Saturday, November 23, 2013

Cancun

Cancun has long been declared a great getaway spot.  Frankly, while some things there are good, I won’t go back.  Cancun is dated, run-down and way too touristy for my tastes. Still, I think it was worth visiting one time, just to see it for myself.

On the upside, the Cancun airport is nice.  It is small and very well-organized.  The timeshare vendors don’t pounce on you as they do in Cabo.  Transportation from the airport to the hotels is easy.  There are several taxis right outside the airport doors.  The best way to go is to use Super Shuttle.  We booked our ride on-line while we were waiting for our departure flight.  The fare was a quite affordable at a mere $11.00 each way.  It’s a shared van but it was clean and the drivers were very good. 
We stayed at Krystal International.  I’ve read some bad reviews about the place but I disagree with them.  We found the hotel to be clean and the service staff outstanding.  Everyone from the housecleaning staff to the restaurant waiters was attentive and polite. We expected a small room with a kitchenette but were given a two-room condo at no extra charge.  The ocean view was beautiful.  Some reviewers complained that there are no hairdryers in the rooms but both of our bathrooms had wall-mounted hairdryers. 


There is one big draw back to the Krystal and it has nothing to do with the hotel itself.  Just a few yards away sits a large nightclub that plays unreasonably loud music at all hours of the night right out on the beach.  There is no escaping the loud thumping base and distasteful music that goes on until 3:00 in the morning.  The same club sets off a fireworks show from a boat at 1:00 a.m.  As lovely as it was to watch fireworks being shot from the water right off our balcony, it was not lovely to be kept awake at that hour.  If you love the nightlife, this is a great spot.  If you prefer to sleep at night, this is a horrible spot.  I do not understand why the neighboring hotels put up with that extreme level of noise. 
The good news is that the beach and the pool made for good napping during the day.  The wait staff also serve food and drinks by the pools, as well as at the beach cabanas. 

If you go to Cancun, take a bus tour out to Chichen Itza.  In my opinion, it is the only thing that makes Cancun worth visiting.  The ruins at Chichen Itza are just awe-inspiring.  It’s really touristy now but nothing can really mar the magic of those ruins. 

 
There are several tour groups that offer the Chichen Itza package and they are all pretty much alike.  When you arrive at Chichen Itza, the parking lot looks like any other tourist attraction.  There are ticket offices and shops and thousands of people milling about.  Our group was split into two groups to accommodate both English speaking and Spanish speaking tourists, and then led up a long path that cuts through the jungle and that is lined with locals selling all kinds of souvenirs. 


At the end of the trail, you will come a large, flat clearing.  Be prepared to have your breath taken away.  As we got to the clearing, we all gasped at the beauty and wonder of the ruins.  Cameras were snapping away as our guide explained the history of the site and the Mayans.  Some folks mistakenly believe that the Mayans disappeared.  They did not.  They just abandoned Chichen Itza.  Their descendants still live in the area and many still speak the Mayan language, not the Spanish spoken throughout the rest of Mexico. 

Our incredibly informative guide led us around the area for 90 minutes, giving us a riveting account of how the games were played and the sacrifices performed.  At the end of the tour, our group disbanded and we had an additional 90 minutes to explore the grounds and to shop.  I bought several souvenirs there.  Those vendors love American dollars and they also love to bargain. 


Here’s the way the game works:  First they draw you in, “Hey lady, $1.00”.  When you get to their table they will steer you away from the tiny $1.00 stuff and direct you to the larger, more expensive items.  You ask how much.  They quote a price.  You hesitate, admire the item but offer a lower price.  They counter.  Almost every time, you will arrive at 75% of the original price.  Please be compassionate and don’t try to bargain them down too much.  What they sell is inexpensive to begin with and this is how they make a living.  I came away with some very good souvenirs at great prices.

On another day, we took a ferry to Isla Mujeres, commonly known as the Isle of Women.  The streets are lined with fun shops and restaurants on the beach where you can sit barefoot in the sand.   There is also a large public beach there where vendors offer souvenirs and massages.  You can rent golf carts and scooters if you want to explore the whole island.

I mostly shopped at the Mexican Market (Yes, that’s the name), which was just a couple of blocks from our hotel.  The Market sells every kind of Mexican souvenir you can imagine at fair prices.  The best souvenirs to buy are sarongs, beachwear, chocolate, pottery, leather, coffee and alcohol. 
I can’t say that we had any great dinners while in Cancun but the food was decent nearly everywhere we went.  Dinner at Hacienda el Mortero was fun.  The place was a little bit cheesy with a wandering Mariachi band, a photographer pushing pictures of diners with Sombreros, etc., but sometimes cheesy is fun and this was definitely fun.

