Finding that great restaurant: A discerning approach to great dining experiences

The Cliff's spectacular ambience as the sun goes down along the Platinum Coast of Barbados
The Cliff’s spectacular ambience as the sun goes down along the Platinum Coast of Barbados

Dining (not just eating) is one of the great pleasures of traveling.  When we think back to that time several years ago when we almost bought a time-share, it was the dining issue that finally brought us to our senses.

While sitting in the lobby of said time-share property, we noted with growing alarm a phenomenon that is anathema to our personal traveling esthetic.  First, there was neither bar nor restaurant on site.  Second – and perhaps more shudder -inducing – was that people were one after the other schlepping groceries into the elevators.  That was our eureka moment!  We wanted no part of a traveling lifestyle that involved the expectation that one would regularly grocery shop, cook and eat in a suite.  For us, finding those perfect places to eat is part of the fun of planning a trip; and enjoying the good and bad experiences as a result is all part of the pleasure of learning about new places.  Oh, and the actual experience of a wonderful meal and its ambience is part of it, too.  So, just how do we make dining plans?

First, not all dining while traveling needs be planned in advance.  In fact, we’ve had some wonderful experiences that serendipitously came our way while wandering around unknown cities.  We happened on Bentley’s in London this way and have since returned.

Recently we ate our way up the platinum coast of Barbados while spending five days at the wonderful property The House en route to a Seabourn cruise that left from Bridgetown.  We used several approaches to find our experiences – most of which were phenomenal.

We usually begin our search for restaurants online – a search for the location uncovered a couple of restaurant names that we then took over t Fodors online for their review.  We then looked at TripAdvisor, used our discerning approach to interpreting the reviews and wrote those names done in our little purple moleskine that we take on ever trip.

Art enjoys a glass of wine at Scarlett's.  We even bought T-shirts!
Art enjoys a glass of wine at Scarlett’s. We even bought T-shirts!

Once we got to Barbados we asked the concierge to make us reservations and asked her for further suggestions.  She added a new restaurant to our list, made the reservations and we embarked on our terrific dining experience.  Here’s what happened.

One not-to-be-missed place we had decided we wanted to dine before even leaving home soil was The Cliff.  Here’s what we wrote in our TripAdvisor review when we returned home:

“The Cliff” is as much an experience as it is simply dining. Its breathtaking setting as the sun sets, the impeccable service, the beautifully served and wonderfully innovative food coupled with its terrific wine list, all serve to make the $245 per person minimum worth it! We think it turned out to be our most expensive dinner ever. But…[1] It was worth it!

Hmm...the service pledge at The Tides.
Hmm…the service pledge at The Tides.

The other must-eat place (or so we thought) that was on our list was The Tides.  We used the same approach to finding it as we did for The Cliff, its name residing in our little purple book.  The concierge made us a reservation for 5:30 pm – this seems a tad early, but it was that or much too late.  We arrived at the place perhaps ten minutes before our reservation only to be told that our table was not ready, and were ushered into the bar.  An interesting bar filled with unusual local artwork, it seemed the place to order a small bottle of champagne, which we did.  Time went by; other people entered the restaurant and were seated. We drank and waited.  Then Art went out to the desk and asked if our table was ready.  Oh, yes it was.  Were they planning to ever seat us, or were we to continue drinking and racking up a bar bill?  Not to worry.  We were ushered into the restaurant and put at an unacceptable table.  We were the only people in that section, and yet we were not permitted to sit at the table of our choice on the water’s edge.  We were told that those tables were all booked for 8 pm and were not available to us.  We promised to be finished by that time, and were told, no.  We were unhappy.  No, they told us, the other reservation might come early.  We looked at each other – we had come early and that didn’t seem to matter to them.  And, in fact if we had been seated at the time when our reservation was to be ready, we would certainly have been finished by 8.  No.  We could not sit there.  The manager was brought to the table.  An imposingly large man, he also said no.  By this time we were not feeling too positively disposed to this restaurant.  Perhaps if we had not had to sit and wait, being left drinking at the bar, Patty might not have been inclined to swear at him.  To her later embarrassment (not one of her finer moments) she did; and we left.  While waiting out front for our taxi driver to arrive, we remembered that we had not paid the bar bill.  Art returned and paid it, taking the opportunity to snap a photo of the sign he had seen earlier in the men’s washroom.

