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Archive for the ‘Family Travel’ Category

Merhaba!  I recently had an opportunity to travel to Turkey with a group of family members including my 10 and 7-year-old daughters to attend a wedding. I had heard great things about Turkey and was very excited about the trip. I was also looking forward to exposing my children to such a different culture than what they’re accustomed to. I consider traveling part of their education and I was eager to share the different sites, architecture, food, music and other cultural aspects of Turkey.  I had read and heard everywhere that Turks love children, but had also heard there was not much in Istanbul for children to do.  But I didn’t need to worry.  As I usually find out on trips, after a certain age, children are much more easily entertained than adults!  For the most part, they’re also easier to please and impress.

After a stopover in JFK, we left on our overnight non-stop flight to Istanbul. The girls loved having their own personal video screens with a large selection of age appropriate movies and games.   After our arrival at the pristine and modern Ataturk International airport, we sleepily and slowly made our way to our hotel in Sultanahmet, the historic district of Istanbul. It was not too hard to convince everyone to take a short nap but it was not easy to wake them up from it!  As I usually like to do when I arrive in a new city, we decided to take an open-top bus city tour.  It’s a great way to get a good overview of the city as well as learning about the history and sites you are seeing thanks to the audio commentary provided.  Of course the kids loved sitting on the top-level of the double-decker bus.  It was great seeing the different parts of the city, fortresses, mosques, parks, palaces along with the street vendors, fish markets, children playing and local families out and about. 

We had an early dinner at the hotel, our first round of Turkish food.  As we found out throughout the trip, it was not easy pleasing the girls palates. Although they eat a variety of foods at home, Turkish food is very different from what they are used to; from their use of different spices, yogurt and vegetables to the different grains, and ways of cooking.  But we almost always found something they could eat such as pasta, delicious pide (similar to white pizza) , french fries, calamari, rice, humus, some kebabs and watermelon (often served after dinner) and they were happy to find that Turkey has a huge variety of many types of fun shaped and delicious breads which we all enjoyed throughout the trip.  They loved buying fresh squeezed orange juice from the many juice stands and even found they loved apple tea, which is served in tiny glass cups throughout the day and after dinner.  My oldest even brought some back to make at home!  

After an early wake up due to the time difference and the 5:30am call to prayer heard throughout the city, we went for breakfast.  This was an easy meal each morning. There were lots of great choices at the buffet including more western choices such as cereals to more Turkish choices such as olives, feta and other cheeses, yogurt, etc.  The girls mostly enjoyed fresh bread with Nutella every morning, a rare treat back home!   Our first day of sightseeing by foot was spent visiting Ayasofia, where everyone was as impressed with the architecture and frescoes as the girls were taken by the cute kitties walking around the grounds (and throughout the streets of Istanbul).  We also visited the Basilica Cistern, a very interesting site and welcomed break from the mid-day heat. Unfortunately my 7-year-old did not care for the dark, underground site and couldn’t wait to leave.  Fortunately it did not take long to visit and getting ice cream and getting to feed the pigeons afterwards quickly put the scary visit behind her.  The Blue Mosque was beautiful and grand.  The girls loved finally getting to wear the scarves we brought to cover their hair and were very interested to hear about muslim customs. After walking around the Hippodrome, with the different columns, including a small obelisk, we rested our feet during a nice outdoor lunch where the girls had some pide and the waiter made napkin roses for them!  Refreshed, we headed for the Grand Bazaar.  There isn’t much you can’t find there.  The girls were fascinated by the vendors and different types of merchandise.  They had their cheeks pinched by vendors several times (a typical gesture towards children in Turkey) and one especially forceful pinching session drew my 7-year-old to tears after she had walked away.  I found that her big blue eyes were quite irresistible and while she loved the compliments she received, she did not care for the pinching!  My 10-year-old enjoyed buying her own souvenirs and asking for prices at the different stalls and making her own decisions as to whether the price was right. Dinner was enjoyed by all tonight in one of the quaint pedestrian alleys of Sultanahmet. To the delight of the girls, we got to sit at a low table surrounded by a bench covered with lots of pillows were we sat to eat our dinner. This was their chance to eat dinner on the couch!