What else is there to do in Cancun?  The water is the most beautiful shade of turquoise and crystal-clear, so snorkeling is good there.  Parasailing is popular, as well.
When you go to Cancun, you really don’t need to exchange money.  Most places take MasterCard or American dollars.  However, don’t plan on using your Discover Card.  No place I went took Discover. 

As far as what to wear, beachwear is the norm absolutely everywhere.  I wore a long sundress to dinner a few evenings and felt overdressed.  People appear at dinner in shorts, t-shirts and sneakers.  I saw young girls going into the noisy nightclub wearing nothing more than bathing suit tops, shorts and flip-flops. 
If you go to the ruins, you will definitely want a hat and sturdy walking shoes, as well as a good bug repellent.  Don’t forget your sunscreen because the sun can be brutal.

While I’m glad that I went to Cancun just once, I won’t return.  It was worth the trip just to see the ruins and learn about the intriguing Mayans.  However, should I ever go back to Mexico, it will be to elegant Cabo, not tattered Cancun. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Short Note - Direct Flights from Indy

I just heard that United, my favorite airline, will be offering direct flights from Indianapolis to San Francisco.  Those flights begin in January.  Yay!

Mackinac Island

If you live near the Great Lakes area, you’ve no doubt heard of Mackinac Island in Michigan.  If you live farther away, you might not know anything about this American beauty.  A visit to the dreamy isle of Mackinac is like a trip back in time to another century.
 
What makes this tiny island worth visiting?  The beauty!  The history!  The fun!  There is so much to do and so much to see there.
 
Mackinac sits on Lake Huron, right where it borders Lake Michigan.  There are no bridges from the mainland to the island.  Most people arrive via boat and that boat is usually one of the large commercial ferries that travel in and out of the Mackinac harbor from early morning until sunset.  There is a very small airstrip there but it is used mainly by the locals.
 
Let’s start with the natural beauty of the place.  Every inch of the 3.8 square mile island is now a National Historic Landmark and approximately 80% of the island is now a Michigan state park.  Trees and flowers blanket the isle, as do surprises like this natural rock formation.
 
 
 
As if the natural beauty wasn’t enough, mankind has added a few wonderful touches to compliment nature's striking background.  The most notable site when approaching the island is the Grand Hotel.  Once you disembark, you will come across a darling village full of charming Victorian bed and breakfasts, wonderful restaurants and small shops.
 
 
 
There are no cars on the island.  Only emergency vehicles are allowed and a tour guide told us that there are only three of those.  There are only three ways to get around the island, those being by foot, by bicycle or by horse.  Over 500 horses are kept on the island.  Even the UPS deliveryman uses a horse-driven wagon.
 
 
 
Bikes are absolutely everywhere, too.  Not only do the locals use them for their daily transportation but thousands of tourists rent the two-wheelers every day.
 
WHEN TO GO
 
The tourist season is short, running from late spring through early fall.  Spring temps remain cool well into July.  We went in June, just after the Lilac Festival.  It was a lovely time to go because the lilacs were still in full bloom.  The air was fragrant with the pleasant combination of lilacs and fudge with only an occasional whiff of horse poop marring the experience.
 
WHAT TO WEAR
 
Mackinac Island is all about tourism and traditional tourist gear is what most folks wear.  Most people wear casual shirts and pants.  If you dress up for a day on Mackinac, you’ll be out of place.
 
You can even visit Grand Hotel dressed casually.  While the hotel dictates dressier clothing for dinner, most people wear casual clothing during the day.
 
HOW TO GET THERE
 
If you don’t have your own small plane or a boat, you’ll have to take a ferry to reach the island.  There are several in the area and they run all day long.  The prices and times are similar.  The two main companies are Sheplers and Star Line.
 
WHERE TO STAY
 
If you are a boater, you can sail there and dock at the harbor pretty reasonably, which is what we did.  We stayed for three nights.  Staying on our own boat in the harbor was considerably cheaper than staying at one of the local inns.  The harbor is well equipped with a bathhouse, large restrooms and even boasts a small but excellent coffee shop right at the end of the dock.
 
 
 
If you prefer more glamorous accommodations go for Grand Hotel.  Many of American presidents and celebrities have visited this historic landmark.  Two movies were made on the hotel grounds.  However, it is not for the budget-minded.  Just walking into the hotel will cost you $10.00 per person if you aren’t checking in.
 
It is cheaper to stay on the mainland and ferry over for the day.  However, if you intend to stay on the island for two days or more, staying on the island will be more cost effective.  There are several nice ones to choose from.  I have yet to read a bad review about any of the facilities there.
 
