Monthly Archives: March 2012

California Dreamin’: Hollywood

Hands down, West Hollywood is my favourite place in the U.S. Prior to my first time here, I would hear horror stories of how awful it is and its either super dangerous or you have to be incredibly rich to enjoy yourself. Lies, lies and more lies! I’m not going to recommend venturing out of West Hollywood or Santa Monica – I didn’t partially for safety reasons, and partially because everything was at my fingertips when I was here. I know that one wrong turn can get me into trouble. But if you have a GPS, you’re fine!

So why do I love LA so much? Well, for many reasons. It’s a fairytale land where Hollywood starlets mingle with regular folk. It’s bizarre that you can go into a Club Monaco and possibly run into Sandra Bullock, or dine at a steakhouse beside Kobe Bryant.  I’m from a suburb, so living amongst the rich and powerful isn’t something that happens often! Aside from the countless famous or wanna-be famous people that you may run into, LA (and again I’m only addressing West Hollywood and Santa Monica) is actually a very tiny little town with great weather and tons of things to do. Here are some itinerary items to consider on your trip:

 The Grove: If you watch entertainment shows, they are always “Live from the Grove” so it should sound relatively familiar if you’re up-to-date with pop culture. I have had a few celeb spottings here, but mainly the Grove is just great for an afternoon of leisure. It’s an outdoor shopping center with great stores like Neiman Marcus, J.Crew, Forever 21 and much more. If you’re hungry, stop off at Morel’s French Steakhouse & Bistro and order the Cobb Salad. It’s also the perfect place to people watch.

 Rodeo Drive: If you aren’t going to buy anything, go for the experience! Rodeo drive is a short street full of high-end designer shops. Don’t feel intimidated when you walk into stores (ala Pretty Woman), the sales staff know who is there to shop and who is there for free champagne (Ya, that’s right! You get free bubbly while you shop!). Once you’re done, head to N. Beverly Drive or Robertson, it’s much more affordable!

 Andaz Hotel: Chic, no check-in desk, contemporary décor, free wine, free hors d’euvres, across from Skybar and has a rooftop patio with unbelievable views. What else do you need in a hotel? I recommend the Andaz without hesitation.

 The Comedy Store: Right across the street from the Andaz Hotel, the Comedy Store is where comedians like Bernie Mac and Chelsea Handler got their start. I was extremely fortunate when I went as I had the privilege of being entertained by the then unknown Whitney Cummings and Chris D’Elia. Whitney was a rising star who tested her David Hasselhoff Roast jokes on the crowd and Chris opened for the headliner. Both, had the crowd in tears and in my opinion stole the show. No wonder they now have a hit TV show!

 Santa Monica: If you want to take advantage of the heat, then pay a visit to Santa Monica. There is everything from the Santa Monica pier, to cute shops, to great restaurants, and beaches. I suggest getting there first thing in the morning or else you will get stuck in the unbelievably busy LA traffic and parking is not easy to find. Is it worth it? Yes!

 SkyBar: An awesome place to unwind at the end of the night. It really is the stereotypical LA “hotspot”. Very dim lighting, faint music, with cabanas and private booths that surround the well-lit pool. It’s a tough place to get into and likely the reason why so many celebrities hang out here. If you think you can get in, it’s totally worth a shot!

Hollywood: You can’t go to West Hollywood and not see the Hollywood sign! Go to the Kodak Theatre (which by the way is strange that the Oscars are held here, seeing as it’s a shopping center!) and go to the very back of the building. Gaze out the open space, and voila, there it is!  On your way out, notice the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and famous handprints beside the Chinese Theatre.

 Jimmy Kimmel: It can be any show, but I’m going to be bias since I went to see Jimmy Kimmel. His studio is across from the Kodak theatre so you can make an entire afternoon of it. Visit his website a few weeks beforehand to order tickets.

