Prague Czeched Out

It’s been such a long time since my son’s and my visit to Prague over Christmas vacation, that it seems almost a lifetime ago, when in reality, not even three months have passed. As I write and relive this latest travel adventure with my son, my heart is a bit heavy, knowing this trip will likely be the last time in a long time that I take a “big” trip with my son as he is now readying to embark upon his career and life upon his May graduation from school and commissioning as an officer with the U.S. Army. Sigh. But I digress….

My son’s and my arrival to Prague on TAP Portugal through Lisbon was pretty much on time with little ado making our way through customs and with no harrowing suspense awaiting our luggage arrival (as was the case with my last European flight….thanks, Iberia), as our bags made their appreciated appearance at baggage claim in the blink of an eye, which was a novel eventuality.

Devan and I found our way to the Airport Express shuttle, which, we discovered, did not run exactly on time (every 30 minutes) as advertised, and we became slightly concerned about how long it would take us to catch a shuttle since once one did arrive at the stop, it was jammed to the gills, forcing us to wait for the next shuttle to arrive. All was well as it turned out, but there were some moments of concern since the shuttles were not precision, causing us to consider the necessity to find alternate transport via the public system or private taxi. The shuttle did deposit us without incident to Náměstí Republiky, quite close to the Hilton Old Town. After just a bit of orientation, we ambled our way over the cobblestone with our luggage clacking along in tow, past the Christmas market and onward to the hotel where we were efficiently given our key cards along with what turned out to be an excellent recommendation for our first meal in Prague at Kolkovna Celnice, as I had checked in online.

The hotel services were some of the best we’ve experienced with Hilton brand hotels, and we enjoyed every moment of our stay thoroughly. By virtue of the practically sycophantic treatment on behalf of the Hilton Honors  lounge staff, the extras we received due to my Hilton membership and the overall amenities and location of the hotel, Devan and I have zero complaints about our Hilton experience, despite my usual preference to patronize more local, boutique type of accommodations.

Wenceslas Square, Prague
Wenceslas Square from the National Museum
Charles Bridge, Prague
Charles Bridge
Dancing House / Fred & Ginger, Prague
Dancing House / Fred & Ginger

Because Prague is fairly compact, Devan and I mainly hoofed it during our stay in Prague, with only an occasional hop on the Tram system to cover some ground more quickly between points of interest. This trip was even more “WanderFull” than usual since, as a major departure from my typical behavior, I didn’t make much of an itinerary, even a loose one, for this trip. Devan likes walking (sometimes all together too fast for even my liking, since he’s quite used to hiking for miles on end carrying a 40 pound rucksack) and actually enjoys taking the “wrong turn” here and there just to see what might be around the corner. We basically headed for areas of town, e.g. the Castle District, Old Town, the Jewish Quarter, Vyšehrad, etc. and directed ourselves in only a general fashion to various points of interest during our stay.

Wenceslas Square Christmas Market, Prague
Wenceslas Square Christmas Market
Giant Bronze Babies by David Cerny, Kampa Island
Giant Bronze Babies by David Cerny, Kampa Island
Kampa Park Penguins, Prague
Kampa Park Penguins

As with our other two stops of Vienna and Budapest, it was our mission to sample the local food and libations, which included a good many lagers during our visit. We enjoyed seeking out local establishments, mixing with the locals and muddling our way through ordering when the staff wasn’t as proficient with English as other stops during our trip. As usual, we attempted courtesy with a “Prosim” or “Děkuji” when English was in limited supply, and also as per usual, we were never treated discourteously in return. English was plentiful most places so it was easy to communicate, even though during our trip we encountered very few other American tourists, since English seemed to be the common denominator for communications with other international. multi-lingual tourists.