The next three days were divided between sightseeing and wedding related events.  We walked across the Galata bridge, where we checked out the fishermen and then rode the tram to Galata tower and saw the amazing 360 degree views form the top.  We had dinner at Hamdi, a great restaurant with delicious Turkish food and beautiful views of the waterfront and New Mosque (Yeni Cami).  Some of the adults enjoyed a visit to Cagaloglu, one of the oldest, biggest and most impressive Turkish baths in Istanbul.  We visited Topkapi Palace, a large and beautiful complex of which the nicest and most interesting part was the harem, where we saw beautiful tiled mosaics and the girls were interested to learn that the sultans had many wives but there was a special place where only “the favorites” were allowed.  They were amused by the “posh” baths with gold-plated faucets, mosaic and marble walls and floors yet “toilets” that were carved out of stone and at floor level.  Their favorite palace however was probably Dolmabahce.  Whereas Topkapi has more Asian and Ottoman influences and overall appearance, Dolmabahce is much more Western.  So based on their idea of a palace, Dolmabahce was more, well, palatial!  Huge carpeted rooms in reds and blues with heavy French draperies, high ceilings, French ornate furniture, crystal chandeliers everywhere, high canopy beds, maids quarters, children’s playing rooms, libraries and every other type of room imaginable definitely impressed them. Of course they were also impressed to learn that president Obama had had a state dinner there!  We also all thoroughly enjoyed the Bosphorus cruise.  The ferry is simple, with bench seating and a snack bar on board.  But the views are amazing on both sides.  We made quick stops along the way where we beautiful waterfront homes and lots of different types of boats.  We got off the ferry at the last stop, Anadolu Kavagi, and had a seafood lunch and got to walk around the small town and visit a couple of shops before boarding the return ferry. 

The wedding we attended couldn’t have been more beautiful. It was held at Del Mare, a beautiful restaurant with excellent food on the Asian side of Istanbul.  The setting on the water is amazing, and the beautiful sunset was a perfect backdrop for the couple arriving by the restaurant’s private boat.  Later, once dark, we enjoyed the view of the Bosphorus Bridge, with its light display that changes colors every few seconds.  We had a great time dancing to both American and Turkish music and really enjoyed the food.

We left the amazing historical city and the hustle and bustle of Istanbul behind after 5 days for a very different experience.  We flew from Sabiha Gocken airport, on the Asian side of Istanbul, to Kayseri, in the Cappadocia region of Turkey, known for its striking landscape, unusual rock formations, some known as “fairy chimneys”, underground cities, and entire cities built inside these rock formations, including homes and churches.  On our drive from Kayseri to Goreme, where our hotel was located in the center of Cappadocia, we saw the landscape changing from flat rural land to unusually carved mountains and soon enough we spotted the first fairy chimneys!  Many hotels in this area have taken over some of these ancient “cave homes” and have made the necessary changes to convert them to hotels.  A cave hotel is a must if you want to get the full experience here.  We stayed at Kelebek hotel, a beautiful cave hotel at the top of a hill looking down on Goreme and the valleys surrounding it as well as mountains in the background.  The views from the many levels, patios, restaurant and pool of the hotel were extraordinary.  We never tired of it.  Of course the girls thought it was very cool to stay in a room that was carved into the rock!  And the unusual scenery was unlike anything they had ever seen.  The small and refreshing pool was a welcome sight for them. I enjoyed my local Efes (beer) on one of the loungers with a great view while they splashed in the pool and made friends with an Italian girl who was also on vacation. I enjoyed watching them interact and trying to communicate in languages the others didn’t really speak, with a lot of gestures, grunts, pointing, and translating help from the parents.  But adults can learn from kids.  They managed to have a wonderful time and make a new friend despite the obstacles.  After the relaxing break, we headed for Goreme’s outdoor museum.  It was an amazing place full of previously inhabited cave homes, cave churches with frescos still on the walls, etc.  The girls really enjoyed going in the different rooms and trying to figure out what the rooms and different carved niches were used for and going through door openings, cave hallways and up and down steps carved into the rock to access the different rooms.

