An Unplanned Hike in Ljubljana – Sometimes I Don’ t Plan Well

Okay, I was back on the bus this morning for a two hour trip from Zagreb to Ljubljana – the capital city of Slovenia. The bus trip, which cost something like $7 USD, was fine. Comfortable and with good wi-fi. But, I had not really looked at my plans for how to get from the bus station to my hotel, the Four Points by Sheraton Ljubljana Mons.

Once we arrived, I checked to see if Uber was in operation in Slovenia. It was not. I checked Google maps and it showed walking to be a bit over an hour, public transport to be about 40 minutes, and a taxi about 15 minutes. This should have sent warning bells off in my head, but it did not.

When planning a trip like this one, there are a lot of variables that have to be dealt with:

  • Dates of travel
  • Award flight levels and cities where best deal can be scored
  • Pay cash flights, use miles, pay for economy and use upgrade certs, etc.
  • Time to spend in each location
  • How easy it is to move between cities
  • Hotels for each city – costs, award options
  • Visa requirements and any special considerations
  • Family calendar

It’s complicated.

When I was planning this trip, I was largely looking for value from hotel points for my lodging to keep costs down. So, Hilton, Starwood, Marriott, and Hyatt were all in play. In some cities, like Milan and Venice, they were not realistic options. But, in other cities I was able to find properties that worked but, in retrospect, I was more concerned about the cost/points issue than anything else and didn’t really do enough research on location.

That worked out fine in Vienna, Bratislava, and Zagreb even though I was out of the city center in each case. But, in each case, I had very convenient public transport. But, my lack of planning, bit me in the backside in Ljubljana.

Given that I was not sure to trust the taxis and the public transport seemed too complicated, I set off on foot for the 3 mile + hike to my hotel. Somehow, it did not dawn on me how far this was and the implication for how far out of the city that my hotel is located.

After 10 minutes of walking in the city, I turned right into Tivoli Park and there was no turning back. Now, I like hiking. Luckily, my ultralight packing plan allowed this option. The fact that it was in the high 70’s and very sunny and I was in long, black slacks, made it a bit warm. But, it became pretty comical.

I wasn’t anywhere near a city or town. Here are pictures I took along they way..

 

It is my understanding that Ljubljana was recently voted the “Green City” of Europe and that is where I was walking. After a little over an hour of walking, I was near the hotel that is located near the highway that runs in the outskirts of the area and a technology park.  After all that walking, I was afraid I was going to be killed in the last 800 meters when I had to go along a busy two lane road with no sidewalk.

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But, I did make it to the hotel. I was a sweaty mess and the front desk personnel affirmed that they were unaware of anyone ever walking to the hotel from the bus station, so I have that going for me in addition to total consciousness on my death bed.

Prague – A Short Visit to an Old Favorite

It has been about 13 or 14 years since I first visited Prague. In the early 2000’s, it was a somewhat exotic destination having emerged from behind the Iron Curtain with a reputation for one of the best-preserved city centers in Europe. On a business trip to England, I made time for a long weekend to wander around Prague and found it to live up to its reputation, even if there still was some evidence of lingering attitudes from the Communist era especially when dealing with service workers. But, I was anxious to see how it has changed while here for a couple of days of business meetings.

The Prague Castle from across the river by the Charles Bridge

The Prague Castle from across the river by the Charles Bridge

 

From Vienna, I caught a RegioJet bus that took about 4.5 hours to Prague for a cost of 15 euros. Upon arrival, I was fortunate that the bus station was at the Florenc station that allowed a direct Metro connection to where I needed to be for my business meetings. For a discounted price of 24 Czech Korunas – approximately $1 USDI was across town and out to a business park area in the suburbs.

After the conclusion of our meetings, we found our hotel located just five minutes walk from Old Town and, luckily for me, only 2 minutes walk from the bus station where I would be departing on the conclusion of my trip. The Hotel AXA was built in the 1930’s and updated in the past ten years. While not necessarily a location I would pick again, it was in a great location, with decent art deco style furnishings, and only 72 Euros per night including breakfast. I had a street side room and it was bit noisy so I would recommend requesting a room on the back side of the hotel.