Love Locks Bridge, Mala Strana, Prague
Love Locks Bridge, Mala Strana
KGB Museum, Prague
Protecting the identity of the innocent 🙂 KGB Museum, Prague
John Lennon Wall, Prague
John Lennon Wall, Prague

It’s difficult for me to pinpoint what the highlight of our visit to Prague. The sights and architecture were spectacular, the level of hospitality was unexpected and the gastronomical delights were endless. While I’m not sure it qualifies as THE or even A high point, our spur of the moment visit to the KGB Museum was as entertaining as the reviews I read on TripAdvisor suggested it would be. The proprietor of the small museum personally walks the group through the artifacts collected, giving background and commentary in vivid detail as we went along. He was so animated and enthusiastic about the history, he kept the group’s rapt attention, even as he slurred his R’s in a peculiar fashion (as it seemed to make us wonder as to his level of sanity). My son and I both noticed his scars, both on his face (knife wound?) and his arms (bullet wounds?), again making us question his current or former affiliation with and seeming affection for the KGB and Stalin, in particular (his eyes lit up with glee and reverence every time he mentioned Stalin’s name). The KGB Museum was definitely worth the price of admission and wait for the owner to grab us and have us join the tour in progress (and then circle back to cover what we’d missed with the rest of the group).

Trdelnik, Prague
Tredelnik Deliciousness
St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague
St. Vitus Cathedral
Prague Powder Tower
Powder Tower, Prague

The view of the city from the look out tour atop Petřín Hill as the sun was setting was amazing and the visual stimulation in every direction was perpetual. The Charles Bridge, Old Town Square, the Christmas markets throughout Prague in the town squares, St. Vitus Cathedral, Golden Lane and the Castle District, the Jewish Quarter, Mala Strana, the Torture Museum, the Lennon Wall, Kampa Island, Vyšehrad Castle, the Vinohrady district, Strahov Monastery and the Spanish Synagogue were just a few of the sights we took in during the trip in between just wandering the cobbled streets (at the far too brisk pace Devan set for us), catching a tram and enjoying a variety of Czech lagers at the Beer Museum, the Strahov Monastic Brewery and a variety of other breweries around the city.

The three and a half days we spent in Prague passed by way too fast, and soon we were on our short walk from the Hilton Old Town to Florenc Bus Station to catch the Student Agency bus to Vienna. We had prepurchased our tickets online; the bus ride was comfortable, included wireless service and beverages, and took just shy of 5 hours to arrive at Busterminal Stadioncenter, Engerthstrasse, in Vienna via one short stop in Brno.

Prague had been close to the top of my to-do list for many years, and I felt incredibly blessed to be able to share my visit there with Devan. Prague most certainly lived up to my lofty expectations for its beauty, culture, architecture, friendly locals and gastronomy. Upon our departure, I could only hope that our subsequent stops would similarly not disappoint. (Spoiler: They didn’t, either.)

Prague from Petrin Tower
Prague from Petrin Tower

Student Agency Bus from Prague to Vienna

After researching various mechanisms for transport between Prague and Vienna, I had opted for Student Agency bus service after having read comparative reviews on TripAdvisor. From what I read, it seemed that travel time (just under 5 hours) and fare (19 Euros) were comparable for train or bus travel between Prague and Vienna. The reviews did, however, make mention that the comfort level on Student Agency bus service was a bit superior to that of the train.

As I’m writing this on the bus en route to Vienna, I have to say that I was not led wrong by the reviews on TripAdvisor. The bus is quite new, with touch screen TVs at each seat. There is an onboard attendant who offers beverage service, headphones and reading material. Wifi is even available on the bus so that bloggers can post about their bus ride mid-trip! The bus even offers electrical outlets for those in need of electronic device recharge.

Another reason I opted for Student Agency bus service for my son’s and my travel to Vienna from Prague was on account of the proximity of Florenc bus station to our hotel in Prague, the Hilton Old Town. While everything in Prague is quite accessible via public transport, I figured hauling our luggage on and off of a tram or up and down platforms of metro lines would be something of a hassle. Florenc was literally a 10 minute walk from the Old Town Hilton.

Our bus arrived at platform 1 shortly after 8:00 am for loading bags and passengers for the scheduled 8:30 am departure. The driver pulled out of Florenc at 8:31 am. I believe the attendant mentioned the bus would be making a short rest stop at 11:30 am to allow passengers to stretch their legs and, I imagine, to utilize the facilities.

While our ride aboard Student Agency’s bus is still underway, so far, so good. And now I’m going to sign off so that I can enjoy the view some more as we traverse the Czech countryside.

