Monday, August 23, 2010

Moonlighting as a Travel Agent

I love giving travel advice. If you know me, you’ll know this simple and undeniable fact. The very reason for starting this blog was to promote travel, to tell my own travel stories and to give ideas and advice to anyone who will listen.

I go gaga at the mere mention of travel, whether it is you, your friend or your mother’s aunt’s dog’s cousin twice removed who is travelling…I love to offer my suggestions and stories about my experiences whenever welcome. I can talk ad nauseam about planes, trains, automobiles and that’s just on the subject of transportation. Get me going on specific destinations and you’ll never hear the end of it.

I try to limit my travel advice to when it is solicited. Generally, I find people are much more receptive to just about any kind of advice when they ask for it…travel tips not excluded.

A few weeks ago I had some friends ask me where they should go on their honeymoon. They were thinking Italy and/or Greece but had no idea where to start. Little did they know I would prepare an entire report on locations in Italy, Greece and also a personal suggestion, one of my favorite destinations, Turkey.

My friends decided to book their once in a lifetime love-trip to Athens and the Greek isle of Santorini. In addition to a slew of other information, I recommended a restaurant on Santorini that I visited years ago called Senor Zorba’s, a Mexican restaurant. I started out by advising they not actually eat there…Mexican food in Greece, not really authentic or at all appealing for that matter. I suggested they toast to their life together over a margarita while watching the legendary sunset over the caldera and the glistening Aegean Sea. While not an epicurean paradise, Senor Zorba’s provides a lovely and very romantic spot high atop the white-washed cliffs of Santorini.

My friends aren’t the only ones to feed my obsession with giving travel advice. My father is a corporate pilot and flies all around the world. I often live vicariously through him as he flies his company’s executives to far-flung destinations and then gets to wander, eat, and play until they are ready to return home. Years ago my father flew to Edinburgh, Scotland where the executives had a short meeting in the city centre. Because I lived in this gorgeous city and am absolutely fanatical for anything involving my darling Edinburgh, I prepared a two page list of restaurants, activities, and must-see sights. My jet-lagged, time-crunched dad didn’t have the time or energy to do one of my suggestions let alone the whole list but I couldn’t help myself, I wanted him to have options.

The same thing happened when he was in Paris over night last year. Excited that my dad would finally see The City of Light, I prepared a very detailed report on public transportation from the airport he flew into, shops, a small language guide (I speak French) and most importantly some restaurant recommendations. Eating well in Paris is paramount. I sent my father and his co-pilot to one of my favorite restaurants in the world, Joel Robouchon’s Atelier. Located in the posh Hotel Pont Royal, this Michelin starred restaurant focuses around the kitchen, the workshop. Guests sit at a bar which encircles the open kitchen and meticulous chefs preparing Robouchon’s unearthly creations. The portions are small and meant for a tasting experience. However, I made sure my dad knew to get a large portion of the mashed potatoes…they’re what dreams are made of!

I spent all morning digging up info for my friend’s honeymoon, I spent multiple days gathering information on Paris hot spots, and I took a lovely and nostalgic trip down memory lane compiling my list of recommendations in Edinburgh. I want my friends and family to enjoy their trips. Nevertheless, I can’t say my travel tips are entirely selfless. I truly, honestly love travel research and interjecting with my own experiences and stories so much so that I probably should have become a travel agent. It makes me so happy, giddy even. Train tables, fare watchers, hotel guides…you name it, I have fun dreaming about visiting other places.

So, be prepared when you ask me for travel advice. You will literally make my day (or week depending on where you’re going) and you’ll get more information on a place and how to get there than you ever imagined. If that’s not your bag Baby, check out a copy of Lonely Planet at your nearby library and knock yourself out.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Tuk-Tuk Tour of Bangkok

'Put, put, tuk, tuk , vroom'…the tuk-tuk, an auto rickshaw that carries my husband and I through the crowded, chaotic streets of Bangkok fumes a black exhaust that covers my sweaty, sunburned skin with a layer of the infamous city smog. We hailed this tuk-tuk outside our hotel and have asked the driver to take us to the Blue Elephant for dinner. I’m starving and after our day of sightseeing the exotic metropolis I desperately crave a relaxing, satisfying Thai meal.

We ride in the tuk-tuk for what seems like ages. We dodge fruit vendors, bypass slower traffic, and nearly curb the makeshift median a few times. Suddenly the tuk-tuk pulls over at a store front and the Thai driver, who doesn’t speak a lick of English ushers us into a shop. He welcomes us and encourages us to shop through the conglomeration of touristy items, mostly Buddha figurines, ‘real’ Thai silk, and home wares made from teak wood. We’re not really in the market for souvenirs. After a long day we just want to eat dinner. We leave the shop and hop back in to the tuk-tuk onward to our desired destination, so we think.

