Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Island Holidays

Monday, January 10th, 2011

In addition to going home to see the family, the annual Christmas/New Years holiday trip took me once again to the Caribbean and specifically to the island of St. Maarten/St. Martin. The half-Dutch, half-French territory is quite different from last year's destination, Barbados, but also quite similar in many ways.

We stayed on the edge of Philipsburg, the capital of the Dutch side of the island. Some online guides I had read led me to believe this town was where all the action was on the island. That's true, if by action you mean tons of duty-free shops that cater to passengers of the cruise ships that dock at the port each day and close at sundown. Otherwise, there's not much to do around there.

The French side of the island was the place to go for good food, as well as decent service compared to the slightly more surly folk on the Dutch side (who reminded me of Barbadans). Restaurants in places like Marigot, the French capital, and Grand Case were the highlight of an otherwise unremarkable if relaxing trip.

Only on our last night did we find what passes as the island's center of nightlife — basically a cluster of newer resorts with a shopping mall, casino, nightclub and a few restaurants and bars. Soprano's piano bar provided a decently entertaining evening on a trip during which most nights involved going to bed early like old people!

Another highlight was a one-day sojourn to the nearby island of St. Bartholemy. This French island was packed with the rich and famous who celebrate the New Year in style in this otherwise sleepy, secluded getaway. The yachts in the harbor and in a parked flotilla off shore were a sight to behold.

And we had a long layover on the way home, providing an opportunity to take a look at the old town in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Old San Juan has a wonderful quaint European feel to it, with bustling shops and some cafes and restaurants although I thought it could use more of the latter. I'd like to visit again sometime and take more time to see the place so adding Puerto Rico to my list.

Mystical Minsk

Sunday, December 19th, 2010

Belarus gets a bad rap in the Western media. Our governments call its leader, Alexander Lukashenko, the last dictators in Europe. In fact, following contested presidential elections this month, the government harshly cracked-down on protestors, beating and arresting scores of people including the losing opposition candidates right on the main squares in the capital of Minsk.

But the Minsk I saw a few days earlier was something completely different. First, the background: one of our friends needed to drive his car out of Russia and back for customs-related reasons, and decided to make a run to Minsk. Six of us decided to join him for the weekend, some for the car ride but most of us flying in and meeting them there.

Minsk is exactly what you'd imagine a large Soviet city to be. Rebuilt after essentially being razed during World War II, it is a picturesque city of broad avenues and grand Stalin-era architecture. It is clean. It is orderly. The people are generally friendly and the prices are cheap. More surprisingly, despite its perceived isolation from Europe, it is strangely cosmopolitan, from the Turks populating its top nightclub to the Italian chefs at its top restaurants. Despite that feeling that not much has changed since the fall of the U.S.S.R., there was also a certain modernity to the place.

There aren't a lot of sights to see in the city aside from walking down the aforementioned avenues and enjoying the view, so most of the rest of our time was spent eating great meals or sampling the city's somewhat-entertaining nightlife. In that way, it was much a 48-hour endurance test, but a fun one at that.

Ibiza 2010

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

The second half of September could mean only one thing — time to head back to Ibiza for the annual pilgrimage.

We arrived on September 18 with a serious plan in hand, involving 10 days and 11 nights with a well-balanced combination of beach visits, culinary destinations and evening entertainment. The result was one of my most packed but enjoyable visits to the island yet.

Highlights included seeing several friends who are either resident in Ibiza or were visiting from all over the place — the U.K., Switzerland, Japan and elsewhere. We made a one-day voyage to the neighboring island of Formentera and tooled around on a scooter from one end to the other. We also dined at everything from a fish shack to a Michelin-starred garden restaurant.

One of the more interesting culinary experiences had to be our lunch at Cala Mastella. The restaurant there is famous for once having turned away the King of Spain for not having a reservation! You have to reserve a spot at least a day in advance. There is one seating per day, at 2:30. In the back of the half-covered, half-open air room is a big pot in which the proprietors make traditional Ibizan fish stew (bullit de peix), purportedly with fish caught by the owner that morning. That's followed by a serving of rice cooked in the leftover broth from the stew. Delicious.

