Saturday, November 28, 2009

Washington's Winter Getaways

The folks at Friday Harbor House ( on San Juan Island are offering up two cleverly-named packages that are going into our 'traveler tickler' file, the place we store good ideas about places we have not yet visited. This 23-room hotel has an Eat, Drink and be Jolly package starting at $239 a night, (two-night minimum stay required) that includes Continental breakfast and two 60-minute spa treatments - facial or massage - followed by milk and cookies in your room. Also included is a CD of holiday tunes. While that package runs through Dec. 31st, another even more tempting is the 0ne-night Curl Up with a Good Book package that includes a $30 gift certificate to a local bookstore and hot chocolate. It runs through April 30, 2010 and starts at $229 a night.

The nose-numbing crisp winter air of Central Washington tempts at Stehekin, the tiny hub nestled on the slope of the Cascade Mountain range at the tip of the 55-mile-long glacier-fed Lake Chelan. Stehekin Landing Resort ( has become a favorite summer/fall destination but unfortunately, they don't rent rooms in the winter. We don't have the equipment - nor desire - to camp in the snow. Two cabins are available for rent so we may just round up some adventuresome friends to join us in this mountainous wonderland where the winter days are short and the piles of snow tall. If nothing else a day trip aboard the Lady of the Lake to the Landing for a bowl of steaming hot soup may be in order. For more about Stehekin in the winter, check out my article in the Seattle Times, November 26, 2009.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Headin' to Austin

I'll be writing y'all from Austin, Texas, 'the live music capital of the world', next week. While the trip is prompted by a conference I am attending, we tacked on a weekend stay to explore a bit of this part of the Lone Star State. After three weeks of continual Pacific Northwest rain and wind, we are looking forward to a place that also boasts 300 days of sunshine a year and average daily December temperatures of 62F.

If the town is half as much fun to visit as its Visitors and Convention web site (, we will have a great time.

Founded in 1839, it sounds like there's a lot of history to be found there. Two free guided walking history tours are offered each week; one of Congress Ave./6th Street (Thurs - Sat. 9 a.m. and Sunday 2 p.m.)and one of the Bremond Block Historic District (11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday). All we need do is register 48-hours in advance by calling 866-GO-AUSTIN.

Getting to Austin will be a snap as Alaska Airlines ( just started non-stop service between Seattle and Austin, (every day but Saturday when they loop passengers through a San Jose, CA, connection to get back to Seattle). Alaska's introductory fares are starting at $119 each way.

We'll be staying at the Courtyard by Marriott at the Downtown Convention Center. The conference rate of $185 per night drops to $135.96 AAA rate per night of our weekend stay. However, a friend who just returned from Austin reports even better deals; she nabbed a 4-star hotel in downtown Austin for $105 a night, including taxes, on

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Honolulu: Surf's up and prices are down

We started planning the January get-away several months ago by locking in the dates of our Marriott Vacation Club stay at Ko Olina near Kapolei but later when booking the airline decided to tack nine nights in Honolulu on to the front end of our stay. For two years we've rented a condo at The Banyon but this year our dates and its availablitiy didn't match. After following up on suggested alternatives, we found they either lacked in location or view or they are owned by people who haven't yet heard there is a slump in tourism.

Hotels were a different story: The Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort & Spa ( that two years ago had January city view rooms at $269 per night currently is offering a $144 (AAA rate) per night. That seemed an incredible savings until Joel, this travel duo's researcher, found the Hilton Waikiki Prince Kuhio, ( located on the same intersection as the Banyan and Marriott, had ocean view rooms for our January time period at $99 per night. We booked it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Kitron sipping in Naxos

I neglected to say much about the Greek Island of Naxos, the last stop on our itinerary-less fall trip only as result of lack of time and technology. But this, the largest of the Greek Cyclades, shouldn't be overlooked for a number of reasons - one of which is sipping Kitron (Citron) a drink only distilled here.

