We start planning our trips (and our dining experiences which have been known to be the primary impetus for many a trip) about a year in advance, developing a sort of annual travel plan. Since we now live in Florida, the idea is to travel as much as possible during the hot summer months and enjoy Florida the rest of the year. That only works just so well until we get the itch again to be somewhere—often Paris—and throw in a trip even if it is cool and lovely here.
We jointly decide where we’d like to go and then I get started with the nitty-gritty planning, mapping out a general outline, reading multiple guidebooks (I especially like Fodors, the cheeky, gossipy British Cadogan guides, and Knopf Mapquides), and consulting travel websites (here too Fodors has always been a favorite, most often Booking.com for hotels, Chowhound for restaurants and all things food, and TripAdvisor for user opinions on almost anything.)
If it’s a new or not recently visited destination, I may plan down to a gnat’s eyelash, mapping specific routes to and around a city (typically using Viamichelin), checking train schedules, selecting restaurants, etc. If it’s somewhere we’ve been several times before, the plans will allow for a bit–but not too much–serendipity.
I sometimes like to go to a place we’ve just “discovered” two years in a row. Sounds redundant or wasteful but I find that a comfort level sets in on the second visit enabling us to explore more meaningfully, confident that we know enough about the place to skip some things while at the same time giving us opportunity to pick up stuff we missed previously or to see things I’ve just learned of, e.g. maybe get to a newly opened, trendy restaurant that wasn’t even there when we last visited.
After we’ve cemented our decision on general destination, I search for the best rates on flights and hotels. This is where the differences between spouses comes to the fore. I always want to book as soon as I find something that looks good. Val wants to “hold on” to see if rates don’t get better. I want to pre-book almost every meal to be sure we aren’t left high and dry somewhere in the middle of a culinary wasteland as hunger strikes. Val wants to remain open so we can take advantage of the wonderful place we stumble upon just as lunch or dinner approaches. In fact, one of our trips to Paris more or less revolved around finding which approach works better. The answer is, they both work ok but neither of us is comfortable with the other approach so the tension continues.
During the trip, Val concentrates on recording everything we see—by video or still camera and usually both. I take pictures of the food. I also write a daily log of what we saw, where we ate, what we ate, how we felt about it, what we did, sometimes how much we spent for lodging, meals and sightseeing. Somehow no matter how much detail I put in, the question that arises as we plan a repeat visit is often not answered, but I keep on trying. Val downloads the pictorial details, dumps the inevitable duplicates and makes the albums. I caption the pictures so we won’t forget the names of things we saw, ate, and enjoyed and sometimes I write a report of the trip—hence this blog.
In years past our most frequent means of travel was rental car. Though Val still drives occasionally, especially in rural areas, as we’ve aged, we’re tending to rely more and more on trains so I’m learning a whole new system. I’m especially grateful to Rick Steves and the gentleman in seat61.com who have unlocked many mysteries about rail travel for me and others. In some cases we rent a car with driver so we can sightsee while someone who knows the terrain handles the traffic. We make use of our kids as drivers whenever possible if they join us for a trip. And sometimes we just walk if the trip is strictly to a single, large city–or take local public transport, e.g. the metro, buses, or taxis.
In selecting hotels we look first for location and especially something in the midst of good dining options. We are willing to book almost any place along the price spectrum but most often at the 3 and 4 star levels (the actual level of comfort compared to star rating seems to vary by country) but we have been happy in 2-star places (in fact one of our very favorite hotels is the 2- star Clos Normand in St. Aubin sur Mer, on the Northern coast of France).
The pictures below are of the Clos Normand and a couple of our other favorite, reasonably priced, charming hotels in the Normandy and Brittany area.
Clockwise from the top left–dining room at the Clos Normand; deck at the Grand Hotel du Val Andre–alas, no longer a hotel but a defunct condo makeover–so sad; the seaside dining deck of the Clos Normand; and the Mere Champlain in the heart of oyster country in Cancale, France.
Now and again we will splurge on a 5-star place—but not often. The pictures below are from some of the more upscale or unique places we’ve stayed over the years.
Clockwise from the upper left–breakfast room at the Palazetto Pisani, a Palazzo on the Grand Canal, once home to one of Doges of Venice; the exterior of the Royal Lyon Hotel, a charmer directly on the Place Bellecour in downtown Lyon; the Villa Rosario, in Ribadesella, on the Northern coast of Spain, formerly owned by one of the Indianos who made their money in the “new world” and returned to Spain to build themselves palatial mansions; the serene and flower-bedecked Moulin de Vigonac, near Brantome, in the Aquitane area of France near Bordeaux; and a the small piano room of the Hotel de Toiras in St. Martin de Re, on the Ile de Re on the Atlantic coast of France. In rechecking information on this hotel I was amazed to see that rooms at the de Toiras are now up to 600–1300 USD per night in summer–way beyond what we paid when we stayed there in 2006. Luxury seems to have a way of outpacing even inflation.
And this is the Chateau de Rochecotte in the Loire Valley of France. It once belonged to the Duchess de Dino, given to her by Talleyrand and has been a member of the prestigious Relais and Chateaux hotel chain. Among other amenities, it has its own private chapel on the grounds–and the grounds are covered with a beautiful carpet of tiny violets in the spring.
Overall, my theory on hotel selection is that a place that is a bit rustic will help you appreciate the next, more comfortable lodging and the luxurious place with its high price tag while help you appreciate the next charming, small, but homely place. In my experience every hotel has its pluses and minuses no matter how carefully you select.
What is true of hotels also applies to our dining experiences. We can take as much delight in a pile of fresh oysters at a hole-in-the-wall shack surrounded by colorful fishing boats and azure waters (like the one above in Cancale, France where the oysters are less than 50 cents apiece) as in an 8-course extravaganza at an over-the-top Michelin 3- star restaurant or as in the 2-star Atelier Robuchon in Paris, pictured below along with some of the beautiful dishes we’ve tasted there.
In fact, we’ve concluded that something in-between is our preference, with a hearty repast at an old-fashioned bouchon (bistro) in Lyon, our answer if forced to select the proverbial “last meal.” See my tortured explication of the evolution of our dining preferences here and the pictures below.
We now most often travel alone, i.e. just the two of us. At other times we travel with family—initially just son Alex and daughter Liz, then son-in-law Chris who caught the travel bug immediately and has pleased us by becoming quite a foodie, sometimes with Liz, Chris and the twins, Anna and Maija, whom we refer to collectively as CLAM, the acronym made from the first letters of their four names and very apt since they are a sailing/nautical family. Sometimes it’s us and Alex for a skiing holiday (he skis; we do not), and sometimes we’re with an assortment of friends. Though I’ve read plenty of horror stories about traveling with (previous) friends, we’ve been lucky. Most of our efforts to introduce friends to travel have been successes, and they too have gone on to introduce others to the delights they found in their travels with us–a sort of bonus beyond the great food and good times we shared with them.