Tuesday, March 18, 2014

These are some of my favorite things. (Part 1)

These are some of my favorite airlines, hotels, restaurants, etc that make traveling even more enjoyable.

Favorite Airline:
In all the years of my travel, only one airline stands out from the rest, Singapore Airlines.  From the moment I boarded my first flight from NYC to Frankfurt almost 20 years ago, Singapore Airline has consistently provided excellent customer service.  Every time I board one of their air crafts, no matter what class seating I’m in, I know that I will be embraced by their friendly and courteous staff for the duration of the flight.

Furthermore, in the world of airline mergers and cutbacks, Singapore Airlines is one of the few companies that still provide little perks reminiscent of the glory days of travel.  Every international travel starts with a friendly greeting from the flight attendants, hot towels to wipe your hands, and even a goodie bag for children including a colorful headphones and toys.

Also, there are over 100 channels of latest released movies, Vegan/Vegetarian Meal upon request, and flight attendants who come by regularly with all your favorite snacks and drinks.

With airline industry being so lackadaisical about customer service or in some cases, completely lacking, I find Singapore Airline’s continuous striving to provide excellent service noble and commendable, and I for one am their number one fan.

Favorite Airports:
Most often, your first encounter at the airport sets the mood of your trip.  If you arrive at an airport that’s chaotic and in pandemonium, the chances are, the rest of your trip will follow suit.  However, there’s nothing better than arriving at an airport that is clean, well-organized, and welcoming, and Incheon International Airport (ICN) in South Korea provides a great start or a great ending to your travel experience.  

As South Korea’s largest airport, Incheon Airport, in my opinion, is the best airport in the world.  Year after year, it has received a five-star rating from Skytrax and has been selected by the Airports Council International as the world's best airport in air service quality; however, you only have to step foot in Incheon Airport to experience its awesomeness.

It’s not only the cleanest, the most organized and architecturally spacious airport I’ve seen, but it has some of the best selection of restaurants and shops, comparable to any restaurants in Seoul.  The airport is easy to get around, has great multilingual signage and staff, and the every staff member I’ve encountered were friendly and helpful.

Also, the airport offers free internet access and laptop computers, and there are not only great rest areas but seven gardens to help you relax while waiting for your flight.  There’s even a Korean Culture Museum in the airport and a spa, complete with a sauna, showers, private sleeping rooms, meeting rooms and a snack bar, and customers are free to lounge around the facilities as long as they like.  And as this is South Korea after all, one of the shopping Meccas, the world-class shops at Incheon Airport offer some of the best and finest duty-free items in the world.   

Aeropuerto Internacional Madrid-Barajas (MAD) is one of the main international airports in Spain, and unlike the airports in other European hubs, MAD is located within the city limits of Madrid, less than 10 miles from the center.  It also has a great selection of food choices, especially the tapas bars, and much like the city of Madrid itself, the airport offers a great variety of retail and entertainment stores.

The ground floor showcases fashion, retail, multimedia equipment, supermarket and everyday needs; the first floor is designed entirely for personal goods shopping, and the second floor is designed for leisure, cafes and restaurants. Although I didn’t get around to all 200 stores, as advertised in the airport website, I’ve had some of the best shopping experiences at this airport. 

Going through the airport is one of the most difficult aspects of traveling with children.  10-15 minutes of wait in line can seem like an eternity when you have a toddler who has just learned to walk, and he or she wants to explore their immediate world at that very moment as you are heel-to-toe in line with hundreds of strangers.  Then, the thought of being confined in a tiny space of an airplane for 12-hours on an international flight with that same toddler can deter (m)any parents from traveling all together.

That is until you arrive at San Francisco Airport (SFO).  In my opinion, San Francisco Airport is one of the best airports for one simple reason; it is the most child-friendly airport in the world.

From spacious lounges and waiting areas to the award-winning museum program, its great variety of eclectic food and beverage options to unique Kid’s Spots and play areas, SFO provides an array of entertainments for your little ones to expel their energy before a long flight – so much so that every time we fly out of San Francisco Airport, our little boy is more excited about being at the airport than the flight or the destination.

It is also one of the cleanest and most elegant airports I’ve seen, and SFO offers plenty of kid-friendly amenities.  There are Family Lanes at the Security Checkpoint, and almost every airline offers early boarding privileges to those traveling with children – who needs a first-class ticket when your child gets you a rock star treatment at the airport?