Overall, we visited 7 beaches and toured one new village (plus 4 villages on Formentera), had a top notch meal every night, and I managed to make it to about 12 different parties. Regarding the latter, house music made a triumphant return to the scene this year after years of techno dominance, but the house in fashion was a deeper, darker, almost underground style which I really enjoyed listening too. Also, the trend towards more outdoor events took hold and while there was a bit of oversaturation (such that some events were poorly attended) it is a welcome trend.

I'm already looking forward to next year and making plans to visit more locations and also complete my set of the island's Michelin-starred restaurants. It is amazing to me that after 10 years there are still plenty of new things left to see  on this little island.

London — Football, Carnival and Muse

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

I was in London for a couple of weeks in August/September and in-between work commitments, meetings, and various outings with friends, I had time to take in quite a few events of interest. Among them were the Chelsea matches at home against Stoke City and away against West Ham. Both matches were victories, I am glad to say.

Notting Hill Carnival
I arrived in town on England's traditional end-of-August bank holiday weekend when there are parties and festivals galore. One of them is the Notting Hill Carnival, when that whole section of the city is blocked off from traffic and thousands and thousands (if not millions!) of people take to the streets to enjoy food, music, dancing and revelry.

Any British readers will know what I'm talking about, but for me this was my first experience with this event and I loved it. There's a large Caribbean influence in Notting Hill and that is reflected in the carnival where you can have some jerk chicken, rice & beans or a roti as you grab a beer from the local off-license store and dance to some reggae at one of the many stages where DJs had set up their soundsystems. There is a parade down one of the main thoroughfares with floats and dancers following along.

I spent much of my time in the northern part of the borough where the Good Times and Sancho Panza stands were. The DJs at both of these zones played mainly house music, with Norman Jay's Good Times stand adding in some disco and funk to the mix.

I enjoyed it so much on the first day, Sunday, that I returned on Monday for another run. Fortunately, I had some friends around on both days so thanks to them for keeping my company. I'm already thinking about scheduling a trip for next year! I’ll post some photos soon.

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Muse Concert at Wembley
I have been to Wembley Stadium for football matches and even for a couple of American football games but hadn't yet taken in a concert at the venue. When I heard that Muse was playing, with Lily Allen opening, I jumped at the chance to see them.

Sadly, my friends and I arrived halfway through Lily Allen's set and I'm not sure her sound is quite stadium-friendly, but I enjoyed hearing it nonetheless. I had already seen her full show at the Exit Festival last year. Allen is a guilty pleasure of mine. No reason why I should like her brand of pop but I enjoy her witty, very-English lyrics and (probably fake) singing accent. I know…

Muse came on after and did very well. I had never realized what a stadium rock band they are, but the fact that they'd filled Wembley and the serious attention paid to lights, visuals and performance tricks (eg. the suit with the lights, the rising mid-crowd platform, the member of the band floating up into the air for one song, etc.) showed me they really wanted to put on a show and put a lot of effort into it. Apparently they do this once a year or so, or so I heard.

Turns out I know a lot more Muse songs than I thought and it was good to see them live. Couldn't really find fault with their performance.

South Africa and the World Cup

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

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I just got back from one of the trips of a lifetime.

Firstly, there’s the World Cup. It’s the biggest sporting event on earth (sorry, Olympics!).

Then you’ve got the first World Cup in Africa, a football-crazy continent, an occasion that was long overdue.

And lastly, there’s South Africa. What a great country and what great hosts for the 2010 World Cup.

It was a trip that had to be taken, and I’m unbelievably happy to say I was there.

We arrived in Johannesburg on June 12 and spent 16 days in and around that part of the country, attending 6 games in the tournament: group stage matches USA v England in Rustenburg, USA v Slovenia and Brazil v Cote d’Ivoire in Joburg, and USA v Algeria in Pretoria, and first knockout stage matches USA v Ghana in Rustenburg and England v Germany in Bloemfontein.

