Thursday, September 5, 2013

Triumph of the Itinerary: Recap of British Isles & Ocean Princess

We had a wonderful vacation in the British Isles and that was mostly due to a great itinerary. While an 8 Day cruise may seen a bit short, the selection of port visits and 2 sea days were perfect. Visiting Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the Channel Islands by cruise ship was terrific. The only thing that would have enhanced the experience further would be adding the Orkney Islands to the itinerary. With the exception of England and France, this was our first time to all of these destinations. We had a full schedule each day in port but soldiered on with feet dragging and thighs burning to get it all in. The local people were wonderful, the food mostly delicious and the sights and scenery spectacular.

We started off on a good foot too by taking the day flight from Boston to Heathrow. We arrived in the evening without any jetlag. After a good night sleep at the Sofitel Heathrow we were rearing to go. Mother Nature was especially kind to us during our journey around the British Isles and post-cruise in Paris. Most days started out overcast but the sun would come out by the afternoon. We also had brilliant blue skies and sun on our first sea day and the best weather was during our visit to Milford Haven, Wales when the temps topped 80F. Best of of all there was no threat of hurricanes back home in Florida to worry about. Our petsitters are wonderful but evacuating with 2 dogs really isn't part of their job description.

We were able to use miles for award tickets on the BA flight to the UK and also the AirBerlin flight home saving $. Although it was distracting at times, I enjoyed using a camcorder for the first time. At some point I will figure out how to edit the videos and add them to the blog.

Below is an short recap with highlights of our journey, with the time spent in the UK, our post-cruise stay in Paris and general reflections of the Ocean Princess.

Favorite Port: St. Peter Port, Guernsey, Channel Islands: Our visit was short but sweet. I had originally planned to disembark from the Ocean Princess here but demurred when other cruise lines had to cancel their visits due to difficult seas. We had a wonderful walk around the Old Town, visited Victor Hugo's fabulous home Hauteville House and gorged ourselves on a scrumptious lunch overlooking the harbor.

View of St. Peter Port harbor and Castle Cornet from Le Nautique
Longest Day in port: Edinburgh during an overnight stay. This day went on and on and on. We were off the ship and at the train station heading to Edinburgh at 7:00 am and didn't get to bed until after 1:00 am the next morning! We covered a lot of ground (walked over 10+ miles) and enjoyed seeing so many different venues. If visiting Edinburgh for the first time, the month of August is the time to do it! We partook of the Book Festival, Fringe Festival and International Festival plus the Military Tattoo all in the same day!

Edinburgh, Scotland
Favorite Lunch: Le Nautique in St. Peter Port. Succulent lobster, fine wine, excellent service, a supreme setting and the gorgeous views of the harbor were unbeatable.

Best Lobster Ever!
Favorite Scottish City: In addition to Stirling and Perth, we also visited both Glasgow and Edinburgh which are only 46 miles apart. There is a well known rivalry between Glasgow and Edinburgh with many preferring one over the other. In our assessment Glasgow is the winner. While Edinburgh offers tons of events in August, historic sites and many Michelin starred restaurants, we still enjoyed Glasgow more. Edinburgh felt very touristy and almost a bit contrived. Glasgow is a real city with great restaurants and nightlife. Glasgow's glorious heritage architecture, fab shopping on Buchanan Street, close proximity to the countryside, the beautiful Kelvingrove museum. the striking University of Glasgow and the fantastic Glasgow School of Art won us over and should not be missed.

Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow
Best Meal in Scotland: While Two Fat Ladies at the Buttery was very good, my favorite food is Asian and Lychee Oriental in Glasgow delivered with its homey Katsu Curry, delicious Duck with plums and thirst quenching Lychee Bellinis.

Lychee Bellini
Best Fish & Chips: We only had this once during our trip but the one at the Forth Inn in Aberfoyle hit the spot during a full day tour to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs with Rabbies.

Fish & Chips Forth Inn Aberfoyle
Best Live Action Event: The Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Charlie, the Border Collie and his ducks in Aberfoyle were adorable and certainly entertaining, but they cannot compete with the pageantry, extravagance and skill of the Tattoo performers from around the world.

Military Tattoo 2013
Best Escorted Tour: Rabbies. From Glasgow we did their tour to Stirling Castle, Loch Lomond & Glengoyne Distillery. The castle was fabulous, the view of Loch Lomond beautiful from Balmaha, the distillery was very interesting (and tasty!) and most importantly our guide George was stupendous!

Loch Lomond from Balmaha
Best Asian Food: Besides Lychee Oriental in Glasgow which was already mentioned, the excellent sushi  and sashimi at lunch on the Ocean Princess was a surprise and put smiles on our faces and yummies in our tummies.