So, there we were.  Several glasses of champagne later, and still no dinner.  Our own fault – we could have stayed, but we would have been severely ticked if we had eaten there and spent the entire time looking at the empty tables where we could have sat at the water’s edge.  Serendipity to the rescue – sort of.

Our taxi driver was distressed that we had not been able to eat.  So, he took us to Scarlett’s and asked the hostess if there was space.  Well, she said, if they can be finished by 8:30 we certainly can accommodate them.  Now why had that line been so hard to say at The Tides?  It was now well after 7 pm, but we knew that we wouldn’t linger.  We were not disappointed.  What a wonderful find that was!  The next morning we recounted our sad Tides story to a young American couple who we had chatted with the evening before.  “Don’t worry,” said the young woman, “you didn’t miss anything.”  Hmm…

Beautiful water-side, cooly contemporary Cin-Cin.
Beautiful water-side, cooly contemporary Cin-Cin.

We also ate at the new Cin-Cin on the recommendation of the concierge, as well as Daphne’s because it was actually at The House; these were equally wonderful experiences.

So, our recommended approaches to finding terrific restaurants are as follows:

  • Restaurant Apps:  Our favorite one for North America is Open Table and its British counterpart Top Table.  These apps have stood us in good stead many times.  One evening when we arrived at a Washington DC restaurant just across from the White House with a 7 pm reservation, we found it extremely crowded, wildly noisy and boasting a line-up of people with 6:45 reservations who had yet to be seated.  We looked at each other and turned back into the revolving doors, finding ourselves on the sidewalk outside and no dinner.  The IPhone to the rescue!  We searched on Open Table for restaurants near us with reservation slots within a half an hour.  We were very shortly on our way to a new reservation at 10-minute walk away and had a wonderful evening.  These are not the only apps that are worthwhile.  Check out  9 Restaurant Apps Worth Downloading and Maximize Your Weekend with the 35 Most Popular Restaurant Apps.
  • Online Restaurant Reviews: As online reviewers ourselves, we know that these can be helpful (!).  That being said, you do need to be a bit discerning when interpreting these personal perspectives – there is nothing very objective about it.  However, you can make them useful to you by looking at a couple of things.  If the review is very negative in the face of more positive reviews, note how many reviews the reviewer has done.  Many times it’s a first or second-time reviewer who only posts to vent.  Then read what people say.  If they gave the restaurant in question five stars and then go on to say that it was noisy and kid-friendly, if you are looking for a quiet evening out as a couple, you probably need to steer clear despite its high rating.  Then, you can actually read the profiles of reviewers on sites like TripAdvisor (ours is here).  If they share your approach to travel, then you are more likely to find their reviews useful.  Then go ahead and click that it was helpful if you find it to be so.  This helps with the rating of the reviewer.  (Interestingly, research conducted at UC Berkley found that ratings from online reviews actually do have an impact on a restaurant’s business – this means that those reviews are important to the owners.[2])
  • Recommendations from Hotel Concierges:  Many people steer clear of recommendations from concierges because of a distaste for the probability that there is some kind of a kick-back or other relationship between the hotel/concierge and the restaurant.  So what?  That doesn’t mean that the recommendation isn’t going to be a great one.  Remember that if guests take them up on their recommendations and are not happy, this does not reflect well on the property.  This is a result that hotels try to avoid at all costs.  So, tell the concierge what kind of diners you are and go for it.  It is polite to tip for this service, although many people never do.  Pity.  They can be very helpful.

Obviously there are other ways to get ideas for where to dine when on holiday.  Sometimes you follow the advice of a friend who has been there before.  We do find, however, that not all our friends share our tastes and dining esthetic.  We know which ones whose advice we politely accept and promptly ignore, and which ones to follow.  In the end, you need to know what you’re looking for on any given day.  Some days you just want a pint and a nosh at a pub; other times you want that full-out experience.  Whatever you decide on, for better or for worse, just enjoy the experience – or at least laugh about it later.

Enjoying Daphne's.
Enjoying Daphne’s.

