s absolutely true. It’s a medieval village. Wander its streets, its squares, its river banks, eat its chocolate, see the actual blood of Christ. Bruges is a popular weekend destination for Europeans. If you have the option to avoid Friday-Sunday, I recommend it. If you’re trying to decide between Bruges and Ghent – they’re probably similar – yet, Bruges has decided to NOT allow commercial water traffic, so that seems a little better preserved in my opinion. Not judging, just saying. That’s my $0.02.
Old St. John’s Hospital – it’s an art museum, garden, and pharmacy museum. You’ll be glad to learn that ambulances have advanced since the 1100s. Their pharmacy served the community from the 17th century to the 1970s. Yeah, you read that right. And, there’s a painting there that shows the pharmacy in its early days – it hasn’t changed much. Doesn’t that trip you out when you see a painting of a room you’re standing in, yet the painting shows it filled with people in garb centuries older than your own? Same ROOM – it’s the closest we can come to actual time travel. I love that.
The Begijnhof – So peaceful, so serene – it’s silent. Literally. Do you know what a Beguines is? Read about them – it’s interesting. After the crusades, many women were left without men to provide for them, so the communities had to do something. They lived in these convent-ish settings like nuns, but didn’t take vows. The Beguines are gone now and it’s an actual convent. I wandered in while they were chanting their prayers in the chapel one day. Mesmerizing.
Wonder why I skipped over any elaboration of the Bruges Madonna above? That’s because there’s no better way to understand why you have to see her than to watch “Monuments Men“. It’s a movie directed by and starring George Clooney. (Is that enough – shall I just close now?) If you like history, it’s thoroughly enjoyable. The movie itself isn’t a great work of art – I doubt it will become a classic, but if you’re heading to Bruges, it’s a must see. You have to appreciate the power of art over time – whether the ‘good’ guys or the ‘bad’ guys, people have vied for it and fought over it since its inception. This particular piece also happens to be the only Michelangelo sculpture to have ever left Italy during his lifetime. Art and how it has been received over time, its place in the world, and how its world intersects with my own moves me. I hope it does you.
“I’m half-Irish, half-Dutch, and I was born in Belgium. If I was a dog, I’d be in a hell of a mess!”
We had just scheduled our 2nd trip to Singapore when the idea of a weekend in Bangkok occurred to us. When you’re heading to Asia anyway…..why not? But, Thailand seemed exotic and extravagant. I consulted an expert – a work colleague born and raised in Singapore, who has traveled to Thailand many times. She encouraged it wholeheartedly and her experience of traveling to Bangkok gave me the confidence I needed to set out on a new itinerary.
What we’ll cover in this post:
Planning an itinerary
Sights to consider
Local tour guides
Movie & book suggestions
So, Logistics. As I said, we had just penciled in our travel plans for Singapore – so, the cost of going there just for the meeting was already on the books, so to speak. The dance of the ethical business traveler is always how to navigate your excursion such that it’s cost-neutral to the company. Anything else is entirely inappropriate and I don’t condone it. So, that said – I’ll use the cost of booking Singapore at today’s rates as an appropriate example:
Austin to Bangkok across 2 main carriers was ~$2,000
Austin to Bangkok time-wise ranged from 27-41 hours
Going straight to Singapore saved ~$1,000 & about 5-15 hours
The math became pretty obvious – we’d stick with Singapore roundtrip for work and do a completely separate excursion to Bangkok. Two things to always watch out for – the time involved in the cheaper fares, and use of smaller airports. My time is worth a lot (to me). And, if you start using smaller airports, getting there can cost a lot of time, and there are fewer people keeping the lights on in the airport – the larger the airport, the more people paying in, the lower the cost in a LOT of cases (this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule). Another advantage to the business traveler who bolts on a completely separate (economically) excursion is how tidy the expenses work out. In this case, we were getting to Singapore for work, the minute we connected to fly to Bangkok, it was our dime until we got back to Singapore. This relieves a lot of headache.
