Sunday, December 29, 2013

Barcelona - Day 1 La Rambla - November 23, 2013

Feeling a little queasy I asked, "Este es pollo?" (Is this chicken?)  , "No, Senora ese..."  ( I later realized the Spanish word I couldn't translate was 'rabbit').  It was 2001, and this was my second European vacation.  After my first successful Western Mediterranean cruise the year before,  we eagerly signed  up for the Eastern Med.  Three days before we had departed from Rome and were now in the Spanish countryside just outside of Barcelona.  After touring the Cordorniu cava winery (Spanish champagne), our tour stopped for lunch at a local inn.  As we were led to our seats I passed a waiter wheeling in a large ham...with the former owners hoof and hair still attached.  The same waiter was now standing in front of me with a platter of tiny legs with tiny bones that was obviously not chicken. This was my first introduction to Spain.

As I scanned the crowd for the driver who would take us to our Barcelona home for the following week, I thought back 12 years to the single day I had spent in Spain.  As a more seasoned (and I hope sophisticated) traveler,  I now knew the 'ham' I had seen was an Iberico ham, net worth in the neighborhood of $1500 USD.  Also, while I may be considered a 'picky eater' in the US, in my 13 years of travel I had gotten much more adventurous, having enjoyed wild boar in Italy, local goulashes in Vienna and Prague as well as blood sausage in Ireland (ok, maybe 'enjoy' is a stretch with that one).  This trip was my chance to redeem myself gastronomically, culturally and historically to the Catalan capital.

La Rambla stretches from la Placa Catalunya (Cataluyna Square. Catalonia a region in northeast Spain has its own language, culture and tradition.  Barcelona is its capital) to the Mediterranean sea.  In between is a large, tree lined boulevard designed as as pedestrian zone; cars are secondary and forced into narrow side lanes.  La Rambla is home to shops, restaurants, street performers, artists and literally dozens of flower and bird stands.  It is here along with Passeig Gracia, Barcelona comes to stroll.  It would be our home for the next week at the La Meridien Barcelona.

Like real estate, travel is all about location, location, location.  From our La Rambla hotel we were within walking distance of the Barrio Gotico (Gothic District which housed both the Barcelona Cathedral and the Picasso Museum), la Eixample (literally 'The Expansion" Barcelona's Modernisma district with its buildings by local son, the famous architect , Antonio Gaudi), la Bouqeria one of the largest open air markets in all of Europe,  as well the beaches of Barcelonetta known for its many nightclubs and restaurants located along its boardwalk.

After check in at the hotel, we headed out for a tapas bar.  Tapas (or 'little plates') are prepared appetizers and are often enjoyed with cava (local champagne) or sangria - we happily enjoyed both.  Feeling the effects of both the cava and jet lag, we headed east towards the Mediterranean, where the great boulevard ends. There, high on an obelisk and pointing out to sea, is the statue of Christopher Columbus. (an Italian who finally received  funding for his explorations by the great Spanish King and Queen Ferdinand and Isabella, departed from Barcelona harbor August 3, 1492).  I stood in front of the statue, with the same view of Columbus, towards the new world.   As a very amateur genealogist, I am often amazed at all the people all over the world who had to meet, fall in love and have children so I could some day be born.  What Columbus did was even bigger without him literally billions of people would never have the same opportunities I know I often take for granted.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

My Great Homance - The Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island, Michigan

Everyone has heard of romance.  I am sure you have even heard of 'bromance', I have been in a serious 'homance' since the fifth grade.  Yes, I have a major crush on Mackinac Island's Grand Hotel.