The discerning guide to cruising part 2: Packing for your cruise

suitcaseFor some people packing for a vacation is a task to get over with as soon as humanly possible.  For some others of us it’s a real pleasure to think about the very best of our wardrobes and essential ‘stuff’ that  we’ll live with for a week – or two, or three.

We’re just about to bring those well- traveled suitcases up from storage for another outing this coming weekend.  We’re getting readying to pack for our Caribbean vacation; and not a moment too soon since we’ve been dropped in a frigid deep-freeze up here in our neck of the woods.   We’ll begin with almost a week in Barbados and end with a week in St. Maarten, with a week-long Seabourn yacht cruise to Caribbean yacht harbors sandwiched in between.  After eleven cruise vacations, experience tells us that packing for a luxury cruise has a few peculiarities.  Here are some truths about cruising that we will use this weekend as we pack those suitcases.

1.  Cruise ships do not have irons and ironing boards in staterooms.  Ever.  And you cannot bring one.  They are a fire hazard, and unless you want to schlep to the communal laundry cum ironing board cubby that may (or may not, it needs to be said) be available on your particular cruise ship, then possibly wait in line for the privilege of ironing, this fact will guide your clothing choices.  We have two words of advice for you: No linen.

2.  Cruise ships have dress codes.  How many times does this need to be said?  There are different cruises for different people.  If you don’t like to get dressed up, don’t select a cruise line that indicates it is an important part of the cruise.  If you want to truly enjoy your cruise, take advantage of the chance to notch up your wardrobe choices.  There are several brands of clothing for women that can provide fantastic choices for formal, cocktail or elegant casual dressing in pieces that are virtually wrinkle-free even after a day or more in your suitcase.  Our favorites are Joseph Ribkoff, Frank Lyman, Linda Lundstrom Essentials and Simpli.

For men, it’s even easier: just rent a tuxedo.  Most mainstream cruise lines provide this service that you take advantage of before you cruise – and when you arrive on board, there is your tux and all its accoutrements, including shoes if you remember to order them, hanging in your on-board closet. Just be sure to measure accurately.

A family portrait aboard Cunard's Queen Mary 2 last summer.  It's the only way for the three of us to get a professional portrait since we live on a different continent than our son.  A great opportunity when we're all dressed up.
A family portrait aboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 last summer. It’s the only way for the three of us to get a professional portrait since we live on a different continent than our son. A great opportunity when we’re all dressed up.

Despite the fact that Art does, indeed, own a tuxedo and all the trappings, he has rented on more than one occasion and enjoyed not having to pack formal clothing.  Two things we have learned:   first, although some of the formal rental companies attached to the cruise lines do have women’s clothing, you will not want to be caught dead in their selections.  You can do so much better by taking a packable gown; and second, the higher end the cruise line, the less likely it is that they have this rental service.  Ultra-luxury lines do make the reasonable assumption that their passengers who choose to dress formally will own a tuxedo.

For more information and a few relevant stories, you might want to red our post on dressing for dinner on a cruise and on what the heck ‘smart casual’ means.

3.  Cruise ships will ask you to put our luggage outside your stateroom about 11 or midnight the evening enforce you disembark.  This is a double-edged sword.  You don’t have to fuss with packing on your last morning, but you need to be prepared.  You’ll need a piece of carry-on luggage that holds everything you might need in the morning.  And do not forget any vital piece of clothing you might regret not having in the morning– Like your pants!  Just a tip if we may:  do not pack your ship-board key card.  You will need it in your hand to disembark on the last morning.

cruise ships in port5.  Cruise ship bathrooms are very dark and usually have a threshold that you will need to walk over in the dark.  This means that you should pack a night light to leave on in the bathroom if you want to avoid the possibility of injury if you have to get up in the middle of the night.  We always have one of those poppable, battery-operated night lights that you can simply put on the counter or the back of the toilet for just enough light to keep you out of trouble.  It never leaves our luggage so we always have it with us (but remember to pop out at least one of the batteries when you pack it or it will inevitably turn itself on in transit and your batteries will be dead).