WHERE TO EAT
 
There is no shortage of good places to eat on the island.  Don’t miss the Grand Hotel lunch buffet.  The cost is $40.00 but the $10 hotel admission that you paid is deducted from the price of your lunch.  It is pricey but the food was very good.  The cocktails are just as pricey but they were among the best I’ve had anywhere in the world.  Lunch at Grand Hotel is worth the price.
 
 
 
There are a lot of good restaurants right on the main street of Mackinaw.  We enjoyed several.  Just ask one of the tour guides or follow the crowds and you’ll find the best ones.  Honestly, we did not have a bad meal during our three day stay on the island.
 
WHAT TO DO
 
First and foremost, take a horse and carriage tour.  You’ll quickly learn the layout of the island along with its interesting history.  Can take a group tour for $24.50.  Private tours also available at a slightly higher cost.  The tours take you all around the island and the guides are very informative.
 
Another fun little activity you can do is tour Fort Mackinac.  It’s not hard to find because it sits on the highest point on the island.  At $11.00 per adult, the self-guided tour is affordable and it is interesting.  The best views of the town can be experienced from the Fort.
 
Shopping is a popular activity on the island.  Like with most tourist areas, you will find cheap hats and tee shirts.  If cheap is what you seek, look for the shop with the yellow bags.  I can’t remember the name of the shop but nearly every tourist in town can be seen carrying those yellow.  That particular shop sells a lot of Kitschy souvenirs there.  If your tastes run are a little more sophisticated, there are plenty of local higher ends shops to sell artwork, clothing and nautical souvenirs.
 
Another popular activity is bike riding.  Bike rental stands are plentiful.  The bikes all have baskets for your gear.  Some rental places even provide you with bottled water to take along on the ride.
 
If bikes aren’t your thing you can go horseback riding.  If you prefer not to straddle a horse, you can rent a horse-driven carriage.
 
If you prefer to get around on your own two feet, there are plenty of places to hike, both on the village streets and on wooded paths.  While you’re out walking, stop in at the tiny public library.  It is just the cutest library I’ve ever visited.  They also offer Wi-Fi and a daily used book sale.  Visitors can also walk the Grand Hotel gardens without paying the entrance fee.  Just enter from the lower end of the gardens where they border a public park.
 
Mackinac Island is a beautiful, fun, safe place to visit.  It is a great place to go whether you are seeking fun activities for your family or a romantic getaway for you and your sweetie.  It really should be on everyone’s bucket list.
 
Oh, and whether you go to Mackinac Island or Mackinaw City, it is always pronounced Mackinaw.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Chicago

A few weeks ago, I took my daughter, daughter-in-law and granddaughter to Chicago to celebrate the young one’s 16th birthday.  Oh, what a wonderful time we had in just two short days!
 
Chicago has everything anyone could ever want in a big city.  Do you seek both high-end and bargain shopping?  The Magnificent Mile on Michigan Avenue covers both ends of the spectrum.  Are you interested in excellent restaurants?  There are plenty of those within walking distance of the Mile.  Is art your thing?  Great art is everywhere, including in the city parks.  Do you want to take your family to an educational museum?  Chicago has those, too.  Are waterfront views and beaches what you crave?  Good old Lake Michigan borders the entire east side of the city.
 
We started our day by dropping our car and our luggage at our hotel, Mile North on Superior Street.  Mile North Hotel could not be more conveniently located.  It’s just one block east of the famous Magnificent Mile.  When you step out of the hotel and turn to your right, you see Neiman Marcus and Saks.  The location cannot be beat.  Our room wasn’t ready when we arrived but we were able to leave our bags with the bell captain.
 
We started our Mag Mile trek with lunch at the Neiman Marcus restaurant, Zodiac.  It’s a nice white tablecloth restaurant that somehow manages to maintain old-fashioned grace and dignity with a modern, upbeat style.  Neiman’s starts each meal right by providing all diners with popovers, strawberry butter and chicken consommĂ© just moments after everyone is seated. The servings were generous and the food was of a very high quality.  Lunch for four people at a cost of just over $80 was a bit pricey for a quick lunch but the food and the atmosphere were worth every penny.
 
While we were eating lunch, my girls spotted Topshop from the large dining room windows and wanted to go there as soon as possible.  After exploring all three floors of that store, we visited H&M.  Both of those stores were packed to the walls with young girls lining up to try on clothes and later to pay for those treasures.
 
