Reviving your inner child in LA: Universal Studios and beyond

DSC09155Walt Disney once said, “The real trouble with the world [is that] too many people grow up.” And what better place to reconnect with your inner child than Los Angeles: City of Angels, Tinseltown, Lotusland, and our personal and very timely favourite: La La Land. For La La Land it truly is, and we spent four days reaching back to revive our inner children who suspended any disbelief and just embraced the fun.

Four days in Los Angeles, you say? What could you do a mere in four days? As it turns out, quite a bit! And it all began at Universal Studios.

An actual working film studio and theme park combined, Universal Studios Hollywood is the quintessential La La Land location and one of the more interesting of the theme parks we’ve encountered. Armed with a native Angeleno who is actually “in the business” as they say (our son-in-law) we were whisked off to this fantasy land knowing that we were guaranteed to see the best of it. We were right.

The first step in day at Universal Studios is to pick a week day, get there early and make a bee-line to the backlot tour – everything else can wait. We boarded the tram at 10 am sharp and were on the first tour out. It lasted about 45 minutes and was worth the price of admission.

The tour took us past working studios where current television and motion picture productions are currently underway. It also took us through various traditional back-lot fixtures that included the Dr. Seuss Whoville village that was used to film How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Wisteria Lane of Desperate Housewives fame (yes, the lane and all of the house exteriors were fake), the shattered neighbourhood of War of the Worlds fame, a Mexican town replete with a flood which we experienced, a subway tunnel where we found ourselves in the midst of a fire, a flood and a cave-in, Amity Island from Jaws, the Bates Motel from Psycho, little Europe and a fill-in for New York City used in many movies and TV shows, all fake to the core, and we loved every minute of it. We even found ourselves in a high-speed chase in the middle of Fast & Furious. Then it was time for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

[The houses on Wisteria Lane look so real, don’t they? Fake, fake, fake!]

One of the newest attractions, the Harry Potter part of Universal Hollywood opened in early 2016 and consists of a replica of Hogsmeade’s streets and an enormous replica of Hogwart’s. Why do we know so much about Harry Potter, you ask? Well, years ago when our son Ian was about ten years old and a fan of wizards, Patty stumbled upon a book called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone at a local children’s bookstore. The clerk told her that it was new and unknown as children’s books go, but he might enjoy it. He then grew up with each subsequent installment of the franchise. Well, the rest, as they say is history and we know all about Harry Potter. So what did our inner children do?

We stood in a line that wended its way through Hogwort’s dark corridors while the portraits talked to each other and we received instruction from Dumbledore. Then we embarked on an animatronic and screen-based thrill ride (as it is described in various places) called Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. And it was certainly a thrill ride. When we got off we were happy that we had decided to get on before and not directly after lunch. If you take the ride, do leave all your belongings (purses, cameras etc.) in the provided lockers. You won’t want to drop anything off this one. Then it was, indeed, time for lunch.

We found ourselves in The Three Broom Sticks, a pub-like restaurant housed in what seemed to resemble the dining hall at Hogwort’s. The fish and chips and cold beer were welcome. But there was more to see.

We enjoyed the show featuring a variety of animals who have appeared in a plethora of films. We tend to think of on-screen animals in terms of dogs and sometimes cats, but we were also treated to birds, hedgehogs, and chickens to name a few. Who knew these animals could be trained? We do now.

We also took in the behind-the-scenes special effects show which provided a fascinating presentation on how some of those movie special effects are created. We’ll never look at a movie in quite the same way again. But the movie industry is not the only way we embraced our inner children.

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The Magic Castle, Hollywood, California

The following evening, we were treated to a much less well known but just as fascinating experience. An adults-only private club, the Magic Castle is a Hollywood fixture. According to its web site, it “promotes the art of magic, encourages fellowship and maintains the highest ethical standards. We provide a friendly, inspiring environment where members and their guests can enjoy the art and each other’s company. Our goals are to advance the art and promote a positive image of magic and magicians worldwide…”[1] and word has it that the best trick is actually getting through the door. We were able to gain access only after our daughter and son-in-law booked a room at the Magic Castle Hotel next door, we followed their strict dress code [worth reading about http://www.magiccastle.com/visiting/ ) and promised to leave all cameras and phones in our pockets.