Boa: The only bust in West Hollywood. It’s one of the most famous restaurants, but incredibly overpriced for the quality. I’ve been here twice, and the first time I loved it, so it could have just been a bad day my second time around. If you choose to eat here, make sure to get the Caesar Salad – they make it from scratch.

Mulholland Drive: This secluded area is a fair drive through the winding roads and atop the mountains of LA. This is where celebrities call home. Filled with gated communities and obscenely sized mansions. It’s no wonder that celebrities feel superior to the rest of the world! The roads are very narrow so keep an eye out for the speeding paparazzi in SUV’s.

 There are way more things to do while in LA then I have mentioned, but hopefully this can start you off on your adventures. It really is a nice town and I’m not at all surprised that this is where big names call home. Although heavily populated, LA is very tiny with lots to see. Give yourself a few days here, you’ll need it!

 Until next time….safe travels!

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Marseille: A Welcome Surprise

Remember how I talked about cruising and how there are some stops that you aren’t particularly excited to see….and then you get there and you’re so happy you went?  Well Marseille is that perfect example. I will be honest, I could have cared less about Marseille. I didn’t know much about it and I wasn’t really interested in learning. That is, until I arrived.

Marseille is a surprisingly enthusiastic city and the oldest city in France.  It isn’t small in comparison to other French cities, in fact, it’s the second largest in the country.I’m not a history buff, but I certainly recommend either a guided tour or read up on Marseille before you get there. This port city has a lot to offer, you just need to know what you’re looking for.

Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica – The first thing you see in Marseille. How can you miss it? This basilica sits at the peak of the mountain on the south side of the port. Be prepared to sweat! There are steep stairs and hills to climb, but the spectacular panaromic views of Marseille are completely worth it. It’s worth taking a look inside as well.

Chateau d’If – If you have watched the movie The Count of Monte Cristo, then you know about the Chateau d’If. Reminiscent to San Francisco’s Alcatraz, the Chateau sits on the island of If and can only be reached by boat. You can explore the courtyard and surrounding area by catching the ferry from the old port.

Petit Train Marseille – This little train is designed specifically for tourists to get through the city. There a designated spots where you can jump on and jump off. Depending on which circuit you take, stops include the Basilica, St. Victor’s Abbey, and Hotel Dieu. The fares are very reasonable, but depending on the stop, you may encounter a long line up.

Catch of the Day – You can’t go out and fish, but you can definitely appreciate the fish market. As you walk through the port, watch local fisherman wheel and deal with market vendors. They catch the fish, rell them in and sell it to the markets at a good price. The area can smell a bit, especially during a hot day – but the fish could not be any fresher. If you love seafood, you would definitely appreciate this market.

Quai du Port – After a long day, I encourage a croissants, cappuccino and people watching. Choose from the many cafés or restaurants along Quai du Port and sit back and take in the views.

Graffiti – Say what? For anyone who has travelled through Europe, I’m sure you have noticed the increase in graffiti from self proclaimed artists. I personally think it’s a shame that people are willing to ruin historical areas with their self expression. However, since going to Marseille I have actuallydeveloped a slight appreciation for it. The graffiti here is stunning with vibrant colors and positive messages.  It actually adds to the city rather than take away from it.

Marseille is a beautiful city that you can experience in a day or two. I wouldn’t recommend staying here for too much longer than that. There is a lot to do if you have are a history buff, but if you’re looking for the balance of history, beach, shopping and nightlife, you may want to consider elsewhere. Nonetheless, I’m happy I’ve seen Marseille first hand. It was a surprisingly wonderful experience.

A la prochaine…..

Categories: Europe | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Monaco: The Fairytale

What can really be said about arguably the most beautiful place on earth? Are you stuck on where I’m referring to? Monaco, of course! I’ve been to many places, but without a doubt Monaco tops the list. It’s one of those countries (yes, Monaco is the second smallest country in the world!) that you visit and think to yourself…”Oh ya, I could live like this!” Where to begin when I talk about Monaco?  It’s so small, but truly has anything and everything you would ever need.

