Saturday, December 24, 2011

The World's Most Travelled Man

We are live here on Christmas Eve from the Faraway Pillow News Desk interrupting your scheduled internet browsing for a breaking report... we've received credible reports that he has packed up his sleigh, fattened up his eight tiny reindeer, and has made the final preparations for his flight around the world. Stay tuned as this story develops. Faraway Pillow News aims to keep you informed as we follow the world’s most travelled man, Santa.

Breaking News: St. Nicholas has been spotted high above the summer skies of Sydney, Australia. It’s near 100 degrees Fahrenheit and Christmas dinner is being served on Bondi beach. The feast includes turkey, ham and Christmas pudding with a gold nugget hidden inside…watch out! While a surfboard and surf shorts might be more appropriate for Santa here, he does the job in his big red suit.

Christmas is a magical time and Santa, a symbol of the season, brings joy and wonder to millions of children around the world. This time of year brings out the inner child in all of us... if we allow ourselves to believe.

We've just heard from our collaborators in Tokyo that Santa has just arrived in Japan where he is referred to as Hoteiosto, an old priest with eyes in the back of his head. Children are advised to be good when he comes around. While Santa is reported to have had a hankering for sushi and udon he ended up with turkey for dinner, an American custom adopted by the Japanese.

Some say Santa isn't real because they haven’t seen reindeer fly, can’t conceive how a man (whose belly shakes like a bowl full of jelly) could squeeze down a chimney, don’t understand how one man can travel the globe in a mere night. Seeing isn't believing, believing is seeing. Have you ever seen a million dollars? Just because you haven't seen it, doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Magic is all around us. I believe. Do you?

We’ve just received word that Santa has arrived in Sweden, where he goes by Tomte, a gnome who comes out from under the house with a sack full of gifts for good little children. He eats bowls of porridge left out for him by the family. Reindeer are originally from Scandinavia, so Rudolph feels right at home!

Now, messages from our sponsors: Milk and cookies... monopolizing Santa's Christmas Eve treat for generations!

Milk… does a body good.

Tollhouse cookies… Make your holidays sweet with America’s favorite cookie!

We're back and this story is rapidly developing! Santa has been seen gliding over the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Père Noël has left presents in the shoes of les bon enfants and has had the Christmas fare of oysters, fois gras and bouche de noel (Christmas cake). Not only is Santa the world’s most traveled man, he’s an epicurean. Paris was definitely the right place to go for dinner!

Food is an important part of noel celebrations. No matter your country, customs, or family, food is always part of the festivities. In my house we wake up to the cinnamon scent of Monkey Bread baking in the oven. Food creates memories...think back to your childhood; food no doubt has a premier spot in your yuletide traditions.
Folks, this just in…Santa has been seen over South Africa where children have hung their stockings for Father Christmas. The windows of houses are decorated with sparkling cotton wool and tinsel to look like snow, regardless that it is summer! Guess they were dreaming of a white Christmas.  

We've got an update for you folks! Santa has been spotted in Brazil where he is called Papa Noel. He puts presents in children’s shoes and hides other presents all around the house. When children wake up they search for the hidden gifts only after they serve their parents breakfast in bed! Reportedly, Santa almost crashed into the 275 foot Christmas tree that floats in Rio de Janeiro’s Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon!

Papa Noel, Babbo Natale, Father Christmas, Ded Moroz, Kris Kringle, Sinterklaas, Agios Vassilios...though he has many names, Santa Claus embodies the spirit of giving, kindness, and love around the world. Christmastime briefly transforms mankind, which is naturally selfish and cynical, and like a sparkling Christmas bulb, shines a ray of altruism and hope across a seemingly dark winter night.

You heard it here first… Santa has entered American airspace! Quick, boys and girls get to bed, put out milk and cookies for Old St. Nick and don’t forget carrots for the reindeer.

As travelers we can really appreciate Santa’s magic. He goes to all 192 countries and visits each and every home that celebrates Christmas. He transcends languages, cultures, and time zones. Santa, if you’re tuned in to our program… for Christmas I want one round-the-world ride in your sleigh... no customs/immigration queues, no annoying airport announcers, no long security lines, no airline meal mystery meat!

No matter your beliefs or customs, the magic of Christmas is abound. People come together to celebrate; the traditions are varied, the cuisine is diverse, but one thing unites us; the spirit of forgiveness, reconciliation, generosity, and love. Merry Christmas to all and to all a goodnight!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Edinburgh At A Glance

I lived in Edinburgh for two magnificent years, the best of my life. Every day I was there I experienced the grandeur of the Scottish seat in all its glory and every day since departing, I’ve conjured images in dreams. There’s no leaving Edinburgh, it always stays with you.

Many people feel the same as I do about ‘Auld Reekie’, as its affectionately called. In fact, Edinburgh is the second most visited tourist destination in Britain. Edinburgh is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, noted for its cultural and physical significance. It's often referred to as 'the Athens of the North' because eighteenth century Edinburgh had more impact on our ideas than any town of its size since the time of Socrates. The city was one of the historical major centers of the enlightenment, led by the University of Edinburgh, long regarded as one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

My Alma Mater
In addition to its intellectual merits, Edinburgh manages to combine both ancient and modern in a uniquely Scottish atmosphere. Watched over by the imposing castle, the symbol of the city, Edinburgh combines medieval relics, Georgian opulence and a powerful layer of modern life with contemporary avant-garde. Medieval palaces rub shoulders with the best of modern architecture, Gothic churches with remarkable museums and galleries. Edinburgh is also a feast for the mind and the senses, playing host to great restaurants, shops and an unequaled program of city festivals throughout the year. Robert Louis Stevenson said, ‘Edinburgh is everything Paris ought to be’.

I am homesick for a home I held so briefly. I yearn for the essence of the city. Most of all, I miss everyday things like the sound of cars as they swish past on a rain-soaked cobbled street, ‘thump, thump, thump, whoosh’, the tires digging into the wet grooves of a three-hundred year-old road. I miss the smell of hops in the air as the scent of the nearby Caledonian brewery wafts through town. I hunger for the taste of Scotch foods like Heather honey, Monkfish, oatcakes, and haggis. I daydream about the view from high atop the Nelson Monument, looking over the city like a bird. I ache for the feel of cold morning mist on my rosy cheeks.

My perfect day in Edinburgh starts with a ‘white coffee’ and a pastry at Patisserie Florentin in Stockbridge, a neighborhood just a five-minute walk north of city centre. I lived in Stockbridge during my time in Edinburgh and it’s one of my favorite areas. It feels like a village within a city; small and quaint but part of something larger. Charity shops, boutiques, restaurants and pubs line both sides Raeburn Street, the main thoroughfare.

After a leisurely stroll through Stockbridge I walk onto the Water of Leith Walkway and walk southwest along the Water of Leith, a river that flows through Edinburgh to the Port of Leith and then to the sea, via the Firth of Forth. My favorite section of this promenade is through Dean Village. Now a part of Edinburgh, it was formerly a successful grain milling hamlet for more than eight hundred years. In 1833 the four-arched Dean Bridge, was erected and today provides one of the most scenic views in Edinburgh.

