Category Archives: travel

How to have a proper staycation

A “staycation” is the poor man’s (or frugal man’s) vacation.  It’s actually not a bad idea considering the times that we’re living in.  Since I consider myself both a resident of San Diego and Pasadena where I grew up, coming to Pasadena for two days is still a staycation for me.  I just got back from an amazing staycation over the weekend which felt more like a 3 day getaway than an overnight trip.

Here was my itinerary:

Saturday 11:00 am – Wake up really late because the alarm clock batteries are dead.  Rush in a panic to pack suitcase and feed the cats.  Race onto the freeway by noon.  Take the back road freeways (i.e. avoid the interstate 5 at all costs since it’s a holiday weekend) and make it to Pasadena in just 2 hours.

Saturday 2:00 pm – Run into hotel lobby of the Langham Hotel and meet up with my friend Deanna.  Drop bags off with the bell hop and head to tea.

Saturday 2:15 pm – 4:00 pm – Indulge in the best high tea of my life.  Our server was so gracious and attentive and it sounded like she really meant it when she said “Let me brew you more tea instead of just adding water to this pot.  You really want your last cup of tea to be a good one.”  Also, we were bombarded by incredibly gourmet pastries and mini sandwiches that put all the high teas I’ve had in England to shame.  And I paid for those high teas in British pounds!  Never again!

Saturday 4:10 pm – Check into room and get an unexpected room upgrade thanks to that wedding party that reserved most of the basic rooms. Our room was huge — almost half the size of my house. The bathroom alone was almost the size of my first apartment. We had a gorgeous view of the hotel’s estate and some nice amenities like a welcome fruit plate which we ate after having just eaten our tea!

After laying on our beds like sloths, we decided to get up an tour the grounds of the hotel.  There are private cottages on the grounds of the hotel which are immaculately landscaped and decorated.  Someone out there has a lot of money because one of those cottages was receiving mail.

On the way back from our tour, we spotted a nice patio bar area and went over to investigate.  We were meant to just take a peek but then decided to have a drink before heading off to a nearby Mexican restaurant for dinner.  The waitress who took our drink orders informed us that the bar would have live jazz music in about an hour so we decided to stay at the hotel and just feast on gourmet bar food instead and enjoy the live music.  Out came lobster corn dogs, spring rolls, Kobe sliders, and fried calamari.  The summer light was slowly fading out with the sunset and the city lights of LA twinkled in the distance.  It was a simple but relaxing evening.

Saturday 11:00 pm – Finally get ready for bed and fall asleep around midnight.

Sunday 9:00 am – 1:00 pm – Reluctantly wake up and then enthusiastically start thinking about breakfast. We took our time getting ready and left the hotel at 11 and ended up grabbing lunch in Eagle Rock. We also did a couple of scenic drives in Eagle Rock and Pasadena and then made a mandatory pit stop at Peet’s Coffee my favorite coffee place in the world. My friend Deanna has a favorite house in Eagle Rock and I have a favorite street in Pasadena. It was also a trip down Memory Lane for me. I’m so glad I never took for granted how beautiful a city Pasadena is.

Sunday 1:30 pm – Say goodbye to Deanna and return to the hotel to read my complimentary LA Times Sunday Edition. An hour later, work out at the hotel’s swanky gym and spa. Shower in the swanky spa area and then pack my bags and check out. I’ve really made the most of this stay.

Sunday 4:00 pm – Window shop in Old Town Pasadena and then settle in for an early dinner at Le Pain Quotidien. Whenever I’m visiting Pasadena and I’m not with my parents, I like to eat the same no-fail meal at Le Pain Quotidien. I always start with their fresh Gazpacho soup which is especially wonderful in summer and then move onto a proscuitto and buffalo mozerella tartine. The meal ends with coffee served up in a small latte bowl. That’s heaven to me.

Sunday 6:00 pm – Head home on the back road highways and experience no traffic. Come home at 8 pm to very appreciative kitties and a dirty litter box.


Act V: If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” — Cicero

That’s probably one of the nerdiest things Cicero ever said, but he’s right.  London offers some of the most amazing parks (actually vast and pristine estates) and one of the most admirable libraries in the world — the British Library.  I would just add a sandwich from Pret a Manager to that list (preferably the argula and crayfish triangle sandwich) and then I would agree — you truly do have everything you need.

