Saturday, August 01, 2015

Las Vegas 2015

Most people would call us crazy for flying to Vegas in the height of summer.  It was 90 degrees at home and up to 105 there.  In actuality, the heat in Vegas was more bearable because of the low humidity.

But there was a reason for our madness.  Georg was given a four week reprieve from Chemotherapy and that was our time frame.  When I got an amazing offer from Aria, our favorite Vegas hotel, we jumped on the opportunity.  Our room rate was $79 a night, with a $50 resort credit and two free tickets to Cirque de Soleil.  Miraculously, I was able to get our flights free using my British Air Avios miles (and one half the trip was even in first class!)  It seemed all the ducks were in place and we decided to go.  I was a little worried about Georg navigating the airports and so I arranged for wheelchair assistance - a Godsend.

We stayed at the resort the whole four days, getting carryout lobster rolls from Todd English and eating at the Asian restaurant,  Lemongrass,  and the incredible new Michael Mina French restaurant, Bardot, which is sure to become our favorite haunt.  Because we were blessed with such a good deal on our trip, I decided to splurge on a poolside cabana.  It was a luxury to have our own space, stocked fridge, TV, healthy fruit and veggie trays and our own personal waiter. It was fun to experience how the "other half" lives, even if just for a day.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

45th Anniversary

Our favorite things to do on vacation is to have a nice room with a great view in a town that has good food and fun things to do.  For our 45th anniversary our first choice might have been Las Vegas, since we do enjoy playing penny slot machines and the luxury hotels are so reasonable.  Due to Georg's illness that wasn't an option for us right now.  I searched for places within driving distance of us that offered the same amenities.  I had read about Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo and decided to stay at the Marina Grand Resort.

We lucked out on so many levels; our hotel suite had a water/marina view, we had access to Lake Michigan, the casino was 10 minutes away and we discovered a fantastic restaurant five minutes from the resort.  We knew there was a special blessing on our time together when we entered out suite and looked out the window.  The first thing we saw was a docked fishing boat named "Fisher of Men" in large letters on the back.  Being that I have worked at Fisherman's Net Church for 40 years (our logo includes Matthew 4:19,  "Come follow Me and I will make you fishers of men.") this was a good omen that the Lord was with us and looking out for us.

We explored the surrounding area and discovered two delightful places nearby. One was Jackie's Cafe, which we had read about online.  It was reputed to be a great place for breakfast.  Jackie Chen had been a renowned chef in Chicago, became disenchanted with the big city and opened a nondescript cafe in New Buffalo, with a population of less than 2000 people.  Little did we know that we had stumbled upon an amazing treasure.  Jackie herself seated us and explained that all of the food was locally sourced and house-made, including the pork sausage.  On each table was a jar of her own homemade lemon curd (which she explained took hours to cook) and a bottle of real maple syrup.  We had read about her famous blueberry french toast and it certainly did not disappoint.  The best french toast ever!

Directly across the street was an amazing olive oil, balsamic vinegar and wine tasting shop called Promeny.  We were alone with the owner, Martin, which was fortunate because he was able to tell us his story.  He had emigrated from the former Czech Republic, which he escaped while it was still under Soviet rule.  This was particularly interesting to me because my father was Czech as well. The shop had a section that was clearly Christian based and I asked him about it.  He said he had been a lifelong atheist, but one night he felt that Jesus Christ revealed himself to him and he became a believer, all by himself in that room.  He found his way to the States, met his future wife at church and they founded several ministries, one in India helping oppressed women and one in the States ministering to people with cancer.  I told him Georg had cancer and he asked if we could pray together.  All this time we had the shop to ourselves.  What a blessing it was!  I shall remember Martin for a very long time to come for his kindness to us.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Winter Break: Turks and Caicos

Grace Bay Beach, Turks and Caicos, January 2015
Turquoise:  semiprecious stone, typically opaque and of a greenish-blue or sky-blue color...  A perfect description of the waters of the Turks and Caicos.  It was so brilliant, it looked photoshopped.  Coming from cold, grey Michigan winter weather we had the feeling of Dorothy emerging into the colorful world of OZ.  The Turks and Caicos (TCI) are a British overseas territory, two island groups in the Caribbean.  Their main source of income is tourism, due largely to the amazing beaches (of which 12 mile long Grace Bay Beach is the most famous) and to the fact that the temperature is an average of 85 degrees year-round.