Dean Bridge
Midmorning is a perfect time to sit and enjoy the quiet serenity on a bench under the Dean Bridge. Woodland and water birds chirp as a passerby’s feet shuffle along the gravel path. Very few tourists know about the Water of Leith Walkway and those who I see here are most likely locals.

After a lovely morning repose I head up Queensferry road to Princes Street, Edinburgh’s main thoroughfare. This Street separates the city into two districts, Old Town to the south and New Town to the north. New Town was built between 1765 and 1850 and is rich in Georgian architecture, posh restaurants, and high-end shops. Old Town is the medieval part of the city built from the twelfth century on. Old Town is a bit more rowdy and there’s always something going on here! Whether it’s a parade, a boisterous display from Uni students or a kilted bagpiper playing on a street corner, Old Town leaves the impression that Scots love to party!

I stroll along Princes Street and take in the mighty view of the impressive castle. I window shop at a few British chain stores (High Street shops). Then, I walk one street north to the parallel, George Street, the city’s most celebrated shopping area. I walk east, all the way to the end of George Street to Saint Andrew Square where I enter Harvey Nichols, an upmarket department store. I head straight upstairs to the Forth Floor Brasserie.

Edinburgh Castle from Princes Street
It’s lunchtime and the Forth Floor offers modern Scottish cuisine with a spectacular view of the city from floor-to-ceiling glass windows. The Forth Floor offers three distinctly different areas; cocktails at the bar, a lunch in the brasserie or a gourmet dinner in the restaurant- all sharing impeccable views of the city and the Firth of Forth.

After lunch I cross Princes Street and head to Old Town via North Bridge. Everytime I cross North bridge I pause midway and gawk at the view of the city; the spires, the castle, the ancient buildings and the buzzing train station in one direction and stately Calton Hill in the other.

Calton Hill is a memorial hill just to the east of New Town. Views from a top the hill are often used in photographs and paintings of the city. Calton Hill is the headquarters of the Scottish Government which is based at St Andrew's House, on the steep southern slope of the hill. The hill also includes several iconic monuments and buildings.

View of the city from Calton Hill
It is early afternoon and the perfect time to visit Edinburgh Castle. Tourists and organized groups flock in the morning so the afternoon offers a better experience for the independent traveler. I’m fascinated by each room of this ancient fortress and am baffled how the English managed to conquer this stronghold…twice!

This brings me to an important point, The Scottish are more Scottish than they are British. While a part of the United Kingdom, Scotland differs greatly from England in many ways. There is a long history of conflict between the two nations and to this day, tension still exists. See it for yourself in a pub during a football (soccer) match. The Scots will cheer for Scotland or any team playing against England!

After visiting the castle I walk down the Royal Mile, an ancient mile-long road that connects the Castle and Holyrood Palace, her majesty’s residence in Edinburgh. Tours are available when HM is not there.

While in Old Town, I pop round to the University of Edinburgh. This is the historic location where many great minds transformed the future of the modern world. Alumni include former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Princess Margarita of Romania, Princess Raiyah of Jordan, Prime Minister of Canada Charles Tupper, Naturalist Charles Darwin, Economist Adam Smith, Engineer and inventor of the telephone Alexander Graham Bell, Philosopher David Hume, Writer Robert Louis Stevenson, and… me!

George IV Bridge is another main road in Old Town and where the National Museum of Scotland and the National Library are located. The museum houses relics from throughout Scottish history including possessions of the revered Robert the Bruce and William Wallace as well as Dolly the first cloned sheep!

The National Library brings back memories as I spent most my time here while writing my masters dissertation. It was always quiet and cold inside. I’d park myself in my usual corner with twenty or more books. I’d read all day and get lost in the research. It was dark when I got there and dark when I left.

In the winter sunrise is at around 9am and sunset at around 3pm. Because the nights are so long for a good portion of the year many social activities take place inside and usually in a public house (pub). People love to drink in Scotland and it’s as much a part of the culture as kilts and sarcasm. Whisky is the national drink but Scotland also produces some delicious beer like Deuchars IPA and Belhaven Best.

Some of my favorite pubs are the Bow Bar (Old Town), the Bailie Bar (New Town), the Cumberland Bar (New Town), The Last Drop pub (Old Town), and Jekyll and Hyde (New Town). There are pubs absolutely everywhere and I’d venture to say you won’t go a block without at least one option.

After a pre-dinner pint I head over to Castle Terrace Restaurant, one of two Michelin-starred restaurants in town. Chef Dominic Jack presents the finest Scottish produce and his philosophy of ‘Nature to Plate’ in a modern and innovative way. I have ravioli of Bowmont Valley partridge with seared fois gras, red cabbage, marjoram and partridge consommé followed by saddle of roe deer from Saltoun estate with quince tatin, seared pumpkin, chestnut and pepper sauce. For dessert I enjoy a selection of British and French cheeses from the trolley. The meal is refined but not pretentious, modern but rooted in tradition, beautiful but approachable and comforting.

I recently visited Edinburgh for business and had one free day to roam around the city. I realized that it is impossible to do everything that I love about this city in a mere 24 hours. Now home, I look back and reminisce. It’s about the little things, as much of life is. The intricacies of daily life are what I miss most and are what define Edinburgh, to me...

The one hundred and fifty year-old arched stone steps of the building where I used to live that have been filed down by generations of shoes walking up and down them.

Having two faucets on every sink- one for hot water and one for cold water.

The sound of ‘Scotland the Brave’ being played by bagpipers on street corners.

The taste of fifty-pent Gregg’s sausage rolls and the feeling of grease dripping down my contented chin.

The smell of the local cheese monger and the scent of its pungent dairy delicacies.

Fish and chips at 2am.

The Scottish brogue and Scots words like, blather, steamin’, lad and lassie, pasties, baps, bridie, and slainte mhath, ceilidh.

The rain.

The weight of the thick, British one pound piece in my pocket.

The musty smell of ancient buildings and the feeling of living history when I brush my hand across their stones.

Seeing the sea from the top of Hanover Street on a clear day.

The sound of seagulls outside my bedroom window.

The madness of the Fringe Festival. Edinburgh becomes the cultural center of Europe once a year. Everyone becomes an artist or performer in August.

Clotted cream, scones and the color of ‘builders tea’ with milk.

My favorite restaurants; Nargile, Kushis, and The Kitchin.

Princes Street Gardens.

The Christmas Market and the mulled wine!

The One O'Clock Gun (canon) fired everyday from the castle.

Green hills dotted with white sheep.

The sand on Portobello Beach.

My friend Jean with whom I shared my experience at the University of Edinburgh.

I miss ‘walking and gawking’, slowly taking in each breath, thinking to myself, ‘I love this place.’

If every city has a word that exemplifies it, Edinburgh’s word should be ‘magic’. All who visit are charmed by its many spells; beguiled by the shifting light, captivated by the changing skies, and enchanted by the sudden vistas. It is a city so beautiful it breaks the heart again and again.