The next morning, after being woken at sunrise by the call to prayer coming from the nearby minaret, I decided to go outside my room to one of the hotel’s patios to admire the sunrise.  It was probably the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen.  The colors in the sky were breathtaking and the amazing landscape below made it even better.  Soon, I started seeing the hot air balloons rising up into the sky and before too long, I walked around the entire hotel counting a total of 20 balloons in the sky. This is a popular (albeit pricey) activity in this area that most say is worth the cost and I hope to be able to participate in on my next visit.  After a delicious and plentiful breakfast, we departed on our full day tour of the area.  We started with a 3 km hike in the Rose Valley. It was hot and we drank plenty of water but the views and terrain were unusual and breathtaking. The tour guide picked grapes off forgotten vines which we ate along the way and made the girls forget about the heat for a while.  The path was mostly sandy and could be a little slippery at times. So shoes with good treads are recommended!  After we were picked up by our van, we drove to Pasabag (Monks Valley), where the most unusual mushroom-shaped rock formations can be seen and explored. After some refreshing fresh squeezed orange juice from a vendor, we got back in the van and went to a local large pottery studio and factory where all pottery is made by hand, mostly using pottery wheels and painted by local artists.  The quality was incredible and appreciated even by the non-connoisseurs.  The level of skill, precision and patience required to finish some of the pieces was hard to imagine.  After our visit, we had an excellent lunch at a local restaurant before heading to Kaymakli underground city.  Not for the claustrophobic, or the very tall, this was a very interesting and entertaining tour.  We wandered through 4 floors (all below ground) around the different rooms once used for sleeping, eating, stables, storage, cooking and more, all connected by tunnels were everyone but the girls (finally grateful to be short) had to bend at the waste and crouch down to get around. 

On our way back to town we stopped at an ATV rental shop and decided to take a 1 hour tour (another great way to see the area).  We had an absolute blast going down dirt roads and off-road.  It was a first time on ATVs for all of us and not only was it a fun way to see the are from a different perspective but it was an exciting and great way to end the day.  After being “air dusted” by the guide, we went to dinner and went back to the hotel for one last quick dip in the pool.  To the disappointment of my 7-year-old, the tooth fairy did not come from one of the fairy chimneys this night, no matter how much wiggling she did during the day.  It wasn’t until the flight back to Istanbul that she finally lost her tooth and hoped the tooth fairy would know where to find her!  The following morning was a repeat of the previous one with the amazing sunrise, views and hot air balloons in the sky. After breakfast we departed for the airport for our flight back to Istanbul.  Because most flights back to the U.S. depart early in the morning, we had to spend the night in Istanbul. For convenience, we chose to stay near Ataturk airport and stayed at the recently opened Courtyard by Marriott. I was very happy we stayed there. There are not many great choices around and I would guess that this is the best one. It was certainly the nicest Courtyard I had ever stayed in with very large, modern and nicely appointed rooms, nice bathroom, good restaurant and a beautiful circular indoor pool which we enjoyed this afternoon before dinner and our last night in Turkey.

I highly recommend Turkey as a travel destination. It is such a wonderful mix of Eastern and Western cultures!  It’s a perfect alternative for those who do not want to travel further than Europe, are comfortable in Europe, yet want to explore something quite different.  And for those who have been to Turkey on a cruise and explored the coastal towns should return and explore Istanbul in-depth as well as some of the beautiful inland areas such as Cappadocia.

