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/

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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.

Finding our way in exotic Tahiti

Someone once said that traveling is the only thing you buy that makes you richer and as far as we’re concerned, no truer words were ever spoken. There is little doubt that we are richer by far from the past five weeks of travel in the South Pacific – beginning in Tahiti.

Just say the word to someone buried under a mountain of snow in the dead of winter and it conjures daydreams of palm trees, mysterious, mist-covered volcanoes in the distance and bungalows hovering over the azure blue of the South Pacific waters. All of these daydreams of ours came true.

Mysterious Moorea in the distance from the beach at Le Meridien.
Mysterious Moorea in the distance from the beach at Le Meridien.

We arrived in Papeete, the capital of Tahiti aboard an Air Tahiti Nui flight from Los Angeles. One of the best air travel experiences we have ever had, this airline is on our list of carriers to revisit whenever possible. We did our homework – visiting Seatguru, reading the reviews etc. as all discerning travelers do. We were traveling business class so expected extra room, better meals and perhaps some in-flight entertainment. What we were greeted by were refurbished planes with fully-reclinable seats, wonderful, flat-screen computers at every seat with a terrific selection of entertainment and on-board staff who were the nicest, most attractive, most efficient we’d seen since we traveled on Hawaiian Airlines two years ago. So when we arrived at our destination, we were already relaxed and in vacation mode.

The new in-flight entertainment system on Air Tahiti Nui. (We were in business class, but even economy has the screens.)
The new in-flight entertainment system on Air Tahiti Nui. (We were in business class, but even economy has the screens.)

We chose to stay at Le Meridien some fifteen minutes’ drive outside of Papeete rather than at the Intercontinental which had been initially recommended. This was partly because we didn’t really want to be that close to the city, and partly because the Intercontinental was offering only standard rooms. This was a special vacation and we opted for a Senior Suite. The hotel’s web site did not do it justice at all.

The hugely spacious two-room suite’s best feature as far as we were concerned was the huge terrace with 180 degree views – and the island of Moorea in the distance. Although many travelers like to search for the cheapest way to travel, we believe that you should look for luxury (for less if you can) that you can afford. The funny thing is that when we treat ourselves, we are never disappointed.

Exotic lotus blossoms in Tahiti
Exotic lotus blossoms in Tahiti

The first thing we noticed about Tahiti was how nice everyone was – smiling, attentive staff, eager to please. Then, of course, there was the water – so blue and so warm, warmer by far than even the Caribbean. So we had to see the island.

The hotel concierge helped us to arrange a private driver and car for a full-day, private circumnavigation of Tahiti Nui (Tahiti actually consists of two islands connected by a causeway: Tahiti Nui – which means larger; and Tahiti Iti – smaller and less navigable all around). Our driver was deeply versed in the flora and fauna of the island and took use to a number of truly wonderful gardens and grottos.

We lunched at the Paul Gauguin Restaurant sampling a number of local delicacies and visited Point Venus, the beach on Matavai Bay where Captain Cook came ashore in 1769, and where Marlon Brando (who later bought an atoll near Tahiti, built a house and lived) played Fletcher Christian in the 1960’s version of Mutiny on the Bounty, one of the movies we had watched on the plane!

While we were in Tahiti we walked the beaches, ate wonderful food and bought a Tahitian black pearl for Patty in Papeete. After five wonderful days, we embarked on our cruise.

Now that was interesting…

Art at the market in Papeete -- not to be missed when you visit.
Art at the market in Papeete — not to be missed when you visit.

Why we’re not loyal to one cruise line

cruise ships in portOn more than one occasion in the past we have referred to ourselves as (if you will pardon the expression) “cruise whores.”  In other words, we are not monogamous – we cruise around so to speak.  Despite the fact that we have never taken a cruise that we didn’t enjoy, we have been making our way around the industry (avoiding several specific lines because of personal experience and research).  We might even describe our behavior as moving up the cruise food chain so to speak.  Here’s our story.

