A return visit to the New Your capital: Albany offers fun food, good shopping and historic sites

By Mike Cohen

The New York Capital in Albany.

ALBANY, NEW YORK – The last time I was in the United States for a getaway was just a few months before the pandemic shut down the world. We had gone for a change of scenery to the New York capital of Albany, where you can count on good shopping and fun restaurants.

Four years later, while I was on holiday from my day job for March Break, I figured that a few days in Albany (https://www.albany.org/)   would be a good idea and I was right. Between the two large malls,  meals at some of my favorite restaurants and a terrific hotel I did indeed come back feeling refreshed.

Albany is a 400-year-old city on the banks of the Hudson River. Discovered in 1609 by Henry Hudson, this city is the oldest continuously chartered city in the country — that means it’s older than New York City or Boston! Albany is a great city to explore because it’s full of so many engaging attractions and must-see sites! But Albany is also a city of storytellers, who want very much to welcome visitors and acquaint them with our fun and quirky history. Let us tell you about this quintessentially American city! 

From museums and historic sites in downtown Albany to scenic views and outdoor adventures in the Helderberg Hilltowns, Albany County boasts a variety of must-see attractions. Tour top landmarks, explore the rich landscape, or visit one of the world-class museums for a trip that is beyond conventional.

Albany lies at the foot of the Adirondacks and Catskill Mountains and is at the tip of the historic Hudson Valley Region

Be sure to check out the Million Dollar Staircase, the awe-inspiring “Egg” at the Empire State Plaza and many diverse examples of historic house sites and public spaces such as the Pruyn House and the first Shaker Meeting House. You can visit the magnificent Gothic structure, now the Administrative Center of the State University of New York, the Delaware and Hudson, and the Albany Evening Journal Buildings, located at the base of State Street.

There is an abundance of professional theatre, music, dance, sports, and a backyard full of recreational splendors. As the crossroads of the northeast, Albany is easily accessible by car, train, and plane and is located less than three hours from New York and Boston. 

The master bedroom is in the one-bedroom queen suite.

WHERE TO STAY: On my previous trip here I noticed that a dual-brand Homewood Suites  & Tru by Hilton had just opened. Wow, one of my favorite hotel brands is literally in the parking lot of Crossgates Mall. I jotted that all down for future reference and we were most fortunate to get a beautiful one-bedroom suite on the Homewood side. A big shoutout to front office manager Bonnie Bevilacqua. We arrived late due to traffic and some other circumstances and she came to our room to set us up and resolve a few minor issues. Throughout the next three days, she worked the lobby, checking to see if any guests needed anything.

This 192-room extended stay facility was the first dual-branded Homewood Suites and Tru by Hilton in the USA when it debuted in 2018. It features two separate areas designed for each brand, unique public spaces designed to promote social connectivity, a 24-hour fitness center, an indoor pool, outdoor grills, sports courts and an airport shuttle. The hotel offers a meeting room and a business centre. The different lobby and dining spaces are extremely large and offer all of the comforts of home and more. There is 24-hour complimentary coffee and tea in the Tru by Hilton lobby.

Our room had a kitchen, stovetop, fridge, dishwasher,  microwave, coffee maker and all of the necessary dishes and cutlery. There were two televisions, two queen-sized beds in the master and a safe (always a must for us) as well as  a pull-out couch in the spacious large living room area

I was beyond impressed with the complimentary hot and cold morning breakfast, from the neat pancake machine to the array of bagels, English muffins, cereals, yogurts and hot and cold drinks. Next to the front desk, there is a small market to purchase refreshments and light bites.

The breakfast area at Homewood Suites Crossgates.

The hotel is conveniently located at the intersection of Interstates 87 and 90, offering guests access to numerous dining, retail and entertainment options within walking distance. It is a six-minute drive from Albany International Airport and a 30-minute drive from Saratoga Springs leisure attractions. In addition, the property is proximate to renowned universities and research centers such as the University of Albany, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), Siena College, Union College, and SUNY Polytechnic College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering.

A view of the dual-brand hotel property.

For more information or to make a reservation, visit Homewood Suites By Hilton Albany Crossgates Mall or Tru by Hilton Albany Crossgates Mall or call +1 (518) 704-4040 or +1 (518) 704-4010.

Log on to www.albanycrossgatesmall.homewoodsuitesbyhilton.com

or www.albanycrossgatesmall.trubyhilton.com

GREAT SHOPPING:  Over the last few years the team at Crossgates has been sending me press releases about the property. Let me say that this mall has always been one of the draws for me when visiting Albany. The vast majority of entrances are ADA accessible with ample parking distributed throughout the site. You can rent wheelchairs.

Dave & Buster’s at Crossgates.

Crossgates (https://www.shopcrossgates.com/)  is the largest shopping, dining, and entertainment destination in New York’s Capital Region. The center is anchored by Macy’s, JC  Penney, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Primark and Best Buy, while offering more than 180 retail shops, including Apple.  Crossgates offers 10 entertainment venues and over 20 on-site eateries, such as Dave & Buster’s, Get Air, Billy Beez, Apex Entertainment, The Standard Restaurant & Lounge, Maggie McFly’s and Regal Cinemas with IMAX. You can also relax at their award-winning day spa, Spa Mirbeau.   Dave & Buster’s, with its fun food and endless array of games, is always a draw for people of all ages. I spent a good hour there until my power card ran out. You collect points for every game you experience. At the end, the power cards are tabulated at the gift shop and you can pick a prize. I also could not resist a visit to Antie Ann’s Pretzels, a big American chain that has been around since 1988. A homemade pretzel and an original pretzel dog certainly hit the spot.

Dave & Buster’s at Crossgates.

 See this nostalgic 1984 video of the Mall: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Nm9WHBp3Lg 

“Crossgates has a lot going on, and we are so grateful for it,” said Marketing Director Jen Smith. “We have over 240 apartments and townhouses being built adjacent to our property, and we are in the final stages of the approval processes to build a Costco on the land, just west of the hotel. Last year we opened the international retailer Primark in the center and this year we will be welcoming the very sought-after REI, amongst many other tenants. Big things are  happening!” 

Colonie Center (https://shopatcoloniecenter.com/), a 1.3 million square-foot enclosed two-level, regional shopping center with over 100 specialty stores, is at the heart of New York’s Capital Region. The center is anchored by a three-level Macy’s. The center boasts the only Cheesecake Factory Restaurant and P.F. Chang’s China Bistro in the Capital Region and a state-of-the-art all-digital Regal Cinema with a newly renovated RPX theater. Additional sit-down eateries include Five Guys Burgers & Fries and Moe’s Southwest Grill as well as the second-level food court. The center sits at the intersection of Wolf Road and Central Avenue, is just five minutes from the Albany International Airport and major hotel chains and is accessible from Interstates 87 and 90.

We also came across a unique shoe store called Fleet Feet at 155 Wolf Road. It carries comfortable, high-quality performance footwear and gear for running and walking. When we arrived two young sales persons took care of us,  T.J. and Jessica. You are first asked to step onto their 3D Foot Scanning Technology. Their state-of-the-art fit I.D. scanner captures 12 precise data points to construct a 3D image of your foot. Measurements like foot length, width volume, and arch height help them select the best shoes for one’s unique feet.  Log on to www.fleetfeetalbany.com

The author at Red Lobster.

RED LOBSTER: As people who read my articles regularly are aware, I have been a big fan of the Red Lobster restaurant chain for many years. Unfortunately, it disappeared from the Quebec dining landscape in the late 1990s.  There are two locations in Ottawa, but when we visited Albany, New York we made a bee-line for the Red Lobster at 170 Wolf Road.

Red Lobster is the world’s largest and most-loved seafood restaurant company, focused on serving the highest quality, freshly prepared seafood that is traceable, sustainable, and responsibly sourced.

I was greeted by the manager on duty, Daniel Rogers. Upon learning that I was from Montreal, he began speaking French to me. He’s from Atlanta but picked up the language in school. In addition, he comes to Montreal often

It was nice to connect with  General Manager Crystal Franchi and   Beverage and Hospitality Manager Dean Stringfellow. This location can seat about 230 people in a very large dining room, separated by a bar in the middle. They also have a seasonal patio for about 20 people. The parking lot is quite large, a good thing since it tends to fill up before dinnertime. 

We ordered the Lobster Lover’s Dream and the Lobster Lover’s Duo with two sides and their trademark cheddar biscuits.  Both meals include  Roasted Caribbean rock and Maine lobster tails. The Dream is also paired with lobster-and-shrimp linguini. For sides, we chose the orzo rice and the creamy lobster mashed potatoes.  I could not resist a bowl of New England clam chowder,  piping hot. We were too full to take advantage of any dessert choices.

My greatest wish remains that Red Lobster returns to Montreal one day. I’d eat there once a week for sure. There is no place like it here right now. Montrealers travel to Albany frequently, either for a long weekend like us or on the way to or from New York City, Washington, or Florida. So indeed this is a must-stop. And given the fact Daniel already speaks French, here we have an experienced Red Lobster official who could get the first franchise up and running.

The very first Red Lobster opened in Lakeland, Florida in 1968.  

This Red Lobster is located at 170 Wolf Road. It opens at 11 am each day. You can call 518-459-1040. To learn more about Red Lobster go to www.redlobster.com

CHEESECAKE FACTORY:  The  Cheesecake Factory also ranks as one of my must-stops in cities like Albany. Of course, Quebec does not have one of these franchises either. The Albany location opened on August 29, 2006, at the Colonie Centre. This 10,800-square-foot locale seats 300 diners and you can always expect a lineup at the door. You will be handed a beeper and an estimated wait time. 

In Albany, Senior General Manager David Albert runs a well-oiled machine.  He has been at the helm of this busy location for 18 years and has an uncanny memory for customers. I had not been there for four years, yet I did not have to reintroduce myself to him or his assistant GM Richard Harris.

The service here is always impeccable and the food is superb.

Cheesecake Factory manager Richard Harris.

The Cheesecake Factory (www.thecheesecakefactory.com) is known for its extensive menu, generous portions and legendary desserts. In fact, there are more than 250 menu selections and this includes more than 50 lower calorie “SkinnyLicious®” selections- all handmade, in-house with fresh ingredients – and more than 50 signature cheesecakes and desserts. Favorite choices include appetizers, pizza, seafood, steaks, chicken, burgers, pasta, specialty items, salads, sandwiches, omelets and desserts.

I know many people who stop here on purpose just to enjoy the experience.  Toronto has one too now yet  Montreal continues to be left out in the cold. Perhaps there is a fear that the language police here would insist it be called La Fabrique de Gâteau au fromage.

We began our meal by sharing a crab wonton meal as a starter, along with a cheese flatbread pizza. For the main courses, the SkinnyLicious offerings, notably the grilled turkey burgers which we can report are out of this world, always top our list. For us, the latter came with a side salad. In addition, our order included a filet mignon medium rare with rice and magnificent mashed potatoes with gravy on the side.

There are multiple fish, pasta and beef options, meal-sized salads and a whole lot more. Give the menu a look online.

As for dessert, well this place is called  The Cheesecake Factory. The window display of pies kind of knocks your socks off when you enter the premises. After dinner, you can review the menu one more time, which includes a calorie count. Favorites include the Godiva chocolate cheesecake, the Oreo Dream Extreme cheesecake, the ultimate red velvet cheesecake and the Reese’s peanut butter cheesecake. This is one dessert menu where I don’t even think about the calorie count.

This Cheesecake Factory remains a real winner in our books and I highly recommend you stop by. You can call them directly at 518-453-2500. There is a large Barnes & Noble bookstore in the mall, a great pre or post-dining stop and the movie theatres.

Yes, Albany remains one of my favorite stops!

Our return to beautiful Nice, France: The quintessential Mediterranean art of living

By Alexandra Cohen

Nice, France

NICE– The capital of the French Riviera, Nice is a perfect city for a relaxing getaway. This summer, I returned to Nice for the first time in eight years and was able to enjoy a fantastic few days by the Mediterranean. 

For those who have not yet visited, Nice is the fifth largest city in France, with 350,000 citizens and more than 1 million people living in the surrounding areas. Located between the Alps, Provence, Corsica, and Italy, the exceptional climate makes it a great year-round destination for travelers.

During my visit, I was able to enjoy time walking along La Promenade des Anglais, a street known throughout the world. This long avenue runs right along the Mediterranean coastline, spanning a distance of 7km, and is frequented by walkers, cyclists, and joggers alike. This area is renowned for its palm trees, its private and public beaches, and its array of hotels, including the legendary Negresco and the Palais de la Méditerranée. 

Nice, France

Just across the street from the sea lies Vieux Nice, the historic district of the city. In Vieux Nice, you will find a hub of activity, particularly at night, where you will find an array of small restaurants with terraces, markets, craft shops, and more. Nearby, you will also find Place Masséna, a historic square known for its black and white geometric paving, red ochre buildings, and 7 statues, which when evening comes, light up with warm and lively colours. 

When visiting, it is also working exploring La Promenade du Paillon, which was inaugurated in 2013. This 12-hectare green ribbon in the heart of nice is known for its 1,600 trees, 6,000 shrubs, and 50,000 perennials. Benches punctuate the walk to allow you to stop, relax, and enjoy the view. 

Where to Stay

Nice, France

During my trip, I stayed at the gorgeous Hyatt Regency Nice Palais de la Méditerranée (https://www.hyatt.com/en-US/hotel/france/hyatt-regency-nice-palais-de-la-mediterranee/ncehr) in a spectacular king room with a full sea view.

This historic and luxurious 5-star hotel is located on the legendary Promenade de Anglais, directly across the street from the sea. There are 187 spacious guestrooms and suites, complimentary Wi-Fi, the option for mobile entry with your room key available through your smartphone, a beautiful indoor-outdoor pool, as well as a gym, sauna, and Turkish bath. The hotel restaurant, le 3e, includes a lovely terrace that overlooks the Mediterranean, as well as the outdoor pool, which includes a large and delicious breakfast buffet, which I was able to enjoy every morning. The hotel also features a business and conference center on-site. Dogs under 15kg are permitted on the premises for an additional fee. 

All rooms include a flat-screen TV with satellite channels, air conditioning, an in-room, laptop-sized safe, an alarm clock, bathrobes and slippers, a hair dryer, an iron and ironing board, an electric kettle, and a mini-bar.

Nice, France

During my stay, I was very impressed with the hotel’s customer service. Their concierge service is able to reserve seats for hotel guests at the nearby beach – they will give you a voucher and place the charge under your room. Response to requests for room service and other needs was always swift.    

In terms of accessibility, six rooms (including one suite) are adapted for the disabled with walk-in showers (equipped with a seat on the wall and a grab rail), a  sink accessible for those in wheelchairs, height equipment (bed, mini bar, safe box, toilet) for wheelchair access, as well as a wardrobe with a telescopic rod. 

Interestingly, a few years ago, the hotel had its own two-and-a-half-month-old Labrador puppy as part of the association “Les Chiens Guides d’Aveugles”. A hotel staff member spent two years training him as a future seeing-eye dog. He was present three weeks a month at the hotel and learned obedience and savoir-vivre, following which he was made available for adoption at no charge to a visually impaired person. 

You can e-mail nice.regency@hyatt.com prior to your trip with any questions. I was certainly impressed by their quick response time. The phone number is +33 4 93 27 12 34  

Dining out:

Nice, France

There are many fantastic dining options at your disposal in Nice. During my previous trip to Nice in 2014, I dined at Le Grand Balcon (www.legrandbalcon.net), located at 10 rue St. François de Paule near the opera house. Having had such a great experience last time, I was looking forward to returning, and it did not disappoint. Since my last visit, their terrace seems to have more than doubled in size, and all of their tables were full. While their menu offers numerous options, I personally enjoyed their sea bream ceviche with pomelo, the scallops with truffles and homemade mashed potatoes, and the parmesan cheese risotto. For dessert, I had a tasty, restyled lemon meringue pie. Undoubtedly, should you choose to visit, you will enjoy their creative and delicious cuisine. 

Le Grand Balcon is wheelchair accessible.

Nice, France

Another excellent restaurant worth visiting is Bocca Nissa (https://www.boccanissa.com/), a trendy restaurant and tapas bar located at 3 rue St. François de Paule. At first glance, the building resembles a beautiful Mediterranean townhouse. You will enter by walking down a hallway with walls lined entirely by greenery. Their rooftop terrace provides views of Vieux Nice and is also lined with plants and twinkle lights. Their menu contains a large array of tapas to share – I personally tried their tortilla dish, as well as their fried squid and sardines, sea bream ceviche, and beef ravioli. For dessert, their chocolate bombs were a real treat. For those less interested in tapas, their menu also boasts larger meals that one may choose to share, such as lamb chops and beef ribs. 

This property is also wheelchair accessible. 


Needless to say, I absolutely look forward to returning to this piece of paradise in France.

For more details log on to: https://www.explorenicecotedazur.com 

Your Albany, New York checklist: The Staybridge Suites, Cheesecake Factory and Dave & Buster’s

My family and I have always considered Albany (http://www.albanyny.org/Visitors.aspx) a great place to stay for a few days, be it a getaway on its own or a place to stop en route to or upon return from New York City. We recently spent three nights in the state capital and having discovered an outstanding place to stay, our trip could not have been more enjoyable and relaxing.

WHERE TO STAY: When seeking a place to stay our search stopped at what appeared to be the top-ranked hotel in town: the Staybridge Suites Albany New York, Wolf Road Colonie Center.  Opened in 2014, this spot still looks spanking new and I would strongly recommend it. Not only is it exceptionally affordable, but it really does have all of the comforts of home.

My family and I have always considered Albany a great place to stay for a few days, be it a getaway on its own or a place to stop en route to or upon return from New York City. We recently spent three nights in the state capital and having discovered an outstanding place to stay, our trip could not have been more enjoyable and relaxing.

I sought out General Manager David Heckman to find out more about this extended-stay hotel, located near the crossroads of Interstate 87 and Interstate 90, at Exit 2 of I-87, the Adirondack Northway. It was built just at the rear of the Colonie Center Mall, which is extremely convenient. Heckman told me that some visitors come to stay there just to be close to Macy’s. In fact, with that in mind, the Staybridge Suites recently completed a special promotion whereby for $20 more on your booking guests received a $25 gift card to Macy’s, two free movie passes and a snack pack. Heckman plans to make this an annual October 1 to January 1 special. From January 1 to June 1, for $10 more you will receive two movie passes (valued at $27) and a snack pack.

Only 1.5 miles from Albany International Airport, four miles from Downtown Albany and indeed within walking distance to the Mall and popular Trader Joe’s, this location offers free parking and a complimentary shuttle service. The Mall is also home to two of my favorite restaurants: The Cheesecake Factory and PF Changs.

My family and I have always considered Albany a great place to stay for a few days, be it a getaway on its own or a place to stop en route to or upon return from New York City. We recently spent three nights in the state capital and having discovered an outstanding place to stay, our trip could not have been more enjoyable and relaxing.

This is an all-suite hotel, featuring 112 rooms over six floors. Each suite includes a full kitchen with all the supporting utensils to prepare food, complimentary high-speed internet, in-room safes, flat-screen televisions with a variety of programming options and daily housekeeping. There is a stove, microwave oven, toaster, full refrigerator, dishwasher, pots and pans, serving dishes, plates and glassware, silverware and a dining table. I appreciated the flexible workspace: a work desk with a lamp, a desk-level electrical outlet and a spare electrical outlet on the desk. We had a spacious suite, featuring a king bed and a very comfortable sitting chair in the main bedroom with a door that closes towards the pullout couch and kitchen. It could not have worked out better for our family. If I could find a place like this in every city I visit I would be very happy!

My family and I have always considered Albany a great place to stay for a few days, be it a getaway on its own or a place to stop en route to or upon return from New York City. We recently spent three nights in the state capital and having discovered an outstanding place to stay, our trip could not have been more enjoyable and relaxing.

The on-site business center is open 24/7. There is also a laundry room and a fitness facility with three treadmills, 2 two ellipticals and one stationary bike. All of the equipment is equipped with personal viewing screens.   Free weights, stretch equipment and floor mats are also included. I loved the indoor pool, open from 7 am to 10 pm and spent some time each day of my stay in the whirlpool.  There are handicapped lifts on-site. In the summer, the doors open up to a beautiful patio featuring picnic tables, barbeque grills and comfortable places to sit.

My family and I have always considered Albany a great place to stay for a few days, be it a getaway on its own or a place to stop en route to or upon return from New York City. We recently spent three nights in the state capital and having discovered an outstanding place to stay, our trip could not have been more enjoyable and relaxing.

I took advantage of the complimentary hot and cold breakfast every morning, including, a selection of both traditional breakfast foods, as well as a variety of fresh fruits, yogurts and healthy cereals. There are complimentary dinner receptions as well on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings (5 pm to 7:30 pm), including several choices of wines.

The hotel is located at 39 Wolf Road. You can call directly at   1-518-438-3300 or log on to https://www.ihg.com/staybridge/hotels/us/en/albany/albee/hoteldetail. There is now a special Canadian government rate, so if you qualify please ask about it.

CHEESECAKE FACTORY:  When the Cheesecake Factory is literally across the parking lot of your hotel, it is pretty tempting to dine there on more than one occasion. Such was precisely the case for us. The Albany location opened on August 29, 2006, at the Colonie Centre. This 10,800-square-foot locale seats 300 diners and you can always expect a lineup at the door. You will be handed a beeper and an estimated wait time.

My family and I have always considered Albany a great place to stay for a few days, be it a getaway on its own or a place to stop en route to or upon return from New York City. We recently spent three nights in the state capital and having discovered an outstanding place to stay, our trip could not have been more enjoyable and relaxing.

In Albany, General Manager David Albert runs a well-oiled machine. The service here is always impeccable and the food is superb.

The Cheesecake Factory (www.thecheesecakefactory.com) is known for its extensive menu, generous portions and legendary desserts. In fact, there are more than 250 menu selections and this includes more than 50 lower calories of “SkinnyLicious®” selections- all handmade, in-house with fresh ingredients – and more than 50 signature cheesecakes and desserts. Favorite choices include appetizers, pizza, seafood, steaks, chicken, burgers, pasta, specialty items, salads, sandwiches, omelets and desserts.

This is the closest Cheesecake Factory to Montreal and I know many people who stop here on purpose just to enjoy the experience.  Toronto has one too now and while we keep hearing rumours that Montreal might not be too far behind, I can get no confirmation of that.

We had lunch and supper at this spot on the same day. Frankly, I could eat here several times a week as the menu has so much variety. For the lunch stop, there was not a long wait for our table and we ate light, enjoying some breakfast items.  At supper, we started off with some quenching red raspberry cocktails. I ordered a small Caesar salad, which was more than enough for the two of us to share.

While the Southern Fried Chicken Sliders are listed as an “appetizer,” they more than serve as a hearty meal.  This is actually my absolute favorite on the entire menu. For only $11.50 you get four sliders with toppings and some vegetables. I love the mashed potatoes at Cheesecake, my preferred side. Then there are the  SkinnyLicious offerings, notably the turkey burgers which we can report are out of this world. There are multiple fish, pasta and beef options, meal-sized salads and a whole lot more. Give the menu a look online.

As for dessert, well this place is called The Cheesecake Factory. The windows display of pies kind of knocks your socks off when you enter the premises. After dinner, you can review the menu one more time, which includes a calorie count. We settled on the Italian Tiramisu Cheesecake split three ways and it was beyond decadent.

This Cheesecake Factory remains a real winner in our books and I highly recommend you stop by. You can call them directly at 518-453-2500. There is a large Barnes & Noble bookstore in the mall, a great pre or post-dining stop and movie theatres.

FUN AND GAMES: Besides some great shopping opportunities at Colonie and the Crossgates Mall,   Dave & Buster’s (www.daveandbusters.com) remains a must-stop for us. Recognized as America’s leading venue, combining dining and entertainment, the 33,000 square-foot restaurants and the game room opened on August 24, 2013, at the Crossgates Mall and it has served as a magnet for visitors ever since. My family has also enjoyed visiting the Toronto locale

My family and I have always considered Albany a great place to stay for a few days, be it a getaway on its own or a place to stop en route to or upon return from New York City. We recently spent three nights in the state capital and having discovered an outstanding place to stay, our trip could not have been more enjoyable and relaxing.

The company itself was founded in 1982 to provide a high-quality, high-energy venue where families and adults can “Eat Drink Play®” all in one location. Currently, Dave & Buster’s is the largest national chain offering a full casual dining menu and a wide selection of non-alcoholic and alcoholic beverages together with an extensive assortment of entertainment attractions, including skill- and sports-oriented games, video games, interactive simulators and other traditional games.

The restaurant, game and special event areas are open seven days a week Sunday to Thursday: 11 a.m. to midnight and Friday and Saturday: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.

We did not dine there on this night, but it is good to know that there is a special eat-and-play option. When choosing selected items you can add $10 or $20 power cards to your order, which represents an immediate saving when you hit the games area.  

Guests can play to win tickets in the arcade for a variety of prizes, including iPods, Nintendo games, grills, sports items, stuffed animals and even an electric guitar. Traditional games like bowling, shuffleboard, skeet ball, air hockey and billiards are combined with others such as zombie snatcher, Dance Revolution and Big Bass Wheel. We favor Deal or No Deal, the basketball and football tosses and the different slot machine-like games which give you a bit of a Las Vegas feeling.  I was impressed with the gigantic Rock ‘Em Sock ‘EM robots. We spent over two hours there and enjoyed every second of it. The power card is rechargeable and keeps track of the number of points you have earned instead of the old format of printed tickets.

More than two dozen large-screen, high-definition televisions provide the perfect backdrop for everyone’s favorite college sporting events and professional games. The Albany location is also available for private parties, birthdays and corporate functions. Structured team-building activities, company challenges and the ultimate quest are popular programs to help build corporate camaraderie. We had a great time. The locale is fully wheelchair accessible. You can call them directly at 518-313-4500 or log on to https://www.daveandbusters.com/locations/albany.

ATTRACTIONS: While we appreciated being within close walking distance to the Colonie Center,  we took the easy 10-minute drive to the much larger Crossgates Mall. The vast majority of entrances are ADA accessible with ample parking distributed throughout the site. You can rent a wheelchair at the information desk near Macy’s entrance.

Albany has attracted visitors for 400 years with historic sites, fabulous attractions, family-friendly amenities, and entertaining events. World-class museums, unique galleries, stunning architecture, those enticing restaurants, and welcoming accommodations can indeed keep you busy for days. Enjoy everything from boating to skiing and biking to snowshoeing. Albany lies at the foot of the Adirondacks and the Catskill Mountains and is at the tip of the historic Hudson Valley Region. Within a short ride are neighboring Cooperstown and Saratoga Springs.

Be sure to check out the Million Dollar Staircase, the awe-inspiring “Egg” at the Empire State Plaza and many diverse examples of historic house sites and public spaces such as the Pruyn House and the first Shaker Meeting House. You can visit the magnificent Gothic structure, now the Administrative Center of the State University of New York, the Delaware and Hudson, and the Albany Evening Journal Buildings, located at the base of State Street.

There is an abundance of professional theatre, music, dance, sports, and a backyard full of recreational splendors. As the crossroads of the northeast, Albany is easily accessible by car, train, and plane and is located less than three hours from New York and Boston.

Broadway hit Be More Chill to close on August 11

By Alexandra Cohen

The Broadway hit Be More Chill has been the “little show that could’” since its premiere almost four years ago at New Jersey’s Two River Theater. It ran in 2015 for only one month and its only legacy was a cast album. This was ultimately the spark that ignited a flame, turning the show from a regional theatre production into a viral sensation.

The manner in which Be More Chill gained its popularity, years after its brief regional production, is utterly unprecedented. Prior to even opening on Broadway, the original cast album had been streamed over 250 million times, with the show being the second-most talked about musical on Tumblr, following only Hamilton.

Be More Chill, based on a 2004 novel of the same name by Ned Vizzini, tells the story of high school student Jeremy Heere, a self-proclaimed “loser” whose life is transformed when he spends his bar mitzvah money to buy a Squip, a pill that implants in his brain and teaches him how to be cool. Being popular, Jeremy learns, however, comes at a cost, which involves leaving behind his best friend and sacrificing his own moral code.

The show’s fan-favorite moment comes in the form of the song “Michael in the Bathroom,” performed with gusto by actor George Salazar, who fulfills the role of Jeremy’s aforementioned best friend. Michael in the Bathroom, the ultimate Broadway underdog song, should be relatable to anybody who has ever felt even a moment of social anxiety or abandonment in their lives—the song is so beloved that when I attended, only seconds after the intro music began to play, the audience began to scream with excitement. This was before the singing had even begun. As Salazar signed autographs following the show, nearly one 100 theatergoers could be heard belting out the entire song from beginning to end, much to his amazement.

Lead actor Will Roland, previously seen in the Broadway smash hit Dear Evan Hansen, delivered a fantastic performance, alongside the rest of the 10-person cast, who all provide highly energetic and nuanced performances of the traditional high school trope characters.

When Be More Chill opened on Broadway, The Wall Street Journal called it “one of the strongest new musicals of the past decade.” True to this review, Be More Chill is chock-full of both humor and heartfelt moments, featuring other earworm songs penned by Tony-nominated composer Joe Iconis, including “I Love Play Rehearsal”, “Two-Player Game”, and “More Than Survive.” The Original Broadway Cast Recording is available digitally on all streaming platforms.

Be More Chill closes its Broadway run at the Lyceum Theater on August 11, 2019, so hurry up and catch it while you still can!

For more information about the show log on to www.BeMoreChillMusical.com.

A new Homewood Suites by Hilton opens in Poughkeepsie, NY

When traveling to New York City, our family has become fond in recent years of stopping over in the Town of Poughkeepsie for the night in order to make the most of our first day in the Big Apple. It is just over 90 minutes from Manhattan.

Poughkeepsie, nestled in the majestic Hudson Valley, is home to 45,000 residents. The town is rich with culture and steeped in history and is the home of such prestigious institutions as Vassar and Marist Colleges as well as Dutchess Community College. Along with these institutes of higher learning, they also have Locust Grove, the former home of Samuel F.B. Morse (the founder of Morse Code).  The 180-acre estate of Samuel F. B. Morse includes an Italianate villa designed by Alexander Jackson Davis containing extensive collections of American and European decorative and fine arts. Three miles of carriage roads wind through landscaped grounds, romantic gardens and a shady grove.

The 22 parks in the area offer recreational activities such as hiking and walking trails in  Peach Hill Park. Fine dining is abundant, while art exhibits, festivals, fairs and farmer markets are bountiful.

Poughkeepsie is situated in Dutchess County (https://www.dutchesstourism.com).

Covering 800 square miles, there’s an abundance of natural scenic beauty, outdoor recreation, historic landmarks, restaurants, festivals and more. Activities range from strolls across the Walkway Over the Hudson, treks through the Appalachian Trail, and sips along the Dutchess Wine Trail. Tours of the FDR National Historic Site spins on the Dutchess County Fair Ferris Wheel, and tastes of the Culinary Institute of America restaurants are also highly popular as are cruises down the Hudson River, bushels of pick-your-own apples, and contemporary art from modern masters.

WHERE TO STAY:  There is a fantastic new hotel in Poughkeepsie that opened in May 2019, Homewood Suites by Hilton (Hwpoughkeepsie.homewoodsuitesbyhilton.com)  made that decision a lot easier. This is a beautiful property. The suite we had was very spacious and comfortable.

Conveniently located off Route 9 and I-84 at 900 Thomas Watson Drive, the hotel is within walking distance of IBM and is minutes away from the Culinary Institute of America, Vassar, Bard and Marist Colleges. The hotel also places guests close to Poughkeepsie Galleria Mall, rich historical sites and a variety of great restaurants, breweries and wineries.

The property is owned and managed by Briad Lodging Group, LLC, the hotel division of Livingston, New Jersey-based The Briad Group.

 “Situated in the heart of the Hudson River Valley, Homewood Suites by Hilton Poughkeepsie is the perfect location for our newest property,” said Hans Kleinganz, general manager. “Our spacious suites offer all of the comforts of home, and we look forward to welcoming guests and ensuring they enjoy their stay with us.”

This hotel offers a combination of spacious studio and one-bedroom suites, featuring fully-equipped kitchens and separate living and sleeping areas. Guests are also provided all the essentials needed for a smart, reliable and convenient stay including complimentary hot breakfast seven days a week, evening social with complimentary beer and wine* served Monday to Thursday, complimentary shuttle service within a five-mile radius and complimentary advanced Wi-Fi.

The hotel makes it easy for travelers to unwind with an outdoor patio area, featuring multiple fire pits, an outdoor kitchen under a large pergola and a putting green. The property boasts a 750-square-foot fitness center with state-of-the-art equipment, including a Peloton bike, an indoor saline swimming pool and an outdoor sports court. The property also offers more than 1,000 square feet of flexible space that is ideal for meetings and social events.

Homewood Suites by Hilton Poughkeepsie is part of Hilton Honors, the award-winning guest-loyalty program for Hilton’s 14 distinct hotel brands. Hilton Honors members who book directly through preferred Hilton channels save time and money and gain instant access to the benefits they care about most, such as an exclusive member discount and a flexible payment slider that allows members to choose nearly any combination of Points and money to book a stay. Members can also redeem their points for free nights, to gain access to unique events through the Hilton Honors auction platform, or to make purchases at Amazon.com with Amazon Shop with Points. For more information or to make reservations, visit Hwpoughkeepsie.homewoodsuitesbyhilton.com or call 845-462-0030.

Briad Lodging Group was formed in 1997 when Briad became a Marriott franchisee. Five years later, the company added Hilton to its portfolio. Since obtaining these franchise rights, Briad has developed more than $600 million in real estate, concentrating on focused-service and extended-stay hotels, including the Courtyard, Residence Inn, Springhill Suites, TownePlace Suites, Hilton Garden Inn and Homewood Suites brands. During the past decade, Briad has developed, operated and managed 34 properties and has built more than 3,800 hotel rooms in the tri-state area.

WHAT TO DO: With an assist from Wikipedia here are some details of what Poughkeepsie has to offer in terms of a number of notable institutions for arts and entertainment. The Bardavon 1869 Opera House, located on Market Street just below Main Street, is a theater that has an array of music, drama, dance and film events and is the home of the Hudson Valley Philharmonic. The Mid-Hudson Civic Center, located down the street from the Bardavon 1869 Opera House, hosts concerts, professional wrestling, and trade shows and has an ice rink next door for hockey events. From July 1984 to August 5, 1986, the Civic Center was the location for filming WWF Championship Wrestling, the World Wrestling Federation’s nationally and internationally broadcast weekly television program of the time

The Chance, located at 6 Crannell Street in downtown Poughkeepsie, hosts live rock concerts with local as well as major artists. The collections of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College chart the history of art from antiquity to the present and comprise over 15,000 works, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, and glass and ceramic wares. The Barrett Art Center at 55 Noxon Street offers exhibits, classes, lectures, and demonstrations focused on the visual arts. Twice yearly it presents nationally acclaimed shows, juried by curators of notable museums. It also operated Barrett Clay Works at 485 Main Street, with studio spaces for individual artists, and a street-level space devoted to instruction in various methods of “working clay” for children through seniors.

