Travel Reveals Many Ways to (Over)do Christmas

Written by admin on January 30, 2010 – 12:16 pm -

So many people are Christmassed out by the time December 25th rolls around that it’s a relief when the actual day arrives. Deck the halls and fa-la-la! ’Tis the season for eggnog and holiday cheer until you want to get in bed and pull the covers over your head. It’s nearly impossible to avoid the constant sounds of holiday Muzak bombarding you as you enter a store.

Are you irritated by television ads promoting things to buy, buy, buy? Even adorable Sasha sitting on the presidential lap for the “igniting” of the national Christmas tree and Michelle Obama reading stories to children just add to the heap. Are you tired of Christmas? If so, you’re not alone.

But if you travel, you can get a different dose of Christmas, depending on where you’re going. There’s no question there can be way too much Christmas—and the feeling is global. If you happen to be in Asia, where they share the religion of marketing, it’s hard to escape stuffed Santa dolls and streets festooned with wreaths and miles of lights. Artificial snow in Southeast Asia? Why not?

Paris has a special glow during the holiday season, as do many cities throughout the world. The lights on the Champs Élysée may be overpowering, but they’re excess with a French accent, and variety makes the too-muchness of Christmas a little more bearable.

Christmas Markets in the EU have become big business and an increasing number of cities are promoting them as another way to attract tourists. Come one and all and stay in the area’s hotels and eat in local restaurants—and spend. But the markets have amazing things for sale and many of them are beautiful and unfamiliar to Americans

Americans who are traveling on business frequently buy gifts for their friends and family when they’re abroad precisely because they may find something unusual from a local craftsman or simply a more European sort of thing—and anyway, you’re supposed to bring home a souvenir, aren’t you? Even then, if you’re in Munich or Perugia, make certain the item wasn’t made in China. If it was, it probably costs less back home. But will you have time to go shopping after you return?

But just now I have found myself craving some holiday spirit. I’ve just returned from Buenos Aires, and the Argentines traditionally don’t decorate for the holiday until December 8th. When they do, it doesn’t feel terribly festive. The city doesn’t go all out decking the streets with holly and ornaments.

The Plaza de Mayo, the city’s historical center, famous because of the Perón rallies as well as the riots that took place in 2001, doesn’t even have a decorated tree. The square is surrounded by the city’s Cathedral, city hall and the presidential palace, The Casa Rosada, looking much as they do anytime of the year.

The stores and restaurants may put up a light or two, but don’t expect copious garlands. Perhaps it’s because it’s supposed to be dry and hot during December. But that doesn’t stop Miami from overdoing Santa.

The tango is the national pastime of Argentina, but don’t expect the milongas (dance halls) to look festive. Maybe it’s because it would detract from the dancers, who wear shoes that frequently shimmer and glitter, as they glide across the dance floor with precision and elegance.

No one should go to Argentina without watching people tango—which is nearly impossible since wherever there are tourists, there are bound to be dancers. Some dance because they’re in the spirit. Others perform and then pass the hat hoping to collect some pesos or dollars. The tango is done by people of all ages and it’s nothing less than sensual without necessarily being sexual. There are definite dos and don’ts when it comes to milonga etiquette.

Cultures are so different. Buenos Aires is considered the Paris of South America and some of its building are very French in feeling. The ultimate tribute to that architecture and design is the original building of the Palacio Duhau Park Hyatt on Avenue Alvear, which looks like so many streets in Paris’s 16th or 17th arrondissements. But it’s not all decked out in splashy Christmas colors.

The original building is more of a statement about how the French architect León Dourge built a Hotel Particulier in 1934 for a member of the Argentine aristocracy. After extensive renovations and the addition of the new section, the Park Hyatt opened this property in July 2006.

Still if you can’t afford to stay there (and expect New York City prices), at least go for tea. Not only will you see some the city’s most elegant and rich residents, but you’ll also see some understated holiday decorations if you’re in B.A. during the Christmas season.

It’s not New York or Paris. But the belle époque glamour of the Palacio, complete with rows of columns and the intricate ironwork coupled with panels from a 17th century castle in Normandy in the Oak Bar, gives visitors a real insight into how the “Portena” rich and famous lived. And yes, even though smoking isn’t permitted in restaurants in this part of the city, cigar smoking is permitted in this opulent room. This visit to Buenos Aires made me contemplate whether I like all of the razzmatazz that accompanies the holidays in France and in the U.S. I’ve come to my personal conclusion but would appreciate hearing yours. In the meantime, merry, merry.

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Posted in Paris |

Don’t cry for Argentina, but open your wallet

Written by admin on January 7, 2010 – 10:15 am -

One of the things many travelers don’t factor into their trip expenditures is the cost of coming and going to certain countries. Depending on your passport, you may be in for a surprise when you purchase a plane ticket. If it didn’t set you back enough, you may have to buy your way in and out of the country and obtain a visa.