The driver stops at another shop and requests that we at least have a look. I understand these guys are dirt poor and that the driver gets a commission from every purchase made at each shop. It is collaboration and I can’t blame them for that. We have a browse at the junk to appease the driver and request we proceed to the restaurant where we have a reservation that we are now late for.

After yet another souvenir shop stop and the inkling of imminent heat stroke, we opt for the air-conditioned serenity of a taxi that takes us directly to our destination. After the tuk-tuk souvenir shop tour of Bangkok, the grimy, hot open air and chaotic traffic, I recommend just about any alternative mode of transportation; taxi, Skytrain, Underground Rail System, or dematerialization transport by the Starship Enterprise...'Beam me up Scottie!'

  • Though the tuk-tuks are a cheap method of transportation, (usually around 30B for a short trip) you are bound to tour all the souvenir shops on the way to your requested destination. If you choose to take a tuk-tuk sweetly but firmly request that you go directly to your destination. Haggle at least 15B off the quoted fare as the price is inflated from the start.

  • Bangkok is meteorologically the world’s hottest city. Paired with a population of 9,100,000 and traffic that persists all hours of the day, expect sticky, gritty, smoggy air that can be especially apparent in tuk-tuks.

  • Avoid taking tuk-tuks (or taxis for that matter) between the hours of 7:00am – 9am and 4pm – 5pm. These times are ‘rush hour’ and you don’t want to be stuck in traffic for hours sweating and breathing the hazardous fumes from engines all around you.

  • Taxis are also plentiful in Bangkok and can be flagged all about the city. They come in a variety of colours though green-yellow and red-blue ones are the most common. They are very cheap by international standards (35B flag rate and 5B/km after that) and the drivers have an encyclopedic knowledge of the city.

  • The Skytrain (BTS) and the underground rail system (MRT) are great public transportation alternatives to tuk-tuks and taxis. The BTS is cheap, smooth, cool, clean, fast and scenic way to enjoy Bangkok. Trains service two lines and arrive every 3 - 6 minutes or so between 6:30am and midnight. MRT is also a clean, cool choice for public transport. With a capacity to whiz 40,000 passengers per hour in each direction, trains arrive every five minutes in peak times (7am - 9am, 4pm - 5pm) and every seven minutes off peak.

Beaten into submission by a tuk-tuk

Friday, August 13, 2010

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

Years ago I had a conversation with a co-worker who couldn’t fathom why I would ever want to go to Thailand. I tried to explain my motives; the food, the rush of the colorful markets, the fascinating culture, the renowned service and the value for money, and the diverse range of activities and tourist facilities available. My co-worker had absolutely no desire to ever see Thailand and preferred to use vacation time to partake in a poker championship at a Las Vegas casino.

Elephant Ride in Koh Samui, Thailand

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The same is true for travel. One man’s paradise is another man’s purgatory. One traveller’s pleasure is another’s pain. While what constitutes the perfect destination and method of travel varies greatly for each person, there is undeniable beauty in the act of travelling. To far-flung locales or to the next town on the interstate, people travel to experience, discover, and relax.

What one considers a perfect destination depends largely on a traveller’s personality and character. Some people enjoy relaxing beach vacations, others like adventurous climbs on the world’s highest peaks; others appreciate fine food and culture in the world’s most cosmopolitan cities. To each his (or her) own and that is what makes travel so universal- it’s subjective and ever-changing just like any form of beauty.

Some call me crazy; I just call myself anxious to take any trip I can. I like to journey to exotic locales all over the world. I also enjoy cross-country road trips, weekend getaways to sleepy mountain towns, camping trips and travel to just about anywhere that constitutes somewhere new or different. Something about the act of moving is undeniably attractive to me.

Our Camp at the Flat Tops, Colorado

I recently took a road trip with my husband and 14 month old son through the heartland of America. My husband drove along the dusty, barren highway and I sat in the back seat ‘playing the clown’, entertaining my baby for twelve hours. My best friend said she would never ever subject herself to something like that. What is unthinkable misery to my best friend was, to me, an economical, flexible way to travel that enabled us to bring much more luggage and spend LOTS of quality time together.

Taking a Roadtrip Break...Somewhere in Kansas

Aside from cross-country road trips, some travellers shy away from destinations due to uncomfortably long flights, multiple stopovers, and challenging situations along the way. To others, like me, the actual act of travelling is exciting. I look forward to each and every flight, my uninterrupted SkyMall reading time, the airline beverage cart and my Bloody Mary mix over ice with a lime. I look forward to frequent flyer miles, in-flight movies, free wine, and most of all, the anticipation and excitement of a new place. The long layovers, grimy teeth, achy muscles, blood-shot eyes, snoring seat mates, screaming babies and grumpy airline personnel are just part of the deal. You have to take the bad with the good.