Right after lunch my fifth grade teacher would read a chapter or so of a book.  (That was the double whammy year of Charlotte's Web AND Where the Red Fern Grows, amazing I didn't need therapy, but I am getting off topic).  The book that would have the longest effect on me, I can't even remember the title.  It was a young adult mystery set on Mackinac Island, Michigan.  It involved a missing doll and a large fresh water pearl.  That is all I remember....except the Grand Hotel. This was a fairy story I could relate to, a castle right in my home state, with the world's longest front porch to boot!    Then came Somewhere In Time.  I read the book in anticipation of the movie's release.  Christopher Reeve!   Jane Seymour!  And the Grand Hotel!  I agree the story was cheesy, but the Grand Hotel shined!  My love affair with a place I had never been was in full force.

St. Clair County is a long way from Mackinac Island, almost five hours by car.  It would be many decades from fifth grade before I ever took the 16 minute ferry ride from Mackinaw City to Mackinac Island.  (Full disclosure, I was supposed to be checking out northern Michigan hotels for a work retreat.  But, when I saw the sign that said 'Mackinac Bridge' 19 miles - the island's siren song was too great for me and I found myself at Shepler's Ferry buying tickets. Don't feel too bad for my former employer,  I got my comeuppance and got  laid off...12 years later  :) )  As soon as David and I disembarked the ferry I made a beeline for the Grand Hotel.  As I wound my way around Mackinac's twisty streets I could see it glowing in the distance... until I reached the sign that said unless I was a registered guest, it would cost $10.00 per person to continue.  We took this photo and dejectedly headed back to the mainland and work.

As do the seasons so does life change.  Several years later, my company folded and now David and I had summers off together.  We decided to celebrate and return to Mackinac Island and the Grand Hotel.  We saved our pennies and were able dinner there (hey at least we got in this time).  After we checked into another, (not grand at all) hotel, we quickly changed and took a horse taxi to the Grand Hotel.  The evening began with a stroll on the famous porch and ended with dancing to the Grand Hotel Orchestra til early the next morning.  That night remains one of my personal bests.  It wasn't the food, it wasn't the service, it wasn't the decor it was all of it.  From the twinkling chandeliers, the ice -cold champagne, the diners dressed in their finery and the waiters dressed in their white tie and tails, it was like literally stepping back into the Roaring 20s. For one short evening David and I got to be Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby!  The following day, just before our departure we returned to take our ritual, half way up the path in front of the Grand Hotel,  photo.

Number one FAQ for a travel agent "You get deals, right?  You travel for free,right?  Can you hook me up?"  The answers are:  "Sort of, no and yes."  I do get deals, and often they are the same ones that you can get too.  The difference is, I get them first.  Vendors will run specials and before they publish them to the general public, they email travel agents.  So while you may stumble upon a great deal on the internet, I was able to book it two or three days earlier.  One Sunday this August I opened my email to find an unbelievable treasure, on specific dates the Grand Hotel was offering "Celebrate Michigan Days"  approximately 85% their regular price!   Included in the hotel rate a full breakfast, five course dinner and entrance to Fort Mackinac!

There was a catch (of course), the deal was only available in specific weekday rates in September and October.  David was out and my Mom was in as a travel partner.  When we stepped off the ferry last week, my heart gave a funny thump when I spotted the mahogany carriage with its matching chestnut horses and top hatted driver waiting for me!  Mackinac Island's appeal to me is the opportunity to travel back to a more genteel time in  history. I have always felt Main Street with its fudge and t-shirt shops definitely miss the mark.  However, arriving at the Grand Hotel in a horse drawn carriage, being met by a pill box hat bell hop to take your bags, followed by a champagne reception and five course dinnered served by waiters in white tie and tails is spot on.

I am happy to report we made the best possible use of our time on the island.  From a private carriage ride (about double the cost for two people; but worth every cent not to be crammed in the same sized carriage with 20 of your  new best friends, and we got to determine the route as well), to visiting Fort Mackinac and those ubiquitous fudge and t-shirt shops.  Our afternoon was spent tasting all the Grand had to offer.   From drinks at the Cupola Bar (the highest point of the Grand is a 360 all window lookout, where you can see the entire island), afternoon Tea in the lobby, and finally as the sun set on the that famous porch our final five course meal in the dining room, we had it all.

