South of France, I love you.

South of France, I love you.

Behind again, and this is while we are in the “down time” of the vacation. I have wifi at the Villa and the use of Colleens MAC… Whew…I probably won’t write much at all after Friday since we are on the road. So I am going to give it all I have while I am able to.

Right now we are in a Villa in Vezenobres, France.  This is an ancient town about 40 minutes from Nimes. It is 30 degrees every day, sunny and gorgeous. There are lavender fields all around us that provide the air with an amazing perfumed sent, there are sunflower fields and olive groves and wine fields and other incredible sights, I can not even begin to tell you how beautiful this part of the world is. As you walk out our front door there is a fig tree groaning with fruit and rosemary bushes that explode with smell when you brush past them, and the French! They are amazing. I am never made to feel stupid as I stumble though the language, they are gracious and lovely and so welcoming to my family.

img_6408

There are negatives, I am gorging myself on fruit and wine, cheese and pastries. So much for keeping trim! Today we stopped at a fruit stand enroute to Nimes and bought Apricots that were the most succulent things ever! The woman who sold them to me ripped one apart for me to sample, it had blemishes on it, not the perfect looking fruit we have in Canada and I was hesitant to try it but when I did, wow. Sweet! Juicy! Amazing! Literally exploding with flavor, wow!

Okay so what are we doing? Yesterday was a big adventure day. Kirsten and Pekka had visited this region two years ago and gone Canoeing on the local river, convinced us that it would be fun. Who knew?…Canoeing in France! It was a 8KM trip down the Ardeche River, this is a tributary of the Rhone. We went through several rapids, at one point Chris, Joshua and I were dumped out. I got some nasty scrapes and bruises because I was trying to keep Joshua safe. He was traumatized because I think he has finally realized that I do not control the world! 20100705_2580We really enjoyed swimming, floating past caves, cliffs and other amazing sites. Afterwards, we were met by a tour guide to drive us back up river, this was an equally wild ride through some very rough terrain. it was a super cool afternoon. We enjoyed it so much that we may go again on Thursday. That evening we all went out to dinner at a local restaurant. It was a great day.20100705_2598

July 6 2010

Today we went into Nimes to see the Roman Colosseum. We only got there at 1:00 because we have been waking up late. “Pink” was performing there tonight so the Colosseum was closing at 3:00. I tried to get us tickets but the show was sold out. Damn….I could think of nothing cooler than seeing Pink perform in a 2000 year old Roman Amphetheatre in the South of France. The kids loved hearing about the spectacles that took place here, including the wild animals fighting each other and of course, the gladiators.

We had packed a picnic so that afterward we could go to Pont du Gard, a 2000 year old Roman built bridge over the local river. The kids swam in the river after they had a late lunch of cheese, bread and salami. We drank wine and enjoyed the sunshine. Sophie lost one of her flip flops in the rapids and Chris had to carry her home. We came home and swam in the pool before settling in to watch the soccer, Falco and Colleen are thrilled that the Dutch won the game. Tomorrow is a Villa day, we are having a BBQ and relaxing all day. Vive la France!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Barcelona – Carcasonne – Vezenobres

Barcelona – Carcasonne – Vezenobres

Okay so its July the 4th, We have been here for four days and it has been crazy busy. I am going to try catch up so that I can go back to the pool and sun.

We woke up in Barcelona at 10:00 AM and got ready to adventure. I had picked up some basics at the grocery store on the way home from dinner at 1:00 AM the night before so we ate and hit the town. Finnair told us they would cover $70 Euros in expenses which is not much but at least we could get something.  We got what we needed and then went exploring. We walked “Las Ramblas” and into the Gothic district.. Stopped in at the cathedral, several Gelato stops and for an amazing lunch. Barcelona is a great city. you really have to watch out for thieves in general. We met another family at the gelato shop from Canada, they had just been robbed so this was a good reminder. Afterwards we went to the Sagrada Famillia Church which was a real highlight. It is a very cool piece of art and we enjoyed going up in the elevator for the view of Barcelona.