For shopping and movie theater entertainment, the Poughkeepsie Galleria is located in the town of Poughkeepsie. The mall, which opened in 1987, consists of two floors with 250 shops and restaurants to enjoy. The Regal Cinemas theater has 16 screens. Current anchor stores within the mall include Macy’s, J. C. Penney, Target, Best Buy, H&M, and Sears. The Galleria is owned and managed by The Pyramid Companies, a group that manages and owns other sister mall complexes.  We love dining at the Ruby Tuesday restaurant there, home to a great salad bar.

The Mid-Hudson Children’s Museum, located at 75 North Water Street, serves the city and region as an educational resource center, family destination, and tourist attraction. The Cunneen-Hackett Arts Center at 9 and 12 Vassar Street provides venues for both professional and amateur artists to showcase their talent in music, dance, and the visual arts. Bananas Comedy Club is a comedy club that presents comedians such as Jim Norton, Rich Vos, Patrice O’Neal, and Nick DiPaolo. Jimmy Fallon started his career performing at the club  Joseph Bertolozzi’s Bridge Music is a sound-art installation on the Mid-Hudson Bridge, allowing listeners to hear it played like a musical instrument. A recording of the results, the 2009 CD Bridge Music (on the Delos label DE1045), entered the Billboard Classical Crossover Music Chart at #18 and has been released globally. The Bridge Music Listening Stations (which play selections from the CD) are located on the pedestrian sidewalk of the Mid-Hudson Bridge, at each of the bridge’s towers. They are open from dawn to dusk from April 1 through October 31. Additionally, Park Radios on 95.3FM play the same music year-round, in Waryas Park, Poughkeepsie and Johnson-Iorio Park, Highland.

In 2011 Empire Cruise Lines began the operation of the first dinner and tour boat to call Poughkeepsie homeport in nearly two generations. The M/V Mystère is a 60-foot (18 m) double-decked tour boat that departs from Waryas Park, 29 North Water Street.

Sprout Creek Farm is an educational farm that rents out a cottage for weekend trips.

The exceptional Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood, Florida

By Alexandra Cohen

HOLLYWOOD, FLORIDA:  A number of years ago, my family joined friends for dinner at the Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood, Florida (http://www.diplomatresort.com).  Looking around at the beautiful facilities, I distinctly recall hoping to experience the hotel in its entirety one day.

Recently, that wish came true, our visit coming soon after the completion of a $100 million transformation of this oceanfront, all-encompassing destination resort offering a fresh new take on vacationing for all business and leisure travelers. From the Atlantic coast to the Intracoastal, the reinvented resort pays homage to the hotel’s storied past as a social hub, with a modern take on design and amenities, including a luxurious spa and more than 10 new culinary concepts.

Upon entering the Diplomat, the first thing that you notice is an open concept lobby with sweeping views of the ocean via the floor-to-ceiling windows of The Hotel Bar- the property’s wraparound indoor-outdoor bar.

ACCOMMODATIONS: The Diplomat is now part of Curio Collection by Hilton, a global set of upscale hotels handpicked for their unique character. We stayed in a gorgeous Oceanview Double Deluxe Room with a balcony, providing a beautiful and completely unobstructed view of the ocean. Wonderfully appointed, this retreat is both original and modern, with a gracious lounge area and workspace as well as a generous bath with both a glass-enclosed shower and a separate deep-soaking tub. In-room indulgences – luxe robes, plush bedding and Bigelow bath amenities – enhance the experience of Florida beachside living at its finest.

With 1,000 guest rooms – including a Presidential suite, 515 king rooms, and 484 double rooms, with 96 being suites – The Diplomat is the largest hotel in Broward County. Designed by the world’s leading hospitality interior design firm, Hirsch Bedner Associates, the resort’s stylish and thoughtfully designed rooms offer sophisticated spaces, befitting the prime beachfront location in Hollywood. A strong sense of place is woven throughout, reflecting a glamorous oceanfront design that nods to the storied history of the Diplomat Hotel of the 1950’s. Carefully selected artwork throughout the property highlights the local-regional lifestyle, with modernized spaces harkening back to the hotel’s vibrant past.

All rooms feature unobstructed ocean or Intracoastal vantage points, while most suites boast 180-degree views of the tropical surroundings, including a variety of premier suites, the Governor and Presidential suites. Suites exude a mixture of midcentury elements with refreshing ocean tones, creating the perfect backdrop to relax and recharge completely with hand-tufted rugs, natural wood furnishings, crisp white bedding backed by driftwood headboards, and nautical touches that speak to the location. Guestrooms at the property depict two separate design schemes: Sunrise and Sunset. Sunrise rooms are modern, vibrant and refreshing with earthy tones that provide a soothing, calm atmosphere accented with blue ocean colors. Sunset rooms conversely present a subtler, more modern and organic design scheme with views overlooking the famous South Florida west horizon, giving guests a front seat view to stunning sunsets.

DINING OPTIONS: The Diplomat has no shortage of exceptional dining options. We were there for four nights, and via the “Diplomat Restaurant Group” (DRG) there were no less than 10 innovative and surprising culinary destinations to choose from. Guests are welcome to Dock & Dine at Diplomat Landing’s 7-slip marina with 350 feet of linear dock or park complimentary valet and self-parking for up to four hours when dining on property. Unique dishes and drinks highlight ingenuity and variety, using locally sourced ingredients and fresh mixes for cocktails created on-site. Each destination is rooted in strong culinary sensibilities and exudes brand individuality, creating distinct spaces and experiences.

Let us certainly recommend breakfast at Point Royal, a coastal restaurant also open for lunch and dinner. This is a large dynamic buffet filled with almost every breakfast option imaginable, from house-made pastries and an inventive cereal bar to egg dishes, salads and grains. The salad bar, for instance, includes arugula, mix greens, cherry tomatoes, chickpeas, shaved radishes, cucumbers, pickled onions, parmesan cheese, poppy seed vinaigrette, cumin-lime vinaigrette and seasonal daily selections. You can choose from Florida smoked salmon, red onions, whipped cream cheese, capers, hard boiled eggs, assorted bagels, the Breakfast Reuben (corned beef, pickled cabbage, gruyère, scrambled egg, and comeback sauce), crispy breakfast potatoes, and much more. It is conveniently open from 6:30 am to 11:30 am.

Our first dinner was also at Point Royal (http://www.pointroyal-fl.com), part of famous chef Geoffrey Zakarian’s approachable American cuisine, complete with indoor/outdoor seating and a grand yet modern Raw Bar. We had previously experienced Zakarian’s excellent cuisine at his restaurant Georgie in Beverly Hills, so it was a given for us to pursue a reservation at Point Royal for dinner as well.

Complimentary parking is offered for guests who dine at Point Royal.  There were a variety of hand-crafted cocktails to choose from, and my dining partner opted for a satisfying rum passion fizz. While we looked at the menu, our fabulous server brought us some delicious cornbread and smoked honey butter (smoked in-house). Next, there was no question that we wanted to sample a seafood platter, so we opted for The Diplomat, featuring six oysters, six clams, an eight-ounce king crab, three pink shrimp, and half a Maine lobster. This was absolutely superb. We then shared some tossed heirloom lettuces, which included shaved carrots, radish, and aged sherry vinaigrette. The yellowfin tuna tartare, with avocado and chili-sesame seed vinaigrette, was next, followed by an order of roasted Maine diver scallops, which included baby turnips, fennel, herbs and smoked fish chowder. All in all, it was an amazing meal, which we capped off with the most decadent of desserts, a Black Forest meringue pie. The rich, dark chocolate pie crust was filled with a layer of sharp cherry curd, topped with light meringue rippled with dark chocolate.

We simply cannot wait to return and try some of the many other signature dishes, including the Pomegranate glazed short rib, steaks, the local black grouper, the grilled Spanish Octopus and the marinated baby kale just to name a few.

The next night, we also enjoyed a superb meal at Monkitail (https://www.monkitail.com), which won the top spot for Best Hotel Restaurant in USA Today’s 2017 Readers’ Choice Awards. After eating there ourselves, we no doubt understand why it was selected for this honor. Celebrity chef and restaurateur Michael Schulson is at the helm; Monkitail is his seventh restaurant. The menu is a contemporary take on the classic izakaya, featuring shareable small plates and sushi as well as an array of specialty cocktails and saké. Surrounding an open robatayaki kitchen in the heart of the restaurant is a private dining area overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Tucked away beyond Monkitail’s main dining room is Nokku, a discreet cocktail lounge with four private rooms, each having full karaoke capabilities.

What an absolute treat this was! My dining partner started off with a blooming blossom drink from the cocktail menu.  We then proceeded to allow the chef to make a series of outstanding suggestions. This began with the hot Hamachi, toro caviar, and the big eye tuna special. The Edamame dumplings were specifically recommended to us, having won the nod for Best Bites of 2017 by noted South Florida food critic Michael Mayo. To say that this dish exceeded our expectations is an absolute understatement. As Mayo explains: “The dumplings are delicate and plump, round and dimpled, and resemble tortellini. They shimmer and almost float in a broth of sake and brown butter. They are stuffed with a delectable mix of pureed edamame, cream, truffle and caramelized scallion.”

The tasting continued with some Robatayaki lobster tail, skirt steak and short rib skewers, a duck scrapple bao bun, a tempura shrimp taco, an aged New York strip, and broiled sea bass with aioli and snap peas.  Just when we thought that the meal could not possibly get any better, our server brought us two excellent desserts. First came the fruit loop ice cream and almond joy, which came in mini cones. Next was a chocolate mousse with miniature brownies, cherries, and ice cream on top. What a meal! If you are anywhere in the vicinity of Hollywood, Florida, you must come to the Diplomat to dine.

Other food choices at the hotel include Bristol’s Burgers, Candy & Cones, Counter Point, Diplomat Prime, Nokku, Playa, Portico Beer & Wine Garden, and the Canteen, which includes snacks and ready-made sandwiches and salads. There is also the Diplomat Restaurant Delivery, providing room service from any of the dining establishments on the property.

For kosher food in Hollywood, you can try Sara’s, Big Apple Pizza, the Grand Café Espresso Bar, Hummus Factory, La’Chaim Meets China, Levinsky Roasting, Levy’s Kosher of Hollywood, Mizachi’s Pizza Kitchen, Mozart Cafe,  Pita Star,  Redwan’s Pita Bakery, Sylvia’s Kosher Place, Yum Berry Cafe and Sushi.

ACTIVITIES: The Diplomat is also perfect for family-focused guests, providing a variety of activities and amenities for all ages, meant to create happy, genuine and memorable vacation experiences.

In addition to the two beachfront pools, there is also jet skiing, ocean kayaking, paddleboard rentals, and the property’s newest addition, the Dip + Slide water play area. Designed with an interactive water bucket that playfully tips over when full, the area entertains young travelers and is strategically located to give parents a direct line of sight from the lagoon pool so they can still relax poolside. Pool amenities include complimentary towel service and full-service poolside lunch and spa services.

We marveled at panoramic views of the ocean from the edge of the infinity pool, which features a porthole bottom, and two waterfalls that cascade into the 240-foot lagoon pool below. You can cool off in the lagoon pool surrounded by lush tropical landscaping and sweeping views of the ocean. Conveniently, both pools are open from sunrise to sunset.

From sandcastle building and free arcade and poolside games to bounce houses and behind-the-scenes resort tours, guests aged four to 12 are always entertained and supervised at the fun-filled kids club, Ocean Ambassadors.

At The Diplomat Spa + Wellness Center, guests can recharge at the expansive 24-hour fitness center or get pampered at the new, full-service 14,000 square-foot spa overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. From healing massages and cleansing facials to energizing body treatments, a full-service spa experience awaits you. Before and after treatments, you can clear your mind in the relaxation room with a mesmerizing rain wall that invites calm. I had the opportunity to experience a 50-minute Diplomat Signature Spa Treatment, which I must strongly recommend. Be sure to make your spa reservations well in advance as space is limited. You can do so by calling the spa Concierge at 954.602.8400. A credit card is required to secure your appointment.

THE CABANA EXPERIENCE: Exclusively designed for The Diplomat, specialty cabanas created by fashion designer Trina Turk are available for rent on the lower floor of the pool deck, providing a relaxing and stylish oasis for the day. We were fortunate to spend an entire day in a private poolside cabana where we were pampered by the pool concierge and spoiled with generous amenities and a comfortable haven. Fourteen spacious poolside cabanas surround the lagoon pool and eleven upper cabanas offer a more secluded experience with sweeping ocean views from the upper deck. Located on the Lagoon Pool deck, poolside cabanas are equipped with flat-screen HD televisions, ceiling fans, mini-refrigerators stocked with six waters, interior seating with a table, a sun umbrella, two chaise lounges outside, and towel service. The cozy upper cabanas also come with amenities and services, which include interior seating with a table and sun umbrella, four chaise lounges outside, and towel service. Advanced reservations are recommended and are available to guests with a room reservation. Up to six guests may occupy an upper or lower cabana, both of which are open from 9 am to 6 pm.

While spending the day in our poolside cabana, we ordered lunch from Playa, a Beachfront Nuevo-Latina restaurant and bar featuring an extensive rum and tequila selection.

There is also The Diplomat Golf Club, The Diplomat Tennis Center and the Diplomat Marina. With 209,000 square feet of flexible function and meeting space, The Diplomat continues to serve as the premier location for business travel and large-scale conferences, weddings, and milestone celebrations.

BOUCHER BROTHERS ON THE BEACH: We were thrilled to discover that The Diplomat partners with the award-winning Boucher Brothers Management to pamper guests during their day on the beautiful Hollywood Beach.   We got to spend a day lounging in private daybeds and relaxing on a chaise for a luxurious take on ‘fun in the sun’. The team from the Boucher Brothers team could not have been nicer in setting us up, and they in fact came back several times during our stay to adjust the umbrellas and make sure everything was okay. Lunch and drinks were available right at our chairs. This service is available daily from 9 am to 6 pm. To reserve, call (954) 602-8690. When lunchtime came around, we started off with some drinks, followed by our burgers and chips. The orders were delivered in large plastic containers, with serving plates and cutlery inside.  In terms of beach rentals, run by the Boucher brothers and its BouYah Watersports Division (www.bouYahWaterSports.com), there are full and half day rates for chaise lounges, sand chairs, umbrellas, cabanas, and luxury queen and king beds. BouYah also rents out jet skis, kayaks and paddle boards. You can book your choice experience right at the hotel or call in advance and ask to be connected to someone from the Boucher Brothers team. This is an established firm with over 26 years of experience providing hospitality management solutions for resorts, hotels and condominiums.  They service dozens of hotels across Florida.  Kenny Gonzalez is the regional general manager covering Hollywood, Hallandale and Miami, and his team does a top-notch job.

LOCATION: Nestled between the aquamarine shores of the Atlantic Ocean and the peaceful Intracoastal Waterway, The Diplomat stands in the very heart of Hollywood. With an ideal location, the property’s transformation caters to those looking for seamless travel and local experiences with easy access to key destinations. The hotel is only 10 minutes from Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport, five minutes from Hollywood’s historic oceanfront Boardwalk, 10 minutes from world-class shopping at Aventura Mall, and 30 minutes from South Beach. Starting room rates in low season begin at $189/per night and $249/per night during high season (based on availability at time of booking). For reservations please call 1-954-602-6000. For more information, visit www.diplomatresort.com.

DoubleTree Resort by Hilton Hollywood Beach

By Alexandra Cohen

We have always enjoyed staying at  DoubleTree Resort by Hilton properties. After enjoying a nice experience last summer in Santa Monica, we were excited to find a newly branded addition to the chain in Hollywood Beach, Florida.

Checking in to a DoubleTree hotel always starts on a sweet note thanks to their signature, warm chocolate chip cookies.

Owned by Sotherly Hotels and managed by Chesapeake Hospitality, DoubleTree Resort by Hilton Hollywood (http://www.hollywoodbeachresort.doubletreebyhilton.com)   is located at 4000 South Ocean Drive, approximately eight miles from the Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport. The hotel opened with its new identity last October after undergoing an extensive $7 million facelift.

Through its multi-million-dollar transformation, the property features 311 oversized guestrooms and suites, all with furnished balconies overlooking the property’s attractions. Along with a 24-hour business center, it houses 10,000 square feet of meeting space, including a stylish boardroom and an outdoor pavilion for up to 250 guests.

Each room comes with complimentary WiFi, a 37-inch HDTV, premium cable, a vanity area, a work desk, and a kitchenette, which includes a microwave, mini-refrigerator, and coffeemaker. We were able to open a sliding glass door and enjoy the view from our private and furnished balcony.

Situated near the ocean waves and white-sand beaches, the resort allows easy access for guests to hop on the Hollywood Trolley to tour Ocean Drive or to set off on the Fort Lauderdale Water Taxi.   Family-friendly activities and outdoor recreation are at guests’ fingertips from walks along the beach to people-watching on the nearby Hollywood Boardwalk.

“This idyllic seaside resort is located between two of Florida’s biggest cities and travel hubs, Miami and Fort Lauderdale, making it easy for travelers to reach major airports, cruise terminals and to explore South Florida’s famous beaches,” said Dianna Vaughan, global head and senior vice president of DoubleTree by Hilton.


Guests will find American cuisine with Caribbean flair across the resort’s restaurant and bars. Its lobby nook, Made Market, offers Starbucks coffee, ice cream, snacks, and more. Port South Bar and Grill is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, featuring Caribbean Fusion and local seafood in an indoor and outdoor setting. The Port South Lounge serves tropical cocktails, domestic and imported beers, and fine wines. Just steps from the Intracoastal Waterway, guests can enjoy live music, cocktails and snacks from the poolside Lava Tiki Bar.

The resort’s spectacular amenities include an outdoor infinity pool and whirlpool, daily room service, and a 24-hour Fitness Center and Business Center.  We were beyond impressed with the beautiful and spacious pool area, with plenty of lounge chairs available. The Tiki Hut serves drinks, including different specials of the day, and we had a fabulous view of the intracoastal waterway, with boats passing by and music playing.  For lunch, we enjoyed some grilled quesadillas and shrimp tacos.

“The resort promises to make any vacation memorable – from breathtaking beaches to family-friendly attractions like the famous Boardwalk, Anne Kolb Nature Center or a jaunt to Fort Lauderdale or Miami,” said  General Manager Joseph A. Ruiz.As a local landmark, we look forward to welcoming guests under the trusted DoubleTree by Hilton brand.”

DoubleTree Resort by Hilton Hollywood Beach is also part of Hilton Honors, the award-winning guest-loyalty program for Hilton’s 14 distinct hotel brands. Members who book directly have access to instant benefits, including a flexible payment slider that allows members to choose nearly any combination of Points and money to book a stay, an exclusive member discount, free standard Wi-Fi, and access to the Hilton Honors mobile app.

Diamond and Gold members will enjoy free Wi-Fi and space-available upgrades to the hotel’s exclusive Hilton Honors floor. Additionally, Diamond members will receive the complimentary Wake Up DoubleTree BreakfastTM and 1,000 Bonus Points per stay. Gold members will have the option of a complimentary, continental breakfast or 1,000 Bonus Points per stay.

 

A Visit to Tampa Bay

When my family and I spent a previous winter vacation in St. Petersburg, Florida,  we found ourselves commuting to nearby Tampa on a fairly regular basis for shopping and dining. We liked what we saw and were sure to make it our base the next time around.

The hip, urban heart of Florida’s Gulf coast beats in Tampa Bay (www.visittampabaycom). Here cultural gems mingle with authentic history to create an atmosphere that inspires awe and adventure.  Whether your quest is for art spanning antiquity to the modern era, sensational live entertainment or other untold delights, imaginative and inspiring thrills await around every corner.

WHERE TO STAY: It was very nice to stay in the downtown area and the gorgeous Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina (www.tampamarriottwaterside.com), only eight minutes from the airport. Offering spectacular views, stellar service and a high-quality experience all around, this upscale  hotel is particularly well-situated for guest convention-goers or if you want to attend an NHL game with the host Lightning across the street at the Amalie Arena. And as I found out, it is a pretty good choice for a family vacation as well, with its central location, superb facilities and top-notch customer service.

This striking, 27-storey high-end property has more than 700 non-smoking rooms and suites that feature private balconies overlooking Harbour Island, downtown and the hotel’s 32-slip marina. All rooms include high-end signature bedding, flat-screen TVs that can connect with laptops and large, luxe bathrooms with the softest, fluffiest white towels and sleek granite counter-tops.

High-speed in-room internet is available for a daily service fee, and it is free in public spaces. General amenities include a palm-studded pool and groovy hot tub and a full-service spa/gym on the third floor, a business center and multiple newly renovated options for wining/dining that include white tablecloth fancy, sports bar casual, poolside grill and a lobby-side Starbucks cafe. There’s valet parking for a daily rate.   At night you can enjoy live music, adding to a very uplifting atmosphere.

Following   $2.5 million in improvements in 2013, the hotel is currently in the midst of a $40 million upgrade.  Every single room is getting a makeover, as will the lobby. The check-in desk will move to a pod format and a full service Starbucks is in the works, along with an expanded outdoor patio, an outdoor beer garden and an extremely popular Topgolf simulator, using real golf balls.

The Marriott Waterside is owned by businessman Jeff Vinik, who plans to build two more hotels virtually next door and each within breathing distance of his pride and joy, the Amalie Arena. Vinik also owns the Lightning.

My family really fell in love with the pool setting. For starters this is a good sized pool with plenty of seating options. Besides standard lounge chairs, there are many chairs and couches with soft and ultra-comfort  cushion covers and standalone large cushioned lounge chairs located next to gigantic umbrellas which will shield you from the sun. You can order drinks and food from the bar.

Boasting a prime Channelside location, this waterfront hotel is tucked between the Tampa Convention Center and the arena.   The marina and the popular Riverwalk are right outside your door – The Riverwalk being a 2.4 mile   path connecting culture and entertainment. I walked its distance several times and noticed plenty of bikers and those on Segways using the area as well.

We stayed in one of the magnificently newly renovated luxury suites on the 22nd floor. I must say that when the bellman opened the door we were left speechless by the space and beauty of what would be our home for five nights.

All rooms feature featherbeds and duvets, as well as flat-screen TVs and Plug-In technology. There was a pretty master bedroom, with a huge walk in closet and a door that closes leading to a very large living room that features a comfortable couch and two doors leading to an outdoor balcony with a beautiful view of the harbor. The room contained a small fridge, enabling us to pick up some groceries at the nearby Publix and make our own breakfast.

In our case, a request for a two bedroom suite was actually upgraded via a connecting room. This provided our family with the kind of personal space we are not usually accustomed to in a hotel room.  The renovations include sophisticated artwork, boasting a nautical theme (inspired by the waterfront location); textured flooring, replacing carpeting; and luxurious bathrooms featuring a unique barn door for added flexibility and a shower you will want to stay in all day.

New elevators feature neat touch screen pads to push what floor to go to.

The lobby bar offers cool cocktails and a stunning view of the marina and waterfront. Champions Bar and Grill showcases new additions in its impressive collection of sports memorabilia and décor, as well as offers the biggest games on new flat-screen TVs. For a quiet meal, Café Waterside features new intimate seating arrangements along with stunning water views and a delicious menu. Champions is about to be transformed into an American Gastro Pub format,

While we did take advantage of the 24 hour room service, one night we chose to stay at the hotel and have dinner at the Waterside Grill. Let me strongly recommend this as a dining choice whether you are staying at the hotel or not. The restaurant offers a relaxed atmosphere and delicious American cuisine.  You can feast on fresh seafood, prime steaks, expertly crafted cocktails and decadent desserts.  They are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and you can dine inside or on the terrace facing the Tampa waterfront.

A couple of glasses of wine, pino grigio and chardonnay, allowed us to toast to a good evening ahead. Executive Sous Chef Rich Willerer has worked in the kitchens of many top restaurants in North America. For the past nine years he has called this hotel in Tampa home.  He is very proud of an initiative he took with other local chefs to form a coalition and help Tampa restaurants get better suppliers and more farm to table artisan ranchers, growers and farmers.

Chef Willerer personally greeted us with some of his homemade appetizers and a special order of devilled eggs with caviar. As there were three of us, he suggested we consider sharing some items, to which we agreed. It was a good decision and made for a very enjoyable dining experience.

First came some pistachio crusted sea scallops with lemon marmalade and bacon jam. That was followed up with some refreshing bowls of fruit and vegetables mixed together with a vinaigrette sauce. Next came a grilled local swordfish with coconut risotto, bok choy and guava cream. I have always been a fan of swordfish and this combination with the risotto was just perfect. The chef recommended we try some steak. The wood-grilled Delmonico was cooked an absolutely perfect medium, with sherry creamer potatoes, rainbow carrots and a delicious sauce.

For dessert we shared an outstanding piece of apple pie with vanilla gelato, a tasty order of flan and a decadent piece of chocolate cake. This was a meal that indeed exceeded our expectations. You can read the menus on the hotel website or call 813-221-4900 for reservations.

CITY PASS AND ATTRACTIONS: Like other cities when you want to play the role of tourist, get the CityPass (https://www.citypass.com/tampa#6QcVgMcR8yS4QVcg.99).  It is only $143.29 for adults and $129.77 for children. This includes admission to Busch Gardens, The Florida Aquarium, the Lowry Park Zoo, the Clearwater Marina Aquarium and either the Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI) or the Chihuly Collection.

Busch Gardens Tampa Bay (www.buschgardenstampa.com) is the ultimate family adventure, offering 300 acres of fascinating attractions based on exotic explorations around the world. A unique blend of thrilling rides, one of the country’s premier zoos with more than 12,000 animals, live shows, restaurants, shops and games, this spot provides unrivaled excitement for guests of every age. Normal park hours are 10 am to 6 pm. with a 365-day operating schedule. Hours are extended during select weekend, summer and holiday periods. Strollers, wheelchairs, lockers and pet kennels are available for rental. Wheelchair seating is available at all facilities, and assisted listening devices are offered at several attractions. Diaper-changing and baby-nursing areas, first aid, an automated teller machine and taxi and bus parking may be found on-site. The park’s newest attraction puts a spin on family thrills with Cobra’s Curse. This one-of-a-kind spin coaster features a 70-foot vertical lift and takes riders on a whirlwind adventure of exciting explorations. Located in the Egypt area of the park, explorers will come face-to-fang with an 80-foot snake icon, and discover the mysteries of an Egyptian archaeological excavation. Busch Gardens® welcomes guests to closely observe and even take part in the animal care experience in the Animal Care Center. From nutrition to treatments, X-rays to surgeries, much of Busch Gardens’ animal care is now conducted in guest view in this new state-of-the-art facility. The Moroccan Palace Theater is home to Busch Gardens’ spectacular, year-round ice skating shows. This summer, the Palace debuts the hottest show on ice, Turn It Up! This all-new ice show vibrantly celebrates summer with contemporary performances, aerial moments and eclectic pop music.  Tour packages are available and they create fun and fascinating behind-the-scenes explorations that give guests a unique insider perspective. From connecting with endangered species to front-of-line access at the most popular attractions, there is basically a tour for every member of the family.

Located right across the street from Busch Gardens is Adventure Island’s (www.AdventureIsland.com) 30 acres of water-drenched fun in the sun. It features the ultimate combination of high-speed thrills and tropical, tranquil surroundings for guests of all ages. Within a soothing Key West atmosphere awaits an unrivaled blend of slides, corkscrews, waterfalls, a wave pool, children’s water playground and other family attractions. Adventure Island also features outdoor acres, picnic and sunbathing areas, a gift shop and a championship sand volleyball complex for hours of fun in the sun. You can access their full accessibility guide on their website.

The Florida Aquarium (www.flaquarium.org) is one of the top of its kind in the country, with over 20,000 sea creatures! Here you can experience sharks, alligators, otters and more while encountering ring-tailed lemurs, hissing cockroaches and colorful chameleons in Journey to Madagascar.  After exploring the exhibits inside, splash away outside at Splash Pad, the outdoor water play area for children.

At Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo (www.lowryzoo.org) you can see more than 1,200 animals, including manatees, koalas, elephants, tigers, penguins, giraffes, orangutans and much more. Enhance your visit with water play areas, rides and educational shows a five-time winner of the TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence (2010-2015), this is recognized as one of the most popular zoos in the southeastern U.S., with over one million visitors annually. The Zoo originated in the 1930s as a municipal department with a small number of Florida native species. It grew gradually throughout the next four decades, but struggled to meet the developing professional standards of modern zoos. In 1982, community leaders created the Lowry Park Zoo Association to take over management of the Zoo for the City of Tampa with the goal of creating a world-class zoo through a public-private partnership. The Association then became the Lowry Park Zoological Society of Tampa, Inc., as it remains today. Working with a national zoo designer, the Society was able to create a modern, 24-acre facility that opened to the public in 1988 and shortly after earned Accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo has now grown to what now encompasses 56 acres of naturalistic animal exhibits in a lush, tropical garden setting. The Zoo offers popular educational programming, fun recreational amenities, up-close animal encounters and engaging seasonal events for which it has won accolades as one of the country’s most family-friendly zoos.

Tampa’s Museum of Science & Industry, better known as MOSI (www.mosi.org), is a scientific playground with more than 450 hands-on activities in the largest science center in the southeastern United States. You can see the stars in The Saunders Planetarium, explore another world in their NASA-funded Mission: Moon base lunar colony and touch the future in the next exhibit, Connectus. MOSI’s innovative exhibits urge you to ask questions and expand your mind. The museum shows you how cool curiosity can be – there are no tests or quizzes here.  This place sparks conversations about the world and the future among kids and their grandparents, between spouses, and with strangers. There’s no other place like it in Tampa Bay. Plans call for a brand new MOSI to be built in the downtown area. For now, its current campus on East Fowler Avenue across from the University of South Florida is running strong.

MOSI is intent on creating an inclusive guest experience where everyone can participate in the excitement of science. Many of its exhibits offer multi-sensory interactive experiences. If you are concerned about too much sensory stimulation, ask a MOSI staff member or volunteer about what you might expect while exploring the exhibits. MOSI is wheelchair accessible. Automatic doors are located at the main entrance from the MOSI Entry Plaza and parking lot. Handicapped parking spaces are available near the entrance to MOSI. The property surrounding the museum is paved. Wheelchairs are available at no additional cost on a first-come, first-served basis at the MOSI Ticket Office. Guests must leave a driver’s license or credit card at the ticket office until the wheelchair is returned.

Some exhibit areas may be dim due to the nature of the exhibition. Although visitors requiring assistance from a service animal are welcome, MOSI reserves the right to limit access that may pose safety or health concerns. If you require an accommodation for your visit, please contact Anthonette Carregal, Vice President of Museum Operations, at least 15 working days prior to your visit by calling (813) 987-6333 or by email at acarregal@mosi.org. For hearing impaired assistance, call the Florida Relay System at 711.

If you are in the downtown area, then I recommend you stop by the Unlock Tampa Bay Visitors Center. Kevin Wiatrowski from Visit Tampa Bay was kind enough to give me a walking tour of the downtown streets and he was very proud to show me this storefront location at 201 North Franklin Street which only opened last summer. It is open Monday to Saturday from 10 am to 6 pm and Sundays from 11 am to 5 pm. Here you will get excellent local advice on attractions, restaurants, and things to do during your stay. The staff is very knowledgeable. Make sure to check out the exceptionally neat gift shop, which includes a curated selection of Tampa-themed memorabilia and apparel.

The TECO Historic Streetcar runs from downtown to Ybor City (the Latin Quarter) and has a stop right outside the Marriott Waterside.  The TECO Manatee Viewing Center at the Big Bend power station is a nice place to check out manatees this time of year. Hundreds of them gather in the warm water emitted from the power station. There’s a nature center and a short walking trail through the mangroves.

The Pirate Water Taxi provides hop-on, hop-off service along the waterfront and stops near the Marriott Waterside as well.

STRAZ CENTER: While in town we secured tickets for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in Concert, featuring the Florida Orchestra at the magnificent Straz Center for the Performing Arts (www.strazcenter.org). Cars fly, trees fight back, and monsters are on the loose in Harry’s second year at Hogwarts! This concert featured the film, with the orchestra performing John Williams’ unforgettable score. A capacity crowd loved every moment of it. Watch for this to come to a city near you. The question is, can any place do it better than the Straz?

A year earlier we saw the Broadway hit An American in Paris while in town. We simply love this venue and were literally looking for an excuse to return. There is ample parking in the nearby Poe Garage, which actually has a covered walkway connected from the Straz for easy access

The Straz is the largest performing arts center in the Southeast and the only one with an on-site performing arts conservatory. It was incorporated in 1980 and opened in 1987. In the early 1990s, the Straz Center (then known as Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center) established arts education as a community priority, working closely with area public, private and home school programs to enhance arts education for children throughout the seven-county Tampa Bay area. Outreach programs included curriculum connectors to Florida education standards and teacher study guides in print and online. The Straz Center’s extended in-school artistic residencies, summer programs and after school offerings helped to fill the increasing gaps in arts education left by budget cuts. Since 1991 the Straz Center’s Education department housed programs such as Tampa Bay Youth Orchestra and Community Arts Ensemble, a free summer theater day camp that served urban children in need by connecting them with nationally known artists in a rehearsal-based process. Each summer, an original musical play was written and produced especially for that year’s group of up to 100 children to perform in a fully-staged production for friends and family in one of the Straz Center’s main halls.

If you are headed to Tampa in 2018 there are some great Broadway shows booked such as  Forever Plaid, Phantom of the Opera, The Color Purple, The Bodyguard, Beautiful – the Carole King Musical, Waitress, Sound of Music, The Illusionists and Cinderella. The spectacular tour of Hamilton will land at the Straz for the 2018-2019 season. You can also check out Opera Tampa, which produces   the highest caliber presentations.

THE LIGHTNING AND AMALIE ARENA:  I made my first visit ever to the   Amalie Arena (originally called the Ice Palace), which opened on October 12, 1996. How lucky could I be? On  the night I was available, the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning happened to be hosting my hometown Montreal Canadiens. A visit here, regardless of the event taking place, is an absolute must.

(Photo by Casey Brooke Lawson/Tampa Bay Lightning)

Start off by checking the schedule for the Lightning. It was very nostalgic for me to be in the press box. Twenty-five years earlier when Tampa entered the National Hockey League as an expansion franchise I was among a group of journalists invited for a visit. Naturally, one of the things the local tourism board wanted to showcase to the Montreal media was the arrival of the NHL to Tampa.  So off we went to the temporary home of the Lightning, the 11,000 seat Expo Hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds for an exhibition game. With my tape recorder and microphone in hand, I requested for and received a one-on-one interview with hockey legend Phil Esposito. He was president and general manager of the new team and the man solely responsible for bringing pro hockey to town, having persuaded a consortium of Japanese businesses to provide the necessary capital.