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Prague Hilton Old Town

I’m not always the biggest fan of staying in American style hotels overseas, since my preference is typically to stay in a more local style “boutique” hotel, but I do tend to lean toward Hilton brand hotels if I’m able to utilize my Hilton Honors points to save a few bucks whilst traveling. I have to say that out of the many Hilton brand hotels I’ve visited nationally and internationally, I think my stay at the Prague Hilton Old Town may very well be my best Hilton experience to date. While our room is not the largest, it’s definitely comfortable and efficiently laid out.

The hotel itself is in a convenient location, but what sets this Hilton apart from the pack are the Honors membership benefits and how they are executed. As with many of the Hilton brand hotels, we were set up on an Honors floor, dedicated to members. Like many Hilton brand hotels, the Prague Hilton Old Town offers an executive lounge to members, in-room refreshments, free wifi, free breakfast in the lounge or lobby restaurant, practically around-the-clock refreshments in the lounge including a full bar and food service; what’s different about this Hilton is not only the extensive benefits to members, but also the level of service to Honors members.

It’s been practically uncomfortable having the staff members wait on us hand over foot, as they are attentive to a fault. The attendants are friendly and helpful, not allowing you to fill your own wine glass (it’s self-serve), and when they serve, they are most certainly not serving with skimping in mind. The lounge is well stocked and has a great variety of food and beverage from early breakfast starting at 6 am all the way through 10:30 pm. And, yes, many hotels around the globe have fancier lounges and executive service for their hotel member guests, but I can’t imagine that the attendants in even the ritziest hotels could possibly offer the same level of service AND friendliness as the staff at the Prague Hilton Old Town.

I unfortunately also needed some special assistance from the executive lounge concierge staff, as my son was in need of emergency dental work. I was a bit panicked about what to do or even where to start trying to figure out whom to call or where to go. Fortunately, I had my wits about me enough to seek assistance from the executive lounge staff. Within minutes, the lounge concierge had made arrangements for my son to visit a dentist at 5:30 pm that day (today, 12/20/14…on a Sunday to boot) at a modern dental office right across the street from the hotel.

I was concerned about the dentist showing up on a Sunday late afternoon, but his assistant and he were both punctual and friendly. I hope that nobody reading this becomes in need of emergency dental service whilst vacationing in Prague, but if you ever do, Dr. Imrich Bajza and his assistant Romana at Millennium Dental Care were efficient, communicative and obviously most importantly provided top notch dental work for my son.

I can’t thank the staff at the Prague Hilton Old Town enough for all of their attentiveness during our stay, but most importantly for helping me in a time of need. Our next stop on our vacation will be at the Hotel Mercure Wien City in Vienna, and I’m a bit pessimistic about our stay there, as I can’t imagine it being close to living up to our stay in Prague. The Hilton Budapest City is on our agenda for our final stop on this trip. The staff there will have a high standard to live up to after our pleasant stay at the Prague Hilton Old Town.

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TAPping our way to Prague

Talking to a well-traveled friend about Devan’s and my Christmas trip instilled a bit of fear in me as I was stoically informed that TAP Portugal, on which we were booked for our inbound flight to Prague, via Lisbon, is considered vaguely reminiscent of the international counterpart to Spirit Airlines. I found it slightly troubling that we were automatically assigned to the two middle seats in a row of four, with, at the time of my online checkin, the flanking seats yet being vacant. That inefficient automatic seating assignment lent to back up the accusation that TAP was run Spirit-like. Fortunately, at the time I checked in online, plenty of seats were available for me to select new seats with aisle access.

Upon arrival at MIA, Devan and I were pleased to see that the flight schedule boards indicated that the first leg of our flight was running on time. This happy news was short-lived, as an announcement was soon made that the inbound flight to Miami from Portugal had run late, causing our departure on that aircraft to be delayed by 30 minutes; the 30 minute delay was soon updated to a departure an hour behind schedule. The delay didn’t panic either Devan or me, since our layover in Lisbon was scheduled to be an unfortunately long one; hence, even the hour long delay would have minimal impact on our ability to catch the next leg of our flight to Prague.