We like to travel.  We like to travel by plane, train (well, not train so much after that overnight “hotel train” between Paris and Barcelona a few years ago), limo, car, foot etc.  We just like to experience new places.  We sometimes stay in one place for a while; sometimes we stay only a day and move on, either by car or by ship.  Despite the snotty travelers who are disdainful of the ‘travel’ value of a cruise, we do enjoy them.  They are our way to sample many different places in the world, some of which we have returned to for longer visits.  The point is that cruise travel is just one more way for us to see the world.  We no longer book cruises just for that week in the sun in the middle of the winter.  We’re not knocking that, but for us cruising has taken on another whole dimension.

The first cruise: Carnival

Our first cruise plans began much like any other family’s vacation plans.  We had a young child, we wanted to escape the winter briefly, and we had only a week or two of winter vacation.  So, we contacted our trusty travel agent (if you want to know why we use a travel agent, you might want to read Why you need a travel agent…really) who chose Carnival cruises for that first trip.

“I would never put you on Carnival if you were going by yourselves,” he said, knowing our tastes and preferences.  “But since you’re taking a child, I’d recommend this to you.”

And so we booked a verandah cabin and made our way to Miami.  Needless to say we had a wonderful time.  This was in spite of the multitude of drunken spring-breakers who spent the entire cruise camped out on the deck, never once even making it into the dining room.  The dining was therefore blissful! The kids’ club was a real treat for our young son, and we were introduced to a number of Caribbean islands that we had not at that time visited.  We’ve been back many times since, but we have never returned to Carnival.

Why have we not returned to Carnival? You might ask.  The reason is the same one that keeps us off NCL and Royal Caribbean: not our kind of experience.  The glitzy décor, the loud passengers, the too-happy cruise directors, the big, showy performances nightly (OK unless you’ve seen a London West End show or been to Broadway in New York) – well, let’s just say that we’ve evolved.  So it was on to Holland America.

Setting sail on Holland America

We sailed on Holland America three times, including our wonderful Christmas Cruise.  We started out in what was then referred to as a Superior Verandah suite (now called the Signature Suite) for the size enhancement, but that began our upward move toward larger and larger suites.  The next two cruises on HAL were in Deluxe Verandah suites (now called the Neptune Suite) and we would actually return to this line for the right itinerary.

 Celebrity: Second time not up to expectations

The exquisite Qsine on the Celebrity Summit.
The exquisite Qsine on the Celebrity Summit.

We spent our twentieth wedding anniversary on the Celebrity Century in the Mediterranean.  Splurging on a Royal suite, we didn’t realize that we were setting ourselves up for a few expensive vacations.  After this kind of accommodation – and being in the Med – how could we ever return to a ‘normal’ cruise in the Caribbean in a regular stateroom?  Well, we couldn’t.  Our return to Celebrity was a couple of winters ago when we wanted to sail out of Puerto Rico; unfortunately, the experience didn’t meet our expectations despite the Jacuzzi on our large, private verandah on the Millennium(although we did enjoy ourselves as always).

Cruise lines always say they want to “exceed your expectations.”  The problem with that is when your expectations, like ours evidently tend to be, are very high, it’s difficult if not impossible for the line to accomplish this.  If a line can meet our expectations, we’re delighted.  Exceed?  Well maybe this upcoming one will (more about that later).

Moving up the cruise food chain: Regent Seven Seas

Our desire to move up in terms of luxury cruising (despite their “modern luxury” advertising tag line, Celebrity does not fall into this category: they would be considered premium) led us to Regent.  We embarked on our first Regent cruise on the Navigator in a Navigator Suite (448 square feet) in Fort Lauderdale to set sail for a Western Caribbean cruise including Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, places we wanted to visit – or revisit in the case of Mexico.