The first few years were rough for the Lightning, with significant financial losses. They withstood the challenges. As ownership changed hands a few times, Esposito was eventually ousted in his role. He is adored in this city. Outside of the arena there is a bronze statue of him.  He also serves as a commentator for home game radio broadcasts.

Having spent the past week in Tampa, it was clear what a hockey mad city this is. Everywhere you go there seem to be signs on buildings saying “Go Bolts!” or “Be the Thunder!” At the AMC Theatre we went to, there were photos of Lightning players in the hallway leading to the ticket counter. On major streets, there are oriflammes featuring Lightning team members.

I knew my visit to Tampa would not be complete without meeting Esposito again. I congratulated him for what he brought to this city and asked how proud it made him to see the hockey franchise thriving on its 25th anniversary. “Very proud,” he said, “and thank you.”

The Amalie Arena is a fantastic hockey venue. The outside actually more resembles a football or baseball stadium and before each game there is a lot of action going on.

I really liked the game presentation. It started off with the American national anthem sung by a female sergeant from the US Army, who got a warm ovation. At each home game, $50,000 is presented to a community hero. On the scoreboard a Lightning player moderates a short slideshow of the recipient whom they show live at the end holding a Tampa sweater. In this case it was the director of a non-profit pre-school was highlighted. By the time her story was told, fans gave her a standing ovation. They did the same for another member of the US Army who had his story of bravery recounted.

McDonald’s sponsors a short feature called “Small Fries” as the camera catches the cutest little kids in the crowd. Like Montreal, they have the Kiss Cam. But at the end, instead of embarrassing couples to pucker up, they look for someone without a significant other and play the song “All By Myself.” On this night, they chose a fan with a Habs jersey.

The arena, also home to the Arena Football League’s Tampa Bay Storm, has hosted numerous high-profile events including the 1999 NHL All-Star Game, the 2007 ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament, the 2008 NCAA Women’s Final Four, the 2009 SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament, the 2012 Republican National Convention, the 2012 NCAA Men’s Frozen Four and more. In August 2014, local Tampa Bay company Amalie Oil entered an agreement for the naming rights to the arena.

Amalie annually hosts more than 150 events ever year, which ranks among the top venues in North America. The facility encompasses 670,000 square feet with three decks and seven separate levels. The building is 133 feet 10 inches in height and 493 feet in diameter. Two hundred and forty-two new sport lights have been installed to increase game night lighting by doubling the foot-candle levels, exceeding all NHL standards and enhancing HD broadcasts. LED display boards that circle the entire area feature 1.7 million square pixels for pure viewing pleasure.

FOX RENT A CAR:  In late 2011, Tampa International Airport officials began the process of updating the Master Plan for the 3,300-acre campus. The final plan, approved in 2013, will allow the airport to accommodate up to 35 million passengers each year, and is divided into three distinct phases: Decongestion, enabling and expansion. It allows a “build as demand dictates” approach to growth, with phases based on passenger volume.

The first phase, which is scheduled for completion in 2018, helps decongest the curbsides, roads and main terminal, and includes a 2.6 million-square-foot Rental Car Center, a 1.4-mile automated people mover and an expansion of the main terminal. Upon disembarking, passengers board a train (The SkyConnect  Automated People Mover System) which brings them to the brand new rental car terminal.

This brings me to Fox Rent A Car (www.foxrentacar.com). On our trip last year to St. Petersburgh, Florida we had our first experience with Fox in Tampa and we were extremely pleased with the service. It was therefore a no brainer to book with them again.

As of this writing Fox was about to move into the new rental facility (in February 2018) at the airport. For our visit though, as is the case for other cities where Fox is present, we relied on a shuttle and the process went very smoothly.  Our driver helped load and unload all of our luggage. It was a pleasant 10 minute drive, where Senior airport Operations Manager Alejandro Rosquete Sr. greeted us. Not only did he remember exactly who I was from a year earlier, but he had total recall for what make of vehicle I drove away with. It was a brand new Chrysler 300, an experience we liked so much we ordered a repeat. Alejandro brought the car around and proceeded to show us all of the features. We took the $6.99 per day option for the tolls, which allowed us to cruise right through the special Sun Pass lanes saving us time. At Fox you’ll find economy cars, family-size cars, SUVs, mini-vans and luxury or sport vehicles available for your discount rental.

The Tampa operation is managed by Edgar Hernandez, who has been with Fox since the company first arrived in Florida six years ago. In addition to Tampa, their Sunshine State locations include Orlando, Fort Myers, Miami and Fort Lauderdale.  Prices here are significantly better than the competition.

The Tampa location is open 24 hours a day. For more information call (800) 225-4369 Ext. 1 or (310) 641-3838 Ext. 1

Fox is now  the fifth largest car rental company in the US and it continues expanding globally   with new locations open for reservations in the popular tourist markets of Belfast, Northern Ireland, Merida, Mexico, Auckland, New Zealand, Fort McMurray, Alberta and Istanbul, Turkey, Aruba, Antigua, Barbuda and Poland. Fox is recognized as a discount car rental company and let me assure you they beat their competitors in terms of price and customer service by a mile.

Fox was founded in 1989 as a value-based car rental brand catering to airport travellers. Actively managed and owned by its founders, Fox has enjoyed robust growth for over 25 years. Fox offers consumers great value, convenience and superior service at 19 major corporate owned airport locations across the US plus 115 plus affiliate locations in 33 countries and a growing roster of international partner locations at www.foxrentacar.com.

For customer service call toll free (800) 225-4369 Ext. 9 Fox does assist with reserving vehicles with hand controls. Fox cannot provide hand controls on every make or model of vehicle, and cannot confirm a reservation for a particular make or model of vehicle on any rental. Please call (800) 225-4369 at least 72 hours in advance to make your reservation. For assistance with a wheelchair-accessible shuttle, you can call (929)-346-0099.

Back to the airport expansion in Tampa. Phase 2 includes a curbside expansion and 17-acre commercial development around the rental car center. The commercial development area will feature an office building, convenience store with gas station, hotel, and a commercial curb to accommodate transit and other ground transportation, and connections to regional trail networks. The curbside expansion will include new express lanes exclusively for passengers without checked luggage.

Phase 3 will includes the construction of a new Airside D with 16 gates capable of handling both domestic and international flights

Tampa Dining Tips

Tampa Bay’s cuisine is just as unique and rich as its culture. Sip on lavish libations at the many waterfront bistros and bars. Take a bite into some culinary diversity. Discover fine dining or farm-to-table restaurants and enjoy fresh seafood and authentic Spanish dishes.

Here is a look at some restaurants I experienced.

THE COLUMBIA RESTAURANT:   When in Tampa, you must experience Florida’s oldest restaurant and in fact the largest Spanish dining establishment in the world. The Columbia Restaurant (www.columbiarestaurant.com) was founded in 1905 by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez Sr.  It began in Tampa’s Ybor City, (pronounced EE-bore) as a small 60-seat corner cafe known for its Cuban coffee and authentic Cuban sandwiches, frequented by the local cigar workers.

The original Ybor City location is nothing short than magnificent. Additional Columbia locations include St. Armands Circle in Sarasota, the Historic District in St. Augustine, Sand Key on Clearwater Beach, Central Florida’s town of Celebration, Columbia Café on the Riverwalk in Tampa and Columbia Restaurant Café at Tampa International Airport. All Columbia locations are owned and operated by fourth and fifth generation members of the founding family except for the airport, which is operated in partnership with HMSHost.

To this day, over 110 years since it first opened, the Columbia remains in the same family. Richard Gonzmart is the CEO/President and his brother Casey serves as the Chairman of the Board. The fifth generation is also involved; Richard’s daughters, Lauren and Andrea, and Casey’s son, Casey Jr., work in the corporate office. Lauren has four children, twins Michael and Isabella, Maximilian and Alexander, and daughter Andrea has one child, Amelia. Their children represent the sixth generation.

Over the years, Columbia Restaurant has attracted some of the most well-known athletes and entertainers from yesteryear to today.

Richard and Casey Gonzmart have completed several rewarding projects. This included a     5,000 plus square foot $2 million kitchen in the Ybor City restaurant in what was a parking lot/delivery area on the south side of the restaurant.

The old kitchen space was remodeled and turned into two new dining rooms; the Andalucia and the Familia de Casimiro. These were the first new dining rooms built in the restaurant since 1956. The Familia de Casimiro was designed to resemble a Spanish wine cellar, with space for private meetings.

The Andalucia seats up to 80 people, and the Familia de Casimiro up to 30. These two new dining rooms made for an additional 110 seats and brought the total number of dining rooms to 15, with seating for up to 1,700 people. The restaurant has a grand total of 52,000 square feet, and encompasses an entire city block.

The new kitchen and dining rooms were part of a $6.5 million renovation project that prepared the restaurant for its 100th anniversary in 2005.

Reservations are accepted. There is a children’s menu and valet parking Casual attire is fine, but sleeveless shirts on men are not permitted. The restaurant is open daily for lunch and dinner. Takeout is available on all lunch and dinner menu items.

Some of the menu favorites include Columbia’s Original “1905” Salad,® Spanish Bean Soup, The Original Cuban Sandwich, a variety of Tapas, Paella, Red Snapper “Alicante,” Pompano en Papillot, Roast Pork “A la Cubana,” Chicken and Yellow Rice “Valenciana,” Filet Mignon “Chacho,” Café con Leche and Flan. A gluten-free menu is available.

Winner of Wine Spectator’s Best of Award of Excellence, every year since 2004, for an outstanding collection of Spanish wines (more than 1,056 wines, inventory exceeds 50,000 bottles).

There is always entertainment at the Ybor City location, with Flamenco and Spanish classical dance performances nightly ($6 per person cover charge).  There are no shows on Sunday, a live jazz band Tuesday through Saturday nights, live music every Friday and Saturday night in the Tapas Bar and at the Cafe at the Tampa Bay History Center on the Tampa Riverwalk, live music every Friday and Saturday night.

When we arrived for dinner we took advantage of the valet parking and got in line to see the hostess. We were escorted to our table and handed a menu which necessitated a lot of study on our part. It had been 23 years since my last visit to this restaurant and it remains a fabulous dining experience.

After some white sangria was brought to the table, the three of us agreed to share some items from the menu starting with the Tapas (pronounced TAH-pahs) section. These are popular throughout Spain in bars and restaurants.  Tapas usually accompany a glass of sherry or other aperitifs. Simply put, they are appetizers. Together they can form an entire meal, ranging from simple items such as olives or croquettes to more elaborate preparations such as mussels in a spicy sauce.   We opted for the tapeo sampler, which allowed us to make three choices. Ours were: Empanadas de Picadillo (spiced ground beef, garlic, tomato, onions, raisins and olives, wrapped in two pastry turnovers);   Croquetas de Langosta (two large croquettes made with Maine lobster meat, blended into a delicate roux, breaded with Cuban bread crumbs, served with a lobster sauce); and Scallops “Casimiro” (Colossal fresh scallops baked in a clay casserole with lemon butter and topped with seasoned bread crumbs and white wine). It arrived on a tower of three plates.

We moved on to share two main courses.  The Ropa Vieja was originally introduced to Cuba by Spanish sailors.  The name means “old clothes” because the choice beef is shredded, sautéed and simmered with onions, green peppers and tomatoes.   Served with platanos and white rice we thoroughly enjoyed this dish. The same goes for the baked stuffed grouper. This featured a boneless fillet of red grouper stuffed with crabmeat and a tropical passion fruit butter sauce. Gently baked, it was served with yellow rice and fresh vegetables.

When it came time to have dessert, we had just enough room to share the Churros “Tres Amigos” Golden brown Spanish pastry, dusted with cinnamon sugar and served with three sauces of rich warm chocolate, caramel and guava.  It was a terrific meal and let me add that this represents a very affordable choice for families.

The entrance to the restaurant and to the different rooms are handicapped accessible.

RUTH’S CHRIS STEAK HOUSE: Ruth’s Chris Steak House locations can be found across the United States and elsewhere around the world. While in Tampa, we dined at the 350- seat 1700 North Westshore Blvd. location in what would mark my long awaited first review of this very famous restaurant chain.

More than 50 years ago, the “First Lady of Steak,” Ruth Fertel, bought a local steak house in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was called Chris Steak House. She had never planned to expand, but after a fierce kitchen fire decimated the property she was forced to relocate in order to stay in business. Within 10 days she had the restaurant up and running. But the Chris Steak House name was not allowed to move with it. With little time and a mischievous smile, Ruth added her own name to the sign, making it “Ruth’s Chris Steak House.” Later Ruth admitted the name was strange, but she managed to work around it.

In 1965, Fertel was a single mom trying to earn enough to send her two sons to college.   She worked every job at the restaurant: from butchering and broiling steak, to waiting tables, keeping the books and washing the dishes. Fertel’s hard work paid off, and her restaurant soon became the most popular steak house in New Orleans.

Ruth’s Chris Steak House began with a team of working mothers, hired by Fertel for their hardworking attitudes and dedication to doing things right. Having established a “this is how it’s done” tradition – passion, hard work and business savvy – Ruth’s Chris Steak House began to grow.  In the years that followed, Ruth’s Chris Steak House brought its signature sizzle to more than 150 company and franchised owned locations in the U.S and  internationally. It sure has stood the test of time; more than 120 employees have been with the company nearly 20 years or more.

Ruth passed away in 2002, but her legacy of community, philanthropy, and commitment to serving only the best lives on.   What started as one restaurant has grown into the largest collection of upscale steak houses in the world. Now guests routinely savor the sizzle of USDA prime steak and genuine hospitality across the globe.

“Ruth had a recipe for everything from preparing the best steak of your life to simply living right,” said Mike O’Donnell, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Ruth’s Hospitality Group, Inc. “She knew the value of hard work and the true meaning of hospitality.”

Jim Martin, the general manager of the Tampa location, gave us a warm greeting and proudly told some stories about his nearly 30 years with the company. He also shared a few personal anecdotes of his memories of Ruth Fertel, whom he had the pleasure of interacting with on many occasions.

At Ruth’s Chris, your last bite is just as good as your first. Their perfected broiling method and seasoning techniques ensure each cut of USDA Prime beef they serve arrives cooked to perfection and sizzling on a 500 degree plate. The menu includes seafood, appetizers, sides and desserts.

At Ruth’s Chris, there’s more to their bar than world-class wines. They specialize in handcrafted cocktails, from vintage classics to their very own house specialties. All made with fresh-squeezed juices, premium spirits and the perfect finishing touches, I started the evening off with a sweet and tasty cosmopolitan.

For dinner let us recommend the Porterhouse steak for two – 40 ounces of prime beef with the rich flavor of a strip and the tenderness of a filet. This was more than enough for our party of three, with some roasted cremini mushrooms and fingerling potatoes on the side. While we each had our eyes on one of the many excellent soups and salads as a pre-meal selection, instead we agreed to share a small (but it is actually quite large) chilled seafood tower – Maine lobster, king crab legs and knuckles, colossal lump crab meat and jumbo cocktail shrimp served with both Sriracha-lime seafood   and cocktail sauces.

When it came to dessert, our waiter Wayne suggested we go with the crème brulee and we did so with a few spoons. Wayne was right on the mark.

Ruth’s Chris does offer a gluten-free menu. The items available are either gluten-free as prepared, or are modified to be gluten-free. If you have an allergy or dietary concern, contact the restaurant before your reservation time or ask to speak with a manager or chef upon arrival. They do offer vegetarian options.

To learn more about the legend of Ruth Fertel and Ruth’s Chris Steak House, visit RuthsChris.com.

OYSTERCATCHERS: When on holiday we always try to find the best seafood restaurant in town. In Tampa, that would be Oystercatchers (www.oystercatchersrestaurant.com) at the Grand Hyatt at 2900 Bayport Drive.  To get there you drive down a winding road approaching the illuminated circle drive, flanked by palm trees and bright flowerbeds. There is valet parking.

Photo: redsquarephoto.com

As you enter the restaurant through the lounge, you are taken back by the spectacular panoramic view of Old Tampa Bay. With its innovative cocktails and contemporary furniture, the lounge, outside patio and lower bay-level deck provide a comfortable yet chic hotspot for locals and visitors alike. The visually stimulating water views and sunsets provide a unique environment to enjoy feature wines and appetizers. As for the menu, it highlights an array of the freshest, wild and line caught fish available, organic produce and seafood specialties with a unique and contemporary flair.

We indulged in the flavorful creations of Chef de Cuisine Shane Clarke, who artfully blends the freshest catch with innovative touches, as only one born to the water can do.

Our server, Donald, has been part of the Oystercatchers staff for well over 20 years and he guided us excellently. General Manager Justin Beach and Chef Clarke actually greeted us at the start of the evening with a special sampling of their scallops. They were so delicious we knew we had to include this as part of our main course.

For our party of three we chose to share a number of dishes and that started with the appetizers: eight splendid oysters, an order of golden calamari fries, an arugula salad and yellowfin tuna (red in color, served medium rare from Florida’s East coast).   This was a great combination!

Photo: redsquarephoto.com

When it came to the main course, we opted to share a two pound lobster. It came to the table completely cut up and easy to dip into the garlic butter. We also added an order of large juicy sea scallops from the Mexican Gulf, perfectly prepared and among the best I have tasted in many years.

For dessert we shared the house specialty, a slice of key lime pie and a piece of sumptuous chocolate cake.

Unquestionably this is the place you should go for seafood in Tampa Bay! It is open for dinner Monday through Saturday from 5:30 pm to 10 pm and Sunday from 6 pm to 9 pm. A popular brunch is served from 10:30 am to 2 pm Sundays. And you can drop by for lunch Monday through Saturday from 11:30 am to 2:30 pm. For more information call (813)

BIZOU BRASSERIE: I had breakfast one morning in one of downtown Tampa’s most iconic and historic buildings, the city’s former federal courthouse. Bizou Brasserie (www.bizoutampa.com) may look formal on the outside, but inside you’ll find a downtown Tampa restaurant to remember in a casual, fun environment. Located within Le Méridien Tampa at 601 N. Florida Avenue, Bizou (meaning “kiss” in French) is just the place to kick off a great evening at a restaurant in downtown Tampa or wind down after a night on the town. Here you’ll find a comfortable, relaxed setting for all kinds of occasions including before or after a special evening downtown visiting the museum, Tampa Theatre or a performance at the Straz Center. The breakfast was pretty good, some corned beef hash with potatoes, poached eggs and a choice of toast.

BERN’S FOR DESSERT: We had dined at the famous Bern’s Steak House (www.bernsteakhouse.com) in Tampa a year earlier.  It was great to learn about the history.  Founder Bern Laxer was born to a Romanian mother and Polish father on the Lower East Side of New York in 1923, and grew up in the Bronx.  After serving in World War II, he returned to New York where he pursued a degree in advertising from New York University.  He met his wife Gert in a copywriting class and they married in 1950. They ought a small luncheonette in 1953 which would grow into Bern’s.

We decided to go to Bern’s after our own dinner one night and back inside the world famous Harry Waugh Dessert Room. Built in 1985 using redwood wine casks to create 48 private rooms, guests get to enjoy nearly 50 desserts, wines, ports, sherries, and madeiras. This represents a separate sitting. All desserts – ice creams, sherbets, pies, pastries, hot fudge, whipped cream, breads and crackers – are made by Bern’s with the freshest and best ingredients available.  Make sure you have a reservation or prepare to wait a long time for a table.

In the end one member of our party opted for a specialty drink, a Butterscotch Bern’s (vanilla ice cream with butterscotch liqueur and other special liqueurs) as well as two outstanding desserts:  the s’mores cheesecake (chocolate cheesecake, graham cracker crust and toasted vanilla marshmallow crème) and a piece of Granny Smith Apple Pie (caramelized apple filling wrapped in a sweet buttery dough and served with a caramel sauce and cinnamon ice cream).

If you are in the area of 1208 S. Howard Street then make a reservation by calling 813-251-2421. You can valet park for $5.Bern’s is fully wheelchair accessible. There are elevators which bring you to each level of the restaurant.

 

 

New Jersey’s Wildwoods

WILDWOOD CREST – It is always exciting for my family and I to explore a brand new vacation spot. After experiencing Myrtle Beach, South Carolina for the first time in 2015, we decided to follow this up with the Wildwoods in New Jersey (www.WildwoodsNJ.com).As usual, we get an early start at securing reservations, doing so many months in advance of a July visit.

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Home to more than 180 special events and festivals throughout the year, some might consider the Wildwoods the “Events Capital of the East Coast.” The events take place at various locations throughout the island’s three distinct municipalities: Wildwood, Wildwood Crest and North Wildwood. Visitors can find an event happening nearly every day of the week throughout the summer at locations including the Wildwoods Convention Center, Fox Park, Olde New Jersey Avenue and on the beach and world-famous Wildwoods Boardwalk.

The Wildwoods’ annual calendar of events not only draws visitors to the family resort, but also provides additional activities and entertainment outlets to those already visiting for vacation or business. From firemen to fishing tournaments, music to marbles, the Wildwoods have developed a unique offering of special events not equaled in any other resort destinations.

Spring is the time when the outdoor fun starts rolling in the Wildwoods, with events like the Boardwalk Classic Car Show, Easter Weekend and the one-of-a-kind Sensational Spring Weekend taking place. These events get the year started off right and help set the tone for the rest of summer. Highlighted by great music, loud engines and family fun, spring events in the Wildwoods are a great reason to warm up after a long winter.

Once Memorial Day hits, the summer really starts heating up. The Wildwoods host their annual International Kite Festival (the largest such event in North America), National Marbles Tournament, Wildwoods Baby Parade, New Jersey State Barbeque Championships, the Anglesea Blues Festival and spectacular 4th of July Weekend. Traditional events like these attract hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the country every summer.

Also taking place almost every weekend throughout the summer on the five-mile island are block parties, craft shows, conventions and many festivals. A wide variety of free concerts and live entertainment can also be found almost every single night of the week throughout the summer, including spectacular, free Friday Night Fireworks and free live concerts featuring national recording artists, oldies groups, dance and big band music and more!

Best of all, the fun doesn’t end in the Wildwoods once September comes around. The Wildwoods’ “Second Season” starts up after Labor Day Weekend, offering visitors a host of events every weekend through the end of October. Fall events in the Wildwoods include the NJ Governors Cup and the Olde Time Italian Festival; the Irish Fall Festival; the Seafood and Music Festival and the amazing Fabulous ‘50s Weekend.

There’s a little something for everyone on the Wildwoods Calendar of Events: Roller Derby, MMA, WWE Live and the Harlem Globetrotters for sports lovers; monster trucks, car shows and motorcycle rallies for auto enthusiasts; Comic, Sports Card, Toy, Postcard and Stamp Expos for collectors; a Barbeque and Blues Festival, Seafood and Music Festival and Italian and Irish Festivals for music and food lovers; and events like International Kite Festival and National Marbles Tournament for families. The best part about all of the Wildwoods’ events is that they are open to everyone to come and enjoy – and most of them are free to attend!

The Wildwoods Calendar of Events is available online at www.WildwoodsNJ.com or by calling 1-800-WW-BY-SEA (800) 992-9732.

WHERE TO STAY: We were fortunate to get reservations at The Adventurer Ocean Inn (www.AdventurerInn.com), which I can confidently say is probably the nicest hotel in all of the Wildwoods. This is indeed an oceanfront location, which has everything that your family or group needs to relax and unwind at the beach. You can wake up to the sounds of the ocean, watch the sun rise from an ocean view or oceanfront balcony, enjoy breakfast in their oceanfront restaurant or simply bask in the sun at the beach or at the pool area. From this location, you can walk to the beach, the Boardwalk and waterparks, and the Wildwoods Convention Center with ease. It comes complete with a cardio room, convention/meeting rooms, Southern exposure outdoor pool and kiddie pool, and free outdoor and garage parking on the premises.

Mary Nell Murphy is the managing director and owner of the hotel, which was originally operated by her grandparents. While her dad Greg Lacivita is still involved, he is slowly drifting into retirement and allowing Mary Nell and her sister Joanna and brother Chris to keep the family tradition going.

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We felt right at home at The Adventurer Ocean Inn the moment we arrived. This hotel features some of the largest and cleanest two, three and four room suites in the Wildwoods. Upgrades are done each off-season. They used to close from October until May. But given the increased activity at the Convention Centre, their opening date has been moved up to April, March and next winter February. We had a very comfortable two-room suite, which had a king size and double bed in one area. This was separated by a sliding accordion door, opening up to a nice sized living room/full kitchen with a pullout sofa bed, a nice sitting chair and a table with five chairs, which we used to eat at. It also became my “go to” spot to do work on my computer.

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As far as the pool facility is concerned, I want to give a huge thumbs up. On the eighth and final day of our visit, we felt very emotional leaving our very comfortable chairs and taking our last swim in the perfectly heated pool. There are plenty of chairs and umbrellas. You just need to give your room number and you will receive some nice sized towels for the day. We particularly appreciated the covered outdoor lounging area with an adjacent sundeck at the second level, which also had comfy couches. There is WiFi poolside so we could enjoy our different devices. At pool level there is an enclosed oceanfront lounge/meeting area, which connects to the beach. It also has tables to eat at, a TV to watch and washrooms.

The front office staff are extremely friendly and helpful. They will steer you in the direction of different tourist attractions. The reception area has an endless array of tourism flyers and booklets to choose from. There is a business centre with two computers and two printers.

The Adventurer Pancake House and Family Restaurant is located on the first floor on the oceanfront side of the building. It has been privately run by the same family for the past two decades.
There is a washing station on the oceanfront side of the building, just before entering. Guests are encouraged to wash sand off there before entering the building or the pool area. We swam in the ocean each day, which was happily quite warm in the month of July. It was an easy walk from poolside.

The hotel is located at the beginning of the Boardwalk, which has shops, eateries and arcades, The rides are three quarters to one mile from the Boardwalk, so you do not hear any noise from them.

Coin-operated laundry and ironing facilities are available on site. Groups can take advantage of a Penthouse convention / meeting room. There elevators on each side of the building, complimentary cribs and cots and daily housekeeping service. I was very impressed with the number of luggage carts available in the garage. There is a large Acme Supermarket only a few blocks away from the hotel so we were able to do a full order to stock the fridge when we arrived and go back and forth during the week to pickup other items.

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The hotel has excellent access for the handicapped from the garage elevator. There is a ramp leading to the pool. Mary Nell plans to have a company come in the next off-season and conduct a needs assessment. She has already added roll-in showers to some rooms.

All of the 113 rooms are non-smoking and have individual climate control(s), private balconies, telephone(s) with automated voice mail, free wireless internet access, refrigerators and microwaves, an in-room safe, flat screen TVs, hair dryers and toiletries, iron and ironing boards, kitchens, coffee pot, a two burner stove, pots and pans, dishes and silverware and a toaster

The beach is free and available for your vacationing pleasure. Umbrella and beach chair rentals are conveniently located directly on the beach; no need to bring your own! The Beach Patrol can also assist handicapped or wheelchair-bound individuals and their families onto the beach and/or to the waters edge. Guests can simply walk outside the building and enjoy!
This a fabulous family location and from speaking with many of the guests, they come back year after year. In fact it is fairly common for them to book their rooms for the following year upon checkout. By doing so they are able to lock in the rates that exist at the time.

I strongly recommend the Adventurer Ocean Inn! It made our trip and I thank the people from the Greater Wildwoods Tourism and Improvement Development Authority for recommending it.

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WHAT TO DO: There is an awful lot to do here and it all starts at The Wildwoods Boardwalk, often called “two miles of smiles.” Here you will find spectacular amusement piers, world-class roller coasters, interactive waterparks, family atmosphere, carnival-style games of chance, shops and irresistible food. Imagine, nearly nine million visitors are attracted here each season. We just loved the atmosphere.

Since its birth as a mere 150-yard stretch of boards in the 1890s, the Wildwoods Boardwalk has always been the center of activity. Throughout the years, the Boardwalk has gone through many transformations, growing and evolving with the mood of the country, and in its 100-year history, was twice moved closer to the ocean with the changing shoreline. Today, it is one of the country’s last great seaside promenades. Its rich history and world-famous ambiance has led to the very concept being replicated both in Disneyland and Hershey Park in Pennsylvania.

Stretching for two and a half miles, the Boardwalk offers pure sensory overload with over 100 rides and attractions (more than Disneyland) ranging from world-class roller coasters and wet ‘n wild waterparks to carnival-style midway games, flashing arcades and a myriad of retail shops and eateries (more than the Mall of America).

The Boardwalk features Morey’s Piers (www.moreyspiers.com), containing three action-packed amusement piers. Morey’s Mariner’s Pier, located at Schellenger Avenue in Wildwood, offers the atmosphere of a traditional amusement park. With the classics like the Super Scooters, Teacups, Musik Express and the Giant Wheel, Mariner’s Landing takes families back to the turn of the century when life was simpler. It’s also the only place to experience Breakfast in the sky— a gourmet, white linen and china breakfast on the Giant Wheel, offering spectacular views of the ocean and all of the Wildwoods.

Morey’s Surfside Pier, located at 25th Street in North Wildwood, is like stepping into a colorful seaside carnival. It was the first of Morey’s three piers, opening in 1969 with a giant fiberglass slide that only cost 25 cents to ride. Surfside Pier mixes a variety of kiddie rides with family thrills in an environment fueled by neon colors, bright lights and music.

Morey’s Adventure Pier is the one that rocks, packed with high thrill extreme rides, the world famous wooden coaster and the Three-Point Challenge Basketball Game. Soar through the air over the beach on the SkyCoaster, feel the G force of the SkyScraper or shoot your way to the moon on the SlingShot. A brand new stage features School of Rock.

Guests visiting the Wildwoods Boardwalk will find an array of exciting amusements, including three of the best seaside roller coasters in the country at Morey’s Piers: the Sea Serpent, the Great Nor’easter – an inverted looping coaster, and the Great White – one of the tallest and fastest wooden coasters on the East Coast. Also, giant monster trucks offer a high-speed, bumpy ride along the beach; and the Wildwoods’ three large beachfront water parks provide cool relief on a hot summer day – with plunging waterfalls, cool cabanas, spas, hydrochutes, speed slides, raft rides, tube floats, lazy rivers, waterslides, rope swings, water guns for soaking, and a 1,000 gallon dumping bucket. We secured special bracelets, which provided us with unlimited access for a full day to any ride in the amusement park as well as access to the water parks. You can also purchase tickets individually. I loved their flume ride, where we got happily soaked during two plunges and the huge ferris wheel. There were no huge lineups that you see at many amusement parks and that was appreciated.

Another of the Boardwalk’s most popular attractions is the Sightseer Tram Cars (http://watchthetramcarplease.com/tramcar), the source of one of the most familiar quotes to any visitor to the Jersey Shore and the Wildwoods Boardwalk: “Watch the Tram Car, Please,” transporting visitors from one end of the famous wooden way to the other.

The Sightseer Tram Cars were originally built for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. In 1949, Gilbert Ramagosa purchased five of the electric powered cars and put them into service on the Wildwoods Boardwalk. For over 65 continuous years, they have ferried tens of millions of visitors and locals alike along the Boardwalk.

The Tram Cars were way ahead of their time in being environmentally friendly, as they can operate for up to 12 hours at a time on the power of a single 2,000-pound electric battery. Today, eight Tram Cars traverse the Boardwalk and carry approximately 500,000 people annually along the promenade. A nominal fare provides seating on the Tram Car and transports visitors to their desired destinations along the Boardwalk, running a continuous loop from Cresse Avenue on the Wildwood/Wildwood Crest border to 16th Street in North Wildwood. We very much appreciated this service, having secured a booklet of tickets, which costs $50. You can get on and off where you wish. There are also bracelets available for $6 a day. Individual rides cost $3. This was so convenient for our family as we got on just steps away from the Adventurer Ocean Inn and simply got off at the Boardwalk stop we desired.

The Boardwalk is also perfect for a stroll on a cool night or a scenic bike ride amidst all of the Boardwalk’s amusements during the early morning hours. The Cresse Avenue bike ramp provides ‘bikeability’ for the Wildwoods connecting Wildwood Crest’s beach bike path to the Boardwalk. At the North end of the Boardwalk the bike ramp connects the Muhlberry Bike path in north Wildwood all the way to the Sea Wall, a scenic six-mile trek.

The Boardwalk has won numerous travel and tourism awards including being named among the top three Boardwalks in the nation as a Best Boardwalk for Food by TheDailyMeal.com in 2014; a Top Boardwalk in the nation by FamilyVacationCritic.com in 2015,2014, 2013 and 2012; and the Wildwoods’ Morey’s Amusement Piers were named among the Top 10 Piers by Coastal Living Magazine in 2014. In 2013 the Wildwoods were also recognized as one of the Most Awesome Boardwalks in America by BudgetTravel.com; as the Favorite Shore Town by Delaware County Daily Times readers; and as the Favorite Beach and Boardwalk by NJ.com readers.

While walking on the Boardwalk we met a young man giving samples of some neat pastries. He turned out to be a Montrealer working for one of the first BeaverTails (www.beavertails.com) outlets in the United States, Based on an old family recipe, BeaverTails pastries are a Canadian icon – a unique and delicious treat. Served hot and topped with numerous choices, including cinnamon & sugar, chocolate hazelnut spread, Reese’s® Pieces and peanut butter, BeaverTails pastries satisfy indulgences of all tastes. BeaverTails also offers a menu of favorite snack foods, including BeaverBites, BeaverDogs, poutines, and moozoo® smoothies, frozen yogurts and gelatos. The young man, a student at the John Molson School of Business, said that the response has been good. Not only do many Quebecers visit the Wildwoods, Americans were very curious – especially about our famous poutine.

Splash Zone Water Park (http://www.splashzonewaterpark.com), water-drenched fun in the sun, features the ultimate combination of high-speed thrills and tranquil surroundings for guests of all ages. It is located right on the Boardwalk. Within the atmosphere of a secluded family fun oasis awaits a mélange of everything from a giant water bucket, to waterfalls, speed slides and body flumes to a lazy river, a children’s water playground and a tree house loaded with a giant arsenal of every interactive water toy imaginable! When you’re not getting drenched in the water, Splash Zone offers sunbathing areas, a picnic facility and mouthwatering food at the Zone Grill. You can also book your own cabana.

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We love to play mini-golf. Our chosen course in Wildwood was the Black Light Mini Golf: Dragon’s Lair Mini Golf (http://dragonslairminigolf.com) on the Boardwalk. It was a lot of fun and only $5 per person for 10 holes. You can play rain or shine in this glow in the dark indoor facility, open 10 am to midnight daily.

We had planned on experiencing the Sightseer Whale & Dolphin Cruises (http://bigbluesightseer.com), but time ran out for us.

DINING OUT: Imagine enjoying a romantic dinner overlooking the water as fishing vessels glide into port with the day’s catch. Or, think how wonderful it would be to begin your day with a stack of fluffy pancakes dripping with butter and syrup while watching morning cyclists pedal along the Boardwalk, all the while thinking ahead to a fun day at the beach. Then, it’s lunch with pizza, burgers, curly fries or a sub, all topped off with soft-serve ice cream or sugar-powdered funnel cakes and a promise that you’ll worry about cholesterol, and calories later.