A hot off the press add-on fee pertains to Americans, Canadians and Australians who are flying into the Buenos Aires airport. Effective December 28, 2009, the Argentine Immigration Office implemented a reciprocity fee.

Happily, you can pay for the visas at the airport and won’t be turned away if you arrive without a stamp in your passport. There’s a desk at the airport and as long as you have cash, a credit card or traveler’s checks, you’re good to go.

The fees are:

$70 for Canadian Nationals and it’s valid for only one entry
$131 for United States citizens that is valid for ten years
$100 for Australians that can be used for only one entry.

Flight crews, people from the above countries, who have legal residences in Argentina, plus people with official or diplomatic passports are exempt from paying entry fees.

While you’re thinking security and the myriad aspects involved in air travel, ascertain whether or not a visa is required. The airline should know but that doesn’t mean you’re not responsible for checking the government’s official tourist site. Another caveat: be sure your passport doesn’t expire within six months of your return ticket to the U.S. A conscientious airline representative can (and should) forbid your boarding the outgoing flight.

Leafing through my passport, I realize it represents a mini-fortune documenting my travels and some didn’t come cheap. You have the option of sending your passport, the supporting paperwork and passport photos to the consulate of the country where you’re intending to travel or using an Expedititor Service to facilitate the process. A Briggs is one of many of these companies and you do pay a premium in addition to the cost of the visas listed on their site.

Who says travel is glamorous when there so many variables? But for travel junkies like me, each visa stamp brings back memories I’ll never forget.

Come to think of it, it’s a good thing I returned from Buenos Aires on December 18th, 2009 or I’d be out an additional $131. On the other hand, I’d be able to return to Argentina without having to ante up additional cash.

Many Consumer Traveler readers travel extensively. Have you ever forgotten to obtain a visa before leaving the U.S.? And what’s the most expensive visa you’ve had to buy? In my case, I’d wager it’s my collection of visas permitting entrance into Vietnam.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris

Photo: detail of print by Tina Chaden

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Are full body scans really the answer to airline security?

Written by admin on December 31, 2009 – 3:14 pm -

Are full body scanners the answer when it come to averting potential terrorist attacks when going through airport security? Would you object to walking through them? Are they an invasion of your privacy?  Would you ask to be individually screened?

Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport will implement them within three weeks after the Christmas Day incident of explosives being concealed by Nigerian suspect Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab on a Detroit bound flight.

Many people questioned feel being screened should be a non-issue and the sooner the better. They want to speed up the time it takes to clear security and would welcome not having to take off outer garments, removing shoes, belts and not being required to unpack computer bags.

On the negative side, even then, these machine aren’t foolproof because it’s necessary to rely on humans to do visual scanning in an extremely finite period of time. That means evidence might be missed and the people responsible for scanning may not have the required technical expertise to intercept it.

One executive warns against an over reliance on technology. He feels it breeds complacency due to the belief machines have taken care of an issue so you do not need to worry. He’d be willing to walk through a scanning machine but would have greater confidence in the El-Al method of questioning. Even though he objects be being grilled and prodded, he has more faith in it from a security point of view.

A travel executive voiced she doesn’t think full body scans are the answer and will cause many to re-think their travel plans. She feels the TSA has numerous problems and when new screening systems are introduced, people manage to get through with contraband. The real issue is that people who want to cause harm will find a way to do it.

The ethical issue of privacy is out of date states one airline executive. The person doing the screening doesn’t see the passenger in person unless the passenger himself chooses to identify him or herself.

Tony Lamb, an operations research analyst with Scientific Research Corporation, says, “the TSA’s security paradigm is extremely reactionary. I remember never having to go barefoot at the airport until Richard Reid tried to blow up his Nikes. Now someone new hid some Semtex in his underwear and we’ll have full body scans. The bottleneck is at the security screening and it’s faulty. Unfortunately, it’s better than what we had pre-9/11.”

Lamb never liked the federalized guards at TSA. “They’ve had minimal training before being posted; a lot of them are little more than mall cops and are task saturated. Screening all of the passengers for possible bombs, knives, and guns in the allotted time is tough.”

Alisa Templeton from the Denver area says, “Hell no to body scans and here are just a few reasons why: They’d slow down, not speed up, security – especially if any of the TSA agents are gawkers. It’s a violation of my privacy. Yes my doctor sees these things, but she’s a doctor. Terrorists will find ways around the scanners as they’ve already done with watch lists and other security measures.”

People have different (and sometimes very passionate) opinions about these scanners. Please post how you feel and would you alter your travel plans?

