Tuesday, June 19, 2007



So my husband and I went to Amsterdam in May, and try as I might, I cannot get some of the images out of my mind. I was prepared for the tulips, the canals, the wooden shoes, but no one prepared me for the bikes.

There are hundreds of bikes, literally everywhere. Bikes chained to bike stands, bikes chained to outdoor tables, chairs, bikes chained to drainpipes and fence posts and even to other bikes. There are bikes chained everywhere. In fact, there are more bikes in Amsterdam than there are people - I read several places that it's because there's a bike stolen like every 10 seconds or something crazy. So having more bikes than people would make sense I suppose. It all evens out.

You'd see the strangest, most eerily beautiful tableaux play out on bikes. Our first night we were enjoying the first of many delicious Indonesian meals while sitting outside (you don't find Indonesian anything in Pittsburgh that I know of) and even though the restaurant was in a narrow side alley just off one of the main canals, bikes sped by frequently. I learned to watch where I stepped not only in front of me, but beside and behind me as well whenever we walked anywhere (I won't even go into the clusterfuck that takes place while trying to maneuver yourself across a street filled with bikes and the oncoming #2 tram to the central station).

As we ate, a rickety old bike glided by. Literally glided as if it were floating like an air hockey puck. The guy driving was old, probably 70, with a grey, wispy combover and bad teeth (okay, I didn't see his teeth but I imagine from the rest of him that they might be on the mossy side). He was dressed to the nines in his best suit, you could tell. It was worn, but fashionable - a nice dark bluish-grey. Nice dark tie as well.

This stood out, that on an early Saturday evening some old guy was riding a bike like he hadn't a care in the world - with his front basket filled to brimming, spilling over with bright fuschia-colored tulips. Just beautiful. Watching him glide was like looking at a painting. An old guy, on a bike, with tulips. My brain couldn't compute scene all at once without thinking of oil pastels and turpentine and acrylics.

I wondered where he was headed, what he was thinking, why had he bought the tulips? Were they for his apartment or for someone else? Was he headed to early cocktails and then dinner with someone special? Or had he bought them.....just because. Just because in Amsterdam you buy tulips because they're there and they're plentiful and it's the season for tulips and they're pretty. The whole incident lasted maybe 20 seconds but the scene has stayed in my head ever since. I found Amsterdam to be like that more than any other city I've visited. It's a city of images, little visual moments like that.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006


Paris Las Vegas

Mea Culpa! I just finished reading the post about Seattle that I posted, oh, I dunno, MONTHS ago, when I promised to have more about Seattle food and restaurants "in the coming weeks." Doh! This is what happens when you start a new blog and teach 8th grade Language Arts at the same time. No time! No time! Now it's summer, and I can't for the life of me remember enough about the restaurants we ate in, or even their names. There was a great place for satay, a great tapas place, and then of course the French bistro, and that place for crumpets.....Hmmmmmm

But now I'm an "ex" 8th grade teacher (long story......short version? burn out!) so now I have much more time to devote to a blog about travel that noone is reading ;) So I'll just start fresh, ok?

Last week my husband and I returned from yet another fun-filled drunken vacation in "Lost Wages". This is the third time we've visited, and I swear, each trip gets to be more adventurous, more of a reminder of how young we ain't than the last. I'll spend a few entries talking about where we stayed, where we ate, etc.

Paris Las Vegas

First, Paris Las Vegas. We've stayed here all three trips. Not for any reason, but simply on a friend's recommendation. This friend travels to Las Vegas at least twice a year (or she did before she had kids) and she said that for your money, this hotel had the best view, biggest bathroom, and all the amenities you could ask for. She's tried all the others, the cheap, the swanky, and she found this to be the best of both worlds----cheap, but appearing to be swanky.

Needless to say, we agree. All three trips have found us here, for several reasons. Of course, each trip is different, and each trip brings with it its own set of problems, but overall, it's a great place to stay.

Plus = Checking In

You can check in at the airport, therefore bypassing the long lines at the front desk. They hand you your keys, you get in a cab, and more often than not, you walk right up to your room. Nice.