Edinburgh at dusk

Photos: University of Edinburgh,,,,,

Friday, October 28, 2011

Why Do So Few Americans Have Passports?

My thirty-eight year-old co-worker has just applied for his first passport, which got me wondering why are passports such a low priority for the majority of Americans?

I was 10 years old when I got my first passport. I was so excited to embark on my first international adventure and getting my passport felt like an initiation into a club of world travelers. I’ve grown up fortunate enough to travel widely and have always appreciated the worldly viewpoints I’ve gained along the way.

Because I value travel so much and know the merits of a multicultural upbringing, I couldn’t wait to get my children their passports. Literally, I couldn’t wait. In fact, I joked that on the way home from the hospital we’d pop round the post office with the brand new baby and get the passport process rolling. Getting my children their passports was a priority to me.

I finally had the resolve when the baby was 2 months old and my oldest was 18 months old. With their passport applications in hand, and one child each in tow, my husband and I entered into a queue at the nearest post office. Five minutes passed, then ten. Finally we reached the front of the line and were called to the counter by the available postal worker. She was a sweet, older Asian woman with compassionate eyes and a patient demeanor. We handed her our heap of paperwork, which she kindly sorted. By then both kids were howling with boredom and unrest. I was clutching onto my twenty-two pound toddler as if he was a rearing bull. Throwing himself about, he was desperate to spring from my control.

The infant had fallen asleep only to be awoken for the obligatory passport photo. There are several requirements for the photo; the subject must be against a white background with eyes fully open, mouth closed with a neutral expression, facing forward, without anything covering the face, etc. For those of you without children you’ll have to take my word for it, this was an impossible task. First, for a baby who cannot sit up or hold his head up on his own, the only conceivable position to be photographed is laying down.

The resourceful postal worker delicately laid flattened white boxes along the floor and draped the baby’s soft white blanket over them. It truly was a MacGyver move. I laid Baby on the ‘photo platform’ aka the floor. As a new mother; anxious, tired, worried and stressed, I nearly fainted at the sight of my newborn on the post office floor. We tried in vain to get a viable photo of the irritated baby. He’d grimace, close his eyes, cry, or look away. At this point I realized, ok the kids may be a bit too young for passports.

Though I now understand that not everything needs to be rushed and that my children don't necessarily need passports as babies, I still don’t identify with people who are perfectly happy to go through their whole lives without the prospect of experiencing faraway lands. In an effort to understand I’ve asked around and have come up with the conclusion that few Americans make world travel, therefore passports, a priority because of money, geography, and the passport application process itself.

Most Americans do not have passports. According to the most recent statistics issued by the Department of State in January of 2011, only 37% of Americans have passports.That means nearly 2 out of 3 Americans can’t even fly to Mexico or Canada, let alone anywhere else in the world.
One explanation is money. According to the last census, the average American household salary is $50,233 per year. After housing (around 32.6% of annual income), other necessary expenses such as children (approximately $10,000 per child per year), gas for one midsized car (about $2,000 a year), car insurance for two drivers (about $1,500 a year), a health plan for a family of four (approximately $3,300 annually), there's not much left for travel.1 According to, airfare to London is around $1,000 per person, paired with hotel accommodation for one week, the average family vacation to Europe costs well over $8,000. Most American families can't afford international trips.

Another reason is geography. The statistic that only 37% (often embellished to be more like 10%) amuses Europeans more than you could imagine. ‘Ignorant, isolated, stupid Americans’ or something to that tune is often accompanied with the figure of just how few Americans own passports. This coming from people who can literally jump on a $30 Ryan Air flight from Scotland to Stockholm and be there in one hour isn’t necessarily fair. European countries are so close together and so culturally diverse that a two hour drive or an hour flight presents opportunities for countless cross-cultural explorations.

Americans however, live on a continent that spans 2269 million acres and is isolated by two oceans. It costs much more time and money for us to travel internationally. Aside from the financial aspect, America itself is geographically and culturally diverse. The U.S. includes most climate types; semi-tropical, tropical, alpine, continental, polar, desert, semi-arid, and sub-arctic. Likewise, Americans can experience different cultures, traditions, and ways of life stateside.

America is called the ‘Melting Pot of the World’ because it is the conglomeration of many people form very different ethnic groups with their own unique traditions and values. America is also, called the ‘Salad Bowl’ of the world because these different cultures remain heterogeneous and retain distinctive cultural characteristics. You can experience a variety of heritages by staying right in the good ol' U.S. of A. Experience the native hula in the Hawaiian Islands, the time-honored tradition of horse breeding and racing in Kentucky, Lobster farming in Maine, Alligator wrangling in Florida, traditional Navajo Hogan homes in Southern Colorado, etc. etc. etc! America the Beautiful is a combo platter and presents innumerable travel opportunities.

If the above isn’t enough to put Americans off world travel, the passport application process is a deterrent to many. This explanation doesn’t really fly with me (if I can do it with two small children, you can do it too) but I do understand the hoops to jump through can be a bit off-putting. The DS-11 form is required, as well as two photos that meet specifications and $165. It can take up to 6-8 weeks to receive your passport after your application is received so make sure to plan ahead.

While I'm not defending those sans passports, I do understand why only a minority of Americans travel abroad. It simply isn’t feasible or desirable for most to travel internationally. That is why I want my children, now part of the 37% of Americans with a passport, to fully appreciate the opportunity that has been given to them and to pursue every international adventure possible...once they get just a bit older.

I'm learning to be more patient and I will take the kids abroad when the time is right. That is to say, I'll take them along when they both acknowledge that they are traveling, when they can appreciate it, and manage such a long journey. I think a good test to know when kids are ready to travel internationally is to take them to the post office to get their passports. If you come out of there needing a stiff drink, they're not ready. Trust me.

There are few pleasures akin to finding yourself lost, in a foreign land, out of your element completely. There is much to experience in America, but you can't imagine how special it is to eat a real croissant in Paris, to see the Whirling Dervish in Istanbul, to samba the night away in Rio de Janeiro, to hear the nightly drums pulsate through the Ghanaian darkness. 'The world is a book and those who don’t travel, read only a page.' My edit to the famous St. Augustine quote… 'the world is a book and those who don’t travel {internationally} read only the first couple of chapters.

Go get yourself a beautiful blue travel document and even if you never leave these enchanted shores you'll own a ticket to endless possibilities.,state,gov

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Perfect 'Shoe'venir

Imelda Marcos, a Filipino politician and widow of the 10th President of the Philippines, has a collection of 2,700 pairs of shoes. If she wore one pair a day, it would take over seven years to wear them all.

While I don’t own nearly as many pairs as the famed Ms. Marcos, I do have a closeted (pun intended) shoe obsession. Stilettos, sandals, and boots, oh my! They sit in my crowded closet, on shelves, like art. Lovely, wearable art. Shoes are an outward expression of someone’s personality and interests. They don’t tell the whole story but have a way of summing it up. Mine beautifully summarize the fact that I love to travel!