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

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Weather gods wreak havoc in U.S. & Europe

Written by admin on December 21, 2009 – 3:18 pm -

If your immediate travel itinerary includes a train trip on the Eurostar, you’d better make alternative reservations and hope. Eurostar has announced it’s suspending service indefinitely until the company is able to rectify the most recent problems that caused trains to break down and passengers to be stranded. With Christmas only days away, more than 55,000 passengers’ trips have been canceled.

Saturday was chaos as 2,000 passengers were evacuated from six trains. People were trapped in the Channel Tunnel for up to 16 hours, after condensation caused a series of electrical failures, on Friday night. The stranded passengers had to walk through the darkened tunnel.

Eurostar chief executive Richard Brown has said, “We won’t  resume services again until we’re  sure trains can get through safely. We want to understand what caused this unprecedented breakdown.”

But getting anywhere in Europe may not be easy. Cold snap wreaks havoc across Europe as the EU is experiencing some of the coldest temperatures in recent history. Mother Nature isn’t cooperating with the travel gods. In France, 40 percent of flights out of Paris’s Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports were canceled as a second wave of snowstorms hit northern France.

Airports in Duesseldorf, Germany, Belgium’s Charleroi, Liege and Brussels airports were also closed due to heavy snow. Severe delays and cancellations were reported at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.

In the U.S., airports in the Washington, DC area were closed on Saturday. The region experienced the largest snowfall ever recorded in a single December day. New York area’s airports were closed for a portion of the weekend and passengers were advised to access airlines’ websites before heading to the airport.

If you happened to be in much of the East Coast, even if planes were flying, passengers may not have been able to get to their flights. The mayors of Washington and Philadelphia and the governors of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware declared states of emergency. There simply wasn’t enough equipment to cope with the areas’ accumulated snow.

In West Virginia, blankets were given to hundreds of drivers and some motorists were stranded on highways for up to 27 hours, according to Red Cross spokesman Jeff Morris.

A massive snowstorm headed north to New England and blizzard warnings were still in place in some parts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island on Sunday. A record number of car accidents have been recorded during this period.

So many people have been stranded on the roads, in trains and airports that this December will go down in transportation history as one of the worst ever. If you’ve been a victim of the weather, please post your comments. Could transportation officials have done a better job? If so, how?

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

It’s Almost Christmas in Paris

Written by admin on December 19, 2009 – 12:19 pm -

It’s almost Christmas, and Paris looks more festive than ever. If there’s a recession, it’s hard to tell based on the number of people (the majority of whom are French) walking up the Avenue des Champs-Élysée on the last Saturday of November.

From the Place de la Concorde to l’Étoile, 400 trees edging both sides of the avenue are wrapped in more than a million lights. It’s a dramatic display of shimmering twinkles. The Ferris wheel at the end of the Tulleries Garden at the Concorde is incredible to watch whether or not you have the nerve to climb aboard for one of the greatest views of Paris including the Eiffel Tower and Montmartre.

There is a Scrooge element—and it’s understandable. Some Paris residents try to steer clear of the Champs-Élysée because it’s too commercial and is the land of tourists. To name a few landmarks, there’s a McDonald’s, Virgin Megastore, Louis Vuitton, Citroen, Mercedes, Peugeot, Haagen-Dazs, Nike, more restaurants than you can name with terraces cascading onto the sidewalk (thank goodness for space heaters and awnings when it’s cold and especially if you need a smoke), and so many movie theaters that New Yorkers might think they are in Times Square. Abercrombie and Fitch has announced it’s going to open a Paris outlet there.

Funny how this ho-ho-ho season happens every year, zooming in whether or not people are ready. Even if you’re not a believer in the religious aspects, you can’t help but be affected, even moved, if you’re living in a nominally Christian country. There’s nowhere to escape all of the Yuletide joy even when you don’t feel joyous

One major difference between the U.S. and France is the French have a jump on “doing” Christmas because they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. On the other hand, the French government doesn’t allow sales to take place until January 6, and the winter sales officially end on February 9, 2010.

So much for waiting to visit friends until the day after Christmas and stopping on your way at your favorite store to buy them an already reduced gift. Promotions do take place, but legally, those items are supposed to be ones that don’t come out of the store’s regular stock. Go figure.

This year, as usual, there’s a Christmas market on the Champs Élysée, and even at nearly midnight in the rain, the area is always so jammed that people are bumping into each other. So much for personal space.

The Paris tourist office is marketing the City of Light big time. It’s not only targeting foreign tourists but also ones from other parts of the France. Many people are hopping on high-speed trains to visit their capital. So don’t be surprised by crowds.