Now – carriers. I like the checks and balances of the larger airlines. Right now, I’m only United Premier Silver because my carrier of choice is Southwest. Until they bring Asia a little closer, Southwest just isn’t going to hook me up. (Hey, it could happen – we’re going to Hawaii now) And, the dreaded 2-4-2 configuration in United’s Business Class is not my idea of comfort for an 18-hour flight. The “2” seats together require the person at the window to climb over the person on the aisle in order to reach the bathroom (this made for a very challenging flight from HongKong for me once). And, in the “4” seats, you have strangers on either side of you with NO barriers while you’re trying to sleep (Hello, please understand that I didn’t intentionally try to spoon you……). Polaris has changed all of that. (Tip: pick the odd-numbered Polaris rows if you’re traveling with a friend or a spouse) However, Singapore Airlines has been doing it right even in coach-class for awhile now. They were the first to offer nonstop to Singapore out of San Francisco (~16hours nonstop) and now they offer nonstop from Newark (~18.5hours). The level of service is exceptional – attentive, courteous, helpful….I’m a devotee for Singapore Airlines. Would I like to fly these guys? Or, these guys? Why, YES, I would. But, for my money and for where I’ve been traveling, Singapore Air has been the highest level of service to Asia. They did not disappoint when it came to regional travel within Asia, either.
So, you’re familiar with the premise of “The King and I”, right? Winner of 5 Academy Awards including best actor for Yul Brynner and featuring Rita Moreno (future EGOT) – both representing characters of ethnicities not quite their own… that’s how Hollywood did things back then…. Nonetheless, the King of Thailand was the great-grandson of the King depicted in the movie. (That makes the current King, the great-great-grandson). And, if you’ll recall, Yul Brynner’s version of the King depicts a man who’s flawed in at least a few ways. That’s apparently not the way King Bhumibol Adulyadej enjoyed having a monarch of Thailand displayed. And, I’m not going to put the fault entirely on Yul’s back – the monarchy apparently isn’t fond of the book, either. BOTH are banned in Thailand – as is speaking ill of the royal family, so I guess they go hand-in-hand. So, feel free to read/watch to get into the mood of visiting. I found the history and grandeur depicted in both to heighten my excitement for visiting and they both (maybe the book more so) emphasized that I was going somewhere very far away – geographically and idealogically. At least from a historical perspective – here’s a place that’s Buddhist in most cases with a LONG history of building temples, which they lavish with jewels and delectable offerings that demonstrate their devotion to various representations of Buddha. They believe that care and devotion to the right representation can affect all aspects of their lives and conditions. That’s rich and intriguing. From a female perspective – the multiple wives and how they’re regarded was not by favorite topic and not one I idealized in any capacity – but, again, it gave me insight into what I was about to experience. Knowledge is power – no amount of looking into where you’re about to go is a waste. If you’re about to go to Thailand, I encourage you look into these titles. However, given the Thai perspective, I ditched the book in an airport prior to arrival.
Behind a bend of the Maenam, the entire town of Bangkok appeared in sight. I do not believe that there is a sight in the world more magnificent or more striking. This Asiatic Venice…
Ludovic Marquis de Beauvoir
“Auspicious” is a recurring theme throughout a lot of Asian cultures – begin a shrine on an auspicious day; place a specific icon in an auspicious part of your house….all of these things speak to bringing good favor to you and your surroundings. So, what does it mean to arrive in a country on its most IN-auspicious day? We arrived on the day their beloved King, ruler for 66 years, died. The nation instantly entered into a year of mourning. Stores tucked their colorful garments away so that customers could stock up on black clothing – they’d need it everyday for the next 365. Bars and nightclubs were dark (for the most part) and many of the temples were closed. The one I most wanted to see, The Temple of the Emerald Buddha, would be closed during our entire stay and then some.
So, this leads me to what I most want to tell you about planning a trip to Bangkok – get a professional tour guide. I’ve recommended Thai Tour Guide many times. I can’t say enough good things about Mr. Oat, our guide for 2 days (although I’ve had friends be assigned different guides with the same positive results). For starters, Mr. Oat picked us up and had totally re-arranged how we’d spend our days together now that some of our destinations were no longer open to the public. Our priorities were the Maeklong Railway Market and a Floating Market. And, we wanted to see a variety of temples around Bangkok. Done – he had this under control. Had we been on our own, we would’ve spun our wheels and maybe been paralyzed – honestly, the place was a bit disorienting at that point in history. All TV stations (including CNN and MTV) were showing nothing but around-the-clock remembrances of the King (state-approved, mind you). Throngs of people were disrupting traffic to make offerings at the palace….the whole trip might’ve been a wash.
