Archive for January, 2013

Photography by Noam Armonn / Spaces Images / Aurora Photos

Many make the pilgrimage to Israel for its religious sites, but they just might stay to worship its shimmering coastlines from the Sea of Galilee to the Mediterranean Sea. More »

 

Some people said this was a crazy trip for a crazy person: Fly from Washington, DC, to Stockholm, Sweden for dinner … and then fly home early the next morning. But in my defense, there was some reasoning and thought behind this, as I am a somewhat-sane “mileage runner” — a person that flies for the sake of earning miles.

The Friday before New Year’s Eve, I decided that I wanted to reach Delta’s Platinum Medallion frequent flyer elite status. The status was well worth the expense and time since I was planning a climbing trip to Paris the next year. Don’t understand elite status? Mommy Points explains the benefits. I was short 8,634 Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQM) from the required 75,000-mile target and had just 4 days until the yearend deadline. A plan was needed quickly.

I immediately started searching for low fares that would yield the needed miles. A great tool is Google Flights which shows you destinations around the world and allows you to filter for specific airlines and alliances, in my case, SkyTeam. I already expected the ticket price would be high since this was a last-minute purchase, so my goal was to maximize miles earned for a reasonable cost. I finally settled on a ticket to Stockholm, which would net me 9,170 MQM and departed Dulles International Airport on Saturday at 6:20 p.m. to arrive at Stockholm Arlanda Airport on Sunday at 7:00 p.m. after a layover in Amsterdam. I’d be back in DC by 3:30 p.m. on Monday.

Total Time in Transit: Nearly 34 hours with 11 hours in Stockholm!

After packing a change of clothes, I headed to Dulles, parked in the economy parking lot and went off to Departures. (Travel tip — put your parking spot in your calendar. After your return flight,  this makes it easy to remember where your car is.) I made a quick stop at the check-in counter using the SkyPriority lane (another benefit of elite status), grabbed my boarding pass and learned that my flight was delayed 2 hours. No big deal — I could wait in the Air France Lounge until my flight and enjoy some snacks and Bordeaux wine — another advantage of having Delta Gold Medallion status.

Once boarding started, I headed to the SkyPriority lane where they actually have a different gate for elites, so I was sipping champagne in my business-class seat within a couple of minutes. After eating my 3-course meal — served on a white table cloth and porcelain plates — I went to sleep so I’d be able to walk around Amsterdam for a few hours before my connecting flight to Stockholm.

KLM Food

Photography by Arthur Hsu

After landing in Amsterdam, I took the Schiphol Express train to Central Station and wandered around the city for a few hours before grabbing a quick meal of poached eggs, smoked salmon and espresso at Vinnies Deli. The deli was located next to Dampkring, which I remembered seeing in an episode of The Layover, but when I looked at the Layover App, I realized I had ended up in a different cafe. Either way, it was packed with people. I continued to wander along the canals before heading back to the airport for a short flight to Sweden.

Amsterdam

Photography by Arthur Hsu

After finally arriving in Stockholm, I was excited to have a nice meal. But first, I checked into Jumbo Stay, a hostel built into a Boeing 747. I typically don’t stay in hostels, but I made an exception since the novelty of sleeping in an airplane was a somewhat unique experience  (granted, I slept the night before in a Boeing 767).

Jumbo Stay

Photography by Christian Skovgaard

Next, I headed back to the airport to catch the Arlanda Express train to Stockholm Station for dinner at Rolfs Kök. I grabbed a seat at the bar and decided to start with some Bellota pig tartare. This was my first time eating raw pig and it won’t be my last, as you could actually taste the acorns that made up the Bellota pig’s last meal. My main course was perfectly-cooked loin of cod with anchovies. And for dessert, I enjoyed a glass of Ardbeg Ten Years Old single-malt scotch (no ice, of course). After dinner, I wandered the streets before heading back to the train, catching some sleep and leaving for the airport at 5:00 a.m. for my return home.

With my quick trip to Stockholm, I netted 11,104 MQM, (with the 150% class bonus for my business seat), which helped me secure Platinum Medallion status through Feb 2014. I also earned 9,170 bonus miles as part of the 100% bonus miles Medallion benefit for a total of 20,274 miles! All in all, I had a great flying experience, a delicious meal and I ended the year with enough miles to book 2 business class award tickets for a bouldering adventure in November to France’s Fontainebleau, one of the top bouldering spots in the world.

If you want to learn how to earn airline elite status, watch our video. Be sure to also catch our web series, Mommy Points’ Family Travel Deals, to learn more about earning miles and making the most of your points.