That’s what it’s like when you vacation in the Wildwoods, where there are restaurants and menus for every appetite, every budget and virtually every taste. From fresh seafood and Mexican fajitas to Chinese egg rolls and Italian cuisine, the Wildwoods have something for everyone.

The restaurant renaissance that started years ago in Cape May has spilled over into the Wildwoods and a growing number of gourmet restaurants are located throughout the five-mile island, each of them garnering superb reviews from critics and patrons alike. The Wildwoods’ upscale restaurants offer memorable surroundings, remarkable cuisine and attentive service for a perfect evening touched with romance, candlelight and delectable food.

Outdoor dining overlooking the ocean, the bay or the inland waterway is another unique way to enjoy dining in the Wildwoods. With amazing food, cool breezes, a phenomenal view and great music to top it off, there’s nothing like it. The backdrop is the evening sunset, sailboats slowly gliding past as the sun begins to sink toward the bay, leaving vibrant streaks of color in the evening sky.

For families on vacation, there are plenty of child-friendly dining options spread across the five-mile island. For example, the Wildwoods Boardwalk offers everything from hamburgers and hotdogs to French fries and pizza. Also, the many Doo-Wop style dinners throughout the Wildwoods offer large menus and a unique setting the kids will love. With classic diner food along with retro jukeboxes, waitresses in poodle skirts and black and white checkered floors, the Wildwoods’ Doo-Wop style diners are a great place to bring the kids for a meal anytime of the day.

For the adults, most restaurants throughout the island offer a full selection of cocktails and wines. Wine connoisseurs will find wine lists that reflect a wide selection of vineyards and vintages – including some New Jersey grown choices. A few restaurants even permit guests to bring their own choice of wines to enjoy with dinner.

I would like to recommend two restaurants in particular, which are part of the Big Fish Restaurant Group: the Beach Creek Oyster Bar and Grill (www.beachcreek.net) and The Boathouse (www.boathouseonline.com). Both promise outstanding dining experiences.

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At the Beach Creek, located at 500 West Hand Avenue, general manager Colleen Guest and her team run a successful operation. You can tell this when you arrive and see the wait for tables. Intimately served indoors amidst copper and wooden decor, or outside on their waterfront deck, this place knows its food. Located directly on the water, the Beech Creek is known for its award winning contemporary international cuisine. This casual surf ‘n turf restaurant and bar features an intimate dark lit dining room, a marina-side deck and live bands.

This restaurant has such a wide array of choices for wine, cocktails, appetizers and main courses that you will want to come back more than once.

We began our meal with some cocktails, a Hawaiitini and a Pineapple Express. It was difficult to select from the delicious looking presentation of appetizers. We settled on the Sunset Seafood Platter – six oysters, six top necks, six shrimp and colossal lump crab meat. It was amazing! We also shared some delicious seared scallops – cornmeal seared scallops and some more colossal lump crab meat, served over a tomato-basil bruchetta.

A Caesar and petite house salad were next, making way for the main entrées. The seafood a la vodka featured sweet sea scallops, tender shrimp and jumbo lump crabmeat in a vodka infused tomato cream sauce over penne pasta. The sea bass Champignon really stood out for us. This char-grilled Chilean sea bass filet was served with sautéed greens on a lobster risotto filled grilled Portobello cap and in a light grilled Portobello broth. Our final choice was the rib steak – 14 ounces of grilled Black Angus beef, served with sautéed greens and potatoes. This was an absolutely outstanding meal. We did save room for dessert, sharing a superb and nice-sized piece of double layer chocolate cake and a vanilla bean crème brulee. The menu is on their website and I would recommend you take a look before going for dinner.

If you get to the Beach Creek before 6 pm then you can take advantage of the three-course early bird special. For $25, you get bread, bruschetta, soup or salad, an entrée and dessert. Keep in mind that the portions are very generous.

You can call them at 609-522-1062.

At The Boathouse Restaurant and Marina Deck (www.boathouseonline.net), located virtually next door at 506 West Rio Grande Avenue, there is ample seating indoors and on the dock overlooking the intercoastal waterway. We arrived to a nice atmosphere of live music and young children dancing to the tunes of the musician. General manager Rick Raduns and his team provide a warm welcome to al guests. The Boathouse has been in business since 1989. It was built on the site of old bait and tackle shop and serves lunch and dinner daily in June, July and August. Come September they offer dinner daily, and lunch on the weekends. They open for dinner on weekends in October, until October 15. Happy hour is from 4 pm to 6 pm and take-out is available as well.

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There is handicapped access via a ramp. If you are wheelchair bound you will need to stay at the first level. We were seated in the nicely air conditioned second floor. Our lovely server Michaela went over the daily specials and some recommendations from the menu. I started off with a mouth-watering Pina Colada while another member of our party enjoyed a glass of pinot grigio. Some fresh dinner rolls arrived at the table piping hot.

We ordered to appetizers to share: the cold shellfish sampler contained three clams and three oysters on the half shell and chilled shrimp cocktail, with some delicious dipping sauces; and the Maryland style crab cake, broiled and served with a siracha remoulade sauce. Michaela then brought a bowl of house salad for the three of us to share. It was superb, with a house vinaigrette dressing and plenty of croutons.

For the entrées, we had a wonderful choice among meat and poultry, pasta and fresh seafood. Our selections were the broiled seafood combination, seafood ala vodka and the king cut prime rib. The broiled seafood combo is the restaurant’s best seller and includes a delicious sampling of fresh local flounder, shrimp, scallops, crab imperial and clams casino. Seafood ala vodka included shrimp, scallops, crab meat and penne, tossed in a cream rosé sauce. As for the prime rib au jus, it was cooked perfectly and cut like butter. All dinners are served with the garden salad, rolls and two choices from either French fries, baked potato, roasted red bliss, the daily vegetable, cold slaw or apple sauce. Pasta (marinara or butter) or for $2 alfredo can be substituted for the two sides.

When it came time to order dessert, Michaela tempted us with her description of the homemade decadent chocolate pie. The recipe apparently comes directly via the chef’s grandmother. Well, it was beyond “decadent” and highly recommended. The chocolate had a fabulous fudge flavor and there was plenty of whipped cream and chocolate sauce as well.
Take note that the sunset specials include two entrées for only $29. There is also a children’s menu, with items at $8 each.

You can call the restaurant directly at 609-729-5301.

Here is another tip. Check out the Marvis Diner (www.marvisdiner.com) on Pacific Avenue. We loved the fact it serves an all-day breakfast. Service was excellent and the menu had a wide array of choices. Their Greek salad is a real winner.

For more information or a list of dining options please visit www.WildwoodsNJ.com and click on the “Where to Eat” button or call 1-800-WW-BY-SEA (800-992-9732).

Atlantic City: New Jersey’s The Palm Restaurant

It’s called the “Entertainment Capital of the Jersey Shore” for its exciting mix of world-class entertainment, dining, shopping, beaches and all-around fun. While in Wildwood for vacation, my family and I decided to take a day trip to Atlantic City (www.atlanticitynj.com). It currently boasts eight hotel casino gaming properties – the Tropicana, Bally’s, Borgata, Caesars, Golden Nugget, Harrah’s, Resorts, and Trump Taj Mahal – along with several popular beach bars, free beaches, internationally-acclaimed and neighborhood-favorite dining, state-of-the-art conference/meeting venues, historic Absecon Lighthouse, the Atlantic City Aquarium, world-famous Boardwalk, Steel Pier, outlet and destination shopping at Tanger Outlets The Walk and Bass Pro Shops, respectively, and of course the Miss America Pageant and Show Us Your Shoes Parade.

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We spent the first part of our day at the Tanger Outlets, known as The Walk. It was a lot of fun. Located at 2014 Baltic Avenue, it is one of the first things you will see upon exiting the Atlantic City Expressway. You can valet park for $12 or self-park for $10. Once on site, there are more than 150 stores and restaurants to choose from. We found many good deals, even with the exchange of the Canadian dollar.

For complete information about visiting Atlantic City, log onto www.doatlanticcity.com, where you can find visitor information as well as a calendar of events, entertainment and tours that is updated regularly.

THE PALM:
I have travelled to many cities where the Palm Restaurant (www.thepalm.com) exists. But it was not until Atlantic City when I finally experienced this culinary masterpiece inside the Quarter at the Tropicana Casino and Resort at 2801 Pacific Avenue. Prior to our reservation we took advantage of the valet parking covered by the restaurant and explored the hotel, visiting the different shops and of course trying our luck on the slot machines. But unquestionably our choice of the Palm was right on the mark. Friends had told me this was “the” best dining establishment in Atlantic City and based on our dinner I must agree.

The Palm philosophy was born in 1926, when Pio Bozzi and John Ganzi opened their first location in New York City. From day one, Pio and John shared their commitment to quality and generosity of spirit with every guest who walked through their doors. What began as a restaurant became a legend – a place to not only enjoy an excellent meal but also catch up with old friends, meet new ones, close business deals, and celebrate family milestones. Still owned and operated by members of the Bozzi and Ganzi families, The Palm continues to serve as a second home for countless patrons, thanks to the exceptional standard of hospitality established by its founders.

When you start with the best ingredients available, you don’t need to rely on overly elaborate recipes or culinary fads. That’s why The Palm Restaurant’s menu features honest, satisfying dishes that reflect the best of its Italian-American heritage – from prime aged steaks and jumbo Nova Scotia lobsters to Italian classics like Chicken Parmigiana and Veal Martini.

There are 21 Palm restaurants across the United State, plus a Palm Bar & Grille at JFK Airport. It was not hard for us to see why The Palm is one of the most popular restaurants in Atlantic City. It all starts with Paul Sandler, the happy go lucky general manager who has been at the helm since this locale first opened in 2005. He is so hands on that when I called to make a reservation he answered the phone himself.

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“It’s been a good ride,” Sandler says. “It’s a pleasure to work with a company that shares the same values as yourself. For The Palm, it’s all about the hospitality piece, not putting numbers through the door and making as much money as possible. Hospitality and quality come first and then the money will always follow.”
Sandler noted that what differentiated The Palm Atlantic City from others in the family is the casual atmosphere. “This is a beach town,” he remarked. “They can come in wearing what they want. I think people appreciate that.”

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The walls of the restaurant feature painted portraits of international and local celebrities, along with loyal diners.

“The company hasn’t changed, and neither have we,” Sandler says. “It stands by its original core values of dedication, loyalty, quality and the whole nine yards. I think the only thing that has changed because times have changed is that the controllables at store levels have changed, so operators don’t have to compromise service and quality while still remaining profitable. But customers would never see that. We still have the same prime steaks and Nova Scotia lobsters since the first Palm opened in New York in 1926. We are just more astute to remain a profitable business.”

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Our server, Danielle Wilson (pictured below), has been on staff for nine years and it shows. She was a walking encyclopedia on the menu, the specials and items that were not even listed. When we asked for her to recommend a drink that had a bit of a fruity taste to it she listed the Little Vixen. It was right on the mark. There were three of us and to start up we shared an amazing Seafood tower, which included oysters, clams, lobster and shrimp. This could have been a meal itself. The oysters were amazing, as were the other items included. We shared what is called the Monday Night Salad – finely chopped romaine, iceberg, tomato, onion, roasted pepper, radish, scallion and anchovy. It was fantastic! Moving on to the main course, we decided to share a Jumbo Nova Scotia Lobster for two. It was steamed and already cut up nicely. A member of the dining staff removed the meat from the shells for us. As well, we shared a gigantic Porter House steak. It came pre-sliced and cut like butter. We enjoyed each morsel. For our sides we chose the three cheese potatoes au gratin and the wild mushrooms, again both outstanding. I cannot remember having a potato dish this delicious. All of their sides by the way are served family-style for two or more.

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We did save room for some of the scrumptious desserts on the menu, sampling the key lime pie and an extraordinary bag of warm doughnuts, dusted with cinnamon sugar and served with chocolate and raspberry sauces. If you are going to Atlantic City, Wildwood, Cape May or Philadelphia anytime soon, then make sure to experience this particular location for The Palm. It is worth the trip alone!

The Palm is open from 4 pm to 9 p.m. Sundays, 5 to 10 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays and 5 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
There is disabled access through the front door on street level or via elevator from The Quarter.
For more information call 609-344-7256 or go toThePalm.com.

Cape May, New Jersey

Fine wines, outstanding restaurants, classic jazz festivals and special events year ’round. Some things just get better with age, and charming Cape May, New Jersey is no exception. This historic Victorian seaside gem is the oldest resort and one of the most beautiful spots in the country. The entire city is a National Historic District, with nearly 600 preserved Victorian buildings. – See more at: http://www.visitnj.org/city/cape-may#sthash.U7mZo7zi.dpuf.

It is a mere 20 minute drive from Wildwood.

CAPE  RESORTS:  In terms of places to stay, the Cape Resorts (http://www.caperesorts.com) offer everything you can ask for and more. Each of  this group’s hotels has its own deeply individual personality. That means beautiful settings, approachable design, an array of wonderful dining options, plus fun activities from sunrise till evening. There is Congress Hall, The Virginia, The Virginia Cottages, The Beach Shack, the Sandpiper Beach Club, The Star  and  Barons Cove Sag Harbor All of the hotels and restaurants are serviced by Cape Resorts’ very own 62-acre Beach Plum Farm, located about  one mile away from the properties. The farm provides the restaurants and hotels with fresh eggs, produce, flowers, pork, herbs  and more.

Congress Hall (1)

CONGRESS HALL: We chose  Congress Hall to experience Cape May. This is  both Cape May and America’s oldest seaside resort. The hotel is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year. We booked a fabulous beach tent for three. After purchasing our beach pass, we were escorted to our tent. Staff helped us set up in this utopian location on the gorgeous beach, just steps from the water. For the ultimate experience in relaxation, rent one beach tent and learn firsthand just how good a perfect day at the beach can feel. When you get thirsty, someone will bring you a bottle of ice-cold water. Order a tall iced lemonade or a refreshing fruit smoothie for the perfect summertime treat. Building sandcastles can always work up an appetite, so you can order from their delicious lunch menu, made fresh and delivered right to your beach chair. Since these beach tents have a reputation in relaxation, they are very popular and are reserved on a first-come, first-served basis for either a full or half day. These rentals include: two lounge chairs (we requested three), plush beach towels, a cooler filled with water, soda, and iced tea (Congress Hall and Virginia Beach Tents only) and table and food service. In addition, we got three chairs and two umbrellas and a few more towels placed just in front of our tent. This was the perfect place for us to sit first when we came back from our numerous trips to the ocean. The water was quite warm in July, a real bonus compared to the temperatures we experienced in the past in places like Cape Cod and Maine.

The three lounge chairs sat atop a wooden deck. There was a menu on a clipboard. All we needed to do was place a flag in front of our tent and one of the staff members took our order and delivered the food right to our seats. It does not get much better than that. We thoroughly enjoyed our choices of a beach burger, a black mako (shark) sandwich and a Congressional Caesar salad, with grilled chicken. In addition, we ordered a couple of smoothies – mango and strawberry.

Later in the day we spent some time poolside at Congress Hall. There is one small pool – beautifully heated- for adults and a larger one for kids and families.

Congress Hall Pool (1)

Providing hospitality since 1816 and celebrating its bicentennial this year with newly renovated rooms, Congress Hall   is a haven of relaxed elegance, fun, historic charm and luxury at the New Jersey shore. Set amid landscaped grounds overlooking Cape May’s broad sandy beaches, the iconic Congress Hall is just a few steps from the ocean in the heart of Cape May’s famed historic district.

Guests can dine at The Blue Pig Tavern, the hotel’s signature restaurant that features farm-to-table menu items from Cape Resorts’ very own 62-acre Beach Plum Farm located one mile from the hotel. Additionally, Congress Hall guests, Cape May visitors and residents can experience the luxurious, accessible and relaxing Sea Spa. Acknowledged by Condé Nast Traveler as one of the top 75 hotel spas in the United States, the Sea Spa interior is designed to look like the inside of a beach tent to further enhance the feeling of a seaside getaway. During the summer season, guests can also enjoy beachside spa services. Congress Hall was additionally honored by Condé Nast Traveler as one of the top US hotels in the Northeast, made their list of the Top 10 Hotels in the Mid-Atlantic, and was most recently awarded the number two spot on Condé Nast Traveler’s 2015 Reader’s Choice Awards Top 20 Hotels in the Mid-Atlantic and New York. The property offers a wide variety of entertainment, including the Boiler Room, a live entertainment lounge offering wood fire pizza, a fun atmosphere with a New York downtown nightclub vibe, and the Brown Room, a sophisticated lounge where hotel guests and locals mix and mingle while enjoying cocktails and delicious appetizers which also highlight ingredients from Beach Plum Farm. Congress Hall is located at 200 Congress Place.

Summer vacations in Cape May are a time-honored tradition passed down from generation to generation. Congress Hall, America’s original shore getaway, embodies the best of that tradition in America and one that all started with this iconic hotel. Three major celebratory events were scheduled during the year on  Memorial Day, July 4 and Labor Day, paying homage to the past, present, and future with live entertainment and various classic American festivities. Throughout the year meaningful items were collected at the hotel and through social media from past and present guests to be buried in a time capsule.

Owner Curtis Bashaw, and his sister Colleen Bashaw, who designed all the interiors, are proud of their property’s milestone  anniversary. They have had an almost 50 year involvement with the property, starting when their grandfather, the Reverend Carl McIntire, purchased it and they spent their summers there as children. “Having grown up in Congress Hall with my family during the summers, I appreciate how important traditions are and how special places impact those traditions” explained Curtis Bashaw. “When Congress Hall opened in the summer of 1816, the United States flag had only 15 stars and the county was only 40 years old. For Congress Hall – which has endured fires, storms, economic disasters, wars, massive changes to building and fire codes and evolving consumer preferences – to have survived 200 years and be a thriving resort today is a truly remarkable accomplishment. We are proud and excited to celebrate this milestone with concerts, dinners and festivities all summer long.”

While staying at Congress Hall, guests can enjoy newly renovated rooms thanks to an extensive, multimillion-dollar renovation of all 110 guestrooms and the creation of four new suites  named after the presidents who have stayed there. Congress Hall was once known as the official “Summer White House” of President Benjamin Harrison, who conducted state business there in the summer of 1891. The American Institution has also hosted Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Pierce, Chester Arthur and James Buchanan, all while in office. While the room design may be new, interior designer Colleen Bashaw, describes her design inspiration as follows: “The architecture of Congress Hall is grand in scale yet simple in ornament. My goal with the interior design is to maintain that perfect balance spoken through the architecture of the building; luxurious while accessible with a dash of whimsy. A driving force for me is the thought that generations of families call this their summer home. I want my work to be part of the reason they return.”

Info: www.congresshall.com.

DINNER: We had the opportunity to enjoy two nice meals at the Cape  Resorts. Following our day at the beach, we took a five minute walk to the Rusty Nail Bar and Grill, located at the Beach Shack, for a really fun dinner. It represented a fabulously relaxing backdrop to dine at during a warm summer evening. We were seated  at a  table near the bar.

Rusty Nail 2

A revived beachfront motel, the Beach Shack features 65 spacious efficiency style rooms, including dog-friendly accommodations, all of which offer an ocean view, and a clean, sophisticated beach resort vibe, providing the perfect place to relax for man and man’s best friend. Decorated in a casual, mellow, beach-style, guestrooms are all about comfort and are located steps away from the beautiful beaches of Cape May and the hotel’s beach tents and service which offers menu items from The Rusty Nail, or “The Nail,” as it’s known by locals — The Beach Shack’s famed iconic surfer bar that made a name for itself in the 70s.  Named by Travel + Leisure as one of the Top Beach Bars, the Rusty Nail attracts everyone from lifeguards and surfers to beautiful beach bunnies, who gather around the wood bar that is rumored to be the longest in Cape May.  With live music, a fire pit, weekly pig roasts, shuffleboard and sand bar, The Rusty Nail is an authentic and cool beachside hangout.  The restaurant offers breakfast, lunch and dinner. It is located at 205 Beach Avenue.

CH Beach Tents

The Beach Shack and the Rusty Nail are dog friendly. The restaurant even holds an annual dog pageant each September and offers a dog menu. This is a laid-back beach restaurant, so do not worry about attire.  We started off with some drinks, thirst quenching pina coladas and a Rusty Rum Runner, a tropical blend of pineapple, orange and mango juice, banana liqueur and Bermuda rum.

As an appetizer, we shared the Nail sampler. This included some shrimp, oysters and crab meat, served with dijon mayo, cocktail sauce, and lemon. The menu has a wide array of choices. We settled on the fish and chips, an order of roasted scallops and two jumbo lump roasted crab cakes. Along with each main course you can pick two from buttermilk mashed potatoes, baked potato, French fries, baked yam or side of pasta and a seasonal vegetable selection.
The following evening we returned to Congress Hall for dinner at the Blue Pig Tavern  (http://www.caperesorts.com/restaurants/capemay/bluepigtavern). Its name derives from a gambling parlor sited in Congress Hall in the mid-1800s. Earlier still, in the 1700s, Elias Hughes operated a tavern for whalers on this site. It was the first tavern in Cape May. Beloved by locals and visitors alike, we were told that there is no better place to enjoy classic American comfort food. In the warmer months, you can dine on their wonderful, secluded patio. In the cooler months, cozy up to the magnificent dining room fireplace. Executive Chef Jeremy Einhorn has implemented a delicious farm-to-table menu featuring fresh produce, herbs and eggs from the Beach Plum Farm. Jeremy, a member of the Jewish community, has been in his position since 2010. He paid a friendly visit to our table, located outdoors in a courtyard beneath some umbrellas on a warm summer evening.

Blue Pig Tavern Exterior

After some drinks, we shared the Raw Bar Sampler. It consisted of six oysters and six clam claws, with a few dipping sauce choices. We next ordered some salads- a red and yellow endive and another called Beach plum farm greens.  The former consisted of farm lettuce, crisp endive, walnuts, apples and roasted shallot vinaigrette. As for the latter it contained tender beach plum farm lettuce, also tossed with the same vinaigrette.

For the main course we settled on the steak and crab cake entrée and the half roasted chicken. They came with sides of beach plum farm seasonable vegetables and roasted potatoes, Yukon gold mashed potatoes, creamed Jersey corn, green beans and herb jus. For dessert we shared a piece of apple pie with ice cream.
There is free valet parking at the restaurant, located directly at the entrance to Congress Hall.  For reservations call 609-884-8422.

New York City: The Algonquin

NEW YORK CITY: My family and I recently returned from a wonderful five days in New York City. Of course, the Big Apple is also one pretty terrific place to shop, from the boutiques of Madison Avenue, the iconic department stores on Fifth Avenue, the world’s largest Macy’s, the two bargain-packed Century 21 locales and the fashion-forward shops in SoHo and the Village. There are many great museums to choose from as well.

Among the most popular tourists stops in the Big Apple are the 9-1-1 Memorial, the Empire State Building, the Museum of Civilization, Ellis Island, The Statue of Liberty, Central Park/the Central Park Zoo and the Bronx Zoo.

CITY PASS: Before your departure look into purchasing the New York CityPASS (www.citypass.com) www.citypass.com. You will save 42 percent on the city’s six best attractions—plus skip lines. New York CityPASS includes admission to the Empire State Building Experience, American Museum of Natural History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Top of the Rock Observation Deck or the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island or Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises, 9/11 Memorial & Museum OR Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. The cost is $114 for adults (a $195 value) and $89 for youth (aged six to 17, an $89 value. It is valid for nine days. You can purchase the booklets or printable vouchers at citypass.com or at participating attractions for the same low price.

The one place I wanted to explore was Top of The Rock (www.topofherocknyc.com), translating into climbing 70 floors to the top of iconic Rockefeller Center. With my City PASS in hand I went there on several occasions, only to be turned away due to zero visibility. For future reference, all hallways, exhibits and restrooms are handicapped and wheelchair accessible. Power assist doors are located at the main entrance on Fiftieth Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Elevators are available at all Top of the Rock entrances and on street level on Forty-Ninth and Fiftieth streets for access to the concourse entrances. Washrooms have designated wheelchair accessible stalls. Guides are trained to accommodate anyone in need by leading the tour through wheelchair accessible routes and at an appropriate speed. For all short films played during the Top of the Rock experience, printed transcripts are available upon request from any Top of the Rock staff. All visitors are given a personal headset with a closed circuit connection to allow optimal audio clarity. Guides are trained to speak at an appropriate volume and speed upon request. Service dogs are welcome in all public areas.

By the way I picked up my City PASS at the Official NYC Information Center at Macy’s Herald Square. In addition to the city specialists who are there to answer any of your questions, the center also features touch-screen information kiosks to help you plan your trip, featuring Google maps and the ability to print directions; a multitude of guides and maps; and tickets for various attractions (many discounted). Visitors can also enjoy a Macy’s 10 percent off visitors Shopping Pass, which is obtainable for free from the center’s specialists or by using a driver’s license or passport at one of the kiosks. Located inside the Macy’s flagship on 34th Street between Seventh Avenue and Broadway, the center is convenient not only too many subway lines, but also the Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey Transit and Amtrak—which all operate in and out of Penn Station, located across the street. In addition, 34th Street is a major shopping hub in Manhattan and the location of a number of flagship stores.

BROADWAY: Unquestionably “the draw” in New York City remains its extraordinary Broadway productions. Be prepared to pay big dollars, even for a seat that is the second to last spot in the house at the top. Here is a tip though. Go online via Ticketmaster or Telecharge, check out the precise availability and call the toll free number so that you can get a more accurate route of what is available. While they offer to mail the tickets at least 48 hours before the show, we recommend that you either print them out online or ask to pick them up at will call. In some cases you can even buy cancellation insurance. The biggest hit on Broadway these days is Hamilton, the musical exploration of political mastermind Alexander Hamilton. It is a rap history lesson starring Tony Award winner Lin-Manuel Miranda. We began looking for tickets months in advance, but they were sold out going the conventional route. Somewhat reluctantly, we went on Stubb Hubb and paid an insanely high price. The show is spectacular. We were able to secure tickets for Fun Home, a refreshingly honest coming of age story of seeing your parents through grown-up eyes. It is told by the main character as a child, teen, and adult. The show is done in an intimate circular theatre. Five of the actors were nominated for Tony awards.

WHERE TO STAY: We really wanted to stay close to Times Square on this trip and hit the jackpot with the famous Alonquin Hotel (www.algonquinhotel.com). Located in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, this jewel of historic New York hotels commands the center of 44th Street, close to the bustling heart of Times Square and Fifth Avenue. The Algonquin first opened its doors in 1902. Today it is part of the Marriott chain’s Autograph Collection, an evolving ensemble of strikingly independent hotels. Each destination has been selected for its quality, bold originality, rich character and uncommon details. From near to far, iconic to historic, the result is an array of properties that is nothing less than unique. The Algonquin Hotel is the first New York City property to become a part of the collection. “The Autograph Collection is a very cool brand,” says Nicholas Sciammarella, manager of marketing and e-commerce. “Each hotel in this group is really unique and different to stay at.”

ALGONQUIN HOTEL FOR MAYDAY WEDNESDAY APRIL 15, 2015 Michael Rubenstein michael@mrubenstein.com

For 100 years, the Algonquin has been greeting and lodging the country’s most prominent writers and literary personalities, as well as the leading figures of the American stage. The hotel is best known, perhaps, for the members of the Round Table, a group of luminaries who had in common both the ability to fire blazing witticisms and to withstand being on the receiving end of them. The tone they set during their daily meetings set the literary style of the 1920s. After World War I, Vanity Fair writers and Algonquin regulars Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and Robert E. Sherwood began lunching at the Algonquin. Though society columns referred to them as the Algonquin Round Table, they called themselves the Vicious Circle. “By force of character,” observed drama critic Brooks Atkinson, “they changed the nature of American comedy and established the tastes of a new period in the arts and theatre.”

Each of the 181 rooms and 25 suites features a comfortable well-lit work desk, as well as complimentary Wi-Fi. Always one step ahead of everyone else, the hotel was the first to offer accommodations to actors and single women travellers. We stayed in a very comfortable one bedroom suite named the Robert Sherwood Suite.

 Michael Rubenstein michael@mrubenstein.com

Delighting thirsty revelers when it opened at the demise of the Prohibition in 1933, The Blue Bar has moved – both physically and eruditely – through decades of Times Square hotel bar trends. There is also The Round Table Restaurant and the casual Lobby Lounge.

As a cat lover I was eager to meet Matilda, the house cat. She is a real beauty and can be found sleeping in atop her cat house at the front desk or making her way through the different cat doors on the main floor. Matilda is a large ragdoll cat, soft as velvet. Operations manager Abeer Soliman was kind enough to bring her out so I could pet her.

Matilda

For many years the history of The Algonquin Cat was believed to have its origins in the 1930’s, when a stray cat came wandering into the hotel for food and water. After the hotel acquired an out-of-print book written by the hotel’s first general manager, Frank Case, a chapter was discovered about a cat named Billy. Based on the timeline of the book, the hotel is now proud to say the lineage of The Algonquin Cat dates back to the early 1920’s. Two days after Billy passed, a stray cat wandered into the hotel and The Algonquin welcomed Rusty. The famous classical actor, John Barrymore, was a resident at the time in the early 1930’s and Rusty was renamed Hamlet in his honor. Hamlet is said to have been Barrymore’s greatest stage role. The hotel has had a total of 11 cats, including Billy. The lineage includes seven Hamlets and three Matildas. Each cat that has reigned at The Algonquin has been a rescue. In 1980, author Hilary Knight immortalized The Algonquin Cat with his cartoons for a children’s book on which he collaborated with Val Schaffner. The current Matilda began her residence in December 2010.

Today, Matilda is looked after by the hotel’s Chief Cat Officer, Alice De Almeida. The hotel’s executive chef cooks her special meals on holidays. She receives fan mail and gifts constantly, from around the world, including Japan, Australia and Russia. Matilda can be found on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. She can also be reached via e-mail: matildaalgonquincat@algonquinhotel.com.

The hotel hosts an annual cat fashion show where the cat models— “mewdels,” – were mostly stationary, arranged on a circle of tables in the Oak Room, just off the main hotel lobby. This year’s sold-out show benefited the animal-welfare nonprofit the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, in addition to paying tribute to New York City’s first responders. Accordingly, each cat was outfitted as a different civil servant. A cat dressed in an M.T.A. uniform lolled in front of his food bowl, and a Persian in a tiny fireman’s hat snoozed next to a neighbor dressed as a paramedic. Cami, a rescue representing the nurses of New York, reclined near a stethoscope with a small, clear plastic cone around her neck, which was practical, not aesthetic.

“Matilda lives in a custom-made pet home perched atop the front desk. She freely roams the luxurious property (except the kitchen and dining areas), takes plenty of catnaps (which are in her job description), and receives fan mail and gifts from all over the world (including the aforementioned pet home). We got to pet her a few times.

I received a copy of a book about the hotel when I checked in called the Algonquin Kid: Adventures Growing Up In New York’s Legendary Hotel. The author is Librettist/Lyricist Michael Colby, whose grandparents Mary and Ben Bodne owned the hotel from 1946 to 1987. As a kid, Colby and siblings visited their grandparents every weekend. Colby took up permanent residence in the hotel at the age of 18 and made his way into the theater world as a librettist, composer and lyricist. His musical, Charlotte Sweet, an all-sung, all-rhymed original musical with libretto by Colby and music by Gerald Jay Markoe, received three Drama Desk Award nominations and was critically lauded as “adorable, strange and delectable” by the New York Times,”

The book also reveals how the Bodnes turned the hotel into a haven for victims of 1950s McCarthyism and a home away from home for such Black Americans as Ella Fitzgerald, Roy Wilkins, and Maya Angelou. I could not put the book down and finished it before checking out. Colby is an excellent storyteller. Colby grew up on Long Island. He, his parents, and two younger brothers, Douglas and David, looked forward to those weekends with the Bodnes who made room for them in their huge suite on the 10th floor.

The Bodnes made a fortune in the oil business in South Carolina. In 1946 they bought the Algonquin for $1 million, pouring $300,000 in for renovations. Michael’s dad, Sidney Cohen, wanted a career as a broadcaster and changed his last name to Colby. That career never panned out and he reluctantly accepted the post of general manager of the hotel. He was an unhappy man and Michael pulls no punches in telling his sad story, passing away at the age of 43 after falling down the stairs at home.

In the book it is astonishing to see the stars who stayed at this hotel, from Maya Angelo, Ella Fitzgerald and Julie Andrews to Whoopi Goldberg (who registered under her real name Caryn Johnson), Anthony Hopkins, Dick van Dyke, Joel Grey, Peter Ustinov, Laurence Olivier, Eva Gabor and so many more.

Michael had an extraordinarily close relationship with his grandparents, who owned and lived at the hotel for more than 50 years. If you have never stayed at the Algonquin before, this book will make you want to. It is available at www.amazon.com and www.michaelcolby.com.

“My grandparents gave me an incredible gift,” recalled Colby. “They turned an unused portion of the hotel into a studio. I got to work with a lot of stars. I think they came because they knew they’d get a free lunch at the Algonquin.”

DINING OUT: New York City is indeed the place to dine, with an endless array of choices to please your palate.

We enjoyed our first experience at Benjamin Steakhouse (www.benjaminsteakhouse.com), located at 52 East 41st Street, one block from Grand Central Station. From their juicy cuts of dry aged beef, to old world charm and elegant ambiance, Benjamin’s ensures that only the best USDA prime beef is used, and every cut is carefully dry-aged in specially handcrafted aging boxes, chilled to the precise temperature and humidity level, for a minimum of 28 days. The key effect of the dry aging process is the concentration of flavor. There is another locale just north of the Big Apple in Westchester County.

Benjaminfromabove

Since its opening in 2006, it is easy to see why this place has established itself as one of the Big Apple’s premier steakhouses, attracting business professionals and celebrities alike. In fact there are wall to wall framed photos of owner Benjamin Prelvukaj with A-list celebs, from talkshow host Jon Stewart to well known athletes. Prelvukaj and Chef Arturo McLeod have combined their 30 plus years of experience into a menu complete with amazing selections.

Chef McLeod personally patrons New York’s top meat markets to carefully select prime USDA meat that fits his highest-level of criteria. Benjamin also features delectable non-red meat dishes; such as rich and buttery Chilean sea bass or grilled Norwegian salmon, with its mild and delicate flavor. Diners are also passionate about the extravagant seafood platter, which consists of fresh oysters on the half shell, jumbo shrimp, half-lobsters and juicy lump crabmeat. We absolutely loved that item and especially appreciated the care our waiter Charley took in recommending exactly what to order. Alberto Belegu, one of the managers, is very hands on with the customers and paid a lot of attention to our table. He personally portioned out the contents of the seafood platter for each of us and recommended a white wine to have with the appetizers and a red to go with our main course. General Manager Mario Buqaj is also very present in the restaurant.