A Closeted Shoe Fetish
I try to buy a pair of shoes everywhere I travel. What better way to understand people of a different culture than to literally walk in their shoes? ‘Havaianas’ flip-flops in sunny, laid-back Rio de Janeiro; Oriental curly toe flats in exotic Bangkok; Sandal boots in cosmopolitan Buenos Aires; chic urban heels in Paris; elegant slingbacks in London…

It’s my ‘Around the World in Eighty Shoes’ Plan! I’m a shopper and I love to see what’s on offer in other places of the world. I like to experience the boutiques and markets of far-flung places and examine what’s in-fashion abroad. I bring the style home and walk with an extra bounce in my step knowing I’m reflecting the panache of fashionistas the world over.

Around the World in Eighty Shoes...Off to a Good Start!
Shoe sizes vary in each country. Refer to the following chart before you begin your quest for the perfect ‘shoe’venir. Happy shopping!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Stucky in Kentucky!

3:40pm, rush through airport security. Take off shoes, jacket, and put in plastic bin with purse, carry on luggage, and souvenir stick horse for my boys at home. Naturally, the stick horse gets examined carefully by TSA and eats up five more minutes. We’re finally allowed to proceed to the gate after inspection and arrive at gate A12 forty five minutes before departure. Whew!

General boarding is to begin at 4:17pm with an expected departure of 4:40pm. At 4:30pm I decide it isn't looking good. The plane still hasn’t arrived at the gate and other, later, flights are boarding before ours. The passengers begin to line up at the airline kiosk hoping to make sense of the unexpected delay. We are told over a dated P.A. system that the pilot didn’t show up and the airline is trying to find him or someone else that could fill in. Seriously?!?

At 5:00pm the flight is delayed to 5:30pm and at 5:30pm delayed again until 6:00pm. This continues until 7:00pm when it is announced that our gate was changed to A8…which had an empty, fuelled airplane parked there for our departure. The bags are loaded onto the aircraft and the gate agent said that general boarding would begin in fifteen minutes.

7:15pm rolls around and nothing. I am restless and frustrated beyond words. I’m desperate to get home to my children and relieve my best friend who has kindly stayed with my two boys and her daughter, all under the age of four. 7:30pm I hear talk amongst the other passengers that the flight may not go out at all because the pilot still has not arrived.

A hoard of riled up people approach the co-pilot who had been waiting at a nearby restaurant and berate him for the actions of the airline and captain, none of which he could have helped. Poor chap. The only United gate agent, working four gates and countless flights by himself, arrives to the situation.

After the gate agent comes to the co-pilot’s rescue, he instructs people, well about half the people...only the ones within earshot, that the gate had been changed back to A12. The other passengers stayed at A8 waiting, waiting, and waiting. Half the passengers remained completely uninformed in the ether of this very strange and chaotic situation.

After being in line for an hour and a half, calling the United customer service line for our options, we finally reach the front of the queue. At that point the harried gate agent announces that the flight has been officially cancelled. No other flights to Denver tonight, one to Colorado Springs but oversold. That leaves us stucky in Kentucky.

Luckily we were at the front of the line when all the passengers of what would have been full flight line up to be re-booked. We receive a hotel and meal voucher. Thanks for throwing us a bone! What an ordeal.

I understand hiccups occur but the problem with this particular delay was the way the gate agent handled the situation. The people of this flight, anxious to complete their journey, were left uniformed or misinformed. We were separated into two departure gates and left to wonder what was going on, roused by gossip of new happenings. It was not only the unreliability of the airline and the misinformation provided, it was the pinnacle of poor customer service.

While United is one of the world’s largest airlines (48,000 employees and 359 aircraft), 20.68% of United flights were either delayed or cancelled in the past year. Combined with the dated aircrafts (seriously I thought there was a green screen in the cabin!) and despicable customer service, it is no surprise that United Airlines has been evading bankruptcy since 2002. My prescription, keep customers calm and happy by keeping them informed. Novel idea.

It was a wonderful weekend that unfortunately ended with a 27 hour delay in getting home. Thanks to those who helped make the situation 'ok' and for reminding me that if there's 50% chance something could go wrong while traveling, there's a 90% chance it will. That's just the nature of it. Delays and cancellations make you realize just how excited you are to get home.

Now that I’ve had my rant…stay tuned for my rave report of Louisville, Kentucky.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Travel Carefully... Not Fearfully

'Hey honeymooners! 99% discount for all love birds! 100% Thai silk. You like, you buy!' I suppose since I fell for such an advertisement, I deserved the junk I bought.

Every world traveler has at least a couple stories of getting swindled, taken advantage of, or being the victim of some sort of scam. I myself have several stories…The more I travel the more I think I can outsmart thieves and con-artists. Yet atrocious living conditions around the world promote the evolution of the corrupt craft.

The majority of people in underdeveloped or developing countries have never left their hometown let alone their country or continent. Most people couldn’t dream of owning the things you own or having the opportunities you have. The average western traveler represents unfathomable wealth to a good portion of the world’s population. We travel to distant lands by airplane, walk around with our digital cameras, wearing squeaky clean white tennis shoes, we stay in four-star resorts, and eat splendid and copious amounts of local cuisine. Tourists look uncannily like walking ATM machines.

I’m a trusting person. I give people the benefit of the doubt. While perhaps naive, without trust, life becomes impossible. When traveling, already vulnerable and outside comfort zones and norms, trust is essential. Travelers must place their confidence in pilots, concierges, chefs, taxi drivers, law enforcement officers, vendors, other travelers...

In doing so, it is inevitable that eventually someone with selfish motives will use you and your money to better him/herself. The trick is to be cautious yet not afraid. Be suspicious but trust that people can be hospitable and have your best interest at heart. Walk with a purpose but don’t miss all the wonders of your trip because you’re a jumpy horse, scared of unsavory interaction.

Luckily I have had only minor experiences with scams abroad; mostly fraudulent products, dishonest taxi drivers, deceitful vagrants, and crooked companies demanding upfront payment for services I never received. To name just a few Rio de Janeiro I purchased a hang gliding tour that never materialized. I've bought many a 'treasure' that turned out to be trash. I’ve been victim to multiple taxi scams where I was quite literally taken for a ride; I received the wrong amount of change, was taken far out of the way while the meter runs, was convinced that the meter was broken, etc. People will pull out every trick in the book to make a buck or two…or more.

As much as you mistrust the rogue taxi drivers and charlatan vendors, be equally wary of those trying to ‘protect’ you from scams. My best friend recently traveled to Mexico City. Preparing to depart, she gathered pricing options for transportation back to the airport. The hotel van was three times the price of a registered taxi- for the same route, for the same mileage. Hotels use the fact that tourists are cautious and offer ‘safer’ options at an extorted price. She took the taxi and ended up at the airport, safe and with more money in her pocket.

I’m of the Lockean persuasion on the state of human nature. People are both good and bad, most of them at the same time. Humans are driven by emotion and reason. They act selfishly but are also naturally altruistic. You win some and you lose some. For every scam you encounter abroad, your life is filled with the reality and blessings of being privileged to wide travel.