Hotel AXA, Prague

Hotel AXA, Prague

 

For business dinner, we went to Kolkovna Celnice, a well reviewed establishment with a classical Czech menu. It was an outstanding meal accompanied with Pilsner Urquell beer and it was heaving with people having a good time.

The next day, after the conclusion of meetings, a colleague and I had a couple of beers and snack foods at another local bar and, once again, the was lots of energy and vibrancy in the place. At least, until the US scored a second goal to beat the Czech team in the ice hockey match that was being closely watched.

I only had a couple of hours that night to walk around Old Town. The astrological clock, the Charles Bridge, wandering the pedestrianized streets, and taking in the architecture. Perhaps I am projecting my own impressions based on too little exposure but it certainly felt much different than my trip so many years ago. It felt more vibrant, more crowded, and more optimistic. With an economy that is doing extremely well and unemployment that is extremely low, there are more dining, entertainment, and shopping options. Despite the low unemployment rates, the attitudes and efficiency of service workers was vastly better than on my earlier trip.

Old Town, Prague

Old Town, Prague

 

If I have a chance in the upcoming years, I think I will put Prague on my list to come back to again and spend some time in this charming, but now modern city.

Panama, Casco Viejo, and the Canal

My first stop on this trip was two days in Panama City, arriving on a Friday evening and departing on Monday morning.  We flew down via Chicago and Cancun, MX using 30,000 United miles per ticket for business class service plus a grand total of $13.00.  The connection through Cancun was not particularly easy – one of the reasons low mileage awards were available on this route – since a chance of terminals is required.  This means any check bags must be claimed, Mexican immigration and customs cleared, a shuttle bus to the other terminal, recheck in at the Copa Airlines counter, and back through Mexican passport control.  We had three hours to make the connection, and it was enough to do this without undue stress.

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Panama City from Casco Viejo

 

On arrival in Panama, the drive into Panama City proper took about 20-25 minutes with little traffic at this time of day.  Many of the hotels and restaurants are clustered in the El Congrejo area which is where the financial and business districts are located.  This is an area with plenty of amenities and safe to walk around at most hours of the day and night.

Our hotel of choice was the Doubletree by Hilton – El Carmen, located right next to the Iglesia de Carmen. There are many choices in the area but our decision was driven by the ability to get a junior suite with a separate bedroom and living area for $89.00 per night.  Traveling with my daughter, this made it easier to accommodate our differing sleep schedules.  The Doubletree served our needs well.  With tile floors in the rooms and hallways, there was some sound carryover between the living area and the hallway but not noticeable from the bedroom with the doors shut.  The buffet breakfast that was included in our rate was robust and offered nice selection.

On our first night, we simply stayed near the hotel and ate at Manolos which had a wide ranging menu and was decent food at a decent price.  Reviews on TripAdvisor are generally positive.

Day 1 – Casco Viejo, the Museo del Canal Interoceanico de Panama, and Tinajas

After breakfast at the hotel, we set out for the old town, one of the “must sees” of Panama City.  We arrived fairly early at the Plaza Catederal and spent a few minutes checking out the church.  As was the case with most of the churches we visited in Panama, it is not particularly elegant or decorative when compared to the soaring cathedrals of Europe or Mexico City with the exception of nicely done altars.

Plaza Catederal, Casco Viejo

Plaza Catederal, Casco Viejo

 

Across the main square was the museum that tells the story of the building of the Panama Canal.  Now, our Fodor’s guidebook said this about it in relation to the visitor’s center at Miraflores Locks (on the second day agenda), “Once the only museum dedicated to the Panama Canal, the Museo del Canal Interoceánico has been put to shame by the visitors’ center at Miraflores Locks.”  I beg to disagree.  Perhaps it was because we went to this one first, but we found it to be very well done and more informative than the displays at Miraflores.  Entrance is only $2 or $5 with the audio guide which is well worth it since most of the displays are in Spanish only.

We spent a couple of hours wandering around the old town and along the promenade by the water.  There are wonderful views of downtown Panama City from this viewpoint and there is a raffish charm of the area although much of it is in varying stages of renovation.   It was early when we were there and the crowds were definitely picking up when we left in the early afternoon.  Actually, there isn’t that much to see other than the aforementioned activities.  We had some shaved ice in the main plaza and lunch at the Finca del Mar.  We loved the location and the breezes.  The food was good.  The service was slow but not a bad place to relax, if you have time.  We saw several parties give up and it took us about 15 minutes to get waited on so be forewarned.

