Monday, November 28, 2011

Giving the Gift of Travel

Some of our favorite and most memorable Christmas presents in the Cinnamon family over the years have been trips.  John gave me a fabulous journey to China one year that stands out as one of my all-time favorite Christmas gifts.  And as our boys were growing up, we often took family vacations at Christmas time too.  Sometimes it was a few days before, but often it was a nice week or so after Christmas.  It gave us a chance to visit new places together as a family.  Traveling can definitely be a family bonding time.  It also is a great learning tool as it can make history come alive and make geography very personal.    

Since there will be a lot of traveling and trip-giving this holiday season, we thought it might be a good time to offer a list of some of our hard-learned travel and packing tips.  First on packing:

·        Place small items inside shoes to save space and protect breakables
·        Use free shower caps from hotels to cover shoes in suitcase
·        Take an extra collapsible carry-on bag in your suitcase to  bring home souvenirs
·        Put distinctive or colorful luggage tags on your suitcases for quicker identification
·        Don’t buy expensive luggage!  Besides the fact that it gets tossed around and beat up by baggage handlers, experts say that thieves often target more expensive luggage to steal or rummage through, assuming there might be more valuables inside.

If you are planning an international trip, here are some things to remember:

·        Check passport expiration date – many countries require as much as 6 months remaining on your passport at the time of your visit.
·        Check to see if you need visas or permits for the countries you are visiting.
·        Check with your mobile phone carrier for overseas charges as these can be very expensive and even turning your phone on can ring up charges.
·        Walk around and drink plenty of water on long flights.  Wear compression socks.
·        Dress NOT to stand out! There are places in the world where it is not appropriate to wear revealing clothing and it is an insult to their culture if you do.  You may be inviting unwelcome attention by doing so.  With the high level of tension in some parts of the world, it is often better not to advertise that you are American either.  Blending in is best.

Here’s hoping that you have a wonderful holiday season and that you find a great trip stuffed in your stocking this year!


Sunday, October 2, 2011

The REAL Oktoberfest

Fall has arrived and that means lots of Oktoberfest celebrations around the country including here in Central Indiana.  But these celebrations are pretty tame compared to the mother of all Oktoberfests in Munich, Germany.  We just returned from a driving trip of Eastern Europe that began in Munich where we participated in Oktoberfest kickoff celebrations.  The event starts with a huge parade that features lederhosen-wearing bands, Clydesdales pulling beer wagons and gigantic kegs of beer.  The parade ends in a beer free-for-all at the Oktoberfest grounds, which has 8 enormous beer halls that are all jam-packed with beer drinkers and oompah bands.   
As we were walking the Oktoberfest grounds, which also has amusement park rides, food and souvenir stands, it occurred to us that it was akin to our State Fair, but with a beer theme!    We watched people who had drunk so much that they were literally holding each other up and medics were roaming the grounds with stretchers ready to pick up celebrants who had passed out.  And this was just the start of a 2 week celebration!
Leaving Munich, we drove the legendary Autobahn getting our car up to 110 mph while other cars passed us like we were going 60!   

Up next was Budapest and Prague, both pretty, but Prague is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  It is vibrant with gorgeous architecture, history and great shopping. 

On our way out of the Czech Republic, just a few miles from the German border, we were pulled over by Czech police who told us we didn’t have a necessary toll pass.  We had not seen or read of the requirement for pass anywhere.  When the officers said they would take cash or a credit card, we said we couldn’t do either, so they gave us a “ticket” with a handwritten bank account number on it to have money transferred into.  We’re pretty sure it was a shakedown of foreign tourists but we’re very sure that we’re NOT going to pay it!

Next was Berlin where we visited what is left of the Berlin Wall and the new Holocaust Memorial which is emotionally moving and was appropriately built on the site of one of Hitler’s headquarters. 

Finally, we ended up in Amsterdam which is a city of nonstop activity.  Between the thousands of bikes, the cars and the trams there is always movement.  One of the highlights was visiting the Anne Frank Museum which is based in the very building where she and her family hid from the Nazis for 2 years.  

This adventure had all the ingredients of a great trip:   beautiful cities, great architecture, history, art, gorgeous scenery and lots of beer!  Strangely though, we’re not beer drinkers but we still enjoyed it immensely!

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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Best. Dessert. Ever.