Once we finished round one of our shopping, we returned to Mile North to check in.  We were thrilled with our room.  I was pleased to see that it looked exactly like the promotional pictures on their website.  It was beautiful, clean and quiet.  I’ve read some reviews about this hotel wherein people complained about noise from the street but we heard nothing from outside of our room.  We stayed on the seventh floor, right above the main entrance.  The bedroom was about the size of a standard American hotel room but the bathroom was quite large.  Everything appeared to be new and spotlessly clean.  The beds were wonderfully comfortable.  There was a refrigerator in the room, as well as a safe.

After a brief rest, we returned to our shopping.  There’s a Disney store on the same corner where Saks and Neiman’s sit, so we did a quick tour through that.  We went on to Forever 21, Chico’s, Nordstrom’s, Nike and several other stores.  My favorite store on the Mile is the multi-story Crate & Barrel.  It’s huge!  I’m a sucker for the C&B bargains and walked out carrying boxes of fun household goods.
 
By the time we finished, the sun was starting to set and we were burdened with packages.  We returned to the hotel to unload our purchases and to freshen up for dinner.  It was great to have our hotel just right around the corner when we needed to rest and refresh.  We were surprised to find that our room had been serviced and our beds turned down while we were out.

Our plan was to go to Giordano’s Pizza (two blocks from our hotel) for dinner.  However, by the time we got there it was nearly 9:00 on and the place was packed.  Even the line to put your name on the wait list was painfully long.  We were told that the wait for a table was 90 minutes.  I know from my previous visits to Giordano’s that it can take as long as 45 minutes to get a pizza after you order because it takes that long to bake from scratch.
 
While Giordano’s pizza is excellent and I highly recommend the place, we didn’t want to wait over two hours for dinner, so we implemented Plan B, which was to have dinner in the hotel restaurant, Ferris & Jack.  We were not disappointed.  I had a fabulous grilled cheese sandwich layered with apples and bacon.  It was not crowded so we were able to enjoy a lovely, quiet dinner.  Dinner for four, plus cocktails for three, came to $95 but that’s pretty reasonable for a dinner in Chicago.
 
We checked out on Sunday morning, once again leaving our luggage secured with the bell captain and our car with the valet.
 
We walked down to Millennium Park, which was a bit of hike but it was a balmy morning and the sidewalks were nearly deserted, so it was a pleasant walk.  We wandered around enjoying the art and taking pictures for most of the morning.  “The Bean”, officially known as “Cloud Gate” drew the most tourists.  You can see the world reflected from multiple angles in its shiny surface.
 
From Millennium Park, we walked toward Navy Pier.  The regular pedestrian walkway to the pier was closed for construction but the detour took us through a high-end residential neighborhood centered around a small park that was just as charming as could be.  We found a nice little coffee shop across the street from the park and stopped in for drinks.  We strolled along the River Walk and crossed the bridge that put us out right at Navy Pier.
 
Navy Pier is a hub of activity on a nice summer day.  It is a family-oriented place and the weather was perfect.  I think every family in Chicago decided to visit the pier that day.  There are plenty of amusements on the pier and several activities going on there all of the time.  This particular weekend marked the end of the Tall Ships show.  On Saturday night, there had been a Taylor Swift concert and countless little girls were walking around sporting Taylor Swift tee shirts and backpacks.
 
You will find no shortage of places on the pier to pop into for a quick bite.  We chose Harry Carry’s.  The food was good enough but not particularly noteworthy.  The service, however, was excellent.
 
The Cirque Shanghai 2:00 show was a great way to end our weekend.  At $132 for four tickets (bought on-line in advance) it was a bargain.  Although it was a great way to end our trip, it would have been better to see the show at night.  Some of the magic of the lighting was lost in the daylight of the pier’s open-air theatre.  Still, the show was incredible and it is a good, inexpensive way to see a Cirque show.  The bad news is that the show only runs during the summer months.
 
When we returned to Mile North to retrieve our bags and our car, a bellman walked by and heard me mention to my girls that we would get the car as soon as I dug the claim ticket out from the bottom of my purse.  Without being asked, he jumped right to service, volunteering to retrieve both our luggage and our car.  Everything about our stay at was flawless.  I will definitely return to Mile North. 

 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Ruins of Pompeii

When we went to Rome, we took a day to visit Pompeii.  If defied my expectations.

Most of us learned a little something about Pompeii when we were in school.  It is best known for its annihilation by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.  When we think of Pompeii, most of us envision tragic ruins and the remains of unfortunate souls caught writing in their final pain.  To many of us, the name of that ancient city represents death and misery.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the ruins of Pompeii portray more how people lived rather than how they died.