 

Photography by iStock

Raise a goblet to Irish history, lads. The 12th-century Malahide Castle, located 9 miles outside of Dublin in the seaside village of Malahide, has reopened its history-heavy doors after a 10.5-million-euro renovation and expansion. More »

Train for a marathon. Organize your closets. Drink green smoothies. Not putting a smile on your face just yet, is it? What’s great about travel resolutions is that they are so much more fun to keep because they involve traveling, and who doesn’t want to push that to the top of their goals for 2013.

Consider these 5 travel resolutions (we promise, you’ll be a happier person by year’s end):

1. Take Your Vacation Days

Hotwire’s 2012 American Travel Behavior Survey revealed that the majority of Americans will have an average of 9.2 unused paid vacations days leftover, and that’s 6.2 days up from 2011. There’s no reason to not take vacation days that you’ve earned, even if you use them for a staycation to explore places in your city that you haven’t had time to see (probably because you’ve been working too much).

2. Experience First, Share Later

On vacation, do you find yourself lost in capturing a moment versus living in the moment? Maybe you’re fiddling with your iPhone trying to focus on your cappuccino at a café in Italy or trying to tweet from the summit of Pikes Peak and end up missing the sunset. It seems as a culture we’re obsessed with documenting every aspect of our vacation … while it’s happening. Put the phone away. Leave it in the hotel room for a change. Stop and smell the roses … post a photo of them on Facebook later.

3. Go Your Own Way

Everyone’s dream vacation is different. Whether it’s ignoring your parents’ paranoia after deciding to travel to a “dangerous country” or realizing that you might never find someone who will share your dream of hiking a glacier or diving in the Red Sea … follow your own heart when it comes to travel. Maybe take a trip alone this year to cross off a bucket list destination (for some reason, you can’t understand why no one shares your passion to go to Yemen), or maybe just take an afternoon for yourself on your next family vacation to see a sight that only you want to see.

4. Leave Your Comfort Zone in 2012

One of the best things about travel is that it offers you the chance to be someone you’re not at home. Maybe it’s dining like Andrew Zimmern would … you know, a bite of cow placenta here and a taste of turtle testicles there. Perhaps it’s learning to surf, even though you live in the Midwest far from any water, or taking a camping trip in Alaska, even though you’re a bonafide city slicker most of the year.

5. Sign Up for Rewards Programs

Is your excuse why you don’t travel more always money? You’re not alone. But good news, there are now more ways to cash in on travel rewards programs than ever. Our travel rewards guru, Summer Hull aka MommyPoints, is passionate about points because they are what make inexpensive travel possible. Whether it’s a rewards credit card that gives you miles for every dollar you spend or racking up hotel points, take advantage of these offers so you can travel more on your dollar in 2013.

So put down the green smoothie and book that 2013 vacation already.

 

Photography by Stefan Huwiler / Image Broker / Aurora Photos

It makes sense that Greece’s Symi Island, just north of the island of Rhodes, is named for a nymph that captured the attention of Poseidon, the god of the sea. More »

Buenos Aires

The capital of Argentina, Buenos Aires is home to many Argentine traditions and trademarks; the streets are lined by parrallias, or steakhouses, that serve up Argentina’s famous beef, luxury boutiques sell leather clothing and pieces by high-end designers, the nightlife is dominated by the tango and Evita’s “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” balcony overlooks the central square, Plaza de Mayo.

Though there are plenty of museums to visit in the city, Buenos Aires is a great place to explore by foot and simply wander around (the streets’ grid system makes it easy to explore). Known for its stunning architecture (gorgeous marble and bronze buildings line Avenida 9 de Julio, the widest boulevard in the world), Buenos Aires also boasts beautiful parks, particularly those in Palermo that include a museum, a planetarium and rose gardens. Outdoor markets are frequent occurences during the weekends and the cafe culture is a popular pastime — Portenos (as locals call themselves) can be seen sipping coffee with friends until the wee hours of the morning. So if you’re heading to Buenos Aires, be prepared to not get much sleep. Often referred to as the “Paris of South America,” the city has a lively nightlife that doesn’t get started until midnight, after locals and tourists have finished their late-night dinners.

Palermo is a popular area to stay in, as it boasts some of the city’s best restaurants, shops, and parks. A tranquil, minimalist vibe pervades the Awwa Suites & Spa. Its 60 large, bright rooms feature fully equipped kitchenettes, and the spa is comprised of a gorgeous indoor pool area, sauna and massage room. The nearby Livian Guest House is a funkier alternative, with just 8 artsy rooms in a French-inspired 1920s building Recoleta, a beautiful historic area, is also a nice spot to stay. Loi Suites Recoleta offer a solid value and convenient location, as well as a small pool, fitness center and full-service spa.