The actual act of travelling does present quite a few challenges in the process of getting from point A to point B. This is why I say the beauty of specific travel preferences are in the eye of the beholder. One of the best compliments I ever received was from a well-travelled person I greatly admire. She said, ‘you guys are the kind of people that would travel to Scotland for the weekend with three kids and four layovers.’ I thought about this comment for days and agree completely. I’ll take whatever circumstance, ideal or not, that enables me to travel. I'll take what I can get. Call it being intoxicated by travel itself, anxious to get any action I can or just having beer goggles on when it comes to the method of travel I find attractive.

Being a travel obsessed person I find just about any destination desirable. Years ago my grandma, not a traveller herself, asked me, ‘why would you ever want to go to Ghana?’ I replied, ‘if you don’t know, you should go’. If you don’t know why something is attractive to someone else, the best way to find out is to get to know it. It’s like meeting someone that you don’t find attractive initially who grows more and more beautiful to you the more you get to know the person. The same is true with places. Though I wasn’t expecting to find beauty in Ghana, my 10 days spent there showed an irresistible quality that nowhere else in the world possesses.

Motherly Love in Accra, Ghana

Like beauty, everyone has a different opinion about what makes a holiday destination attractive. Whatever your preference, travel is like beauty itself- it’s subjective and universal. Though the ‘where’ and 'how' is a personal preference, the act of discovering new places, seeing how others live, experiencing different cultures, getting out of everyday life and seeking rest and recreation is an inherently beautiful thing.

Paris, France with My Best Friend

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Fringe

They dance to the Chattanooga Choo-Choo with nipple tassels a-twirling. They run through brick walls. They play Scotland the Brave on bagpipes, a sound that resonates off the old cobbled streets of an ancient city. They are The Fringe. The Fringe artists breathe a passion for performing arts through Scotland’s capital, long known to cultivate art and culture.

August 6th marks the beginning of a three-week explosion of non-stop energy that pulsates through Scotland’s breathtaking capital. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe or ‘The Fringe’ is the largest annual arts festival in the world and includes 32,000 performances and more than 2,000 shows packed into 250 venues across the city.


The Fringe, originated by the uninvited, fringe artists of the Edinburgh International Festival, hosts a slew of unapproved and unrestricted performances that range from big-budget, high production spectacles showcased in lavish theatres to low-budget buskers who display their talent on street corners. Audiences can view anything from traditional, full troupe Shakespearean plays to one-woman interpretive African dance routines.

I’ve spent two years in Edinburgh during The Fringe and have seen a variety of shows. My Fringe experience includes a one-man show of forgotten lines, an Argentinean sensory overload, a time-honored military tradition and a titillating burlesque number that would make even the raciest of us blush.

Insider tip: There is a half-price ticket hut located on Princes Street (the main thoroughfare that separates Old Town and New Town) in front of the Princes Street Mall. The hut sells day-of tickets for half price to an assortment of shows around the city. This is a great option if you want to experience The Fringe on a budget and you’re not sure exactly what you want to see.

Oh La La

I took advantage of the half-price ticket hut and purchased tickets for a Vaudeville show which turned out to be a sultry cabaret burlesque number. A good deal on the tickets turned into a good deal of surprise as my husband and I watched a show of saucy sing-along dance numbers complete with fishnets and nipple tassels. The show was modern yet paid homage to old-time saloon entertainment. My first experience with burlesque was undeniably tasteful and pleasant.

Set to an array of music like the Scissor Sister’s song ‘Filthy/Gorgeous’ and the ‘Chattanooga Choo-choo’ this light-hearted cabaret show dazzled with routines that were comedic, nudity that was graceful, and costumes that were tantalizing beautiful. A small cast of British gals flaunted their healthy proportions and quite literally bounced along to the music. As I sipped my bubbly, huddled around a cabaret table in a dimly lit theatre, I couldn’t help but feel the contagious excitement of the actors and the sheer amusement of the audience around me. Though not for everyone, this burlesque was a nice and unexpected surprise.

Insider Tip: There is a program of all the shows online and in a printed version that can be found all around the city during the month of August. Do some research before you buy tickets to a show if you want to be sure of what you are going to see. Or, be spontaneous, live on the edge and choose blindly from the hundreds of half-price tickets for sale. You may be pleasantly surprised (like I was) or not.