Platter

Our waiter Charley had started us off with some warm onion rolls and butter, followed by the extraordinary seafood platter and some baked breaded clams. The three of us then shared a delicious Benjamin’s salad. For the main course we let Charley steer us in the right direction. We shared porter house and rib steaks, both of which cut like butter and were cooked to perfection at medium. We decided on three sides: the Benjamin home fries, steamed asparagus and sautéed mushrooms. It was a meal fit for a king! Did we have room for dessert? The choices were pretty difficult to ignore. We settled on the decadent chocolate mousse cake and the tantalizing creme brûlée. I have been to a number of steakhouses in New York. My favorite for years was Ben Benson’s, which closed down a few years back. Benjamin’s combination of amazing food, service and ambiance brings it right to the top.

The restaurant has three levels. It is handicapped accessible from the street level. An elevator goes down to the lower floor where the washrooms are. For reservations call 212-297-9177.

And now for another culinary experience. Having dined for the first time last summer at Maison Boulud at the iconic Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Montreal last summer, I was anxious to try one of famous chef Daniel Boulud’s eight restaurants in the Big Apple. My choice was db Bistro Moderne (http://www.dbbistro.com/nyc), home of the famed “db Burger ” and literallu right next door to the Algonquin. It is located at 55 West 44th Street. The bistro is considered Boulud’s contemporary interpretation of the Parisian classic and a restaurant where traditional French cuisine meets the flavors of the American market. The seasonal menu highlights the quality of fine ingredients served in a casual setting. This is one of New York’s top-rated bistros offering easy going, and delicious dining at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and is a favorite pre- and post- theater destination.

I dined solo on this occasion and received a friendly welcome from general manager Rachel Ossakow who went over the menu for me. I started off with a plate of smoked salmon, with bagel chips and cream cheese and sampled the roasted mushroom crostini, featuring house-made butter, garlic confit and chives. Before the main course I enjoyed a delicious bowl of fall squash soup, which contained spaghetti squash and pumpkin seeds. There were so many mouthwatering selections to choose from, but I went for the house specialty – the original db Burger. This is a sirloin burger, served medium or rare, and filled with braised short ribs, foie gras and black truffle inside a parmesan buns and pommes frites on the side. I will have to go back as the seafood dishes, the duck, lamb, chicken, steak, salads and side dishes looked very appetizing. The dessert menu was not too shabby either. I settled on the Toasted Sesame Bavoiroise, a flourless chocolate biscuit with blood orange and mandarin sorbet. As well, a nice cup of chamomille tea concluded my order. The restaurant has a very extensive wine list and an on-site sommelier. Log on to www.danielnyc.com to see this menu and the others from the Boulud group. You can call 212-391-2400 for reservations.

If you are headed to South Florida anytime soon, Café Boulud Palm Beach at the Brazilian Court Hotel now features an expanded and relocated bar, sleek contemporary design, and an exciting new menu featuring the French cuisine Boulud is known for, with a lighter approach. Boulud and Executive Chef Rick Mace introduced a menu that balances signature Boulud dishes and French favorites inspired by his restaurants around the world with a spotlight on the region’s incredible seafood and produce.

At its core, the menu showcases classic French dishes synonymous with Boulud himself, but modernized to suit the cosmopolitan palate of Palm Beach: local Blackened Mahi with squash gratin and buttermilk; and Swordfish with sweet corn succotash and sauce diable, as well as beloved seafood dishes like Dover Sole Meunière, fileted tableside. Appetizers like Beet and Endive Salad, Pheasant Pâté en Croûte, or Pumpkin Velouté highlight the season’s freshest bounty. Main courses include 14 oz Grassfed Beef Striploin, Slow Cooked Pork Shoulder, Roasted Farm Chicken and a luxurious Chateaubriand for two, and all come with seasonal and local accompaniments. A raw bar-style menu highlights favorites like Local Rock Shrimp, Florida Stone Crab Claws, and Oysters on the Half Shell.

At the center of the new renovation is the enlarged bar area–at 15 seats, it is three times the size as before. Already drawing crowds, the bar’s menu includes an inventive new cocktail list, craft beers on tap, and food served throughout the day allowing guests to drop in at any hour for a quick bite or a relaxed meal.

The Bar Menu features dishes perfect either for sharing, a selection of soups, salads and sandwiches, and perennial favorites including a Cubano with house-cured pork, pickles and mustard, Maine Lobster Roll, and the CBPB Burger named ‘Best of Palm Beach’ by the Palm Beach Daily News. In a shift away from tropical and traditional Palm Beach décor, the new design is lighter and elegant, achieved with unique touches like a shimmery ceiling made from sea shells and Pecky Cyprus, improved lighting, and warm wood flooring surrounding the glowing bar.

The lounge at Café Boulud’s entrance sets the scene to see and be seen while enjoying an evening of excellent food and drink. Or relax and enjoy great conversation in our inviting, upholstered seating areas.

The Courtyard Terrace at the Brazilian Court, a longtime favorite place to dine among Palm Beach locals, remains untouched.

“Our goal was to create a contemporary design for this classic restaurant that retains its elegance while providing a refreshing and accessible modern look in harmony with the hotel,” said Lauren Hastings, Senior Designer of LSI Designs, a division of Copperline Partners.

Café Boulud’s Ballroom and Conservatory, among Florida’s most popular private venues for weddings, celebrations, and corporate events, have been similarly transformed. The French doors separating the two spaces have been removed allowing contiguous seating for parties up to 150. The Ballroom’s high-drama, glass skylight has been tripled in size, allowing an attractive glow of natural light into the room.

The conservatory has been freshened up and lightened to showcase the sun-drenched, open and airy room.

Executive Chef Rick Mace rejoined the Daniel Boulud team in 2013, but his ties date to 2007.

Finally, a note on what is becoming a traditional stop for us while in New York. I am talking about TAO Uptown on East 58th Street near Madison Avenue. This spectacular Pan Asian restaurant specializes in authentic Hong Kong Chinese, Japanese and Thai cuisines. Save room as well for their amazing desserts. There is also a downtown location and another in Las Vegas.

Hockey Night in Brooklyn

HOCKEY NIGHT IN BROOKLYN: I have always wanted to see a professional hockey game in New York City. That recently became a reality when I took the trip from the Algonquin Hotel near Times Square to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn to watch the hometown Islanders faceoff against the Toronto Maple Leafs. And I did so from the press box.


It is less than 30 minutes by subway, taxi or car. The 2015-16 season marked the first in Brooklyn for the Islanders. The team spent its entire 42 history at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, NY, aka Long Island. With the arena outdated and no new facility on the horizon, ownership turned towards the Barclays Centre – home of basketball’s Brooklyn Nets. The announcement of the move was actually made three years ago. They have a lease here now until 2040.
The team still has its practice facility in Long Island. Four Stanley Cup banners are already hanging in the Barclays Center. In addition, banners hang for retired players Billy Smith, Mike Bossy, Bob Nystrom, Clark Gillies, Denis Potvin as well as former coach Al Arbour and former general manager Bill Torrey.


Located in the heart of Brooklyn, at the crossroads of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues, Barclays Center boasts one of the most intimate seating configurations ever designed for a modern multi-purpose arena. For hockey the capacity is just over 15,000; 17,732 for basketball and up to 18,000 for musical or other performances. It opened on September 28, 2012 with eight consecutive sold out shows by JAY Z. Since that time it has continued to host the world’s most renowned performers, including Barbra Streisand, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Andrea Bocelli, Dave Matthews Band, Bruno Mars and Coldplay, all worthy of top billing on the arena oculus.
I enjoyed the experience immensely and strongly recommend it to anyone visiting New York. As Mike Bossy told, this is indeed a work in progress. Most of the team’s loyal fan base is still in Long Island. They either drive in or take the train. I spoke too many of them as I walked through the arena. While some complained about the commute of at least 45 minutes, they pledged to support the team. Communications manager Jesse Eisenberg told me the adjustment is going well and that sponsorship opportunities in Brooklyn far outweigh those in Long Island, where the team still practices. The players are doing their best to make this work as well. After the game I stood outside the Isles’ dressing room as a slew of players came out to take part in promotional meet and greets.
“I am happy with the move,” forward Matt Martin told me. “We will get new fans, but the old ones are still coming as well.”


Before the game I met with Montrealer Marc Champagne, one of the team’s goalie consultants. He spends seven to 15 days a month with the Islanders and has a personal background with number one netminder Jaroslav Halak, whom he coached in junior. Halak was out with a lower body injury on this night. J.F. Berube, a former member of the former Montreal Juniors, has also been with the squad and is injured as well.
There was a great atmosphere in the rink and so many fans wearing Islanders jerseys, most with number 91 Tavares on the back (for captain John Tavares). There are all kinds of neat promotions going on – seeking the loudest fan of the game, the best beard, the best dancer, guess the autograph and seat upgrades. At one point during the game a member of the US Army was introduced to the crowd and got a long standing ovation. The team mascot Sparky actually skates around the ice, something the Habs’ Youppi can’t seem to do.
TRANSPORTATION: Eleven subway lines stop near the arena: 2, 3, 4, and 5, B, D, N, Q, and R to Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center C to Lafayette Avenue G to Fulton Street. Travel Time from Penn (2, 3, C) and Grand Central (4, 5) is 22 minutes.

ACCESSIBILITY: The Access-A-Ride bus stop at Barclays Center is located on Atlantic Avenue, between Ft. Greene Place and 6th Avenue. The stop is situated on the South Side of Atlantic Avenue, adjacent to the arena, and is nearest the Emblem Health Atlantic Avenue Entrance. Barclays Center has been equipped with the most advanced assisted listening devices (ALD). Headsets and receivers are available at no charge at Guest Services. A driver’s license, credit card, or some form of identification will be required as a deposit. Guests who choose to bring their own headset and receiver may access the system on a standard FM broadcast.
Every concession stand and bar is accessible to guests with disabilities. If assistance is required at any of the food service areas, please contact the nearest staff member. Elevators for guests with disabilities are available in the Barclays Center on the Main Concourse, Lower Suite Level, Upper Suite Level and Upper Concourse. Predesigned elevators leading to the Event Level are also available for guests with ADA needs. Guest Services escorts can be provided when guests with disabilities are in need of event level access.
Patrons requiring interpreting services for concerts should contact our Guest Services Department no later than three weeks after concert ticket sales begin. All Barclays Center affiliated lots will have accessible parking spaces available. All public restrooms are accessible to our patrons with disabilities. Animals are not allowed in the Barclays Center, however, an exception is made for patrons with service animals.

Barclays Center provides wheelchair and companion seating with appropriate sight lines on all levels. Be advised that Center personnel reserve the right to take appropriate legal action against individuals who fraudulently

Poughkeepsie

POUGHKEEPSIE: When travelling to New York City, our family always likes to stop over somewhere on the way in order to make the most of our first day in the Big Apple and avoid getting stuck at the border. For our most recent trip we decided to go a little bit further than Saratoga or Albany and targeted the Town of Poughkeepsie (http://dutchesstourism.com), a mere 90 minutes from New York.

Poughkeepsie, nestled in the majestic Hudson Valley, is home to 45,000 residents. The town is rich with culture and steeped in history and the home of such prestigious institutions as Vassar and Marist Colleges as well as Dutchess Community College. Along with these institutes of higher learning, they also have Locust Grove, the former home of Samuel F.B. Morse (as in the founder of Morse code). The 180-acre estate of Samuel F. B. Morse includes an Italianate villa designed by Alexander Jackson Davis containing extensive collections of American and European decorative and fine arts. Three miles of carriage roads wind through landscaped grounds, romantic gardens and a shady grove.

WHERE TO STAY: For the two trips we made as a family to Cape Cod, we stayed at a Sheraton Four Points managed by the Linchris Hotel Corporation. I was most impressed with the operation. My main contact is Robb Moskowitz, Senior Vice-President of Operations. When we decided to stop over in Poughkeepsie, I remembered that Linchris had a property there so we promptly booked a room at their Holiday Inn Express at 2750 South Road. General Manager Rachel Kuhn and her team are in the midst of a $3 million redecoration plan in 2016. Linchris has owned this hotel since 1995 and likes to promote its ideal location. As Kuhn notes, if take the train you can be at Grand Central Station in New York City in 90 minutes. Kuhn has been with Linchris for 15 years, having previously worked for them in Boston and New Hampshire. She has found a home in Poughkeepsie, which is where she wants to stay.


We stayed in a one bedroom suite, which included a sleeper sofa and a Jacuzzi tub. There was a coffee maker, microwave oven, mini refrigerator, plates/glassware and silverware. I really liked the layout. In the main bedroom there was an extremely comfortable lounge chair. The bathroom was gigantic, with two access doors. This is very convenient for the person on the sleeper sofa, who does not have to worry about waking anyone up.

The hotel has 121 rooms and attracts both leisure and corporate travelers. A free hot buffet breakfast, as well as one of the continental variety, is offered daily. The lobby is very welcoming to someone like me who likes to work on his laptop late into the night and not disturb others in the room. I set up shop at one of the comfortable tables, helped myself to some coffee and a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie from the front desk and got to work. It was a most comfortable work environment.

The 24 hour fitness room features everything you’ll need to stay on track with your routine: a treadmill, lifecycle, stair master, recumbent bicycle, free weights, and a two-stage universal gym. There is also a 24 hour business center and a seasonal outdoor pool.

The hotel provides accessible parking and self-parking, van accessible self-parking., portable tub seats, communication kits with visual alarms and notification devices, TTY for guest use and closed caption televisions.

For more information log on to www.hiexpress.com/poughkeepsie or call 1 877 660 8550.

WHAT TO DO: The 22 parks in the area offer recreational activities such as hiking and walking trails in Peach Hill Park. Fine dining is abundant, while art exhibits, festivals, fairs and farmer markets are bountiful.
Poughkeepsie is situated in Dutchess County! Covering 800 square miles, there’s an abundance of natural scenic beauty, outdoor recreation, historic landmarks, restaurants, festivals and more. Activities range from strolls across the Walkway over the Hudson, treks through the Appalachian Trail, and sips along the Dutchess Wine Trail. Tours of the FDR National Historic Site, spins on the Dutchess County Fair Ferris Wheel, and tastes of the Culinary Institute of America restaurants are also highly popular as are cruises down the Hudson River, bushels of pick-your-own apples, and contemporary art from modern masters.

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Some places you might want to check out include The Bardavon 1869 Opera House (home of the Hudson Valley Philharmonic), The Mid-Hudson Civic Center (the one-time filming location for WWF Championship Wrestling), The Chance (home of live rock concerts), the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, The Barrett Art Center, The Mid-Hudson Children’s Museum, The Cunneen-Hackett Arts Center, Bananas Comedy Club and Joseph Bertolozzi’s Bridge Music. In 2011 Empire Cruise Lines began the operation of the first dinner and tour boat to call Poughkeepsie homeport in nearly two generations. The M/V Mystère is a 60-foot (18 m) double-decked tour boat which departs from Waryas Park at 29 North Water Street.

For shopping and movie theater entertainment, the Poughkeepsie Galleria is located in the town of Poughkeepsie. The mall, which opened in 1987, consists of two floors with 250 shops and restaurants to enjoy. The Regal Cinemas theater has 16 screens. Current anchor stores within the mall include Macy’s, J. C. Penney, Target, Best Buy, H&M, and Sears. I was really impressed with this mall. We were thrilled to find one of our favorite restaurants, Ruby Tuesday, home to a great salad bar and a fun menu. It is truly one of the chains I wish we had in Canada (12 other countries do). Services was fantastic. When I ordered something which I envisioned being cooked differently I told the server Daniel. Even though this was my mistake, she took it back and did not even charge me for the item. A classy move.

Myrtle Beach

For many years now my family I have contemplated a summer vacation in Myrtle Beach (www.visitMyrtleBeach.com), dubbed “the jewel of South Carolina.” In early winter, we had a family meeting and decided that the time had come to finally experience a week in the area popularly known as the Grand Strand. I can now enthusiastically share with readers how extraordinary this place is. In fact, there was nowhere near enough time to see everything on our “to do” list. That means a return trip will be necessary.

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Stretching from Little River to Pawleys Island, and comprising 12 communities along the South Carolina coast, Myrtle Beach is home to world-class golf, 60 miles of sandy beaches, exciting entertainment, family attractions and Southern hospitality. The area welcomes more than 16 million visitors a year.

I must give immediate credit to the Myrtle Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau (www.VisitMyrtleBeach.com), which does a fabulous job promoting the area. Follow them on Twitter and Instagram @MyMyrtleBeach and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/VisitMyrtleBeachSC. They go the extra mile to attract tourists. My first encounter with them was a few years back when they visited Canada and invited local journalists to come meet with them. Never before have I worked with an outfit like this which was so responsive to my needs and questions. They indeed serve as a model for how all visitors bureaus should operate.

Myrtle Beach has everything you could possibly ask for to have fun year-round, but I must say that sitting by the pool or the ocean on a hot summer day tops my list. There is an endless array of activities to enjoy.

WHERE TO STAY: There are approximately 425 hotels and 98,600 accommodation units in the Myrtle Beach area. From elegant golf and seaside resorts, to rustic cottages, bed and breakfasts and mom-and-pop motels, the area offers accommodations for every taste and appeals to every type of traveler. There are also several campgrounds located between Myrtle Beach and the South Strand, many of which are oceanfront or just steps away from the beach. There are also a number of beach homes and condos available for rent, thereby giving vacationing families a true home away from home.

1 Bedroom - Bedroom Shot

We stayed at the Island Vista (www.islandvista.com), a resort locally owned by the Chapman family that has been in the Grand Strand area for decades. The hotel originally on the property was called the Sea Island Inn and was torn down in 2004 and rebuilt as a luxury resort two years later with a wonderful fine dining restaurant called The Cypress Room. Many of the waiters who work at the restaurant have been here for decades, dating back to its previous incarnation. The resort, with 149 rooms, is centrally located in Myrtle Beach, but in a quieter section of the strip and is surrounded by residential homes and no other hotel towers. It has a very homey feel to it. I have never met such a polite staff, from the maintenance man to the front desk personnel.

Hotel - Back

All units are ocean front suite/condo style. We reserved a one bedroom suite with two queen beds in the separate bedroom and a nice pull down Murphy bed, as well as a sleeper sofa, in the living room. The unit also has a full kitchen with dishes and silverware, a washer/dryer, a dining room table, three comfortable chairs, two televisions, an in room safe and an oceanfront balcony. Stephen Chapman, his wife Shelley and his sister Julia Singleton manage the property. They gave me a look at some of the larger suites – two, three and four bedrooms- and let me just say I know what is on my “wish” list for a future trip. Suites range in size from 677 to 2,300 square feet and are highlighted by elegant traditional furnishings such as shuttered headboards, rich draperies and bed coverings, tile flooring, granite counter-tops, plush carpet and floor-to-ceiling windows offering amazing ocean views.

Parking is made simple here, with two multi-level lots. We rented a car from Alamo at the airport, which generally has the best deals, and with our GPS and some printed Google map directions we had no trouble finding our way around.

The hotel has a fitness and health centre, wireless internet and indoor and outdoor pools. We absolutely loved the pool setup. I felt like I was on a tropical island as our space was just steps from the beach and looking straight ahead at the gorgeous ocean. It is best to get up a little early to secure some chairs and an umbrella. Towels are provided via a special dispenser which recognizes your room card. You can rent chairs and umbrellas right on the beach from the lifeguards.

Pool Deck 1
The resort’s swimming complex features an indoor and outdoor pool area with a wide range of water amenities. Unlike any other on the Grand Strand, Island Vista’s indoor pool area reflects a serene Romanesque theme accentuated by a cascading waterfall pouring into a 200 foot lazy river. The indoor area also features a large pool, a Jacuzzi and a kids’ pool featuring pop jets and water games. The indoor facility opens to the outdoors during the summer months and is fully enclosed during the winter. Island Vista’s two outdoor pools overlook the Atlantic Ocean and features pop jets, leaping streams of water and a splash pool. I loved being able to connect to the free Wi-Fi from the pool deck all day. It was quite a novelty and saved me a lot of money on cellular data.

“The Island Vista truly embodies low country elegance in a relaxing, family friendly resort atmosphere,” said Chapman. “The Island Vista provides guests with luxurious and spacious suites and pristine ocean views as well as a host of outstanding amenities. Island Vista is one of the finest oceanfront properties on the Grand Strand and the responses from our guests have been overwhelmingly positive.”

Dedicated to preserving the style and grace of the Sea Island Inn, the Island Vista’s elegant design features architecture reminiscent of Howard Mizner and his style crafted in South Florida in the 1930’s. Don’t want to break from your fitness routine while away? The Island Vista has you covered with a nice fitness center which overlooks the indoor heated pool area. It is open from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. and offers stationary bikes, elliptical machine, treadmills and weight-training equipment. There is an in-house golf director here who is knowledgeable about the many courses to choose from. Special activities for children aged five to 12 take place during Easter Week and from June through August. There are even Kid’s Night Out activities, which provide mom and dad with a break. Each room has a DVD player. When you check-in you are given a card to take out DVDs for free from a special machine in the lobby – yet another plus in terms of customer service.

Island Vista’s gourmet restaurant, The Cypress Room, is located off the hotel’s main lobby and features an array of European-infused low country dining selections including signature dishes such as pan seared pork chops with apple and cornbread stuffing, crispy fried oysters with roasted red pepper tartar sauce, bourbon creamed corn and sweet potato hash, and pecan-crusted trout, with herbed butter noissette served over Basmati rice with wild mushroom ragout. Our group shared a crab and lobster timbale appetizer and sampled the risotto with provencal vegetables, roasted asparagus and red onion marmalade with lobster and the fish special of the day, a perfectly grilled Mahi Mahi. We also ordered room service on a few occasions, which enabled us to enjoy longer days at the pool.

The Cypress Room also serves a great breakfast daily from 7:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. I thoroughly enjoyed my morning order of two eggs, potatoes, toast, juice and a warm cup of coffee. There is also a full service bar providing alternate seating, as well as a selective range of the finest wines, liqueurs, domestic and international beers and specialty cocktails.

There is a large Food Lion Grocery Store just a short drive away. We stocked our fridge immediately with bottled waters and other staples.

The hotel has facilities for the disabled and is handicapped accessible. There are ramps at the front and rear entrances and the hotels has purchased its own beach accessible wheelchair. They have a lift to assist the physically handicapped to go in and out of the pool. Some rooms have walk-in showers and benches and chairs to sit on. It is important to share any special requests when making a reservation.

For more information about Island Vista, call 800-548-0767 or visit IslandVistaResort.com.

DINING OUT: There are approximately 1,700 full-service restaurants in the Myrtle Beach area and it’s no surprise that seafood is one of the primary cuisines. Murrells Inlet is nicknamed“the seafood capital of South Carolina” and Calabash-style restaurants are popular in the Northern Strand, as well as Carolina Coastal Cuisine. Visitors will also find a range of other cuisines to satisfy their appetites, including steak, ribs, barbecue, home-style cooking, international fare and regional specialties.

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We liked what we heard about Thoroughbreds Chophouse (http://thoroughbredsrestaurant.com) at 9706 N. Kings Hwy, between Magnolia Plaza and The Galleria, in Myrtle Beach’s Restaurant Row and secured a reservation before we left.

Since opening in 1988, Thoroughbreds has become widely known as one of the locals’ favorite fine dining restaurants after being recognized year-after-year in the categories of most romantic and best fine-dining by the locals. General Manager David Amend and his staff pride themselves in serving only the finest beef and ultra-fresh seafood.

The menu’s course options are neatly arranged to fit with the restaurant’s name, beginning with The Starting Gate. It features some salads, escargot, tuna sashimi, shrimp cocktail, colossal crab cake, duck tenderloins, fried calamari, chilled and hot seafood samplers, blackened lollipop lamb chops and sea scallop ramekin (jumbo sea scallops baked with bell peppers and scallions in a crispy golden brown cake). The latter represented the best from of sea scallops I have ever tasted.

Next is the Clubhouse turn, French onion soup or prime rib potato and mushroom soup. The Belmont Steaks –filet mignon, different cuts of steak, prime rib or pork chops – are served with a house salad and your choice of mashed potatoes or vegetable du jour. The Chateaubriand Bouquetiere at $76 per couple appears to be the house favorite. A slow-roasted and specially seasoned beef tenderloin, carved and flamed tableside by your server it is accompanied by creamed spinach, sautéed mushrooms, house mashed potatoes and fresh asparagus. Our server was Joshua Amend, the brother of David and quite good at what he does.

“Josh represents our style of service, as well as any member on my staff,” said his brother. “He is professional and personable. Every server here has their own personality. We do not try to stifle our servers’ character. I want our customers to have fun, and enjoy that Southern style of professional service. We also want our staff to enjoy the environment that has been created. It is rare to see a server here who does not have a smile on their face. We encourage our staff to interact with their tables. Every customer is different, and our staff is well-versed in situational awareness. At the very least, each customer will be treated with respect and courtesy. At the same time, their every need will be catered to in an unobtrusive manner.”

Caesar salads are prepared tableside by your server and made for two. The full list of sides includes caramelized onions, creamed spinach, burgundy sautéed mushrooms, sautéed asparagus, cold water lobster tail, shrimp scampi, crab cakes or shrimp. Seabiscuit offers the likes of tuna, breaded and baked grouper, salmon provencal, colossal crab cakes and a bouillabaisse (fresh catch, jumbo shrimp, mussels, calamari and crab in a fennel lobster broth). Then there is the Preakness, featuring veal, chicken Dijon, calf’s liver, Cuban congri, Australian rack of lamb, a 12 hour short rib and pan-seared duck breast. I opted for the latter, something not many restaurants offer. It was cooked to perfection and cut like butter.

The Home Stretch offers a terrific dessert selection: the triple crown of chocolate, grand marnier crème brûlée, apple spice cake, the Kentucky Derby pie, New York style cheesecake, key lime pie, flaming bananas foster, a wide selection of martinis and other drinks. We shared the Triple Crown and the key lime pie – both excellent choices. I must say that this was a true dining experience and a place I would strongly recommend.

Chef John Tapper takes his job very seriously and writes a blog (Pearl Onion Culinary Arts Blog) on Facebook. “Chef John is amazing,” says Amend. “His creative genius is evident in the dishes that he creates. He is passionate about his job, and actually enjoys creating new combinations of ingredients. His vibrant attitude is contagious. Our kitchen works as one cohesive unit. He has truly helped keep that flame alive after 27 years of being in business. Our future looks brighter than ever, and much of our current success should be credited to him.”

As for the history of Thoroughbreds, it is really a story about family and tradition. The original owner of this restaurant was a fan of horse racing. He loved how these animals could be powerful, wild, and unpredictable, yet at the same moment, show grace and elegance. He realized that the mass majority of people will never have the chance to experience The Belmont Stakes, or walk the halls of Churchill Downs. His vision was to combine the aesthetic beauty of these prestigious venues with the allure of Southern charm, cuisine, and hospitality.

Adds Amend: “We believe that a restaurant is built upon four vital pillars of success – cultured ambiance, delectable cuisine, professional service, and consistency. Whether it has been 10 days or 10 years between visits, our goal is to deliver a consistently memorable experience each and every time they walk through our doors. We remain, to this day, family owned and operated. Many of our employees have called this place home for over 20 years. We respect our employees and their contributions to our success. In return, we have received loyalty, support, and a staff that ranks second to none along the Grand Strand. I feel blessed to lead this team of professionals on a daily basis. We have become a small family with big dreams. Our sales continue to rise every year, even with the arrival of many corporate chain restaurants dotting the shores of Myrtle Beach. We remain true to our ideals and will continue to build this family of unique professionals.”

For reservations call 843-497-2636

The Aspen Grille (www. Aspen-grille.com), located at 5101 North Kings Highway and owned by Chef Curry Martin, is another must stop on the dining circuit. Martin says that when he decided to open his own restaurant he knew he wanted to offer something different from the usual dining experience in Myrtle Beach – something with a sophisticated, yet simple and absolutely fresh menu and a place where people could sit and relax in a warm and comfortable environment and enjoy each other’s company over a nice meal and a glass of wine. This is a place where music and conversation fill the air. Aspen Grille is the perfect place for a quiet night out for two or a lively group event. We enjoyed our dinner experience immensely.

Martin is a 1996 graduate of the Johnson & Wales University Culinary School in Charleston, South Carolina. He began his culinary career at Noble’s Restaurant in North Carolina. There, he strived to uphold Noble’s mantra on absolute freshness, and keeping flavors of foods as natural as possible. In 1997, he moved to California to take a position at Domaine Chandon Winery in Napa Valley. While there, he also worked at Hudson House, the hospitality kitchen at Beringer Winery. “During my year stint in California, I came to appreciate the role of wine with food and the subtle changes we make as chefs that can really affect a wine’s characteristics, ” said Martin, who also travelled to France and began working at Restaurant Pierre Orsi in Lyon and then Restaurant Michel Rostang in Paris. Upon returning to the U.S., he worked at Sonoma Bistro in Charlotte and Prestige Wines. When he finally decided to open a restaurant of his own, Martin was determined to stand out from the typical dining options found in Myrtle Beach by serving dishes driven by freshness and balanced flavors, and by offering diners a sophisticated yet extremely comfortable setting and exceptional service.

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Dishes here are based on traditional Southern cuisine, with Chef Martin’s own personal twist. The menu changes seasonally and offers simple, but flavorful dishes with ingredients sourced from the best local suppliers. You can pair any dish with a wine from a hand-selected list to create an exceptional meal. Appetizer options include escargot, fried North Carolina oysters, local shrimp risotto, sautéed angus beef steak tips, seared yellow fin tuna, warm goat cheese crostinis, fried green tomatoes, cold water oysters or the superb pan seared jumbo lump crab cake, which was on special on the night we were there. You can select from the soup du jour or enjoy French onion and there are a variety of salads to choose from. The chef`s selections include the 10 ounce bone-in duroc pork chop, the Cedar Springs domestic lamb rack, local pan seared flounder and shrimp, market fresh fish, pan roasted Ashley Farms duck breast, pan roasted Springer Mountain Farm`s chicken breast, shrimp and grits, filet mignon, angus beef New York strip and ribeye, seared New Bedford sea scallops and the braised black angus short ribs. The latter three were our choices and they were each spectacular – the short ribs cutting like butter and the steak cooked to perfection.

You can add a lobster tail to your meal or a variety of sides such as Brussel sprouts, rice, creamy cheddar grits, and fresh asparagus, and house cut fries, mushroom risotto, roasted potatoes. sautéed mushrooms, seasonal vegetables, spinach and Yukon mashed potatoes. Desserts include apple crumble, mixed berry bread pudding, chocolate chip brownie sundae, vanilla bean crème brûlée, peach crumble or flourless chocolate cake. We shared the latter two and they were amazing, particularly the former.

“My passion lies in the overall dining experience,” says Chef Martin, who purchased the restaurant with his wife Jennifer in 2009. “We want people to come to Aspen Grille and feel comfortable and relaxed, and know that the next couple of hours are all about them – not necessarily my cooking ego.”

Our server was the very charming Dee Shook. She shared with us the specials, one of which was a pan seared jumbo lump crab cake, and went over the menu selections in great detail.

Call 843-449-9191 for reservations or email info@aspen-grille.com.

GOLF: The Myrtle Beach area boasts more than 100 championship golf courses and 30 miniature golf courses, making it a premiere destination for golf enthusiasts and aficionados. There are approximately 3.4 million rounds of golf played annually in the Myrtle Beach area.

Check out Hawaiian Rumble, where they host the Masters Tournament of mini golf every October. Yes there is such an event. It is owned by Bob Detwiler, who serves as the president of the Pro Mini Golf Association. They take their mini golf seriously. It is located on Highway 17 and very popular as was illustrated by the lineup when we arrived at 7:30 one evening. We appreciated the Hawaiian theme at each hole and the replica volcano, which erupted with fire every 30 minutes or so. There were quite a few Montrealers on the course that night including a large family from Montreal North right behind us.

A SAFARI EXPERIENCE: As an animal lover, the moment I learned more about T.I.G.E.R.S. (The Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species) I knew that I wanted this once in a lifetime opportunity to be part of our itinerary. We reserved our spots immediately and let me say this was indeed a major highlight from our trip.

Liger, Doc, Kody, and Rajani

The man behind this operation is Doctor Bhagavan Antl, who started out training animals for movies and TV and they wanted a place where many went to essentially retire. They offer a guided safari like experience through a 50 acre preserve where many of the animals crawl right on top of your lap. A percentage of the revenue from the T.I.G.E.R.S. experience goes to the Rare Species Fund, which provides funding for on the ground international conservation programs. Where is this specifically located? I cannot put that information in print. Those who sign up are given a rendez-vous point of where to show up. You will have to experience it to learn more about this part of the journey. In order to maximize the peace for the animals and the privacy for guests, this preserve cannot be found on Google or MapQuest. Any address that you may find for this company is the one to Preservation Station in Barefoot Landing – 15 miles south of the actual location.

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The VIP Wild Encounter Tour does not have the capacity to accommodate wheel chairs or walkers. You must be able to walk/stand for 20 minutes and make your way up a flight of approximately 20 steps. Needing assistance of a cane and/or family member would be fine. You must be at the preserve no later than 9 a.m on your chosen day. No late arrivals are accepted, so give yourself plenty of time to get there. Any children (18 or under) on the tour must either be accompanied by a parent or guardian or arrive with a fully completed and signed release. The minimum age is six.

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No personal cameras, video cameras, or cell phones are allowed on the tour. Professional photographers shoot studio quality photographs and video. This gives you the opportunity to take home a set of portraits and phenomenal videos that are incomparable to any other photo opportunity. The $200 fee is well worth it. Tours run three to five days a week, from mid-March to early October, and cost about $300 per person.

Close-toed shoes are required. That means no flip-flops or sandals. It is recommend that you do wear pants that come down to your knees. The animals will be crawling across your laps and they do have nails and although trimmed this can still be uncomfortable. No dresses or skirts are allowed on the tours. Avoid anything hanging off of you that an animal could get caught, which means no straps, purses or backpacks.

Any item that may be needed due to a medical condition (i.e. insulin/small prepackaged snack for diabetes, medicine/epi-pen for severe allergies etc.) should be brought in and left behind the desk. White clothing is also frowned upon as it can interfere with flash photography and you will also be outside on the ground with animals.

It is recommended making your reservation at least two weeks in advance. Tours are generally more popular during the summer months and holidays. No matter the size of the tour, it is an intimate experience. They adjust the time you spend with the animals accordingly, so every tour gets the same experience. It also operates rain or shine. A large majority of the tour is covered and they have the capacity to move portions of it inside if needed. They do have complimentary umbrellas available, but recommend that if it is raining that you bring your own rain jacket/poncho and wear clothing you do not mind getting a little damp in.