- Oyster.com Staff

Photography by Benno Thoma

Here, on Royal Belize, a private island 10 miles off the coast of central Belize, it’s only you and the staff “marooned” for a fantasy-filled stay. More »

Joshua Tree National Park

Photography by Kwin Mosby

When most people think of a warm winter getaway, they think about Florida or the Caribbean as prime destinations to soak up sunrays. California can be an iffy destination if you’re looking for hot weather, but bargains abound if you’re willing to don a jacket for a quick weekend getaway.

I was looking for a somewhat inexpensive vacation spot during the holidays and found out that Palm Springs, CA, is not only a popular gay travel destination, but the resort town is also a short driving distance to Mount San Jacinto State Park and a 1-hour drive from Joshua Tree National Park. So it was a no-brainer because I needed a trip that would provide me with the possible option to commune with nature for a couple hours or even a day.

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway/Mount San Jacinto State Park
When visiting Palm Springs, rent a car and explore outside the city limits. And if you’re an outdoor enthusiast, I recommend spending about $20 (per adult) to hop on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway — just a 10- to 15-minute drive from downtown Palm Springs. The tramway (the largest of its kind in the world) offers amazing views of Mount San Jacinto, the highest peak in Palm Springs. Once you reach the top, there are several different self-guided trails as well as the Desert View trail if you want an awe-inspiring view of Palm Springs. And if there’s snow on top of the mountain, it’s a great spot to take the kids sledding.

My advice is to dress warmly and go early, otherwise expect to wait in line for an hour or more. Tourists can grab a bite to eat or warm up with spirits served at the Pines Cafe, located on the third floor of the Mountain Station. Food, alcoholic- and non-alcoholic beverages are also served at the Valley Station’s Cascade Cafe.

Joshua Tree National Park
If you have some time to kill, a day trip to Joshua Tree National Park is a must. The $15 entrance fee is a mere pittance when considering the abundance of natural beauty you’ll be able to explore. Head to Keys View to see — at a distance — Mount San Jacinto, the Coachella Valley, Palm Springs and yep, even the famous San Andreas Fault. And if the weather is clear you’ll be able to get a glimpse of the Mexico border.

I was on the road at 10 in the morning and back in my hotel room by 4 p.m., after visiting Keys View, Barker Dam, Skull Rock and eating my packed lunch at Hidden Valley while I watched experienced rock climbers scale the side of Intersection Rock. Campers can pitch their tent at 8 different campsites located throughout the park.

And if you need to make a pit stop during your road trip, bathrooms are located along the way.  As for food and water, that’s a different story. Neither is found in the park. Park rangers suggest packing ample food and water before entering the park. A small cafe next to the Joshua Tree Visitors Center, located on Park Boulevard, sells a reasonably priced packed lunch if you forget to plan ahead.

Food from Lulu Restaurant in Palm Springs

Photography by Kwin Mosby

Downtown Palm Springs
If outdoor exploring isn’t your thing, then the city of Palm Springs offers other fun activities. Explore the city’s downtown area for shopping, sightseeing and more. One of the biggest tourist attractions is the 26-foot-tall Forever Marilyn Monroe statue, located on the corner of North Palm Canyon Drive and Tahquitz Canyon Drive.  Each day, dozens of tourists stop by for a photo op with the replica of the famous star, created by American artist Seward Johnson and taken from the movie The Seven Year Itch.

Stroll down Palm Canyon Drive to see the Walk of Stars dedicated to entertainers such as Phyllis Diller, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne and Kathy Griffin. Go bike riding on well-marked paths through the city’s historic neighborhoods or see local crafts, arts and entertainment at the Palm Springs Villagefest every Thursday night.

There’s no shortage of good food and restaurants in downtown Palm Springs. Grab lunch at the local and tourist favorite, Sherman’s Deli & Bakery. The spread of 3-layer cakes and desserts on display is a great reason to stop by. My favorite restaurant while visiting was the always-crowded, but chic Lulu California Bistro at 200 N. Palm Canyon Drive. I recommend the filet mignon or the turkey burger with the side salad.

Gay-Friendly Hotels and Nightlife
In addition to tasty food, Palm Springs has accommodations for everyone, at various price points. After a little research when planning my trip, I found several hotels and resorts that offered off-season rates — some as low as $100 per night. For gay travelers looking for au naturel sun and fun, check out clothing-optional resorts located in Palm Springs’ Warm Sands neighborhood, including INNdulge, Warm Sands Villas and Triangle Inn. Rates during Christmas and New Year’s can be pricey; so plan to stay before or after the holidays when rates are a little cheaper.