Favorite Hotels:

Sheraton D-Cube City (Seoul, South Korea)
I’m not one of those people who can sleep anywhere.  It doesn’t have to be a 5-star accommodation, but it has to be unique, charming and most importantly, has to provide impeccable service.

The moment I walked into Sheraton D-Cube City in Seoul, I knew I’d hit the jackpot, as it surpassed all my expectations of what a great hotel should be.

First and foremost, the hotel is situated in an ideal location directly on top of a subway station, Sindorim.  As in all cosmopolitan megapolis, it’s not necessary to stay near the tourist sites or in the center of the city when you have a good access to public transportation.  What’s more important is staying near a subway station; so that you can have easy access to getting around in the city, and Sheraton D-Cube, situated on the 40th floor of a commerce building directly above a major subway line, provide a convenient access to all the sites in the city.  

The hotel and all its amenities are topnotch; comparable to any 5-star I’ve stayed in, but what makes the Sheraton D-Cube stand out from the rest is its staff and their level of customer service.  Even in South Korea, a country well-known for hospitality and generosity of its people, Sheraton D-Cube’s staff is exceptional.  Even before arriving at the hotel, the professionalism and the timeliness of the correspondence was excellent, and my questions and requests were handled with care.

Then, once we arrived at the hotel, we were blown away by not only the stunning architecture and the beautiful design of the building, but also the impeccable customer service.  From the moment we entered the building we were greeted and treated by every member of the staff as if we were VIP’s.  It was the most unforgettable experience I had while traveling.

Lutétia Hotel (Paris, France)
I’m a sucker for historical places, and as with the reality of life, history is filled with good and bad.  Staying at a hotel where the German army stationed themselves during WWII may seem morbid, but I must admit, I was fascinated by the history of Lutétia Hotel long before I arrived in Paris.  So, when my company decided to have our quarterly meeting at the Lutétia, I was absolutely delighted at the prospect of spending a week in this historical monument.

The Hotel
Lutétia, located in the Left Bank of Paris, is one of the best-known and one of the most historical hotels in Paris.  It was built in 1910 in the Art Nouveau style to designs by architects Louis-Charles Boileau and Henri Tauzin, and it has always been one of my favorite buildings in the city.  Its location is absolutely ideal, as it’s convenient to walk to some of my favorite attractions in Paris, most of which are in the Left Bank.  And although the rooms are a little small in comparison to other hotels at same price point, its charm and the friendliness of the staff more than makes up for it.
Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (Georgetown, Malaysia)
No country embodies a wonderful diversity in landscape, culture and people of Asia like Malaysia.  It has everything that one can hope for in vacation destination, a great mixture of cultures, history, people and some of the most delicious food I've had in SE Asia!  Also, one of my favorite travel experiences was staying at the beautifully restored Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, which was like staying overnight at a living museum.
Favorite Restaurants & Meals:
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that some of the best meals I’ve had were in France.  Then again, I don’t expect anything less than greatness from cuisine that has been deemed by the UNESCO as being an intangible cultural heritage.

Many people mistakenly think French cuisine is extremely rich and sophisticated, and while some French cuisine does fit this bill, the food of France is diverse in both flavor and complexity.  Regional French cuisine can range from peasant-style dishes to upscale haute cuisine or from simple Salade Nicoise to Coq au Vin pairing wine with meat, and at its heart, French cuisine reflects a long tradition of treating food and cooking as a fine art to be mastered and taught to others.

The region of Bourgogne is well-known for its haute cuisine.  Although most of the restaurants offer reasonably priced, well-prepared tasting menus, our favorite meal was at Le Fleury in Beaune.  You can sample some of the region’s specialties as well as the staples of French cuisine that we know and love, such as Escargots, Boeuf (Beef) Bourguignon, and Confit de Canard.  Also, the impeccable presentation as well as the lovely ambiance of the restaurant made our dining experience unforgettable.    

On the other hand, provincial cooking is the backbone of French cuisine, as many gourmet recipes in haute cuisine were adapted or have evolved from provincial foods.  Therefore, great French meals don’t have to be upscale or “fancy” – and most often, are not.  I’ve always enjoyed the more provincial meals or down home cooking in France, and some of the best I’ve had were in the central area known as the Massif Central.

