Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Atlantic City

Atlantic City is enjoying a resurgence and a renewal (even though a drive down its streets seems like a step back in time as you pass the "Monopoly" streets of Ventnor Ave, Pacific, Atlantic, Boardwalk, etc).

I flew into Philadelphia, which is just a one-hour drive from Atlantic City. The city is also within two hours of New York City and three hours of the Washington, D.C. area.

In the past few years, many of the major casinos have undergone renovations and expansions, including not only additional rooms and gaming opportunities, but also upscale dining and shopping opportunities.

The city is marketing much more than the gaming, including golf, the boardwalk, spas and first class shows.

I attended a convention at the Trump Taj Mahal located on the Boardwalk. The Taj features 1,250 rooms, but is building an additional tower that will have an additional 800 rooms. The Taj Mahal also features 10 restaurants, five bars/nightclubs and more than 400 slot machines and 200 gaming tables. It has an arena and showroom and more than 150,000 square feet of meeting space.

The boardwalk itself is undergoing a $100 million facelift to its facade.

Other areas of note are The Walk - a walking district featuring more than 100 stores, including high-profile outlets and the Pier Shops at Caesar's, featuring high-end shops, dining and entertainment.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Riu Palace Mexico (Playa del Carmen)

Several clients just returned from an all-inclusive vacation getaway to the Riu Palace Mexico in Cancun. The resort feature 434 rooms and is perfect for a romantic getaway or for families. The resort has kids activities throughout the day.

As my clients said, “It was kind of like being on a cruise.” There were activities throughout the day, certificates for the winners, and a nightly show.

The resort is located on the beach and is adjacent to several other Riu properties, allowing guests to sample several resorts at once. There are five restaurants on the property. Advance reservations are needed for dinner.

The rooms themselves were very nice, featuring a sleeping area with two double beds put next to each other. A separate living room with a couch and television was two steps down and a private balcony was attached. The in-room mini-bars are also complimentary.

A free scuba diving training session was included, and other non-motorized watersports such as snorkeling were also free of charge.

There are two pools and a spa, plus a separate children’s pool.

One thing to note: the guests were very international and some sunbathers were topless.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Splash Harbor Indoor Water Park (Bellville, Ohio)

The Comfort Inn & Suites at exit 165 on I-71 in central Ohio is home to the Splash Harbor Indoor Water Park. The hotel features a 6,000 square foot atrium indoor water park with a 49’ looping water slide, shooting water geysers, pool with basketball goals, toddler pool area, two hot tubs and a snack and arcade area.

The hotel also offers bike rentals for a 21-mile paved bike path adjacent to the property. Also next to the hotel are a golf course, Amish restaurant and miniature golf course.

The hotel itself is comfortable – a bit dated, but adequate. There’s free internet access and continental breakfast.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Cabo da Roca, Portugal

From Sintra, take Bus 403 on a 40-minute journey to Cabo da Roca, continental Europe's westernmost point. A lighthouse and monument sit atop a cliff with a sheer drop to the Atlantic hundreds of feet below.

Reboard the 403 bus to continue to the coastal town of Cascais. A regional train runs along the coast past the popular beaches and resort areas of Cascais and Estoril and back into Lisbon.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Sintra, Portugal

One of our best experiences came in a side trip to Sintra, which is about 20 miles northwest of Lisbon. The city itself is charming with quaint little streets dotted with shops. The city is in the mountains, so the streets rise and fall.

Bus 434 picks you up right outside of the train station and a makes a round trip stopping at downtown Sintra, the Moorish Castle and the Pena Palace. We bypassed the Moorish Castle, although from Pena we had an excellent view of the walls of the castle that was built in the ninth century.

Pena Palace is a beautiful castle with turrets and domesin pastel colors. The walk around the top of the wall affords breathtaking views of the countryside in one direction, the Atlantic Ocean in another, and all the way to Lisbon in another.

The palace was built from 1840-1885 and was the home to Portugal's king as late as 1910. A tour of the interior features glimpses into various rooms showing how the kings and queens lived. It's also interesting to contrast it to Queluz which was used a century earlier. The differences in styles and amenities in very noticeable.