What’s a railway market? One minute, you’re shopping for food, clothes, provisions, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera at the Maeklong Railway Market – and, the next, the vendors are hurriedly pushing back their displays and folding in their awnings – the train is literally about to roll right over the spot where we’re standing. Everyone squishes in tightly to allow it to pass and there’s VERY little room to spare. I can’t over-state how exceptionally close it comes to you. I hope this pic conveys, but you really have to be there to appreciate it. Zip-zap closed for business – zap-zip, game back on. Why do they put up with this? Economics – the vendors who never have to move in from the train have to pay rent. You’ve never seen anything like this – please plan to go if you have the means. And, get a guide like Mr. Oat – the ride is about an hour from Bangkok as I recall and air conditioning is a MUST. And, if you’re off by even 5min, you miss the whole thing – he’ll tell you when you need to leave your hotel, ensure you stop along the way at safe spots for Americanized bathrooms and coffee, secure money machines, etc. You really must have a guide.
There are many floating markets in and around Bangkok. Instead of investing in real-estate, or renting a booth, just have a boat and float around selling what you produce. The woman in the picture above produces mango sticky rice. If you’re not currently a diabetic (you might become one after too many of these…), you must try this. They use purple glutinous rice, which I think they boil in salt water. Then, they add what’s probably sweetened condensed milk and the freshest most beautiful mangoes. When you walk into markets in Bangkok, there’s an overwhelming, I’ll say putrid, smell – that’s mango. People tried to tell me it was durian fruit. No doubt that stinks to high heaven, but durian fruit’s almost always under wraps for that reason – the smell I really dislike is mango. But, when it’s in season and fresh and ESPECIALLY in Thailand – I’ll muscle through and eat me some mango. This is a treat you’ll dream about later.
I could go on about Bangkok – but, I’ll just give a few quick shout outs. There are many places to stay and quite a few of my friends recommended places that were secluded and away from what is, I’ll be honest, a little seedy, when visiting Bangkok. Most of my friends have stayed in Riverside for just that reason. However, it requires you to take a water taxi if you want to come to shops, restaurants, night markets and clubs in Bangkok proper. The wait time for water taxis and the traffic involved just didn’t seem feasible for a weekend. I highly recommend the Oriental Residence Bangkok. My Singaporean colleague who proved to be our Thai mentor recommended we stay in-town to make the most of our time. There was a huge train station nearby this Embassy Row hotel. So, we had access to anywhere. Being next door to the Holland Embassy, we felt very safe. And, the lobby, suites, restaurants, gyms – all state of the art – other properties should take a lesson. These people are top-notch. The price is un-real….google it and see (e.g. $116-ish/night). The dollar buys a lot of Thai Bhat. And, while you’re there, do not miss out on a true Thai massage. If you wander out for food, no doubt you’ll see young men offering Thai massage left and right – that’s not what I mean. I’m thinking along the lines of this. If you haven’t done the math already, 2,000 Thai Bhat for a classical Thai Massage at Rarinjinda is $64. Let me elaborate on what that includes: Tea ceremony before-hand, a private room, the use of silk pajamas, at least an hour of the most magnificent massage you’ve ever had, and a mango sticky rice ceremony after. Lamenting your typical massage experience at home right about now? You should be.
The purpose of my blog is not to plan your days in and around Bangkok, but to tell you how to make a quick trip meaningful, worthwhile and DOABLE. Thailand was a long weekend for us. I hope you’ll consider it the next time your work takes you to that part of the world. I’m MORE than eager to return. Next time, I hope to tack on Chiang Mai.
Starting from within Europe springboards a long weekend – just add trains. The idea hit from around a conference table when a new idea offered potential: We’d all be in the idyllic village of Marlow (near London) at a meeting ending on a Thursday afternoon. Why not head out by train and see a little? Checking the rail lines, and tapping into personal experience from UK-based colleagues, we put together the following itinerary: London, Lille, Bruges & Amsterdam. Easy….well, sorta.