6.  Cruise ships sell over-the-counter medications, but they may be expensive and may not be a brand you recognize.  We always take along a stash of common medications.  Of course, since Art is a doctor, we often have even more than the normal supply and have been known on many occasions to share our stash with fellow passengers in need.  Here is Art’s guide to your basic requirements:

  1. Analgesic (acetaminophen or ibuprofen )
  2. Anti-histamine/decongestant
  3. Anti-diarrheal (loperamide)
  4. An anti-nauseant (meclazine is preferred for motion sickness, but it is not available in Canada; dimenhydrinate works)
  5. Band-Aids (you’d be surprised how often these come in handy)
  6. Sun screen (need we say more?)

7.  Cruise ships are usually highly air-conditioned. Even in the Caribbean (or especially in the Caribbean).  Although men usually have this covered in the evening, women often find strapless and sleeveless garments to be cold.  You’ll be happier if you take along a nice shrug that goes with everything.

Well, I guess that about does it.  Now we need to put these guidelines into practice.  Bon voyage!

The discerning guide to cruising: Part 1

Cruise ships come in all sizes and flavors! You may not believe it, but there is something for everyone
Cruise ships come in all sizes and flavors! You may not believe it, but there is something for everyone

Despite the Costa Concordia disaster, hurricanes and the annual Titanic remembrance, a cruise still holds an allure for many travelers.  People who shun cruising usually have one the following reasons:

  • They believe that a cruise will be confining and claustrophobic.
  • They believe it will be crowded.
  • They believe that they will be bored.
  • They believe that they can’t experience other places and cultures.

You may have your own excuse that doesn’t appear on this list, but these are the ones most often reported and we’re here to tell you – every single one of them is a misconception.

Our documents for our upcoming Caribbean getaway just arrived from our travel agent, Angela, this week, and we don’t know about you, but the anticipation of an upcoming sojourn somewhere south is all a part of the vacation excitement.  It’s still two weeks out, but we can already picture checking into our Seabourn cruise aboard the Spirit at the Barbados cruise terminal (we’ve been there before on more than one occasion!) and sipping that champagne that will be in our hands shortly thereafter.  Of course, that will be after we’ve acclimatized ourselves to the southern climes with six days in Barbados at “The House.” And we’ll tell you all about it and the six days in St. Maarten after the yacht harbor cruise when we get back…but back to the why and how of cruises…

If you’ve never been on a cruise but have wondered what it might be like – and whether you would like it or feel safe, or how you could ever decide which cruise to pick – stay with us for a few posts and we’ll take you aboard some of our own cruises to show you what you’ve been missing.  If you’ve cruised before, come along with us and add your own comments to help all those novice cruisers who can benefit from experience.  This week we’ll dispel misconceptions – then we’ll look at finding the right one for you, how to get ready, and how to get the most from every minute on board – and in port. Then we’ll tell you about our latest one when we get back.

A quiet drink on our verandah.
A quiet drink on our verandah.

Let’s begin with the ‘confining’ and ‘claustrophobic’ part.  We have traveled on cruise ships that range from 280 to 2400 passengers (this year’s will be the smallest at 204 passengers), and we can assure you that never once did we feel either confined or claustrophobic.  If you’re interested in the 6000-passenger mega-ships, we can’t really help you since we have not the slightest interest in them.  The only time in selecting a cruise where we believe bigger is better is when it comes to choosing a stateroom – but we’ll get to that in a later post.

Every cruise ship, regardless of its number of passengers, is designed with public spaces that are more than sufficient for every one on board to find a quiet place.  In fact, we’ve spent a lot of time strolling through cruise ships wondering where everyone is!  And that’s on sea days where everyone is on board.  The one thing that would be claustrophobic to us at this point in our cruising career would be to stay in a small stateroom.  That would be confining for us since we do like to spend time away from all others on our own verandah enjoying a cocktail and the peaceful sound of the ocean rushing by.

There are, however, places on cruise ships that are crowded.  Think buffet and you’ll get the picture.  Discerning travelers, however, avoid the buffet at all coasts.  Avoid a buffet, you say?  Yes, avoid the buffet.  Even on the smallest cruise ships, there are various places to eat.  Lunch in the main dining room is a relaxing, quiet time, where people wait on you impeccably.  And the larger ships will have other, more casual spots to be served your lunch.  (Cunard has an English pub, for example).  If you want to stay in your bathing suit all day on a southern voyage, you won’t be able to do this, though, so you’ll have to chow down at a buffet of one sort or another.