Our week-long vacation was day after day of sunning, beach and eating amazing seafood, interspersed with only a little sightseeing and exploration.  When possible we rent a house or condo on our vacations.  We like the extra space, privacy and use of a kitchen, which saves us money on food.  That is not to say we don't go out to eat.  We do, at least once a day.  But sometimes it's nice to have your morning coffee or lunch in the privacy of your own terrace or pool.  We stayed at Grace Bay Townhomes.  It wasn't right on the beach (the prices in were very expensive), but we were within a 10 minute easy stroll right onto Grace Bay Beach between two resorts where you could rent chairs or catch boat tours.   

The highlight for me was visiting the Caicos Conch Farm and learning about conch mariculture, raising conchs to provide jobs and a low cost source of protein.  We learned how the conchs are raised to maturity and were introduced to two live conchs that came out of their shells to say hello as if on cue.  

The idyllic beachside setting of most of the restaurants on Grace Bay could make a romantic out of anyone and we enjoyed a number of fantastic dinners at restaurants like Bay Bistro and Hemingways on the Beach.  But it was the barefoot beach bar hangouts that made me never want to leave: Bugaloos and Da Conch Shack, right next to each other on the other side of the island.  You could while away the whole afternoon and evening drinking beer and munching on fried conch, listening to a dreadlocked Reggae singer. Da Conch Shack is listed in the book, 1000 Places to See Before You Die, a book whose pages are being checked off as fast as I am able.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Palm Springs

Palm Springs was a mecca of the old-time stars and their mid-century modern homes.  Each time I drive in from Las Vegas, my heart jumps at the sight of the palm trees and windmills with the desert mountains as a backdrop.  This trip, The town is decorated for Christmas, incongruos because of the sunny, warm tropical background.  It was a quick four days of connecting with old friends and making new ones. 

Usually I stay in a vacation rental, but this trip I was in a newly renovated hotel.  The owners had done a great job of recreating the vibe of the Hollywood heyday and I went back in time, pretending I was Lauren Bacall or Joan Crawford, only less cool.

Aruba: One Happy Island

"One Happy Island", that's the first thing you see when you enter the airport and probably the last too. All over the island there are big Aruba signs with a big heart that are perfect for people to pose with. I have to agree. Everyone seems happy, locals and tourists alike. It is one of the most heavily re-visited island in the Caribbean. We were there seven days and I am going to post my daily journal, just as I wrote it while we were there.

 Day 1: In an embarrassment of riches, thanks to my tireless efforts to accumulate free airline miles, we were once again on our way to a tropical locale. Less than a month ago we were enjoying Anna Maria Island in Florida. But I had miles which were going to expire and Southwest had just started flying to Aruba, where we had never been, and I was able to secure free tickets. It took us about 11 1/2 hours from our house to our rented villa, including a change of plane in Atlanta. Renting a whole house is not much more, and sometimes less, than just one room at a hotel or resort, especially when sharing the cost with other couples. In addition, having a kitchen saves money on meals. Our rental house in Aruba has its own private pool, outdoor eating area, lounge chairs and hammock. Aruba Happy Rentals secured a rental car for us, Value, which picked us up from the airport and drove us to their office, conveniently located just five minutes from our villa. After a quick checkin, Happy Rentals met us there and led us to the house located in the private, gated, Washington Gardens area. We were thankful to be driving on the right hand side of the street, unlike some of the islands where we had been. We were so relieved to finally be settled.