Sushi and Sashini Selection Ocean Princess
Best Historic Home: We saw several of these on this trip and it isn't easy deciding which we enjoyed more. Winston Churchill's Chartwell House in Kent and Victor Hugo's Hauteville House on Guernsey were tops. The grounds and the history behind Chartwell House are magnificent. Seeing the lovely rooms and learning about Winston Churchill was fascinating. The decoration of Hauteville House is very unusual and along with the amazing views has to be seen to be believed!

Chartwell House, Westerham, Kent, UK
Worst ripoff: Our deceitful taxi driver in Sevenoaks who misled us about the road closure in Westerham and drove for 15 minutes directly to where the road was closed and then an additional 25 minutes in the opposite direction to get to our destination at Chartwell House. What should have cost 22 pounds ended up being 36!

Best Find: Snoozebox without a doubt! I was so happy to be able to spend the night in our shipping container in Edinburgh for 82 pounds. This saved valuable time as we did not need to traipse back and forth to the ship during our 2 day visit. The cost of Edinburgh hotels in August is astronomical and Snoozebox was a great alternative.

Our Snoozebox Room
Most Beautiful Garden: The Monet Garden in Giverny. Even on an overcast day the reflections on the pond when the sun made an appearance were mesmerising. The grounds around the house aren't too shabby either and the entire area is a treasure. Very convenient from Paris too as we were there by express train in just 45 minutes.

Monet's Giverny Garden
Favorite Cathedral: We only saw one but the St. Davids Cathedral in Wales was terrific. We loved touring the remarkable purple and gold flecked building and even had a little extra time for the lovely town. The drive and views along the Pembroke Coast were beautiful too.

St. Davids Cathedral, Wales
Favorite Dinner: Frenchie in Paris. Chef Greg Marchand is a genius and keeping the menu to only 2 choices for the appetizer, main and dessert makes ordering very simple! We loved the Cod and the Pork Belly!

St. Jean de Luz Cod, Frenchie in Paris
Favorite Scottish Palace - We saw both the Place of Holyroodhouse and Scone Palace which are very different from one another. Holyroodhouse is certainly dramatic with history pertaining to Mary Queen of Scots and as the official residence of the British monarchy, quite special. The scenery in Perth around Scone Palace was fantastic and a wonderful place to visit on a Sunday morning. Scone Palace itself did not take long to see but is very elegant and not your typical palace. It is really a flip of the coin which one we preferred more but as I loved being in the countryside I give a slight nod to Scone Palace.

Scone Palace, Perth, Scotland
Palace of Holyroodhouse
Best Shopping: Paris! With our time spent at the Galerie Vivienne, viewing fabulous antiques, cruising Rue St. Honore, a stop at Galleries Lafayette and spending Sunday afternoon in the Marais we saw lots of items to pique our interest. The window shopping was terrific. Amazing that we had such good self restraint and made very few purchases.

Shopping in the Marais
Favorite Dessert in Port: Pudding Selection at The Witchery Secret Garden in Edinburgh. The mini selections were perfect for sharing and the variety was excellent. The savior of a rather mediocre meal.

Pudding Selection, The Witchery Secret Garden, Edinburgh
Favorite Museum: We only visited one and it was far from spectacular. We didn't care for The National Museum of Scotland but the special Mary Queen of Scots exhibit was well worth it. We also saw the National War Museum at Edinburgh Castle but it was a quick 20 minute visit so I am not counting it.

Mary Queen of Scots Exhibit, Edinburgh
Wish we had more time for: This one is easy! The island of Guernsey. It would have been wonderful to explore more of this beautiful Island. Seeing the Castle Cornet and Candie Gardens in St. Peter Port in addition to learning more about the German occupation would have given us a greater appreciation for this special place.

Best Snack: Pierre Herme macaroons in Paris. Yum!!!

Relaxing Countryside Visit: Our visit to Scone Palace in Perth followed but the yummy Afternoon Tea at the nearby Gleneagles Hotel was a great way to enjoy the Scottish countryside. The Tea was scrumptious and surpassed our expectations. Very reasonably priced too! We did this on the ship's second day in Edinburgh.

Gleneagles Hotel, Scotland
Sweet Section of the Afternoon Tea
Favorite Train Journey: The Eurostar to Paris. This was our first time taking it and it was so easy to disembark the ship in Dover, take the train to Ashford International, board the Eurostar and travel under the English Channel to Paris. All in under 2 hours! Fantastic!