When Ann and I are on a cruise, we seldom have meals off the ship.  Why would we?  The amount of food available on board that’s included with the price of the cruise is mind-boggling.  Breakfast, brunch, mid-morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack, late-afternoon snack, gourmet dinner, dessert, midnight chocolate buffet.  If you ever find yourself hungry on a cruise, you have only yourself to blame.  A greeting card we found in the gift shop on a cruise some years ago sums it up perfectly.  The image is a member of the dining staff dishing a substantial portion of spaghetti onto the plate of a wild-eyed, older male passenger.  The passenger is saying, “Pile it on, Guiseppe.  I haven’t eaten in almost 15 minutes.”
Me in 15 years.
There are, however, exceptions.  On our first cruise, our honeymoon in 1995, we indulged in an afternoon snack of nachos and milkshakes in the Hard Rock CafĂ© in Cozumel.  I guess we hadn’t fully embraced the cruise food phenomenon yet.  But it was a stop on the Greek island of Rhodes in 2009 where we made our best off-ship culinary discovery.  We didn’t take any kind of guided excursion, deciding instead to venture through the ancient city of Rhodes on our own.  After hours of castles, churches, guilds and every kind of gift/clothing/souvenir shop imaginable, we found ourselves in a small square.  A fountain in the middle, surrounded by a church on one side, shops on the other and various eateries all around.  We were a little tired and a little hungry.  We’d take care of both issues by sitting down at a table under the awning of one the restaurants and ordering a local favorite: baklava.  The waiter assured us that one order would be big enough for both of us, especially since it was served a la mode. 
That's Ann in the blue skirt in the archway to the left (post-baklava).
To this day, I can’t explain why this particular baklava was so good.  The nuts were especially nutty.  The syrup, amazingly syrupy.  The phyllo dough, uncommonly phyllo-y.  And the whole, warm, decadent thing covered with melting vanilla ice cream.  We finished it off as a gentle rain began to fall.  Perhaps it was the food itself.  Or maybe it was the romantic setting of a medieval town on an island in the Mediterranean.  Whatever it was, Ann and I agree that it was the best dessert ever.


Monday, July 18, 2011

Extreme Travel Bucket List

I've had my travel bucket list and then I've had my EXTREME travel bucket list.  My bucket list includes such places as Australia, China, Kenya, and Cambodia. They're all far away and exotic and take some effort to get to.  But the EXTREME bucket list includes Easter Island, Antarctica & Tibet.  That's my extreme travel triumvirate or ETT for all you acronym fans.  All three are about as remote in the world as you can possibly get.  All three invoke an aura of mystery.  All three require numerous flights/sailings to reach and all three can only be reached during certain times of the year or on certain days of the week (usually depending on weather and season).  My point is that you really have to want to go because the journey getting there is very difficult.

We've already discussed Easter Island in an earlier blog and Antarctica is yet to come for us in February.  So that leaves Tibet.  Tibet was part of our most ambitious journey ever in the summer of 2010.  I admit it was tough and was part of my "while we're in the neighborhood" theory.  I had been to India, but John had not.  We had been wanting to visit Angkor Wat in Cambodia and check out Vietnam.  I had always heard that Singapore was gorgeous.  But above all, if we were going to that part of the world, I knew that I had to visit Tibet.  Maybe it was watching "7 Years In Tibet" or reading "Lost Horizon".  Maybe it was viewing  documentaries about Tibet or seeing the protests around the time of the Beijing Olympics.  Or maybe it's just my tendency to want to see parts of the world that are almost forbidden.   Whatever it was, I was not going to go back to that part of the world without seeing Tibet. 

So, we started the process in February.  I managed to use frequent flyer miles into Delhi and out of Singapore which was a proud moment for me.  Then we just needed the inter-continent flights and hotels.  We got everything arranged and then started working on the visas.  We needed visas for every country except Singapore.  So, not only did it cost a huge amount just for the visas (in the neighborhood of $800), we also had to make sure our passports were sent to each consulate.  Tibet was the big issue.  You had to get a Chinese Visa and on top of that you had to have a Tibetan permit.  You could only get a Tibetan permit from the travel company that you were working with in Tibet and you HAD to work with a Tibetan agency or you just don't get in.  You must be escorted in Tibet at practically all times.

We had all our visas, even the Chinese visa, when the travel company we were working with in Asia told us that there was a problem getting the Tibetan permit.  This was now April and we were leaving in early June so that was not something I wanted to hear.  We were flying from Delhi to Tibet through Kathmandu, Nepal which was a pretty quick and direct flight.  The Chinese authorities, however, do not allow just everybody to fly into Tibet and, in fact, they watch very carefully who flies in from Kathmandu.  They watch so closely that they want to "eyeball" everybody before they issue them a permit.  Our flight laid over only a couple of hours on a day that the Chinese embassy was closed and they, literally, want you to present yourself at the Chinese Embassy to get the permit.  Well, that was obviously not going to work.  So, 2 months into the planning we find that we are going to have to shake it all up or abandon going to Tibet all together.  I repeat.....I was NOT going to go to that part of the world without seeing Tibet.  If we flew in from China, it would not be a problem.  So, we somehow managed to change our flight and instead of flying a couple of hours from Delhi to Kathmandu, we were to fly all night from Delhi to Guangzhu and Chengdu, China.   That would bypass the "eyeballing" and then it was just an issue of getting the permit from the travel agency in China.  That was going to require meeting a representative of the travel agency (SITA) in the Guangzhou airport and they would then literally hand us our permit.

I was not totally comfortable with this plan since we didn't have all our permits in hand before we left home and were leaving acceptance into Tibet up to someone meeting us in an airport in China.  We would not have been allowed on the plane to Tibet in Guangzhou without this permit so it was pretty important that the travel agency actually met us.   We wouldn't know if it all worked out until we got there so we were sort of flying by the seat of our pants.  I was just a little nervous about it.