20100702_2524

We went back to our hotel, to shower and get ready for dinner when we got the call from the lost luggage department. They had found our bags! BUT…they said they could only get them to us the next day at around 10:00AM we explained that we were leaving for France at 8:45 AM tomorrow and they basically said, if we have to send the bag to France you may never get the bag! Chris and I could not believe it,  It was our last night in Spain and our only option was for Chris to go back to the Airport and get the bags ourselves, this cost 75 Euros in taxis fees and took 3 hours. The kids and I ordered Chris a meal at 11:30PM and he showed up minutes before it arrived. He ate quickly and we took ourselves home…exhausted, but happy to have all our stuff and be together again.

July 3th 2010

20100703_2529Up early at 7:00. Oh man are we tired, jet lagged, exhausted! We ran around the room and packed everything up at 7:30 our taxi (that took five hmmmmm… I thought it was not possible ??) took us to the train station (20 Euros) for our 8:45 AM train to Narbonne. The journey through the Pyrenees was really peaceful and relaxing. Josh and Sophie missed it because they fell asleep. Connor was a great bag watcher when we went to the bathroom etc. On arrival in Narbonne we picked up our car and drove to Carcasonne.

20100703_2533We were in Carcasonne in 40 minutes.  The largest, best preserved Medevil city, the kids loved walking around the castle, the walls and moats.

Afterwards we drove to our home for the next 7 nights in Vezenobres. The drive thought the vineyards is spectacular and arriving at the villa was amazing. Colleen, Falco, Kirsten, Pekka, Mia and Kia were all waiting. The kids swam in the pool and we had a feast under a million stars. It is so beautiful here, life is good.

July 04 2010

Up early so Chris, Pekka and I went for a run to the village. Vezenobres is a medieval village on a hill.  It is amazing. Colleen, Kirsten and I went to the local market and got some supplies, mainly wine and cheese, and we have spent the day eating, drinking and enjoying each other.img_0894

It is incredibly hot and we have just pulled the kids inside to give them a break from the sun. The are watching Americans Funniest Videos in French. Below are some shots of our gorgeous home in Vezenobres.

20100704_255920100704_256020100704_2558butterfly.jpg20100707_264920100707_265420100704_2572

 

 

Toronto-Barcelona

Toronto-Barcelona

Edit Note: October 5th 2017. Seven years later, I feel my blogging skills have improved, just saying….

 

The flight from Toronto – Helsinki was pretty uneventful with a lot of sleeping and severe Finnair service. When we arrived at Helsinki Airport we were struck by the number of Finns sitting in the lounges drinking wine. I love Europe!

We spent 12 Euros on water and salami, cheese and cafe lattes and relaxed in the lounge as we waited for our flight to Barcelona. Sophie began to complain of stomach ache so I decided to give her a Gravol.

She looked at me and said, “Mom this tastes terrible”

So, I said “Just eat it! ”

She chewed up the Adult tablet that I had mistakenly given her as apposed to the kids chew-able and before we knew it she had passed out. Poor thing, it must have tasted awful. Ugh,  I guess I am not getting the Mother of the year award for another year.

We arrived at Barcelona, no worse for wear when we faced our first major problem. One of our bags was lost. It was the first time in years that we had lost a bag and I was obviously not happy.  Finnair does not have an office in Barcelona so we were pretty much told…sorry we have no idea where your bag is…you just have to wait and see. We filled out all the forms and left for the hotel.

None of the taxis at the airport would transport our family. They said it was a four person maximum which essentially meant that It would take two taxis and 70 Euros to get to the hotel. I refused. We took at train to the subway and a subway to the hotel…total cost for five…7.95 Euros! It was quite easy and way cheaper. Totally the way to go, the train and Metro were really easy to use and although I was aware that we were pickpocket targets nothing happened. Once we arrived at the hotel it was 11:00 PM we ditched our bags and went for dinner at the base of the Sagrada Familla Cathedral, the best part was no doubt the 7 Euro bottle of wine, the view of the Cathedral and the lively street scene so late at night.