This is a fully interactive activity. You will get to meet, pet, and hold a large variety of the animals. After filling out the necessary forms and getting a pep talk from long-time animal ambassador Rob Johnson, our group was introduced to a liger- a 900 pound hybrid between a male lion and a female tiger. We first watched it march around through a glass window and then got to look at in the flesh from about 12 feet away before they snapped our photo with the big cat in the background. Our group was then told to sit as tightly as possible on a horseshoe configuration of benches and then put our hands out. Soon after a binturon walked across our laps, allowing everyone to pet her. A binto what, you ask? This is a medium sized carnivore, also known as the Asian bearcat. Their fur is thick, coarse and black in colour and they have a long, bushy tail.

The animals on each tour vary depending upon the day and the time of year, but you will always get to spend time with the tiger babies, hang out with the monkeys or apes and meet exotic animals you’ve probably never even heard of before.

All of the animal actors can be seen up close and uncaged in close personal contact with their trainers. The trusted relationship they have with their handlers can be seen and felt by the audience. This makes them perfect for live shows or personal appearance. Because Dr. Antle and his trainers have hand raised these animals, they are cooperative and safe and that saves valuable production time and money. People often think it is dangerous to get so close to wild animals like these, but the handlers at T.I.G.E.R.S. have been with these animals since they were babies and have developed a special friendship based on love and respect. In fact, Dr. Antle and his partner Kheira have actually delivered many of the cubs in the enclosure with the mothers because of their special relationships. T.I.G.E.R.S. has a proven method of training these animals: Never treat them as pets, lots of tender loving care, and thousands of hours of one-on-one handling. They even live with the animals 24 hours a day. As Rob Johnson told me, many of the staff like him live on the property and are literally married to their job. Antle’s son and daughter grew up here and are part of the team.

The tour itself lasted about three hours. Early on we sat in a covered enclosure and they brought us baby tigers, lions, lynx and wolves to touch and hold. They were all so gentle. During a refreshment break in a tree top location we observed some members of the cat family let loose and running upwards of 45 miles per hour to try and catch a snack on a rope. Rob Johnson introduced us to a very intelligent eagle, which followed all of his commands.

During these one of a kind shows, you see the animals interacting with their handlers who have developed a very special rapport with them. You will not see our animals sleeping or pacing in cages, as you may find in “traditional” zoos. Instead you will have a look at some of the most magnificent creatures on earth up close and uncaged doing all of the natural activities they would normally do in the wild. Why go to such great lengths? Because the team at T.I.G.E.R.S. feel that if people can get an up-close and educational view of these glorious beasts, they will be eager to learn of the plight of endangered species.

During the Myrtle Beach Safari tour guests will have the opportunity to watch the trainers swim with the tigers. This is not something that they can allow the public to do so bathing suits are not required on the tour.

There are some incredible personal/private encounters. A long standing favorite is to swim with Bubbles the elephant in the intra-coastal waterway on the edge of the preserve. You may want to spend more one on one time with the cubs, have an adventure through the forest or paint with the great apes. These encounters start at $5,000. Email tigersmbsafari@yahoo.com for more information on that. We all got to meet, pet and feed the gigantic and gentle Bubbles.

T.I.G.E.R.S. works closely with international wildlife conservation projects in Africa and Thailand. In addition to providing much needed funds for these programs, personnel have been involved in field research as well. Through our appearances on the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and NBC’s Tonight Show they have been able to reach hundreds of millions of people with an educational message of the importance of wild animal conservation. The animal actors have appeared in over 500 films, television shows, commercials and advertisements worldwide. You have seen some of these animals in great films such as Ace Ventura, Forrest Gump, Dr. Dolittle, Mighty Joe Young and many others.

For more information, log on to http://www.myrtlebeachsafari.com and http://www.tigerfriends.com/RSF.html).

T.I.G.E.R.S. works closely with international wildlife conservation projects in Africa and Thailand. In addition to providing much needed funds for these programs, personnel have been involved in field research as well. Through our appearances on the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and NBC’s Tonight Show they have been able to reach hundreds of millions of people with an educational message of the importance of wild animal conservation. The animal actors have appeared in over 500 films, television shows, commercials and advertisements worldwide. You have seen some of these animals in great films such as Ace Ventura, Forrest Gump, Dr. Dolittle, Mighty Joe Young and many others.
Info: Email tigersmbsafari@yahoo.com.

HELICOPTER RIDES: There is nothing like a helicopter ride to truly see all of what Myrtle Beach has to offer. Ocean Front Helicopters (http://oceanfront-helicopters.com) provides some of the best deals and we can personally vouch for an amazing experience. Formerly known as Huffman Helicopters, every one of their tours take you along the coast for gorgeous views of beautiful, sunny beaches. They have over 40 years of experience in the aviation industry, having maintained a perfect safety record from day one. Our pilot Nick told us that on some days they take as many as 400 trips.

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There may be other helicopter companies in town, but Oceanfront offers the only $20 flight that will actually take you over the beach! “Why pay twenty bucks to look at the tops of buildings when you could be treating yourself to stunning views of beautiful coastline?” they ask. There are southbound tours that fly over estuaries and marsh land for nature lovers. There’s a tour that flies north for fantastic views of the Skywheel and Boardwalk and there is even one that flies along the “Golden Mile,” a stretch of coastline where million dollar mansions are nestled into the dunes.

Whether you’re just looking to add some variety to your annual family vacation or a first-timer looking for something fun and unique, there’s no better way to make this a memorable vacation than to see the beach from a birds-eye view in any one of our amazing helicopter tours!

Maintenance personnel are factory trained, and the ground crew are handpicked for their skills, professionalism, and personality.

The Inlet Tour is the one we opted for. The views are simply breathtaking, such as low country marshes, untouched sand dunes and a bevy of native wild life. Several bird species, alligators and turtles all call the marshlands home. The length of this tour -15 to 20 minutes- also greatly increases the chance of spotting a pod of dolphins playing in the water or even a lone shark hunting for its next meal!

The untouched sand dunes take you back to the natural beauty of a coastal treasure from yesteryear. This tour is capped off with an awe-inspiring view of the mouth of the inlet. The sheer magnitude of this feature where the ocean meets land can’t truly be appreciated until you see it from a bird’s eye view. The cost is $129 per person.

Bring your camera on this tour and snap some photos that will make all of your family and friends green with envy! Personnel will take a nice shot of your party in front of the helicopter when you land and print four by six for you. The location is right by the airport, with plenty of free parking. This is a well-oiled machine. No reservations are required. Just line up for your tickets and you will be told which line number to queue at. When it is your group’s turn personnel will load you on to the chopper, fasten the seatbelts and hand you headsets so you can communicate with the pilot. We appreciated Nick’s descriptions of what was below. He even recommended specific restaurants. Always tip your pilot as that accounts for an important part of their livelihood.

“Our pilots come from a variety of backgrounds,” says marketing director Tom Printz. “We employ many ex-military pilots, flight instructors and pilots with previous experience flying sight-seeing tours. We take great pride in our perfect safety record and employ only the most qualified candidates.”

The company can accommodate handicapped passengers. Wheelchairs, walkers, crutches and any other device that assists with motor functions will be brought right up to the helicopter. The loading staff will place the individual inside of the helicopter and their device will be set off to the side of the landing pad area. Once the flight is over, staff will bring the devices back onto the helipad and assist the individual out of the helicopter. As for the intellectually handicapped, as long as they are able to receive instruction and can follow safety guidelines, they can enjoy the tours as much as anyone else! “We take great pride in making sure special needs individuals are properly taken care of and that they have an amazing time with us!” says Printz.

The $20 tour is considered an “Intro Flight.” It is the least expensive tour offered and is intended for those who may be on the fence about flying. The short ride will get them up in the helicopter and accustomed to what it feels like, but it is also short enough that if they don’t like it they will be back down on the ground quickly. “Soon after we created this tour, many of our customers who can’t afford the longer flights would purchase it just to be able to say they have flown in a helicopter!” said Printz.

They operate seven days a week, 365 days a year. During the non-summer months the company maintains a smaller staff, but as long as weather permits they do fly.

For more information call (843) 946-0022.

ATTRACTIONS: The beach is certainly the Myrtle Beach area’s top attraction, but the fun does not end with surf and sand. The Grand Strand offers a wide range of unique attractions and exciting entertainment options from shopping, dining, water sports and theme parks, to live entertainment theaters, nightclubs and celebrity concerts. The Myrtle Beach area boasts more than eight live theatres with a total of over 11,577 seats.

ALABAMA THEATRE: For my family, no holiday is complete without a live show and that is exactly what we got at the Alabama Theatre (www.alabama-theatre.com). There is good reason why this is recognized as the number one entertainment venue in the area. Located at 4750 Highway 17 South next to popular Barefoot Landing, the theatre opened in 1993 and got its name directly from the country music super group Alabama whose members decided to build this state-of-the-art facility.

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Gaylord Entertainment was eventually brought on board to collaborate in writing, directing and producing a nightly show incorporating many musical genres. Gaylord Entertainment, then owner of the Grand Ole Opry, Opryland USA Theme Park, Opryland Hotels, TNN & CMT, was no stranger to big time show business and brought a talented team from Nashville, Las Vegas and Los Angeles to write, choreograph, costume and produce the first season’s shows called American Pride and Christmas in Dixie.

Turn the page to 2015 and the Alabama Theatre remains at the forefront of entertainment venues on the East Coast with Gaylord Entertainment continuing to produce their signature ONE The Show and the South’s Grandest Christmas Show. The Guest Artist Concert Series also brings in top touring acts once a week like Alabama, Vince Gill, Josh Turner, Engelbert Humperdinck, Temptations & Four Tops, Loretta Lynn and many more.

Planning for each year’s shows begins many months prior to the grand opening before a live audience. Creative direction is set first with the goal of making the new year’s show fresh and exciting for returning patrons by introducing new songs, scenic elements, costumes and performers. Next, writers, choreographers, music directors and technical experts develop the new show and prepare for rehearsals and scenic implementation. Extensive rehearsals follow involving the singers, dancers and band learning the new show under the direction of the production team. Even the technical crew is integral to the rehearsal process since they must perfect the flow of the show backstage. The Alabama Theatre shows remain on the cutting edge of entertainment technology by adding new scenic, video and sound elements to the 2015 shows.

We saw ONE The Show and it was nothing less than spectacular. What a quality evening of entertainment! The presentation from a talented group of singers, dancers and musicians features everything from country, gospel, broadway, pop and rock to plenty of hilarious family comedy. We heard songs from Michael Jackson, Frozen, Mary Poppins, the Rat Pack (Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.), Les Miserables and classics like Putting on the Ritz and Amazing Grace.

The talented entertainers, extravagant costumes and extraordinary scenery will make you feel like you are in New York or Las Vegas – at a fraction of the price! Emcee and featured vocalist Greg Rowles is quite personable and changes his suit every five minutes or so. Remember the name Ricky Mokel. This is the alter ego of stand-up comic Grant Turner. He introduces himself to the audience before the actual show begins as a stage hand and reads out a series of instructions. With a thick Southern accent, he has the crowd roaring with laughter in seconds. Throughout the evening he comes back to perform small bits and at intermission and the end of the night signs autographs in the lobby. He does perform solo occasionally. Ventriloquist Todd Oliver and his talking dog Irving, America’s Got Talent semi-finalists, are also part of this year’s lineup.

ONE runs from February through October six nights a week. Kids are admitted free between Memorial Day and Labour Day (two kids aged 16 and under per paid adult). A special Christmas show runs in November and December. One day each week the theatre generally presents a guest artist.

If you want an evening filled with song, dance and laughter, the Alabama Theatre is the place you want to visit while on vacation with your family and friends! The memory will last a lifetime. Purchase your tickets today by calling 1-800-342-2262 or online.

Handicapped parking space in their large lot are available for vehicles bearing handicapped parking stickers or license plates. These spaces are located on the south side of the theatre. Wheelchairs may be reserved in advance to assist in transporting guests from their vehicle to their seats. Parking lot assistance may also be arranged for people with disabilities. Just let reservations know when ordering your seats. Accessible restrooms are available in the main lobby. An amplified hearing device and wheelchair and sight-impaired seating are available. Sign language-interpreted performances may be arranged for patrons who are deaf or hard of hearing.

SKYWHEEL: Check out the SkyWheel for what promises to be a very enjoyable eight to 10 minute flight. The recurrent hours of operation are Sunday to Saturday from 11 a.m. until 11 p.m., barring of course inclement weather or lightning. Email info@skywheel.com for more information. Anywhere from two to six people can fly at one time. For the VIP flight, up to four can fly. And don’t worry – if there are just a few of you, no strangers will be put in with you. Each flight is your own private experience!

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If you’d like the easiest access to the SkyWheel, there is a paid parking lot right next door. For a quick visit, have a handful of change and use some metered spots all along Ocean Boulevard.
Situated as a centerpiece of the 1.2 mile-long Oceanfront Boardwalk and Promenade, the SkyWheel is surrounded by some tasty eats, great shopping and the pristine sands of the Atlantic. When you’re done having your breath taken away by the view from your flight, browse the LandShark SurfShack and then do some browsing at all of the shops.

RETAIL: The Grand Strand shopping complexes are destinations within themselves, including more than 300 outlet stores. Visitors can stroll along boardwalk promenades on warm
evenings, venture in and out of hundreds of unique specialty stores, and dine in exceptional restaurants along the way. We checked out the Tanger Outlets and were impressed with the deals available at the major brand name stops. Ditto for Broadway at the Beach, a gigantic and fun complex of food and fun.

FAMILY REUNIONS: The Myrtle Beach area is an ideal location for multi-generational travel or family reunions. For visitors both tall and small, the Grand Strand offers attractions certain to please every age group. Beachfront hotels, timeshares and cottages offer spacious options that will accommodate families of all sizes.

ROMANCE: With dazzling sunsets painting the horizon, and palmetto trees swaying in the gentle breezes, the Myrtle Beach area offers a picturesque location for a romantic getaway or
beach wedding. The picturesque beach setting also makes the Grand Strand an ideal spot for newlyweds to spend a romantic and fun honeymoon.

AMUSEMENT PARK: Located at 300 Ocean Boulevard in the heart of Myrtle Beach, Family Kingdom (http://www.familykingdomfun.com/?rf=family-kingdom) has been a tradition here for locals and visitors for more than 40 years. Opened originally as Grand Strand Amusement Park in 1966, it was rechristened “Family Kingdom Amusement Park” after being purchased in 1992 by the Ammons family, owners of the landmark Sea Mist Oceanfront Resort. It has 39 rides. Family Kingdom is the home of the legendary Swamp Fox wooden roller coaster, the Giant Wheel, and over 37 other great rides and attractions for all ages. Here you get the full amusement park experience with midway games, family entertainment and traditional park temptations such as funnel cakes, cotton candy and corn dogs. Family Kingdom is also home to “Splashes,” a beachfront water park located across Ocean Boulevard from the amusement park. Splashes features exhilarating water slides with breathtaking drops of as much as 100 feet; open and enclosed wet and wild flume rides; and a spacious 425’ long lazy river with waterfalls. There are also splash pools, eight kiddie slides and two rain trees. This is another place we did not have time to visit. More information about Family Kingdom Amusement Park and Splashes is available at www.FamilyKingdomFun.com.

In 2013 the park added four exciting new rides including the Twist ‘n Shout steel roller coaster. And in 2014, they introduced the interactive bouncing on the Jump Around Dune Buggies, and the Magic Bikes. Longstanding favorites include the Swamp Fox wooden roller coaster, the Log Flume, bumper cars and go-karts. The Picnic Pavilion is a covered dining area that can accommodate up to 100 guests for birthday parties, family reunions or any group outing.

SHAWN’S BACKWATER TOUR: When in Myrtle Beach we strongly recommend you experience some jet skiing, more specifically via Shawn’s Backwater Adventure (http://shawnsbackwateradventure.com) and http://myrtlebeachwatersports.com/wp. This was on our original itinerary, but had to be scratched due to some scheduling conflicts. I did a lot of research before choosing this company and wanted to give them some well-deserved exposure,

Shawn Zimmerman and Steve Wiegel are the men in charge here and they know what they are doing. Their company, Myrtle Beach Water Sports, opened its first location in 1996 with three jet skis. Today they have over 50 jet skis, 10 pontoon boats, two 75 foot dolphin cruise boats, a pirate cruise boat and more. “We are proud to say that we offer a little something for everyone with locations and activities from one end of the Grand Strand to the other,” says Shawn. He and Steve are always on hand to greet their returning guests that come year after year. Their parents and kids are active in the day to day operations of the business as well.

“Myrtle Beach Water Sports is committed to complete customer satisfaction,” says Shawn. “We provide the newest and best equipment available to serve you with safety being our number one concern.”

The waters of South Carolina have been Shawn’s playground for the past 16 years. He has explored and rode South and North Carolina’s backwaters since he moved to Myrtle Beach in 1995. At Shawn’s Backwater Adventure, you’re not just renting a jet ski, you are taking a tour of the Waccamaw River’s beautiful winding trails!

Shawn and Steve are originally from Mt. Pleasant, Pennsylvania. Shawn moved to Myrtle Beach in 1995. Growing up, he worked as a bartender at night and a Jet Ski rental guide during the day. This is where he found his love for the water and the thrills a jet ski can bring. After working for a rental company for the summer, the duo I turned their passions into a reality by purchasing four rental skis and officially opening Myrtle Beach Watersports in 1997. They have been showing locals and tourists alike a great time on the open water, now I’m taking it to the back country where you can ride on glassy smooth water through the moss covered oaks. It’s a beautiful sight that you’ll have to see to believe!

We were told that the one hour intra-coastal tour is a thrilling ride down the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway to the scenic backwaters of the historic Waccamaw River. These beautiful waters are lined with oak trees draped with Spanish moss. Experienced guides lead you on an extraordinary ride, twisting and turning through narrow fingers that branch off the waterway and river you will get to see giant Osprey and their nests, turtles and even hear lions roar as you pass by the zoo.

Rider safety is of utmost importance for any level, but they put a little extra emphasis on this when it comes to their entry level series to ensure the safety of you and your family. Best of all, the central location makes this very day trip friendly. The cost for one hour is $89 and $99 to double up. You must be 16 years of age or older to operate a personal watercraft and18 years of age to operate with a passenger. Children passengers ages five to 12 ride free. Nobody under five is allowed.

Guests must arrive 30 minutes prior to departure time. All members of the party will need to bring a valid form of ID. A credit card is required to hold the reservation along with a 50 percent deposit. There is a 48 hour cancellation policy and any cancellations within that time, or arriving late for check-in will result in a charge for the full amount of your reservation total. In case of bad weather and your stay is over, refunds or rescheduling will be made. . For reservations call 843-685-1006.

NEXT TIME AROUND: So what have I placed on my list for “next time?” Shopping at the Market Common and Coastal Mall. Evenings of entertainment at the Caroline Opry, Legends in Concert, the Palace Theatre, Medieval Times Dinner Theatre and the House of Blues. Stops at Brookgreen Gardens, Ripley’s Aquarium, Hollywood Wax Museum, Wonder Works Indoor Amusement Park, MB Zipline Adventures, Waves water park and perhaps even some minor league professional baseball with the Chicago Cubs affiliate the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. Check all of these places out on the web.

GETTING HERE: Located just one mile inland from the Atlantic Ocean, the Myrtle Beach International Airport (MYR) provides easy, non-stop and connecting flights to more than 350 destinations worldwide. Rather than take the 16 hour drive from Montreal, we decided to take a direct flight from Plattsburgh International Airport via Spirit Airlines (www.spirit.com). There are flights directly from Toronto too, but the Plattsburgh route is indeed a fabulous incentive for Montrealers to make this trip. The Plattsburgh International Airport (www.flyplattsburgh.com), dubbed Montreal’s US airport, is in the midst of some expansion. Spirit Airlines is the ultra-low cost airline of the Americas and home of the Bare Fare and the chief reason why we went to Myrtle Beach because of its direct flights. Given the traditional backups at customs, I would strongly recommend you head to Plattsburgh the day before your flight. We did just that, staying at the Comfort Inn and Suites (plattsburghcomfortinn.com) at 411 Route 3 in a one bedroom suite. It worked out exceptionally well. There was no need to wake up especially early. Waiting for us was a generous hot and cold breakfast absolutely free. If you sleep in, a new Perkin’s Restaurant is attached and it serves breakfast 24 hours a day.

Myrtle Beach Via Plattsburgh

For our recent summer family holiday to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina we decided that a 16 hour drive from Montreal was not on our wish list. There is a viable alternative in Spirit Airlines (www.spirit.com) and we happily took advantage of it, flying directly to our destination via Plattsburgh, New York. This has long been a favorite stop for Montrealers, given its close proximity. The city beaches and camp grounds are packed all summer long and it is also a spectacular place for boating, wind surfing, or fishing.

We left a day early and checked in at the Comfort Inn (www.plattsburghcomfortinn.com), spent a few hours at the Champlain Mall and enjoyed a nice dinner at the Butcher Block Restaurant (www.butcherblockrestaurant.com). It was the right decision for we did not have to worry about being held up at customs and got to sleep in a little before our 2 p.m. flight. We landed at 1 p.m. on the return home and following a stop for groceries we were home for supper.

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Spirit is known as the ultra-low cost airline of the Americas and home of the Bare Fare. What this means is that fares are unbundled, reflecting the cost of taking customers to their destination without any extras. Every customer gets frill control: the ability to choose what perks and options you’d like to add, independent of the choices of other passengers. Officials at the airline maintain that by structuring fares this way, every passenger has a chance to fly for less than any other airline. Spirit currently operates more than 380 daily flights to 57 destinations within the U.S., Latin America, Caribbean and Canada.

We were very happy with our Spirit experience. The flight to Myrtle Beach was just over two hours. Spirit charges you separately for checked bags and carry on items. In actuality, all airlines charge for these items, but they bundle them in the price. One small personal item that fits under your seat is permitted for free. The planes have wider seats in two by two seating configuration with extra-large leg room, Spirit calls them the Big Front Seats, which are about the size of a first-class seat, but available for around $25. Make sure to check in online 24 hours before the flight print your boarding pass at home. If you wait until getting to the airport, that will result in an extra $10 charge per booking.

Spirit, recognized as the fastest growing airline in the Americas, recently received a respected, independent endorsement that being different makes them one of the best. Air Transport World named Spirit as the Value Airline of the Year at its 41st annual Industry Achievement Awards ceremony. This marked the first time Spirit had received the award. The air carrier known for its bright yellow planes and humorous emails, has only been operating in the low-cost space since 2007.

“At Spirit we are focused on providing the lowest possible fares to our customers, and that means we do things a little differently,” said Ben Baldanza president and CEO. “We’re honoured that ATW recognizes our differences and that you can run a successful airline and not charge high fares.”

According to the Department of Transportation statistics, Spirit fares are, on average, 40 percent lower than other airlines. Even after adding additional items like seat assignments, bags, and refreshments, Spirit’s total price is 35 percent lower.

“We invest heavily in safety and people,” added Baldanza. “But what we don’t invest in are things that raise ticket prices like multi-million dollar advertising campaigns, multiple-class cabins, and heavy satellite and Wi-Fi equipment which adds a lot more weight to the plane causing inefficient use of fuel. We also don’t force our customers to pay for items they may not want in the form of higher priced all-inclusive fares.”

“Spirit is changing the way leisure flyers approach air travel,” according to an article written in Air Transport World Magazine to announce Spirit’s achievement. “For some families, Spirit has provided the first-ever opportunity for them to fly to a vacation destination or to visit relatives rather than spending hours and days on the road.”

“Winning this award is a testament to the hard work and dedication of our Spirit Team Members to save our customers money and run a good airline,” added Baldanza. “This may be our first time to receive this recognition but we want to win it each and every year.”

Spirit recently introduced five international and four new domestic routes to its ever expanding network. “Spirit’s growth continues to be focused on places our customers want to fly to for less” said Mark Kopczak,vice-president of Network Planning. “Our bare fares™ plus frill control™ allow our customers to customize their travel experience while saving money, whether it’s for a trip to Latin America from Houston, to visit friends and family in one of the new cities that Spirit will add from Atlanta this summer or for an excursion from Latrobe/Pittsburgh to see the sights in Chicago. Cost-conscious customers can save on travel to more places than ever with Spirit.”

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Spirit Airlines suggests that any travellers with special needs identify where they may needs assistance at the time of booking. Customer service personnel have been specially trained and are aware of applicable Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Department of Transportation (DOT) disability regulations. Spirit offers a special TTY/TDD reservations service in conjunction with AT&T Relay Service. Customers may take wheelchairs, walkers, canes, crutches, or assist devices, in addition to one carry-on item. Devices can be stowed in an overhead bin, underneath the seat or in the forward cargo bin. Spirit works closely with the airports they serve to ensure that all facilities are accessible to everyone. Personnel are available to assist customers with disabilities in boarding deplaning and connecting with their flights. They will provide assistance in getting customers to and from gates. However, they are not equipped to provide full monitoring while waiting at the gate. Theo will provide transfer service on and off the aircraft using boarding or aisle chairs that are designed for aircraft aisles. If you are making a connection, they will provide assistance between flights using our wheelchair service. If requested and needed, they will make available your own wheelchair from the aircraft cargo compartment for your use during your layover. The airline will do its best to offer specific requests in seating for customers with disabilities. Although they offer assigned seating, it is on a first come first serve basis, and it is suggested you check in at least one hour prior to departure to better serve your request. Service animals trained to assist customers with mobility, visual and hearing disabilities, in the aircraft cabin are permitted. A service animal must occupy the floor space where the customer sits and cannot obstruct an aisle or areas that must remain clear in the case of an emergency evacuation.

PLATTSBURGH AIRPORT: Myrtle Beach is a year-round tourist destination and as such the direct route from Plattsburgh International Airport (www.flyplattsburgh.com) is a successful one. “We have had Myrtle Beach service since 2008, first with Direct Air and then with Spirit Airlines,” says airport manager Chris Kreig. “Myrtle Beach is a popular destination for travelers using the airport.”

Created from the former Plattsburgh Air Force Base, the airport it is quickly establishing itself as a multi-purpose aviation and aerospace complex serving the entire Plattsburgh/Montreal/Lake Placid region, including northern New York State, southern Quebec and Vermont. A massive, multi-modal facility, the airport has an established record of success as a fully operating industrial airport and aerospace park, handling large and small aircraft daily for its tenants and others. We left our car at the airport. Republic Parking charges only $8 a night and it is free if you are there for six hours or less). Just steps from the terminal, a free shuttle service is available to and from the lots.

Amber Parliament, a spokesperson for the Adirondack Visitors Bureau, a division of the North County Chamber of Commerce (Northcountychamber.com), notes that the airport is currently in the middle of a $55 million expansion with an expected two year construction project. The airport is proud to have bilingual signage, aimed at making it easier for Quebec travellers.

Kreig says he anticipates the terminal expansion project, with the exception of the Customs facility, to be complete by late summer/early fall 2016. “Once completed, the expanded terminal will resolve capacity issues that currently exist and will accommodate future air service growth,” he says. “Completion of the Customs facility will allow for international air service from the airport.”

Kreig says he does not have exact data on Montreal-specific traffic, but in the broader spectrum, approximately 70 percent passenger traffic comes from Canada, with passengers traveling from as far north as Quebec City and as far west as Ottawa. The catchment area for the airport is quite large due in part to the combination of the destinations served, ease of access, and pricing.

The official title of the Airport is the Plattsburgh International Airport. The Plattsburgh-North Country Chamber of Commerce, which is contracted by the airport to provide marketing support, uses the term “Montreal’s U.S. Airport” as part of their marketing efforts, but Montreal is not part of the official title of the Airport.

The airport has handicapped accessible parking, washrooms, and an elevator and there are wheelchairs available. In addition, there are boarding ramps that accommodate wheelchairs for those aircraft which conduct ground boarding.

ACCOMODATIONS: The Comfort Inn and Suites (plattsburghcomfortinn.com) at 411 Route 3 has tended to be our “go to” spot in Plattsburgh over the years. They have one bedroom suites, which includes a fairly large bedroom, work desk and television and a separate living room containing a pullout couch, a TV, sink and a microwave and fridge.

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There is a free hot and cold breakfast. If you sleep in, a new Perkin’s Restaurant is attached to the facility. There is also a Boulangerie Café, a lobby coffee shop featuring Starbucks™ Coffee and fresh baked pastries. Legends Sports Bar is the place to catch the latest game on the tube. The hotel is now in the midst of doubling Champy’s Fun Zone, their family entertainment center, to 12,000 square feet. They will add a two story lazer tag arena, an elaborate two storey soft play full of the latest innovations, Lazer Maze, indoor bumper cars and a Build a Bear area. This is in addition to their current 18 hole indoor mini golf, miniature bowling alleys, redemption games and video games. Outdoor batting cages and mini golf are planned for some time in 2016.

You might want to find time to check out the hotel’s health club and fitness center, entertainment room, indoor heated pool complete with a waterslide and other features young children will particularly enjoy. Of their 114 rooms, 28 are suites. They come complete with fridges, microwaves and a kitchenette sink. A gigantic Wal-Mart Super Store is literally in the parking lot while the Champlain Mall and Price Chopper supermarket are a short walk away.

PlattsPool

Owner Jim Murray and his partner Terry Meron opened the locale in 1988. Murray was a teacher by profession. Meron owned an Italian restaurant. He wanted to get into the hotel business and asked Murray to come aboard. Before you could say “reservation” they had a Comfort Inn franchise, which they have expanded substantially over the years. It has a games room, party room and banquet facilities. They secured the Perkin’s franchise in 2006 to give customers another reason not to have to leave the facility. Canadian clients come to Plattsburgh for the great merchandising deals.

The hotel has several handicapped parking spots in front of the main entrance. Large-sized elevators will bring you to the second floor. Make sure to advise them of any special needs when making a reservation for there are some suites on the top floor which you can only access by stairs.

If you forgot to bring along any necessities, the front desk has a magic drawer complete with toothbrushes, toothpaste, shaving cream and razors.

For more information you can log on to their website at www.plattsburghcomfortinn.com, e-mail info@plattsburghcomfortinn.com or call (518) 562-2730.

DINING OUT:
One of the perks of staying overnight in Plattsburgh is a chance to dine at the Butcher Block, which has been around for decades at 15 Booth Drive. While the menu includes scrumptious chicken, pasta, and other quality delights, seafood and beef still grab most of the headlines. They have a nice kids menu as well. On the night we were there you could hear the French language emanating from many tables.

Since opening in 1975, the Butcher Block has become a mainstay of the restaurant trade. The menu is eclectic and unpretentious, but done with flair. Daily featured entrees are written on a board in the lobby and repeated at the table by the wait staff. This place has an excellent soup, salad and bread bar. It comes with all main entrees or can be ordered as a meal. I highly recommend the prime rib. For fish lovers, the maple Dijon salmon is top-notch. As a side, the loaded mashed potatoes are a good option. If you have room for dessert, consider a hot fudge sundae.
The entrance to the restaurant is handicapped accessible and so are most of the sections.

For reservations call 518-563-0920. It is open for lunch seven days a week, (11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.); dinner Monday to Thursday, 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.; and Sunday dinner, 4 p.m. To 9 p.m. You can access the entire menu at www.butcherblockrestaurant.com.

Las Vegas

By Mike Cohen with files from Ilana Spector
LAS VEGAS – Is Las Vegas (www.lasvegastourism.com) truly the most exciting and entertaining city in the world? Consider the fact it is home to luxurious casino hotels, fine dining, wonderful live entertainment and state-of-the art convention and trade show facilities and it probably deserves such a ranking.

Las Vegas Strip shot from the Trump Tower. 2/23/10

Recognized all over the world for its famous Las Vegas Strip, visitors can get a glimpse of amazing world famous re-creations like erupting volcanoes, the Eiffel Tower and the Sphinx of Egypt in front of the various hotels and casinos. There is top quality entertainment, including headliner shows and concerts, attractions, shopping and world-renowned resorts. Las Vegas nightlife is known to keeping visitors up until dawn.

PHRC_Hotel_Exterior2

WHERE TO STAY: Looking for a place to stay? We took the advice of Mitch Garber and chose the fabulously located Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino (www.planethollywoodresort.com) to make reservations. Garber is the President and CEO of Caesars Acquisition Company (CAC). He oversees the entire operation, which includes their group of hotels and casinos. Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino is one of the newest additions to the Caesars Entertainment family in Las Vegas and is a full partner in Total Rewards™. It has 2,500 beautifully designed guest rooms and suites showcasing some of the best views in town and encompasses more than 100,000 square-feet of gaming, several lounges, 10 restaurants, including Gordon Ramsay BurGR, KOI, Strip House, the award-winning Spice Market Buffet and LA’s Pink’s Hot Dogs and the Planet Hollywood Spa by Mandara. The resort is also home to one of pop music’s biggest superstars Britney Spears and her show, “Britney: Piece of Me.” The property is encircled by Miracle Mile Shops with more than 170 specialty stores and restaurants.

Previously known as Aladdin Resort & Casino, Caesars officially acquired the property on February 19, 2010. The property features a three-acre casino floor full of traditional gambling machines like slots, table games and The Playing Field Race and Sports Book. This features 33 plasma screens, two jumbo screens and a section for VIP. Planet Hollywood is the first Las Vegas resort to offer table games dealt by young ladies in “chic lingerie.” The Pleasure Pit is a section of the table games where this happens with go-go dancers entertaining the gamblers at the side.

The Mezzanine can be accessed by taking an escalator in the casino or the elevator. Here, guests can relax on comfy chairs overlooking the casino. The space was designed to be quieter than the main areas of the casino, where guests come to lounge and smoke. The area is rather spaced out with room to walk and includes a place for shooting basketball hoops. It includes a “Living Room” with sofas to be accessed by the guests.
The Planet Hollywood showroom is located on the mezzanine. It features several different live shows.

Accommodations here are fit for the celebrity A-List, and perfect for Hollywood buffs. Every one of its rooms and suites features one-of-a-kind movie memorabilia set against a backdrop of stylish, modern luxury.

If you’re a hardcore Hollywood fan, the Panorama Suites will truly feel like heaven on earth. Measuring 1,255 square feet and offering a 180-degree view of the Strip, each Las Vegas room features its own Hollywood theme which vary from James Bond, Marilyn Monroe, Batman, Star Trek, Will Smith, Back to the Future, The Wizard Oz and much more. Ours featured actress Demi Moore. The 1,255-square-foot floor plan includes a master bedroom with a 36-inch plasma television and separate living area, a master bathroom with oversized soaking tub, a separate dining area with refrigerator and wet bar, and a 52-inch plasma television in the living area. An additional bedroom and bathroom with 500 square-feet can be added to any Panorama Suite –something we opted for. Our party of three really appreciated the individual privacy this arrangement facilitated. In fact we could have fit more than double the amount of people comfortably. There were three, count them “three,” bathrooms. You can connect two WiFi devices at no charge. There is a fee if you go over that amount. The connectivity is fast and reliable.

While The Pleasure Pool is closed for the winter season, the Paris Pool next door remains open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., weather permitting. Located on the resort’s rooftop, Pleasure Pools offers two separate pool decks, two pool bars, live DJs, 15 cabanas with poolside bottle service, daybeds and a pool café.