Plus = The View

We must be livin' right, because each time we have stayed, we've been given a corner room on an upper floor. This means your room has huge windows, floor-to-ceiling on two sides, with an awesome view of either The Strip, or the gorgeous mountains which surround Las Vegas. It's breathtaking.

Plus = Bathroom

HUGE! It's gargantuan, with a walk-in shower, bathtub, and huge vanity/sink area. Lots of towels, and everything is marble. Swanky. And I love the shaving mirror, not because I have to shave or anything, but my eyesight ain't what it used to be and the 6X mirror helps me put on my makeup without looking like Tammy Faye.

Plus = Housekeeping

These ladies must be magic or something. Every time I stay in a hotel there is that inevitable guilt-trip of the housekeeping staff hovering outside your door around 10-11am, wondering if you are ever going to get out so they can clean (What can I say? I like to sleep late), but here, they never intrude. No guilt. You leave when you want, and you return to a clean room. Ta-dah!

Plus = Casino

Gorgeous, in a "I'm an American and have neer been to Paris so here is my movie version of it" kind of way. I like the sky-painted ceiling, bright blue, that fades to a pink with the coming of twilight. I like the Casino signage that mimics the Metro signs in Paris, I admit it. I even like the waitresses' uniforms, though I'm not sure what part of Paris it's supposed to evoke (short gold and blue dresses). Would a Can-Can outfit get in the way of pouring drinks? Probably.

Yeah, it's tacky, but it's cute, too. All the signs with "Le Cafe" and "Le Front Desk" and "Le Concierge" and "Le Show Tickets" and "Le Casino" make me laugh. The Hispanic woman wishing me "Bonjour" when I buy my coffee in the morning.

I always wonder if French people come here and groan, or do they laugh too? It's so obviously a stereotype, a fakery. But you kind of expect that in Vegas, no? (Uh-Oh, I'm starting to talk with a fake french accent like the guy who teaches what the fire escape plan is on Channel 22 of the "Paris Las Vegas" television station).

I do like the fact that the casino isn't overly huge, like Caesar's or MGM Grand. You can actually find your way from point A to point B with out getting lost. A big plus for this directionally-challenged traveller.

Plus = The Pool

Yes, it's not the biggest, and yes, they don't have gladiators and Egyptian queens serving you drinks, but I love this pool. It's not overly big, so you don't get lost finding your way to the bathroom. It's not chock-full of screaming kids. Hey, I love kids, but this is a VACATION right? It is just nice to be in an adult environment for a little while.

The drinks are scrumptious and huge - I had probably the best Pina Colada of my life at this pool. They pipe in music that isn't overly obnoxious, sometimes even surprising (Jethro Tull anyone?) and depending on where you sit, you could be in the shade for a while, a great relief in this strong a sun.

The pool here is up IN the hotel, on the 3rd floor facing The Strip, so you have a terrific view of the Bellagio fountains, Bally's, the Monte Carlo, etc. It's a neat sensation, pooling on The Strip. The design is kind of an "English Country Garden" with lots of flowers, topiaries, etc. There's even a rose garden next to the hot tub (which I didn't try, just too darn hot!)

There are misters above each archway to the pool, so depending on which way the wind is blowing, you can get a cooling mist while you sun. And the waitresses are attentive and friendly, even bringing food from the adjacent cafe right to your chair. My fruit platter was yummy!

But be prepared! Did you know Las Vegas was windy? We're talking 40mph gusts! During the week we were here, I had to "tie down" my beach bag more than once. The breeze feels great in the 100+ heat, but wow! It gets really windy!

Plus = Les Notres

I believe this is the name of the coffee/dessert cafe, I couldn't find a listing for it on the website. Right next to the elevators, this casual spot serves fresh croissant and pastry, as well as coffee, to go or dine in. A godsend after a night of Las Vegas partying. And their French sandwiches with prosciutto, cornichons, and basil on a baguette are outstanding. In no other casino have I found a place where you can just run in and buy a snack or a cup of joe without standing in a massive line, or spending an arm and a leg. Often, we will snack all day and save our big meal for dinner. Les Notres is perfect for this, and their pastries look too good to eat.