There are other Christmas markets throughout France, with wonderful handcrafted ornaments, gifts and food items. Work a visit to the Christmas markets into your plans if you’ll be in Paris around Christmas. Below is a list of some of the major markets:

  • Paris features several Christmas markets, with most starting sometime between late November and early December. Consult the Paris Tourism Office for a list of the markets.
  • Strasbourg - Nov. 29 to Dec. 24 – This is one of the largest Christmas markets in France.
  • Mulhouse – Nov. 21 to Dec. 31 – This Alsatian market features shopping while sipping mulled wine and Christmas biscuits.
  • Menton – December – The 15-day worldwide Christmas festival in this charming Riviera town features lights, shows, the Christmas market and nativity scenes. For more information, contact the Menton Office of Tourism.
  • Orleans – December – This Loire Valley city, and home to Joan of Arc, hosts a Marche de Noel. For more information, visit the Orleans Tourism Office.

Most residents of Paris cave into their bah humbug sentiments and make at least one pilgrimage to the Champs-Élysée. This is especially true if they have young children who think there may be a Père Noël.

Don’t miss the exploring the Place Vendome and Paris’s shopping streets. If you want to get into the Christmas spirit, go window shopping (in this case, looking) at the major department stores: Galeries Lafayette, Printemps and Au Bon Marche.

If you feel like being elegant, dress up and take a tour of Paris’s five-star hotels; The Meurice, The Bristol, The Four Seasons, The Ritz, Le Crillon – and those are just a few.

Save enough time to stop in churches and savor one of the most beautiful cities in the world dressed in its Christmas best. I love seeing her from a boat cruising the Seine. And yes, Christmas in Paris isn’t Christmas without visiting Notre Dame.

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Some do’s and don’t of vacation rentals – will you fall in love?

Written by admin on December 15, 2009 – 3:21 pm -

Having written extensively about vacation rentals, I’ve learned quite a lot since I took the plunge and rented an apartment in Buenos Aires, Argentina. After years of advising Bonjour Paris readers to stay in apartments rather than hotels, in order to experience a place as a quasi-local, it was my turn.

Never having been to the Paris of South America (and speaking no Spanish), B.A. had been on my must-visit list. An acquaintance decided she wanted to perfect her tango so an apartment was the best solution. Eating every meal out is expensive and two people (who’ve never traveled together) confined to one room could spell disaster.

The Internet is a wonderful thing when selecting a temporary home. Enter vacation rentals or short-term rental apartments plus the name of the destination in the search function and you’ll be inundated by choices. Too many. The selection process is challenging, especially in this economic market, when people might opt to rent out properties rather than sell them.

Renting an apartment site unseen is akin to a blind date. Will you fall in love even if you’ve looked at lots of photos?  Wide angle lenses and photo-shop can do wonders.

Tips I’ve learned from being on the buyer’s end:

- Do initial research about the city. Decide what you want to see and study the transportation system. Opting to rent a less expensive apartment a bit out of town, may ultimately end up costing you more money if you’re wedded to taking taxis or are locked into spending time commuting to see what you’ve come to see and do. Surf the web and if you like paper, buy a guide book or two. The DK-Eyewitness Travel “Top 10 Buenos Aires” book with its pull out map was my bible.

- If you’re a woman alone – or traveling with another – evaluate your comfort level if you want to return home late from dinner, or in the case of B.A., a milonga (a tango hall) that doesn’t get started until 11 p.m.

- Reality check: if you’re going to be somewhere for only two or three days, it’s probably not worth renting digs. You’ll need to hit the grocery store and buy essentials such as soap, etc.  Consider whether or not you want or need a concierge or someone to set up tours, make suggestions and/or dinner reservations for you.

How to evaluate a property:

Make certain there’s a high-speed Internet connection if you’re off to a city. Even if you’re not taking your computer and have no need to be on-line, it signifies the landlord caters to business travelers and usually, a more upscale market. Take a careful look at the photos of the kitchen and the bathroom facilities. Living rooms and bedrooms can look charming. Photos of them can be deceptive but they can’t hide an antiquated kitchen or circa 1942 bathroom plumbing fixtures.

How soon and how thoroughly is your rental request answered? People who are professionals are very responsive because there’s so much competition.

Always ask the size of the apartment. A two-bedroom apartment isn’t necessarily spacious when it comes to Americans’ expectations. Forty-square meters is tiny (440-square-feet) and believe it or not, some apartments with those dimensions are intended to accommodate four people.

Do you want to stay in someone’s apartment or are you more comfortable staying in one that’s used exclusively for rentals? A just-rental apartment tends to be less personal. On the other hand, you may not be tripping over the owner’s belongings.

Is the apartment’s owner (or rental agency) willing to have you speak with previous tenants? Is there a manual to the property and a 24-hour-contact number in the event there’s a serious problem with the apartment?

We rented a renovated two-bedroom apartment on the 17th floor that was ideal for sharing. Its American owner emailed a response within one hour of the inquiry and his support staff was excellent. There was a car waiting for us at the airport and someone who met us when we checked in and explained everything in perfect English. There were even cards for us that included the apartment’s address and all of the telephone numbers including the cell phone that was there for our use. We had no complaints. Judy and I were able to share an apartment without getting in each others way since we kept very different schedules.