Another place where it might be crowded is during a Caribbean cruise, on the pool deck, on a sea day.  Discerning travelers will want to have their own verandah.  But if you don’t need to have the pool in view, there is always a deck with a chair away from the madding crowd.

So you think you’ll be bored.  Or as one of our acquaintances who has never been on a cruise ship once said, “Oh, I like to be active.”  The snickers started from over in our direction.

Active folks will find a lot to occupy them on a cruise.  Consider first the possibilities on dry land in port.  This is one reason why your selection of itinerary is so important.  In fact, after you research the cruise lines (we recommend Frommer’s Cruises and Ports of Call which even provides a snap-shot of your potential fellow cruisers based on past-guest statistics), choose by itinerary.  For your first cruise, you might be a bit broader and less discriminating.  For example, if you want to go to the Caribbean, that’s where you start.

We can still remember our first cruise aboard the Carnival Triumph on during its maiden year (you can tell how long ago that is when you note that it is about to be refitted!).  Our travel agent said this to us: “I would never put you two on Carnival except that you’re taking a child.  It’s great for children.”  And he was right – our then eight-year-old son loved it, spending all of his days in the company of other children in the well-designed and supervised program while we enjoyed a bit of couple time.  However, he was also right in that we would never cruise on Carnival without a child – too many partiers, loud-mouths and eaters for our liking.  But then, it just might be others’ cup of tea.

Looking forward to returning to St. Maarten this year by cruise ship.  And we'll stay there for six days!
Looking forward to returning to St. Maarten this year by cruise ship. And we’ll stay there for six days!

So there is a lot for a child to do on a cruise, but there is also a lot for adults.  And being active can be accomplished in any number of ways: aerobics or yoga classes, personal training sessions, basketball on some ships, working out in the gym, walking on land and on board, and the list goes on.

The boredom factor is one that anyone who has cruised simply laughs at.  If you want to spend all day in a deck chair reading a book and sipping on a drink, then you can do that.  If that isn’t for you, select ships whose entertainment fits within your personality (dram/acting workshops, wine-tasting, music, cooking classes, computer classes, art auctions etc.).  There’s a lot more to cruise activities than bingo and shuffle-board, two activities that we avoid like the plague.

And as for those travel snobs who think that they can’t experience other places and cultures on a cruise, you’ve clearly been looking at the wrong brochures.  Our first cruise to the Mediterranean was one of the most incredible ways to be introduced to a vast array of places.  It introduced us to places to which we have returned for longer, more in-depth visits, and for those who cannot afford many long trips in their lives, a cruise will, indeed, let you visit places that you might not have otherwise gotten to before you die.

On a Mediterranean cruise for example, we began in Barcelona (our favorite city in all the world now as a result), then went onto Marseille where we took a day-trip to Aix-en-Provence, then visited Monte Carlo and Nice to which we have returned again and again, then onto Italy to Pisa and Florence and Rome to which we have returned, then to Corsica (when would we ever have had an opportunity to visit Napoleon’s birthplace Ajaccio?).  A more recent Mediterranean cruise introduced us to Sicily, Olympia, Pompeii, Monte Negro, Albania and Croatia.  So, there’s no need to be snobbish about what you can or cannot learn about the world on a cruise.  They are not all the same.

The bottom line for us is that although cruising is probably not for everyone, it is for lots of people with varying interests and styles.  Our discerning style has led us up the cruise food-chain as it were – from a mainstream line like Carnival, through the so-called premium lines such as Celebrity and Cunard, to the luxury lines Regent, Silversea and now Seabourn.

Next time join us as we get ready to leave for a southern cruise!