What we’ll discuss in this post:
Planning an itinerary; with fall-back plans
Tips on travel tools
Restaurant & Cocktails advice
Sights to consider
Why don’t we take a few extra days and REALLY see some stuff? That was the question on the table. Essentially, my boss never takes vacation, so we wanted an itinerary that even she would agree was economical (time-wise). And, another in our 4-man crew, that didn’t actually include any men, was diametrically opposed to just spending a weekend in Paris (we’ve since addressed and resolved that opposition – more to come later). So, there you have it – we set out.
Have you ever been to Marlow? I’d never heard of it before I started traveling there for work. When you arrive in London, you’re really in the thick of a busy, modern travel frenzy. But, about 1 hour by car, you leave all that behind and fall back at least a century to Marlow. This is a 700+ year-old town along the Thames where an unassuming little bridge connecting our hotel to shopping and dining is passable by only 1 car at a time – each just patiently waits his turn. It’s very civilized – we never fail to remark on how that scenario might play out in New Jersey (…no judgment).
There are several options for lodging in Marlow, but my favorite is the Compleat Angler. Situated along the water, you can sit and think, read, have a glass of wine or a peaceful breakfast (highly recommend their breakfasts). Goal #1: Work hard – but, when you have the chance to forget you’re at work TAKE IT. Anyway – it’s an adorable, quirky hotel with twists and turns everywhere you go. You’ll take several stairways just to get to and from your room – some might be 3 steps, others might be a whole flight. There will be many. Pack your strength for hauling luggage. Quaint comes at a price and this one is well worth it.
Anyway – Marlow was our jumping off point. Nonetheless – I’d highly recommend visiting these villages around London (e.g. Windsor, anyone?) – each has its own unique charm. In my opinion, we don’t pause long enough to appreciate the little differences:
Towel warmers in every bathroom even in the most meager accommodations.
Nespresso is pretty standard fare in European hotel rooms, whereas it’s pretty luxe in the states.
Have you ever noticed how unbelievably efficient electric kettles can be? I really marvel over the stupid little things.
Country #1: United Kingdom
Our official first stop was London – and, this brings me to one of my FAVORITE hotels, the Zetter Townhouse in Clerkenwell. I’ve stayed here about 4 times since a good friend from college revealed this little gem to me. Each room is different and perfectly appointed. I’ve recommended it now to dozens of people – many of whom stayed, as well as drank, here and RAVED about it. The service is very warm and personal. I’ll admit – I love when a hotel pretends to know me – I say pretends because: Do you really think that seeing me once a year stands out in their memories? No – but, they make me THINK it does.
At the stay that launched our 4C/4D, to toast ourselves and our journey – we requested bourbon. The bartender came over and gently asked why we weren’t drinking Scotch whilst in England. We confessed that we didn’t much care for Scotch, so we opted for its American cousin. We quickly consented to a lesson on the varieties of Scotch and enjoyed it very much! In what is often listed as a top cocktail destination in London, this staff took the time to teach us – warm and personal. Definitely enhanced our evening. Note – when you check-in, reserve a table in the lounge for later in the evening – you won’t be sorry.
There’s so much to do within walking distance to the Zetter, which I’ll revisit in a future post. Right now, I must be hungry because I really just want to tell you about food. The Quality Chop House is craving-worthy and casual – not fussy, but make reservations (they’re on OpenTable). Seems to be locally sourced, which tells you the menu varies throughout the year. I’ve visited several times and always bring friends who share in my delight. Wine options are good and the meat – obviously; it’s their heritage. Adaptable chefs – I’ve seen them cater to dietary and preference requests without jeopardizing any quality at all. Dessert – I once ordered a dessert there that was basically vanilla ice cream with olive oil and crunchy salt – don’t knock it. I’ve been making it myself at home ever since and I’ve won over many a skeptic.