Another group of apartments that intrigued me were Apartments in a Recoleta Mansion that have been developed by a 38-year-old San Francisco native. Brent Federighi decided to restore the facade  rather than tearing down the building, which so many builders have done in B.A. since it’s easier and less costly. The 18 apartments have the  feel of a boutique hotel. There’s a lobby and a concierge on the ground floor office plus a small pool on the building’s roof.

These apartments are being sold to individuals who want to own a pied-à-terre but want to defray its cost. It’s better than a time-share for those who have money to invest and want an occasional home in Buenos Aires.

Even though where you stay for a short vacation isn’t a life or death matter, it can impact your feeling about a place. Prospective tenants need to read between the lines of rental ads. It’s not always obvious.

Do you have additional tips?  Or have you rented a place to find out it’s a dive upon arrival? If so, what did you do?

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

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Heaven in Hanoi at the Sofitel Metropole

Written by admin on November 28, 2009 – 3:24 pm -

The The Metropole has always been the place to stay in Hanoi. Legends of the rich and famous, as well royalty, have made it their home. Located in the heart of Hanoi, it’s near the city’s Old Quarter. The hotel opened in 1901, although if the research is correct, the Colonial building was constructed a minimum of twenty years before.

There are many special hotels in the world but the Sofitel Metropole has a unique quality. It was designated the  the Sofitel Group’s first Legend hotel in July 2009. After a four-year-long massive renovation, the hotel now offers another level of service, coupled with every amenity guests could want. Yes, there are flat screen TVs and other electronic gadgets that yell, “up-to-date” but don’t detract from the hotel’s charm and elegance.

Each time I’ve tried to snag a reservation at the Metropole, forget it. Either the hotel was full or the rooms were so expensive, they were way out of my budget. I’d lunch at Spices and enjoy its wonderful buffet where more than 60 percent of the diners are locals — so you know the chefs are doing something right.

Or, I’d sit in the outside bar and have a drink and try not to have the look or word “jealous” streaking across my forehead.  “Thou shalt not covet” would echo in my consciousness as I watched the hotel’s residents relaxing by the pool. Before the spa opened, staff members were offering foot massages to help people digest their tea or one of the bar’s signature drinks.

This time, I hit it lucky. Suzy Gershman (of “Born To Shop” fame) and her editorial partner Sarah, and I  were able to score a super super deluxe room for approximately $350 per night. Yes, we’d be cozy in the 55-square-meter space. But we’d be privy to a private butler,  breakfast, tea, cocktails plus 24-hour-a lounge access with free computer access, WiFi and would we like a soda? I calculated that what we’d save by not having to buy breakfast, a glass of wine accompanied by extensive hors d’oeuvres (OK, we ate so many, they were dinner) would compensate for the room costing so much.

There are  perfectly decent hotel rooms for around $50 a night in Hanoi. But we wouldn’t have been treated as if we were royalty. Nor would we have had an elegant digs with a sybaritic bathroom overflowing with Hermes amenities. It felt like an incredible treat after running from dawn to dusk in a city where there’s non-stop noise, not to mention, traffic. The Metropole is an oasis in the middle of a frantic city.

Suzy and Sarah had stayed in the classic Metropole, but had yet to stay in the new Opera section, a building that was acquired approximately six years ago. Its decor is Colonial/modern/chic and the bathrooms have a deep bathtub plus a separate glass enclosed shower with a rain-fall shower head. The pillow menu is actually a small box with samples so guests could sleep on their favorite type.

The Metropole Spa is a part of the hotel’s upgrade. For those who crave relaxation, this is an ideal place. Massages and more are considerably less expensive in town — but you’re not pampered in such an elegant environment. Clients are given the option of selecting their own music (or for that matter, bringing it) and then returning to their rooms to nap.

Unhappily, there was too much to do and see, so I opted to sit in the spa’s lobby, drink a cup of tea and admire its collection of blue and white porcelains.

The hotel reminds me of Raffles in Singapore but has surpassed it.  There’s practically an unlimited selection of elegant hotels in the world. But, many are beginning to have a quasi cookie cutter look and feel. Don’t get me wrong, I could easily live in one. However, it’s a pleasure not to have to go up 22 floors, get lost in a hallway finding the door plus being greeted by a smiling staff member, who actually remembers your name and appears to care.

We were lucky enough to meet with the hotel’s general manager, Kai Speth, who joined Sofitel to complete the complicated renovations and spearhead the re-branding of the hotel to compete with Starwood’s Luxury Collection. We discussed some of the challenges of repositioning a hotel. For example, since the expansion, he doesn’t want to be dependent exclusively on leisure or business travelers. “It was one thing when the hotel was smaller. But, with the expansion, there are now 364 rooms and suites.” Speth explained. The GM also confided that the next Sofitel Hotels that will be labeled Legend are the Winter Palace in Luxor, Egypt, The Grand in Amsterdam and The Santa Clara in Cartagena, Colombia. Each property is unique.