London’s parks are huge, vast estates that give provide tired tourists with the shady, pristine haven we need after pounding the pavement in Trafalgar Square or elbowing our way to the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum.  I personally like to take a book and sit on a bench or wander down a tranquil, solitary lane with my iPod blaring out a soundtrack for my reverie.  My favorite park is Regents Park. 

Also, the British Library is an underrated gem that is the mecca to all nerdy tourists like myself.  The British Museum might be stuffed to the gills with Babylonian and Egyptian artifacts that document the world powers that forever changed the scene of the world, but it doesn’t possess the gems that once belonged to the rock band that forever changed the world.  It’s only at the nerdy British Library where you’ll find the first drafts of the Beatles’ lyrics for “Yesterday,” “Ticket to Ride” and “I Wanna Hold your Hand.”  Another plus for me was a copy of Canterbury Tales published in the 16th century.  (I loved studying the Canterbury Tales in Middle English in college.)  And to top it off, there’s an extensive Philatelic Collection (500 vertical drawers containing thousands of stamps from around the world) for those of us who always wondered what stamps from Hawaii looked like 75 years ago. 

Act III: Not all chain stores are evil

Here’s what I saw in front of the Apple Store on Regents Street.

I hate to dismiss any chain store as evil, but this was kind of ridiculous.  I wasn’t sure what was going on, but  all these people were waiting to just get into the Apple Store.  Thankfully I had visited the Apple Store the day before and only had to endure its lack of air conditioning and the long checkout line.

London, however, has some amazing chain stores that I heartily welcome.  I can’t tell you how many times the ubiquitous sandwich shop Pret a Manager has saved my life.  It’s such a shame they don’t have any stores in the U.S outside of New York.  They provide students, busy professionals and travelers on a budget with French baguette style sandwiches, tasty salads, desserts, pastries and coffee at very reasonable prices.  Pret a Manager is my beacon for economic yet completely fulfilling meals and they recycle like crazy.  It’s weird to wax poetic about a chain store, isn’t it? 

Last year, in London Heathrow Airport, I made a mad dash for the Pret a Manger in Terminal One when my stomach was running on empty.  After inhaling a sandwich, I turned to my friend and said “I’m going to get another sandwich in case I get hungry again on the plane.”  I’ve never pursued a sandwich with such conviction and determination.   You really have to try these sandwiches.  Their crayfish and rocket sandwich tastes like heaven shoved between two slices of whole wheat bread.

Act II: Going to the movies . . . abroad

I find myself going to movie theatres when I’m traveling abroad.  I once went to a great art house movie theatre in the Latin Quarter in Paris back in 2003. Right after Katherine Hepburn passed away, they played a Katherine Hepburn film festival including Bringing up Baby (Le Fantastic Monsieur Bebe) the day I left.

Last year in Paris, I watched the Coco Chanel biopic starring Audrey Tatou in a Paris movie theatre on the Champs Elysees on its opening day.

This time around, I found out about the British Film Institute from my London guidebook.  When you come from a country where art house and vintage movie theatres are falling away into extinction, a venue like the British Film Institute is heaven.

The week I was in London, they were playing Rashomon, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and La Strada.  I ended up seeing La Strada.  Anthony Quinn was wonderful as the moody, selfish, narcissistic strongman and Guilettia Massina was a very poignant, Harpo Marx, impish female hero.  I just love Fellini.

Act I: Hello darkness my old friend

If sleeping anywhere, in any position was a superpower, I’d be a superhero named narcolespy girl.  I can pretty much sleep in any position much to the envy of friends and family.  That said, I usually log in about 4-6 hours on most transatlantic flights and am pretty much ready to hit the ground running when I land.  This was the case in London.  After my first night in London, I was wide awake at 3 am.  It was actually pretty quiet by 6 am so I decided to take a stroll and take a few photos of quiet London, the London you’ll never see during its waking hours when it’s packed with cars and tourists.

Here’s something you don’t see every day — a scarf in a letterbox.