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The last time that I stayed at the Greenbrier was two years ago. At that time, it was two months from bankruptcy and its future was uncertain. It was still a great resort, but small cracks were evident in service levels and offerings. Small things like rotating dining room menus and finger bowls in the dining room had been cut. I actually overheard an employees’ meeting discussing ways to cut services to cut costs; employee relations were low and therefore morale was also low.

 Now out of bankruptcy and under the ownership of Jim Justice, I am pleased to tell everyone that the Greenbrier is better than ever. My wife and I along with seventy-five other couples just returned from a three night golf trip to the Greenbrier and things have really changed – all for the good. Employee morale is very obviously at an all time high. Every employee (except one banquet waitress) was obviously excited to be working and wanted the guests to know that fact; smiles and pleasant greetings were received from all employees from the bellmen and front doormen, to the registration clerks, to the golf shop employees, to the dining room wait staff, to the new casino employees. Every employee with whom I came into contact convinced me that they wanted to do anything they could to enhance my stay.

 The classical architecture, the Dorothy Draper decorated interior, the three world-class golf courses, and the wonderful main dining room all continue to wow guests, but the new dining venues and the new casino really enhance the Greenbrier’s offer. The new casino, open only to hotel guests and certain other Greenbrier associated clubs, is more like a European casino than Las Vegas. A hundred thousand square foot casino is small by Las Vegas standards but is plenty for the Greenbrier. The resort was full during our stay and the casino had lots of patrons, but it did not feel overcrowded. One very obvious and welcomed difference from “Vegas” was the casino’s no smoking policy. The ten o’clock complimentary champagne toast of luck to all guests was a nice touch although my comment card included a suggestion to eliminate the dancing performances in the casino.

 Perhaps the biggest changes have come from the enhanced dining choices. The main dining room, Draper’s, and Sam Snead’s at the Golf Club continue to provide guests with the same offerings that they have for years. A new steak house, equal to most steak houses that I’ve ever visited now occupies the space once housing The Old White Lounge.  Order one of several choices of prime steaks or dry aged beef, or splurge and order a Wagyu beef steak that is ordered and priced by the ounce. Friends dined here and reported a wonderful meal.

 A “pizzeria and wine bar” now occupies the space previously housing Draper’s. We found this more of a full Italian restaurant than a wine bar and everyone in my party had a four course dinner. We ordered personal pizza, calamari, a veal steak, baked chicken, and shrimp and lobster pasta and all were delicious.

 Part of the new underground casino construction included a new sushi and Oriental restaurant. Although no one in my party tried In-Fusion, the menu looked great and I look forward to eating there next time I visit.

 How do you enhance an already outstanding golf program? You start at the entrance. A modern, colorful sculpture of golf tees now sits at the golf club entrance – it’s a nice addition. The large locker rooms and pro shop have not been touched and remain world-class. New uniforms for all starters and course marshals included neckties. Although they didn’t do much to improve my game, they really added a touch of class that was observed by all with whom I played.

 In summary, the always classy Greenbrier has just become more so. The noticeable high employee morale coupled with the enhanced dining and entertaining venues have come together to make the Greenbrier one of the country’s top resorts. Its aggressive pricing packages now make the Greenbrier more affordable than ever before. You owe it to yourself to spend a few nights at the Greenbrier and enhance your “return on life”.

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It’s the little things that separate good resorts from great resorts, and Tides Inn is a good resort. When we recently pulled up to the motor entrance, there were four cars parked in the circle, no one in any of the vehicles, and not a door man or porter in site. We were sure a porter would appear in minutes but after waiting, my daughter and I unloaded the luggage and schlepped it into the lobby ourselves while my son-in-law backed out of the circle and parked his car.

