Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Planning a trip to wine country and other affairs

I'm looking forward to Friday and the weekend. Hubby's taken Friday off, and we're jetting off in the two-seater on a road trip to Traverse City, Michigan. We've reserved two very different types of accommodation for the two nights that we'll be there and have saved the best for last. Don't want to give the game away, but will post about it after we get back.

On a separate note, I was busy collating all my documents in order to transfer a valid visa from an expired passport onto a new passport. To make matters more complicated, the visa is in my maiden name whereas my new passport reflects my married one, so I hope that that will not delay things. We're hoping to visit India this January and I am really stoked about that. Filling the forms was not fun. I am probably going into downtown Chicago tomorrow, to get this over and done with.

Anyway, if you've been to Traverse City, drop me a line. It is about a 6 hour drive from where we are in Northern Illinois, and I expect the fall colors to be quite spectacular.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A bite by the Mississippi and a ski lodge...

You're probably picturing New Orleans at the mention of the mighty river in the title, but I am indeed talking about the Mississippi in the Midwest, in Galena, northwestern Illinois to be exact.

I will be totally honest and say that it's not exactly a picturesque drive towards Galena on the I-90W and the US-20, staring from the northwestern Chicago 'burbs. However, en route to the city of Galena, take the left at the junction of US-20 and IL-84 towards Hanover and then towards Winston, to get to the Chestnut Mountain Resort.

This resort looks like your typical cheesy replica of a Swiss chalet resort, but it's cute enough. It is quite popular with single travelers, couples and families especially during the skiing season, as its perched high enough to make some decent skiing possible. Lodging is available and packages are offered on the website. Lessons are available too. There is a shop and rental facilities in case you forgot your gear.

We were there during early Fall, and there still seemed to be a number of people around. Starving after a long drive, the casual lunchtime menu was just what we needed. And voila, there it was. The restaurant at the inn is by no means a classy joint. In fact, it was very reminiscent of a dark 70's style hunter's lodge, with outdated wooden furniture and fixtures. But the tables by the window had the most beautiful view of the Mississippi. That alone was worth the journey.

The menu features burgers, fries, chicken wings etcetera, and it all really hit the spot. Loved the spicy chicken wings with the ranch dressing. But you have to try the Blue Moon Ale (Bavarian white ale), which was light, punchy and delicious.

Service was swift and amiable. After satiating our appetites, we walked out and around the Inn, to get a better view of the river. The undulating green fields around us would become ski slopes in a few months time. An alpine slide activity was in operation at the time, as was a Mississippi river cruise, but we didn't have the time. Perhaps you took it. Drop me a line if you've been there and have any comments about the place.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Fall road trips

Yesterday was a beautiful day for a drive, so I couldn't help noticing how pretty one of the roads near our place looked. As it winded down, the colors really struck me. I've often thought of taking of a road trip simply to gaze at Fall or 'autumn' colors as we call it in the UK. In fact, we are thinking of taking a trip next weekend, so I'll post a report on that then.

Of course, the places they say are most spectacular during Fall are along the northeastern corridor comprising Vermont and New England to name but a few. Upper Michigan and Wisconsin are also pretty good for exploring if you're nearer to this area. I however would love to spend a long weekend up in Vermont during Fall, locked up in a cozy bed and breakfast somewhere with a view, in front of a roaring fire, with a glass of mulled wine.....

Below is a link to a good website I found which gives excellent updates on Fall color in the popular regions of the country. If you have a story to tell about a memorable Fall trip, let me know via the Comment box.

Fall color updates

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

How to guarantee a good hotel at a great price!

In this post, I will keep it short and sweet, and try to point you in the right direction of ensuring a great hotel at a good price:

  1. Open up multiple tabs on one browser window.
  2. Enter the addresses of the popular websites on each - Expedia, Orbitz, travelocity, tripadvisor etcetera and any others that you may use to book hotels.
  3. Generate searches on each of the above websites using your criteria (the same criteria for easy comparison).
  4. Narrow down the list to the hotels you feel are going to work for you, and compare the prices/package on each tab if offered by multiple sites.
  5. Now search those hotels on Tripadvisor, and see how others have rated it.
  6. If you are happy with what you've read, go to the hotel's website itself, and check if they have the same package you want at a lower price. If so, book with the hotel itself. Otherwise, go ahead with the best-priced travel website offer.
Other methods:
  • Check the local press (travel supplements in newspapers) for any discounts.
  • If you do not really care about the exact location of the hotel, sites such as Hotwire and Priceline may work for you. Visit betterbidding.com which will advise you about possible hotels in a category for your city, and what a reasonable bid may be. I was able to secure a 4 star hotel in London two months ago for $80 on Priceline after consulting with this website - an absolute steal!
Any other tips from readers are most welcome.

Let's exchange links and increase blog traffic!



Note: I reserve the right to refuse links to blogs which are not appropriate or are not authoritative and engaging in look and content. Therefore, please participate only if you feel that your blog deserves a mention!