London, my old cat

Let me start with a great quote about London. 

London does not reveal itself with one shower of dazzle as Paris does; she is an old cat, secretive and independent, and although she enjoys purring pleasantly, being stroked once in a while, and, when she has the mind to, rubbing her back against your leg, she doesn’t care that much to wag her tail and sit up prettily, like the excited poodle cities.  Her pace is slow, and so must yours be (and that of a travel writer); she will not be rushed into showing her hiding places.

Kate Simon

I was just in London earlier this week.  I was gone for exactly 7 days, 2 of which were spent on a transatlantic flight.  A friend was celebrating his 25th wedding anniversary with a silver ceilidh, a Scottish dancing party.  Everyone asks if I took pictures of the ceilidh.  No, I was too busy dancing.  Anyway, photos don’t really capture the essence of what a ceilidh is the way Youtube can.  Here’s a snippet some someone else’s ceilidh — a dance I have done called “Strip the Willow.”  Sounds a bit like “Go out back and find me a switch” but it’s really quite pleasant.

Back to London itself.  I’ve been to London six times in the past ten years.  That’s a lot of mileage.  I’ll post some stories from my trip in five acts.

The funniest man in Europe – Part III

I like to think that my dad would make the perfect spy.  With his cover as a nerdy American tourist, no one would ever suspect him of having an agenda or even being “on the ball” about anything.  Here’s a pic of my dad under his cover of an oblivious American tourist, secretly taking pictures for the CIA.

The reality of traveling with my father in a foreign country, however, is that my dad does match his cover — he does a lot of kooky things when he leaves home.

When lost in Istanbul, buy whatever they’re selling

We had just one day in Istanbul and the cruise ship had sent a pickup shuttle every half hour to pick up passengers and bring them back to the ship.  The pickup spot was at the Grand Bazaar.  We spent a good morning at the Grand Bazaar but were more interested in visiting the Spice Market where the locals shopped.  After following the rudimentary map the cruise ship provided, we found the Spice Market and bought a lot of candy and apple tea. 

As we were nearing the time of the last shuttle pickup, my mom and I were worried about making it back to the Grand Bazaar in time.  My father, on the other hand, was not concerned at all.  It was starting to rain and we were trying to figure out the way back to the Grand Bazaar.  Getting lost in a foreign country is no fun.  Getting lost in a crowded city in a foreign country when it’s starting to rain is even less fun.   What was my father doing while we were trying to get back to the shuttle meeting point?  He was chowing down on all the savories of Istanbul street food.  While my mom is asking a shopkeeper for directions, my dad bought a gyro sandwich.  After making our way up an alley that put us in the right direction, my dad made us stop so he could buy some orange juice.  (It’s still raining all this time.)  And then, someone is selling bottled water so my dad makes us stop so he can buy bottled water too.   I have to admit, it was a little gratifying to know that my dad had to use the WC at the Grand Bazaar, which was inevitably stinky and nasty.

Why am I so clumsy?

My friend Deanna and I once had a heated debate over whether that was the name of a chapter of a book we both love.  (It isn’t.)  It does, however, describe the danger of traveling with my dad in a foreign country.  For some unknown reason, my dad’s coordination and balance are suddenly thrown off when he’s not on U.S. soil.  As we were wandering the streets of Istanbul, trying to find the shuttle meeting point at the Grand Bazaar, my father almost tripped over a series of 2 foot poles on the sidewalk (they were barriers to prevent cars from going down a part of the street) and bounced down the street.  The kind people of Istanbul were too serious-minded to laugh.

When we were in Italy, we learned that 22 meters of hot spewing ash from Mount Vesuvius killed all the inhabitants of Pompeii.  There was, however, another lesser known lurking danger that almost killed my dad in Pompeii — the steps of the entrance.  For some unknown reason, my father lost his footing on the very shallow, unslippery, undangerous steps of the entrance to Pompeii and almost made one of the most dramatic and comical entrances that would merit a pat on the back from Jerry Lewis.  For a second there, I was wondering if the cruise ship could make arrangements for us to bury my father at sea.

