Monday, January 30, 2012

Japanese Whispers.....Cherry Blossom Dreams

     This morning I was watching the news and they mentioned a businessman from Los Angeles (where we have our own Little Tokyo, moshi moshi!) who is trying to do his part in helping Japan recover some of it's tourism since the tsunami/nuclear accident. According to the Japanese tourism board, there are many areas in eastern Japan that were and are unaffected by the tragedy, and have lost significant traffic from tourism. Mr. Shige Higashi, who owns many businesses in Japan, has decided he is going to organize some low cost group tours to do his part for his homeland. Check out the link to read the whole story and for more information on the tour.
     I really have to give some snaps to Mr. Higashi. Our country would never have been built if it weren't for people with that can-do spirit. A lady I work with is of Japanese heritage and really would like to visit. Last year I heard of a contest being run by the Japanese Tourism Board which gave away 10,000 plane tickets to foreign visitors. There were some rules, of course, mostly regarding blogging or writing about traveling to Japan. Ok, before you all start laughing and saying this is my way of trying to get one of those tickets, the ticket scheme is not in the 2012 budget for Japan.
     Japan does have a lot to offer. Beautiful Shinto and Buddhist temples, many places to hike (Mt. Fuji!), awesome food (I'm not a sushi fan but I LOOOOOOVE teppan), and interesting people. According to Mr. Higashi's site and CBS News, here are a few of the details:
Through his website,, Higashi is organizing a tourism expedition to the scenic rural area. Airfare will be about $750, bullet train and bus tickets, hotels and other costs will bring the total tab to about $2,000.
The trip promises to be very traditional, with lodgings at the Ksennuma Hotel Kanyo, near the center of the tsunami-affected coastline.
“Accommodations are in Japanese `ryokan’ style, sharing one big room,” Higashi said.
     I would love to see the cherry blossoms in bloom, drinking tea from delicate little cups, listening to a shamisen being played, or visiting a cultural center where I can learn about kimono and all the intricate ways to tie an obi. I never knew until recently how long those things really are! I'm also interested in seeing some of the Shinto temples. For a preview of some great Japenese art, readers can always visit the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, located next to the La Brea Tar Pits/Page Museum. They even have a fully assembled samurai costume!
     For more information on visiting Japan, click on the links below:

Japan National Tourism Organization

3-day Bullet Train tour to Mt. Fuji, Kyoto and Nara from Tokyo- $852

Cooking class, Sake Tasting and Nishiki Market tour- Kyoto- $173

Friday, January 27, 2012

American Heritage

One of my favorite places to visit in the United States is New England. Those of you who know me in real life probably think it’s because I’m a Pats fan, but that’s just a bonus. =) It’s also not just because my massive extended family lives out there, even though it was my impetus for visiting and therefore falling in love with it.
New England has this homey, old feel to it. Like a cabin you’ve spent a few vacations in, it’s always ready to welcome you back. The people are the most up front, real people you’ll meet. This might not be too amazing to some of you, but I live in Southern California so real personality is a treasure when I find it! Whether it’s Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut or New Hampshire, this part of the US has many things to offer no matter what season. And oh, what seasons they have!
Spring can be cold and rainy, and known for knocking out the power, but what it leads to is a summer that is green, green, and green! Summer in New England is generally hot and humid. This doesn’t bother me, and in the summer I usually visit in July for the Saint Mary’s feast day in my family’s town of Cranston, Rhode Island. It’s an old world tradition from the immigrants who came from the Itri area of Italy to live in the town. The third Sunday in July is the feast day and it starts with a Mass at Saint Mary Catholic Church. After Mass, the church’s clergy, and other fraternal organizations affiliated with the church, walk the effigy of the Madonna and Child down the main streets of Cranston. They stop every so often for townspeople to be blessed. Afterward there is a big carnival, and people retreat to friends’ homes for the “feasts”. Weekends tend to be spent with family and friends down in Narragansett on the peninsula, playing on the shore and digging for quahogs (clams).
Late summer brings “Indian Summer” which is warm days and evenings with a slight nip in the air, reminding one that fall is well on its way. It’s a good time to visit Massachusetts and walk the Freedom Trail to learn about our Founding Fathers and the American Revolution. You’ll see Paul Revere’s house, stroll through the cobblestone lanes of the North End where you might pick up a little Italian, and hike up Bunker Hill. Visit the colonial era taverns, the farmer’s market, and the hauntingly poignant glass Holocaust Memorial which is situated along a green belt between two main streets. When you’re hungry, sit yourself in an old tavern to learn the difference between New England and Manhattan clam chowder.
For those who like the outdoors, Minuteman National Park is just a short drive away. Located between Concord and Lexington, it’s a five mile stretch of the path the Redcoats marched from Boston into Lexington to “raid” the colonists. There is a colonial era tavern located in the park with live action demonstrations with muskets and war tactics of the revolutionaries. Many a fierce battle was fought along this path, as you’ll realize when you see stones marking the burial places of British soldiers who were buried on site.
After Lexington, you can drive to Concord to visit Walden Pond and ponder Whitman, Alcott and other existentialist writers while you walk along the path surrounding the lake. Concord is a beautiful little town filled with colonial era cottages, a small museum, and many ways to spend an enjoyable afternoon.
What trip to New England would be complete without a visit to Salem, Massachusetts? Learn the real, tragic story behind the witch trials, visit the Essex-Peabody Museum, and lunch along the waterfront. Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables is there to tour, along with the history of Salem’s harbor, which was the only shipping port in the area before Boston was opened. One of the oldest surviving cemeteries is right behind the museum, near the pedestrian thoroughfare filled with ice cream shops and tourist memorabilia.
I generally write about Europe and other far flung locations to visit, but New England is not only a great getaway for adults, it’s fantastic for families as well for an educational but fun vacation.
Italian North End of Boston                          