In between games, we spent some time with our good friends Nigel & Celeste and Aditya, whom we have to thank profusely for giving us places to stay in the Joburg suburbs of Krugersdorp and Sandton, respectively.

We traveled to Kruger Park for three days, during which we saw four of the “big 5″ game animals (no leopards!) as well as a ton of other wildlife. We stayed in a lodge with a view of the Crocodile River just outside of the park. I have to thank Celeste and her relatives Dalene and Louis for showing us around Kruger. I’ll post a separate photo gallery from that part of the trip at some point.

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Back in Joburg, we visited the black township of Soweto twice – once on a tour with a stop at the Hector Pieterson museum, which commemorates the beginning of popular uprisings against apartheid, and a second time to dine at the famous Wandie’s Place shebeen (a local bar/restaurant). We drove through the the Lion and Rhino Conservation Park in the northern suburbs of town. In Pretoria, we stopped by the Voortrekkers monument, the Union Buildings and Church Square. And, thanks to Nigel, we spent a night at Sun City, the world-famous resort nestled in the hills near Rustenburg.

It was a lot of travel. And much of it required getting used to driving on the wrong side of the road. But it was well worth it. South Africa did a superb job organizing this tournament. People were welcoming, security was spot on, the facilities were in great shape… everything was just well done. My only complaint was the highway out of Rustenburg! (and the park & ride lots there!)

South Africa, aside from being a beautiful country, has some great cuisine as well. From simple steaks to various types of game meat to seafood from neighboring Mozambique, we ate delicious food at reasonable prices almost everywhere we went. The local wine and beer were perfect for washing all that great food down. I gained 3 kilos.

And then there was the football… some stellar moments.  The United States’ amazing comeback from 2-0 down versus Slovenia comes to mind, including the US goal that would have made it 3-2 (instead of the final result of 2-2) had the referee not been an idiot. Then there were the rapturous scenes when the USA scored in the last seconds of the game against Algeria, therefore winning their group and setting up an ill-fated date with Ghana in the round of 16. The USA v Ghana match was entertaining, despite the outcome and the USA’s exit from the tournament, as we were in a corporate box next door to Bill Clinton, Mick Jagger, Katie Couric and Wolf Blitzer. Many pictures were taken. And then there was England’s goal-that-wasn’t-counted against Germany, although the Germans looked good value to win the match anyway.

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Soccer City stadium

The atmosphere around the stadiums before, during and after matches was also something to behold. The Brazilians win for most animated fans, both at the stadiums and beforehand at places like Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton. The Americans, said by FIFA to have bought more tickets than people from any other country (South Africa aside), were also lively and came dressed up for the occasion (who says we don’t love soccer!?). England fans sing like no one else. It was a carnival all around, every where we went. And South African vuvuzelas, while a noisy annoyance when watching these games on TV, were actually not hard to get used to inside the stadiums.

I could go on for ages. I’ve probably use more superlatives in this post than any normal grammar or style guidelines might dictate. But it was really that fun. My only regret is not making it down to Cape Town or Durban, which I hear are lovely places.

Anyway, I’ll leave it at that and let the photos do the talking… when I get around to posting them…

FA Cup Final 2010

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

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Despite going out of the Champions League a little earlier than hoped, Chelsea FC had a very successful season, finishing top of the English Premier League for the first time in 4 years. It was great to celebrate winning the league, which was sealed on the final day of the season with a resounding 8-0 thrashing of Wigan, but as much fun as was had, it was not the same celebrating it in Moscow as it would have been in London.

After winning the league, Chelsea still had to play in the FA Cup final, the culmination of a strong run in the world’s oldest football competition. It was the perfect excuse for a weekend in London.

For those who haven’t been, a day out at Wembley stadium is a treat. Sure, it’s quite a crush getting to and from the place by public transport (and driving in is even more difficult) but we had the proper strategy this year by heading there early and meeting up with some friends for a good Chinese lunch at a place across the street.