In appearance the citron, appears to be a large, oversized lumpy lemon. The story goes that it was introduced into the Mediterranian region back in 300 BC by Alexander the Great. Believed through the centuries to have medicinal value and reputed to be a symbol of wealth and fertility, its popularity grew to such proportions that citron groves nearly blanketed the entire island.

Today the island has two major producers and the limited production pretty much limits availability to the island. It is great for souvenirs. The key ingredient to the drink are the citron tree leaves, not the fruit. The family-run Vallindras Distillery opened in Halki town in 1896 and continues to use the old method of drying the leaves, then mixing them with alcohol and water in a boiler heated with olive wood fires; ultimately adding water and sugar to the mixture creating the popular drink. It is worth a visit when you are on Naxos.

Our nightly ritual for the three of us -- Joel and I and Rob, the traveler from Australia with whom we forged a friendship as we hauled suitcases up the hill in Folegandros -- was to sip a Kitron (or two) at Kitron Naxos, a popular waterfront bar, across the street from the marina. We had actually begun our nightcap tradition in Folegandros, sipping Greek raki, and we continued the ritual sipping Kitron in Naxos.
Kitron comes in three versions: green with the most sugar and least alcohol (30%), clear, which tastes somewhat like Contreau (33%) and the yellow which has the least sugar, most aroma and alcohol (36%). We liked the yellow best - although each was good.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Wynn-ers In Vegas

Our Pacific Northwest location allows us to head to SeaTac, hop a two-hour Alaska Air flight and be in Las Vegas in less time than it sometimes takes to drive across the state of Washington. So it seemed the logical destination last week for a quick trip to 'see the sun' now that the winter clouds and rain have arrived here.
This trip, like two before it, took us to Wynn Resort and Casino, just across The Strip from the greatly expanded and upgraded Fashion Show Mall. While Wynn was offering some good room rates, Joel found the best deal on Expedia ( where we got the same rate as offered by the hotel as well as a $100 resort credit, which wasn't available by booking direct. Wynn's spacious guest rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows provide expansive views out to the mountains. ( As shown above - our room was on the 23rd floor, not quite half way up the building and provided great views of the fountain light show as well). And its casino has penny slot machines that can keep one entertained for hours because they pay out often enough to keep us non-gamblers happy.

For some the thought of Vegas still conjours up images of dark, dank, smoke-filled casinos but that isn't the case these days. Casino resorts offer high end clothing, jewelry and shoes, restaurants feature the menus of culinary award-winning chefs and pool areas and spas are the perfect relaxation havens.

Window shopping at Caesar's Forum Shops and strolling through Bellagio's plant conservatory are always on our itinerary; both provide great free entertainment. Fall was in the air at the conservatory.

Another way to save money in Vegas is to stop by one of the many half-price ticket outlets that dot The Strip. Tix 4 Tonight ( offers discounted tickets to shows and for dining. We nabbed a good deal at a Paris steakhouse on our last trip down by just standing in the (sometimes lengthy) half-price ticket line at the Fashion Mall.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Paris Postscript: getting around

There's no better city for strolling than Paris with its long, wide tree-lined boulevards and narrow sidestreets that twist and turn past centuries old buildings. We've strolled on snow dusted sidewalks in March, through downpours of rain in late October and under rays of intense September sun ~ and it ranks as our favorite way to see this city. These strolls are perfect for window shopping, my two favorite stores being the floral shops

and, of course, the chocolate shops' art displays.

While we love the strolls, it is nice to hop the Metro to get back to the hotel when the weather is particularly nasty or our throbbing feet tell us the stroll has become a hike. It took awhile for us to get the hang of the efficient mass transit system coming from an area of the Pacific Northwest where the addition of lightrail was this year's headlines. Now we find using Paris's underground system as easy as the guidebooks told us it would be. Paris Visite passes are available for single or multiple day use and single tickets are sold in carnets or packets of 10 tickets. Because we like walking we opted for the carnet, which we purchased at the Metro station. The carnet at 11.60E ($17.40US) was a savings over the single ticket price (1.60E each way) of 16E ($24). Tickets can be used on RER trains in the city, buses and Metro. Bus 69 is recommended in tourist guides for inexpensive sightseeing -- and it is -- but we've found every bus to be a great sightseeing route.