While petty crime can certainly put a damper on an otherwise glorious time abroad, take precautions to prevent yourself from becoming a victim. I hate to get all Rick Steves on you but remember that nearly all crimes suffered by tourists are non-violent and avoidable. Be aware of the pitfalls of traveling but relax and have fun. Don’t worry your time away or let a run-in with petty crime ruin your vacation.

My first guidebook I ever purchased was Rick Steves Europe through the Back Door. Though I’m the polar opposite of a ‘Rick Steves’ traveler, he does have some great tips on outsmarting thieves. Check out his online article on the subject.

As good ol’Rick recommends, ‘a money belt is your key to peace of mind’. In addition, a good attitude and taking precautions to protect yourself will give you the power to travel carefully, not fearfully.


Monday, July 18, 2011

A Libation From Each Nation!

Pop! The cork pops from a 2004 Reserva Del Virrey, Malbec Roble. The bottle opens with gusto, the wine eager to sense the air and be enjoyed by adoring lips. It’s been a year and a half that I’ve kept this bottle of Malbec, a token treasure of my time in Uruguay, the place of its origin.

2004 Reserva Del Virrey, Malbec Roble
It’s one of my travel traditions; I buy a bottle of local spirit or wine when abroad and bring it home to remind me of my time there. I keep the bottle unopened and drink it only after I’ve purchased tickets to my next destination.

Cachaça from Rio de Janeiro, palm wine from Accra, Thai rice whiskey from Bangkok, mango wine from Queensland, Raki from Istanbul... I buy the local specialty- something unique to where I am or whatever best reminds me of my time there. When I return home I look at the bottle every day and dream of when I can open it, sample it, and am transported back to wherever I was. Popping the cork on a long anticipated libation is a great way to reminisce about a bygone journey while celebrating the beginning of a new adventure.

The bottle of Malbec Roble was my souvenir from a little village in Uruguay called Carmelo. While Medio y Medio (a Uruguayan invention of white wine and champagne) or Tannat (Uruguay’s national wine) would have been more ‘Uruguayan’ per se, Malbec was what I drank at the estancia where we were staying and brings me back to Carmelo.

Streamscape Estancia Tierra Santa
Only a hop away from the metropolises of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, Carmelo seems light years away. The quiet pastoral countryside swarms with water fowl, song birds, and raptors. Brawny Criollo horses trot along dirt roads, stopping every now and then to sample their favorite grasses. A man passes in a horse drawn carriage and waves, asking Roberto the ranch hand, ‘Hola amigo, ¿Cómo es tu madre?’ Hi Friend, how is your mother?
'Hi Friend! How is your mother?'
It’s a small town and everyone seems to know one another. ‘Have you visited Dante at Irurtia?’ we’re asked on several occasions by people throughout the village. Irurtia Winery has produced wines of distinction since 1913 and is renowned for producing some of the finest in all of Uruguay.

A hot summer afternoon my husband and I visited the vineyard. We made the short drive from the estancia to the winery and snapped photos under the large wine bottle at the entrance. We were greeted by an old man, with white hair and kind eyes, who we later found out was the owner Dante Irurtia. He didn't speak English and used only gestures to welcome us. No one at Irurtia spoke or understood English which accentuated its traditional, small town, family feel.

Irurtia Winery- Carmelo, Uruguay
Mr. Irurtia led us to his antique Ford car and insisted we get in to pose for photos. He then searched the premise for someone who could give us a tour. Hugo was given the task of showing us around. He was a short, slim, older Uruguayan man. He was friendly, warm and passionate about the art of wine making. Hugo gave us a wonderful tour in Spanish. We don’t speak Spanish but we got the gist of it. Hugo used gestures, pictures, body language and intonation to express himself outside the confines of language.

Dante Irurtia and his Model T
Hugo showed us the vineyard where 850 acres of vines grow and the winery where the 1,162,000 gallons of wine are produced every year in stainless steel tanks and French oak barracks. He showed us the dark, dry cellar where the wines age until they reach peak maturity and showed us to the tasting room where we had the opportunity to sample each of the award-winning wines along with some local cheeses.

The Vines

The Barracks

Que Rico!
While sampling, Hugo rambled on in Spanish as if we understood every word. The experience was deliciously unpretentious and relaxed. We were treated as if we were old friends just stopping by for a chat.

Me and Hugo
Before we left the winery we purchased a bottle of 2004 Reserva Del Virrey, Malbec Roble. We brought the bottle home and clearly displayed it so we would see it every day to remind us of Irurtia and to inspire our next journey. I’ve spent a year and a half looking at the beautiful bottle of wine. Its tattered red label has reminded me daily, ‘it’s time to see somewhere new. It’s time to explore and see where the wind blows me next’.

Our glasses clink, ‘Salud! Cheers to Irutia, Uruguay, and to our next adventure!’ This complex, rich Malbec was manually harvested, slowly fermented, and aged in French oak. It has captured the terroir of Carmelo; at the crossroads of the Paraná and Uruguay rivers at the estuary of the Rio De Le Plata. I can taste the chilly nights and the warm days, the clean crisp air, and the pure, smooth soil. Sipping the wine brings me back to Carmelo as I literally drink the essence of the place.

We drink together in appreciation of our experiences in Carmelo and in celebration of our upcoming trip to…Cuzco, Peru to see Machu Picchu! Pisco Sour anyone?

Please comment and tell me if you have any travel traditions to savor a place long after you've returned home. Do you have any rituals that help you celebrate new adventures? Would love to hear your thoughts!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sláinte Mhath!

'We hae wandered far and wide, o’er Scotland’s hills, o’er firth and fell’. The lyrics of a Dougie Maclean song play in my head as I sip from a dram of Glenkinchie 12 year old, lowland single malt whisky. The sweet, light colored malt has the character of lemon, cut grass and a touch of peat. The taste lingers on my tongue and brings me back to one of the happiest times of my life, when I lived in Scotland.

When in Scotland, whether you live there or travel there on holiday, you have the distinct and memorable opportunity to tour one or more whisky (spelled without an ‘e’ in Scottish English) distilleries. Distilling whisky is something the Scots take great pride in and once you visit, you’ll understand why.

There are about 125 whisky distilleries (some active and some retired) throughout the different regions of the country, each with its own unique characteristics and beautiful landscape. Each whisky is different, too. Whisky from each region differs in aroma, color, and taste. There are four traditional Scotch whisky regions; the Highlands, the Lowlands, Islay, and Speyside.

Highland whiskies cover a broad spectrum of styles. They are generally aromatic, smooth and medium bodied, with palates that range from lush complexity to floral delicacy. The sub regions of the Highlands include Speyside; the North, East and West Highlands; the Orkney Isles; and the Western Islands (Arran, Jura, Mull, and Skye).

Highland whiskies are my favorite because they differ so greatly from one another. I love that the water, the climate, the shape of the still, the type of wood used for the storage barrel and number of other variables give each whisky different characteristics. I’ve had the privilege of visiting three Highland whisky distilleries; Arran, Talisker, and Glengoyne.