Bunker Hill, Boston                                                                

The Old North Church- "One if By Land, Two if By Sea!"

Narragansett Peninsula, Rhode Island              

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Calling All History Buffs

I was reading through some online travel articles the other day and came across one that really spoke to.e. It was called On the Trail of Joan of Arc, in the UK's Daily Telegraph. The author of the article led readers on a self guided journey around the countryside of France, in celebration of St. Joan's 600th birthday. It got me thinking, what other self guided adventures could one plan? St. Paul's journeys though the Mediterranean? Or drive the El Camino Real through California, which links all the old Spanish Missions? How about chartering a boat and doing your own Odyssey? King Arthur's tales, or Tristan and Isolde? I could go on for days!
I would probably do my own ancient UK myths and legends tour without batting an eye. In fact, that actually gives me some great ideas for a trip package.. ha ha. Anyone with an interest in Vikings, the travels of saints, or any other historical, literary or even culinary bent could design themselves a great trip without a lot of effort. So what strikes your fancy? I'm very interested in the ideas readers have! Here are some other ideas:
  • Medieval Castles of Germany
  • Travels of Charlemagne
  • Battles and Travels of William of Normandy (aka The Conquerer)
  • Viking Settlements Tour
  • Main Pilgrimage Points of Medieval Europe

                                                    Burg Eltz Castle- Germany
                                                    Get a

Your travel ideas are only as limited as your imagination!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Love, love, love!

Lately I've been thinking about some destinations I would looove to visit if there was a Mr. With a Suitcase in the picture. Valentine's Day is coming up so naturally we'll all be nauseated by commercials on TV. All the more reason for you to read my blog, ha!
     Anywho, top on my list would have to be something tropical. Fiji, Morea, Costa Rica even Hawaii. Since I would have someone to entertain me, I would need all the nerdy sites I normally gravitate to solo. What could be more romantic than warm sandy beaches, playing in the water followed by a tasty dinner and wine in low lighting?
     If you're trying to stay stateside, there's always San Diego, San Antonio or even New Orleans. Vegas is a little too scarily crazy for my taste nowadays. I'm looking for late mornings in bed with room service and jacuzzi tub! A slow, meandering walk around town, checking out the local wares, and a quiet few days to be decadent.
     Of course, Europe has destinations to seclude yourself with your squeeze, too! Lovely gondola rides in Venice, a cozy chateau in Bavaria or the French Alps, or a sunny country house in Tuscany. Check in my links to see hotel availability and don't forget to read any of the Rick Steve's guidebooks for local fare.
     What's the most romantic place you've been to? Where would you love to go?

I'd like to be having a glass of wine watching this (see picture) thank you very much!

How do you tour?