The remnants of the ancient city are situated on a serene hill just off the coast of the Mediterranean.  It is easy to see that the city would have been marvelous place to live in the years before the tragedy.  The trees, the gardens, the buildings and the surroundings all combine to create what surely must have been a sort of Utopia there.

The images I saw back in school showed bodies everywhere, right where they fell at the moment of their deaths.  I was pleased to see that that is not the reality of the situation.  “Bodies” are limited to certain areas and it is easy to avoid those areas, if you so choose. It might also comfort you somewhat to know that there are no actual preserved bodies displayed at Pompeii.  What you see are plaster casts that were made from indentions remaining in the soil and ash when the excavations were being done.

At about 163 acres, the ruins spanned much more ground than I anticipated.  We explored the site all afternoon but that did not allow us enough time to see it all.  There are so many wonderful things to see there.

The citizens of Pompeii enjoyed their own Forum and Coliseum, much like the ones in Rome but on a much smaller scale.  Just like in any modern city, the homes were both large and small. There were bars and restaurants.  There were also houses of ill-repute.

Some of the original frescos survived and they are among the most fascinating things to see there.  Although the gardens of Pompeii obviously could not have survived its tragic destruction or the ravages of time, some have been recreated to reflect their original beauty.  The water fountains still work and the water is safe to drink.

Even the streets show signs of life as it was in ancient times.  Look down as you walk and you will see cat’s eye tiles that reflected moonlight so that the original citizens could see where they were walking at night.  The stones in the street also contain some obvious signs pointing the way to the brothels.  Quite frankly, the signs are depictions of male genitalia carved into stones in the street.

The most surprising thing about Pompeii is that a modern cafeteria sits right in the middle of the ruins.  I was thrilled to find a place to pick up food and drinks.  Pompeii takes hours to explore and modern facilities were a most welcome sight on a hot day.

Most people arrive in Pompeii via train.  If you go from Rome, you will need to take a train to Naples, then change train lines to go to Pompeii.  We picked up our Rome-to-Naples tickets from a vending machine in Termini station.  The price varies with the type of tickets you chose.  We paid about €22 per person.  When you get to Naples, you must switch to a different train line for the trip from Naples to Pompeii.  That’s easy enough because the other train line is in the same terminal you come into from Rome.  Follow the signs to the Circumvesuviana ticket window and ask for a roundtrip ticket to Pompei Scavi.  As I recall, that ticket was less than €3 per person.

Admission to the ruins is inexpensive at €11 per person.  There are other things to see at Pompei Scavi but if you only have one day, touring the ruins will be about all that you will have time for.  Be sure to have plenty of cash on hand.  Pompeii is a cash-only site and there is no ATM nearby. Visit http://www.pompeionline.net/en for more details.

When you visit Pompeii, be sure to wear sturdy walking shoes because the streets are very rough and uneven.  Also, wear a hat and sun block.  There isn’t much shade in Pompeii.  Be sure to take along a refillable water bottle and fill it up at the ancient fountains.

The ruins of Pompeii are a reflection of beautiful lives lived in beautiful surroundings.  Take a look at these pictures to see the wonder and the beauty for yourself.









 

 
 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Rome

Ah, Rome.  It is a city that is #1 on many a bucket list.  I finally realized that dream not long ago and the Eternal City was everything that I expected it to be.  Breathtaking views await at every turn and history is in the air.

Getting There

When you go to Rome, you will most likely fly into Leonardo da Vinci International, the airport most convenient to Rome.  This great city is easy to get around in because public transportation reaches every corner, starting at the airport.  No tourist in their right mind should drive in Rome.  Watching the cars cut in and out of traffic is like watching a slapstick comedy.  The lack of order and law enforcement is mind-boggling.  Cars are parked on sidewalks and medians.

The easiest way out of the airport is the Leonardo Express train.  The trains leave run every 30 minutes and the inexpensive tickets can be bought from vending machines right by the tracks.  One thing you should be aware of is that luggage goes on overhead racks on the train and there is no one to help you lift your bags.  However, most seats have ample legroom and you can keep a rather large bag at your feet.

The train will take you directly into Termini Station.  It is a safe place to be during the day but don’t linger in the area after the sun goes down.  We took a taxi from Termini to the hotel.  Buses were available at the station but handling luggage on a bus is difficult.  The taxi fare was less than €20 and our English-speaking driver dropped us right at our hotel door.

When in Rome, take only marked taxis.  You will find a long queue of cabs just outside of Termini.  Before you leave home, contact your hotel staff and find out what the taxi rate should be.  If the driver tries to overcharge you when you arrive, walk directly into your hotel and enlist the help of the staff there.  They are often able to intercede on your behalf.