Batobus, ( operates river boat taxis that travel the Seine making stops at eight notable locations in Paris, including Notre-Dame, Louvre, and the Eiffel Tower. A day pass, that allows hop-on, hop-off stops is 12E these days. Multi-day passes are also available. From the back deck of the boat you can get some great photos although the glass enclosed walls and ceilings can get a bit steamy when sitting inside with a large group of other tourists.

We traveled from Charles de Gaule (Roissy) airport using the Air France bus, Les Cars, ( You don't have to fly Air France to use the bus. We made a rather costly decision to buy two one way tickets at 15E ($22.50US) per ticket instead of buying round-trip tickets at 24E ($36US). The bus makes several stops in the city; one of which was two blocks from our hotel. We had considered taking a taxi to the airport but as our desk clerk pointed out, both bus and taxi will get stopped in the commuter crush - so the taxi wouldn't get there any faster - but its price isn't set as is the bus.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Paris Postscript : L' Entrecote

A chance conversation with a couple of Pariseans while sipping a glass of rose in our neighborhood bar led to one of the best dining experiences we have ever had in Paris. The young couple suggested we try , "L' Entrecote" a place popular with locals and tourists alike. Their words were echoed by our hotel clerk, so we set off to find le "Le Relais de Venise son l' Entrecote" at 271 boulevard Periere, Porte-Maillot- a place, they said, is known for its 'special sauce'. The legendary sauce was created in 1959 by Marie-Paule Burris and her father.

We arrived at the restaurant at 6:40 p.m., twenty minutes before it opened for the evening's dining. There were only four others outside the restaurant when Joel read the hand-written menu posted outside the door. Not wanting to perpetuate the image of Americans -- who eat unfashionably early -- we went down the street and nursed a small glass of rose, finally giving in to hunger and returning to the restaurant at 7:20 p.m. In that 40 minutes the place had filled. Jam-packed filled.

We sat shoulder-to-shoulder, with other diners, our tables only inches apart. The only thing we had to decide was "rare, medium, or well-done" and the rest is taken care of by teams of efficient wait staff. We were served a green salad with walnuts before the entre: steak frites, french fries and a cut-it-with-your-fork rib steak drenched in an herb sauce that lived up to decades of accumulated accolades. Wait staff whirled around the crowded room, but kept a watchful eye on their assigned diners, as the moment we finished this first plate, they returned with platters from which they served us a second round.

And of course, we had to try a dessert; a delightful artery-clogging, calorie-laden Profiterolles Chocolat a plate of ice cream filled puffs swimming in dark chocolate (almonds are good for you though, I reasoned):
We had this gastronomical romp for 69E, just over a $100US which included a bottle of house wine. It was one of the best food buys we had, particularly when 1E = $1.50US. When we left at 8:30 the line of people waiting to eat their stretched into the street:
Reservations aren't taken at this place but we recommend it highly no matter how long the wait. We dined at the original restaurant location, however its website says it is now open in Manhatten and Bahrain as well.

Paris Postscript: Rue Cler

We were introduced to Paris a few years ago while staying in the 7th Arrondissement's (district's ) Rue Cler because Rick Steves', the Edmonds-based travel guru, recommended it in his guidebook. Rick didn't steer us wrong. Settled in to one of the hotel's he recommended, we were charmed by the area's street markets selling everything from fruit to flowers on the pedestrian-friendly two-block stretch of street. Cafes, bars and bakeries line the street, providing a backdrop to street merchants. It snowed often during our week-long stay and temperatures seldom got above freezing that March, but the merchants bundled up and sold their wares.

This trip we stayed in the 17th Arrondissement, a new favorite part of town; our hotel a block from the Arc d' Triomphe, but we couldn't resist a Sunday morning stroll through the Rue Cler. Paris street markets are open until 1:30 on Sunday then close until Tuesday morning, so the place was packed with shoppers. And despite the joke that it has become Rick Steves' Rue Cler, packed with tourists, we visitors were few and far between.