The palace also features a very large park with numerous trails. Hike to the Queen's Throne lookout for a fantastic view of the palace from a distance. Among the trees on the grounds are sequoias, western red cedars and tree ferns. Hike down along the Lakes of the Gates toward the exit to see ponds with beautiful swans (white, black and mixed), ducks and cranes.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Queluz, Portugal

Just northwest of Lisbon is a beautiful area called Sintra. Trains run from the Jardim Zoologicolo metro station / Sete Rios train station every 10 minutes on weekdays and every 15-20 minutes on weekends.

Halfway to Sintra is the small town of Queluz which features the National Palace. The palace is about a 1/2-mile walk from the train station and is modeled after Versailles.

Our first impression on our Sunday morning visit was a bit disappointing. From the front, this is no Versailles. It looked really run down, and by the complete lack of people around we wondered if it was still open. Fortunately, it was, and it was one of many museums in Portugal that is free of charge on Sundays.

The inside of the palace is nice - again not quite like Versailles, but it is similar. A walking tour leads through various halls that are mostly decorated with original artifacts from the 18th century.

The gardens are very well taken care of, although during our visit a good portion were blocked off. Allow about an hour for a visit.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Docas - Lisbon

Dinner tonight was at the Docas (docks) - an upscale collection of 20+ restaurants and clubs along the Tagus River and almost directly underneath the Ponte 25 Abril bridge - a replica of the Golden Gate bridge.

The restaurants featured two levels of seating indoors as well as riverside seating under umbrellas. We enjoyed the outdoor dining atmosphere gazing at the hundreds of boats in the marina as well as schools of large fish that occasionally received a morsel tossed from above.

An Irish pub was packed with the TV turned to a live World Cup rugby contest. Other restaurants were Italian, Spanish and Portuguese among others.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Castelo de Sao Jorge - Lisbon

A beautiful Saturday was spent exploring Lisbon on foot. We spent nearly two hours at the Castelo de Sao Jorge built upon the highest hill in Lisbon.

Ruins found on the grounds date back to the sixth century B.C., although the castle itself was built in the 10th and 11th centuries by the Moors. From along the walls and the many towers, you can look out over all of Lisbon. There's also a multimedia show that offers a real-time 360-degree view of Lisbon thanks to an optical system invented by Leonardo da Vinci in the 16th century.

The walk from the castle back to Rossio Square is all downhill through charming streets and alleyways featuring cafes and souvenir shops at ground level and apartment balconies with their full clotheslines up above.

Beware of pickpockets! The same boy - about 10-12 years old - was caught trying to pick pockets on two different trams we were on during the day. There are a lot of tourists hers, and that also translates into plenty of beggars and other "shady" characters. One man discreetly opened a shopping bag while walking past us and offered to sell us a very nice camera (wonder who he had stolen that from), while another man opened his hand with a fist full of drugs saying it was the best stuff around.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Lisbon city tour

Day 4 was a busy yet very worthwhile day. We got an early start from Porto and five hours later were checked into the Vila Gale Opera in Lisbon located between the Alcantara and Belem quarters beneath the Ponte 25 Abril bridge. The bridge is a replica of the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco and connects Lisbon with Almada across the Tagus River.

The hotel is very nice, but is a bit further away from the city center than most of the tourist hotels. It is however, adjacent to the Congress Center and the Docas - an area of restaurants and night clubs along the river.

While Porto was a small, condensed city, Lisbon immediately gives an impression of being much more metropolitan.

We acclimated ourselves to the city with a 3 1/2-hour tour with CityRama. Our bus of 30 was diverse, and our guide did an incredible job of narrating in four languages. A city tour like this gives a good opportunity to familiarize oneself with a city. You drive by many of the sites, stopping at a few, and you get detailed history and background of everything you see.

Most of our time was spent in Belem, Portuguese for Bethlehem. Our first stop was Monasteiro dos Jeronimos - a monastery began in 1502 and financed by Portugal's explorations and trade with Africa, Asia and South America. Famous explorer Vasco da Gama is entombed there.