Time Honored Tradition

A more modest and notable performance of the Edinburgh Festival is the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. No, no, no…it has nothing to do with needles, ‘getting inked’ or displaying ‘tats’. The Military Tattoo is a military drum performance complete with bagpipes and performers from over 30 countries.

More than 12 million people have attended the Tattoo and the annual audience is around 217,000. The Edinburgh Military Tattoo is performed every night during the festival, live on the esplanade of the Edinburgh Castle. The event has been sold out in advance for the past decade and is one of the most sought after tickets of the Edinburgh Festival.

The music played by the lone piper standing on the castle ramparts will send a thrill up your spine whether you’re a fan of bagpipes or not. The sun is setting, the torches are lit. On the esplanade of the great Edinburgh Castle, 150 bagpipers play Scottish Tunes with hundreds of highland dancers. To close out the evening, more than 8000 people sing Auld Lang Syne. You can't help but get a bit teary-eyed hearing Robert Burns' poem sung in such a magnificent setting.


Insider Tip: I bought tickets for the Tattoo in January (7 months in advance) and was only able to obtain modest seats. Buy online early in the year to secure good seats. On that note, a good seat is a subjective term. No matter where you sit the close quarters will make you will feel like you’re in your neighbor’s lap.

Brute Force

Another big-budget production I had the privilege of seeing was Fuerza Bruta which means Brute Force. Fuerza Bruta is an Argentinean production from Buenos Aires that toured Edinburgh in 2007. Fuerza Bruta is the most expensive and technically elaborate show to ever hit The Fringe. The show, like nothing you’ve ever seen before, is pure sensation and has the audience feeling and reeling from the beginning. Pounding music is played as the audience enters the 360 degree theatre and stands in a clump, circling a stage. In the first scene a man runs endlessly on a treadmill dodging bullets and crashing through brick walls made of cardboard. The audience then walks clockwise as a group while rave music plays on like a sledgehammer.

The pushing and shoving of your neighbors in the massive heap of a crowd is all part of the experience as Fuerza Bruta insinuates a theme of struggle. Scene after scene the audience moves with the performance to the left and to the right. Then towards the end of the performance our gaze is turned upward. We look up at young women hurling themselves across a transparent swimming pool above our heads. The giant, clear, suspended ‘Slip ‘N Slide’ amuses as athletic sirens frolic in the surf. Gradually the Lucite pool is lowered towards us and we reach our hands up to touch the unearthly ladies who remain just beyond our grasp, a lot like the deeper meaning of this fantastic production.


An insider tip: Tickets for Fuerza Bruta were about $50. Most tickets for other shows should be well below that.

What Was My Line?

While some performances like the Tattoo and Fuerza Bruta are unforgettable, others are forgettable or worse, forgettable to the actor himself. I stumbled upon a production on High Street (Edinburgh’s Main Street) that was free, beginning in 5 minutes and still had tickets available. It sounded too good to be true. I walked in and found a seat in the crowded theatre. Minutes later a man walked out and began his one-man show. He mimed and acted without objects. He even rode in an imaginary car while having a conversation with another character, played by himself.

It didn’t start out too bad but as the show progressed the one and only performer began to forget his lines. He’d make up lines and other times would stare out into the audience in long awkward pauses. Minute by minute audience members walked out without shame or remorse. Before long, I was the only person left in the theatre. The poor performer gazed out to me with both appreciation for staying and embarrassment, hoping I’d soon leave too. He cut his bit short and wrapped the show up in a clumsy way. Though I was the only person left in the audience and the show was miserable, I emphatically clapped anyway. It takes a lot of courage to get up on stage and I admired the actor for carrying on through this disaster of a show.

Insider Tip: More often than not you get what you pay for. Usually the free shows are free for a reason.

I’ve had the privilege to see multiple Fringe shows and feel lucky to have experienced the madness of August in Edinburgh two years in a row. The above four descriptions are only a sampling of what’s on offer at The Festival. Of the 32,000 performances there are many burlesque shows each with a different theme; the Military Tattoo is an annual performance, though tickets sell out early in the year; Fuerza Bruta is not in Edinburgh this year but can be seen in 2010 in New York and Chicago; many free performances can be found in venues around the city though buyer, rather non-buyer, beware. For current information on venues, performances, and ticket prices refer to The Fringe program online.


Perhaps the most impressive sight of The Fringe is bustling, mobbed streets of Edinburgh itself filled with freelance rappers, pink-haired magicians, flame throwers, accordion players with their buskering Chihuahuas, juggling unicycle riders, young actors dressed as Nessie the Loch Ness Monster, contortionists and every other kind of aspiring performer. In an age when theatre is often pushed to the backburner, an entire city of artists and audiences talking day and night about virtually nothing else is quite a spectacle.