See “Choosing a Cruise”

A discerning guide to hotel ratings

So, we’re in the process of planning a three-part winter trip to flee the Canadian winter for a while in early 2013.  We are already booked on our first Seabourn cruise aboard the Seabourn Spirit, and since it leaves from Barbados and ends in St. Martin, it only seemed natural that we’d book-end the cruise with vacations in Barbados and then St. Martin.  Can’t wait!  But, trying to find the right hotel or resort in which to spend a week or so in each place has proven to have eaten up more time than any of our numerous hotel/resort choices in the past.  It occurs to us that it’s at least partly because (a) the resources we have now are almost too-much-information; and (b) the ratings systems are so inconsistent and even, dare we say, capricious.

The view from the Ocean Grill in Grenada: Air Canada Vacations was our choice for booking this holiday — and it was a good one!

Let’s start where we usually start: namely our favorite hotel aggregator.  That would be Air Canada Vacations.  We have tended to use ACV in the past because we’re AC frequent fliers and can accumulate points by booking hotel packages through them, even if we’re not actually booking an air-hotel and/or cruise package, all of which can be done.  We have also often found that the package rate is better than booking hotels on their own (and we have absolutely no interest in those aggregators like Hotwire where you pay in advance and don’t know exactly where you’ll be staying – you may be able to save money that way, and we’re sure that many people enjoy this. We don’t.).  We had a great find in Paris a few years ago.  In fact, we have booked our Barbados hotel through ACV.

We wanted to experience The House on Barbados and it happened to be among the ACV offerings , and advertises with that enticing descriptor that we love so much: “adults-only.”  The rate was competitive and booking this way allows us to put down a deposit and then pay the whole thing in advance (with cancellation insurance, of course).  That way our entire holiday is paid for before we go, a feeling that we truly enjoy.  But trying to find a hotel in St. Martin was a different thing altogether.

To date, we are still not booked for that week of vacation, since somehow our first choice hotel on St. Martin, La Samanna, does not seem to be available any longer (according to our travel agent, and this despite the fact that today when we surfed over to the ACV site, it’s still listed).  So, we’re left trying to decipher the hotel rating systems to figure out where we’d like to stay.

Air Canada Vacations has their own rating system, and it does not necessarily reflect the systems by any other organizations, or countries for that matter (some countries, predominantly in Europe, have their own rating systems).

Air Canada Vacations’ Hotel Ratings explained.

Source: http://www.aircanadavacations.com/en/travel_information/ratings_explained

This explanation is helpful, but the way they rate is not the same as how others rate and we’re left scratching our heads.

One of the important considerations in deciphering rating systems is the rating organizations’ reason for doing the rating.  Are they trying to sell hotel rooms?  Are they a travel advice service only?  Or, as is the case so often now in this excess of information age, are they simply allowing people to post their own reviews from which an overall rating is then created?

Air Canada Vacations, and others like them, have a vested interest in having these ratings clearly establish certain parameters in the minds of consumers.  If they are wrong, or misleading in any way, not only will the customer not book that hotel again, the customer is unlikely to book any of their hotels again.  But, of course, sometimes customers disagree with the rater, or have a particularly bad experience that might not be the experience of the majority of others.

Then there are the ratings that are assigned by third-party organizations like Forbes.  They are not in the business of selling multiple hotel rooms, so their ratings are often viewed as more objective.  They have things like anonymous inspectors and consistent criteria that provide you with what is likely to be an overall more accurate rating than, say, customer-generated ratings.  For a very good explanation of rating systems, read the CN story The Dirty Truth About Hotel Ratings.

We have been reviewing hotels and restaurants on TripAdvisor for a while now, and we do use customer ratings, but recognizing their limitations, we do take them with a grain of salt.  We’ve discussed this before, and the overall ratings that come out of customer reviews are often baffling to us.  It seems that we are not looking for the same things as many of the reviewers (who are predominantly from the USA, by the way – and this makes a difference).

Other customer-generated ratings are published in magazines and on web sites as “readers’ choice” ratings or awards and are even more peculiar since anyone can vote and that anyone need not have ever traveled to more than that single hotel or been on any other cruise line to make a judgment about ‘favorite.’  But that’s a different story.

The bottom line is that to the discerning traveler, hotel rating systems are useful, but need to be taken into consideration only with an array of other information you have available to you.  So, where does that lead us in our search for the perfect spot to enjoy St. Martin?  Exactly nowhere at this stage.  We’re still looking!