Eurostar at Ashford International
Something I would do differently: Bring proper footwear for the gym. While I thought I would be exhausted from all the long days in port during the cruise I had plenty of energy on the ship. With very few activities offered onboard, the 2 seas days would have been prime time to spend in the gym.

Best Ship Tour: Our Princess tour to the Powerscourt House and Garden in Wicklow which included Dublin on Your Own on the return suited us perfectly.

View of Sugarloaf Mountain from Powerscourt House and Garden
Surprises: I am not a morning person, yet I was up at dawn more times than I care to remember! This was both for convenience and to maximize our vacation time in port.

Favorite Hotel: Les Plumes in Paris. I picked it on a whim after reading the reviews. Loved the hip design, literary theme, convenient location and the reasonable rate.

Les Plumes Hotel, Paris
Least Favorite Hotel: The Hotel du Vin in Tunbridge Wells. While the setup and amenities of the hotel were very nice; the weird lobster painting in our room was frightful and the uncomfortable bed didn't provide a good night sleep. The food in their Bistro restaurant was also a bit disappointing. Dinner was just average and their breakfast offering was very sparse.

Review of Ocean Princess

Our 8 days on the Ocean Princess went by so quickly! Our balcony stateroom (7100) was cozy, nicely appointed and well located near the aft area of the ship. We got a price break with a sale just before final payment making the cost very reasonable. The "R" class ships are classy and it is so easy to get anywhere on the ship in just a few minutes. Where the Ocean Princess was lacking is in the entertainment department and some elements of the food. There were no lectures on the ship and the poor evening entertainment detracted from our overall enjoyment. The specialty restaurants on the ship were nothing "special" and we actually preferred the food in the main dining room. Breakfast in the Lido was excellent and the extravagant sushi presentation during one of the sea days at lunch was a wonderful surprise. The crew were very professional and the waiters, stateroom attendant and front desk personal were all terrific.

Main Staircase Ocean Princess
Best Princess Perk: Being able to book the ship excursions online but not having to pay for them until on the ship. (Same as Crystal Cruises).

Best Ocean Princess Dessert: The Baked Alaska on the last night. The parade was fun, the atmosphere jovial and everyone's spirits were sky high!

Baked Alaska
Surprising feature that pleased us : Traditional dining. This is not something we would usually do, but having our own table for 2 each night at 6:00 pm worked out perfectly. The only detriment was that the table was against the wall and not near any other passengers so we could not engage or chat with others around us which would have been nice.

Best Ship Feature: The small size of the ship! It was a joy to walk around. Another plus was being able to disembark in each port without hordes of people. Due to the Ocean Princess' small size we were able to dock in Rosyth and had a short train ride to Edinburgh. This beats tendering as the larger Caribbean Princess must do in Leith where getting to the train is not as easy.

Most Annoying Experience of the Cruise: The muster drill when the crew attendant in charge of our section was cackling the entire time and was quite annoying. We had a lot trouble hearing the announcer.

Most Disappointing Aspect Onboard: The entertainment. The shows were not good and there were no special lectures except for the port / destination presentations. I got a lot of reading done!

Overall Surprise: That the Ocean Princess was in such great shape! The ship is very elegant and well maintained. I expected it to be a bit worn and old looking. The ship was also very relaxing and sailed beautifully. It was so quiet with only 674 passengers onboard and at times felt like a private yacht!

I looked at many lines for a British Isles itinerary but with the exception of Princess, could only find ones that were 2 weeks long and / or at a much higher cost. With Princess offering the 8 Day cruises on the Ocean Princess during the months of July and August to Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Guernsey it ticked almost all of the boxes. Princess offers a great product at a much reduced price in comparison to its competitors. Oceania and Azamara who also operate the R class ships provide a higher end product. You may not get the same high level of service and excellent food on Princess as you would on Oceania or Azamara but the cost is also significantly less. We loved the breakfasts as well as the lunches on the Ocean Princess during the 2 seas days but struggled a bit at dinner. The cruise was not perfect but close enough that with a great itinerary at the right price point I am very glad we booked it. I would highly recommend the Ocean Princess for those looking for an elegant ship, with a hard working crew, great service and a fabulous itinerary. The Ocean Princess provided a great overall experience and we look forward to sailing with them again.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Another Awesome AirBerlin Flight Dusseldorf to Florida

Contemplating the end of our holiday comes with both regret and excitement.  I would be so delighted to stay longer yet I am also definitely ready to head home. With this duality of feelings I wonder if I should be on some psychotic meds. Just kidding!