To exchange links and increase traffic to your blog, follow the instructions carefully (The text was adapted from Stephanie Law's blog shown in the blogroll below):

Copy from here
  1. Get a Technorati account here
  2. Favorite my blog by clicking here
  3. Leave a comment on this post with your blog address (1 address only ) and I will then favorite your blog as well if appropriate. I will try to do this a.s.a.p (my Technorati nickname is mon11uk so you can check)
  4. Copy this post from and including where it says “Copy From Here” until “End Copy” and post in your blog.
  5. Make sure you change the link in step 1 to your own Technorati Favorites Link, which can be obtained from this Technorati page, and also change the Technorati nickname to your own in step 2 - this is important)
  6. Now add a link to your blog to the list below.
  7. Once you have created your post and I receive a pingback, I will add a link to your blog to this list (if appropriate) so that visitors to my blog can see that you are also a Technorati Favourites Exchanger!

Participants in Technorati Favourites Exchange:

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Lake Geneva

Lake Geneva in the state of Wisconsin is about an 80 miles drive northwest of Chicago, and makes for a lovely day trip. We lucked out with the weather when we visited yesterday for the first time. The area just one block north of the lake around Main and Broad St has a number of very eclectic shops and restaurants. There is ample seating and a mini-beach in addition to picnic greens all overlooking the lake. See my post about Kilwin's confectionery, also under the 'Mid West' category.

What would be your favorite day trip from where you are? Drop me a line with your suggestion.
video
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Mouth-watering confectionery in Wisconsin....

Yesterday being such a fabulous day, we decided to hop into the convertible, top down, and drive up to Lake Geneva in Wisconsin.

Apart from the beautiful lake which I'll blog about later, we discovered a cute and extremely busy little confectionery shop on the main street called Kilwins. Decorated in a style evocative of the 1940s, the brand was actually founded in North Michigan by a couple during the late 1940s.

Their selection of home-style fudge is overwhelming: dark german, maple walnut, chocolate pecan to name but a few. Beautifully wrapped chocolate gift boxes adorn one of the walls. Raspberry creams, cherry cordials, almond toffee crunch...the list goes on. Then there's the ice-cream corner. Rum-raisin, Lake Geneva mud, pumpkin seem to be some of the most requested flavors while we were there. It was very busy indeed.

A pound of fudge costs about $13 but is totally worth it. The attendant packed in a couple of knives for us to cut the fudge with.

We bagged a bench with a view and like children, opened the box as fast as we could. And savored the soft and sweet fudge as we gazed at the lake....

Maybe you know of similarly original and quality confectioners across the country that you have fallen in love with? Drop in a comment and let me know.

Kilwins.com will give you more information about stores nationwide.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

How to score tickets to Wimbledon?

Where you love tennis or not, this is an experience in itself. If seeking Britishness is what you're after on your next trip to Blighty, this is the place. As you may know, it takes place during June and July, and if you're lucky, you may even get a sunny day or two. No, it needn't cost an arm and a leg. Another popular misconception about London.

What you have to have is a willingness to line up for a while. About 5 hours, maybe 6. Your chances are higher earlier in the tournament and on a weekday. I have managed to be at Wimbledon and see great matches for 5 years, and cannot wait to get back. If you get there really early, the box office may offer you tickets to Center court and Court No 1; otherwise just the ground pass.

But don't knock the ground pass just yet - apart from Center and No 1, it offers you access to all other courts, and early in the week, you're bound to see some big names at the smaller courts. The cost is between 5 and 20 pounds, depending on the day of the week and time of entry - check the Wimbledon website for more on this. A pretty good deal.

Also, being in the line is part of the experience. Everyone's there for the same thing. People of all nationalities feel bonded because of this common goal. There are mobile hot dog and burger stands, kids selling the paper and Wimbledon T-shirts, policemen and volunteers sharing good-natured banter with the people, and groups playing frisbee when the line comes to stand still.

I believe that they open the gates around 10 or 11, so after that, the line moves along nicely.

So, if you're on a shoestring budget (and especially as an American feeling the pinch of the weak dollar), here's what you do:

1)Make sure you're in London during Wimbledon!
2) Take cash with you - I'm not sure if the ticket office accept credit cards.
3)Get there on a weekday, and around 5 am - YES, 5 am. Believe me, there will be about five thousand people before you still, but you will have a good chance.
4)Have fun!

Check their website as well for more details. The nearest tube station is Southfields, zone 3.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

When in Vienna....


Do visit the stunning monastery in Melk, about an hour's drive west of Vienna. Ask about the Vienna Sightseeing company, who have a tour of the Wachau valley surrounding the formidable Danube.

The tour takes you from your hotel (a complimentary ride) to a central point from which you board a luxury coach with the appropriate language. After driving through some grittier parts of the city and the unremarkable highway, you suddenly find yourself in stunning Austrian countryside, meandering through narrow windy roads alongside the Danube. A little later, you see vineyards and pretty cottages, while the river flows to your left. It's beautiful.

What I also liked about the tour is that it stopped at a place called Spitz. from where we embarked upon an idyllic Danube cruise to Melk.