20100702_2495

28 Days in Europe with the kids

28 Days in Europe with the kids

Seven years ago I traveled through Europe with my then 13, 10 and 7 year old kids. It was an amazing adventure through Spain, France, The Netherlands and Finland. We traveled using local transport, stayed off the beaten path and had a simply incredible month. I blogged about it when I could, using my European friends laptops, I didn’t have an iphone at the time (how did I survive?) Anyway, the posts have sat on a private blog,  and I have decided that starting tomorrow,  I will post an article from that trip each day, kind of like a trip down memory lane for me and a reminder how important it is to record our travel journeys. My next big trip is coming up soon and I hope this series of posts will give me the energy to write a series during my trip to South Africa. I hope you all enjoy…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Review of Grand Palladium Lady Hamilton, Jamaica.

Review of Grand Palladium Lady Hamilton, Jamaica.

So it has taken me a while to write this review. My family and I spent Christmas in Jamaica this year and we had a GREAT time, the weather was great, the countryside beautiful, the Jamaican people are incredible, but my review of Grand Palladium is not glowing. The Grand Palladium is made up of two sides, Montego Bay and Lady Hamilton, both sides shares all resources, facilities, beaches etc. There were many problems that we experienced and I wanted to wait before I wrote it all down just to have a bit of a “cooling off period.” So to start on a positive note I will share the Good of Grand Palladium Lady Hamilton.

Good.

645Sunset Cove Beach, this is the charming beach that is away from all the main restaurants and pool. The beach is beautiful, there is a fantastic Jerk Hut that makes probably the best food at the resort. The service in the beach bar was excellent. Cool music played on the beach, nice mix of activities, mellow, all good. This would be the absolute selling point of this resort for me, in fact, after speaking with several guests, they all agreed that without this special part of the resort, their holiday just would not have been the same. What is also wonderful about this beach is the plentiful shade and multiple loungers.

People of Palladium, these are the animation staff. They have endless energy and are wonderful. One in particular “Avitar” was just such a spectacular human being, the resort is lucky to have her.

Lifeguards, Groundsmen, cleaning staff, these cool, friendly background workers were not overwhelmed like the serving staff so had the Jamaican hospitality down. When my son stepped on a sea urchin, the lifeguards were professional, helpful and caring. The guy that cleaned Sunset cove each morning is a gem.

The Infinity Bar, groovy live music, good drinks. We hung out here most evenings 315and loved it. Here is a picture of one round of cocktails. The cocktails here are awesome, but if you want wine that doesn’t taste like paint thinner, you are going to pay $30 for a basic bottle of plonk. One night they had a fun “Back to the 80’s” party that was a blast. They fun was greatly due to the work of the Jamaican animation staff who are unbelievable, teaching water aerobics at 0900 and dancing until the wee hours of the morning. Thank you guys.

Grounds,  It is a sprawling estate with lots of tropical 709flowers and fruits, beautiful. The architecture of the resort it lovely. It is extremely visually appealing. Pictured left is the view from our room, not ocean view but still lovely.

Bad.

Okay, so here we go. Since I am a travel writer I always let a hotel know I am coming. I don’t want to spring a review on a hotel without warning, in my opinion its a professional courtesy. So, these guys knew I was coming. On arrival I was presented with our rooms. We were actually booked in at the Grand Palladium Montego Bay . We were presented with two rooms in block 18 near the main road. I was stunned! I had booked with Air Canada Vacations so we are supposed to get premium rooms, I had requested good rooms that were connecting and got nothing. After much begging, arguing and complaining I paid an additional $40 a night and upgraded to be on the Lady Hamilton side of the resort. This side all the rooms are recently renovated. I had to make do with two rooms with a King Bed and a Pull out coach because no rooms with two beds were available and no connecting rooms were available either. I was not happy but went to the room. (view from balcony picture above)