 

At the Castle, which is housed in a century-old mansion, we ate dinner in their dining room, were amazed by face-to-face card tricks in the bar, serenaded by a piano played by a ghost (she could take almost all requests), and attended a truly professional show featuring prestidigitation. Another opportunity to let our inner children play during a very adult evening. No one under 21 permitted at all.

It’s good to know that travel can help us find our inner children, and that making discerning travel choices can elevate them that much higher! More about our recent trips coming up…

 

[Magic Castle photo credit: http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/08/travel/magic-castle-los-angeles/]

 

[1] http://www.magiccastle.com/about/

Making Discerning Travel choices: A tale of two inns

adirondack-chairsThere is nothing quite like an extended road trip to teach you a few things about making discerning travel choices. We have just returned from a three-stage trip that took us from Toronto through the Niagara peninsula to upstate New York then on to New Hampshire, New Brunswick and ending up in (stage two) Halifax, Nova Scotia for a five-day stop to visit friends and family. The third stage took us home from Halifax via Nova Scotia’s south shore, St. Andrews, New Brunswick then on to Wentworth-by-the Sea in New Hampshire and Lake Placid NY before arriving back in Toronto. Planning this kind of trip can tax the discernment of even the most seasoned of us! And plan we do.

There are road-trippers who can just pack a bag, throw it in the trunk and set off in a direction with little idea of where they might be stopping, eating, sleeping or even ending up. We are not like that. We like new experiences and discovering the delights of new places, but we don’t like to be surprised by our accommodation. This may hearken back to Patty’s childhood when family holidays to visit the grandmother consisted of three or four days in the car punctuated by nights in roadside motels – the kind with those plastic chairs outside of every door and your car parked nose up to your window. And of course the choice was based on which ones had “vacancy” signs out front when her father was tired of driving. Leaves too much to chance for discerning travelers of a certain age. So we conduct our due diligence, plot a course, book the hotels and set out. This time we stayed at a few tried-and-true properties, but opted for some new experiences. We were mostly happy, but at least one of our choices taught us yet new lessons about discernment.

As we’ve said before, the discerning traveler is a discriminating traveler.

“This is the traveler who is astute, judicious, perceptive, sensitive, insightful. It’s not necessarily for the ‘luxury’ traveler…travelers who want to see the world and want to do it in a way that is comfortable and makes them feel that travel itself is a luxury…”

In addition to this, discerning travelers want to be assured that they are getting value for the amount of money that they are willing to pay. Almost always, this pays off in experiences that we truly savour. This time we had one experience that didn’t meet its mark. It’s all a matter of expectations. The story involves two inns in the north-eastern US – one in upstate New York, the other in northern New Hampshire in the White Mountains.

The first stop on our road trip was Geneva, New York. A lovely little town located on the northern end of Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region of New York, Geneva is home to the beautiful Hobart and William Smith Colleges that meant nothing to us until we realized they are the successor of what used to be Geneva College, including Geneva Medical College. We recognized that as the alma mater of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the US in 1849. The campus is beautiful and the ambience very cultured.

img_3874We selected Geneva-on-the Lake, a beautiful inn which is, as its name suggests, on the lake. Its history dates to 1910 when it was built as a private residence for a prominent Geneva resident. After the original owner died, his wife and son expanded the original house relying heavily on an aesthetic they had picked up on visits to Italy: it is reminiscent of the Italian Renaissance. In 1949 they sold it to the Capuchin Fathers, a branch of the Franciscan order after which it served as a seminary and monastery until 1974. Remnants of that life are still evident. For four years in the 1970’s it housed Vietnam veterans as well as students, but had periods of abandonment. It was restored to its current state in the early 1980’s and has been a year-round resort ever since.

We had booked a small suite and when we arrived we found we had been upgraded to a very large one. Knowing we were booking into an old property, we were nevertheless impressed with the upkeep of the building and especially its environment. The dining room was absolutely perfect, serving truly gourmet fare surrounded by a romantic ambience that included a live harpist. And the grounds were a delight. The expensive price tag was worth it. Then we were on to Saratoga Springs followed by Franconia, New Hampshire where we stayed at inn number two.

img_3937The Franconia Inn also has a history. Also situated on a large piece of property (in this case evidently 107 acres), this inn dates to 1863 and its focus is on downhill skiing in the nearby Franconia notch area as well as cross-country-skiing and hiking. It also has a stable for horseback riding.

