My most faithful reader has suggested a best of, worst of, accounting of our travel experiences this past year. While I do not want to bore you, I will try to hit just the highest of highlights, and the funniest of the low lights.
This past year was probably my most active travel year of my life. Three overseas trips, London, Japan, and Chile/Argentina. Several Vegas, Seattle, and Monterey trips and two car trips with Buddy, to Palm Desert and Oregon. So, let’s see what we experienced in the way of best (and worst or funniest) travel highlights.
I would not say that I had any real luxurious flights, even though most of my trips were in First or Business class, especially the long haul trips. The domestic airlines first and business classes are sorely lacking. My top choice has always been Singapore Airlines, but the other Asian carriers are pretty good, and certainly superior to the U.S. carriers.
The Air Canada flight from Toronto to Santiago, Chile was my best flight, though certainly not luxurious. The first class seating consisted of pods, with each seat folding flat, surrounded by an enclosure about 270 degrees. The meal was passable, and the sparkling wine was marginal. So comfort was an A, but food and beverage was a C. But the Air Canada lounge in Toronto was very good, with a variety of hot and cold foods, along with an open bar and comfortable seating. And quiet!!! Americans must be the only obnoxious cell phone users on the face of the earth! Admission to the lounge is free when ticketed on Business or First class. Just about any foreign airline’s lounge is better than a domestic airline lounge!!!
Almost consistently, US Scare (US Air) has the worst first class, and equally poor service from its flight attendants. It does not pay to upgrade on US Air, even though it costs only $50. No meals are served. Instead, a tray of cold pre-packaged snacks are offered. Though box lunches and other snacks are offered for sale in Coach, US Air does not offer these to first class patrons. I think they purposely hire people who are anti-social!
By far, the best was the Lodge at Pebble Beach. Service, rooms, amenities like the free use of a Lexus, large bathroom, beautiful grounds, superb views, and high quality beds. We are never disappointed, even though we have stayed here numerous times. All rooms have a fireplace, ready to light, large sitting area, fully stocked and complimentary snack bar, a wet bar, and best of all, pet friendly. And no tipping either.
The most laughable hotel was the Larkspur Landing in San Jose. When we got ready to take a nap, we both landed in the center of the bed. It was impossible to lay on each side of the bed! Of course, we were told that the mattress was new! So, after some debate, they finally changed rooms for us. I am hoping to become their mattress vendor in the near future.
I was a long time Budget Car rental customer, after decades with Hertz. But I have found Dollar Car Rental to be consistently less expensive, with a better selection of cars, and better, faster service. But here is the secret. I book a car rental as soon as I put a trip together. But, as the weeks go by, I check into promotional rates, and can save up to 50% of the rental price. Our last trip to Sedona and Scottsdale are proof. My first booking was about $250. I ended up with a rate of $155 for the 5 day rental, for the same car. Make sure you join Dollar Express, enabling you to bypass the rental counter, and head directly to the cars. Domestically, do not rent a GPS unit, as your cell phone will do the same thing.
When was the last time you hand rolled a window? Or pay for a hubcap that fell off the wheel? Mike and I secured the last car available in San Pedro de Atacama. It was likely the worst car as well, a Toyota Yaris, that lost a hubcap, and would not start when we were in the desert. If not for a stick shift, I would not have been able to push Mike and get the car started. So, I paid $25 for a plastic hub cap that is now lying somewhere in the Atacama Desert. It could have been the worst walk of our lives!
By far, the best meal of the year was at the LeGarde Winery in Mendoza, Argentina. Though we arrived about 2 to 3 hours late, they treated us like kings. We were the only patrons there! We met the chef, had an excellent lunch, paired with a different wine at each course, and then enjoyed a private tour after. We bought two bottles of champagne to drink later on the trip. This is certainly a welcome change from the harsh and high priced tours of Napa Valley and southern France.
Our trip to Japan included numerous excellent meals. Perhaps the most enjoyable were at a place called Gonpachi in Tokyo. I would describe it as ultra modern sushi and space age Asian with a nod to tradition and folklore. Every dish seems to have a signature touch, whether a plate of edamame, or a broiled hamachi head. Sitting at the bar is a delight since we got to see the entire process. It is almost like filling a prescription! And who can forget the Asadachi, featured on Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern.