If you’re a chocolate lover, don’t miss the afternoon chocolate tea that costs $15 and could cause anyone to go into sugar shock. There’s no such thing as too much chocolate for me and I tried to use restraint; not because I am disciplined, but because I was going to have a fitting for the suit I was having custom made at Cu Thanh on Hang Gai Street. Happily, it fit. But if I’d had one more dark chocolate truffle, I would have been asking for disaster.

During the tea, I had the pleasure of meeting the hotel’s main chef, André Bosia, who arrived at the Metropole less than two years ago. André assured me that all of the breads and pastries are made on the premises. In addition to a number of elegant boutiques in the hotel, there’s also a bakery that sells incredible edibles. One of the legacies left by the French from the days when Vietnam was one of its Colonies, was the appreciation of pastries and first-rate breads.

Both André Bosia and Kai Speth were pleased over the hotel’s new restaurant, Angelina, an Italian Steak House. Its bar has live entertainment most nights and the hotel goes all out to attract local residents and does an excellent job.

Le Beaulieu, the hotel’s anchor restaurant, offers first-rate French cuisine. It’s a meeting place for the city’s chic and with-it group (or those who love excellent food) at Sunday brunch; reservations are necessary.

Leaving the Metropole came all too soon for those who love Hanoi. We really hadn’t made sufficient use of “our” butler until we had a 4 a.m. wake-up call so we could make our 7 a.m. flight to Ho Chi Minh City. I was expecting to brew some coffee in the pot that was in the room and call it a day. Instead, we were awakened by Van, who was carrying a tray overflowing with hot coffee with hot milk, glasses of fresh orange juice and an enormous basket of rolls, croissants and fresh pastries.

Many people consider that a resort hotel should be in the country or overlooking water. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’d like to return to the Sofitel Metropole and pretend it’s a resort that happens to be in one of my favorites city in Southeast Asia. That way, I walk or hop on a pedicab or moto and head into the city when I crave some excitement. The trip takes less than five minutes.

For that matter, I may have to return next year for the 1000th Anniversary of Hanoi. The government just devalued its currency (the dong) by approximately 5%.  That won’t make much of a mark for tourists since hotel rates are generally priced in U.S. dollars.  But, every penny helps.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Personal Space

Written by admin on November 24, 2009 – 3:27 pm -

Traveling is a challenge no matter how you approach it or like it. It happens to be my passion. But travel barges in on your personal space, starting at the airport. Before you board the plane, you’re jiggled and jostled while navigating security. How many times have you felt as if you’re playing beat the clock just to get through the TSA screening process and collecting your possessions?

It’s taken a while, but I routinely make snarky comments to people behind me, telling them to get off my back, so I can gather my clothes, cell phone and other paraphernalia. I’ve become increasingly aggressive since I left my driver’s license in a plastic bucket on the conveyor belt and had to spend an entire day replacing it. There must be a lost and found in aviation heaven that’s jammed with electronics, documents, the belt that was holding up someone’s pants, and sweaters passengers thought they’d collected.

Skip the fact of being stripped of liquids that are more than three ounces—and that limit has recently been increased. I hope someday it goes up to 12 ounces because I want to gulp something as soon as I’ve had the chance to catch my breath after making it to the other side. Come to think of it, you could swig a miniature purchased at the liquor store. But then, you might really be subjected to a lack of personal space because the airport police don’t think kindly of people drinking in the airport in public area

Plane travel is the ultimate testimony to existing in cramped quarters. Coach class can be more intimate than you ever fathomed, especially when someone has reclined his or her seat, so you’re wedged into your chair. There are (or should be) rules of etiquette. But they seem to evaporate each year. How many times have you gotten to know your neighbor better than you ever imagined just because you need to go to the WC—where invariably there’s a line to be admitted to the inner sanctum.

Unless Americans are forced into sardine situations, they tend not to stand on top of one another. And as friendly as people in the U.S. tend to be by telling one another too much too soon, strangers rarely touch one another. In other countries, the protocol is very different.

For example, in Asia, it’s apparent that vendors in outdoor markets feel they have the right to run after you and tug at you in order to make a sale. “Missy, missy, how much do you want to pay?” the out-to-kill salesperson will ask while simultaneously grabbing your shoulder. Americans aren’t used to this since it’s hard in the States to locate a salesperson when you want one. And you rarely touch even when you’re forking over your credit card and collecting the purchases.