Requiring neither the motivation nor fearing the drudgery of getting up at dawn, we both woke early and were soon down in the lobby and ready to start the journey home.

It is still dark outside and our flight to the US will depart from the Dusseldorf airport at 9:10 am. Cologne is about 45 minutes away and there are a few ways to get there including taxi or train. We have opted for the train from the main Cologne Station. Prior to 6:00 am we were in the lobby completing checkout and ready to drive to the station.

The Cologne train station is very nice (almost sparkles!) and I actually prefer it to the one in Dusseldorf. It is very large but somehow does not feel chaotic. However at this early hour there were hardly any other people around.

We purchased our tickets from the kiosk and then went down to the track to wait for the train.

Cologne Station in the early A.M. 
There were maybe only 3 or 4 other people taking this train this early to the Dusseldorf airport. The train is an express and goes direct to the airport and then we will take the SkyTrain to the terminal building. Sounds easy but as this the first time we have done this we will find out. The Dusseldorf airport actually has 2 train stations which makes it confusing. There is Dusseldorf Flughafen which services the S-Bahn and ICE trains and is located east of the airport. From here the SkyTrain has fast trains to the terminal. The other station is called "Dusseldorf Terminal Airport Station" and only the S-Bahn trains arrive there. This station is located below Terminal C and you don't need to take the SkyTrain. However, the S-Bahn trains are much slower (almost an hour) than the ICE which arrive at the Flughafen station.

It is between 29  - 37 minutes nonstop on the ICE trains depending on the schedule from Cologne to the Dusseldorf airport and then the SkyTrain is only another 5 minutes. As it is more convenient and faster, we opted for this service.

Happy to report the journey was very easy and after a couple different escalators at the SkyTrain station we arrived inside the Dusseldorf Airport main terminal.

Dusseldorf Airport
At 7:00 am the airport wasn't very busy. Due to security issues AirBerlin does not allow online checkin for US bound flights so that is another reason why we are here so early. With fewer people this helped as I needed to find the SIBA mobile wrapping guy. My battered carryon with its taped side is reaching critical mass. Its weight surpasses the cabin baggage limit so needs to be checked. Without being wrapped I am sure it would fall apart in transit and the contents dispersed who knows where. It was hard finding the wrap guy but as I did this last year I knew he had to be somewhere. I didn't realize I was going to get a full tour of the Dusseldorf airport from end to end as I kept searching for him. The airport is BIG and I was getting a workout!

I had my mother park herself on a bench while I walked all the way to the end where the AirBerlin US bound checkin desks are located. No luck and then walked almost all the way back when I spotted him! I scampered over to get mother as she needed her bag wrapped too. There were 3 people ahead of us and they were wrapping some very small bags which looked kind of silly.

With the bags wrapped (8 euros each) we proceeded to the AirBerlin checkin desk at the end of the airport. The checkin was fast and I found out my bag weighed 14 kgs. Passing through security was easy too and we proceeded to Terminal B. Everything looked very familiar from our visit here last year. We went to a different restaurant this time where my mother had a cappucchino and a we both purchased a breakfast item.

My mother is still complaining about her legs hurting so we stopped at a pharmacy type store and she purchased a cream from Switzerland. She got some free samples too! At the gate she put some of the creme on and it smelled like menthol eucalyptus. It was very strong and seemed to be clearing my sinuses too!

Because we were assured of having the newly configured aircraft this time with the new IFE system I didn't download any movies to the iPod or iPad. However at the gate I tried to download a movie to the iPad in case the IFE was broken. This was not going very well! Not sure if the connection just was not working or if I didn't have enough storage space on the device. Defeated I plugged my iPad into the outlet on the wall to charge it anyway. We were due to board at 8:30 am and next time I will have the movies already loaded in advance.

Our aircraft on the right
Many travelers dismiss AirBerlin as a budget airline and refuse to fly it. While everyone is entitled to their option I think AirBelin has great service and I am very happy to be flying them again. Best of all we can fly nonstop to Florida and then it is just a short drive home. How great is that? The aircraft is an A330-200 and we have economy seats 41 I & K. The flight time is 10 hours and 20 minutes. It is really overcast right now but it is supposed to be a sunny across the Atlantic.

Our turn came to board and we made our way down to the seats past the wing. Both the new seats and the monitors were very nice. Some people have complained about the new seats being too hard but it seemed fine to us.

Airberlin A330-200
The majority of the passengers were German but we did hear some English being spoken too. The crew seemed very nice. This time we had a male flight attendant named Helmut who could not have been nicer.

We taxied and did not have to wait and we were soon flying over Westphalia and the Rhine.