If you are visiting the French Riviera, be sure to dedicate some time to drive to Monaco. Drive past Villefranche-sur-Mer and the tiny coastal town Eze. You can miss Eze in the blink of an eye, so look for it. Perhaps the obscurity of Eze is what attracted celebrities like Bono and Sir Elton John to own villas here . The drive is no longer than an hour (depending on how many times you stop!) and is simply breathtaking. There are no words in the English vocabulary to describe the drive.

Once you get to Monaco, there is plenty to do and enjoy. Like I said, it’s small but it truly is spectacular.

Monte Carlo – Not the capital city of Monaco, (that would be Monaco Ville) but probably the most known district in Monaco, thanks to the Grand Casino, luxury hotels and James Bond. You must make your way to this district, and take it all in. You will really understand what true luxury is. A word to the wise, if you’re hungry….don’t eat in the casino square if you’re on a tight budget. Actually, don’t eat anywhere in Monaco! You will pay a premium.

Harbor – A part of Monte Carlo, but really is deserving of its own description. You will not see a tugboat here. In fact, it’s out of this world and almost ridiculous that people own these kinds of water vehicles. Walk down to the marina and look or possibly cry….you choose!  If you get really into it, you’ll even notice that some mansions that overlook the harbor don’t have a driveway – instead the residents opted for extra privacy and park their yacht below and take their own dedicated funicular up the mountain, right to their doorstep.

Golden Circle – Yet another place in Monte Carlo deserving of its own description. If you have enough restraint, stroll down Avenue des Beaux Arts or Avenue de Monte Carlo. It really is the Mecca of all shopping as far as I’m concerned.  No where, and I mean absolutely no where compares to this!

Circuit Train – It’s a bit of a tourist attraction, but it actually is much better than a map. Monaco offers tourists a full circuit train that departs from the Oceanic Museum every half hour. It’s not a hop-on-hop-off train, but this short ride lets you see the country very quickly. So when you decide to venture off by foot, you know exactly where to go.

Purple flowers – You may think that sounds insane right? Who cares about purple flowers? I never did until I got to Monaco. No matter where you go, these random flowers seem to pop up everywhere. It just compliments the entire ambience. They are beautiful!

Palais du Prince – The Royal Palace. The entrance fee is reasonable and watching the changing of the guard is free. There are 15 rooms to walk through, including a room dedicated to Nepolean’s personal belongings. If your time is limited in Monaco, skip it!

Oceanic Museum – On the cliff of Monaco (and where you catch the circuit train), the Oceanic Museum is home to the most tropical fish and deep-sea predators. I wish I had visited this place since I’m developing a fascination for aquariums but I just didn’t have enough time. Maybe next time….because there will be a next time.

Cleanliness – I have NEVER EVER seen a place so pristine. You can honestly drop your baguette on the sidewalk, pick it up and eat it. (I would not judge!) That’s just how clean this country is. I don’t know if it’s the residents or if it’s the hired help that keeps Monaco so clean, but whoever takes care of this country’s upkeep needs to offer up the same service to other countries around the world!

Events – When I was in Monaco, they were just wrapping up Formula One Grand Prix and getting ready for Tour de France. I’m a bit of a sports enthusiast, but this kind of stuff you just don’t see in North America. It’s pretty awesome.

Energy – You really have to be there to understand what I mean. Monaco is a very “rich” country. A regular Joe-Schmo can’t live there unless you have a couple of billions in the bank (national GDP averages 4 billion dollars). Although this is a country full of wealth, it’s not snobby. The citizens are welcoming and you don’t feel intimidated.

I mean it when I say it, Monaco is a fairytale. It’s hard to believe that there is a place on this universe so perfect. I think the birds chirp louder, the sun shines brighter, and the flowers are in year-round bloom. It truly is a magical country full of history and beauty.

Sigh.

Until next time…….