My wife had checked in the day before so there was no issue with my room being ready. Check out time is 12 noon at Tides Inn and it was now 2:15 p.m.; in spite of calling ahead and being told that her room would be made up as soon as the present occupants checked out, my daughter’s room was not ready. That really was no problem because we had not had lunch so we went to the pool restaurant for lunch. We all ordered a round of beverages and an order of quesadillas to start. When the drinks arrived, we ordered lunch. In due time, our lunches arrived but we never saw (or missed) the quesadillas. The waitress placed our orders in front of us and disappeared, leaving no napkins or flat wear; with no one else there, I had to help myself to utensils on other unoccupied tables. The BLT sandwich and the crab cake sandwich we ordered were both good, although we all thought it a little strange that the crab cake was served with a bowl of tarter sauce that must have measured at least one full cup! My daughter’s chicken garden salad looked like weeds from the back yard with a few pieces of chicken; I ordered my hamburger cooked medium and it was served well done.

My wife and granddaughter indulged themselves before I got there with room service breakfast. They ordered it the night before and it was delivered on time, hot, and 100% complete.

Both grandmother and granddaughter also visited the spa. The spa area is small, as you would expect a 100 room resort to have, but both said it was clean, bright, and the aestheticians were friendly and accommodating.

The Tides Inn décor is bright, clean and shows well. Our bathroom was modern and pleasant. Every staff member that we encountered was extremely pleasant and friendly. The Tides Inn has one inherent problem that any resort located on the water will have; that’s a mildew smell in the rooms. This is the same problem we encountered ten years earlier when my wife and I last were there. I have been to dozens of seaside resorts and the great ones solve this problem; the good, mediocre, and poor ones don’t seem to be able to solve this problem.

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As we drove into Hot Springs and I looked up over the tree tops and saw the clock on the Homestead’s impressive and distinctive red brick clock tower, I realized that this was no ordinary deluxe resort. This first impression was over twenty years ago and yet I still get that excited feeling when I drive into the small village and look up and see the Tower.

After checking in, we were walking to our tower room when we ran into friends in the lobby. Surprisingly, my wife recalls that years ago this couple had said how much they loved the Homestead, but had also said “put me in the ‘old section’, not the new part”. Our room, located in the “old section” was beautifully and freshly decorated and the bathroom was newly renovated. The wallpaper appeared new as well as the rest of the room’s furniture but nothing could mask the distinct slope of the floor – something that’s charming and prevalent in buildings as old as this one.  Thirty five percent of all rooms have been renovated this year.

We had a very late dinner reservation so we ate a late lunch and then met our friends at the outdoor pool. Quite a few guests were trying to get cool at the pool as the temperature rose into the nineties; something that rarely happens in the mountains. There were plenty of lounges and umbrellas and the well attended bar was busy serving various adult beverages until it closed at 6 p.m.

The dining room was still busy as we arrived a few minutes early for our 9 p.m. reservation.  The trio of musicians was playing easy to listen and dance-to music, and husbands danced with wives next to young dads dancing with their pre-teen daughters. Greeting us as we walked in was Woody Pettus, the every present maitre d’ of the Main Dining Room for fifty years. Whether he really remembers you or not, he sure makes you feel special and lets you know how much he enjoys seeing you that evening.   Among our party, we ordered the Sautéed Mountain Trout “Homestead” with peeled grapes and almonds in lemon butter sauce, duck breast, and medallions of pork – all prepared as you would expect from the finest restaurant. The Homestead offers two other elegant dinner venues, the 1776 Grille and Sam Snead’s Tavern, but we all agreed the Main Dining Room was one of the Homestead’s truly unique experiences and we decided to eat here every night.

The next morning I arose early for an 8:20 a.m. starting time on the Homestead’s Cascade golf course, considered by many to be the finest mountain course in the US, host of several USGA championships, and ranked by Golf Digest #12 on its Best American Resort Courses. The Cascades course is one of three championship courses at the Homestead. I am glad to say that my driver kept me in the fairway most of the day and the greens are usually reachable if your irons are straight, which by some unusual circumstance mine were that day. But, as those of us who play a lot of golf have come to understand, it’s tough for everything to be working all in the same day; my atrocious putting prevented me from having a great score on this impeccably groomed course – but I will putt better the next time I play it.