I asked housekeeping to make up the pull out couch, we returned from Dinner and the bed was made but it was literally as hard as a rock, you might as well sleep on a tile floor. I called reception, complained and they brought padding, it was a bit better but not much. We were exhausted from an early start so went to bed early. As I got into bed, I noticed the sheet was not big enough for the bed (it was a double sheet on a king bed and they had used two to cover the middle of the bed, “what the hell!”, I thought and went to bed

194

All night I felt the bare mattress sticking to my body! I was up at 6:00 AM and went to reception, explaining the sheets were not big enough for the bed, they looked at me like I was a lunatic. Anyway, they promised they would look into it. I also asked if there was anyway I could get a room for my kids with two beds so my daughter wouldn’t have to sleep on the rock bed, They found rooms for us that were facing the Spa, so if you open your curtains in the morning you will see all the people working out, UGH, no thanks,  just bring more padding for my daughter and please, King size sheets. I also wrote an email to the customer service rep and manager to complain and they basically said, sorry to hear you are not happy, if we can do anything else just let us know…. really?

So guess what, this is my bed after the second night…. I pulled the sheet straight for the picture but I basically spent the night on a bare mattress AGAIN.

196

I actually took the photos not for the blog but to go show reception what we were dealing with. (my kids room also had this problem) This time she looked at me like I was NOT a lunatic (photos help) and said that a machine was broken and the resort did not have enough sheets. ARE YOU KIDDING ME????

I went back to my room and saw a very official looking lady names Althea, I believe she is somehow a supervisor in housekeeping and begged her, I mean literally begged her to get me sheets from somewhere as I was exhausted from two nights of sleeping on a damn bare mattress!  Althea and my housekeeper did what they could for me, but let me say this. If you want good quality sleep this is not the resort for you. No one should have to beg for sheets, I have stayed in youth hostels, 3 star hotels in Africa, gone camping and never had this problem.

Anyway, enough of the beds. You get it they suck and if you have a problem, good luck with a timely resolution.

Line lines lines, everywhere you go, want breakfast, wait in line to get inside the buffet restaurant, want a drink, wait your turn, need anything? Be ready to wait. I can honestly say that after staying at in excess of 50 All inclusive hotels I have never experienced line ups like the ones at the Grand Palladium. Guest got angry waiting and the vibe was unpleasant. The a la cart situation was actually a horror show, angry people were waiting for hours and it was just an unpleasant thing to see on holiday.  We stayed at the Grand Sirenas, in Mayan Riviera the same period (over New Year) at it was nothing like this.

We were so tired of the lines, that we were going to breakfast as it opened at 8:00 AM, in the morning. By 9:00 AM the buffet would have a lineup out the door to get a table. The problem was not the capacity of the resturant but that there was not enough hostess’ to seat guests. We wondered why they didn’t just allow guests to seat themselves, but as it was my holiday I just kept my mouth shut and enjoyed my time with my family.

Slow Service in the a la carte restaurants, consistent with the above comment, once your got into an a la carte restaurant be prepared to wait, wait, wait for your food. We really enjoyed the family time but it took almost an hour for our food to come on Christmas night.

Management? The front line workers did their best, Vanessa, from reception, kept calling me to check on me, as she knew I was not happy with the room/bed situation, but really what could she do about the line ups and overcrowding, this is a Management problem and I was there for some downtime, not to complain about issues that could not be fixed immediately.  It was the same for the poor waitstaff and bar tenders, they were working so hard to keep up with the literally thousands of people that were at the resort but they were totally overwhelmed I don’t think they could have possibly worked any harder.  What annoyed us most of all is that the timeshare sales people and spa sales people literally accosted you every time we walked past, Management had no problem staffing these money makers properly but we couldn’t get anything else with out waiting, waiting, waiting. Please Management, staff the restaurants and bars properly to avoid line ups, particular in the buffet where there were always empty tables and people lining up out the door.

Overall Impression.