The game was somewhat lackluster but the result what it should have been – Chelsea won 1-0, thus securing its 3rd trophy of the season (including the Community Shield last August) and capping the most successful season in the club’s history.

Our celebrations lasted late into the night, making it somewhat difficult to get up on the Sunday. But rise and shine we did, as there was a victory parade through the streets of Fulham. This was my first time attending such a parade and I enjoyed the whole thing – the team riding by in open-top busses, the fans with their kids out in the streets, the celebrations in Eel Brooke Common, and the unrestricted throwing of many kilos of celery (Chelsea fans will understand that last part).

Here’s hoping for an even more successful season next year when the Champions League final, which rotates around Europe, comes home to Wembley. I hope we’ll be there.

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Caribbean Vacation

Friday, January 8th, 2010

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We've got this now well-ensconced tradition of heading somewhere for New Years that's closer to Florida, where we go for Christmas, than it is from Moscow. Thus far, that's taken us to Mexico, Argentina and Hawaii. This year, we decided to go somewhere Caribbean because, strange as it may be for someone from the East Coast, I'd yet to visit a single island. After much thought and debate, the final destination selected was Barbados.

Now, as a former British colony, there's not much exotic about Barbados aside from driving on the wrong side of the road. In fact, it's really just a relaxed island with some nice beaches, clear blue waters, and good weather. It is somewhat overpriced for what you get but I suppose that should be expected since they rely heavily on tourism and also have to import a lot of things.

In terms of sightseeing, there is a couple of old colonial towns to drive through but they haven't been kept up especially well. There's a nature park where you can go see some of the indigenous green monkeys (and lots of turtles!). And you can visit the sugar plantations and tour the local rum distilleries. That's about all there is to see.

Nightlife is a curious thing. Their nightclubs play, for the most part, a mix of dancehall reggae, pop/R&B and hip hop. They would probably be tolerable if you were with a group of people intent on having a good time. The local kids seem to be having fun, and they do like to go out. That said, there are only about five nightclubs on the island, three of which are concentrated in the St Lawrence Gap neighborhood where our hotel was conveniently located.

We found some decent restaurants both for local and international cuisine, our favorite of which was probable the Brazilian-style churrasco place that served as our venue for both New Years Eve and our last night in town. The weekly fish fry-up in Oistins was also entertaining. My favorite discovery of the trip was “roti”— basically, take a chicken or beef curry and wrap it up in some naan as if it were a burrito. Delicious! (but very heavy!) We also brought back 2 bottles of delicious locally-made Mount Gay Rum.

Overall, I left thinking that I liked Barbados. We certainly had a nice relaxing visit and a good stay at our hotel, the Southern Palms. Nevertheless, I'm not sure I could say I loved the island. There are a lot of other places I'd like to check out before I plan on making a return trip.

I’ll get around to posting the photos at some point soon.

Going Home Again (20th Anniversary Edition)

Monday, September 21st, 2009

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I have a bit of confusion when it comes to the word “home”. Sometimes, home means the city where I live, Moscow. Sometimes, it means the country of my birth, the United States of America, or the city where my parents live. But my favorite reference for the word is probably Washington, DC, my hometown.

Prior to this month, I had not been “home”since my parents moved away six years ago. However, now I had the perfect excuse to visit: my 20th high school reunion.

I approached the trip with a certain amount of fear and trepidation. No, I wasn't worried about people being more successful (I'm doing OK), or better preserved (good on that front as well), but I just still can't believe it's been 20 years. Actually, 21 years, since I left for university after junior year. Time has flown by, yet so much has happened.

I stayed with a good friend (who was not a classmate) in the center of town for 3 of the 4 nights I was there. Aside from a schedule of 4 reunion events, I had plenty of other people to catch up with. Suffice to say that I had a hearty lunch and dinner pretty much every day, beginning with my traditional visit to Taco Bell on the Wednesday I arrived.