After an afternoon visit to the rooftop pool at the Doubletree to cool off – it was 90 degrees and humid – we got ready for a dinner show of the type that I rarely go to when on the road.  Tinajas Restaurant is literally a block from the hotel and features “cultural shows” several nights a week.  Basically, this consists of traditional song and dance on stage while you eat.

Traditional dance at Tinajas

Traditional dance at Tinajas

 

Shows start at 9:00 p.m. and a reservation is recommended.  Also, we reserved for 8:30 p.m. so we could have our dinner served prior to the commencement of the show.  I had a dish billed as typical Panamanian fare – arroz y pollo (rice and chicken) and ropa vieja (literally “old clothes” but actually stewed beef).  The food was fine.

What about the show?  It was good in the sense that it was well-done and, as far as I know, authentic.  It is not something you are ever going to want to see again.  There is, in fact, a reason that even Panamanians stopped doing these dances and singing these songs long ago.  But, none of this is a criticism of the troupe or of the event as I think it did exactly what was billed.  I’m glad we went.

Day 2 – Driving Tour of Panama City, Amador Causeway, Cerro Ancon, and Miraflores Locks

On our second day, we had a driver who was recommended to me by a Colombian friend who lived in Panama for a couple of years.  Victor helped us cover a lot of ground over the course of 5+ hours at a cost of $70.  We started by simply driving around the city a bit to get a lay of the land – financial district, Punta de Pacifico, Avenida Balboa, past Casco Viejo, and then on to the Amador Causeway.

The Amador Causeway connects four small islands that just into the Pacific and was constructed from rubble and excavation from the construction of the Panama Canal.  There are resorts on these various small islands and many people bicycling, walking, and rollerblading along the way.  Personally, I’m not sure why one would stay out there unless the primary point of the trip was to lay on a beach.  That is fine but a very different experience from what we had in Panama City.

Next up was Cerro Ancon or Ancon Hill.  At the base of the hill are the settlements and administrative offices of the Panama Canal.  Further up the hill – either by taxi or a steep hike – are sweeping views of Casco Viejo and Panama City on one side and the Miraflores Locks on the other.

Panama City from Cerro Ancon

Panama City from Cerro Ancon

 

There is also supposed to be some superb bird-watching, if that is your thing.

Finally, we headed for the canal itself.  No doubt about it, the canal is quite impressive in what it accomplished and how much effort went into it.  A ship that transverses the canal can save almost 8,000 miles of travel as compared to going around the tip of South America.  About 20,000 people died in the French effort to build the canal, that ended in failure, and another 6,000 died during the American project that ultimately got it done.  If you are interested in all the other factoids, I’ll let you google them for yourself.

Miraflores docks and Railway Yard from Cerro Ancon

 

We first stopped by the Pedro Miguel locks and saw a Swedish registered ship heading slowly toward the Miraflores Locks and Pacific Ocean.  Victor told us we would see it about 90 minutes to two hours later at the Miraflores Lock. It was $15 to get into the visitor center and first stop was a 10 minute film about the canal.  Nothing in the film was new to us since we had been to the awesome museum in Casco Viejo.  We did a quick trip through the exhibits and then up to the fourth level observation deck to watch the ship we has seen up at Pedro Miguel entering the locks.

A Big Ship Goes Through the Miraflores Lock

A Big Ship Goes Through the Miraflores Lock

 

The crowds were five deep at the rail and in frenzied excitement about see the impending transit of the dock.  Honestly, it was pretty boring.  Nothing happens quickly and the water level changes pretty slowly.  A time lapse video of the process – which I’m sure exists – would be the best way to watch it.  But, we stuck it out to the end and can now say we have seen it.

After a quick trip back to the hotel and a dip in the pool, we finished our last night in town with a really fabulous meal at Market, a steakhouse just a few blocks away.

Market Steakhouse

Market Steakhouse

 

An impressive wine cellar, nice atmosphere, and quality steak were all enjoyed.  We got there just before 7:30 p.m. and the place quickly filled up even though it was Sunday night.  I would assume that weeknights are filled with business dinners from the surrounding offices. Service was excellent and would definitely return here on a second trip to the area.

