Monday, November 22, 2010

Aruba

In March, Ashley and I left the cold in North Carolina for a week in warm, sunny Aruba with her parents.  This was my third trip and Ashley's fourth trip there.  I really enjoy going to Aruba, and it is always difficult to leave when the trip is over.  The weather is very consistent with little rain, high temperatures in the low to mid 90's, and constant trade winds that make the hot temperatures comfortable.  The people there are very friendly, and it is one of the safest places I've ever been to (despite how it has been portrayed in recent years).  One of my favorite things about Aruba (aside from the sun and beaches) are the great variety of quality restaurants.  If you like fish, you will be in heaven in Aruba.

With the exception of our first night in Aruba, we stayed at the Marriott Aruba Surf Club, a timeshare resort in the Palm Beach hi-rise hotel area of Aruba.  It is adjacent to another Marriott timeshare resort and a Marriott hotel.  If you're looking for a secluded romantic getaway, the Surf Club is not your place.  It is quite large and very family friendly so there are lot's of people running around.  It's still a very enjoyable place to stay, but it helps to know what you're getting into before you get there.


We stayed our first night at the Paradera Park Apartments due to our flights arriving on Saturday and our check-in at the Marriott being on Sunday.  This is a small hotel in the middle of the island that is run by a very nice married couple.  This is a very neat place that is much quieter than the Marriott.  It's not near the water, but they will supply you with beach chairs and a cooler and give you directions to one of Aruba's great beaches.


Restaurants we went to:
Wacky Wahoo's - The fish here was excellent.  I had Wahoo and Ashley had Grouper and they were both cooked perfectly.  It's in a shopping center, so the ambience is not at the level of some of the other places, but overall, it was a great experience.
Yemanja - This restaurant is in downtown Oranjestad.  It's got a different feel than a lot of the other places since it is "in the city."  There were mixed reviews among our group on the food.
Chefs Tables - This is a really neat restaurant setup in an old house.  We ate in the back courtyard which had a really cool feel to it.  Everyone in the group enjoyed their food.  I had the Grouper Napoli, which was excellent mozzarella, pesto and tomato sauce.  The unique thing about this place is their desserts which they serve tapas style in shot glasses so that you can order several if you like.  It's a really neat concept.
The Old Man and the Sea - This place takes about 30 minutes to get to, which feels like a long time on this small island.  For us, it wasn't worth the drive.  This place has a great setup and ambiance.  It is right on the water, and you can stick your feet in the sand while you're dining if you'd like to.  The restaurant entrance is really cool as you feel like you are walking through a garden.  They also have a great staff.  However, the food just isn't up to the level you would expect in a place like this.  The menu choices are limited, and compared to the other restaurants, just not that enticing.  I had the fresh catch which was barracuda, and while it was good, it wasn't good enough to justify the long drive to get there.
Papiamento - This was one of my favorite spots in my first two trips to Aruba, and it didn't disappoint this time.  The setting and ambiance are gorgeous.  The dining area is set up around a pool in the outside courtyard of one of the oldest houses in Aruba.  The food is really good as well.  One of the cool things they have are grilled items served on a hot stone.  I opted for one of these dishes that had lobster, fish and shrimp.  They come out sizzling on the stone and finish cooking right in front of you.
Marandi - This restaurant is set up on a dock over the water and has a huge thatch roof over it.  It's a bit of a drive from the hotel zone (though not nearly as far as Old Man and the Sea), but it has great food and great ambiance.  It's definitely worth the trip.
Madame Janette - One of the more well-known restaurants in Aruba, Madame Janette doesn't disappoint.  It's another restaurant that's in a courtyard setting in the back of a house.  This place and Papiamento are at the top of my list for restaurants in Aruba.  Rather than get seafood, I opted for the Argentine filet mignon, and it was one of the best steaks that I've ever had.
Pam Pam - This place is attached to a student dormitory.  It's not that well known, and the prices are reasonable with some good seafood dishes.  It's an open-air restaurant underneath a huge thatch roof.
Bingo - Great apple pie here for dessert.
Screaming Eagle - We went here for a drink before dinner.  The decor inside is really interesting, kind of a Miami Vice style.
Pincho's - This is a great place to get a drink before or after dinner.  It's set out on a dock on the water.

Other good restaurants:
Que Pasa
Linda's Pancakes - great breakfast!

Notes on snorkeling spots (all beaches in Aruba are public):
Arashi beach – which is tiny but easily accessible from Marriott and our favorite spot
Baby beach which is the one with the natural pool very calm and inviting very large chunk of beach - this is a big spot for local families,  the snorkeling is only good here past the rocks of the cut.
Palm Beach and Antilla wreck

Other good activities:
4x4 tour of desert side of island
Watch sunset at the California Lighthouse restaurant

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Paris

Ashley and I went to Paris in late January.  It was a short trip (2 days), but we've been wanting to go for a long time.  Hopefully, we'll get to go back several more times.

We used Marriott points to stay at the Renaissance Paris Vendome.  This hotel is in an excellent central location near the Tuileries.  We were able to walk to everything we wanted to see, and it was also 2 blocks from the Tuileries metro stop, which was convenient when we got tired of walking.