Let me just say – it was SUPER easy getting to St. Pancras Station from Clerkenwell. Farringdon Station is walkable to Zetter Townhouse, but the advantage to St. Pancras is that it’s international – you can launch your train through The Chunnel and come out in Lille (first stop in France). So, from that perspective, a short cab ride to St. Pancras is worth its weight. Speaking of wait…….security is tight there. Plan to be in a long queue, but it’s reasonable (given international air travel these days). Plan about 75 min prior to boarding (which is about 5-10min prior to departure) and this way you won’t stress. It’s a great train station – not like a regional terminal at all – here are a few tips on how to spend your time. I’m pretty low-maintenance in the morning – black coffee and a bag of breakfast crisps if I’m splurging – but there are MUCH better options to be had there!
“IF ADVENTURES DO NOT BEFALL A LADY IN HER OWN VILLAGE, SHE MUST SEEK THEM ABROAD. ”
Do you have the Citymapper App? This app revolutionized things for me when I discovered it could get me all over NYC and BACK to New Jersey again using NJ transit (no other app could reliably do that……because…..Jersey, I guess). Nevertheless, when I started using this app, they only had New York, London and Paris. I was equally impressed with it in London. It’s SO many places now. You’ll find this to be an indispensable tool. (Digressing again…)Back to Eurostar, there are an average of 9 trains per day going from London to Lille starting from St. Pancras (so you have options) and you arrive in only 1h 22m. I like to arrive in my new destination by lunch, so I backward plan it. In this case, we left our destination the following morning to have lunch in the NEW place, so there was a LOT of backward planning – and, if you wanted to have ANY time to see things……well, you get where I’m going with this.
I like the Trainline App, although I see online, there are dissenting opinions. I’ve used several different apps, but this is one I’ve used most recently (within months) and have found it to be most serviceable. Previously, the various train lines required me to use different apps based on country – this seems to be a little more universal. As with anything, try it out for yourself. And, when it comes to buying train tickets, do the math, map out your itinerary, check arrivals and departure options and THEN ask for a quote. You might tweak your plans based on cost. And, I’d recommend 1st class (shocking) if you can swing it only because it will be less crowded and you’ll more likely have a place to stash your bags (practical). Also, you won’t have to vie for a seat – often, it will be assigned. Either way, they don’t oversell and you can have your tickets in your app. If you plan ahead, train travel is VERY economical – several months out (3-ish).
Country #2: France
Lille, France. We arrived with no expectations – We really knew very little about it except that lots of people from London head there to go shopping for the day. It’s FRANCE. And, it’s only ~1.5h away – for a girl from Texas, that’s extraordinary. I’ve seriously been more than 1.5h away from a MALL before, so the idea of popping over to France for lunch and shopping…?
We chose to stay at Hotel Carlton Lille. The price was right, the accommodations were very nice and the location ideal (as you can see from the pic above). It’s opposite the Opera in the Grand’Place and Old Lille, which is to say many walkable stores, cafes, and restaurants. Have you read The Alice Network? Female spies in WWII….takes place in Lille. Good frame of reference. We didn’t engage in any espionage, but we did treat ourselves to some Longchamp tote bags. Even my fuction-over-form husband agrees that keeping one of these in my suitcase all the time is one of the smartest travel tools ever. Here’s my advice for dinner in Lille – we wandered, got tips, checked TripAdvisor and ended up at a VERY nice place a little earlier than was customary in France (maybe 7-ish?….we’d been traveling). The hostess literally told us to wait outside for 15min until she was ready to open. As I recall, when she opened, she merely flipped the sign….she didn’t even open the door and greet us. After being allowed to sit, she didn’t warm to us, but she did start enthusiastically greeting other patrons…..so we left. We discovered that little side street nooks and crannies had FUN places to go – so, we popped into one that offered home cooking and it was WONDERFUL. My advice – wander around Lille until you see a place where people are having fun and the food smells and looks delicious to you…..and, do it at a decent French hour, like 8. Evenings go long here – being a college town, and with quite a large balcony on my room, I can tell you – there was spontaneous and uproarious singing well into the wee hours. If you’re uptight about that sort of thing, staying in the heart of the city might not be right for you. With the right attitude, though, young people breaking into song, rather than sirens and honking was a refreshing reminder that I wasn’t in any other city I’d ever visited before. That’s my unique ‘sound of Lille’.