Once boarding was announced, we were then somewhat alarmed at what seemed to offer potential for a chaotic boarding process, as for some bizarre reason, everyone in proximity of Gate F16 seemed to rush the gate at the announcement that rows 30 – 42 were permitted to board the plane. In his signature frank fashion, Devan aptly noted that it “must be one big F-ing plane” for the horde of people rushing the gate to all be sitting in those 13 rows of seats. Fortunately, the astute gate attendant was actually checking boarding passes and ushering those incapable of discerning seat assignments out of the line to allow rightful owners of seats in the indicated rows to board in a civilized fashion. Kudos to TAP’s staff for maintaining order in what could have devolved into a riot-like situation.

Once aboard, I was again pleasantly surprised by the newness of the aircraft and modernity of the in-seat equipment and by the ample leg room, once again differentiating TAP from the ugly (and seemingly unfounded) comparison to Spirit Airline. The onboard food and service were also palatable and acceptable, respectively. While the flight attendants were not the smiling-est or friendliest I’ve ever encountered, they were professional and attentive enough to meet acceptable standards.

As per usual, I slept not a wink on the plane; fortunately for Devan, he was able to catch a few hours of ZZZs en route to Lisbon, where we landed smoothly at a runway far, far away from the main terminal. We were efficiently ushered onto awaiting shuttles which after quick a long, winding route, eventually deposited us at the international terminal for passport checks and our connection onward to Prague.

With our still-long layover, Devan and I had time for a tasty and strong coffee at the Cockpit Bar as well as a lengthy speed walk through the airport to get the circulation moving after the seven hours of immobility on the flight. And, here we sit, awaiting our connection to our destination of Prague. Hopefully, leg #2 of our journey with TAP Portugal will be as uneventful and hassle-free as the first to allow us to get to our shuttle and subsequently our hotel in time to allow us to enjoy a few hours of evening in Prague before the effects my sleep deprivation kick in……

Southern Hospitality in the Lowcountry

Savannah River
Savannah River

My son’s and my Thanksgiving 2014 trip wasn’t the most extravagantly planned or executed trip I’ve ever taken, but the visit to the Lowcountry of South Carolina was indeed an enjoyable one on many levels. I was fortunate to be able to coordinate a business meeting in Ormond Beach, Florida, with my visit to the Hilton Head Island area to spend the Thanksgiving holiday to visit my grandma, uncle and his wife.  I headed north, passed through Orlando to meet up with my son and proceeded to my meeting in Ormond Beach amidst the early Thanksgiving ruckus on I-95. We were back on the road again early enough to make a quick little detour into Savannah , Georgia, with just enough time to take a walk through the charming streets and along the Riverfront, enjoy a short break for a cold beverage and then head to Forsyth Park to see the beautiful trees, neighboring historic  homes and the lovely fountain as dusk was settling.

Savannah City Hall
Savannah City Hall
Forsyth Park, Savannah, Georgia
Near Forsyth Park, Savannah, Georgia
Cotton Exchange, Savannah, Georgia
Cotton Exchange, Savannah, Georgia

We were surprised  upon our arrival by the friendliness and helpfulness by the attendant in welcome center we encountered just outside the parking garage into which we ambled. Yes, one would think that a welcome center should make visitors feel welcome, but so very often the labels for welcome centers seem to be misnomers; this attendant’s southern hospitality truly seemed genuine. We were offered an attraction map as well as suggestions for a quick route to maneuver during our abbreviated visit. I wish we would have had more than a tiny glimpse of the many sights and more opportunity to experience Savannah’s history.

Talmadge Memorial Bridge, Savannah, Georgia
Talmadge Memorial Bridge, Savannah, Georgia

While Savannah was enjoyable, we were excited to reach our destination of Bluffton, South Carolina, to see my grandma whom Devan and I had not seen in far too many years — since our 2006 visit to Southern California. We had a wonderful, informal Thanksgiving dinner and relaxing time catching up with family on our first full day in South Carolina. The next day, we headed out toward Hilton Head Island see some sights. Our first stop, however, was at one of restaurants owned by my uncle and his wife called 843 (which I originally found to be an unusual name for a cutting edge restaurant, but later figured out was the area code of Hilton Head Island). We savored some ridiculously delicious and innovative menu items and set off to see a bit of the island.