A "Pam +  Grand Hotel" photo as we wound our way back to the ferry dock  headed home (our bags already transported to the ferry).  In this photo, I wasn't on the outside looking in or on the inside but not an insider,  I was a Grand Hotel Guest and I experienced all she had to offer. 

Monday, February 25, 2013

Punta Cana, Dominican Republic - sun, sand and soul.

Five million tourists visit the Dominican Republic annually, and they all seemed to be in line with me to enter the country.  (You have to love a government who charges you $10.00 a person to visit their country...before they have even checked your documents.)  Just after the cash is a Merengue band playing the traditional Dominican music while you clear customs and gather your bags. The sunshine, the music and the Caribbean breeze...the mood is festive for this month of Carnivale celebration in the Dominican Republic when every Sunday is a celebration of the island nation's 1844 independence from their Haitian neighbors.

My destination?  The popular Bavaro beach area of Punta Cana, located on the Atlantic Ocean.  The Dominican Republic has been a tropical getaway since the 1960s when the cities of Puerto Plata in the north and Romano located on the Caribbean (south) were en vogue.  But today and for the previous 21 years, Punta Cana located between the former grand dames of Puerto Plata and Romano is king.  There are 54 hotel properties located in the Bavaro and Macau areas of the town...My resort is approximately 30 minutes from the airport, the Ocean Blue and Sand.

I spent the first few days of my 7 day visit to Punta Cana like most of the other 5 millions tourists (according to my Apple Vacations tour representative 85% of those visiting are from North America and the other from Europe) eating, drinking, hanging out at the beach.  (I am looking to improve my Spanish so I spent a few of those hours taking Spanish lessons by the pool and conversing with native speakers).  I have to admit, the above was the only items on my personal itinerary (I did inspect a few resorts while here, a sort of 'bus man's. holiday).

"Outback Safari, it is our most popular tour, you should go", said Romer my Apple representative. Now you who know and love me know 'Outback' to me is a restaraunt and 'Safari' is something you do in Africa.  I politely smiled and went to change the subject when, Romer continued.  "This is a chance to see the real Domicican Republic.  Go up in the mountains, visit a local school.  Go to a local farm and see how they grown and process the agricultural products of the country:  pineapple, sugar, cocoa, and coffee."  I did and I am so glad I did.  The mountain back roads were rutted and very  bumpy, the large jeep struggling and bucking up the mountain...once we arrived it was all worth it.  Gone were the bathing suits, the fruity cocktails and the smell of suntan lotion.  Cool breezes from the mountain and lush vegetation surrounded us. as we saw farming demonstrations and tasted local coffee, sugar, chocolate and vanilla all grown on the local farm.  The farmers home would be considered rustic by North American standards, but it was charming all the same and the smells coming the from the detached kitchen were making my mouth water.  The day ended with a visit to a public beach in the Macau portion of Punta Cana.  90% of Domiican citizens work in the tourism industry (the number one industry in the country followed by agriculure) with 65,000 of them in the Punta Cana hotel zone.  Most work 5.5 days, the families at the Macau beach happy to enjoy each other's company by the shore.

During my visit I have enjoyed authentic Domincan cuisine ( dominated by beans, rice, meat and plantains), seeing the countryside; and especially getting to know the Dominican people. The history of the Dominican people is not that different than our own, native people inhabiting an area, being 'discovered' by Europeans and the forced immigration of Africans.  The Dominicans however, make it work so much better.  The three groups have blended over the century to create the modern Dominican.  Dominicans consider themselves, 'faceless'. a true blending in harmony of their three tiered ancestry.

Well enough history and culture.  I am back to the beach to work on my tan, which was my number one goal before I got here.   I am very happy to report that while I may not be returning home wth a 'savage tan'. I leave with a better understanding of the place I visited.  And my blog readers will know that is my favorite kind of souvenier.