Regent was our first so-called real luxury cruise experience, and the first one that is all-inclusive.  This is a wonderful addition since you never have to take out your key card to sign for your drinks, and your suite is equipped with a well-stocked, included bar.  If you don’t want to socialize, you simply pour yourself a drink and repair to your private verandah.

Overall, the cruise was wonderful.  The Navigator was, up until that point in our lives, the smallest ship we’d ever been on: 490 passengers.  We loved that part of the experience, but were unaware that Regent cruises from Florida carried a much higher number of older passengers.  To be clear: we were in our fifties-sixties and were among the youngest dozen passengers on the ship!  One evening we took a foray into the piano lounge to find it resembling the day room in a high-priced senior’s home!

Art on board the Regent Seven Seas Mariner in Montenegro.  It was a great trip, but not a ship we want to revisit this winter in the Caribbean.
Art on board the Regent Seven Seas Mariner in Montenegro. It was a great trip, but not a ship we want to revisit this winter in the Caribbean.

Our next Regent experience was on the larger Mariner leaving from Monte Carlo onward to Venice.  Our Penthouse suite was a bit smaller than the Navigator suite, but with its floor to ceiling windows we could sit inside when the weather in the Adriatic was cool and watch the shoreline as we cruised the fjords of Montenegro.

We will probably return to Regent someday.

Moving up again: Embarking on Silversea

After six days at the Crane Resort in Barbados, we boarded the Silver Cloud in Bridgetown for a cruise to Fort Lauderdale.  With a capacity of only 296 passengers, we were moving down again, even as we were moving up.  And moving up we were.

The oldest ship in Silversea’s fleet, the Silver Cloud was nonetheless extraordinary.  But more important than that, the service was impeccable.  We truly thought we had died and gone to heaven.  Little did we know that we were only part-way to heaven.

Our transatlantic voyage

Everyone should do it once.  Of course we’re talking about a true transatlantic voyage on a real ocean liner – not a cruise ship.  Three years ago we boarded the Queen Mary 2 in Southampton and spent seven wonderful days at sea making our way across the North Atlantic to New York.  What truly made this a step up even from Silversea was that we booked into a Queen’s Grill suite and found ourselves in a ship within a ship.  Make no mistake: Cunard has three classes and Queen’s Grill is first class all the way.

With its private dining room and bar, the Queen’s Grill provides passengers with the best of both worlds: the intimacy of small ship service and the amenities and entertainment of a large ship.

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.

Although we would not do a transatlantic voyage again, we will certainly return to Cunard for the right itinerary (there it is again: itinerary).

The pinnacle of luxury perhaps?

Last year we booked passage on a 204 passenger luxury cruise ship: the Seabourn Spirit.  After almost a week at the luxurious property The House in Barbados, once again we sailed from Bridgetown.  This time, however, it was to ports and islands where large ships can never go.

Everything about the Seabourn experience (caviar and champagne on the beach, anyone?) was above and beyond.  The service was superb, as was the food and the accommodation.  It truly was like a country club and we savored every minute of this super-luxury experience followed by six days in St. Martin.  How could we possibly top that?

Onward and upward?

We aren’t sure we can top that last experience, but we’re going to try.  Art is retiring from his private family medicine practice in a few weeks and we’re off to that ultimate, post-retirement reward.

After five days in Tahiti, we’ll board the Oceania Marina for almost three weeks meandering through French Polynesia, Samoa and the east coast of Australia, ending with five days in Sydney.  Why Oceania?

Last winter while in St. Martin following the Seabourn experience, we dined one evening with fellow passengers from the Spirit.  They asked us if we’d ever sailed on Oceania.  We had not.  Given that they had just disembarked from a Seabourn cruise which they enjoyed, we had to take seriously their recommendation that we give Oceania a try.  But what we were really looking for was an itinerary that would take us to new places.

We hit on Oceania’s South Pacific cruise and the rest is history.  Stay with us for a while and come along on that special vacation as we try live blogging and tweeting for the first time.