Lucky for us, our visit coincided with a national holiday and we were treated to a parade of bands and soldiers on horseback in front of the pink presidential palace right next door.

We continued past the palace to the Museum of Coaches, which houses a collection of 57 coaches more beautiful than Cinderella's. The oldest coach is from the 16th century while others that carried gifts to the Vatican are covered in gold.

Nearby, the Torre de Belem served as a lookout point into the Atlantic to defend the port entrance.

Also in Belem is the Monument of the Discoveries erected in 1960 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator. Both sides feature seven explorers, each 21 feet high, looking forward over the bow of a boat.

Next we drove to the Alfama quarter, one of the oldest parts of the city especially known for its narrow alleyways and streets. The Moors of the 8th century heavily influenced the layout of the area.

The tour ended at Rossio Square, the city's main square since the middle ages. Lots of people were enjoying a beautiful evening at the many cafes, and the teenagers were skateboarding around the Dom Pedro IV statue.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Douro River cruise

We capped off our visit to Porto with a one-hour river cruise to see the city's six bridges - of which they are very proud.

Starting at the Praca da Ribeira, we sailed inland first under the Ponte Luis I, a double-decked bridge completed in 1886. The upper level is strictly for the metro, although there is room enough to walk too (barely), while the lower level is for vehicles and pedestrians connecting Porto to Vila Nova de Gaia.

Further up river is the Maria Pia bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel. It was completed in 1877 and was the first to connect both sides of the river.

Two other bridges feature some of the longest arches in the world. The Arrabida bridge's 270-meter arch was surpassed in 2002 with the completion of the Infante D. Henrique bridge and its 285-foot arch. The views of the cities on both sides was very nice. The cruise, accompanied by sunshine for the first time in two days, was a perfect way to end our stay in Porto.

Following the cruise, we did some souvenir shopping and had lunch in the port area. There are numerous options for both.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Afternoon in Porto

After a short rest, we set about on a two-hour walk around Porto to take in the sights, sounds and smells of the city. Shops, cafes and bakeries are set along narrow sidewalks with traffic hustling past just inches away. We stopped in at a couple of cathedrals, walked onto a bridge high above the Douro River and then headed back to the hotel as a light rain began to fall. By 5 p.m., we needed a bit of down time.

We headed to dinner at about 6:45 and discovered that many restaurants in Portugal don't re-open for dinner until 7:00 or later. A restuarant across teh street from the hotel, Trinufante, came with good reviews for excellent food at very reasonable prices. That proved to be true. A dinner of soup, two entrees (turkey with tomato rice and curry chicken with rice), two desserts and two drinks came to 16.65.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Full day in Porto

Day 2 in Porto, the first full day, started with a complimentary breakfast buffet at the hotel, which offered a selection of cereals, fruits, cold meats, breads and hot dishes.

At 9:00, we were picked up in a minivan for a half-day city tour. We first drove to some parts of the city outside the city center, which has UNESCO World Heritage status. We saw the new diamond-shaped Casa Musica, which was designed by a renowned Dutch architect and features several acoustically-tuned theaters.

The 5 m Avenida Boa Vista is the longest continual street in the city and features million dollar villas alongside the major businesses. The Avenida leads to the Atlantic Ocean where there are several nice beaches and some new clubs and restaurants in development. The beaches are all lower than street level to help you feel that you have escaped the city.

We followed the coast for a few minutes until we hit the mouth of the Douro River, which led us back to the city center. Once parked, we visited the Igreja dos Carmelitas, two adjoining churches. The one on the left was built in the 17th century in Baroque style while the right half was built in the 18th century in Rococco style.

Next we headed to Torre dos Clerigos, which features the highest tower in Portugal, rising 76 meters in the air. We paid 2 Euros each for the privilege of climbing the 225 steps to the top. Although still cloudy, the views were very nice.

Our next stop was the city's main Cathedral located on the hill overlooking the river - an excellent place, of course, to look out for invading armies. The inside of this cathedral was fairly plain.