I have stayed at well over 10 hotels in Jamaica, all the Sandals except Whitehouse, Iberostar Grand Rose Hall, Couples Sans Souci (where I got married), Holiday Inn Sunsplash, Jamaica Grande and Half Moon, so I know this is not typical for the destination. I would say the Grand Palladium just didn’t deliver on providing a hassle free vacation for my family. There were so many good points but the drama with the rock hard bed, tiny sheets and line ups were enough for me to not recommend this property. To be fair, I wonder what it would be like in a quieter season, but vacation time is so precious, why would you gamble your time for a bad nights sleep and lots of lineups.

I would say that the resort was completely overwhelmed and unable to provide a level of service that is expected in the 4-5 star all-Inclusive space. I write this negative review in hope that Management looks at its delivery of services because the bones of the resort are there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tokyo in one day?

Tokyo in one day?

Tokyo– a city with 38 million residents can be overwhelming when you first arrive. How do you even start to navigate such a huge city?  I recommend a walking tour, it will get your blood moving, and give you a good idea about the lay of a city that really is like 10 mega cities rolled into one. Our trip to the top of the Government Metropolitan Building in Shinjuku really gave us an idea how massive Tokyo is, thousands of skyscrapers, as far as the eye can see.

For our first day in Tokyo we decided on using the “Backstreet guides” for the “Absolute Tokyo Tour.” The tour started at 9:00 AM At Shimbashi station and ended at 4:00 at Yanika. It included Sushi Breakfast and Udon lunch.. Our guide Rie, whipped us around some of the highlights of Tokyo, we met some other fun travelers, had lots of laughs and got a great look at Tokyo from a local’s perspective. If you are travelling to Tokyo on business or like us are looking for a good introduction to Tokyo this is absolutely the way to go.

112
Sushi Breakfast at the outer Tsukiji Fish Market.

Tsukiji Market.

Finally! I made it to the famous Tsukiji Market. As a sushi lover and lover of all things aquatic this was a highlight. One of the huge benefits of a walking tour with only nine other participants is the intimate knowledge you get from the guide. She 081explained to us that as the Tsukiji Market is a working market, and how we needed to be careful of busy traders trying to do their work among the hordes of irritating tourists. The market itself is beautiful, YES, beautiful, heaving with life and the smell of the sea,  sadly this market is slated to close and move to a more modern facility. Likely losing much of its charm, but making life for the fishermen far more easy. 082Is the fish market for you? If you are not a fan of fish, probably not a good stop, as the smell is strong and fish plentiful,  I could have spent hours looking at all of the stalls, a full day, but when part of a walking tour, one must keep up.

There are several Sushi Restaurants around the Fish Market, many with long line ups. I asked our guide if the wait was worth it. She told me that some of the people would be standing for three hours to get a table and that no Japanese person would ever wait that long. Looking back on my gastronomical adventures in Japan, I am glad I never wasted three hours waiting , when sushi that was beyond my wildest expectations could be found nearly on every corner, with no wait. After a brief stop for a sushi breakfast we were on our way to Asakusa.

Asakusa, home to the Nakamise shopping street and Sensoji Temple was a great stop.

130
Rie and Tokyo Skytree

The shopping street was busy and filled with souvenirs and people. At the end of the street was the beautiful Sensoji temple. (You can see Sensoji with the grey roof and the Pagoda at the top of the picture below) It was here that our guide showed us how to properly prepare to enter a Shrine. Again, super helpful to have Rhea tell us what to do and how to purify ourselves. When we were alone later in the trip, we were like old pro’s as the other Western tourists were stumbling around, trying to figure it out. All this walking was making us hungry… next stop..Lunch!

132
Nakamise

We made a quick trip to the base of the Tokyo Sky Tree, for our Udon Lunch, delicious!

In the picture below you will notice what appears to be Geisha. This is not the case, a very curious tourism phenomenon in Japan is where foreigners come to Japan and rent a Geisha outfit for the day and then wonder around town. Unwitting tourists pose for pictures with these “fake” Geisha who are also tourists, often from other Asian countries.  Its weird. Again, something I learned from the tour guide.