As the highlands of Massif Central are ideal for raising cattle and other livestock, the meals in this region tend to be hearty and filling, and consist mostly of meats – Vegetarians beware.  The specialties such as Cassoulet, Potée and a variety of saucissons and saucisses sèches (dry sausage) rely heavily on beef, pork and lamb, and the cheeses such as Roquefort tend to be richer.

Lastly, my favorite meal in Vietnam wasn’t in a restaurant.  It was on a junk (ship) in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.  Ha Long Bay is a breathtaking UNESCO World Heritage site situated about 170km (3 ½ hour drive) north of Hanoi, and it is without a doubt one of the most spectacular natural sites I have seen in my life.  This densely concentrated zone of stone islands is world famous for its spectacular scenery of grottoes and caves, and resembles a geographic work of art, and the best way to get around and see it all is by a boat.

During our visit, my husband and I rented a private boat, which gave us the option to sail around the bay at a more leisurely pace and choose the course we wanted to go.  And the biggest highlight of our trip was the freshly prepared meal we had on the boat, which turned out to be one of the most delicious and memorable meals we’ve had during our travels.
Favorite Events:
dOCUMENTA (Kassel, Germany)

Every 5 years, the art world gather in Kassel, Germany to celebrate dOCUMENTA, one of the most important art exhibitions in the world that showcases the latest in modern and contemporary art.  

For 100 days (usually starts in June) over 150 artists present a wide spectrum of contemporary art, paintings, photographs, sculptures, videos, performance art, etc, from 55 countries.  It’s a spectacular event that turns much of this industrial town into a walking museum, and there are displays of art works and exhibits throughout the center of the city, including the Orangerie.

Documenta is not one of these art shows that focus on marketing and sales. It’s not about finding “art work” to display in the new office or that goes with the livingroom sofa.  There are no glitz and glam, and most of the exhibits displayed are true reflections and interactions of the world around us.  It’s definitely art for art's sake.

For almost 60 years, it has remained true to intentions of the original curator Arnold Bode, discovering and celebrating modern art, which was banished and repressed during the cultural darkness of Nazism, and it continues to enlighten and enrich the world with its own unique voice.

Weihnachtsmarkt, Christmas Markets (Germany)
There’s no better way to experience the festivities of the holidays than Christmas markets (Weihnachtsmarkt) in Germany.  The markets take place usually in the center of the town, and you'll find all manner of stalls selling a wide array of crafts and tasty regional delicacies, sweets, cakes, food, mulled wine (Glühwein) and other delights.  Especially, if/when there’s snow, the atmosphere is absolutely magical.

Farolito Walk (Santa Fe, New Mexico)
One of my absolute favorite events in the world is the Canyon Road Farolito Walk, a beloved holiday tradition in Santa Fe.  On Christmas Eve, thousands of holiday revelers come out to stroll, admire and sing carols around the displays of farolito lights, lovely little lights made out of paper bags with and tea candles that burn brightly into the night, and the entire neighborhood turns into a beautiful block party.  There are also bonfires on the streets where people gather around to warm themselves up, and plenty of vendors who sell hot chocolates and holiday treats.  It’s joyous event that I have always loved, and this year, it was even more special being there with my little boy.  He was so excited and told me that it was like being in a “winter wonderland”, and indeed, it was! 
NYC Marathon (NYC, New York) 
One of my favorite events in NYC is the NYC Marathon, which takes place annually on the first Sunday of November.  It’s the largest marathon in the world with 42.195 km (26.2 miles) course that runs through all five boroughs of New York City.

It is a spectacular event that attracts not only tens of thousands of professional competitors and amateur runners, but also spectators from all over the world, as the entire city and its five boroughs turn into a giant block party.

More importantly, it is an event that brings together people from all walks of life in celebration of the human strength and perseverance.
Skiing & Snowboarding 
Sure, I love lounging on a white-sand beach, but nothing beats the feeling of cold wind on my face as I swoosh downhill, waves of powder snow parting like feathers, blue mountain sky beaming above, and of course, the spectacular scenery that surrounds you when you’re on top of a ski slope.  And some of my most memorable vacations have been skiing or snowboarding in the midst of the majestic mountains, where the hills truly are alive with snow – lots and lots of snow.

Favorite One of a Kind Experiences & Places:


Post a Comment