Country #3: Belgium
Would you forgive me if I left Bruges to another time…? I have so much I want to tell you about Bruges, that it really must be reserved for my telling of Belgium as a whole. Suffice it to say, Bruges has become one of my favorite places – one that I have yet to get enough time to fully explore. If you look this up geographically, you’ll see that the whole place is more or less walkable in 10min. But, it’s so much more than that.
For the purposes of this post, I’m going to make Belgium a reference only to hotel and train travel.
We arrived in Bruges along with a gaggle of LOTS of other Europeans looking to enjoy the last vestiges of summer in Bruges (it was late September). On the train from Lille, we worried about having only 15min to change trains (with luggage, having to locate tracks, dash through the station, etc) but, they schedule these trains with tight connections for a reason – they’re doable. We changed in Brussles Midi and signage is excellent. Made our train without worries and it was PACKED (as I said before). We didn’t opt for 1st class this leg. Note, weary travelers – don’t discard your train tickets or receipts until you’re safely in your hotel room. All throughout Europe (and, the US for that matter) different stations have different rules. On this trip, Bruges was one where you have to swipe your ticket to get out. So, file this tip aways even if you discard everything else. And, there’s no hope of walking to Bruges proper, so hail a cab – they’re plentiful outside.
Upon arrival at the hotel, we did another last-minute assessment of our itinerary for the next day. Knowing that we’d have to loop back to Brussels Midi to get to Amsterdam, we determined that the early morning departure would be better suited (for us) by car – when there are 4 of you, that’s an option. Single or even double travelers struggle with whether a car is worth it – while the $$ was about the same, the hassle was not – the hotel arranged a car for us, which freed us up emotionally to stay out a little later and sleep a little longer the next day.
If anyone, including me, tells you that they can see Amsterdam in 1 day….they’re kookie. But, I wouldn’t change having stopped over here. It was easy to reach by train and the canals are beautiful to walk around even if you don’t have much time to explore shops, shows, and ALL of the history that Amsterdam has to offer. With VERY limited time, we chose a tour that focused on the Jewish immigrant experience in Amsterdam. It ended at the Anne Frank House. Entrance must be scheduled in advance and it’s very crowded, so plan ahead. The self-guided audio tour is well-paced and engaging. It’s not to be missed – one of the real benefits to travel is getting to expand your perspective – by combining these 2 activities, we were each individually moved. So, while I will eventually go back to see some Van Gogh and Rambrandt, I’m glad that I spent my first trip doing something very real that I can carry with me everywhere.
“Practise what you know, and it will help to make clear what now you do not know.”
Rembrandt van Rijn
And, with this being our last night on a short, but long, journey, we nestled into our lavish hotel – it was a bit of a splurge, so we doubled up to afford it. Each rooms was spacious with a private balcony on the canal. It’s literally not to be missed. The Ambassade Hotel is a work of art in itself. Everywhere you turn is another original piece (literally, even the stairwells). Their Library Bar is exactly that – over 5,000 books signed by the authors, each one having once been a guest of the hotel. Being a little too tired to explore dinner options, we accepted their invitation to make reservations at their in-house Brasserie. This was no ordinary brasserie – it’s an extraordinary French dining experience. The food was excellent, the service was exceptional. Upon making our reservation, I informed them that I’m Celiac. The waiter greeted us later that evening acknowledging that aspect of my reservation and guiding me in my selections throughout the evening. I can manage on my own most anywhere – but, knowing that they take your health and comfort so seriously is a worthy consideration.
A hotel that I did not choose this time, but one that I’m following on Instagram for future consideration is The Toren. If you’ve stayed here before, I’d love to hear about it. Also – any tips you have for a future Amsterdam trip are appreciated.
So, I’ll close this LONG (first) post by promising – they won’t all be this lengthy. But, I hope I’ve inspired you to think about how EASY it is to arrange a long weekend that can touch 4 countries in 4 days – It was a teeny bit exhausting, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. Not only did I get to know some of my favorite work colleagues in ways that you can only achieve at 7am on a train…with a 5min connection…on only 5 hours of sleep…..for 4 days in row. I also saw parts of the world I’ve ALREADY gone back to visit again – and, I might not have ever seen them at all if they hadn’t been on the train line out of St. Pancras on a long weekend.