Arran Distillery is located on the small Isle of Arran, also known as ‘Scotland in Miniature’. If you listed the most attractive features of Scotland and then tried to squeeze them into a medium sized island, you’d end up with the Scottish Isle of Arran. The fourteen year-old single malt from Arran’s only whisky distillery tastes of toffee, apples, and hazelnuts. The finish is salty and rich. Visitors to Arran’s Distillery can enjoy a dram of the award winning single malt in the visitor centre bar. Don’t miss the Arran cheese platter that features oak smoked cheddar to accompany your whisky.

Arran Distillery
 Glengoyne is a distillery north Glasgow in the Highland village of Dumgoyne and is regularly regarded as ‘the most beautiful distillery in Scotland’. Glengoyne is unique because it produces Highland single malt whisky that is matured in the Lowlands. Located on the Highland Line, the division between the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland, Glengoyne’s stills are in the Highlands while the maturing casks of whisky rest across the road in the Lowlands. Unlike many malt whisky distilleries, Glengoyne does not use peat smoke to dry their barley, but instead uses warm air. Because of the lack of peat smoke, Glengoyne whisky is golden yellow, clear and bright. The characteristics are clean, clear, nutty, and the finish is sweet and warm.

Glengoyne Distillery
Talisker is one of my favorite whiskies. It is a premium whisky and the eighteen year old malt is widely regarded as the best whisky in the world. Talisker is the only distillery on the Isle of Skye, the largest and most northerly island of the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. Skye is renown for its natural beauty. The characteristics of the fresh spring water and misty salty sea air can be tasted in Talisker’s malts.

Talisker malts are peated which means the damp malt is dried over a peat heated fire and the smoke gets into the barley. The difference in the smokiness of the whisky depends on the time the barley is exposed to the peat smoke. If you pour a few drops of the whisky on the palm of your hand and then rub your hands together you can actually smell the peat smoke! Talisker malts are some of the smokiest outwith Islay... the smokey whisky region.
Talisker Distillery
Highland whiskeys vary greatly from one another; Islay malts are generally very smokey, Speyside malts are usually full-flavored and full-bodied, and lowland malts are characteristically triple distilled, sweet and light.
Glenkinchie Distillery
My favorite lowland distillery is Glenkinchie, located in the small, rural village of Pencaitland, twenty miles from Edinburgh. This is a fairly typical lowland whisky in that it is fresh and light in character, with notes of lemon and cut grass. A sweet nose and a hint of peat smoke make this a good introduction to the world of single malts. Glenkinchie, and most other distilleries, offer a visitor tour and explanation of the whisky making process.

Making whisky begins with barley which is made wet and left to germinate, spread across a malting floor. The trick to malting is stopping the germination before it gets too far along but letting is germinate long enough to convert the starch in the barley to sugar. This step takes a lot of attention as the barley must be turned over regularly and constant moisture and temperature must be maintained. The end of the germination period is marked by the drying of the barley over a fire, often heated by peat.

When the malt is dry it is ground into coarse flour called grist. The grist is added to hot water in a giant vat called a mash tun. The grist and the hot water produce a sugary liquid called wort which is then put in a wood or stainless steel vat called a wash back. Yeast is added in order to start the fermentation process. The yeast and sugar produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. At this stage the wort becomes a strong, flat beer.
Wash Backs at Glenkinchie
The next step is distillation which changes the liquid from a beer into a spirit. Distillation separates the alcohol from the water and other substances in the wash. The alcohol is transformed into a vapor before the water begins evaporating. The distillation happens in a copper still and the shape, height, length and the quality of the copper still each has a part to play in the final taste and characteristics of the whisky.

Stills at Glenkinchie
Scotch whisky is generally distilled two times and sometimes three times. The first distillation produces alcohol vapors called ‘low wine’, which is about 21% alcohol. It is distilled again in a smaller still called a spirit still. During the second distillation, only the alcohol that is between 63% and 72% will be casked in oak barrels. The cask also gives different characteristics to the whisky. Some malts are stored in bourbon or sherry casks which impart color and flavor.

The Spirit Still at Glenkinchie
To have the legal right to be called whisky, it must be stored in a cask for a minimum of three years. Over the course of storage, often much longer than three years, between 1% and 2% of the whisky evaporates. This is called the ‘Angels Share’.

After at least three years in a wooden cask the spirit is bottled. Generally the longer the whisky sits in the cask the more flavor and characteristics it possesses. Unlike wine, whisky doesn’t mature in the bottle so a twelve year whisky stays a twelve year whisky.

Scotland makes me excited and whisky, a big part of Scotland, also makes me excited. Whisky is the subject of song and poem, the heartbeat of many Scottish traditions, the muse to many and the catalyst to friendly gatherings. It warms people during the cold, dark winter nights and refreshes into the late, bright summer evenings.

Whether you enjoy whisky with a drop of water to release the natural oils, with a cube of ice to chill it, or if you even like it at all; distillation is a time-honored and culturally rich tradition in Scotland. A distillery tour is a must-do attraction when visiting the homeland. Sláinte Mhath! (pronounced 'slanzh-va', which means 'good health' or 'cheers’ in Gaelic)

Photos: Bethany Smith, Arran Distillery Ltd.,

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Water Hole

‘Ladies and gentlemen this is your captain speaking we would like to welcome you on board this Alitalia flight to Rome. Flight duration is around five hours and eleven minutes and we are expecting a fairly smooth flight today. Once again we thank you for choosing to fly with us today and we hope you enjoy your flight.’ While the captain expected no turbulence, there was quite a bit of pre-flight commotion on this Alitalia flight from Lagos, Nigeria to Rome, Italy.

It all started when we were ordered to deplane the aircraft in Lagos, Nigeria after flying from Accra, Ghana. All passengers were ordered to find their luggage, littered along the tarmac, and stand beside it until Alitalia personnel recorded who was staying in Nigeria and who was joining the flight to Rome.

Well, Alitalia...that's one way to do it.

Italians, bless their hearts, are not well known for their efficiency or organization. The procedure of determining passengers’ final destinations by way of unloading all bags only to reload all the continuing passengers’ luggage was brouhaha to say the least. Nigerian, Ghanaian, Italian, American, French, and British passengers were ganging up and yelling at the Alitalia flight attendants. It was the United Nations of international lawlessness. Waving his arms about, a big Nigerian man shouted at the flight attendant in words I couldn’t understand. The pretty Italian crew member shied away like a demure gazelle in the face of a roaring lion.

What in most circumstances would be a quick touch-down to pick up more passengers in Nigeria before making the transcontinental flight to Italy, this Alitalia stop-over turned into a spectacle akin to animals fighting for space at the water hole.

Roar, hiss, squawk, chomp...however you say it, apparently it's everyone for himself.

Unlike the flight from Accra to Lagos, on this over-sold flight from Lagos to Rome there were no assigned seats. All passengers stood on the tarmac knowing that if they weren’t able to get to a seat fast enough they would be left behind to catch the next flight to Rome, the next day. Once the luggage was placed back on board the pretty Italian flight attendant shouted with a melodic Italian accent, ‘you may reboard-a the aeroplane-a.’ As if at the starting line of a race, people dashed down the tarmac to the airplane. Pushing and shoving, the passengers trampled each other to board the aircraft.