     Ah the guided tour. Easy without thinking for some, torture for others. I think I fall somewhere down the middle. I have a friend who will be going to Italy for the first time this September. She didn't want to make all the separate arrangements by herself so she signed up for one of those 7 day tours that includes the lodging and some food, and most likely some sight seeing. This is a very easy trip for many people, and I would definitely choose it over, say, cruising Europe. I don't think I would be able to stand being with the same people for a week, and this is why the day tours work so well for me.
      Depending on the country and city you will be staying in, day tours can be a good option. Most often they include transportation to a place you would either have to hire a car to see, or maybe its out of the way. It comes back in time to get some dinner, and you're in your regular hotel room to sleep. Viator is a great website I've used to book tours in Ireland, Scotland and Greece. It covers pretty much every country you'd want to visit, and their tours are guaranteed.
     Some countries have more centrally located sights where local public transportation is not only cheaper, but easier to get around than using a tour. Some large cities even have buses whose only routes are to sights where you can get off and back on at your leisure. I've used those in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Athens. It saved on taxis, and there is a running commentary telling you about the city and the sights as you go along. They're also very economical, usually about $29 per person.
     If you don't plan on doing car hire in Europe, and the public transportation isn't convenient to the site you want to see, day tours might be your best bet. You get a guide who speaks your language and you learn something new. Although if you really want a multi-day tour, Viator has those options too. Here are some they offer:
3 Day Edinburgh, Loch Ness and Highlands from London: $565

4-Day Normandy, St Malo, Mont St Michel, Chateaux Country Tour : $975

4-Day Spain Tour: Cordoba, Seville and Granada from Madrid : $528

     If it's day tours you're after check Viator for the latest offerings. You can search by country and date to see what's available for your travel dates. Some also include lunch, but be sure to bring some cash with you just in case. Some smaller shops and eateries don't take credit cards. So tell me, where is your destination?

Blarney Castle day tour, available on Viator!




Friday, January 20, 2012

Take Advantage of Bad Economy Travel

Yeah, the US and Europe's economies are kinda in the toilet, but for those that aren't in a pinch and can afford to travel this is the time to explore! Remember, the money you are spending contributes to people keeping jobs and food on the table. So without further ado, where should you try? We'll start with the countries on the IMF (International Monetary Fund) bad-guy debt list.
     Greece- Despite the protests viewed on TV, on the islands you wouldn't really know people are angry besides the off days with the taxis. Keep in mind it's suggested you start on the islands and work your way back to the mainland. If you're coming from the US you're not going to get a good deal on the airfare but you will save A LOT on hotels and food (even with the 23% VAT tax). Check for the best listings of even smaller hotels where you can get a great deal. For instance, a friend and I stayed on Perissa Beach in Santorini for 4 nights for 140 euro. 
Perissa Beach, Santorini-
 If you go in an off month, like September, you're not surrounded by drunken yobs and you can get a great deal on a room!
 If you eat in little tavernas you can get a meal for two with bread, appetizers, two entrees and drinks for about 33 euro.

     Spain- This is on my list to go in the next year. Check out this article from the Daily Mail regarding travel in the Costas for Spain, Costas of Spain. Right now for September you can get 6 nights in Costa Brava, near Levante and Poniente Beaches for about 600 euro at the wonderfully rated Hotel Fetiche Alojamiento con Encanto. Check out the link for more information and don't forget to bring your bathing suit! 
     Portugal- The grand old city of Porto makes a mark for those of us who are history geeks. Good food, gorgeous architecture and the birthplace of port wine. So can you get a getaway to Porto for a good deal? Let's see:  You can fly to Porto and stay in the 5 star Pousada do Porto for 6 nights in May for a little less than $3000 for two people. That's a great deal! 

All it takes is a little research, but then most people don't like that part and probably why they ask me for help... ha ha. I've been known to rebook my hotels three times to ensure I get the best deal. Come on travelers, let's stimulate the economy!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

