when you’re not traveling

Exploring, planning, dreaming…

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:

  • Ask friends
  • Consult TripAdvisor
  • Google-ize it
  • Delve into travel guides
  • Look at maps and airline/train routes
  • Consider Airbnb Experiences
  • 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.

Have an itinerary that includes everything – your lodging, your meals, excursions if any and combine it with your traveling companion for full transparency and collaboration.

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.

squeezing in family travel: anniversaries

The Lake Austin Spa is less than an hour from the Austin airport, even closer to downtown, and a WORLD away.

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
    • Caesar’s Forum Shops – Cartier, Tiffany & Co, Ferragamo
  • 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.
You don’t see pools like this around the REAL Eiffel Tower….

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.

You have no idea what options are right outside your backdoor until you explore

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.

belgium: bruges, brussels, antwerp

Yep – Antwerp is centered around a guy throwing the hand of a giant

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

Seriously, I just accidentally happened into Europe’s first shopping mall?

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:

  • Verify the store on the GIA website
  • 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
Waterzooi at Sir Anthony Van Dijck – I’ll be sad for you if you don’t go here

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.

The water tours of Bruges are touristy, but enchanting.

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.

There are 3 things you must see in Bruges:

  • The Bruges Madonna
  • 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.

Sublime

“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!”

Audrey Hepburn