While Bill and I were enjoying the Cascades, our wives decided to enjoy the services offered by the Homestead’s world class spa.  Built on the centuries-old tradition of “taking the waters,” the spa brings you the most innovative of luxury spa treatments available today in a unique historic setting. Whether you want a typical spa offering such as one of eight different massages, hydrotherapies, body therapies, skin care or hair and nail therapies, the spa offers you many choices to help you relax and to revitalize yourself. My wife and Barbara each reserved a different treatment and each complimented their individual therapist as being extremely professional.

The boys met the girls after golf and spa appointments for a quick lunch and we all lounged for the rest of the afternoon; I got a little more pool time and one more frozen margarita! High tea is served complimentary in the main lobby each afternoon, but we passed on this today. There are too many other activities to list here, but suffice to say, they have something for everybody; fishing, horseback riding, carriage rides, sporting clays, falconry, just to name a few.

Both couples met the next morning to enjoy the Homestead’s legendary buffet breakfast. Served every morning in the Main Dining Room, it offered a wide selection of fresh fruits, ham, bacon, eggs and omelets cooked to order, pancakes, waffles, pastries, and much more; the woman ahead of me at the cooking station ordered chocolate chip pancakes!

After a few purchases in the shops located in the hotel, it was time to pack and say goodbye to one of Virginia’s finest resorts, if not THE finest. If I went to the Homestead every month, perhaps it wouldn’t be so special, but since I don’t go often, it is truly a wonderful experience that everyone should enjoy periodically.

  

Since this is a Virtuoso property, our clients always receive the best price available either for a room or for one of numerous inclusive packages, plus the value-added Virtuoso amenities. These amenities include FREE breakfast daily (that’s a $50 per day bonus), a $100 activity credit per stay, early check-in and late check-out based on availability and a FREE upgrade at check-in if available. By Dan Smith.

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 Randi W. describes her recent family trip to Paris and Germany as “the best vacation of our lives.”   Here’s what she had to say about sightseeing in Paris and driving Germany’s Romantic Road.  

Eiffel tower-statue of liberyIt was the perfect balance for us, from staying the first 5 nights in Paris to get over jet lag and get to know that fabulous city, to renting the car and meandering through Germany’s Romantic Road, everything was wonderful. The two Paris tours we booked before going were perfect.  The first one was supposed to be a two-hour overview of Paris, but the driver had one other family in the van, so it ended up being a 5-hour tour, where we hit on so many places that we felt like we didn’t need to return to. We got out of the van to look around at Notre Dame and at a great viewing spot for the Monet's water gardenEiffel Tower, and at Montmartre . It was great. The tour of Giverny was better than expected, as we got the seats straight across the top front of the double-decker bus, and it was a nice chance to see the surrounding countryside of Paris.   (more…)

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flowerOne thing I love about Maui is that you can choose to fill your time there with very diverse and exciting activities or you can choose to do nothing at all and still have a great time.  Having done quite a bit of sightseeing on the other islands, we had decided in advance that we would spend most of our time in Maui enjoying the beach and pools and we were looking forward to doing just that when we arrived midday at Kahului airport.  Arriving at this time of day is ideal because you usually won’t have to worry about traffic, which can be somewhat heavy around Lahaina in the morning and evening hours.  It only took us about 45 minutes in our rental car to get to the Ka’anapali resort area, where we were staying.  (more…)

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Grand Hyatt KauaiWe arrived in Lihu’e, Kauai in the early afternoon and quickly picked up our rental car.   We were excited to get to our resort, located on the south side of the island, which I knew would be one of the highlights of our trip.  From the second we arrived at the Grand Hyatt Kauai, we were never disappointed.  It is definitely one of the most beautiful resorts I have stayed in, from the amazing open air lobby with a postcard picture “window” towards the ocean, to the large and beautifully appointed rooms, to the amazing and extensive grounds full of colorful tropical flowers, waterfalls, palms, lagoons and waterfalls, to the spectacular pools, slide, hot tubs and more.  There was no question we were staying in paradise. (more…)

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