Day 1
Our flight landed in Paris around 10:30am.  We took the RER train from the airport into the city, transferred to the metro line and walked to our hotel from the Tuileries metro stop.  For the most part, this was a very easy trip.  There were a couple of times that we had to haul our luggage up and down steps in the metro stations, but that was manageable when taking into account the cost of taking a taxi from the airport.

After checking in, we went out for a walk to see the city.  Our first stop was the Tuileries...
Tuileries Gardens


The Tuileries are right next to the Louvre, so that was our next stop.  We'll have to go back to the Louvre on another trip when we have more time to go inside.  On this trip, there was so much of the city that we wanted to see we were content to just take pictures on the outside.  We brought our tripod along, so this was our first chance to test it out...
Outside the Louvre


From the Louvre, we walked over to see the Seine...


Ille de la Cite


We crossed over the Seine from the Right Bank (Rive Droite) to the Left Bank (Rive Gauche) and into the Latin Quarter in search of lunch.  I did some research before the trip on Paris restaurants, and the choices were overwhelming.  I also wasn't sure where we would be at what time so we didn't have a strict plan on where to eat.  In hindsight, this was a mistake.  We walked around a bit not knowing what we were looking for.  We ended up at a little restaurant called Cocotte Jolie.  We got to choose 3 courses each for our lunch.  This is very simple if you know French, not simple if you don't.  The little French-English dictionary I downloaded for my iPhone was no help in deciphering the menu items.  We placed our orders not really knowing what we were going to get.  Ashley ended up with Pork Terrine for starter and Tagliatelle with cream sauce and ham for her main.  I ended up with what I think was a Goat Cheese soup for starter and Sauteed Fish covered with a curry sauce for my main.  We ended up switching our starters as I enjoyed the Terrine more than Ashley did.  The soup was pretty good.  We each enjoyed our main dishes as well.  The high point of the meal was dessert.  Ashley had a custard with pistachio ice cream, and I had a chocolate brownie covered with chocolate sauce and a side of ice cream.  Both were excellent.

Lunch at Cocotte Jolie
 

Overall, we enjoyed the lunch, but I think we were both looking for a more traditional French bistro lunch.  Had we walked a couple of blocks further before lunch, we would have gotten our wish.  We stumbled on this street of cafes and bistros after lunch....



We would have had a nice choice of desserts from this patisserie as well...
 

Flowers for the romantics...
 

 These oysters looked good as well...maybe next time...
 

After strolling through the Latin Quarter, we headed over to Ille de la Cite to see Notre Dame.  Ille de la Cite is an island in the Seine where medieval Paris was founded.  Here's a picture of us in front of Notre Dame.
 

Inside Notre Dame
 

 Stained glass in Notre Dame
 

After a long day of traveling and walking around the city, we were pretty worn out.  We stayed at the hotel for dinner and tried out the restaurant connected to it called Pinxo.  We shared two main courses, duck with mashed potatoes and sauteed salmon over a braised mixture of leeks, cabbage, green onion and mushroom.  Both dishes were excellent!

Day 2
On our second day, we set out from our hotel in the morning with the goal of walking down the Champs Elysses to the Arc de Triomphe and also seeing the Eiffel Tower.  We first came to Place de la Concorde which is a plaza at the start of the Champs Elysses...
 Place de la Concorde
 

 Then we walked the whole of the Champs Elysses up to the Arc de Triomphe.  On the way, we went in search of a cafe for a light lunch.  Again, it would have helped to plan this out in advance, but we ended up finding a nice little place called Code Bar where we shared a croque monsieur.  The Champs Elysses is truly a sight to behold with its cafes, restaurants and shops lining each side.  It's a really wide street with wide sidewalks.  I would like to see it in the springtime when the trees aren't bare.

View of Champs Elysses looking towards Place de la Concorde
 

At the end of the Champs Elysses, we arrived at the Arc de Triomphe...
 

We then took the metro to the Trocadero from which you have a great view of the Eiffel Tower...


Eiffel Tower...


Underneath Eiffel Tower...


After a short rest back at the hotel, we ventured back out and walked over to the Musee de l'Orangerie to see Monet's Water Lilies...
Monet's Water Lilies




For dinner on night 2, we had the concierge book a reservation at a place she recommended for us called Brasserie Le Vaudeville located near the Bourse (old stock exchange) and in walking distance from our hotel.  This was the kind of experience we were looking for in our first trip to Paris.  We both opted for the 3 course prixe fixe menu.  Ashley got foie gras with toast as her starter, sauteed salmon as her main and creme brulee for dessert.  I got onion soup as my starter, grilled lamb as my main and molten chocolate cake as my dessert.  For wine, we had a carafe of Cote de Rhone.  Everything we had was excellent.  It was an all around wonderful experience.
Brasserie Le Vaudeville


After dinner, we took the metro to the Ecole Militare stop for a great view of the Eiffel Tower at night...
Eiffel Tower at night


Play the video to see the Eiffel Tower light show that happens at the top of every hour...
  video

Sadly, we had to go leave the next day, but we look forward to going back again someday soon...