Money, Money, Money—Must Be Funny

31 Mar

by Nancy Bestor

While I’m not big on name brand clothes or cars, every once in a while I wonder what it would be like to live the lifestyle of the rich and famous. The fantasy of walking in to a restaurant where the prices aren’t even on the menu, in my Manolo Blahnik shoes, my Harry Winston diamond necklace and Vera Wang dress does give me a moment of pause (and then I laugh hysterically imagining myself in such an outfit). But when Bob and I were invited to a private party at the Hardwood Suite in Las Vegas last month, I felt like it was our duty to check out how the really rich really live, and if this suite in the Palms was any indication, they live one highfalutin life.

The Hardwood Suite is any wealthy basketball fan’s dream. From the hallway, its door looks like any other hotel room door inside any Las Vegas casino. But walk inside, and holy cow. The Hardwood Suite is a 10,000 square foot hotel “room” on two floors, with a regulation half basketball court, NBA-sized beds that fold out of the walls onto the court (in case you want to shoot hoops from a mattress), a jacuzzi in the middle of the living room, a full bar to boot so you can drink in between, or while, hot tubbing and playing H-O-R-S-E. It also sports a professional locker room, a pool table, and of course, huge high definition televisions all around.

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We were visiting Las Vegas for the Travel Goods Show, where we get to preview the latest and greatest “innoventions” in luggage and travel gear. Who knew we would also get the chance to check out a hotel suite that costs $25,000 a night to rent? I can’t say that the Hardwood Suite is my style. I do like basketball, but not enough to want to play in my hotel room. Plenty of folks must like it a lot however, as it is apparently booked out most of the year.

The Hardwood Suite was fun to see, but I was happy to go back to my $99 a night room across town, in my canvas Converse tennis shoes, with my ExOfficio wrinkle resistant top on. Because let’s face it, I can’t even pronounce “Manolo Blanhik”, and just the idea of me wearing his high heels is surely an accident waiting to happen.

Here We Are Now, Entertain Us

31 Mar

by Bob Bestor

gogoWe all complain about commercial airlines, and they probably deserve it. There is little argument that historically they have done one thing (and one thing only) very well—they get their passengers to their destinations quickly and safely. Everything else, whether it’s comfort, cuisine, or anything that might make the experience even the slightest bit more pleasurable, is sorely lacking.

But in a small but very nice step to reverse that trend, United, Alaska, American, Delta and more airlines now offer in-flight streaming of movies and TV shows to laptops, tablets and smartphones.

The beta version from United is free (so far). It kicked off last year and is available on about 200 of their aircraft. On two recent trips it was available on most of my flights and I found it easy to use, reliable and a big improvement for the in-flight experience.

United’s Personal Device Entertainment is actually part of a suite of services in the United app that includes flight status and access to your personal United information like reservations, boarding passes and your Mileage Plus account.

The entertainment service comes on almost instantly after take-off, offers about 50 movies and mulitple episodes of about 30 TV shows, and shuts off right around touch-down. Prospective users must download the free app from either Apple or Google before traveling. Here is the link to United’s Personal Device Entertainment page.

Notes:

  • United’s service is free (so far).
  • This is not wifi. With United, wifi is a separate on-board service that is available for a fee on a growing number of their aircraft.
  • Download the app before you fly.
  • Other airlines, including Alaska, Delta, and American also offer similar services, such as the GoGo In Flight Video.

Dining Dhaba Style – Roadside Indian Eateries

30 Mar

by Bob Bestor

roadsideIf I lived in India I’d be much healthier. Well, at least I’d have better eating habits. Sometimes. Like when we’re on a road trip.

You see I am a man who likes his Ho Ho’s. I like Ding Dongs too. Those mini doughnuts that come six to a package? Awesome! Just about any Hostess product is okay with me. And you can add Corn Nuts, Barbecue Potato Chips and lots more to the list. And as the ladies in my life know, when we are in the Shredder Van (aka, our 2003 Toyota Sienna) cruising up and down I-5, and we pull over for gas, that’s my chance. And Dad is bound to prowl the always-attached convenience store for the finest in roadside cuisine. For a man whose willpower is easily broken, those convenience stores are too convenient.

But in India, as you might imagine, things are different.

Rajasthan is a big state in an enormous country, and I spent a lot of time on its highways, by-ways and back roads on my recent trip with my high school buddies. On several occasions, lunchtime found us at non-descript and rough-around-the-edges truck stops in the middle of nowhere. The type of place that if you encountered it in the US, the closest thing you’d find to fresh food would be a couple of withered hot dogs sweating on rollers inside a glass case. Not very appealing.