Right outside the door you can go on an all-out Las Vegas shopping spree at Miracle Mile Shops, featuring the glitz and glam of Hollywood. Located inside Planet Hollywood Las Vegas, the 1.2 mile retail mecca is beyond amazing. Here, you can have your retail therapy and a workout.
Featuring 170 specialty stores, Miracle Mile Shops includes live entertainment at the Saxe Theater and V Theater, plus mouth-watering dining at 15 restaurants ranging from quick and casual to gourmet.

Shops at Planet Hollywood Las Vegas include coveted brands like GUESS, GAP, DC Shoes, Urban Outfitters, Steve Madden, H&M, White House/Black Market and more. Dining options include Pampas Brazilian Grill, La Salsa Cantina, Todai Sushi Buffet and more great Las Vegas restaurants.

BOOKING A SHOW: My family has become a big fan of Viator (www.viator.com). Their team of travel insiders are obsessed with finding the best things to do everywhere folks travel. From Paris to Phuket to Perth, from traditional tours to once-in-a-lifetime experiences, they have something for every kind of traveler. They have been around for 17 years now. From their offices around the globe, a team of travel insiders handpick the best local tour and activity providers. Viator officials pre-vet them all to make sure you always have an exceptional experience.

Over three million people have traveled with Viator and they have opinions you’ll want to hear. With Viator you can get the royal treatment, including behind-the-scenes access, private viewings, VIP tours – with no lines and no crowds! If you want to pre-book your trips at home from a laptop or do so on the go, with Viator you get insider access.

Viator has evolved from its founding in Sydney in 1995 as a technology company building websites for other travel companies, to emerge as the leading insider resource for researching and booking destination activities around the world. At the time when other companies were honing in on airline tickets, hotels and rental cars, Viator focused on an untapped niche in the young online travel market—destination activities—or the “things you do when you get there.” Today, Viator is the industry leader in the tours and activities space, with an unprecedented portfolio of thousands of hand-picked tours and activities, and unmatched relationships with a global network of local tour operators.

Viator is not a paid listing or advertising site nor a simple aggregator. Viator’s team of travel experts around the world has built close relationships with local tour operators over the past 10 plus years. Each operator is pre-vetted for quality and service so only the best and most memorable experiences are featured on the site, and the steady stream of verified customer reviews (500,000 and counting) keeps them honest; providers that don’t meet expected service levels are removed. Through a collection of more than 60 consumer-facing websites, mobile apps and mobile sites, Viator reaches more than nine million travelers a month. Its global affiliate network of more than 2,000 active partners expands the company’s reach to even more travelers through affiliate sites like American Airlines, British Airways, Lonely Planet, Trip Advisor and AAA.

"Michael Jackson ONE" Sneak Peek

We discovered Viator last summer while in Europe and took advantage of its amazing list of options, so when it came to booking a trip to Vegas we turned them again. Viator made our job of selecting a live show so easy. There were simply too many options and going through their website really helped us narrow down our choice which was the Cirque de Soleil’s incredible Michael Jackson ONE (http://www.cirquedusoleil.com/en/shows/michael-jackson-one/show/about.aspx), a sonic, tonic fusion of acrobatics, dance and visuals that takes the audience on an immersive journey through the music and spirit of Michael Jackson. Shows take place at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino Friday, Saturday, Monday and Tuesday at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., and Sundays at 4:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Dark days are Wednesdays and Thursdays. Driven by the late King of Pop’s powerful, multi-layered music – heard like never before in a riveting, state-of-the-art surround-sound environment – ONE takes the audience through a series of seamless visual and musical tableaux, at the heart of a world that is in turn majestic, playful, magical and heart-warming. Jackson’s spirit is channeled through the vibrant energy of the cast of 63 dancers and performers, underscored by aerial performance, driving acrobatics, and vivid choreographies that use the urban/hip hop idiom as a springboard for exploration.

This new show captures the essence, soul and inspiration of the King of Pop, celebrating a legacy that continues to transcend generations. You’ll be captivated by an array of aerial acrobatics and special effects during this unforgettable performance, which incorporates Jackson’s most popular songs and iconic dance moves.

Cirque du Soleil strives to make it as easy as possible to purchase accessible seating tickets for venues across the country. Availability and the type of accessible seating will vary based on each venue’s policies and/or the type of event taking place. Go to the Viator website and book your tickets and at the same time check out all of the other Vegas options they offer. When the day comes for a return trip, we are eager to experience some of the other live shows they offer, helicopter tours, big bus and city tours, monorail tickets, airport transportation in style, Grand Canyon adventures and much more. Log on to http://www.viator.com/Las-Vegas/d684-ttd.

 

Paris Exterior

EIFFEL TOWER EXPERIENCE: The Paris Hotel, right next to Planet Hollywood, is also a Caesar’s property. Each member of our party had been to Paris, France and went to the top of the real Eiffel Tower. We just had to do the same in Las Vegas. An icon of the city skyline, the high-altitude Paris Hotel Eiffel Tower Experience attraction is located 46 stories up and is a half scale replica of the world-famous Paris landmark. The observation deck features 360 degree city views and knowledgeable ambassadors point out Las Vegas landmarks. A popular spot for weddings, the Eiffel Tower Experience is especially romantic at night. The views of the bright, colorful lights and the lit water show are unmatched. Double the romance with dinner a few stories down at the 11th floor Eiffel Tower Restaurant. This place is known for marriage proposals. You can stop by Kodak’s Total Snap Shot kiosk to purchase a commemorative photo of your “France in Vegas” experience in the sky. Admission prices range from $10 to $19 depending on the day and time you visit. This was a surreal experience to be sure. Close your eyes for a moment and you will truly believe you are in Paris, France. The Tower is open Monday to Friday from 9:30 a.m. – 12:30 a.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. You can call 1-888- 266-5687 for more information or log on to http://www.parislasvegas.com/things-to-do/eiffel-tower.

This attraction is handicapped accessible. Individuals in wheelchairs who wish to visit the Tower are escorted to the elevators on the Casino Floor and are either taken to the Bridge for pictures or straight to the top.

While on site check out The Arc de Triomphe, The Louvre. The Paris Opera House and Hôtel de Ville.

Maverick Feb 2013 TD 194 of 260

HELICOPTER JUST MAVERICK: Here is an experience we strongly recommend. The Eiffel Tower is one way to see Las Vegas. Climbing aboard a helicopter is another. Maverick Helicopters (www.maverickaviationgroup.com) offer an unforgettable 12 to 15 minute ride, departing from the Las Vegas terminal. A complimentary shuttle provides transportation to and from hotels within five miles of the Strip, so that was incredibly convenient for our party. Make sure to bring a camera, photo ID (for anyone 18 years or older). The cost is $124 a person. Upon arrival you will enjoy a fabulous glass of champagne. Their big draws are trips to the Grand Canyon, something which is at the top of our “to do” list for any future visit.

Guests are treated to the plush interior of Maverick’s ECO-Star helicopters, as well as personal narration by highly qualified pilots. We have high marks for Jonathan, our man in the sky. “Our pilots serve as your concierge/tour guide in the sky and,” says Bryan Kroten, Maverick Aviation Group’s vice-president of marketing. “They are there to narrate, answer questions and make sure you have a good time.”

Maverick attracts customers from around the world. For the busiest six months of the year, summer and fall, they literally have to turn customers away. Says Kroten: “Most people in the world have not been on a helicopter. So in Las Vegas people have the chance to take a 15 minute flight on a $3.3 million helicopter over one of the most exciting cities in the world or a 45 minute trip to the Grand Canyon, one of the seven wonders of the world.”

The helicopters are equipped with seven leather passenger seats plus one for the pilot. The seating arrangement is determined by the pilot based on the passengers’ weights. Maverick’s VIP check-in lounges are located on the Strip, only minutes away from the hotels, and at the Henderson Executive Airport, just 15 minutes from the city.

Each helicopters has an exterior camera, as well as an audio system that captures the pilot’s narration and the interaction between guests during the flight. This video keepsake is a great way to share your experience with friends and relive your excursion for years to come. Photographs are also taken prior to departure and are available in a custom plaque. Photo and DVD packages are available only on the same day of your trip and can be purchased before or after your flight.

Those in wheelchairs can enjoy this experience To fly and be accommodated, you will need to have a collapsible wheelchair with removable wheels. You must also be accompanied by someone who can assist you with boarding and disembarking the aircraft. Maverick is ADA compliant. Guest in wheelchairs fly with Maverick often.

Maverick Helicopters was recently named Concierge Choice Award winner for Best Tour Company in Las Vegas by the Southern Nevada Hotel Concierge Association (SNHCA). The 2014 win marks the fifth consecutive year that it has received this prestigious award.

“We are thrilled to receive this award from the Southern Nevada Hotel Concierge Association,” said Greg Rochna, CEO of Maverick Aviation Group, parent company of Maverick Helicopters. “We strive to provide first class helicopter experiences for our guests. Receiving this award means our team’s hard work is paying off.”

Maverick is in expansion mode, opening a new division in Maui, Hawaii in the spring of 2015.
For more information you can call 1-888-261-4414, 702-261-0007 or log on to www.flymaverick.com.

A model Titanic The Artifact Exhibition in Las Vegas shows wha the ship looked like when it was discovered

BODIES AND TITANIC EXHIBITIONS: We strongly recommend you take the time to visit two spectacular visits at the Luxor in Las Vegas: Bodies and the Titanic.
Experienced by more than 15 million people worldwide, Bodies…The Exhibition offers an intimate and informative view into the human body. Using an innovative preservation process, the Exhibition allows visitors to see the human body’s inner beauty in educational and awe-inspiring ways. The Exhibition features over 200 actual human bodies and specimens meticulously dissected and respectfully displayed, offering an unprecedented and wholly unique view into the amazing body.

ATL bodies

The Exhibition takes visitors through galleries providing an up-close look inside the skeletal, muscular, reproductive, respiratory, circulatory and other systems of the human body. Many of the whole body specimens are dissected in vivid athletic poses, allowing the visitor to relate to everyday activities. In addition, authentic human specimens illustrate the damage caused to organs by over-eating and lack of exercise. A healthy lung is featured next to a black lung ravaged by smoking in a vivid comparison more powerful than any textbook image. The Exhibition will change the way people see themselves. It is designed to enlighten, empower, fascinate and inspire.

The human body specimens in the exhibition are preserved through a revolutionary technique called polymer preservation. In this process, human tissue is permanently preserved using liquid silicone rubber that is treated and hardened. The end result is a rubberized specimen, preserved to the cellular level, showcasing the complexity of the body’s many bones, muscles, nerves, blood vessels and organs. The full-body specimens can take more than a year to prepare.
There is also a more sensitive section of the exhibition showing fetal development. Guests can see different stages of a baby’s development, from eight weeks old to eight months, as well as fetuses with various birth defects, such as conjoined twins. This exhibit is located in its own private area, so those who feel uncomfortable viewing it can skip to the next section.

It is both startling and informative to see so many body parts and inner organs out in the open when they are usually tucked safely away under your skin. One wouldn’t expect such an intricate part of the nervous system, like the spinal cord, to resemble a clump of seaweed. The tongue, meanwhile, looks a bit like a small, thick cut of steak (Would you like that medium-rare or well-done?).

One of the more startling sights in the exhibit is the display of a smoker’s lung in the respiratory section. Visitors can see and compare a healthy lung to a blackened smoker’s lung. There is also a brain on display here from a person who suffered a stroke — ironically it looks a bit like the inside of an ashtray. After reading some scary, mind-opening facts (like a single pack of cigarettes takes three hours and 40 minutes off your life), you may think twice about puffing. For the guests’ convenience, there is a cigarette disposal bin nearby.

This is a definite lesson in authentic learning and we would strongly advise parents to bring their children of a proper age. They will be able to go back to school and tell their teachers and classmates what they saw.

Meanwhile, if you loved the 1997 movie “Titanic,” then the Titanic exhibit at the Luxor will blow you away. Featuring more than 300 artifacts, as well as breathtaking replicas from the famous ship, the Titanic exhibit truly brings history to life. The exhibit features 20 never-before-seen artifacts including gaming chips, passenger papers and even decorative sections from Titanic’s famous Grand Staircase. In addition, there are many personal pieces within the exhibit. Our party was completely blown away by the fact they could mount such a large exhibition indoors. For anyone who has seen the movie, this is a “must,” visit. If you have not seen the film, this will prompt you to do so.

One of the most heartfelt elements of the exhibit is the personal stories of the passengers. During the tour, the exhibit’s staff shares personal tales from the passengers. Some stories have a tragic, yet romantic ending. For instance, some wives chose to stay behind with their husbands instead of climbing onto the lifeboats.

At the beginning of the exhibit, patrons receive a boarding pass of an actual passenger on Titanic. On the back of each boarding pass is the age and the itinerary of that person. At the end of the tour, patrons find out if he or she survived the Titanic by finding the name on the wall memorial. The exhibit also includes passenger quotes. One of the most poignant sayings came from Jack Thayer, a first-class passenger: “There was no moon and I never seen the stars shine brighter,” he said. “It was the kind of night that made one feel glad to be alive.”

In addition to the passengers’ stories, other fascinating details include their belongings. From a diamond and sapphire ring to a platinum pendant with diamonds, some of the most beautiful pieces recovered from the Titanic are sparkling jewelry. The jewels were conserved — not restored — and many of the dazzling gems managed to keep their original luster.

Aside from jewelry, plenty of the Titanic passengers brought their own china and silverware. Each cup, plate, pitcher and bowl has its own interesting, distinct look. One of the exhibit’s unique pieces discovered is the au gratin plates set, stacked neatly in rows. The au gratin dishes were found lined up inside of a wooden crate that had deteriorated over time — an image that is recreated in the exhibition. Other artifacts include ship tools, postcards, currency, a pipe, a spittoon and playing cards.

While the tiny pieces leave behind a lasting impression, The Big Piece — a huge piece of the ship’s hull — definitely stands out. This piece is currently the largest Titanic artifact ever retrieved. It weighs an astounding 15 tons and measures more than 26 feet long. Bringing it inside was a 48-hour process, involving cranes and a special team of people. It’s considered the crown jewel of the collection and something one must see to believe.

In addition to the artifacts, the exhibit also features amazing replicas from the Titanic. One of these includes the staircase replica. Most remember the staircase scene from the movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. This is where first-class passengers met, mingled and admired each other’s outfits. The intricately-detailed staircase replica includes iron, bronze and even the stained glass dome. Visitors have the option of having their picture taken and purchasing it at the end of the tour.

Other noteworthy replicas include the promenade deck (which features the sounds of waves crashing and a starry sky) as well as an iceberg, which guests are more than welcome to touch. Since the iceberg was specifically created for the exhibit, it contains its own cooling system to prevent it from melting.

Make sure to stop and take a look at the third-class and the finely decorated first-class sleeping quarters. Adorned with burgundy colors, elegant décor and mahogany accents, the first-class suite was considered more luxurious than any hotel room on land in its time.

From young to old, visitors of all ages will enjoy this exhibit. There is also gift shop for those who want to take a piece of Titanic home with them. Visitors can purchase everything from T-shirts, stuffed animals, captain hats for kids, cups, key chains and much more. Hours of operation for both exhibits are daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. at a cost of $32 per person. The last admission is sold at 9 p.m.

WHERE TO DINE:
Having previously experienced TAO Restaurant in New York City, our party had only one dining spot in mind for Las Vegas and that was the 40,000 square foot, $20 million design-driven dining and entertainment complex TAO at The Venetian-Resort-Hotel Casino (www.taolasvegas.com). TAO opened in New York City in 2000 and has retained its status as a hot spot, attracting celebrities and sports figures and catapulting the restaurant and lounge to iconic status. TAO Las Vegas, which debuted in 2005, is a multi-faceted and multi-story “Asian City” housing a restaurant, banquet facilities, ultra-lounge, nightclub and a seasonal beach.

The restaurant features a twenty-foot Buddha that “floats” peacefully above an infinity pool complete with Japanese Koi. It is a frequent hot spot for A-list celebrities and culinary connoisseurs.

TAO LV_Interior 3_Warren Jagger

Corporate Executive Chef Ralph Scamardella showcases a menu incorporating culinary components from China, Japan and Thailand, along with a full sushi bar and perfectly paired cocktails to complement the authentic Asian cuisine. Signature dishes include offerings from sea, sky and land, including Chilean Sea Bass Satay with Wok Roasted Asparagus, a preparation of Peking Duck that consistently receives accolades and Kobe Beef Shabu Shabu along with a full sushi bar. TAO Beach offers an abbreviated version of TAO Asian Bistro’s dinner menu throughout the day, as well as a brunch menu that boasts specialties like Sesame Berry Pancakes with tempura banana and mandarin butter, Fortune.

Service starts when the server delivers two china bowls, one empty, and the other filled with chilled edamame. The edamame is tossed with mustard oil, thinly sliced shallots, and black sesame seeds.

Our group considered this to be beyond exceptional, sampling a good portion of items on the menu. We recommend the following: Roasted Shishito Peppers with Yuzu; Edamame; Satay of Chilean Sea Bass, with Edamame Hijiki Salad (shitake mushroom plus seaweed); Spicy Tuna Tartare on Crispy Rice; Chinese Five Spice Short Ribs (beef); Salmon Sashimi, with Avocado and Crispy Onions and Sweet and Spicy Sesame Sauce; Shrimp Tempura; Spicy Tuna; Avocado and Soy Paper Roll; Yellowtail Sashimi, with Jalapeno and Ponzu Sauce; Crispy Snapper in the Sand; Vegetable Fried Brown Rice; Spicy Hoi Yin Eggplant; a Giant Fortune Cookie (white and dark chocolate mousse); and Yuzu Sugar Dusted Doughnuts with a trio of dipping sauces. As for alcohol, consider the TAO-tini , Orchid and Sake flight. Our waiter Yorke convinced us to try the restaurant’s three most popular sakes: DY-50; Drunken Snapper; and Demon Slayer. A big shout out to Assistant General Manager Name Eli Micaiah and his extraordinary team.

At TAO Beach, they offer a range of frozen cocktails, like the signature Par-Tee with Tito’s, iced tea and frozen lemonade, in addition to updated classics like the Citrus Blossom Mimosa with Ketel One Citroen, sparkling yuzu sake and lemongrass.

Guests are transported from the City of Sin to the Pacific Rim with TAO’s lush velvets and silks, waterfalls and century-old woods and stones. A Monk Bar is decorated with a wall of almost 300 hand carved monks and candles. TAO Beach’s outdoor oasis features luxury cabanas, daybeds and a 30-foot bar within its 18,000 square foot space.

Since its opening, TAO Asian Bistro and Nightclub has garnered worldwide acclaim as the hottest restaurant, lounge and nightclub in Las Vegas. TAO Beach’s debut in April 2007 increased capacity to over 60,000 square feet of space to host both indoor and outdoor events. The venue consists of seven full service bars, four fully equipped DJ booths, and multiple areas that can be utilized both separately and collectively for corporate parties, product launches, weddings, birthday celebrations, bachelorette/bachelor parties, CD Release Parties, holiday receptions, movie premieres and more.
Co-owners of TAO Las Vegas are Scamardella, Marc Packer, Richard Wolf, Noah Tepperberg, Jason Strauss, Paul Goldstein, Bill Bonbrest, Kim Kurlanchik Russen and Louis Abin.

There is complete wheelchair access at TAO Las Vegas.

For reservations call 702- 388-8588 for special events email sales@taogroup.com. The restaurant, which is wheelchair accessible, is open Sunday through Thursday from 5 p.m. to midnight and Fridays and Saturdays from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.

Saratoga Springs

SARATOGA SPRINGS: We are developing a new routine when traveling to New York City these days. Get across the border late in the day, stop off mid-way overnight and get an early start the following morning. Last year we stayed in Saratoga Springs at one of the nicest Hampton Inn and Suites properties I have visited so we were happy to repeat the same routine en route to the Big Apple for our most recent trip.

Saratoga (www.discoversaratoga.com) is home to exciting nightlife, chic boutiques, great events and much more! Of course, the Saratoga Race Course is a big draw each summer. Sports Illustrated has named it one of the top 10 sports venues of the 20th century, right up there with Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field and others. Horses and thoroughbred horse racing in Saratoga represents a big draw for the tourist trade in season. Saratoga’s 2015 racing season begins on Friday, July 24 and runs for 40 days, through Labor Day, Monday, September 7. There are dark Tuesdays. Post times are 1 p.m. daily except for Twilight Friday. The Hats Off Festival is July 24 to 26. A full schedule, with Stakes races, can be found here www.nyra.com/index_saratoga.html.

summer-at-the-historic-saratoga-race-course

There is also Saratoga Polo, horse and carriage rides, video gaming and a chance to visit the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame! Also consider checking out the spring Farmer’s Market, arts and jazz events and the ever-popular mid-winter ChowderFest.

The Saratoga area offers some great shopping, including the historic downtown Saratoga Springs shopping district with boutiques and quaint shops tucked among trendy eateries and cafes. A few miles away is a large collection of malls, big box stores and restaurants near Exit 15 of the Northway, providing the area with one of the largest and most concentrated shopping districts north of Albany. Rounding out the Saratoga shopping opportunities are a collection of brand name outlet malls in Lake George, just a short drive north on I-87. We like going to the Wilton Mall (www.wiltonmall.com), which has JC Penney and Bonton as its anchors.

Nestled in Upstate New York, just about three hours from Montreal, New York City, Boston and Philadelphia and just off Interstate 87, Saratoga is centrally located between the Adirondack Park just to the north, and the bustling Albany New York Capital District to the south.

Saratoga is recognized as a center for arts and culture. The Arts Center, at 320 Broadway in historic downtown Saratoga Springs, is the home for arts education for all ages; an art gallery; a gift shop, a resource room overlooking Congress Park with art-related information; and a performance space for film, music, theatre and much more. The National Museum of Dance is located here, as is the renowned Tang Museum at Skidmore College. The Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) hosts a number of distinguished music and dance venues along with pop culture concerts.

There are more restaurants here per capita than any place in the United States! Coffee houses, French bistros, Jazz clubs, classic American cuisine, Italian, Mexican, Indian, sports bars, seafood and steakhouses are just a sampling of over 100 hundred popular restaurants and night spots in the Saratoga area. We happened to like Ruby Tuesday’s, but the franchise here went bust so settled for Denny’s.

WHERE TO STAY: Our previous one night stop at the Hampton Inn and Suites (www.saratogaspringssuites.hamptoninn.com) at 25 Lake Avenue was such a pleasant experience, this was in fact an incentive to stay over here again. Having opened just over six years ago, it is part of the Turf Hotels group. The first thing you will notice is the majestic entrance. Upon checking in your room key grants you entrance to free covered parking on a multi-level garage. There are 123 guest rooms and suites featuring king-or queen-sized beds. Some suites have spacious balconies and separate living rooms with sofa beds. We booked the latter and were pleasantly surprised by how extraordinarily large the unit was. I particularly liked the ultra-comfortable chairs in front of the two TVs.

lobby  saratoga

You can connect to free high-speed internet access to surf the web, get some work done at the desk or set up your laptop on the convenient lap desk to work from the comfort of the clean and fresh Hampton bed. Amenities such as a mini-refrigerator, microwave and 32-inch HDTV with premium cable television make you feel at home. You can also take advantage of a free hot breakfast. There is a gym, fitness centre, a nice pool and a Jacuzzi. Assistant General Manager Dan Duvernay says summer weekend stays are booked a year in advance.

This is not only a great place to stay when visiting Saratoga or looking for a one night stay, but as a base to travel to and from Lake George or Albany as you as smack in the middle of both. The hotel is in fact 30 minutes from Albany International Airport and minutes away from attractions. The Adirondack Mountains offer diverse outdoor recreation. You can go white-water rafting, boating and fishing at Lake George, explore a cave, drive along the historic Mohican Trail or ride a train through the winter landscape, enjoy family fun at Great Escape & Splashwater Kingdom Six Flags. Also check out see the battlefield, the restored Schuyler House, and the Saratoga Monument.

ACCESSIBILITY:
The hotel has an accessible business center, concierge desk, exercise facility, hotel restaurant, parking spaces for cars in the self-parking facility, public entrance and registration desk. There are accessible guest rooms with mobility features, featuring entry or passage doors that provide 32 inches of clear width. There are assistive listening devices for meetings upon request and closed captioning on televisions or closed captioning decoders. Service support animals are welcome. There is also van-accessible parking in the self-parking facility.

Paris: France

Exactly 28 years after my last visit to Paris, I recently soaked up the experience again of the French capital with all it has to offer. We began planning for this trip to the City of Lights seven months earlier by booking flights and hotels. That was followed by the rigorous process of trying to fit an endless array of activities into only seven full days. Websites like http://en.parisinfo.com/discovering-paris and www.rendezvousenfrance.com, which via its Atout France French government Tourism Office in Montreal, served as a big help. So was any human being I knew who has ever been there.

EiffelTower alllit M.CHAZEAU

I am providing a guide of the itinerary we followed so that hopefully it will save many travelers the endless hours of research we put it in. When you are in Paris for a week, you cannot do everything so one must prioritize when planning and be prepared to drop some intended activities if necessary.

WHERE TO STAY: Seven months before we even left for France, we began the challenging task of looking for a hotel. Upon recommendations from friends we targeted Les Jardins du Marais (www.lesjardinsdumarais.com). Located only blocks away from the famous Marais district, this beautiful hotel has 263 rooms and suites, an intimate restaurant and bar and excellent customer service. Hats off to front office manager Nady Hatem and his team.

lesjardinsRoom

This is part of the Preferred Hotel Group (www.preferredhotelgroup.com), which if you check out their website you will see has quite a nice collection to choose from around the world. Our package included a beautiful and spacious deluxe suite. It had a king size bed with a solid sliding door leading to a living room and a most comfortable sofa bed. We had an extra sink, a hairdryer, a microwave oven, a minibar/fridge, a dishwasher, a pantry cabinet, a stovetop burner, a working desk, a small table and very comfortable chair.

The story of this hotel all began in 1987 when the owner was wandering through the oldest part of the city and discovered a little alleyway surrounded by buildings and studios home to famous sculptors and artists in the 1960s. He was instantly captivated by the place’s quaint ambiance and 18th and 19th century historic landmark exteriors. And so was hatched a wild idea to turn this magical place into a charming hotel so thousands of guests could enjoy the same dream.

From Mitterrand and Sarkozy to Jerry Lewis and Johnny Hallyday, countless celebrities have since joined other tourists who are mad about Paris and revelled in the setting steeped in history that has been transformed with a modern and sumptuous touch into a glamorous trendy spot that is above all oh-so Parisian. Originally opened as the Home Plazza Bastille, this exclusive site was fully renovated in 2004, earned its fourth Michelin star and became Les Jardins du Marais.

Les Jardins du Marais has been branded a “Great hotel of the world” and become a one-of-a-kind lifestyle hotel. Carefully shaping the hotel’s destiny, the general managers wanted to give the hotel back its radiance and contemporary flair. They decided to breathe new life into this exceptional locale in the Marais district by bringing their love for contemporary art into the hotel.  Your eyes will be astounded before you even reach the lobby. When you open the historic carriage doors to a mind-blowing display you will see the largest open-air hotel gardens in Paris. The lobby extends to reveal a dramatic 1,500 square metre backdrop of courtyards and gardens. You can only reach this exclusive and exotic locale after crossing the extremely secluded threshold of 74 Rue Amelot.

hotel courtyard

Nestled in the heart of Paris, the hotel transcends you through time the moment you step inside. Innovative use of space and light tricks create an extraordinary setting that approaches intimate sophistication – this is the opposite of flashy opulence. Gardens reminiscent of the Mediterranean and outdoor lounges ringed with palm trees genuinely entice you to relax, enjoy the change of pace and the brief sensation of being in more exotic climes. The hotel further delights its guests with a collection of contemporary art.
The gardens are encircled by seven historic buildings with the 263 rooms. They include 86 Superior rooms and 120 Executive rooms that offer guests unparalleled tranquility in the middle of Paris.

In the über-hip Marais district, from shops and restaurants to museums and monuments, you are at the footsteps of Paris all its splendour. A stone’s throw from Place des Vosges and the Bastille Opera, the hotel is perfectly located near trendy spots, leisurely activities and tourist attractions.
The Saint Sébastien Froissart station on Line 8 of the metro is two minutes on foot from the hotel and it will lead you to any place you wish to go. There is also a direct connection to the Paris airports on the RER B and you are only 15 minutes away from Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est on metro line 5. A private car service is available for guests as well. They will also order a mini-van to bring you to the airport.

Free Wi-fi is available in all rooms and common areas. There is a workout room and even in-room massages upon request. Just a short walk from the front desk is a Carrefour grocery store.
Email: info@homeplazza.com.

THE MARAIS: Long the aristocratic district of Paris, the Marais hosts many outstanding buildings of historic and architectural importance. It spreads across parts of the third and fourth arrondissements in Paris. At the end of the 19th century and during the first half of the 20th, the district around the rue des Rosiers, referred to as the “Pletzl,” welcomed many Eastern European Jews (Ashkenazi) who reinforced the district’s clothing specialization. But, during World War II, the Jewish community was targeted by the Nazis who were occupying France. The rue des Rosiers is still a major centre of the Paris Jewish community, which has made a renewal since the 1990s. Public notices announce Jewish events, bookshops specialize in Jewish books, and numerous restaurants and other outlets sell kosher food. We took a walk there and saw a very lively area. The synagogue on 10 rue Pavée is not far from rue des Rosiers. It was designed in 1913 by Art Nouveau architect Hector Guimard, who designed several Paris Metro stations.

THE PARIS METRO: Considered a leading tourist attraction in its own right, the Paris Metro system is absolutely superb and so easy to navigate. I must admit that I was intimidated by the prospect of getting around the city before I left, but there is no need here to take taxis. Almost every square block you walk there seems to be a station. They are kept clean and you feel safe because of the large crowds, even late at night.

The first line of the underground subway system (still called Line 1) began operation in 1900 and today the Paris Metro has grown to include 14 lines that connect Paris via its subterranean tunnels. With over 300 stations, it’s easy to travel anywhere within the city limits.

Make sure to purchase a Paris Metro Pass, something you use at the turn styles to gain entrance to the metro or the buses. It begins its validity the first time you use it, then works for the next consecutive one, two, three or five days after that. All you choose is the validity period and the zones in which you would like to travel!

BATEAUX MOUCHES:
For our first night in Paris, we opted to experience the Bateaux-Mouches (http://www.bateaux-mouches.fr/en). Their fleet of nine boats are all enclosed in glass and bathed in light to cast off and accompany you on a journey through time. There are daily departures throughout the day and in the evening. You can choose the dinner or simple tour options. We chose the latter and did so on a gorgeous evening. The experience allowed us to discover all of the magic of the banks of the River Seine, which are enhanced, in no predictable order, by the most prestigious monuments which have marked history.

BIG BUS TOUR: In the first day or two of your trip be sure to proceed to get tickets for the famous hop-on, hop-off bus tours (http://eng.bigbustours.com/paris/home.html), operated by the Cars Rouges. This allows you to explore the city’s top tourist attractions at your own pace. From the breath-taking heights of the Eiffel Tower to the historic grounds of Le Louvre, no visit to Paris would be complete without taking in the city’s sights by bus and via the two day package we chose. The Big Bus sightseeing tour took us to iconic buildings such as Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe. We also discovered a myriad of other historic sites, which could easily be a centrepiece in any other city. There was ornate, elegant architecture at every turn, but what we found most impressive was the way striking landmarks were connected and aligned through wide boulevards and open spaces, delivering some magnificent views. Throughout the ticket validity period, you can hop-on and off the buses at any of the Big Bus stops. A third of their fleet has wheelchair access on the lower deck, and they try to run these vehicles evenly throughout the service. It is best to buy your tickets online, but you Can also do so on site at any bus stop from a uniformed agent.

NOTRE DAME: Notre-Dame de Paris (http://www.notredamedeparis.fr/-English), a masterpiece of faith, art and history, is the cathedral of the Catholic archdiocese of Paris. It is one of the best-known symbols of the French capital, and the most-visited monument in France, ahead of the Eiffel Tower. The cathedral is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and attracts 13 million believers, pilgrims and visitors each year. It is stage to major celebrations for the diocese and the French republic. Access to the cathedral is open and free of charge every day of the year, during the opening hours. Parts of the cathedral are accessible to reduced-mobility individuals: the nave, side aisles and transept, more than two-thirds of the building. There are three steps to access the choir and the Treasury. There is a small step at the entrance portals to access the main floor.

ARC DE TRIOMPHE: Located at one end of Paris’s most famous avenue, the Champs Elysees, the Arc de Triomphe Paris (http://www.arcdetriompheparis.com) triumphal arch is older than the Eiffel Tower, but is somewhat new in the tradition of building arches to celebrate victories. The Romans did it much earlier. In fact, the Arch of Titus had inspired Napoleon to build this 19th-century tribute to his “Grande Armee.” The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was added in 1921. The ‘eternal flame’ is re-lit every evening at 6:30 p.m. You can admire the arch from below at the ground level – either on foot while you’re window-shopping on the Champs Elysees – or by automobile if you’re lucky enough to get caught in the swirl of traffic that plays dodge around its base. If you choose not to brave the crowds visiting the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe is a great alternative. It’s also less expensive if you’re traveling with students or children. Kids and teenagers, age 17 and younger get free admission. The top can only be reached by climbing up its 40 stairs. But before you get to the stairs, you have to get to the monument itself (which isn’t as simple as you’d think). Do not try crossing the traffic circle. There is an underground tunnel on the Avenue de la Grande Armee side of the circle. You can access this tunnel from the Wagram exit of the Metro. This structure was built between 1806 and 1836. Even though there were many modifications from the original plans, reflecting political changes and power struggles, the Arch still retains the essence of the original concept which was a powerful, unified ensemble. The Arc de Triomphe stands at the centre of the Place Charles de Gaulle, also known as the “Place de l’Étoile.” It is located at the western end of the Champs-Élysées. The arches whole decorative style is entirely of the tradition of sculpture from the first half of the nineteenth century. The triumphal arch is in honor of those who fought for France, in particular, those who fought during the Napoleonic Wars.

The Centre des monuments nationaux has almost 100 historical monuments all over France open to the public. Its properties include Abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel, Château of Azay-le-Rideau, Arc de Triomphe, Sainte-Chapelle, Pantheon and Abbey of Thoronet. The diversity of sites, from abbeys to châteaux, prehistoric caves, and archaeological sites, and more, is testimony to France’s incredibly rich heritage from all eras. With nine million visitors, 400 events per year, the Centre des monuments nationaux is a unique operator in the cultural tourism sector. Log on to www.tourisme.monuments-nationaux.fr/en.