I looked longly at the inviting pool just outside the living room, but resisted the urge to jump in and instead obediently unpacked and got organized. The next order of business was food and drink. With trepidation we ventured out for the first time to try to find our way to the huge supermarket we spotted on our way in, Super Foods. We didn't noticed many street signs on the way in and many roundabouts. With relief, we found it with no problem. I was absolutely amazed at the size of this store and the amazing selection of food from around the world, leaning heavily toward Dutch products. What immediately caught my eye were the hanging display of whole Serrano hams from Spain hanging from the ceiling. There was an overwhelming display of cheeses and lunch meats. The bakery overflowed with fantastic loaves of fresh baked, seed covered, loaves of bread and mouthwatering cakes that were a beauty to behold. I could have spent hours perusing the aisles, but it was late and we were afraid we wouldn't find our way back in the dark. Armed with cheese, slices of the aforementioned ham, bread and wine we found our way back and enjoyed a light supper and late night swim in the illuminated pool.

 Day 2: After a relaxing morning we finally got underway and did some random driving to acclimate ourselves to our surroundings. We were pleasantly surprised to find that our rental was very well situated with easy access to many of the things on my to do list. I now feel confident to find our way home from anywhere within a reasonable distance. We wanted to do an early dinner at Bavaria (which we found to be literally 5 minutes away). Alas I neglected to check their hours and they were closed today because it was Sunday. I had no Plan B so we had to wing it. We wandered around looking at menus and decided on Gianni's. It looked very commercial, but pleasant, however nearly empty at 4:00. We had plans to make it to the California lighthouse by 6:00 for sunset, so we went in. Now that we're back home I've had a chance to read some reviews, some of which were not very complimentary. Despite the reviews I must say I was very impressed with the service and the food. It was our plan to eat light today and did what most restaurants frown upon: we split our app of Insalata di Pesce with olive oil and lemon and one entree of fettucine, cream, basil and truffles. They split the fettucine in two bowls and there was so much I couldn't even finish my share. But, boy, both dishes were really, really yummy. Since we didn't even have wine with our meal, the total bill came to only $40 before the tip.

 We still had a little time and topped off our meal next door at Gelatissimo with a scoop of Ferrero Roche gelato. On the way out we spotted a sign for Amore Mio pizza delivery (lobster pizza?? Yum!) and took a card for a possible pizza night later in the week.

As we headed toward the lighthouse I couldn't help but notice how many places there were to pull over and park to get on the beach. We've been to many Caribbean islands but most of their beach access is blocked by private homes and hotels.

We could have parked anywhere along here but continued on to the lighthouse and I'm glad we did. I love amateur photography and lighthouses are always fun to photograph. The sunset was lovely and we chatted with some delightful people we kept running into during the day.

 Day 3: There were massive rains this morning, resulting in some flooding on the streets, making driving on some of the back roads somewhat challenging. Our pool was filled to almost overflowing. But it was still warm outside and rather soothing actually...but definitely not a beach day. Instead we drove to Alhambra Casino and tried our luck at the slots. We found our favorite machine, and walked out a few hours later $65 richer. Not bad for penny slots.

I was surprised they even offered free drinks. Alas, it was too early to take advantage of that.

We made up for it later at a fantastic little treat at the end of the day. I had made reservations at Madame Janette's a month ago online. Some comments had indicated it was out of the way and hard to find. Amazingly it was 5 minutes from our villa. The food, the service, the music were all fantastic.  We opted for the goulash soup and pork schnitzel and washed it down with authentic German beer. The garlic bread and scalloped potatoes were so delicious. Everything was seasoned perfectly. The schnitzel was so enormous it covered the entire dinner plate, just like in Austria.  I mentioned to our server he should tell the chef it was just like my hometown in Austria. He told me the chef was from Austria too!

 As we were leaving he came out of the kitchen to meet us. We had a fun conversation and reminisced about Austria. He asked if we'd had dessert, Kaiserschmarren, typical to my hometown region. My mother always used to make it. we declined, saying we couldn't eat another bite. In fact, we had 2/3 of our dinner in a doggy bag.