Ask someone who’s French for directions and they become so intense you may feel you’re going head to head. As my Bonjour Paris colleague Joseph Lestrange has pointed out, they can make any conversation seem urgent, a matter of life and death, even if all you want to know if should I turn left or right or how much a beer costs. I think of this as the linguistic equivalent of crowding, words hemming me in.

The American idea of people not crowding you is a mystery to people who are used to existing in more confined quarters. But think about it. When you’re in Paris, there’s generally a lack of space wherever you go. Contrasted to the U.S., grocery aisles are barely wide enough for one cart and rarely two. And these are small caddies.

Bakeries are located in narrow storefronts and if someone steps out of line, it’s hard not to notice. Visitors to Paris find are dismayed to discover that they better know exactly which loaf or pastry they want when it’s their turn to be waited on. The customers behind you have little to no tolerance for any form of discussion other than, “Bonjour, je veux une baguette et deux croissants, s’il vous plaît,and off you go after a fast financial exchange.

Most Parisian restaurants are jammed with tiny tables. Thank goodness most French speak with well-modulated voices or you’d go nuts from noise pollution. Skip the idea of a truly private conversation if you’re eating in a bistro or a café.

The French must have it ingrained into their psyches that personal space is a negative. Sure, there are those who go off hiking, but even when they can spread out, they don’t. When they go on vacation, they tend to be like termites who exist only as a colony and not at all as individuals. In August, there’s a mass exodus to the beaches, and off they go to the ski slopes in February. And when they arrive at their destinations, they tend to stick together as if they’re joined at the hip.

That’s the way they are. As another colleague, longtime resident of France and husband of an exceedingly French woman, Bud Korengold has noted, a title for his collection of very sympathetic stories about living in France could be called “Those French!” The exclamation point encodes exasperation sometimes, puzzlement at others, and often enough absolute wonder, not to say admiration. That’s why they’re French and we’re not. And that’s why we come to visit or stay.

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Posted in Around the World |

Persona non grata at immigration? Can you get off the list

Written by admin on November 23, 2009 – 4:14 pm -

Even if you’re not a terrorist or anything akin to one, you too can spend extra time getting through customs. Ask as many times as you want, you’ll never be told what you might have done. You’re guilty until proven innocent.

I’m now pulled over each time I enter the U.S. So much for trying not to check luggage so I can beat the crowds clearing customs. I count on spending extra time being grilled in the secondary screening room. Sometimes it’s a matter of minutes. Other times, it’s substantially more. Who cares if I have a connecting flight. I’m captive to the point that I wonder whether or not I did something in a former life.

I’ve explained more times than I can remember that my passport was stolen in Nice France in September, 2000, and blurt out my mother’s maiden name before my inquisitor can ask for the information. Sometimes that does the trick. Other times it doesn’t and the interview is more extensive.

How does someone get off this list? During my most recent encounter, I was informed I couldn’t. Never? “Yupp,” the officer replied and waved me on. I only had 45 minutes to get from the international terminal to the domestic one and hit the departure gate with a only minute to spare. Talk about huffing and puffing.

This experience made me determined to take action. Being persona non grata, if only temporarily, is a pain in the neck. Well, i hope there is a way to get back into The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) good graces. It took numerous calls and more than three hours of listening to voice prompts and two days playing phone tag to locate someone who could tell me how.

A Consular Affairs Press Officer at the U.S. Department of State took mercy and said to fill out this form: The DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program. Based on how many people are fielded to the secondary sanctum, this research may be useful.

After all, who needs or wants an immediate welcome interview each time you have to go through customs? No one. If you happen to be on the DHS hit list, do you know why you’re on such a list? I still don’t and suspect I never will. All I know is that I want off.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Hanoi adventures in Vietnam

Written by admin on November 18, 2009 – 4:18 pm -

If you’re someone who craves peace and  quiet, don’t book a trip to Hanoi or Saigon, rather Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). But they happen to be cities that have captured my heart. If forced to choose between the two, I’d head north to Hanoi, the country’s capital. Rise and shine and see the city awaken. Hit the streets after dark when it takes on an almost mystical feeling. Don’t miss Hanoi’s night market when the city comes alive.

Since my last trip to Hanoi two years ago, I immediately sensed the considerable economic growth that has taken place. An American photographer whom I encountered, commented the city has matured to the point that it’s lost some of its charm. Her definition of charm was no longer being able to bargain for items to the point it felt as if purchases cost nothing. Previously,  visitors had been able to return home with silk goods and clothes, lacquer work, pottery and so much more, without making a dent in a modest budget.

Some of my favorite family owned stores have been replaced by chic boutiques, where the personnel aren’t interested in discussing prices.  They know what they’re selling and aren’t desperate to dump inventory. This doesn’t mean there aren’t bargains and there may be some give and take.  You can certainly buy cheap tee-shirts that say Vietnam or “same same.”