Plus = Gustav's Casino Bar

Gustav's Casino Bar sits smack-dab in the middle of the casino, and it's a great people-watching spot. One of our favorite things to do our first night in Vegas is to sit and drink, while watching all of the world's humanity in its many forms (the good, the bad, the schlumpy touristy) walk by. Those couches are just too damn comfortable. And they serve mighty healthy pours! There's another great bar called Napolean's, which is more for late night. We've watched many a traveller get downright stupid when the dueling pianos get going. Fun stuff.

Minus = Checking In

Just minor quibbles. This last trip, a plus turned out to be a minus. Traveling from Pittsburgh, we always arrive around noon, a full 3 hours before check-in time. Usually, it's not a problem, but this last trip our room wasn't ready. No worries, we simply checked our bags and went to eat lunch (another minus it turned out). Except every hour we checked back, we were told something different about the status of our room. At one point it was "almost done" and then later, "she hasn't even started cleaning." Well, which is it? Finally, on our fourth time checking it, it still wasn't ready and we requested another room - is one available? Turns out, it was. So why didn't they just give us another room to begin with? Sigh.

Minus = Le Cafe Ile St. Louis

This is where we ended up eating lunch while waiting for our room. I had had a mediocre omelet here during our last trip (a 4am omelet), so my hopes weren't all that high. The ambience is cute, a sidewalk cafe within the casino, so you can watch everything going on, but it's hard for me to like a place that keeps a line waiting out front when there are obviously tons of empty tables within. Weak marketing tactics if you ask me.

Service was fast once we were seated (a 10 minute wait for a table - at least 15 empty tables within) and my Cobb Salad was good. However, I was tasting that Cobb Salad, or more importantly the bacon within it, for HOURS afterward! Yuck. Hubby had a BLT later on in the week, and I warned him, "Stay away from the bacon!" but he didn't listen, something he later regretted.

Two strikes Le Cafe Ile St. Louis! For my money, there are much better places to eat within this hotel/casino. Don't let the ambience fool you! Eat at Mon Ami Gabi instead (more on them later).

All in all, the Paris is a great little destination. Check it out. And I promise, more on Vegas in the coming days......

Sunday, March 12, 2006


The Hotel Sorrento - Seattle, WA

Loved It!

Recently I stayed in this hotel with my husband, who was attending a conference. I certainly didn’t have to go, and in fact, I was the only “wifey” who had trekked across the country for this 3-day doze-fest. But when I heard the class was in Seattle, I was thinking to myself, “I am SO there.”

In a word, Seattle is amazing. Forget all the great stuff you’ve heard from people about the coffee, the music, the food, etc. usually followed by all that stuff that’s not so great: the coffee, the music, but NEVER the food. They say the prices are high, the music sucks, the city is full of wannabees, the other half are hoity-toity computer snobs, and it rains all the damn time. Seattle is so “over” they say.

It’s all true. But who gives a shit? It’s a great city. I love it.

You can hem and haw all you want about Starbucks, but when a city has created something so all-encompassing, it forces the other establishments to achieve even greater heights of coffee excellence. Which makes Née Née very happy indeed. Imagine, getting the greatest coffee of your life at a little take-away stand for lunch. Yep,that’s Seattle all right. For more on Seattle food, check these pages in the coming weeks.

And the rain isn’t that bad, it’s actually refreshing because the temperature in December when we were there never dropped below 35 (refreshing to this Southerner currently living in the steel gray city of Pittsburgh), and the rain kept reminding me of Glasgow, Scotland, one of my favorite cities. So what’s to complain?

But here I am waxing poetic about Seattle (which I’m sure will happen again) but I really want to talk about where we stayed – The Hotel Sorrento, in the city centre near the University.

Aaaah, The Hotel Sorrento, where have you been all my life? After all, what is there bad to say about a place that has a pillow menu? Yes, a menu for the pillows on your bed. They have spoiled me for all other hotels. Now, I find myself walking into my room and looking around forlornly..... “Where is my pillow menu? Where is it?”