Lunch with the family at 843, Hilton Head Island
Lunch with the family at 843, Hilton Head Island
Chilequiles at 843, Hilton Head Island
MMMMMMM………Chilequiles at 843, Hilton Head Island

We were fortunate to have cool weather and beautiful clear skies as a backdrop to our little drive to see the island.

Hilton Heard Harbor Town Lighthouse
Hilton Heard Harbor Town Lighthouse
Harbor Town Christmas Tree
Harbor Town Christmas Tree
Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge
Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge
Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge
Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge
Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge
Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge

A quick stop at Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge afforded us the opportunity to see the beautiful salt marshes and take a short stroll and relish the perfect, yet chilly weather. We didn’t have much time to visit the area, since we were fortunate enough to be invited to Vine, my uncle and his wife’s other restaurant on Hilton Head Island for dinner….as if we didn’t eat enough delicious cuisine during our extravagant lunch at 843…and just what we needed after the previous day’s Thanksgiving feast! The food at Vine was more than worth risking another excessive meal during our short visit to the Lowcountry as the menu offerings were once again exquisite.

Grandma and Devan at Vine Restaurant
Grandma and Devan at my uncle’s restaurant on Hilton Head Island, Vine
The Arsenal, Beaufort, South Carolina
The Arsenal, Beaufort, South Carolina

Saturday, our last full day in South Carolina, was not a food-centric day, as we instead headed toward Beaufort at my grandma’s suggestion to see some of the rich Civil War era history and spectacular antebellum architecture. After a very mediocre meal at Hemingway’s Bistro, which provided a nice view from the outdoor seating but was still sorely mundane after the fine cuisine we experienced the day previous, we hopped back in the car to drive the nearby Ladys Island, St. Helena Island and Hunting Island, where we walked the beautiful beach and experienced the sounds of the ocean tides.

Hunting Island Lighthouse
Hunting Island Lighthouse

With the short winter days, we had limited daylight hours to see much of the area’s historic and natural beauty, we took short breaks to visit the various monuments, cemeteries and nature trails during our drive back toward Bluffton. Even with the limited time and daylight, we had to make a short detour to see Parris Island on our way back home. We were disappointed to learn that we arrived after normal visitor hours; however, my grandma was quick enough to inquire as to any influence of my son’s presence since he is a soon to be commissioned Army officer. Surprisingly, the young Marines, upon inspection of Devan’s military ID, allowed my pompom-topped-knit-hat-wearing son and his family entourage access to the base. We took a short drive around before finding a spot to take in the brilliant orange sunset. Our visit to the Lowcountry was short, but particularly sweet on account of the special family time we shared. Devan and I have taken many a vacation full of action and sightseeing, but what this Thanksgiving trip lacked in sheer excitement was more than offset by southern hospitality and the value of quality family together time.

Parris Island after hours
Parris Island after hours

Come Sail Away

Seems Dennis DeYoung and Styx’s 1977 hit “Come Sail Away”  may have had farther reaching implications in my life than I realized; not only is it one of my favorite classic rock songs to this day, but it may very well have affected my long term travel style. Well, my ship of choice, unlike that of the song, would be the cruise variety, rather than a starship, but I’ve found cruises to be a wonderful mode of travel on many levels.

My parents introduced my brother and me to cruising when we were still in grade school. Looking back as an adult, I realize that my parents wisely selected cruise travel for some of our family vacations due to the many virtues cruise ships possess. I ended up choosing to take my son on cruise vacations for likely many of the same reasons considered by my parents many years previous.

Pride of America Liberty Dining Room
NCL Pride of America’s Liberty Dining Room with the family (Hawaii 2007)
Pride of America, Hawaii
Family together time aboard NCL’s Pride of America (Hawaii 2007)
NCL Pride of America's Cadillac Diner
Cadillac Diner aboard NCL’s Pride of America (Hawaii 2007)

My son’s first cruise was back in 2007 on a Hawaiian Islands cruise when he was 14 years old aboard Norwegian Cruise Lines’ Pride of America.  We met my mom, her husband, my brother and his wife in Hawaii and caught a 7 day sailing from Honolulu. As an extended family group vacation, a cruise is a wonderful option. The cruise allowed us a smattering of together time as a family at meals, activities and in port, but also afforded us the option to split up and do our own things if so inclined. There were times that Devan ditched us in favor of the teen program on board the ship. Other times, my brother and his wife opted to have us drop them off at the ship once we neared the port so that they could catch a nap while the rest of us hit another attraction in the port city before returning our rental car and getting back on the ship to join them. The week long cruise provided our group of six the flexibility to meet and separate as we were inclined and proved to be a great way to minimize the possibility of duress caused by family time overload.