Money Matters

You will need to pick up some Euros and the best way to do that is through ATMs.  You won’t pay exchange fees at ATMs but your bank might charge a small foreign transaction fee.  My bank’s fee was so minimal that I barely noticed it.  You will need to carry at least a small amount of cash as some smaller vendors don’t accept credit cards.  Euros are easy for Americans to understand.  The system is not that different from our dollar system.  This Wiki page explains it all very well.

What to See

There’s so much to see in Rome that you will want to plan your trip carefully so that you won’t miss a thing.  Here are the top sites to see:
  • Roman Forum
  • Pantheon
  • Spanish Steps
  • Trevi Fountain
  • Vatican & St. Peter’s Square
  • Coliseum
  • Villa Borghese
  • Appia Antiqua
I suggest that you start with the Roman Forum and pay a little extra for a guided tour.  Tours are available in several languages and are very informative.  Our group was led by an English-speaking archaeologist and she gave us an in-depth look at Roman history that helped us understand every other site we visited over the following days.  We toured the Forum with her and then she sent us up Palentine Hill on our own.  The views at the top of the hill are some of the best in Rome.  Our ticket package at the Forum also included admission to the Coliseum anytime with the next 24 hours, allowing us to by-pass those long ticket lines the next day.

If you do nothing else in Rome, go to the Vatican.  I knew that they had a nice art collection but I did not anticipate the magnificent scope of the collection.  We spent the day walking through long, winding hallways and into gallery after gallery of the most stunning art collection in the world.  The gift shops at the Vatican are nice, too.  I brought home some very affordable souvenirs.  If you plan on sending postcards mail them from the Vatican Post Office.  They have their own official stamps and the delivery is much speedier than that of the Italian government.

When you leave the Vatican, walk around the corner to St. Peter’s Square.  (I don’t know why they call it a square when it is clearly round.)  It is free to enter and well worth the visit.  The walls, ceilings and artwork in St. Peter’s Basilica are just breathtaking.  After you finish the first floor, be sure to find the staircase that leads to the basement.  Several popes are interred there, including St. Peter himself.  I was surprised to see that many people stopped and looked at St. Peter’s tomb but most seemed more interested in paying their respects to more modern popes.  I was in awe of standing before the final resting place of the man who walked with Jesus.  If you do go to the Holy See, go early because the ticket lines become very, very long.

We stayed out in Parioli, a lovely suburb on the north side of Rome.  We were within walking distance of the Villa Borghese, a beautiful park which hosts the Rome zoo and a splendid art gallery.  You must have reservations to go through the museum but they are easy to come by.  Plan to spend some time strolling the beautiful paths of the park.  The lovely picture at the top of this blog is of the Temple of Aesculapius, which sits in the midst of the park.

From Villa Borghese, we walked to Castel Sant'Angelo, a.k.a Hadrian’s Tomb.  Once you’ve toured in the inside, make the climb to the roof for a bird’s eye view of the Vatican.  After touring the Castel, we had a nice, inexpensive lunch at a simple street cafĂ© just across the Tiber  from the Castel.  The gentlemen there spoke no English but were charming and welcoming.  We got along just fine using gestures and a lot of smiles.  Those two elderly gentlemen were the sweetest, most welcoming people we met in Italy.

Speaking of the language, you don’t really need to learn Italian before visiting Rome but it is helpful to know a few key words.  It is a courtesy to the locals to at least learn hello, please and thank you in their language.  I listened to Italian for Dummies for a few weeks before I left.  I learned to say “I don’t speak Italian very well” and used that expression more than any other with the exceptions of “good morning” and “thank you.”

The only time I needed to utilize my limited Italian skills was when we wanted to buy bus tickets.  Those tickets are bought through tobacco shops and magazine kiosks.  None of the people running the kiosks we visited spoke English.

The bus system is really the best way to get around Rome while doing your sightseeing.  You can buy a seven day ticket and ride all week quite economically.  You validate it on your first day of use and then merely hop off and on at will for the rest of the week.  Visit this site for the specifics.

Safety

Don’t wear obvious jewelry in Rome.  Women in Rome wear scarves rather than necklaces.  A big necklace marks the wearer as tourist who might be a bit vulnerable.

Watch your pockets and bags closely on buses and trains.  If you’re a woman, carry a cross-body bag and wear it in front of you, not to the side or the back.  If you’re a man, either wear a money belt or put your wallet deep in your front pants pocket.  My sweetie reported having his tush tapped on more than one occasion and it wasn’t done by a flirty female.

What to Wear

It seems that every man, woman and child wears a nattily wrapped scarf every day.  You will feel out of place if you won’t wear one.  You will see a lot of dark colors such as maroon, navy and black.  The only white sneakers you will see there are on joggers and tourists.  Jeans are worn with nice shoes and good shirts.