Final Thoughts

On Monday morning, we made our way back to the airport, leaving the hotel at 7:00 a.m.  It only took about 20 minutes to the airport as we were going against that is the Monday morning rush hour.  We found departure out of the airport to be straight-forward and efficient.

We enjoyed Panama City and two full days were about right for the ground we covered.  If I was to go back, I would go into the interior and experience the jungle and wildlife and/or go to the beaches at Bocas del Toro or San Blas based on recommendations from others.  I would not go back to the canal and, if I went to Casco Viejo, it would be for dinner.

On to Bogota..

 

Barcelona – Les Ramblas, Camp Nou, and Le Meridien

After finishing up in Madrid, I walked down to the Atocha station and caught the high speed train to Barcelona.  This trip only takes about two and a half hours and arrives at the Sants station where you can get an easy connection to the Metro for your final destination.

Again, I was using Starwood points and staying at a hotel that I have not been to before this trip – Le Meridien Barcelona.  This elegant property is directly on Les Ramblas just south of the Plaza de Catalunya.  In other words, it is the heart of the nightlife, restaurant, and shopping scene.  The nightly rate using points was 12,000 points per night versus a cash rate of 229 euros plus VAT.

Despite being directly on the main drag, my interior room was very quiet even with the window cracked.  Staff was top-notch and attentive and fluent in multiple languages.  I had a chance to have lunch in their restaurant and it was a good meal at a decent price.

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Barcelona is very different than Madrid and has many fans.  I have been here several times and have enjoyed it but I never felt it has the same attraction to me as London or Madrid.  Barcelona feels more like Paris – a bit more rushed, harder to find a place to sit down and relax, and a bit more pretentious.  Don’t get me wrong, it is a wonderful destination but not a place I will go back to over and over again.

However, two of the highlights of my trip occurred here.  First, I got to see the Champions League match between Barcelona and Manchester City.  A few weeks ago, I got to see the first leg of this match in Manchester City and Barca was bringing a 2-1 advantage into this game.  Not only did Barca win, they played brilliantly.  It will be hard for my American friends to understand how a game that finished 1-0 could be so one-sided and dominated.  It was an incredible display by the team and by Lionel Messi, the best soccer player of all time.

Second, my daughter was traveling around Spain this week with a concert band from her university and I got to see their final performance at a small church near the center of town.  For some reason, she has developed an attraction to international travel and had a great time on this trip.  She has said she might want to write a guest post on the blog, so we’ll see if she comes through with it!

The Westin Palace – Madrid

The contrast between the two hotels I used for this trip in Madrid could not be more dramatic.  From the hostal, La Perla Asturiano (below), to one of the grand dames of Madrid, The Westin Palace.  As previously commented, I had a great stay at La Perla but wanted to use some points for my last three nights in Madrid and experience a different location.

La Perla Asturina, Madrid

La Perla Asturina, Madrid

View from my balcony

View from my balcony

The Westin Palace is a Starwood property and I was redeeming 12,000 points per night in lieu of the cash rate of 389 euros a night – a price I could never imagine paying for a stay.  Commissioned by King Alfonso XIII in 1912, it is located across the street from the Museo del Prado, Museo de Thyssen-Bomemisza, the Congress buidling, and short walking distance to Plaza Cibeles, the Reina Sofia, Atocha Rail Station, and the Puerta del Sol.

The Westin Palace

The Westin Palace

While the location is great, the neighborhood – not surprisingly, I guess – feels a bit stuffy.  When looking for a restaurant or tapas bar, I inevitably ended walking back up by the Puerta del Sol and Plaza de Santa Ana areas.  I did not try the restaurant but did have a 13+ euro beer in their bar, if that gives you any idea of prices.

All in all, it was a very nice stay, as one would expect, but I would have to hit the lottery before I stayed here for cash and, even then, I’m not so sure..

London: One of My Favorite Cities

I often get asked about my favorite cities in the world and it is hard to not put London at the top of chart.  I have been about 30 times over the years and always look forward to my return.  As Samuel Johnson famously said, “If you have tired of London, you have tired of life.”