But in India, nearly every one of these roadside stops (know as dhabas) offered up some of the finest, fresh-cooked food of our 16-day trip. In fact, after the first few days of eating at higher-end restaurants, we told our driver, Promode, that while we enjoyed the nicer places, we really wanted to dine with the locals. We asked him to take us to the places where he eats. After that exchange, our first stop the following day was a truck stop lunch. And it was fabulous.

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This first foray into Indian truck stop cuisine turned out to be quite typical. A huge dirt parking lot fronted an open, dusty pavilion with basic tables and plastic chairs. Almost all of our fellow diners were men–most of them appeared to be truckers. We ordered palak paneer, a mixed vegetable curry, and a lentil dahl. The tandoor oven was not fired up yet, so naan was not available. But chapatis are a wonderful flat bread alternative and they kept delivering a steady stream of them, hot and fresh off the grill each time, throughout our meal. With a few drinks and a round of chai at the end of what turned out to be a feast, we had stuffed the five of us to the gills with some of the best food of the trip for 1,000 rupees, which is about $15 total. It was our kind of place in so many ways!

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So dhabas became one more thing to look forward to on our adventures in Rajasthan. Piling into the car for a long day’s drive to the next city offered quite a bit more anticipation with the prospect of truck stop dining on the itinerary. Although it certainly would have been nice to have some mini doughnuts to go along with the chai for dessert.

They’ve Got An Awful Lot of Coffee in Brazil

25 Feb

by Nancy Bestor

DSCN0514I am a big fan of a good cup of coffee. Every morning, Bob and I grind coffee beans and make about four cups of coffee in a French press. Some mornings, when my alarm goes off, the only thing that drags me out of bed is the thought of that first delicious sip of joe. And it is delicious, every single morning. When we’re traveling abroad, we always try to sample the coffee. Sure, we’re willing to drink green tea in Japan, and chai in India, and those are both quite good. But in my book, tea and chai are imposters for the wake up beverage of the gods—coffee. It’s not just the taste. It’s also the smell of the coffee, and the touch of holding a coffee cup. It all gets me. You might say I’m addicted to coffee. You would be right.

I remember drinking a delicious espresso, standing at a bar in Vernazza, Italy. Many local bars serve alcohol throughout the day, but open up first thing in the morning to serve coffee. The bars were crowded with people standing (and sitting), drinking espresso. And then there was the food market in Barcelona, where we ate fried eggs and delicious bacon, and drank even better coffee. And I can’t forget dipping churros in café mochas in Mexico City. It doesn’t get much better than that.

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Maybe part of the appeal to drinking coffee in other countries is the fact that locals don’t get their coffee to go. You don’t see people walking down cobblestone alleys holding a paper Starbucks coffee cup. What the locals do is sit in a café, with their friends and loved ones, and enjoy their coffee while catching up. I get the sense that this isn’t a special once a month get together either, but rather an everyday ritual. So tomorrow I’ll sip my coffee while sitting on my couch, rather than carrying it into the bathroom while I’m getting ready for work. And I’ll try and channel those folks who take their time and savor their morning cup. And I’m sure it will be even more delicious.

Thrillist recently listed their Definitive Top 10 Coffee Growing Countries in the World.  I’m thinking I need to get myself some Ethiopian beans.

Tip Toe Through The Tulips

25 Feb

by Nancy Bestor

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALast month, when dropping off a car with a hotel valet in Los Angeles, I didn’t have a single dollar in my pocket for a tip. In my defense, I didn’t know that the hotel where I was staying was “valet parking only”, and rarely, if ever, do I have any cash on hand. I embarrassingly told the valet that I had no cash and would make sure to take care of him the next time I saw him (a likely story, right?). I also gave him an extra big smile—which I’m certain went a long way.

Tipping almost always makes me uncomfortable, particularly when I’m traveling. I’m savvy when it comes to tipping a waitperson 20% of the bill (although I admit, I’m terrible at math), but when I’m traveling, tipping is not always as black and white, and so I don’t always know the proper etiquette. Do I slyly hand a few dollars to the valet or bellboy as if I’m making an illegal transaction? Do I leave money on a messy bed for the hotel maid? Should I tip the hotel doorman when he hails me a cab? This story in CNN Money answered most of my questions. It did not, however, teach me how to slyly tip the valet.