Following the German Family

When it comes to hearing, my dad is a bit like a cat.  He doesn’t hear a thing my mother and I say.  It was a miracle we managed to stay together.  On a crowded train departing from Rome, an older German woman sat in the seat next to me across from my parents.  When her daughter told her in German it was time for them to get off at the next stop, my dad woke up, leapt out of his seat and was ready to follow the German family off the train.  The German family’s stop was not, however, our stop.  I told my mom several times during our trip “I wonder what would have happened if we let Daddy walk off with that German family?”

Let’s see Downtown Mykonos

Our boat tendered us to the island of Mykonos one bright sunny day.  On Mykonos, there are about 6,000 year-round inhabitants and about 20,000 more in the summer.  We wandered through the white-washed narrow streets and alleys and found a pleasant sunny restaurant for lunch.  We had amazing seafood there.  During our meal, the resident giant pink pelican, Petros, came in to visit the restaurant owner.  The restaurant owner gave Petros a drink of water and patted him on the head.  We took pictures of my dad with the pelican and when my dad tried to pat Petros on the head, Petros tried to bite my dad’s thigh with his beak.  After our meal of incredibly fresh seafood, we were all so satisfied and happy.  My dad stretched out his arms and then said “Okay, let’s see downtown Mykonos!”  I told him “We’re already in downtown Mykonos!”  My dad couldn’t believe it.  Downtown Mykonos was a series of tiny whitewashed streets and alleys and we had covered it in about 30 minutes. 

Here’s a picture of my dad with the bird who tried to eat his leg.

The Hunger Signal

Like a small child who cannot articulate what’s bothering him, my dad rants and raves and get really grumpy when he’s hungry.  On our first day in Europe, my parents exchanged money at the change bureau at the Charles de Gaulle airport which included a high commission fee.  My dad was so offended by this commission fee, he used words like “How could they do this to me?  I can’t believe the French government allows them to legally rip me off like that!”  These people think they’re better than me!”  Throughout our trip, my mom and I heard repeats of the CDG exchange bureau rant up to a week after the indicident originally happened.  We soon realized that every time my dad would rant about the CDG exchange bureau, it meant that he was hungry and it was time to grab a snack or a meal.  It became my dad’s hunger signal.

My dad’s imaginary cup of coffee in Monte Carlo

One really redeeming thing about my dad is that even he can laugh at his own ridiculousness.  Dovetailing on his rant of the exchange bureau experience at the Paris airport, I made up a story about my dad trying to buy a cup of coffee in Monte Carlo, one of the most expensive cities in the world.  We learned that in order to get into the casino in Monte Carlo, one must first meet the dress code and second, pass the credit check.  One’s credit check determines how far you get into the casino.  On that note, I played out the following scenario which my dad and mom really enjoyed:

Monaco Cafe Owner: Hello sir.  Are you here to fix the leaky sink in the back?

My father: No, I’d like to have a cup of coffee in your cafe.

Monaco Cafe Owner: I’m deeply sorry to inform you that you are only appropriately dressed to fix our sink.  If Monsieur, however, desires to drink our coffee, we can arrange to serve you on the sidewalk.

My father: Okay, I’ll drink the coffee out here.  Can I sit at this table?

Monaco Cafe Owner: Monsieur’s credit rating does not qualify Monsieur to sit at the table.  Would Monsieur kindly stand away from the tables, perhaps in this area  below the sidewalk that you Americans call “zhe gutter”?  And now, sir, what kind of coffee would Monsieur like to drink?

My father: I would like a cafe machiatto.

Monaco Cafe Owner: It is our deep regret to inform Monsieur that your credit does not qualify you to purchase a cafe machiatto.  Your credit, however, does allow sir to purchase some pleasant instant coffee — we call it “Nescafe.”

My father: Okay, that’s fine.

Monaco Cafe Owner: Very well sir.  I must also inform Monsieur that your credit does not qualify you to drink the Nescafe in our porcelain cafe cup and saucer.  You may, however, enjoy it in this styrofoam cup.  Also, there is a small cover charge for standing on the Monte Carlo sidewalk and an additional language translation fee because Monsieur does not speak the language of the Monaco.  Your bill comes to 75 euros.  We normally accept credit card but because of Monsieur’s credit rating, we must accept payment in cash only.