We arrived at this inn to be greeted by a slightly sloppy-looking, harried front-desk clerk who was on the phone telling a client that indeed they did have rooms available for that night. When we finally checked in, we had to drag our bags up the front steps (yes, there is a ramp, but it does not lead to anywhere near the driveway and lands in an unpaved parking lot shared by the riding stables), then up a full flight of stairs to the second floor.

We had booked what they referred to as a “spacious” room – level three out of four levels they offer (good lord, what must the “cozy” rooms look like?). Anyway, it had no phone to even call the front desk to ask for towels nor did it have a television. This is not a big issue, but it’s the twenty-first century and this is not an ashram hosting a meditation retreat. The bathroom was small and pokey, but worst of all in it was the trickle of water that passed for a shower the next morning. The wallpaper was hideous, but that’s just a taste thing. Then there was the outdoor activity.

First, this inn is not located in the kind of place that Geneva-on-the-Lake is. It is a few miles from town on a small highway with its unpaved parking lot across the street. That meant that we’d focus on the walking trails that the front desk clerk told us were out behind the inn. She handed us a map and we were off.

We found the place where the grass was cut deeper and noted the first marker leading us to the trail, so we were off. It wasn’t long before we began to notice that the trail was not, in fact, maintained. It was only as wide as the horses needed: it was a horse trail. We walked further and found not a single other marker to indicate the direction we should go and the trail got narrower and muddier as we went. Finally, we came upon a small river. Frozen in winter, it would be a simple cross for a cross-country skier or even a horse in summer, but we had neither horses nor skis. The only way out was back the way we came. By the time we emerged from the “trail” our feet were soaked and filthy. When we told the desk clerk about the lack of maintenance, she rather unhelpfully said, “Oh.”

Finally, there ws the dining experience. The dining room is billed online as having “intimate candle lit tables” that take in the “spectacular view of the White Mountain landscape.” We’ll grant them that it was a dull and drizzly type of day, but there was absolutely no view whatsoever, and we seem to have missed the intimacy of this room that simply looked like a dining room in an old restaurant. The food was very good, though. Our main issue was with the service. At dinner that evening, there was a line up for seating in the sparsely populated space – there were servers about, but there did not seem to be anyone seating people. The next morning, we encountered the opposite problem: all the servers (three of them) were seating people, but there was no one to take orders. So we sat at our little table and froze for a while, then fled as quickly as possible to get into the car and onto the next stop.

The bottom line is that both of these experiences cost almost identical amounts of money (fairly pricey), and yet the experience was totally different. Our money was far better spent in the experience at Geneva than Franconia. The lesson for us: you can plan down to the final detail, then you have to let go and enjoy whatever experience pops up. We just laughed off the whole thing.

We look forward to returning to Geneva-on-the-Lake. Franconia Inn we’ll chalk up to experience.

The Architectural Travel Experience: Art Deco in Miami Beach

art deco drawingLater on this month here in Toronto we’ll spend a wonderful spring weekend touring architectural gems in this city. For the past seventeen years our city has been celebrating its edifices with Doors Open Toronto. This is an extraordinary opportunity for locals and tourists alike to see inside the walls of buildings that are not normally open to the public, or that they usually just walk by obliviously. This year there are 130 open, and we will be visiting the Bloor Street United church (because we never go inside churches in Canada except for weddings and funerals), Billy Bishop Airport on Toronto Island (because we always fly out of Pearson International), the Campbell House Museum, Osgoode Hall, and the Arts and Letters Club or Toronto (because we walk by them all the time and have wondered about it), the Canadian Music Centre to name a couple. These buildings tell a city story, just like the stories told by the architecture in places we visit around the world.

For example, Barcelona (one of our very favourite cities in the whole world) provides one of the richest architectural travel experiences that should be on everyone’s travel bucket list in our view. How can you visit a city like Barcelona without marvelling at at least a few of famed architect Gaudi’s extraordinarily creative edifices? And who can visit Chicago without experiencing it Chicago School architectural marvels, or Paris without the Louvre? Or Miami Beach without the Art Deco?