Just about every sandwich in Chile was downright dreadful. The reason: Frozen French cut string beans! Every sandwich, burger, or cold plate had a huge pile of string beans! We could never get a straight answer on why the string bean topping. I finally resorted to order a “plain” burger or sandwich. Another favorite topping is avocado. It is piled high and plentiful on hot dogs and burgers.
Best Wait Staff
We so enjoy our trips to Seattle and our meals at Lola (at Fourth and Virginia Streets). We have been so fortunate to meet and know Ben, Victoria, and Lori. We always get the royal treatment, and never leave hungry, thirsty or disappointed. This is the way it should be! We also enjoy Arlene and Suzie at the Blueberry Hill Pancake House in Vegas.
Again, not only are the French the worst tourists in the world, they are also the world’s worst wait staff. My last trip to Paris and to the Louvre was punctuated by indifferent service, cold food and sloppy presentation. French food is waaaaay over rated!
Most Beautiful Sight
This could be a tie among several of the following: the green grass courts at Wimbledon, Canyonlands and Arches National Parks in Utah, the beautiful peaks of Torres del Paine in Chile, the beef and red wine of Argentina, sunrise and sunset in Maui and Kauai, smiles and laughs from our friends, and our dog Buddy when we get home from a trip.
If there are ugly things to see, most are man made. Whether it is unsightly garbage dumps, cement jungles in the city, homeless on the streets, bad news that dominates the airwaves, we are thankful we live here, in the greatest country in the world.
Needless to say, the Shinkansen or bullet train in Japan is the most superior rail system on earth. Trains are always on time, never early, never late. The ride is more comfortable than a plane ride. The attendants are friendly, and serve food and drink. The restrooms are clean, and your baggage is safe. I can only pray that we someday have a bullet train between LA and SF.
The Eurostar train from London to Paris is okay, not great. But it sure beats having to deal with the airport stuff.
The worst train rides of the year were on the London Underground. Although they serve many areas quite conveniently, they are NOT air conditioned! The ride is rather rickety, and unplanned stops are common. Trains can change platforms on a few seconds notice. So, please pay attention!
This is easy, the best was the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. It is the world’s largest wholesale fish market, and was certainly one of the best and most interesting things we did in Japan. We even got to try whale sashimi, see the tuna and uni auctions, and see the master cutter carve a large tuna. I have seen that many fish since I watched the World Series of Poker in Vegas.
The worst tour was the bus ride to Stonehenge, outside of London. I do not know what exactly I was expecting, but it was a big disappointment. It turns out that it is much smaller than I expected, and rather simplistic in design. I just did not “get” it. If the theory is correct, it served as a burial place. Thus, much research and excavation must be done to unearth the hidden secrets and mysticism of the place.
Most Interesting Person
It has to be Barry Varkel, the former barrister, turned comedian from Cape Town, South Africa. We met him in Santiago, had drinks and dinner, and we were rolling on the ground with laughter all evening. He is now trying stand up comedy after a world wide tour. He still sends these comedic videos via email that I have not a clue about. Go Barry!
To any of the rest of you, do not be offended. Barry is so funny and crazy, he is OUT there!! I can’t wait to see him again when Mike and I visit Africa next year. The rest of you, please stay the way ou are!
I hate to say there is a lesser light or worst person I encountered this past year. It would probably be the winery guide at Achaval Ferrer winery in Mendoza, Argentina. We were a few hours late, and he acted as if we stole his laptop, iPhone, and first born child.
This was not a great shopping year in my opinion. Silly me! I forgot that I bought a fur lined leather hat in Buenos Aires. It makes me look like nanook of the North. But for $10, it served its purpose in the cold of Patagonia, in the Beagle Channel. Will I ever wear it again? If it gets cold, watch out! Or I could get a fortune for it on eBay.
The all time worst purchase of any trip in 2009 was a hub cap and tire in Chile. By now, you have all heard the story. We lost the hubcap in the Atacama Desert and blew a tire on the way back from Torres del Paine. Worst of all, I do not have the hub cap, as it is now probably sitting on some Chilean’s fireplace mantel in the middle of San Pedro de Atacama.