Norwegian Jewel Baltic Cruise
Lounging around the Norwegian Jewel (Baltic Cruise 2008)
Norwegian Jewel Baltic Cruise
Devan’s made a lot of friends during his cruise experiences (Norwegian Jewel, Baltics 2008)

For subsequent vacations with my son, I selected cruises to the Baltics with Norwegian Cruise Lines, the Mediterranean with Royal Caribbean, the Caribbean again with RCCI and Alaska with Princess Cruise Line. While each of the itineraries was of interest to me (really, with exception of the short Caribbean route), I opted for cruise travel to allow my son some time independent from me. Since he was “stuck” with me all day in each of the ports, my one rule onboard (other than a reasonable curfew) was that we ate meals together. Other than mealtime, Devan was free to spend time with his new found friends in the teen club, partaking in other shipboard teen activities or just hanging out independently with the kids he met. Of course, we didn’t only spend the mandated mealtimes together on the ship, but since Devan was spending a good chunk of his summer vacation time away from his friends back home, I didn’t want him to feel that he was obligated to be chained to his ol’ mom 24/7 against his will.

RCCI Jewel of the Seas
Mom and son time aboard Royal Caribbean’s Jewel of the Seas (Mediterranean 2009)
RCCI Jewel of the Seas
Monkeying around (RCCI’s Jewel of the Seas 2009)
RCCI's Jewel of the Seas
Devan definitely enjoyed time away from his mom, too (RCCI’s Jewel of the Seas Mediterranean Cruise 2009)

I was also able to enjoy some reading, rest and relaxation time between ports while he was happily spending time with kids his own age. Some of what Devan and his new found friends did was far less than brilliant, as demonstrated by the below poor quality video showing him pretending he was a kite (using a bed sheet) on the top deck of the Jewel of the Seas. It’s apparently all fun and games until someone flies overboard. Sigh. (Proof positive that smart kids often do less than smart things!)

Another benefit I learned to appreciate about cruise travel is the fact that the cruise ship serves in essence as a floating hotel. Cruise passengers reap the benefit of going to sleep at night, typically whilst at sea, and waking up in the morning in a new city to explore, eliminating the need to pack and unpack repeatedly, coordinate intercity transportation and check in and out of hotels. Of course, cruise travel doesn’t allow one to immerse too deeply into any given port, since most cruise itineraries include just a short day stop in each port city; therefore, cruisers must pick and choose the highlights they want to take in during their brief stay in port. However, the short visit to each city allows cruise travelers enough time to conveniently sample the flavors and atmosphere of several cities in a short period of time and, from that preview, discern if they would like to visit the port area again in the future for a lengthier and more in depth visit.

Ocean Princess (Alaska 2010)
Shooting hoops on the Sports Deck aboard the Ocean Princess (Alaska 2010)
Majesty of the Seas (Caribbean 2012)
Free entertainment watching fellow cruisers do embarrassing things just to win a Royal Caribbean pen or T-shirt (Majesty of the Seas, Caribbean 2012)

Depending on your cruising style and preferences, cruise travel can be very economical. Obviously, if you prefer luxurious accommodations, high end cruise lines and ship-organized excursions, cruising can cost a pretty penny. However, if you choose a reasonable cabin and refrain from partaking in unnecessary expenses, such as upgraded shipboard restaurants beyond the standard dining options, various ship-offered services, such as spas, cruise line organized tours and the like, cruising can offer a great way to maneuver between points of interest without breaking the bank. With a wide variety of cruise lines, cruisers can certainly find a style that fits their preferred level of luxury. On cruise vacations, I’ve stayed in balcony, window and inside cabins, and in truth, my cruise experience was never affected by the lack of on exterior or more luxurious cabin since I typically utilize the cabin merely to sleep and shower. Other than that, I prefer to be out and about enjoying the shipboard atmosphere, if not always the activities and entertainment. That being said, cruise lines offer a plethora of things to do while on board and sailing to the next destination that are at no additional cost; while they may be kitschy or a bit campy at times, the shows and activities are widely varied and can be extremely entertaining, and can even be of quite high quality if you hit the right show.