Hooray for Hollywood

25 Feb

by Nancy Bestor

photo 3On a recent trip to Los Angeles, Sarah and I had a few hours on our hands and decided that a hike in the Hollywood Hills would be just the ticket. Sarah originally wanted to climb to the world-famous Hollywood sign, but we learned that nowadays the iconic sign is fenced off and monitored with security cameras. So instead we enjoyed a great ramble up and down the “Secret Staircases of Beechwood Canyon” which offers great views of the Hollywood sign, downtown Los Angeles, and all the way out to the Pacific Ocean. The 2 ½ mile walk includes six sets of stairways that range from 125 to 180 steps each. While the stairs and streets are steep at times, the route affords views of a myriad of homes, from kooky and run down 1950’s era “modern” homes, to equally kooky faux castles. This being the Hollywood Hills, many of these properties are owned, or were once owned, by both the famous and the infamous. I learned an important lesson that day—just because someone has lots of money, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have good taste.

This neighborhood was one of Hollywood’s first housing developments and was originally called Hollywoodland. The original sign went up in 1923 and was lit by four thousand 20-watt light bulbs, at a cost of $21,000. The thirteen 50-foot high letters lasted until the mid 1940’s when the acreage around the sign and the sign itself were sold to the city of Los Angeles, who now maintains it.

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Although we saw only a few people on the staircases walk, there were many, many more hiking up to view the Hollywood Sign via the Hollyridge Trail. We saw runners, walkers, stroller pushers and more, all on their way up for the chance to peer through a chain link fence at the back side of the Hollywood sign below.

With gawkers often standing in the middle of the street and blocking traffic to take pictures, the neighborhood just below the hike isn’t too pleased to be both a tourist thoroughfare and parking lot. As such, much of the area is strictly regulated as a no parking zone unless you have a neighborhood parking permit. We photosaw several enforcement officers cruising the hood and ticketing those cars without a permit on the sunny Sunday morning we visited. I am always surprised when people park in areas they’re not supposed to, especially when signs are everywhere warning that parking regulations are strictly enforced. But maybe I’m scarred from getting my own car towed at 2am in San Francisco many moons ago, after illegally parking in a McDonald’s lot (but that’s a story best left for another time).

Hiking the neighborhoods of the rich and famous made us hungry, so we finished our day in Hollywood with lunch at Zankou Chicken, a small, family-owned chain restaurant with cheap and delicious Middle Eastern food. The first Zankou Chicken was opened in Beirut in the 1960’s, and I’m glad Yelp and all the Yelpers out there turned us on to this great spot.

I was pretty sure Hollywood had more to offer than wacky Hollywood Boulevard and our hike (and our lunch!) proved it.

Superstition Ain’t The Way

28 Jan

by Nancy Bestor

I don’t believe in ghosts. I’ve never heard one, seen one, or been startled by one. As a kid, I always loved the Nancy Drew and Scooby Doo stories where the “ghost” was proved to actually be someone trying to scare away the amateur detectives. On the other hand, the Haunted Mansion ride is one of my favorites in Disneyland, because a good scary ghost story is always entertaining. So when Bob suggested we sign up for a Haunted History Walking Tour of New Orleans when we visited the city last fall, I was happy to oblige.

Tour guide Denise met our group at dusk to lead us on a two-hour walk around the French Quarter. She did a great job of pointing out interesting buildings and recounting historical facts – and of course, she titillated us with the ghost tales of the Quarter. We learned about a haunted floor of the Bourbon Orleans Hotel, where the ghosts of photo 3children roam the halls, giggling and stomping their feet. Then we heard about the LaLaurie House, a home where the owners allegedly abused their slaves. We were told that spirits now haunt the house, due to its violent history. And there’s the beautiful Hotel Provincial on Chartres Street, which was once a military hospital. Apparently, the ghosts of soldiers still roam the building. Guests have reported seeing wounded soldiers crying out in pain, and bloodstains on bedcovers that mysteriously appear and disappear at will. There is even a restaurant in the heart of the French Quarter, Muriel’s Jackson Square, that offers a table nightly for the ghost of Pierre Jourdan. The former owner of the historic building, Jourdan is said to still “reside” in Muriel’s, so each evening they set a dinner table with candles, wine, and bread, welcoming Jourdan’s spirit to dine.

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Bob, like myself, is a ghost skeptic (I’m glad we found each other), so it was an amusing tour for both of us. Denise, on the other hand, is a believer, as apparently were many of the people on the tour. They too told stories of unexplainable things they’d heard while staying in French Quarter hotels, and times where the goosebumps on their arms confirmed their suspicions about ghosts. Our tour guide was a great storyteller, and whether the stories were true or not really didn’t matter to me. The Haunted History Walking Tour of the French Quarter was an enjoyable way to spend the evening, and well worth the $20, even if I didn’t get chills from ghosts passing by my side.

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