My husband and I were lucky enough to find seats next to each other and sat down with a sigh of relief. We wouldn’t have to go through the bureaucratic nightmare of having to rebook our flight. All of the sudden, when we thought we were home free, a Ghanaian man peered above us shouting, ‘you in my seats’. My husband calmly explained, ‘Sir, these are no longer your assigned seats. He rebutted, ‘I sat here from Accra, these my seats.’ He angrily called over a harried flight attendant and shouted at her, ‘these people are in my seats!’ Oh boy…

The flight attendant responded with an authoritative tone, ‘Sir, these people are in your former seats, and those people over there are in their former seats. There are no longer assigned seats and it is a first come, first served seating arrangement.’ She then escorted him away to another available seat.

My husband I looked at each other in disbelief. This just doesn’t happen everyday where people treat each other so disrespectfully, so barbarically. I guess it is a dog-eat-dog world but we forget in an age of expected politesse.

The last passengers found the last available seats, which happened to be behind our seats. They stowed their carry-on luggage in the overhead bins and the rest under the seats in front of them/under us. In doing so, my husband was jabbed in the leg with a sharp corner of a brown paper-covered square package that looked to be a large framed picture. ‘Ouch!’ he shouted. My husband asked the man behind him to please put the package in the overhead bin because it was too large to put under the seat. ‘No, it doesn’t fit in the bin, it will go under the seat’, the man said. My husband's tone escalated, ‘well actually it doesn’t fit under the seat because you keep stabbing my leg with it every time you move back there.’ Oh boy again…

My husband is a calm, respectful, courteous person who has never in his life been in a fight. I think this was the closest he’s ever been to duking it out. This man kept intentionally pushing the package into the back of my husband’s ankle. My husband retaliated by jarring the package back into the man’s shin. This went on for the five hour flight.

Both men, bruised and agitated, pushed their way off the godforsaken Alitalia flight onward to bother someone else, somewhere else. Why do we (people) bother each other so much? Are we territorial animals interfering in each other’s domain?

Why is it that extreme circumstances take us back to our animal instincts? Whether it’s fighting for seats on an over-sold flight or defending one’s personal space in crammed airplane, people act viciously when pushed to the limits. Humans revert to primitive behaviour when pressured by natural survival intuitions.

After millions of years of evolution is it too much to ask that we try to treat each other with respect, understanding and good will? Next time the passenger hits the recline button throwing their seat back into your face, think about it. You can revert to those primitive instincts and roar or use your human cognition and process the fact that the seat back in your face was probably not a direct attack on you- unless of course some irate Ghanaian man literally jabs your leg every five minutes. Gently recline your seat, read your SkyMall, and just relax. Kumbaya.

Even lions can make an orderly queue!

Aggression in the air is a widespread problem apparently. Check out this article about a similar situation on a flight from DC to Accra.

Photos: Getty Images,, Blue Sky Aviation

Monday, May 16, 2011

Almost Vacations

What was once a baffling, inconceivable situation has now become my sad reality. What I term an ‘Almost Vacation’ is a vacation that, for whatever reason, doesn’t happen. An ‘Almost Vacation’ warps a tangible holiday into a failed plan.

I need a vacation, stress is out of control, and exhaustion is an every day state of being. Excitement and anticipation for relaxation is at an all time high and basically I’m Looney Tunes for a faraway break. The tickets were booked, the rental car and accommodation were arranged, and the time was taken off work. Then, as if in a Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoon, my vacation plummeted over a cliff….whoosh…BOOM! and the plans for this trip were crushed with an inflatable boulder and flattened into a pancake. I’ve just experienced my first ‘Almost Vacation’.

I’m not new to the idea of ‘Almost Vacations’, though as an adult I promised they would never happened to me. While I was privileged to broad and frequent travel as a child, there were occasional and understandable let-downs. My family almost lived in Kenya, we almost lived in Hawaii, we almost went to the Mall of America... Life, or reason, got in the way and these trips, these experiences, never happened.

After the disappointment of past ‘Almost Vacations’, I promised myself that I would always make my every travel plan happen. Maybe I was naive, maybe I’m a control freak, or maybe I just love to travel. Now that my own life, and the life of a very sick loved one, has gotten in the way of my scheduled trip, I too was forced to put aside my travels for a later date.

‘Beep Beep’ says the Road Runner of the cartoon played in my mind. This vacation, like the elusive character, has tried to get away but with the help of an ingenious Acme contraption, Southwest Airlines, I will reschedule. Southwest not only provides great service and humorous pre-flight safety briefings, but is also inexpensive, accessible, and…they allow you to rebook your flights without penalty.

We’re looking forward to the trip to Florida, which will hopefully happen soon, and are using this brush with ‘Almost Vacations’ to remind us how lucky we are to be able to travel so widely, how blessed we are to have understanding and encouraging family and friends, and how grateful we are for the hospitality and generosity of our Floridian hosts for allowing us the flexibility to postpone.

Even if I have to evade the antagonist cartoon coyote (life happening) or catch the elusive road runner quarry (vacation), I’ll employ jet-powered roller skates, a superhero cape or a rocket sled to ensure this will be my last ‘Almost Vacation’.

Illustration: Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner by Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, Warner Brothers

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Once Upon a Time...

Once upon a time there lived a girl. She was beautiful, elegant, and graceful. The girl grew to be a captivating woman who won not only the heart of a prince but love and admiration of the whole world.

Prince Charming didn’t pick her up on a white horse but for the past nine years the courtship between commoner, Kate Middleton, and His Royal Highness Prince William of Wales has been a storybook romance.

In less than a fortnight they’ll become man and wife and Kate Middleton will become Princess Catherine. The wedding will take place Friday 29 April at 11am BST (6am EDT and 4am MDT) at Westminster Abbey in London, England.

Unless you’re one of the 1900 people invited to the royal wedding you can celebrate with Catherine and William by joining the massive street parties are expected to go on throughout the weekend all around Britain.

Two billion people are expected to tune in to view the nuptials on telly. I for one plan on waking up very early with Earl Gray tea and a buttery crumpet to celebrate the fairy tale in my own home as the happy couple wed in front of the world.

I am a self-proclaimed anglophile, a hopeless romantic, and after having a girlhood crush on HRH, there's no way I'm going to miss this!

If watching the royal wedding on television isn’t good enough for you- book a ticket across the pond, take in a royal walking tour and put yourself in the shoes, quite literally, of the royal family.

1) Birthplace of Her Royal Highness The Queen
17 Bruton Street in Mayfair is the birthplace of The Queen. Elizabeth II was born to Prince Albert Duke of York (who later became King George VI) and Elizabeth Boews-Lyon in the apartments of her maternal grandparents on April 21, 1926.

2) Garrard Jewelers
Garrard has been the crown jeweler since 1843 and sells a wide range of jewelry and silverware items as well as china, fashion accessories and couture clothing.