So what is a pillow menu? Weeeeelllll, you arrive, and on the bed there are like 15 pillows, literally. The pillow menu tells you which pillows are soft, medium, and firm. There is even a little diagram indicating which is which.

This kind of attention to detail as I said, has spoiled me for all other hotels. When we arrived, soft music was playing on the Sirius cable station which is provided in every room, there was a french press coffeemaker complete with a huge canister of fresh, dark Starbucks coffee, a copier/scanner/printer, and two fluffy robes, and a gazillion cable channels. All for the same price as the chi-chi boutique hotel we'd stayed at the year before.

While the room was a tad small, I kept finding myself opening drawers and finding new, little treasures I hadn't discovered before. A pictorial history of the hotel, which is over 100 years old. Gorgeous old-fashioned spigots in the bathroom.

In the elevator they change out the rug every day. You see, it has the day of the week embroidered into it. So every day you know what day it is---just in case you forget or go on a bender I guess.

And on returning to your room, not only is your bed turned down, and the chocolate laid out, but there is a card indicating what tomorrow's weather should be.

Downstairs, the ambience is Algonquin meets "The Shining" meets Del Coronado. Lots of old, old antiques, dark wood, and you get the feeling, ghosts. We were there around Christmas, and I counted at least five trees decked out, and miles of golden garland. It was beautiful, and I felt very underdressed every time I stepped out of the tiny, 1920's elevator that was only missing a little guy in a red box hat pulling the levers.

Next to the elevator were framed menus of Christmas Dinner 1919, 1920, 1922. Very cool to see that "Roast Goose" and "Mince Pie" were choices back then.

I dragged my hubby to the "High Tea" which is served every afternoon between 4pm and 6pm. Very tasty, very fattening, and very "hen-like" in that I felt like I was in a chicken yard with all the estrogen-heavy talking going on. In other words, hubby was the only guy. The crowd was full of wealthy "ladies who lunch" and moms with little girls in pink dresses who had evidently just gone to see "The Nutcracker". Nevertheless, the tea was excellent, and the pastries, savory and sweet, were yummy.

This hotel has excellent service, outstanding little "extras" and would definitely appeal to the business traveler or to anyone interested in some "old-world" treatment. It's conveniently located on University Hill right near the big library, so it's convenient to downtown, Pike Place Market, shopping, the whole downtown experience. In a word, "pampering" at its best.

p.s. Their bar makes a mean martini too!

Sunday, February 26, 2006


More Travel Advice? Why?

I love to travel. Along with eating and writing, it's one of my life's passions. I travel every chance I get. If I have a choice between staying home and resting, or going somewhere new and gathering new life experiences, I'll always choose the latter.

I've been a lot of places, and there are a lot of places I've yet to go. So what makes me think I can offer better travel advice than the gazillion books, websites, and travel agents out there? Not one goddamn thing.

But I do think I have a unique perspective to offer. I'm a laid-back person, even sloth-like, in every aspect of my life except two: food and travel. In these things I'm a total curmudgeon, a total bitch, a complete asshole. I have high expectations. That's all.

Part of me is disheartened that I've become this way. I used to tease my father-in-law for being so picky, but not anymore. I've had some incredible adventures in some incredible places. Is it too much to expect this kind of experience all the time, every time? I don't think so.

And so here are my reviews, here is my advice, without apology. Take them or leave them, but I'll always be honest, and I'll always be impartial. At times I'll be totally heartless, but I also won't hesitate to give credit where credit is due.

Addendum - 6/19/07
When I started this particular blog I fully intended to offer reviews and opinions about where I've gone and what I've seen. But the exercise left me flat. I discovered the real story during the journey is what you see in between. That for me has more meaning. It may be that I've just discovered travel writing and love it, or that I've finally realized that there are already millions of reference books out there that can help you escape Pittsburgh better than me. Who knows? But telling the stories of where I've been feels better. It feels right.

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