Akihabara.  Also known as electric town, Akihabara is the place to go if you are, into cosplay, ainime and manga.  It is home to the Tokyo Anime center and full of life.  While we were in Akihabara, our guide showed us the “Maid cafes” these are restaurants where the staff are dressed as highly stylized maids and serves the clients accordingly, calling men “Master” and women “Mistress.” So weird! Apparently it is not sexual in any way and supposed to be cute. As the Japanese guide was telling us about the cafes we were all pretty weirded out, but she wasn’t phased at all. I think if I go back I will try it out so I can fully report back… but for now, just know that Akihabara has these maid cafe’s all over the place.

Final stop on the tour was Yanaka. To see what old Tokyo was like you head here. It was the perfect place to end the day.

222

 

We wandered though the cemetery and Tennoji Temple and learned about the burial customs in Japan. The cemetery is more like a park with beautiful trees and flowers. This final stop gave me a chance to breathe, realize that yes, we were in Japan and it was awesome!  The day was filled with laughs with our fellow travelers on the tour, a family from Chicago and three friends from Australia. When the tour ended we said our goodbyes to Rie, our wonderful guide from “Backstreet Guides” and decided to all go for coffee.

209

 

The coffee shop, like much of Yanaka felt like old  Japan, all the signs were in Japanese, including the menu. The owner was, well, grumpy. He was not pleased with the arrival of nine boisterous tourists walking into his shop. The coffee was incredible, the beans were roasted in house and we sat and watched with wonder as he prepared each cup. No wonder he was cranky, he was an artist and we came roaring in like we were walking into a Starbucks! Lesson here, is you can’t rush art and when you enter an artist’s studio, pick up on the vibes rather than interrupting them.

We said our goodbyes to our new friends and stumbled home. We had been walking since 7:00AM (we started the day early as we were eager to get going) and it was now close to 6:00PM.  We had a great day and now had a good idea of how to use the subways and trains, we learned a lot about Japanese customs and now were ready to continue exploring Japan on our own over the next 8 Days. Next post…. Harajuku, Tokyo. Owl Café, Delicious food, Meiji Shrine, funky fashion and more.

234
Yanaka Coffee Artist

 

Japan- What’s with the face masks?

Japan- What’s with the face masks?

So, as I am looking through my media for pictures to post for my next article on Tokyo, I am reminded how many people in Japan wore surgical face masks. The above picture is taken at Shinjuku station at 8:30AM. At first it can be quite unnerving. Is there a mass epidemic that I don’t know about? What is going on? This is weird!  After talking to some Japanese people this is what I have discovered.

1. People don’t always wear the masks because they are sick. Yep, they wear them for other reasons. Like, they need to go to the store to get something quickly and they haven’t washed their face or brushed their teeth.  Or that they have a pimple that they are not happpy with etc. Its a way of getting out of the house when you don’t look your best and not getting recognized. CRAZY, you may say but I know lots of people here in Canada who will not leave the house until they are fully groomed and this takes hours 😉 For them, this strategy may actually be quite efficient.

2. People wear them not only when they are sick but to prevent getting sick from others. I will never forget getting on the train at Shinjuku station at 6:00AM bound for the fish market and the train was standing room only. Not packed like at 8:00AM but as full as the subways get in Toronto during rush hour and it was 6:00 AM! In Tokyo, you get pretty close to strangers and I guess people feel they are protecting themselves from germs by wearing the mask.

3. People are sick and are polite and do not want to spread their germs.

4. Apparently, it helps protect against season allergies.

5. I was told that some people wear it as a way to shut themselves off from the world and not have to make pleasantries. This is kind of like how I wear headphones sometimes when I am working at my computer as a signal to others not to come and talk to me because I can’t hear them due to my music.

So there you have it, another weird and wacky but kind of sensible Japanese topic that you have to see to believe. If any of my Japanese readers have anything to rebut or add please let me know…. and now …back to writing 5 Days in Tokyo.

japan1
Food handler in Kyoto, is she sick, trying to stay healthy, suffering from allergies or just shy? Hmmmmm…. I am going to go with shy. The Yuba with cheese was delicious!