Rather than the road from the airport into the city being inhabited cattle grazing the land, much of it covered by low banana trees, manufacturing plants are far more visible. Fewer people sit by the side of the road looking as if they have nothing else to do but beg. This isn’t to imply there isn’t tin and cardboard housing; but it’s far less visible. The cars are newer and cleaner and high-rise housing is more prevalent. A middle class is growning.

There are a lot of choices when it comes to transportation. Wear your most comfortable shoes and walk as long and as far as possible.  Some of Hanoi’s greatest treasures are found down back alleys; this is definitely a place where you want to get lost. Locals warn you to be careful with your possessions because they’re protective of visitors.   As everywhere, there are bad guys who’ll grab and run if it’s easy. Violent crimes targeting tourists are rare, which doesn’t mean purses or backpacks should be filled with valuables. I always leave my passport at the hotel and carry a photocopy of key pages.

A green light at a crosswalk doesn’t mean go. As a matter of fact, it seems to mean the reverse. If you can’t wear blinders and stride right along, you may be standing at the same corner after your flight has departed. People assume scooter drivers will swerve to miss pedestrians. Come to think of it, in spite of the chaos, I didn’t spot an accident, which is amazing considering many drivers might be considered mad with nerves of steel, and take no prisoners mentalities.

Men and women race through the cities on scooters. Most drivers wear masks to avoid pollution and helmets are mandatory. Families share scooters and pregnant women sit side saddle. Being a type-A person, my preferred way of getting from point A to point B was to hail one and join the crowd. The chauffeur always made certain I wore a helmet and I religiously forked over $1.00. It was more than a fair exchange. Ironically, I was sometimes taken the scenic route. Was I being ripped off? Not at all. I suspect the driver was showing his friends an older Caucasian woman was his charge.

There’s a thriving industry of pedicabs. Some drivers pride themselves on being tour guides and are delighted to be hired by the hour. Settle on the price before climbing in since fares are highly negotiable. The drivers, always men, have zero need to see the inside of a gym. They love to take tourists on tours of Hanoi, a city that’s composed of narrow streets. The vendors on specific streets  generally sell the same products. Passengers take photos of other tourists. It’s rare you’ll see a local riding in one of the pedicabs.

During rush hour, taxis may not be the fastest mode of transportation. But they’re clean and air-conditioned. That’s worth a lot if you’ve been out shopping (or whatever) and the thermometer is hovering near the 100 degree F mark.

If you are addicted to pottery and are up for a short excursion outside of Hanoi, head to Bat Trang, the world’s brick center and the country’s pottery and ceramics center. It’s a tiny village, complete with a tourist ox cart and heaps of dishes. You can walk the entire village in less than an hour. But it might difficult to tote your purchases. I scored six very small bowls and forked over $3. The price was established using a calculator with the shop’s owner taping one price and my entering another. If you’re tempted to go crazy and buy larger items, some stores offer shipping. I’ve always been hesitant because I’m certain the cost would negate the savings and will the pottery arrive whole and not in slivers?

Stay away from Vietnam if you can’t tolerate smoking. Asians still like their cigarettes and tobacco companies are betting they’re not going to give up their addiction soon. Non-smoking hotel rooms are available. But you know how smoke rises. Most restaurants have non-smoking sections but bars don’t. Go with the fumes or you’ll end up missing a lot.

Vietnamese food is wonderful. It can be spicy (meaning hot) or well seasoned. Its cuisine is healthy, well presented and you can eat well for next to nothing. How many nems can one person eat? Don’t miss ordering pho, a chicken soup that comes with noodles and you can add a variety of edibles from beef, chicken, vegetables and don’t forget the condiments.

During this trip (that was nowhere nearly long enough) we landed in HCMC, flew to Hanoi and back on Vietnam Airlines. If you’re flying within that part of Asia, you are not subjected to security, forced to have every item X-rayed, take your computer out of the bag and strip to the essentials. Vietnam’s and other Asian transportation officials feel  scanning isn’t effective. Your bags may be checked by hand, even though I can’t imagine anyone being able to see what’s in my purse that’s stuffed beyond stuffed.

If only we’d remember to reserve on line via Air Asia, we could have gotten a lot more bang for the buck. There’s so much more to write about Vietnam. And I will.

One thing that amazes me is that even though 58,000 US troops were killed during the war, more than a million Vietnamese, the majority of whom were civilians and happened to be in the line of fire, lost their lives. You’d think Americans would be disliked. They’re not.

Perhaps the Vietnamese perceive Americans as being anxiety ridden.  A friend asked a pharmacist for some sleeping pills to counter her extreme case of jet-lag and was offered Zoloft. Yes, Dr. Freud.

I’m already planning my next trip to Vietnam. It’s a country that holds endless personal fascination. But, next time, I’ll stay considerably longer.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |
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