So we did spend a week in Miami Beach this year enjoying the architecture which transports you (if you let it) back in time into the 1920’s, 30’s and early 40’s to a style the exuded glamour and pleasure. And where could the hedonistic aesthetic be more pronounced than in a place like Miami Beach? So as we did our walking tour of Miami Beach architecture, we imagined what it might have been life to stay on the beach in those art deco styled hotels in the 1930’s.

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The Blue Moon Hotel where we stayed in Miami Beach fit right into the Art Deco aesthetic.

 

The art deco district is located in the South Beach neighbourhood that has also been referred to as the American Riviera. (If you’ll pardon us, we believe that there is only one Riviera and it is in the south of France – there is no Mayan Riviera either!)

This area of Miami Beach is purported to contain the largest collection of 1920’s and 1930’s architecture in the world. There is no doubt about it that these low-rise buildings evoke a sense of history – a time when life was simpler and pleasure ruled the daily activities (as it still does today in this touristy area!).

We began our own walking tour at the Art Deco Welcome Center located at 10th Street and Ocean Drive where in the gift shop we bought a map guide to the important buildings. This is invaluable since it provides not only the location of the buildings but some of their history as well. Knowing each building’s exact provenance adds an important dimension to the enjoyment of the tour.

The art deco aesthetic is one that we particularly enjoy with its porthole windows, glass block and shiny surfaces, stepped roof lines, zig-zags, chevrons, sunbursts – these elements are what makes the buildings different than what is generally designed these days. And it tells a Miami Beach story – one you shouldn’t miss!

The ‘authentic’ travel experience: The travel snob’s last stand

Autumn in Bar Harbor, Maine
Autumn in Bar Harbor, Maine

We’re not sure about everyone else, but we are sure about ourselves when it comes to travel: we are very particular about the experiences that we have, and we are suspicious of those who take the view that you can’t have an ‘authentic’ travel experience unless you somehow suffer. What nonsense!

What does it mean to be authentic anyway? Well, the dictionaries suggest that it has to do with being real, genuine, or not fake. When it comes to travel experiences, what makes something authentic (and why do travelers these days care, anyway?)? The latest craze for visiting slums in third-world countries is one of the more puzzling approaches for authentic experiences that we’ve seen.

Some travel writers seem to think that staying at a ‘quaint’ property is more authentic than staying at a ‘grand’ property, but who is to say that quaint is any more authentic (read: morally superior), than ‘grand’? And what about dining? Is it more authentic to eat street food in India or to dine at a high-quality Indian restaurant? Perhaps the risk of dysentery is what makes a dining experience authentic? Well, we think that’s just travel snobbery. Take a recent experience we had in New England.

As we love to do in the fall, we took a few days earlier this month to take in the fall colors in Maine and New Hampshire. Having not set foot in Bar Harbor, Maine in decades, we decided that it would be a good place to spend two days exploring the countryside and Acadia National Park (we suppose that a national park is authentic?) As we usually do, we sought out the fine dining experience in the village and found ourselves at a little spot called rather unexpectedly, Havana. What in the world were you doing in a restaurant named for the capital of Cuba in the middle of the Atlantic seaside in Maine? you might ask.  Surely that couldn’t be an authentic Maine experience. Oh, but it was.

You see, that restaurant is owned and operated by a local restaurateur with a flair for the sophisticated. With an extensive travel background and a true respect for dining (not eating as we’ve discussed before), Havana’s proprietor with whom we chatted for a while during and after our dinner, has for the past 15 years been committed to “…serving local and organic meats, produce and seafood. [They] consistently search out New England farmers and fisherfolk to purchase products that are not only great tasting, but great for the environment and local economy as well…”[from their web site]. In addition to this, they have their own urban garden on a reclaimed urban plot. What’s more, this commitment to the local and the sustainable hasn’t gotten in the way of serving outstanding food accompanied by a wonderful, thoughtfully selected wine list.

Havana Restaurant (photo credit: Havana web site)
Havana Restaurant (photo credit: Havana web site)

An authentic Maine experience? Of course. Eating freshly steamed lobster at a newspaper-covered picnic table might constitute what most travel snobs would define as authenticity, but there’s more to being authentic than the cheaper, lower-level experiences.

There is nothing inauthentic about being comfortable and happy while travelling. It’s authentically wonderful to have the privilege of making a choice. Be discerning about your own experiences and never be defensive about your enjoyment of your travel experiences.

Visit Havana online at www.havanamaine.com.