I’ve found it quite unnecessary during my cruise vacations to upgrade to higher end dining venues since there are so many shipboard options for mealtime that I’ve always been able to find a dining room or buffet to suit my tastes and whims. Heck, if you don’t like what you order the first time, nothing stops you from asking for a second entrée in a dining room or even a third or fourth dessert (yes, I have often ordered multiple desserts when I couldn’t choose amongst the daily offerings). Most ships offer a variety of sit down dining options as well as self-serve offerings, some of which are accessible 24 hours a day. Of course, one has the option of eating in an upgraded location; personally, I prefer to spend my money on the local fare in the port stops, rather than on higher end shipboard dining. But that’s one of the many virtues of cruising: options.

Cruise line operated port excursions are another optional, and, to me, unnecessary expense. Ship offered excursions typically entail a bus filled with 49 other cruise passengers being herded on a stringent time line on and off the bus to a limited number of attractions. That just isn’t fun to me. I prefer to self touring utilizing local transport, or if necessary, arranging a shared semi-private tour with 8 – 10 other cruisers I’ve met on cruise site roll calls, such as CruiseCritic.com. This allows for much greater flexibility and frequently at a fraction of the cruise line’s excursion price tag.

Of course, there are limitations of travel flexibility, as mentioned, on account of having a finite amount of time in each port stop, and having to be back on board at a certain time, lest the ship sail without you, can cause a bit of stress if you encounter a traffic jam or public transportation back to the port running behind schedule. All of the limitations notwithstanding, cruise travel provides a wonderful option to allow much of the logistics and details involved in travel, particularly to unfamiliar destinations, to be handled by the cruise line, allowing the traveler to sit back, relax and enjoy the sailing. No single mode of travel can be all things to all people, which is why cruising is just one means of travel in which I choose to partake. But in that way, I’m different than many, since I’ve yet to meet a vacation that I haven’t enjoyed.

 

“A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of life.” ~ Thomas Jefferson

I had not been a Francophile for many years, since Parisians in particular had been well-known for their supposed rude treatment of American visitors to their fine city. However, I have to agree with Thomas Jefferson in his assessment of Paris’ many virtues, and for this reason, I felt my son needed to experience the city firsthand. So, after our short three day visit to Normandy (summarized in my post And What A Plan!), my son and I headed our rental car back south toward the City of Light. While the drive back toward Paris was tranquil and pleasant and I’m a very confident driver, after having to maneuver through the eight or so chaotic lanes – if you can call those haphazard things “lanes” –  of the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile Roundabout upon our return to Parisian city limits, I was thrilled to bits to return the rental car in favor of Paris’s convenient (and much less frightening) public transit system.

During our stay in Paris, the Hilton Arc de Triomphe (which is apparently no longer a Hilton brand hotel) was our base camp. I typically prefer boutique hotels which convey the flavor of my surroundings, but I’ll opt for a Hilton chain hotel on occasion when my reward points warrant use. While the Hilton didn’t have the same cozy ambiance of some of the small private hotels I’ve visited, the location was stellar and the hotel did provide comfortable, well-appointed lodging for Devan and me, along with an expansive breakfast buffet which Devan devoured daily to fuel up for our full days exploring the city.

The Unknown Soldier At The Base Of The Arc De Triomphe
The Unknown Soldier  Memorial At The Base Of The Arc De Triomphe
Avenue des Champs-Élysées
Avenue des Champs-Élysées

Devan and I wandered and traversed the city to take in many of the fantastic museums Paris has to offer including Musée de l’Orangerie, Musée Rodin, Musée de l’Armée, Cité de la Musique, Musée des égoûts de Paris and of course Musée du Louvre. There was not nearly enough time in our week long stay to spend enough time in any of the museums we visited or to visit many of the museums that would also have been enjoyable. We spent a good portion of one day exclusively in the Louvre, and, being exhausted from our hike around the many galleries, I suggested to my son that we head out. At 16 years old, he was enjoying the exhibits so much that he asked to stay longer to visit the Napoleon Apartments which we hadn’t yet seen.