Kate’s engagement ring, purchased here thirty years ago and worn by the late Princess Diana, is fourteen diamonds that encircle a sapphire and is estimated to cost $48,000!

3) Jigsaw
Visit the clothing chain’s Dover Street location and see where Kate worked briefly as an accessory buyer.

4) Mahiki Club
Mahiki Club boasts three miles of rare black bamboo that make up its chic, well-designed interior. This fantastic cocktail bar on Dover Street attracts a hip, fashionable crowd and is a favorite with the royals. Unless your Wills (affectionately dubbed by the British media) or Kate, arrive early and pop in line with the other commoners.

5) Ritz Calton London
The Ritz restaurant is one of the best restaurants in London and a favorite of Will and Kate’s. For £150 per person you can enjoy a Royal Wedding Brunch at the Ritz Restaurant on April 29th from 10:30am to 3:30pm. Large screens will bet set up around the dining room so you won’t miss a minute of the ‘I do’s’.

6) John Lobb Bootmaker
Put yourself in the shoes of royals. John Lobb specializes in the art of Victorian shoe making. John Lobb’s process is still hands-on, providing personal service and making lasts (wooden shoe molds) for the shop's many famous customers including Prince William. Prices start at £2,400 per pair at this exclusive shop.

7) Buckingham Palace
Buckingham Palace has been the royal residence since 1837 and is a must-see tourist spot. Buckingham Palace serves as both the office and London residence of Her Majesty The Queen. It is one of the few working royal palaces remaining in the world today. Don’t miss the Changing of the Guard which takes place daily at 11:30am.

8) Lock & Co., Royal Hatter
Need a silk opera hat or a traditional tweed flat cap? How about a Garden Party hat or a Bohemian Fedora? James Lock of St. James' has been making hats from this cozy little shop since 1676, and has dressed the heads of Admiral Lord Nelson, Jackie Onassis, Frank Sinatra, and, recently, hip young musicians and models.

9) St. James’ Palace
St James's Palace is one of London's oldest palaces. Although no sovereign has resided there for almost two centuries, it has remained the official residence of the Sovereign and the most senior royal palace in the UK. As of 2009 the staffs of Princes William and Harry moved into their own rooms at St. James Palace and began reporting directly to the royal princes, before 2009 they reported to Prince Charles at Clarence House.

10) The Queen’s Chapel
The Queen's Chapel is a Christian chapel next to St. James’ Palace, built between 1623 and 1625. It is one of the British monarch's personal religious establishments. Kate attended her first solo appearance at The Queen's Chapel for the wedding of The Queen’s cousin, Lady Rose Windsor, in 2008.

11) Westminster Abbey
A traditional coronation and burial sight for the English monarch, as well as a venue for royal weddings, 1900 wedding guests will fill this beautiful, 700 year-old gothic building on April 29th as Will and Kate say, ‘I do’.
Whether you watch the nuptials on the telly, crowd the London streets hoping for a glimpse of the happy couple or live vicariously through the many royal sights of my Will and Kate walking tour, enjoy the fairy tale.

The world has fallen in love with Miss Catherine and her love story. In this day and age of sensational tales of failed royal relationships, the masses hunger for a real life storybook romance. Let down any cynicism and truly believe that this prince and his soon-to-be princess will live happily ever after. I do.

Photo Credits: Top: Marino Testino, Official Engagement Portraits; Middle:, Bottom:

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Poutine Dreams

It’s a complicated, ephemeral, sensory experience. It’s a fleeting succession of emotions…longing, excitement, bliss, confusion. Poutine is a savory reverie like nothing else I’ve tried.

Poutine is a beloved snack in Quebec and particularly popular throughout Montreal. The true beauty of the dish lies in cheese curds that don’t melt completely and remain squeaky when you bite into them. Legend has it that the dish’s name originated in 1957 when restaurateur Ferdinand LaChance received a request from a customer for French fries, gravy and cheese in a bag. He responded, ‘ca va faire un maudite poutine!’ Roughly translated; ‘that’s going to make a damn mess!’ A mess it may have been but also a culinary and cultural hit. Today, poutine is a fixture of the Quebec dining scene and a must-try!

I’m a believer that fries are merely a vehicle for sauce…and I don’t mean the sugary, vile, tomato-like substance that comes in a Heinz 57 jar. Fried potatoes should be crispy on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside. They should be covered with a flavorful sauce and eaten with a fork. Like in Europe, the Quebecois understand this concept. Poutine is a real treat and frankly, what dreams are made of.

My first experience with Montreal’s favorite fast food was at the ‘restoAu Pied du Cochon in the Plateau neighborhood. The meal began with a bottle of pinot noir, crispy pig’s feet salad, lamb shank confit, and then the pièce de résistancepoutine topped with fois gras. The potatoes were crispy, the gravy was creamy, the cheese curds were soft, and the fois gras melted in my mouth. ‘Oh Mon Dieu!’ I said to myself.

I had to have poutine again to repeat that empyreal, cholesterol induced, high. For a less haute cuisine version, my sources pointed me toward La Banquise in Parc La Fontaine’s north end. It’s a friendly, hippie-meets-hipster diner that specializes in poutine and serves two dozen variations. I entered the ‘resto’ and while inhaling the grease filled air I thought to myself, ‘how many calories is that breath going to cost me?’ I chose Poutine Rachel; fried potatoes, gravy, cheese curds, onions, peppers, and mushrooms. It was fattening, and satisfying. Even more, it provided me with extra padding for the chilly day.

Like the different layers of poutine, Montreal is complex, charming, and leaves me wanting plus en plus. An enormous joie de vivre pervades Montreal. It’s a place that embraces its rich history and looks forward to its bright future. It’s the largest city in Quebec province and the most French region in all of North America. It’s modern in every regard. As a UNESCO City of Design it’s got skyscrapers in unexpected shapes and colors, a beautifully preserved historic district, a large area of artist’s lofts, boutiques, cafes, and restaurants. Cold and snowy for nearly eight months every year, it’s a place where the weather is frigid but the people are warm and hospitable.

It’s a big city (nearly four million metro residents) but maintains a friendly and welcoming culture. Nearly everyone speaks French and English and effortlessly switches between the two languages for your convenience. Montreal feels like the lovable child of Paris and Denver. It’s chic and outdoorsy, big and intimate, serious and sweet, French and American.

Everything about Montreal is enchanting. From the calorific poutine sold around the city, the picturesque cobbled streets of old town, the boutique and café-lined sidewalks of Plateau Mont Royal, the silence and unearthly beauty in the Basilique Notre-Dame, the complicated mazes of the 21 mile underground city, the twang of the Quebecois accent, and the hum of daily life for Montreal residents; this city is has a captivating personality all its own.

Back home, after a fabulous trip to Montreal, I can’t help but daydream about the city and all of its complexities... most of all the satisfying and tasty mess, Poutine.

Note: Denverites- If you can't make it to Montreal and have a hankering to try Quebec's beloved snack, Euclid Hall serves three versions of Poutine.

Photo Credit: Top, courtesy of Joyocity, Flickr Creative Commons