Categories: Europe | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Rwanda: Gorilla Trekking

In 1983 I read Gorillas in the Mist and became fascinated by Dian Fossey’s work. She was widely regarded as one of the most dedicated preservationists in history. Her life was ended with her murder in 1985, which is still unsolved. In 1987 I was traveling in Greece with my best friend JoAnn and had the pleasure to meet someone who knew Dian and her work with the majestic and unfortunately endangered mountain gorillas (while numbers are slowly increasing, there are only about 700 mountain gorillas in existence). Since our trip to Greece, visiting the Volcanoes National Park to explore the rainforest where Dian Fossey lived for 13 years became an important part our bucket list!

Unfortunately JoAnn who was my best friend of 27 years died of colon cancer in 2009 at the age of 48. We did not know that we would run out of time to plan a trip to Africa. She never did get to see the gorillas but a week before she passed away she held my hand and made me promise her I would wait no longer to go see them in Rwanda.

So in October 2009 after 22 years I checked Africa off my list and more specifically Gorilla trekking in Rwanda. Words cannot describe the experience! Gorilla trekking in Rwanda will always remain on my top 3 adventures of all time!

Awaking before dawn I could not contain my excitement on the first day of the trek. Considering a trek to see Rwanda’s endangered mountain gorillas can take anywhere from 2-12 hours and I wanted to ensure my batteries were fully charged. Excitement soon outweighed my sleepiness as we ventured in our SUV for the ride over to Volcanoes National Park. The local residents, who are so warm and inviting, were commuting by foot along the roadsides; kids welcomed us with enthusiastic waves and smiles.

About 3 and ½ hours into the trek, our guide said we were close; she could smell the gorillas. I sniffed the air, and noticed something sweet but not offensive. And then we saw a black blurry object moving through the bushes… I took the lead position, right behind our guide who at the age of fifteen was a porter for Dian Fossey. I was thrilled to hear his stories!

We passed through a thick section of foliage, and emerged into a small clearing. The guide waved us through, and we found the silverback resting against a tree, with the sun shining through the clearing. To me he looked like King Kong! It was truly an amazing and moving experience after waiting 22 years for this opportunity. After another minute or two, he was joined by three more gorillas – a female, her baby and an adolescent back black. They didn’t seem to care that we were there. We saw nine gorillas in total that day!!

The real treat was seeing a mama gorilla pass by us through the bush with her baby on board. Later the mama gorilla spent a few minutes sitting by the silverback in the group, which gave us a sense of the size difference between the male, female, and baby.

As our time wound down, and we were being led back through the foliage I was so busy listening to our guide reminisce about Dian Fossey and his experience with her that I did not see the young and curious back black gorilla behind me reaching out to grab the back of my sweat shirt. The guide was very quick to communicate to the gorilla seconds after he pulled on my shirt and the gorilla moved away. However in that moment I instantly knew how Dian Fossey could become so enamored with these gorillas. On an emotional level it felt remarkable to have experienced physical contact with such a rare animal in its natural habitat.

Although a bit pricy it was worth every penny and then some. We combined this adventure with a customized safari in Kenya, which also makes my top three adventures of all time followed by a relaxing beach trip in the Seychelles. Overall a trip of a lifetime thanks to Mike Haines and his expertise in African travel. In fact I fell totally in love with Africa and Mike is now planning our return, which will be to South Africa in 2013 for my 50th birthday!

Categories: Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

About Chris….

My first guest blogger! I am so excited that Chris agreed to write a blog and share such an incredible experience. His passion for travel and spirit of adventure is undeniable! You will just love his blog about Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda. I know it’s just been added to my bucket list! Let the journey begin… ~Jenn

Travel is my passion and has been since my early twenties. Personally there is no substitute for learning a culture or the beauty of a country unless you experience it first hand. I have had wonderful opportunities over the years to travel throughout Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South America, Mexico, U.S. and of course Canada. Africa was always my dream destination…..

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