Thinkers at Musée Rodin Paris
A couple of Thinkers at Musée Rodin Paris
La tour Eiffel, Paris
La tour Eiffel (obviously)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We broke up some of the standard sites with some diversions such as a night time Segway tour of the city, which offered a different perspective of Paris at night and was knowledgeably led by a French history major who was able to expound upon historic details regarding each of the stops along the tour.  Another day during our stay in Paris, we took a break from hoofing it around and about the city on a Seine River cruise; touristic river cruises in many cities provide such an amazing vantage point that is often missed on terrestrial only sightseeing itineraries. A couple of the museums on our agenda, Cité de la Musique and Musée des égoûts de Paris, were two of what I’d guess would be some of the lesser known or visited museums in Paris. My son, being a talented musician had an interest in the music museum (located toward the northeast outskirts of the city), and my son and I, both enjoying seeing some unusual points of interest, found the the sewer museum to be a nice (if not the best smelling) departure from the typical sightseeing stops.

Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris
Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris

Of course, we were obligated to take in the incredible architecture of the numerous churches and cathedrals lacing the city. Notre Dame was spectacular as expected, inside and out, as was the Basilique Sacré-Coeur of Montmartre, along with too many other churches and cathedrals to mention or even remember by name after the passing of more than four years. We happened to be in Paris for Easter since our visit was during my son’s spring break from high school, and as such we found our way to the American Cathedral in Paris for a memorable and meaningful Easter Day service. We of course managed our way to see the usual suspects – the Eiffel Tour, The Arc de Triomphe, Palais Garnier – Opera National de Paris, the Panthéon and the like; but we also just ambled our way through the city to soak up the atmosphere via the city squares, parks, bridges, districts, gardens and streets themselves. We did manage to squeeze a day trip via train to Versailles, since the palace and gardens were not to be missed. While it was cold and rainy on the day of our trip to Versailles, the weather didn’t detract from Versailles’ splendor.

 Palais de Versailles
Gloomy day at Palais de Versailles

Per common knowledge and living up to its reputation, Parisian fare is worth a trip to France just for dining’s sake. During our wanderings through Paris, Devan and I sampled crepes (leading to my son’s Nutella addiction), fresh breads, rich cheeses, light macarons, delectable pastries and too many exquisite French cuisine delights for our own good. All of our meals and snacks in Paris were notable as were the historical and beautiful sites we visited, but one of my favorite memories of the trip is of the kind treatment bestowed upon us by so many of the locals. While studying our map of Père Lachaise Cemetery in our quest to find the graves of Jim Morrison and Chopin, an elderly gentleman approached Devan and me asking if he could help us find something. We told him which graves we wanted to visit, but that we had a map to lead our way. He insisted on accompanying us to each, saying we’d have a difficult time even with the map. Other travelers have managed unguided, so I was wondering if he thought Devan and I didn’t look to be all that bright. 🙂 BUT, we accepted his gracious offer to guide us to visit Morrison and Chopin and were regaled with his vast knowledge of the cemetery and Paris in general. He also asked if we had anything else on our itinerary that he could help us find. After he led us to Jim Morrison’s and Chopin’s resting places, the kind gentleman pointed us in the direction of the music museum. This encounter was not our sole experience with unsolicited kindness of locals in Paris. Another day while consulting our handy dandy attraction maps, we were again approached by a Parisian offering to help direct us to our destination of the catacombs. Devan and I actually enjoy the opportunity to roam and take a few wrong turns (time permitting, of course) as we explore our vacation destinations, but we also have been extremely fortunate to be confronted with kindness, rather than the hostility we so often hear about during others’ travel escapades. I can only hope that we’ll be lucky enough to have these same types of positive experiences during our upcoming venture to Prague, Vienna and Budapest!

Palais Royal Columns, Paris
Interesting monument topper at Palais Royal

 

The best laid plans are random.

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