If you know nothing about the monastery in Melk like me, or had simply seen pictures of it, you will be glad you came. It is grand and demure at the same time. The approach to it may be touristy and overpopulated, but once you enter the courtyards approaching the monastery, you will be struck by the commanding facade and the quietness.

The monastery was established in the 11th century and the interior is just as breathtaking as the exterior. Ceiling paintings are almost Michelangelo-like, and you can almost visualize Benedictine monks in their flowing robes walking the sparse and long hallways.

The view of town of Melk from the abbey is stunning as well. I was mortified that the batteries in my camera had run of out charge (moral: take your camera charger on trips and USE it!) but I managed to get a couple of pictures. A great excuse to go again.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Vienna's sweet treat

Who would have thought that a 19th century recipe for a cake would still be causing such a stir on the streets of Vienna?

This August, I tasted the magic that so many people had been telling me about. "Oh so you'll be in Vienna? You have to try the Sacher Torte." I found that while this delectable treat was served at many of Vienna's restaurants and cafes, the 'original' and the version that was recommended by most was the torte served at the Hotel Sacher itself, who own the trademarked recipe (the son of the recipe's creator built this exquisite luxury hotel).

This cake is more than just a chocolate cake. What is heavenly in each mouthful is the happy marriage of apricot jam and moist rich spongy chocolate. And a spoonful of sinfully creamy whipped cream helps too. If you want to taste the Sacher Torte in Vienna, I recommend you do it nowhere but the Hotel Sacher itself. When you enter the cafe, you do not see the hotel in all its grandeur, but you certainly get a sense of it. Service is fairly swift. There is most certainly going to be a long line of tourists outside the entrance of the cafe, but it moves along nicely. The lively atmosphere surrounding the cafe also helps to while away the waiting time.

A menu is posted at the entrance, tempting and confusing you at the same time, with its array of sacher tortes. Go only for the original version and team it up with a coffee. While the accommodation and a full scale meal might be obscenely expensive at the Sacher, it is worth paying a few dollars to savor the experience of having one of Vienna's much loved creations in a five-star setting. To whet your appetite, here's a picture taken during our recent visit. Notice the chocolate seal, which signifies it is the original we were about to devour.

London (west-end) tickets

You may have all heard about the half-price ticket booth in Leicester square, London, where one can get the hottest theatre and musical tickets. While this is a great way of acquiring tickets, the show list they have tickets to on a daily basis is limited, and you do have to line up for some time, especially if the tickets you want are the same as what everybody else wants.

Two tips: One, locate the theatre of the show you want to go to, and get to the box office about a few hours before the show. The attendant may tell you to come back an hour or 45 minutes before the show, but at least you can talk to him/her and gauge if there are likely to be any returns of the day (tickets from people that can't make the show after all). This method works best on a weekday.

Two, if you have access to a computer, or an internet cafe nearby, log on to lastminute.com and find tickets for as low as ten pounds.

Good luck.

Of a list of plays and musicals in London, see the Official Guide.

Friday, October 12, 2007

A jazzy night in Chicago

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I know I have posted about the Peninsula before, but I had to post this, taken last week on a Friday night, and what a night it was. To appreciate such music in such divine surroundings, and to think that there's no music cover charge. All you need to order is a coffee or two, and you're set. Luxury needn't be expensive. My gourmet alcoholic coffee cost $10 and my dreamy dessert of ginger creme brulee $11. Check out the web page below for details, particularly about when the live music is. Enjoy.

The Lobby at the Pen

Can I have a window seat please...?

is sometimes not the only question you should ask a travel agent, even though that is the only question which usually comes to mind. Very few of us even use agents to book trip nowadays, but it helps to be really geeky this once and know your flight's seating configuration, if you are really picky about where you sit.

I recently came across a website called seatguru.com and it was a revelation. You choose your airline, the aircraft type, and voila! - you have a seating chart. But it doesn't stop there! You can hover over seats using the mouse and see descriptions of whether there's limited legroom, whether the toilets are nearby, what the seat width is, whether or not the seat even has a window (believe me, there are 'window seats' on certain aircrafts without a physical window, I was in one on a long haul flight once and it wasn't fun!).

You will see a legend on the top of the page for each craft type, which indicates whether the seats are good or poor, and there is also information on whether the seats have their own in-flight entertainment systems or have an outdated central system (an important fact often overlooked when booking cheaper flights).

Of course, you're thinking, how do I know what aircraft type my flight uses? It says AA 55. Is that it? No, that is your flight number, not the aircraft type. When you book your flights online, you should be able to drill down to the level of detail where it mentions a flight type such as Boeing 767 or Airbus 330. That is the flight type. Or just ask your agent about it if you book offline.

Of course, there are no guarantees that you will get your dream seat, but it won't hurt you to try either. Good luck.

Seat Guru

Friday, October 5, 2007

A personal note....

Caught up in the excitement of entertaining visiting family, I have had to neglect my blog, but I will be back very soon with more travel tales and tips.....