It Makes a Mark

    One of the things I discover as I travel is I always come home with some new or previously forgotten feeling. I was watching Eat, Pray, Love the other day and there's a part in the book and movie where the cast is sitting around a table in Rome and asking each other for a word describing a city, or each other. I sat there thinking of all the places I've traveled, the things I've seen, sounds I've heard and I came up with words of my own.
     Ireland: Friendly. You will never meet more outwardly friendly and helpful people than the Irish. At first it weirded me out a little, being American and its ingrained in us not to talk to strangers, but after a day or two I came to really appreciate it. There were many times that locals came to my rescue when I couldn't locate something on my map or I needed a recommendation on a place to go grab a bite to eat.
     Scotland: Fierceness. Just wow. After seeing many cities and towns in this country, meeting many people (even going on a couple dates with one.. ha ha) and experiencing the wilds of the north, there's just an undercurrent of fierceness running through everything. Almost as if just simmering below the surface, you'd expect them to rise up and become independant again. And for those of you who are suggesting I've been watching too much Braveheat, you're wrong. Go there and you'll see!
     England: Old and Classy. I love me some England, I do. The buildings, the frenetic activity in London, and even the people.
     Greece: Relax. I learned this best while on the islands. Nothing to do but lay on the beach, eat, maybe go see something. The pace here is a lot slower and the Greeks are never on time for anything so it forced me to slow down. It was a good lesson!
     Italy: TBD. I'm thinking it might be decadence or indulgence. We shall see when I come back.

On a side note, have you ever heard the Kenny Chesney song "I Go Back"? It's about hearing a song and its puts you back to an exact place in your life. What songs or words remind you of your trips and happy memories abroad? Here's a tidbit: Every time I hear Franz Ferdinand's "Take Me Out" I think about walking the streets of London with my cousin.
     What's your favorite vacation memory? Music? Food?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

To Cruise or Not to Cruise?

There's been a lot of joking around this week regarding the Costa Concordia tragedy off the coast of Livorno, next to the island of Giulio. Most people I know are aware that I'm going to Italy in a few months, and they're all poking at me not to take a cruise. As if I would to begin with!
Cruising, in my opinion, is a good gig if you're not that adventurous, you want to have all details taken care of including your food, and you don't really want to get off the ship too much. To me, a cruise is ideal for the Caribbean or Mexico, where its pretty much the same environment: sand, beaches, a little shopping, maybe one thing that's worth an excursion. To me, though, who is probably the biggest dork I know, why on earth would you take a cruise to EUROPE?! With so much to see, do, hear, taste and touch there's no way you would even get close to experiencing it with your measly five hours to take an excursion.
Look, I'm fully aware I'm going to be getting hate mail from dedicated cruisers. But I can also bet I've seen more than they ever will in visiting the same places. Like this picture. Ever swim in the warm Cretan Sea at sunrise? I have! And I wasn't on a cruise ship either!
Buona Fortuna!

Off the beaten path

So I was watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain "No Reservations: Rome" this past weekend. Aside from my now insane craving for cacchio e pepe (and Bourdain's sardonic personality), he makes the best point when not revealing the name of a restaurant in the episode. He just calls it Restaurant X, since he doesn't want it to be ruined by tourist traffic. Ok, yeah, I'm a miffed because I wanted to try the restaurant when I'm in Rome this summer. However, how many times have you been to a destination and all the food places are filled with tourists? Have you ever ventured out of the tourist zone on your own?
This past summer I was in Greece for a couple weeks. My first stop was Crete. One day during a day trip to the island's capital of Heraklion, I was trying to find a little museum except I got it confused with another one. I had a map of the city so I thought I was good to go. Except all the street signs are in Greek letters. I don't speak Greek, but after one day there I was able to sound out the letters thereby helping me figure out the words in Roman letters. During this little adventure I found myself walking through little lanes, side streets off of main squares, and alleys. I found a yummy sweet shop where I ate warm bahklava and a drank an ice cold mineral water (it was BEASTLY hot this past September!). I found some other cute shops where I bought some spices to bring home.
Another day I was on the island of Hydra in the Saronic Gulf. Since it was lunch time, I walked away from the port into the little neighborhood for a place to eat lunch. There I found a little cafe that was just opening at noon. The lady who owned the place didn't speak English, so I pointed to the papoutsakia (eggplant with tomatoes, onions and cheese) on the menu and said please in Greek. No one else was in the cafe and it was a hearty lunch that kept me going for the rest of the day.
How adventurous are you? Would you stray out of the tourist area to find hidden food places or small shops? Does not speaking the language freak you out? Even if all you learn to say is please and thank you, it's always appreciated.
Now back to my Rosetta Stone to learn some more Italian!

Welcome to my travel blog!!

Hi everyone, thanks for dropping in. At the behest of a pestering co-worker (snaps to RM), I started this blog to share my travel knowledge, tips, links and advice. This is how I'm doing my part for the economy: encouraging people to travel and spend money so people in that industry can keep their jobs!  =) 
Please link my posts if you like them!