Rome is a walking city with rough, uneven streets.  When you’re strolling about the Forum, you’ll be walking in rocks and dirt.  While at the Coliseum, you’ll be climbing steep steps. Wear your most comfortable walking shoes.  Everywhere I went, I wore my beloved Lands End driving mocs (see previous post on travel essentials).

As far as the temps, I found Rome temperature to be very much like northern Florida during our November visit.  I wore a light coat every morning but wound up taking it off in the afternoon sun.  If you travel there in summer, it can become horribly hot, so plan accordingly.

What to Eat

What to eat in Rome?  I wasn’t as impressed with the food as I thought I would be but I can say that I never had a bad meal.  I can also report that their pizzas are pretty tasty.  Pastries are big there, as well.  Nutella is everywhere there, even on breakfast buffets.  The street-side sandwich shops serve up some excellent fair.  Don’t’ forget to try the wine – Italians do it right.

Where to Stay

The choice of where to stay is obviously a matter of personal taste.  You can stay right in the heart of Rome in modern hotels, if you so choose.  However, you might consider staying in the suburbs if you want a genuine look at how modern Romans live.  The charming Hotel Delle Muse was in a nice area that was safe and charming.  We had a tiny but clean and pleasant room with balcony.  The hotel is a family-owned hotel that is quite warm and welcoming.  Most of the staff members speak English.

The hotel offers a free breakfast and the food is good.  We ate all of our breakfasts and many of our dinners there.  We saw most of the same staff every day and the place began to feel like home.  A bus stop is just about a block away from the front door, making it easy to get anywhere that you want to go.  It is a lovely area to walk in, even after dark and there are several nice restaurants nearby.

What to Buy

It seemed to me that shopping in Rome is either very high-end designer wear or low-end street goods.  However, I did find some fun things in tourist gift shops.  The Forum has a nice little gift shop offering beautiful souvenirs in a wide range of prices.  I bought several beautiful calendars and postcards there.  The Vatican has several nice shops with items well within anyone’s price range.  I’m not Catholic but some members of my family are, so I brought back a few rosaries.  My grandson had specifically asked for a replica of the Coliseum and I bought one of those from a street vendor who had a booth situated between the Forum and the Coliseum.  I also found some wonderful tri-colored pasta from a sandwich shop we visited.

One thing you definitely do not want to buy is a knock-off purse from a street vendor.  Italy is home to many fine designers and the government is very protective of their interests.  It is not only illegal to sell knock-off goods; it is equally illegal to buy or even possess one.  The penalties for doing so are quiet serious.  The vendors who sell souvenirs from tables and booths are safe but avoid buying from those who spread out their wears on blankets on the sidewalks.

Also, make sure that you take your receipt from every restaurant and store you patronize.  The tax police sometimes follow people and ask to see the receipt.  It didn’t happen to us but I have heard of it happening to others.

Leaving Rome

It was hard to pull ourselves away from the beauty of The Eternal City.  We spent our last day at Appia Antiqua and it was the perfect way to say goodbye to Rome.  We didn’t have a plan, so we just wandered around that beautiful park.  We found the ruins of ancient aqueducts, a cistern and a watchtower.  We stumbled across an ancient home that was being restored by the current residents.  It was a wonderful place to absorb the feel of ancient Rome.  If you go, don’t take the subway route suggested on the official site.  The better ruins are on the other side of the park, so take the bus route instead.

We were exhausted by the time our vacation was over, so we hired a car to take us to the airport.  It was a nice change from taking a taxi and the train back to the airport.  Our driver met us in the lobby of our hotel and drove us to the airport along roads that we had not yet seen.  He was charming and interesting and he dropped us off at the airport for a mere €55.  We arrived at the airport so much more relaxed than if we’d had to deal with a cab, then the train.  If I ever go to Rome again, I will hire a driver for both my arrival and my departure.

I could practically write a book on the joys of visiting Rome but there’s just not enough time or space here to write about it all.  However, as the old adage goes, a picture tells a thousand words, so I’m going to let these pictures do the rest of my talking.
 
 
 
 
 
 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Spring Break Tips

I am in the midst of preparing for my annual trip to Florida with my grandchildren.  Sherman didn’t strategize his march on Atlanta as much as I do our drive to Florida. 
 
We’ve been making this southern voyage for over 40 years.  The first few years, I rode along as a kid in the back seat of my parents' station wagon.  Later, I moved to the front seat as the parent of two little ones.  My role now is that of grandmother, tour leader and chief financier for my two grandkids’ spring break adventures.  I’ve learned a lot of handy tips over those 40 years and I’m sharing my secrets for sanity here with you now.  This is a long post, so I’ve broken it down into four steps for easy referencing. 
 