If you think about it, the American equivalent to London would result if you pushed Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC together.  London is the political capital, the historical center, the financial hub, and home to the arts and theaters.  It is easy to get around on foot and via public transportation and has, over the past 10 years or so, dramatically improved from a culinary scene perspective.

The laundry list of attractions and sites is exhaustive and easily found in any guidebook or website and it is not my attention to supply a “top 10” list.  However, I might highlight a few or my favorites that are not necessarily hidden gems, but might not be at the top of everyone’s list.

Hotel

I again find myself at the Strand Palace Hotel for this trip.  While I have stayed at a number of different properties in and around London, the Strand Palace is almost impossible to beat for location, amenities, and cost.  Every once in a while I will stay at a Hilton property if I am using points and have been in about eight of the London locations, but one can rarely book at night in one of their properties for less than 150 GBP.

By contrast, I’m staying at the Strand Palace for 100 GBP per night with free wifi and a free travel card for each day of my stay.  The room is very small but functional and I’m literally steps from Covent Garden, the West End, four tube stations, and tons of restaurant options.  The only thing to consider with this property is that the rooms do not have air conditioning so you might regret a stay on a hot week in July.

Two New Finds

This week, I walked by a new business several times and finally popped in to try their service.  Ted’s Grooming Salon is in the Holborn area just east of Covent Garden.  They have been in business for about four months now and every time I passed, it was busy.

While they offer haircuts, I opted for a traditional shave complete with all the works.  First, he gave me a quick shampoo with cold water to help me cool down from all the walking around I had been doing that day.  This was followed by a face balm that was massaged into my face followed by old-style hot towels wrapped around the head.  Then, warm shaving cream applied with a brush and a straight blade shave that is surely the closest shave I’ve had in a long time.

The most unusual thing about the entire experience came towards the end – after the hand and arm massage.  I smelled something burning about the time I felt him gently tapping me around my ears.  I was a bit surprised to open my eyes to see him with a small metal torch that was lit and that was what he was tapping me with.  He was actually burning some of the small hairs off.  It didn’t hurt, but was unexpected.

All of this for just under 20 GBP and this is a an indulgence I look forward to on my next trip.

The second discovery I made this week was the Top Secret Comedy club in the same neighborhood.  With a 1 GBP cover charge (and voluntary donation at the end), we got four acts plus an emcee who may have been the funniest of all of them.  A small venue where you get to sit close, it was a great time.  By contract, I went to the 99 Club the next night and, while more critically acclaimed, it did not measure up to the previous evening.  The other London area comedy club I could recommend is Up the Creek in Greenwich which is a fairly large venue that attracts top talent.

Definitely will go back to the Top Secret club..

Hampton Inn – Waterloo: New Option in London

Over the years I’ve been visiting London, I’ve had a chance to stay in many of their properties in and around central London.  In the past two years, they have expanded their DoubleTree brand and have now introduced the Hampton brand.

This property offered an outstanding “Points and Money” option for the dates of my travel and, given the high cost of hotels in London, I jumped at it.  This four night stay cost me 20,000 points and 55 GBP per night.  My total bill was right about 250 GBP – the equivalent of just over $400 USD in a town where nice hotels routinely run to $250 USD per night and higher.

The location, 157 Waterloo Rd., is just two blocks south of Waterloo Station, a major transportation hub and a fairly short walk of 15 minutes can take you past the Southbank area and over the river to the West End.  Several restaurants and pubs are in close proximity and the famous Old Vic theatre is on the same block.

I did have the opportunity to have dinner at the very popular pub The Fire Station, which is named for the building it inhabits with ample evidence of its previous function.  This place is absolutely packed after work but offers a separate dining area that has a high-end menu and excellent steak offerings.  A ribeye dinner with two pints of beer ran to 42 GBP, so it is not inexpensive but I was very happy with the meal.

The Hampton is very modern, the rooms were comfortable and clean, and the service was always outstanding.  They have been open for only two months but seem to have hit stride quickly.  Their lobby has a unique approach with a bar area that is an extension of the front desk and service by the front desk personnel during non-peak times.  It reminds me of a bigger version of Hyatt Place’s combined front desk/bar area.

This is definitely a good option and one that I will check on when making future bookings in the London area.