In addition to the vendors the organ grinder kept the atmosphere lively much to the delight of children drawn to his music. Just a bit further down the block this kid stole the show.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Bagless-Lady - did it work?

The question had been: could Joel and I spend five weeks traveling out of two carry-on-sized roller bags and two Baggallini totes while visiting two distinctly different places: Greek Islands (sandals, shorts and tee-shirts) and Paris, home to haute-fashionistas?

The answer is - YES! But not everything worked as planned, so for those of you head-shakers, here's the skinny:

Our plan was to carry our bags on to the planes, as one was the size of a large purse and the other a cabin-size-approved bag. For that reason we took no toiletries that couldn't fit in that miniscule quart-sized baggie, planning to buy what we needed once we arruved. The plan worked for our British Air flight and was resoundingly dashed by easyJet, the low-cost European airline. They make their money on the extra charges so one bag - of whatever size- means one bag. So we paid to check the roller bags 16L each ($26US) going and 22E ($33US) on our return.

We ended up still buying the toothpaste, mouth-washing and toiletries that we could have brought from home. First, lesson learned: plan on checking bags.

Our wardrobes, while not having the variety of the home closet, were more than adequate. We each took one pair of shoes (to wear in Paris) and a pair of Clark's ( unstructured black walking sandals for Greece. They are by far the most comfortable shoes we have worn on our travels and my pedometer tells me we walked more than 100 miles while gone. Mine are un.hull ($100, weighing only 6 ounces) and Joel's un.mast ($120- weight 9 ounces). Two downsides: my feet are now suntanned in zebra stripes, but now back in the Pacific Northwest, no one sees them. We were also prevented from taking some of the wonderful hikes in Greece as these two styles didn't quite have the tread to tackle the trails. Next time we will pack hiking sandals as well.

I could have taken fewer tee-shirts and a second pair of shorts. But not having the shorts led to one of our funnier shopping experiences at a farmer's market in Crete. We each decided to buy a pair of unisex (hiking style) shorts for 5E ($7.50US) a pair. The little old lady selling them had me try mine on over my clothes in the middle of the pedestrian walkway (blocking traffic ) and insisted the large that hung to my knees fit perfectly. I ended up purchasing a smaller size!

My Paris wardrobe was black - everyone it seems wears black with a scarf. I had two scarves - more than enough for five days. I was approached by a lady who asked a question of me in French and seemed surprised to learn I spoke English - my wardrobing must have worked. My Paris outfits came from Chico's ( Zenergy line. I found it to be lighter weight than their Travelers and also dried much faster. I had two pair of pants, a lightweight jacket and a heavier rain-coat (worn in the photo). All took up so little space in the suitcase that I am sold on them for all travel now.

The Baggallini ( bags we took were my small Around Town ($74.95, 8" tall, 11"wide and 4" deep, 14 ounces) which fit nicely into the larger Only Bag ($69.95, 10"x 15.5"x 7.5", 20 ounces) The smaller bag fit into the zippered center section and our Acer Aspire One netbook (2.7 pounds)slipped easily into one of the outside pockets that snapped to close. Baggallini was founded in 1995 by two fomer flight attendants. Their products have served me so well that I may never use a conventional purse again at home or while traveling.

I've noted weights on this entry because the reality of European travel is that you are going to be carrying your bags into tight places such as metro cars, airport shuttle buses, over uneven sidewalks, and often times up and down stairways. Metro stations are always interesting with usually a modern escalator going up or down and stairs going the opposite direction. I counted 60 steps, spread over three flights of stairs, at the metro station in Athens near our hotel. Train and Metro stops are often quick and marked with crushes of people jostling each other to get off and get on. Fellow passengers are not sympathetic of tourists attempting to haul huge bags into the cars.
I am now thinking about 'next time' and ways we can further save weight and space. I'll let you know when come up with the next plan.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...