Step One:  Planning the Activities
 
If you plan on going to any of the major theme parks, don’t just show up at the park unprepared.  Spending as little as 30 minutes on the park website before you leave home will help you maximize your time and money on the day that you arrive.
 
Here’s what I’m doing on-line to prepare for our day at Universal’s Islands of Adventure: 
  • I created an account on the site so that I will receive discount offers and updates as to what is going on at Universal during our trip.
  • I ordered our tickets so that we don’t have to stand in that line when we get there.  Standing in the ticket line can take an hour or more at some parks.  I’d rather spend that hour having fun.  The delivery options include printing them out, having them mailed or picking them up at will-call. 
  • I reviewed the various attractions and chose the highlights we should hit.  The youngest member of our little troupe is too young for big scary rides, so I’m noting which attractions are best for families with young children. 
  • I’ve read about the best places to eat and what kind of special deals are available.  For example, if you eat at Universal’s Harry Potter themed restaurant and order Butterbeer, you get a souvenir cup that can be refilled with other drinks all day long at a discounted price. 
  • Finally, I’ve noted the park hours so we know what time to get there.  Always arrive at the park when it opens.  You’ll get so much more out of your day if you can get there early.  The ride lines are much shorter early in the day.
 
Step Two:  Prepping the Car
 
Get your vehicle serviced.  Have the oil, tires, washer fluid, hoses, etc. all checked and changed, if necessary.  Do a little spring cleaning on the interior, cleaning the windows and vacuuming.  Make sure that you have an emergency kit to handle emergencies like flat tires and include a first aid kit for minor injuries. 
 
Line the back seat with a blanket, sheet or a beach towel to catch all of those French fries, cookie crumbs, etc., that the kids will inevitably scatter about.  When you reach your destination, pull out the blanket/sheet/towel and shake the crud and crumbs out.  We throw ours in the washing machine as soon as we arrive and then use it as a beach blanket later in the week.
 
Pack a few drinks, snacks, fruit and sandwiches to save time and money on the road.  Take enough cold drinks for everyone to have at least two.  We also pack fresh and dried fruit, Girl Scout cookies, sandwiches, pretzels and raisins.  
 
Remind everyone to travel light, taking along only what they really need.  When you’re traveling with kids, count on bringing home more stuff than you started with.  Last year, my grandkids both won an assortment of large stuffed animals at Busch Gardens and squeezing it all into the car was quite the feat.
 
Here are a few handy things to take along for the ride: 
  • Plastic shopping bags for containing trash in the car or transporting wet bathing suits.
  • Lots of quarters for those Florida toll booths.  To avoid last minute fumbling, I keep our change in a lidded coffee cup that sits in one of the car’s drink holders. 
  • A second set of car keys, just in case you lose one set or inadvertently lock them in the car.
  • A roll of paper towels.  Kids, drinks, ‘nuff said. 

Step Three:  In Transit
 
If you have babies or toddlers, make the drive an overnight one and they will probably sleep most of the way.  This works best if you have two or more drivers and can switch off so no one gets too snoozy behind the wheel.  Just feed the kids some dinner, plug a movie into the DVD player and let them doze off. 
 
For those all essential bathroom breaks, avoid gas station restrooms.  I’ve bypassed them since a midnight stop at an Atlanta gas station restroom once proved to be just a little bit too scary thanks to some hoodlums hanging about.  Rest stops usually have a security guard on-site and are generally cleaner than gas stations.  The facilities are also larger and more comfortable.
 
Be sure to pack some fun little diversions for the kids.  We generally take family-oriented audio books and the “swag bags” I wrote about in a previous post. 
 
Step Four:  At Your Destination
 
When enjoying family vacations, remember to pace yourselves.  Two full days in a row of amusement parks can be exhausting.   Rotate high impact days, like Disney or Universal, with low impact days like sunning on the beach or relaxing by the pool.
 
Expect melt-downs from kids and adults alike about half-way through your trip.  Everyone will be tired from being on the run and having too much fun.  Being ready for the melt-downs allows you to handle the inevitable and make sure that mole hills don’t turn into mountains.  Sometimes a laid back day spent going to a movie and out to a quiet dinner can provide a restful break.  Only you can determine how best to allow your family to rest. 
 
Above all, remember to relax and enjoy this special time with your family.
 
This will be my last post until about April 4.  Come back to this site then and we’ll talk about Rome, Italy.  Ciao!