We made our goodbyes, stopped at the front desk to make another reservation for Friday and went to our car. Just as we were leaving we saw our Chef, Boris, running toward our car with a bag in his hand. I rolled down the window and he gave me the bag, saying he wanted us to have the special dessert of the day, Kaiserschmarren. I will never forget that as long as I live. Much later that evening we tasted the dessert and it brought back memories as well as tears to my eyes, remembering my mother. God bless you, Boris, for that very special moment.

The casino was calling us. A good escape from the heat of the midday. Just as the previous day we headed to Alhambra and just as the previous day our favorite slot game was good to us. We walked out a few hours later with an extra $30. Seasoned gamblers willi laugh at us, but we play penny slots and are unwilling to lose more than $20 a day for each of is. That's our limit. We had our beach chairs with us and went in search of some sand. Hubby wanted to be around people so we headed to Moomba. It took is quite a few wrong turns and asking directions several times before we finally found their parking lot. It's behind the Marriott, on a nondescript sidestreet next to Palm Beach mall. I didn't see a sign on the road for Moomba. Maybe we missed it.

We found a shady spot to set up our chairs and settled in for sunset, which didn't disappoint. I couldn't count how many sunset pics I have taken in my lifetime, lol. Back at the villa, our evening meal was leftovers from the gigantic schnitzel dinner from Madame Janette's the night before. Unbelievably, there was still some leftover for yet another meal. 

Day 5: Nothing much to report today. We spent most of it at the house, in the pool, reading and watching TV. We had an electrical problem: some of the lights and the fridge stopped working. We discovered it the night before. I was very impressed with Aruba Happy Rentals and their timely response. One of the owners, Albert, actually came over at night with an extension cord for the fridge and an electrician showed up in the morning. He determined that it was a problem with the city's equipment and they promptly arrived shortly afterward. The problem was solved. Very impressive on everyone's part.  We went to Madame Janette again for dinner. It is starting to feel like family there. I had brought a little thank you gift to Boris for his kindness a few nights ago and he was surprised and grateful. I was eager to try some of the dishes many of you had written about, so we went with the bang-bang shrimp, lobster ravioli, almond crusted grouper and tenderloin Gianni Versace. All lived up to the reviews and my expectations. We were to be back one more time, on Friday, to experience their first-ever Oktoberfest. Knowing Chef Boris's Austrian background, I was certain it would be a unique and authentic experience.

Adding to the twinkle light ambiance of the evening, the entertainment for the evening was Rene Kannegieter, whose voice reminded me very much of Sting. And he did sing Sting, McCartney, Eric Clapton. At my request he beautifully sang my favorite song "What a Wonderful World." I could have listened to him all night. Music is his night job. He is a schoolteacher by day. I'm sure he is good at that as well.

 Day 6 and 7: The longer we are on vacation the lazier I am getting. All I want to do is eat, sleep, go in the water, gamble a little and repeat! We did take a drive to check out Baby Beach. It is a long way to go and, although it is a very pretty cove, I think the water and beaches in our area are just as nice. I guess if you are a snorkler, that would be a good place to do it. The road takes you through San Nicholas and past the oil refinery. On the road leading to Baby Beach, in the middle of nowhere, we saw a little old man selling candy, his only company a lone chicken.

 I stopped to take his photo and gave him a few bucks to thank him. He didn't speak, or maybe didn't speak English, but he had a sweet smile on his face. It was very hot and all we could think of was to get back to our villa and the pool. So on the way back we drove through Oranjestad, but didn't stop to explore.  Our last night on the island we went back to Madame Janette one last time to experience their first ever Oktoberfest. The food was beyond great, just as before.

In retrospect,  summarizing our feelings about our Aruba vacation: we were very impressed! I liked that we could speak English, use our American money, drive on the right, the weather was great (despite a little rain here and there), no hurricanes, a wonderful huge supermarket and it's not exhorbitantly expensive, like some islands. The people were helpful and friendly, service was very in large part good and efficient and the casinos were an added plus. What's not to like? I can understand why it's one of the most re-visited vacation spots in the Caribbean. It's a Happy Island indeed.