Some resorts provide great amenities, including free drinks during happy hour, a multipurpose spa, fitness center, heated pool or a Jacuzzi, which is great way to relax your weary bones after a long day of hiking. If you’re looking for a more luxurious place to stay, try the boutique hotels like The Saguaro, Ace Hotel or the East Canyon Hotel and Spa.

The gay nightlife scene is small with respect to the number of bars and clubs, but each place has a genuinely warm and welcoming crowd. Head to Arenas Road, where you’ll find diverse crowds, including an intergenerational mix of gay men at Toucans Tiki Lounge and Hunters Palm Springs. The latter venue has 2 bars, dart boards, pool tables, an adjoining dance floor and outdoor patio. If you enjoy crooning to Broadway show tunes, then Thursday nights at Spurline is right up your alley.  Across the road, Streetbar is usually a hangout for the mature gay man.

So warm up your winter! Plan a trip to the desert to explore the hidden treasures in and around Palm Springs.

Photography by Golden Owl, flickr

Happy 500th birthday, Florida!

In 2013, it will be half a millennium since Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon landed on the shores of Florida, essentially becoming America’s very first tourist. To commemorate the 500th anniversary and honor Ponce de Leon for inspiring the European colonists to settle here, the Sunshine State is having a big year with festivals, events and celebrations.

2013 is chockfull of lively gatherings, and we listed a variety of our favorites throughout the year. Mark your calendar for some truly exciting adventures that wait in Florida!

Jan. 5: First Christmas in Florida
Mission San Luis, Tallahassee

Witness a reenactment of explorer Hernando de Soto’s 1539-1540 encampment in Tallahassee, with costumed interpreters, re-enactors, music and theatrical performances at Florida’s only recreated Spanish mission.

Feb. 2013: Grand Opening of Colonial Quarter
St. Augustine

Commemorating the discovery of La Florida by Juan Ponce de Leon 500 years ago, St. Augustine has added a legacy addition to its visitor experience: A living-history museum with exhibits, shows, taverns, restaurants and more to immerse visitors into Florida’s Spanish colonial experience.

Feb. 1-May 11: Picasso Exhibition
St. Augustine’s Visitor Information Center

Exhibition of graphic work and ceramics by Pablo Picasso, featuring pieces from the Fundacion Picasso in Spain that have never been displayed in the United States.

Feb. 7-18: Florida State Fair
Florida State Fairgrounds, Tampa

In 2013, this annual festival will highlight how historic European influences affect Florida’s lifestyles today, especially in food and agriculture.

April 2-5: Commemorating Ponce de Leon
Melbourne Beach

Costumed interpreters will land a replica ship to commemorate Ponce de Leon’s landing on Florida’s northeast coast. Events include an Air Force flyover, 21-gun salute, parade and erection of a statue of the Spanish explorer.

April 29-May 6: Broward Navy Days
Port Everglades, Fort Lauderdale

This annual event focuses on Florida’s rich maritime history, with tall ships to salute Viva Florida 500.

May 24-27: Florida Folk Festival
Stephen Foster State Park, Hamilton County

Singer-songwriters, folk musicians, storytellers, craftsmen, Native Americans, Florida cowboys and historical re-enactors bring Florida history to life.

June TBA: Spanish National Soccer
Miami Dolphins Stadium

Spain’s National Football Federation presents an exhibition soccer game and a chance to meet players, thanks to Espana-Florida Foundation, Fast Track Agency, the Miami Dolphins and Sun Life Stadium.

Oct. 3-5: International Spanish Food and Wine Festival
Throughout St. Augustine

Spanish culture will abound as Spanish wine distributors, along with local and regional restaurants, take over the Visit Information Center and Promenade for a festival celebrating Spain’s food, wine and dance. Hosted with the U.S.-Spain Chamber of Commerce.

October TBA: Festival Calle Orange
Orlando

One of Florida’s most internationally famous cities celebrates the state’s Hispanic roots with a street festival, food and cultural activities spread over 10 city blocks.

Nov. 30-Dec. 8: Maritime Heritage Festival
St. Augustine Municipal Marina & Promenade

Boats of all kinds — from tall ships to fishing skiffs — will celebrate maritime heritage at America’s oldest port, starting with the launch of a high-tech sailing voyage around the world in hopes of breaking a record.

- Jimmy Im

Jimmy Im is NYC-based travel writer, TV host and instructor, as well as the cofounder of OutEscapes.com

Photography by Kasbah Tamadot

Located an hour outside of Marrakesh in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, Kasbah Tamadot is a stunning Moroccan retreat surrounded by beautiful courtyards and manicured gardens. More »

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