In the end, it all worked out and the travel agent met us, as planned, at the airport.  He helped us find our next flight and saw us on our way.  We had a fabulous stay in Lhasa, Tibet.  So, we had no real trouble getting INTO Tibet, however we had trouble getting OUT as our reservations had been cancelled somehow.  That's another story for another blog.  After all we went through, we made it in with no trouble and then had trouble getting out!  Go figure.  It was, however, worth every single uncertain moment and despite all these problems AND some altitude sickness too, I'd do it again in a heartbeat. Tibet IS magical.

Thanks for reading!
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Friday, June 24, 2011

A Trip Back Somewhere in Time

Less than a 2 hour drive from Indianapolis is a world class resort that combines both 21st century amenities with the vestiges of a bygone era.  I’m talking about the French Lick Resort & Casino and the West Baden Springs Resort which have a rich history that few people know about.  We were there recently and stayed at West Baden Springs Resort.  It left me with a haunting memory on 2 levels that I just can’t shake.  

First the history:  French Lick’s hotel was built in 1850 and West Baden just a couple of years later.  They’re a little difficult to get to today so you have to wonder why and how did anyone go there back in 1850.  The “why” is the water.  There are mineral springs flowing under French Lick and West Baden that people back in the 19th century believed to be “curative” waters.  They were proclaimed to cure every ill from constipation to diabetes.  The springs are still there today, but are covered up to try to disguise the strong sulfur smell.  But back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s people were paying top dollar to drink the waters and spend time at the resorts.  

The “how” was the old iron horse.  Trains took people from all over the country right up to the front door of the French Lick Resort.  In fact, there was a special receiving depot where the passengers would disembark and immediately partake in the “healing” waters before retiring to their luxuriously-appointed rooms.  

West Baden which is only a mile from French Lick was built to be spectacular.  When it was completed, it had a dome that was the largest in the world.  In fact, it was referred to as the “8th wonder of the world”.  There were rooms that overlooked the massive dome’s lobby and there were spas and restaurants and shops.  They say people would sit in the gorgeous and expansive lobby to chat, people watch and look out for celebrities. 

Both hotels went through fires and renovations and resurgences.  But for almost 100 years, they were world-renowned and they welcomed just about everybody who was anybody.  Clark Gable stayed there.  So did Bing and FDR and…. well, they have walls full of pictures of celebrities and politicos who have stayed at the resorts.

The Great Depression hit them hard and the owner of West Baden eventually sold it to the Jesuits for $1.  The Jesuits called it home for 30 years and then  sold it to Northwood College.  The college held it for another 20 years and then when they left, it fell into complete disrepair for another 15 years until Historic Landmarks bought it and convinced the late philanthropist William Cook to restore it.  Some $400,000,000 later, both resorts are back to the original splendor.  In fact, they may be even better now since a world class golf course has been added to the property.  The Pete Dye Golf Course at French Lick was designed by arguably the best golf course designer in history, Pete Dye and it is unbelievable.  It’s built in the hills of southern Indiana and provides a truly breathtaking view.  I, frankly, wondered how they could charge $300 for a round of golf in Indiana but after seeing the course, I can understand.  

That’s the history of the resorts….and now my history: 

I spent the honeymoon of my first marriage at French Lick back in 1975.  I was a 19 year old girl at the time and was getting ready to embark on a new adventure:  moving with my first husband, Bob, to Tehran, Iran where I lived for 1 ½ years.  It was the start of a new life full of promise. I was very excited and had a great time during the short, 2 day, honeymoon stay at French Lick.  But the promise didn’t hold true and the marriage ended 19 years later.  I’ve been hugely happily married to John for 16 years now, so it’s rare for me to think of my past life and feel any real sadness.  But while at French Lick I found myself feeling a little haunted by the person I used to be.  John played golf one day and I went back over to the French Lick resort to walk around by myself.  And to add to my nostalgic mood, the resort was playing melancholy 70’s music!  Tears actually welled up in my eyes as I fondly remembered my time there and the feelings I once had for Bob.  It was strange but maybe good too.  Bad memories so often crowd out the good ones that you forget you had good times too.

The French Lick Hotel reminds me a bit of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan which is where the cult classic movie “Somewhere in Time” was filmed.  The movie is a tragic story about lost love and time travel and was set in the same era in which the French Lick resorts were popular.  I usually need Kleenex when I watch “Somewhere in Time” so that feeling served to evoke a rather haunting feeling in me as well.

We visited French Lick again back in the 80’s after Northwood College had abandoned it.  It was in terrible shape.  I remember walking inside the littered lobby and looking up at the incredible dome and thinking “I’ll bet this was really something in its day”.  Well, now, it is once again!  

It is well worth a trip if you’ve got a weekend to spare.  Be sure and check out the old barbershop at West Baden Springs for a trip back in time.  And at French Lick be sure and stop to check out the wall posters that are everywhere.  They are of actual postcards of the resort dating back to the early 1900’s.  There’s also a gazebo behind the resort that still has an open spring of the famous “Pluto” water that the resort was famous for.  You’ll know when you’ve found it from the smell!