THE WORLD FAMOUS OPERA HOUSE: Everyone told me not to leave Paris without at least taking a tour of the Palais Garnier (http://visitepalaisgarnier.fr), a magnificent 1,979-seat opera house, which was built from 1861 to 1875 for the Paris Opera. It was originally called the Salle des Capucines because of its location on the Boulevard des Capucines in the 9th arrondissement of Paris, but soon became known as the Palais Garnier in recognition of its opulence and its architect, Charles Garnier. We visited on a Saturday afternoon. The cost is 10 and six Euros for adults and children/students respectively. You can also rent an audio guide, which comes on an Ipad and is good for two people. We were mesmerized by what we saw. This is said to be the most famous opera house in the world, partly due I am told to its use as the setting for Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel The Phantom of the Opera and, of course its subsequent adaptations in films and musical stage productions. This facility also houses the Bibliothèque-Musée de l’Opéra de Paris (Paris Opera Library-Museum). Although the Library-Museum is no longer managed by the Opera and is part of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the museum is included in unaccompanied tours of the Palais Garnier.

garnierceiling

THE LOUVRE: The Louvre Museum, a former residence of the kings of France, has for two centuries been one of the biggest museums in the world. Its collections are spread over eight departments: Near Eastern Antiquities, Islamic Art, Egyptian Antiquities, Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities, Paintings, Sculptures, Decorative Arts, and Prints and Drawings dating from the Middle Ages to 1848. The Louvre in figures: 35,000 works of art in 60,600 square metres of rooms devoted to permanent collections, with 2,410 windows, 3,000 locks and 10,000 steps.
The Louvre is open every day (except Tuesday) from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. On Wednesdays and Fridays you can go until 9:45 p.m. This place is gigantic and takes a long time to visit. It is best to do your research first so you have a game plan.

The museum collections are grouped into eight curatorial departments: Egyptian Antiquities; Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities; Near Eastern Antiquities; Islamic Art; Paintings; Sculptures; Decorative Arts; and Prints and Drawings.

On their first visit to the Louvre, people often want to see the museum’s three great ladies — the Venus de Milo, the Victory of Samothrace, and Mona Lisa.

LouvreMonaLisaVinci_La Joconde
The Louvre is universal both in terms of the wealth of its collections and the great diversity of its visitors. Of the nearly 10 million people who visited the Louvre in 2012, 69 percent were of overseas origin, with 15 percent from the United States of America, seven percent from China, and six percent from Brazil. To adapt to the diverse nature of this public, the Louvre continually strives for greater accessibility. To this end, its initiatives include the progressive widespread use of labeling in two or even three languages to describe the 38,000 artworks exhibited; the revamped numbering of exhibition rooms; the development of a new, more user-friendly floor plan; and the fostering of art education. In addition, the Louvre website (www.louvre.fr/en) offers various visitor tips on planning a visit, gaining in-depth knowledge, and teaching art history to children.

More than 2,100 people, including 166 curatorial staff and 1,200 security officers, work on a daily basis in service of the collections and visitor reception. In addition, there are many external players (including technical maintenance, external monitoring, laboratories, conservation professionals, and cultural contributors). Furthermore, the Louvre has thoroughly modernized its financing methods and developed its own resources. In 2009, the museum created an “endowment fund” styled on English and American models, to finance its long-term projects. In 2012, the Musée du Louvre revenue amounted to 216 million euros, 116 million euros of which were state subsidies (54 percent) and 100 million euros self-funded. These self-funded resources can be broken down as follows: 58 million euros from ticket sales, 16 million euros from sponsors, and 15 million through the enhanced visibility and profitability of the Louvre offering as a whole.
The Louvre also manages the Musée Eugène Delacroix (as of January 1, 2004) and the Tuileries garden (as of January 1, 2005). Over the years, the Louvre has remained true to its missions of promoting encounters between art collections and the public. More than just a meeting place, it is now clearly a forum for sharing, open and generous, where the exceptional is accessible to all. You can pre-search the entire collection online, including the famous Mona Lisa. This portrait was doubtless painted in Florence between 1503 and 1506. It is thought to be of Lisa Gherardini, wife of a Florentine cloth merchant named Francesco del Giocondo – hence the alternative title, La Gioconda. However, Leonardo seems to have taken the completed portrait to France rather than giving it to the person who commissioned it. It was eventually returned to Italy by Leonardo’s student and heir Salai. It is not known how the painting came to be in François I’s collection.

The history of the Mona Lisa is shrouded in mystery. Among the aspects which remain unclear are the exact identity of the sitter, who commissioned the portrait, how long Leonardo worked on the painting, how long he kept it, and how it came to be in the French royal collection.

The portrait may have been painted to mark one of two events – either when Francesco del Giocondo and his wife bought their own house in 1503, or when their second son, Andrea, was born in December 1502 after the death of a daughter in 1499. The delicate dark veil that covers Mona Lisa’s hair is sometimes considered a mourning veil. In fact, such veils were commonly worn as a mark of virtue. Her clothing is unremarkable. Neither the yellow sleeves of her gown, nor her pleated gown, nor the scarf delicately draped round her shoulders are signs of aristocratic status.
The Mona Lisa is the earliest Italian portrait to focus so closely on the sitter in a half-length portrait. The painting is generous enough in its dimensions to include the arms and hands without them touching the frame. The portrait is painted to a realistic scale in the highly structured space where it has the fullness of volume of a sculpture in the round. The figure is shown in half-length, from the head to the waist, sitting in a chair whose arm is resting on balusters. She is resting her left arm on the arm of the chair, which is placed in front of a loggia, suggested by the parapet behind her and the two fragmentary columns framing the figure and forming a “window” looking out over the landscape. The perfection of this new artistic formula explains its immediate influence on Florentine and Lombard art of the early 16th century. Such aspects of the work as the three-quarter view of a figure against a landscape, the architectural setting, and the hands joined in the foreground were already extant in Flemish portraiture of the second half of the 15th century, particularly in the works of Hans Memling. However, the spacial coherence, the atmospheric illusionism, the monumentality, and the sheer equilibrium of the work were all new. In fact, these aspects were also new to Leonardo’s work, as none of his earlier portraits display such controlled majesty.

The Mona Lisa’s famous smile represents the sitter in the same way that the juniper branches represent Ginevra Benci and the ermine represents Cecilia Gallerani in their portraits, in Washington and Krakow respectively. It is a visual representation of the idea of happiness suggested by the word “gioconda” in Italian. Leonardo made this notion of happiness the central motif of the portrait: it is this notion which makes the work such an ideal. The nature of the landscape also plays a role. The middle distance, on the same level as the sitter’s chest, is in warm colors. Men live in this space: there is a winding road and a bridge.

There is free and priority access for disabled individuals and an accompanying person upon presentation of written proof. For the visually impaired, there are touch and descriptive tours, information in Braille and audio guides. The Touch Gallery is designed for the blind and sight impaired. It allows all visitors to share a touch perception experience. You will discover 18 moulds of Antiquity art work from the 19th century, giving you an idea of the different ways childhood was represented over the centuries. For the hearing impaired, tours in French sign language, lip reading or cued speech are offered.

For more information about adapted activities in the Louvre as well as an accessibility guide, visit http://www.louvre.fr/accessibilite. The contact number for disabled visitors is +33 (0)1 40 20 59 90. You can email: handicap@louvre.fr

MUSEE D’ORSAY: Internationally renowned for its rich collection of impressionist art, the Musée d’Orsay (http://www.musee-orsay.fr) also displays all western artistic creations between 1848 and 1914. Its collections represent all expressive forms, from painting to architecture, not forgetting sculpting, decorative arts and photography. You’re sure to be dazzled by the beauty of the place: a palace-like station, launched for the 1900 Universal Exposition. At the end of 2011, the museum reopened all of its entirely renovated spaces as well as some new rooms: an additional 400 square meters for the Pavillon Amont, post-impressionist artists at the heart of the museum, the restructuring of the Galerie des Impressionnistes, a new space for temporary exhibitions, and a new aquatic decor in the Café des Hauteurs, designed by Brazilian designers, the Campana Brothers. The museum is open every day but Monday. You can check out a 90 minute guided tour for those aged 13 and up. We rented three Ipods for five Euros each. Through a very simple system one needs only to punch in the number of selected paintings and an interesting commentary will be provided.

There is free entry for disabled people and an accompanying person on presentation of written proof. Adapted activities and workshops take place and wheelchairs can be loaned. There is priority access without queues at entrance C. The museum is entirely accessible and the auditorium designed to welcome up to three people in wheelchairs. For the visually impaired, guide and assistance dogs are allowed around the collections in the museum and exhibitions. The museum does not have tactile walk ways All year round, there are visits available in sign language and the auditorium is equipped with a hearing loop.

Bookings can be made at http://www.musee-orsay.fr/fr/espace-particuliers/particuliers/visiteurs-handicapes/bienvenue.html and by calling + 33 (0) 1 40 49 48 14

When we visited, the Carpeaux exhibition was on. Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux was the son of a stonemason and a lace maker from Valencienne. He built an exceptional career closely linked to the “fête impériale” of Napoleon III’s reign. Standing out vividly in the artistic milieu of his time, he was also one of the most perfect embodiments of the Romantic idea of the artist cursed by the brevity and brilliance of his career, concentrated into around 15 years, and by the violence and the passion of an unrelenting struggle with subjects chosen or commissioned (the Pavillon de Flore in the Louvre, The Dance for Charles Garnier’s Opera). The sculptor of smiling subjects, painter of movement, outstanding portraitist, familiar artist of the Cour des Tuileries, attentive observer of the realities of street life and also a sensitive admirer of Michelangelo, Carpeaux was constantly immersed in sombre melancholy, using broad brushstrokes from his earliest days, for the tragedy of Ugolin eating his own children, and, later, for the ghostly flashes of a religious feeling imbued with anxiety, the violence of shipwreck scenes and for sorrowful self-portraits.

The first retrospective since 1975 devoted to his works as a sculptor, painter and illustrator, this exhibition will explore the varied work of a major figure of French sculpture in the second half of the 19th century who, according to Alexandre Dumas, was “more alive than life itself”.

MOULIN ROUGE: I did go to the Moulin Rouge (www.moulinrouge.fr) 28 years earlier and there was no question that a return trip was in order. Established in 1889, the Moulin Rouge is quite simply the most famous cabaret in the world! Located in the Monmarte District, it was immortalized by Toulouse-Lautrec and was the cradle of the music hall with the famous Mistinguett. Since it opened in 1889, it has dazzled the whole world. The room is magnificently decorated in belle époque style and red velvet, with typical burlesque frescoes. This is a wonderful place to enjoy gourmet French food by the Maison Dalloyau, served with champagne – the official drink of the cabaret. But show only options are also available and that is what we opted. We did get a fresh bottle of bubbly to our table upon arrival. And what show! This is a “can’t miss” stop for any Paris visitor. You will be entertained by a troupe of 80 artists, including 60 Doriss Girls recruited world-wide; 1, 000 costumes of feathers, rhinestones and sequins, made in the most famous Parisian workshops; sumptuous sets in shimmering colours, uniquely designed by Italian artists; and outstanding international acts. On the night we were in attendance, a male and female acrobatic team astounded the audience and there was also the most marvelous and humorous ventriloquist. When one of the dancers dropped into a swimming pool which emerged from the floor and began to swim with snakes, the packed room applauded loudly. This revue, called “Féerie,” is performed twice a night.

Moulin Rouge Fac¦ºade nuit -®Moulin Rouge-« - S.Bertrand

Elegant attire is required (tie and jacket not necessary), but no shorts, short-pants, sport shoes or sportswear. The dinner and show package starts at 7 p.m.: the first show at 9 and the second at 11. It is recommended your arrive around 30 minutes prior. When we departed, there was a massive line to get in for the second presentation.
The Moulin Rouge’s Brigade consists of 120 maître-d, headwaiters and waiters. The legendary hall accommodates up to 900 guests. A team of 25 cooks prepare the meals while champagne is the official drink, with 240 000 bottles opened a year!

THE KOFF DINING OPTION IN MONMARTE: I must have spent hours looking for just the right restaurant to “sandwich” in before the Moulin Rouge and the Koff Delicattessen (www.koff-paris.fr) at 15 Rue la Vieuville won out.

Koffoutsiide2

I would strongly recommend Koff. The husband and wife team of David and Jade designed this place like a New York deli. The menu features bagels, burgers, quesadillas, nachos, sandwiches, smoked salmon, Ashkenazi specialties, Russian dishes and a nice variety of salads. It is open for lunch and dinner. The Sunday brunch includes coffee or tea, orange juice, muffins, scrambled eggs, pancakes, sausage and smoked salmon. I must say that I very much enjoyed the pastrami club sandwich, accompanied by delicious hash browns. Friendly servers Matlilda and Marvin offered us their homemade cheesecake or banoffee pie for dessert, but we were full form the main course. Koff is just one minute’s walk from Abbesses métro station (line 12). The décor here is very American, in terms of canvases, signs, metallic advertisement placards and other paraphernalia. Each of the chairs represent an iconic American figure (real or fictional) staring back from the seat such as Bugs Bunny, Batman or Marilyn Monroe. There are even some kosher items on the menu, identified with a big “K.”

BREAKFAST IN AMERICA: Here is one more unique restaurant you will want to try. First off, Breakfast in America (http://www.breakfast-in-america.com) does not take reservations. There are two locations: in the heart of the historic Latin Quarter, not far from the Sorbonne and Notre Dame and in the Marais district, near rue des Rosiers, the famous Jewish quarter. It is owned not surprisingly by an American, Craig Carlson. We experienced the Marais locale known as BIA2, with charming manager Julien Chameroy and floor manager Sarah-Rose Giudici (from Chicago).

BIA2

Originally from Connecticut, Carlson first came to France as a student and instantly fell in love with the country. It was in Paris — thanks to the numerous art house cinemas — that he developed his love for film and decided to pursue it as a career. After attending USC film school in Los Angeles, he worked as a screenwriter and short filmmaker and then landed a job in Paris working on a TV show. During this time, the only thing he missed while living in Paris was a good ol’ American breakfast. Realizing the only thing the French knew of American cuisine was fast food, Craig became convinced that the time was right for an authentic American diner in Paris.

After nearly two years in the making, BIA finally opened its doors in January 2003 (BIA 2 opened in February 2006). Thanks to his friends in the film industry who came on as investors, Craig was able to bring together two of his loves under one roof – the cinema and diners. Some of BIA’s supporters include the director of the film “Runaway Jury,” (starring Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman), the writer of “Con Air”, a director of “Friends”, the director of “Invincible” (starring Mark Wahlberg) and French animators working at Dreamworks Studios in California. All of them can’t wait to find an excuse to come to Paris where they know a steamin’ stack of pancakes and a bottomless mug o’ joe are always waiting for them…

Breakfast in America is famous for breakfast, but also known for being one of the best places in Paris for burgers! What dishes are the most popular? At BIA, some favorites include: blueberry pancakes with real maple syrup, the Connecticut omelet, two by two, locally-baked bagels, their own “BIA Burger” and “Super BIA Burger,” California chicken wrap, vegetarian wrap, home-made chili con carne, club sandwich, cheesecake, real milkshakes and much, much more! There are toasters at each booth.

Another familiar restaurant for North Americans is the Hard Rock Café (http://www.hardrock.com/cafes/paris) at 14 Boulevard Montmarte.
The Hard Rock Cafe Paris offers more than just great food and service. The café is a museum of popular culture, with authentic memorabilia from rock ‘n’ roll legends covering our walls, 21 screens showing videos, and an unbelievable sound system. In our restaurant and famous cocktail bar all is done to give our international clientele an American experience.

The Hard Rock Cafe Paris is centrally located next to the Opera and the Grands Boulevards, not far from famous places such as Musée Grévin, les Etoiles du Rex or the Theathre of Varietes. Hard Rock Cafe Paris offer its guests the finest all-American food and great music. There is also a retail store where you can purchase limited edition and collectible Hard Rock t-Shirts, jackets and souvenirs.

DINING ATOP THE EIFFEL TOWER: On May 15 1889 the Eiffel Tower (www.tour-eiffel.fr) opened its doors to the public, several days after the inauguration of the Universal Exhibition, of which it was the undisputed star and the most spectacular attraction.

Unquestionably the Eiffel Tower represents a “must” on every tourist’s list, notably for its remarkable view over Paris. The opening times vary according to the time of year. It is open every single day of the year, from 9 a.m. to midnight from mid-June to early September and from 9:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. the rest of the year. During Easter weekend and Spring holidays, there are extended opening hours to midnight. The ticket office at the foot of the Eiffel Tower is open every day, but I strongly recommend you purchase your tickets online and do so at least six months in advance if you want to gain immediate entry and go all the way to the top. You can also climb the stairs to the second level, which must be quite the exhausting experience.
Without advance tickets, prepare to face a lineup as long as two hours. The electronic ticket, which you can print out at home or save on your mobile, means that on the date and the time you’ve chosen, you can go straight to the queues for people with tickets. We did not know about this, but found a way to reach the second level quickly and enjoy a memorable dining experience with the view of a lifetime. This was all made possible by securing reservations at The Jules Verne Restaurant (http://www.lejulesverne-paris.com). This is part of the Alain Ducasse culinary empire (http://www.alain-ducasse.com). Not only did we enjoy a five course meal, but we had a private door to enter and exit the viewing platform whenever we wished. Upon arrival at the South Pillar, we gave our names to the host who sent us up on a private elevator 125 metres above. While regular patrons had to wait seemingly endlessly to go back down at the end of the night, we did so in minutes. In order to get the window table we had, one needs to reserve at least three months in advance. We could have bought tickets from there to go to the very top, but frankly take my advice – it is really not worth the long wait.

Jules Verne - Table de nuit (c) Pierre Monetta

There is now a “tasting” menu, allowing you to experience the full Jules Verne sensation. For dinner it is 185 euros for five courses (meat or fish) or 230 euros for six. It takes you on a journey of discovery and surprises, in a voyage of five or six dishes depending on your desires. We chose the former and it included Bellevue Style blue lobster, with gold caviar; preserved duck foie gras; roasted marinated baby artichokes; seared sea bass or free range chicken fricassee; and some delicious desserts. There are a number of servers per table.
In late 2006, SETE, which operates the Eiffel Tower, selected L’Affiche (Groupe Sodexo) and Alain Ducasse Entreprise to modernize the Eiffel Tower’s restaurant services. Champion of the offering, Le Jules Verne was unveiled on December 22, 2007.

Le Jules Verne’s unique location makes it the Parisian venue par excellence. The wine list at Le Jules Verne, created by Gérard Margeon, chef sommelier of Alain Ducasse Restaurants, features a selection of the finest French wines from the country’s greatest regions, with long-standing names sharing the limelight with young winegrowers who symbolize the dynamic nature of contemporary French wine-making. The opening of the “new Jules Verne” was the accomplishment of an incredible adventure. It was also a real challenge due to the highly symbolic nature of the venue, but also for very concrete reasons: space on the second level of the Eiffel Tower is limited, and the weight of all the materials and equipment used had to be monitored with painstaking exactness, not to mention the safety constraints involved. Renovation works also took environmental issues into account, all within a tight 120-day schedule.

The place and name set the tone: the Eiffel Tower, a universally recognized icon, and Jules Verne, the visionary novelist. For someone like Alain Ducasse, who wants his restaurants to tell a story, one couldn’t dream of a better point of departure. They brought in the best experts in the field and their teams rallied together with exceptional enthusiasm.

LIVE MUSICAL THEATRE: I strongly recommend an evening at the Mogador Theatre (http://www.stage-entertainment.fr/theatre-mogador). Founded in 1913, the Mogador is a performance venue of 1,00 seats located a few steps from Paris’s department stores and Palais Garnier Opera House. It has a number of facilities for the comfort of the audience: lounges, foyers, bars, and eating areas. Since 2005, the place has been run by the Stage Entertainment group and the eclectic program favours musicals: The Lion King (1,300,000 spectators), Mamma Mia! (2011 and 2012), Sister Act (2013) and most recently the French version of Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et La Bête). We were fortunate to see one of the final shows of the latter’s highly successful nine-month run. First of all, we of course knew the storyline already. However, coming from Montreal we had no trouble understanding the dialogue. I would recommend that every tourist – even those who do not understand French – check out one of their presentations. Chalk it up as a good cultural experience. The theatre itself is lovely and located near a lot of trendy places to eat. Next on the agenda will be Le Bal Des Vampires (http://www.lebaldesvampires.fr) , starting in October For Montrealers who do speak and understand French, it seemed logical for us to seek out a production en Français. Five spaces are reserved for individuals with mobility issues.

LMogador  la BelleetBete

VIATOR TEEN SHOPPING EXPERIENCE: As we were planning this trip it became abundantly clear that a company named Viator (www.viator.com) could really come in handy when booking certain tours and excursions. Their team of travel insiders are obsessed with finding the best things to do everywhere folks travel. From Paris to Phuket to Perth, from traditional tours to once-in-a-lifetime experiences, they have something for every kind of traveler. They have been around for 17 years now. From their offices around the globe, a team of travel insiders handpick the best local tour and activity providers. Viator officials pre-vet them all to make sure you always have an exceptional experience.

Over three million people have traveled with Viator and they have opinions you’ll want to hear. With Viator you can get the royal treatment, including behind-the-scenes access, private viewings, VIP tours – with no lines and no crowds! If you want to pre-book your trips at home from a laptop or do so on the go, with Viator you get insider access.

Viator has evolved from its founding in Sydney in 1995 as a technology company building websites for other travel companies, to emerge as the leading insider resource for researching and booking destination activities around the world. At the time when other companies were honing in on airline tickets, hotels and rental cars, Viator focused on an untapped niche in the young online travel market—destination activities—or the “things you do when you get there.” Today, Viator is the industry leader in the tours and activities space, with an unprecedented portfolio of thousands of hand-picked tours and activities, and unmatched relationships with a global network of local tour operators.

Viator is not a paid listing or advertising site nor a simple aggregator. Viator’s team of travel experts around the world has built close relationships with local tour operators over the past 10 plus years. Each operator is pre-vetted for quality and service so only the best and most memorable experiences are featured on the site, and the steady stream of verified customer reviews (500,000 and counting) keeps them honest; providers that don’t meet expected service levels are removed. Through a collection of more than 60 consumer-facing websites, mobile apps and mobile sites, Viator reaches more than nine million travelers a month. Its global affiliate network of more than 2,000 active partners expands the company’s reach to even more travelers through affiliate sites like American Airlines, British Airways, Lonely Planet, Trip Advisor and AAA.

For the youngest member of our travel party, the Teen Shopping and Fashion Accessories Tour in Paris ended up being the first choice. For girls who are you looking for something that just screams “I got this in Paris,” this is a great choice. Make your best friends green with envy when you arrive home from your trip to Paris with the latest, funkiest fashion. You’ll visit places known only to the savviest Parisian teenagers, and find the hippest French brands on this three-hour shopping tour. It’s no wonder this tour is such a hit with teenagers and moms!

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Sandra Hoyois, from Not A Tourist Destination Tours, leads this Paris shopping tour and shop for fabulous bags (everyday handbags, dressy handbags, funky handbags, backpacks, side packs), terrific shoes (tennis shoes, dressy shoes, flat shoes, heels, boots, sandals) and the greatest jewelry ever (delicate necklaces, unique earrings, funky bracelets, gorgeous rings) in the world’s most stylish city. Noted American actress Angeline Jolie and some of her kids were part of a past tour, during which you discover the favorite leisurewear of thrifty Parisian teenagers on a budget, and attend sample sales where the most fashionable brands sell last year’s collections at discounts of up to 70 percent.

Sandra is qualified to work with teenagers and carries a cell phone at all times. Parents are more than welcome to join the fun of this shopping tour…and usually book the tour for themselves! Our tour began and ended at a centrally located Starbucks Paris café. You can book this online or do it by the telephone via a toll free number. You will then receive a voucher by email, print it out and make sure to reconfirm your booking a few days in advance. Often a smaller number of tour members ensures a more personalized experience.

THE ORIGINAL GRÉVIN: While there has been a Grévin (www.grevin.com) at Montreal`s Eaton Centre since April 2013, this place is the original. In fact, only one other exists in the world – in Prague, Czech Republic. This is a fabulous wax museum, with a specific French feel in terms of many of the actors and historical figures featured. I nonetheless got to pose with the likes of Elton John, Angelina Jolie, Nicholas Cage, Barack Obama and many other familiar faces. Your visits starts off with a unique sound and light show. I am now ready to visit the museum in Montreal. Aurélie Gombert, the communications director in Paris, said that plans call for a new Grévin to open every year or so. I would think that the United States would be next on the list, not to mention places like Toronto and Vancouver in Canada.

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Amidst the crackle of photographers’ flashes, the celebrities in the headlines all meet at the most Parisian of addresses. Discreet atmosphere and evening dress mandatory for a cocktail party with the stars of showbiz, top international singers and the piano at an impromptu jam session, or a relaxed environment to share a friendly glass at the brasserie with the big names of the French cinema industry; the Grevin creates the illusion of an interactive meeting in its new decor. During the visit, a fashion show podium, a dance studio, or a box at the theatre give visitors a unique opportunity to meet their favourite artists and to glimpse the Spirit of Paris.

From the Middle Ages to the 21st Century, with the Renaissance and the Second Empire along the way, the Grevin conjures up the great events of History. Joan of Arc burning at the stake, Louis XIV and his court in Versailles, or the assassination of Henri IV, are some of the all-important historical events that visitors are invited to experience. The 20th Century is shown as a sequence of snapshots, like 3-D photographs; from the first step on the moon to the fall of the Berlin wall, each picture is a part of history. There is an Italian style theatre, constructed in 1900, with a slew of wax figures spread about.

Monaco

THE PRINCIPALITY OF MONACO: When we decided to spend a few days in Nice, friends told us to take the train one night and experience dazzling Monte Carlo in Monaco.

The principality of Monaco (http://www.visitmonaco.com) has a colorful and fascinating history filled with barbarians, kings and even a movie star. It is a story of castles, epic battles and untold riches. In 1997, Monaco celebrated the 700 year reign of the Grimaldi dynasty. It all began on January 8, 1297 when the Guelf François Grimaldi dressed as a Franciscan monk, seized the fortress protecting the famous rock of Monaco and the port of Hercules. Surmounting the trials and tribulations of history and throughout the dark periods of foreign domination, the Principality has managed to affirm its identity and preserve its independence throughout the centuries due to the wise guidance of its Princes.

The Grimaldi dynasty has bequeathed Lords and then Princes to the Principality, illustrious in their many domains, who wrote the most enticing pages in the history of Monaco. To cite but a few: Rainier I, General Admiral of France; Honore II, the first Prince of Monaco at the origins of the most important treaties with France; Louis I, Ambassador to the Holy See under Louis XIV; Antoine I, grand patron of the arts; Charles III, founder of Monte-Carlo; Albert I, renowned as the father of oceanography; Louis II, the soldier Prince; and Rainier III, the builder Prince.
Since 2005, H.S.H. Prince Albert II – already known as the green Prince for his interest in the environment – has been leading the Principality into the 21st century with the support of His sisters H.R.H. The Princess of Hanover and H.S.H. Princess Stephanie. In 2011 Prince Albert married. Charlene Wittstock.

Monaco enjoys a privileged location at the heart of Mediterranean Europe. The Principality is nestled between the Alps and the Mediterranean Sea, bounded by the French Riviera to the west and the Italian Riviera to the east. This is the second smallest country in the world, after Vatican City -three miles long by one-half miles wide (about the size of New York’s Central Park). While Monaco is the name of the country, Monte-Carlo is a district within Monaco.

Monaco is a constitutional monarchy ruled by Prince Albert II. One commune – Monaco – is divided into four areas: Monaco-Ville, the old fortified city on the Rock which includes the Prince’s Palace, Cathedral and Oceanographic Museum; the Condamine, or port quarter; Monte-Carlo, the business and recreation district; and Fontvieille, a man-made waterfront area for recreation and light industry.

Any person of foreign nationality who wishes to enter Monégasque territory and stay there for a period not exceeding three months must have the document (passport, travel or identity document) required for entry into French territory.

Monaco’s climate is ideal throughout the year. It enjoys mild winters, with 48 degrees minimum, and pleasantly warm summers with July and August temperatures hovering around 78 degrees. On average, the Principality enjoys over 300 days of sunshine a year.

French is the Principality`s first language, but some natives speak the ancient Monegsque. English and Italian are also widely spoken.

Monaco has a population of just over 32,000.

The Automobile Club of Monaco organizes a Grand Prix race each year. There are more than 3,000 seats available for sale on the circuit.

The size of Monaco allows speedy and easy commutes between the various districts of the Principality. Walking in the Principality is facilitated by public lifts and escalators that operate 24 hours a day, every day, to help overcome different altitude levels. Public transportation includes a bus shuttle service that includes five different routes. Departures are every 10 minutes from 7 am to 9 pm.

DINING OUT: The highlight of our evening in Monte Carlo was a remarkable dinner at the Salle Empire (http://www.montecarlosbm.com/restaurants-in-monaco/gourmet/salle-empire) at the gorgeous Hôtel de Paris (http://www.hoteldeparismontecarlo.com). We took the train from Nice to Monte Carlo and enjoyed a pleasant 10 minute walk through town to this most breathtaking facility where we were seated on a gorgeous terrace overlooking the entrance to the grand casino. This was “people watching” at its best. A musical trio serenaded us with soft songs and a group of servers provided us with sensational service, starting things off with champagne, soft lemon rolls and their signature potato chips.

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It is in the Salle Empire that haute gastronomy is served during private dinners catering for up to 350 guests, and concerts and shows are organized for invited audiences. Spectacular celebrations also take place in this setting, unique in Europe. It is part of the Alain Ducasse enterprise. We had already tasted his culinary excellence earlier on in the trip at Le Jules Verne Restaurant at the Eiffel Tower.

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Home to chic galas, refined dinners and the Principality’s most sophisticated soirées, the Salle Empire – a classified historical monument — underwent careful and meticulous restoration in 2004. Eight hundred thousand gold leaves (the equivalent of a gold bar) for its ceiling, five French windows opening out to the terrace overlooking the Place du Casino (a distinctive feature which astonishes guests), swathes of silk and precious trimmings… nothing has been forgotten to glorify its style and its beauty.

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We experienced an extraordinary nine course meal which lasted nearly two and a half hours. Every item on the menu was explained in great detail and if something did not meet our dietary requirements a substitute was easily arranged. First was an interesting and nutritious drink, a concentrated healthy extract of bio vegetables. This was followed by raw and cooked vegetables from the hotel’s own garden, with tangy juice. We then enjoyed some amazing eggplant ravioli with fresh goat’s cheese and thyme lemon. Next was a cook pot of Brittany lobster, with coral juice. The main course was a roasted lack of lamb from prealps rubbed with summer savory and summer vegetable. It was beautifully prepared.

(lobby)

There were no less than three separate desserts: home-made delicacies and chocolates from the Hôtel de Paris; red fruit, strawberry juice and vanilla ice cream; and a traditional chocolate soufflé. The servers made a hole in the middle and poured hot chocolate sauce inside. We each got a side plate of whipped cream. This was so light and beyond delicious. The final serving was a moka coffee.

The Hôtel de Paris falls under the auspices of the Group Monte-Carlo SBM (www.sbm.mc), which oversees four casinos, four luxury and top quality hotels (Hôtel de Paris, Hôtel Hermitage, Monte Carlo Beach and Monte-Carlo Bay Hotel & Resort), 30 restaurants and bars, the Thermes Marins de Monte-Carlo (one of Europe’s finest spa and thalassotherapy centres), the mythic city hall “Salle des Etoiles” and La Rascasse and Sea Lounge.

Widely regarded as one of Europe’s finest grand hotels, the Visitor’s Book reads like a copy of Who’s Who? Originally built with 100 rooms, the property was designed by the architect Dutrou on a model of the Grand Hôtel on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris. In the summer of 1878, the Monte-Carlo Opera and the new gaming rooms designed by Charles Garnier were built. The Hôtel de Paris immediately acquired an international reputation, hosting numerous society events including balls and charity galas. A succession of high profile guests, including artists and financiers such as Rockfeller, Rothschild, Vanderbilt and Gordon Bennett, would base themselves at the hotel. At that time the amount of food eaten daily was astronomic. The 127 cooks of the hotel were preparing each day 1, 534 pounds of beef, over 200 chickens, 150 game animals, 14 lambs, 150 dozen of oyster and over 1,400 bottle of wines.

At the beginning of the new century , the Russian dukes used to stay at the Hôtel de Paris renting wall floors of the hotel and organized extravagant dinners. The “Grand Duc Dimitri” invited one night a few friends of his. On the menu: caviar, salmon pojarsky and 60 magnum of champagne most of them ending against the marble column of the dining room after an enthusiastic toast. The First World War dampened the sparkle of life in Monaco but when peace returned, the Hôtel de Paris once again became not only the meeting-place of the international elite, but, also, the headquarters of Diaghilev, Lifar and Kochno who created the great moments of the Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo. During this time, lavish dinners hosted by the King of Sweden, Gustav V, at the Hôtel de Paris were the talk of Europe’s high society.

The Second World War saw the Hôtel de Paris become a shelter for political refugees. At the end of the hostilities, the victory of the Allies once again allowed the Hôtel de Paris to welcome its international clientele including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Winston Churchill and Errol Flynn whose wedding in 1952 attracted the Hollywood glitterati. The Hôtel de Paris has hosted many other historical events such as the 20th wedding anniversary of His Serene Highness Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco in 1976 and the 100th birthday of General Nicolaieff, the hotel’s oldest guest. In May 1974, the 25th anniversary of the accession of His Serene Highness Prince Rainier was honoured at a lavish dinner which was also the first official function attended by the young Prince Albert, Heir to the Throne of Monaco.

On the Place du Casino, opposite the entrance to the Hôtel de Paris, the car valets appear to perform a ballet as they park the prestigious automobiles. The tone is set. Up a few steps, a few strides, and visitors arrive in the great lobby with its majestic ceilings that never fail to stir emotions. The equestrian statue of Louis XIV has a very shiny knee because of an old tradition – gamblers believe that rubbing its knee will bring them good luck. To the right, the entrance to the celebrated restaurant “Le Louis XV-Alain Ducasse,” on the left the famous Bar Américain where the Monaco elite gather, a little further on are the entrances to the Salle Empire and other salons, the luxury boutiques are at the end, the reception desk and concierge service are opposite. First contact, first smiles, attentiveness and immediate efficiency, the extremely courteous welcome from the director who makes a point of greeting all guests, in particular those on their first visit to the Hôtel de Paris. The magic works, the Hôtel de Paris is like a great symphony orchestra playing only for you.

October 6, 2014 will be one of the outstanding dates in the 150-year history of the l’Hôtel de Paris with the launch of a vast program of renovation and restructuring that is scheduled to last for four years. The hotel will continue to operate throughout this period on a reduced scale. Nevertheless, in order to enable guests to be welcomed in the best possible conditions, a short two-month phase of preparatory work will be necessary, leading to a total closure from October 6 to mid-December. The hotel will reopen for the Christmas period until January 18 2015, when the first main phase of work will begin. The complete reopening of is scheduled for September 2018. An exhibition presenting images of the renovation program is set in the “Sporting d’Hiver. During all of this time the Salle Empire will serve as the main restaurant.