It has to be the evenings at Ken and Debbie’s 1)in Las Vegas where we were rolling on the ground playing a board game and 2)in Sherwood with the Salt Water Mexican (Pedro, the Cuban comedian), trying to hit golf balls over the nearby hill. We have not laughed that hard since I was wearing someone’s toupee on New Year’s Eve, oh so many years ago. I am already collecting old golf balls to use next year!
When traveling to third world countries, these moments are far too numerous, and sometimes painful. Poverty is one thing, downright idiotic or obnoxious behavior is even worse, in my opinion. Drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, children begging on the street, disabled people crawling down the street, stray dogs looking for warm and dry shelter: all are gut wrenching in some way.
“Wish I Was Not There” Moment
On a puddle jumper between Kauai and Honolulu, we observed the most audacious act of all time. A woman with a three year old proceeded to breast feed her kid, AFTER baring BOTH breasts in a row of seats with two strangers!!!! I wrote the airline and they quoted Hawaiian law which protects her “freedom to feed”. I do not think it protects us from her unsightly breasts and her overgrown kid sucking like Mr.Thirsty.
Longest Bus Ride of My Life
From Ushuaia, Argentina in Patagonia to Punta Arenas, Chile, the only way to get there is a 12 hour bus ride, that only took 11.5 hours. It was not only the longest bus ride of my life, it was both the best and the worst. We covered ourselves with horse hair blankets to stay warm on the first leg. We transferred to a newer bus with a heater, and were served coffee and pastries. We went through check points in both Argentina and Chile. At lunch time, we got a cheese sandwich and a non alcoholic beverage. We saw every mile of farm land hither and yon between the two points, save for the frequent naps due to boredom. We crossed the Straits of Magellan on a ferry. After this long trip, we were dropped off at the side of the road, no bus station in this town! A story that can be believed only because it is TRUE and I lived to tell about it.
There are so many. But going to Japan, and visiting my ancestors’ home in Nagoya was very special. It is rather difficult to imagine what this city was like at the turn of the last century (1900’s) when they left Japan by boat for the California. It helped me realize how fortunate I was that they decided to migrate to the United States. Would my grandparents have ever met had they stayed here? How would my Father have met my Mother? Too many possibilities to ponder, but so thankful it happened as it did.
I do not recall getting sick this past year, except for a case of 24 hour malaise in Tokyo. Of course, it happened the day before we were scheduled to leave. Al of my proverbial last day purchases and activities were cancelled. I was stuck in our room, with just tea, toast, rice, and lots of medication. I was well enough to fly home the next day, knowing I would be in Business Class and could sleep the entire way home.
Worst Cab Ride
Mike and I hailed a collectivo in Valparaiso, Chile. The collectivo is a cheaper alternative to the bus or cab. At the base of one of the many hills in the city, these black cars wait for passengers. When 3 or 4 are gathered, they take off up the hill. They continuously drop and pick up passengers until they get to the top, then repeat it on the way down. Our guy got lost!! Mike had to tell him how to get to our hotel. Then he over charged us by a factor of 10 times!!!
So, what is the secret to finding good places to stay or exceptional places to eat. Two things: ASK and READ! I am never afraid to ask friends, bellmen, cab drivers, or bus boys about the best places to eat or drink. But always read a travel guide or a Trip Adviser type of website to verify the information. Though sometimes the best meals or hotels are found on the fly, a consistently good result is achieved when some research is done.
Now, sometimes dumb luck plays a part, like our stay in San Pedro de Atacama. Arriving late to a dark motel like place, we checked in to a place for $30 a night. To our comfort and surprise, the bed had electric bed pads, making for a most comfortable night of sleep in the cold and howling desert wind.
We often let cab drivers find places for us when we get really desperate. It worked out well in Ushuaia, Argentina, but not so well in Puerto Montt. We had a great place, inexpensive, great location, friendly, warm, quiet, good breakfast in Ushuaia. In Puerto Montt, Chile, it might have been a brothel or a drunk tank asylum in a previous incarnation. Not only did I count my belongings and cash the next morning, I also counted my gold fillings, fingers and toes. But I made up for this on the unofficial tally of “right and wrong.” We walked into a nearby Holiday Inn and pretended to be guests. We had lots of hot coffee and a light breakfast, used the internet, and walked back to our dingey old hotel. Call us “even Steven” for Puerto Montt.