Our final tour stop was across the Douro in Gaia where the port-making companies moved their warehouses centuries ago to avoid paying taxes to the Porto bishop. Grapes harvested in the Douro Valley are brought here to be turned in to port wines. After a tour of Graham's, established in 1820, we were afforded the opportunity to taste four of the company's ports - two whites, a late-bottled vintage, and a 20-year port. All had very unique characteristics and boasted an alcohol content of 20%.

That was the end of our city tour, however, we stayed in Porto's city center and strolled down Rua de Santa Catarina - a pedestrian only shopping area. In the midst of all these small shops, one door opened to a three-story mall.

Our day also included a quick metro ride to Dragon Stadium - home to Porto's soccer team. The stadium opened in 2003 and is very state-of-the-art. Unfortunately, they wanted 7 Euros per person for a tour and another 5 Euros to take a picture. We didn't want to see it that badly.

Dinner was at Majestic Cafe back on Rua de Santa Catarina. This was my opportunity for cod fish (bacalhau), a favorite of Portugal. Mine was served with thinly sliced onions atop eggs and potatoes. Dinner for two came to 37.25.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Vila Gale Porto

We stayed at the Vila Gale Porto near the Campo 24 Agosto square metro station for the first three nights of our trip. The hotel is the city's largest, and our suite on the 18th floor gave us a view of the Atlantic Ocean, Douro River and the city. We had a large room with entryway, king-size bed, leather couch and work desk. The bathroom featured a dual vanity and a shower/tub that was literally a small swimming pool.

We checked into the hotel by about 1:30 and learned the hotel restaurant served a buffet lunch until 2:30. We knew this would be an expensive option, but after 18 1/2 hours of travel by plane, train, bus and subway, we needed something easy.

The buffet was decent - a selection of salads, cold vegetables, fruits and cheeses; several hot entrees including pork, salmon, tortellini, potatoes and rice; soup and rolls; and several desserts. It did set us back 32.00 Euros.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Arrival in Lisbon; train to Porto

Arrival in Lisbon was at 8:15 a.m. Unfortunately, heavy cloud cover prevented much of a view. There was a long line at customs, but with eight officials working we were through the line in about 25 minutes. By that point, our bag was already on the carousel.

We checked in at a tourist information booth to verify which bus we should take to the Oriente train station then we exchanged some money. Ouch! The dollar is at its weakest point ever with the Euro. Perhaps next time we will just use our ATM card to get the best rate possible.

We got on a bus right outside the airport for 1.30 each, and seven stops later we were at the train station.

I had pre-purchased our train tickets as well, doing so conservatively for the train at 11:39. Since we were at the station before 10:00, we decided to change our ticket for the 10:09 train. This saved us two hours in time since the earlier train was the faster Alfa Pendular instead of an InterCity.

The coaches were comfortable and quiet as we cruised across the countryside at speeds up to 220 km/h (136 mph). We got into Porto, the country's second largest city with 235,000 people, at 12:45. The ride was actually kind of boring. I had hoped for some interesting scenery and changing landscapes, but it was mainly hilly farmland with a lot of poor-looking towns. The houses were white, but some were a pastel yellow or green. All featured tile roofs. A lot of them had laundry hanging from the balconies.

From the Porto Campanha train station, we walked a block to the metro and for 2.20 took the three-minute ride to the station near our hotel.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Travel to Portugal

I wouldn't necessarily recommend this strategy, but it seemed like a pretty low-risk gamble. I booked our flight to Lisbon with just a one-hour connection time in Newark. Any delay would make it difficult to make our flight. The deciding factor, however, was the fact that Continental has two evening flights to Lisbon. If we had missed our connection for the 8:15 flight, we probably could have gotten seats on the 10:15 flight - not necessarily a good back-up plan for other destinations with flights that might be more full.

As it turned out, we landed early and were off the plane and at our gate a full hour early. The view coming into the Newark airport was fantastic - the New York skyline and the Statue of Liberty.