The reunion events included a school tour on the Thursday (following a major renovation), an informal drinks gathering on Friday, the formal event on Saturday (followed by several hotel room after-parties!), and a family picnic on Sunday. I attended them all, although I skipped the post-tour American football game to have dinner with a group of friends.

It must be said that I had a great time everywhere I went. All of my friends look great. They have interesting lives, families, etc. I was thrilled to catch up with people and surprised to hear they don't think I've changed a bit. I just wish I had more time with everyone.

And that's the downside of a quick trip like that, and of a high school reunion. You get snapshots of the people you know and the places you've been, but you don't really get time to soak it all in. I guess that's the price you pay for living an interesting life overseas, but for the first time in a while I really miss DC. The atmosphere in the city, under our current federal administration and probably also as a result of the work of the past couple of city mayors, is alive and exciting. Here’s hoping I make it back for another visit soon.

Ibiza 2009

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

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We made our 9th annual pilgrimage to our favorite Balearic island for 10 days this month. As usual, the trip included visits to various beaches around the coast, several as-yet untried restaurants and, of course, the regular compliment of parties. As in the past 5 visits, our place of residence was the resort of Playa den Bossa (PdB), and we once again rented a car so as to explore as much of the island as possible. Despite spending 7-15 days on Ibiza over each of the past 8 summers, there still seem to be a myriad places (beaches, villages, restaurants, smaller nightclubs) we've yet to visit.

A new tactic this year was to try to “go local”on the restaurant front, taking the advice of longtime Ibiza residents on places they frequent. Beach trips were often designed around the choice of restaurant, allowing us to visit several new beaches while at the same time dining away from PdB. The system worked, for the most part, although there were occasions that our early dining time (usually around 6) clashed with the general Spanish tendency to close between lunch and dinner and reopen around 8. Still, we found a couple of new places we really enjoyed, including seafood restaurant S'Illot des Rencli in the north, Cas Mila on the west coast, and Ancient People in Ibiza Town. Michelin-listed S'Oficina in PdB also gets an honorable mention.

On the party front, the return of quality beach parties this season had to be the highlight, from the resurgence of the landmark Bora Bora to the emergence of newcomers Ushuaia, Delano and Sands, PdB has become a fun place to spend the afternoons and evenings dancing on the beach. We also found our way to a couple of local-oriented parties in smaller venues like PK2 and Aura, which I hope to repeat next time around.

The big nightclub parties Ibiza is famous for were less exciting for me this time around, although I did still go out on 9 of 11 nights. We were there just at the beginning of closing party season, but only one of the parties I attended was actually a closing party. Highlights of the trip included SuperMartXe on Fridays at Privilege, with its cabaret show, striking visuals and fun atmosphere. In terms of music, Cocoon on Mondays at Amnesia (attended twice) still takes the cake. The Zoo Project also gets a mention for a wacky good time at a great outdoor venue.

As usual, our time on the island was nowhere near sufficient, but I had further travel ahead. Suffice to say that we will be back next year, likely for the closings once again as my favorite period (openings in June) clashes with the World Cup.

The Wines of Bergerac

Saturday, September 5th, 2009

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The first Thursday in September brought one of the best, if short (24 hours!), business trips I've had in ages. The task was to take a couple of journalists to visit a winery in lovely Bergerac, France. After settling in at our hotel, located on a scenic golf course, we dined on wonderful French cuisine and tasted a variety of wines from the region. A peaceful night of sleep was followed by a winery tour and another amazing French meal before heading back to the airport.

Bergerac is a very interesting place. Rolling green hills covered with wineries and other agriculture. The countryside is dotted with little hamlets and dissected by small winding roads. The wines are fabulous too — unfortunately overshadowed by their neighbors in Bordeaux but not inferior in any way.

I'm hoping to make another, longer trip down there at some point, and also to explore the city of Bergerac, which I only saw in passing on the way to the airport. It's a wonderfully peaceful place and I've rarely eaten, and drank, so well!



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