Gloomy Departure from Dusseldorf
It appears a bit dreary outside. However, inside the plane everything was going great!

After a few minutes in the air the monitors came on. I absolutely love the new monitors! The clarity is amazing and the size which is 8.9 inches seems even larger and is so easy to see. The monitor has a USB port too if you want to plug in a mobile device. The RAVE high definition audio/video on demand AVOD system offering more than 200 hours of entertainment is fantastic! AirBerlin also switched to the one prong audio headsets instead of the double pronged ones pre-refurb. Another huge improvement as you can use your own headphones without an adapter.

Our Journey Home Begins
As a nervous flyer I love being able to monitor our flight progress and location. I am sitting on the right side of the plane and our journey will take us across southern England and Ireland and then off the coast of Canada until flying parallel to the US southeast coast before arriving in Florida.

Western Coast of Ireland

In about 2 hours we were flying off the coast of Ireland near Dingle. No more land for many more hours.

As we are on a morning flight, I was thrilled AirBerlin wisely did not insist on serving breakfast! The lunch entree looked pretty good. I selected the chicken in a tomato type sauce with rice and broccoli. There was also a little salad, crackers and a dessert.

Once the lunch tray was removed I enjoyed the new IFE system and watched some movies. My first choice was American Beauty with Kevin Spacey. I have seen this film before but I wanted to watch it again. Spacey's portrayal of "Lester Burnham" is so funny and it was even better the second time around.

I then selected Star Trek: Into Darkness. I am not a "trekkie" but a big fan of the original series and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Chris Pine plays a young Captain Kirk and is a great addition to the franchise.

Chris Pine as Captain Kirk
After the movie I took a short break and then returned to my seat to take a few snaps out the window before deciding what to watch next. We have terrific weather for flying today.

Beautiful day to fly!
There was one episode of Magnum P.I. available so I decided that would be fun for 30 minutes. Amazing how much faster the show works without commercials! Nice to see Tom Selleck again but the episode was rather idiotic with Magnum and a lovely con artist stranded on a deserted Hawaiian Island. Magnum is dressed in a a tuxedo which continues to get smaller and smaller as their predicament becomes more perilous and he cuts away his clothing.

In need of something more cerebral I was delighted to discover that apparently the Germans are big fans of Mad Men. AirBerlin had 25 episodes on hand and I watched 6 of them. They were from all different seasons. I jumped around a bit and really enjoyed the ones with young Sally and Ms. Ida Blakenship who expires at her desk!

Don Draper would you like some coffee?

Peggy, you look a bit tense!
After a couple of episodes centering on Peggy's  (Elizabeth Moss) character we were only a few hours from home and it was now snack time!

This looks reminiscent of the same snack we were served last year. Kibbe, potato salad, cheese wedge and a cookie. It was very good!

Arriving in Florida
It was not long before we could see the coast of Florida from the right side of the plane. Looks very inviting doesn't it?

Lake Okeechobee
I have never seen Lake Okeechobee from the air before. Looks like someone cut a perfect circular blue hole in the center of Florida.

We landed in the late afternoon and were soon queueing at immigration. The line for US citizens and landed immigrants was not long at all. I really felt for those in the longer line and one adorable screaming little boy who just wanted to get the heck out there. Unfortunately he was in the non-US line and it was not going to be a quick exit.

Two weeks away on vacation was great but I was excited to be home again. One of our petsitters (Jeanne) was out walking the dogs when we pulled into the gate. I don't know if Siebren or I was more excited to see one another! It was a perfect welcome home!

Our next trip is not for a while. We will probably go to Longboat Key around Christmas time and see my uncle and cousins but we are home bound for the foreseeable future, which is fine with me!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Les Puces St. Ouen, Sunday in the Marais and Train to Cologne

Today is Sunday and many stores and attractions in Paris will be closed. This doesn't mean that there aren't places to enjoy and things to see. I have planned accordingly and we will visit a few different venues in Paris today. Our first stop is Les Puces St. Ouen (flea market) which is actually far from tatty and rather upscale. We will spend a few hours there perusing the shops. Afterward we will walk around the Marais and have lunch near the beautiful Place de Vosges. The stores, museums and restaurants will all be open in the Marais and it is a great place to spend a Sunday. Toward the end of the day we will take the Thalys train to Cologne, Germany where we will stay overnight.

Before I jump ahead on how our day progressed I thought I would begin by showing photos of the hotel's 4th floor where our room is located. I described it in prior posts but didn't upload any photos. Les Plumes Hotel's literary theme is nicely expressed by the sepia-toned bookcase wallpaper in the corridors. It compliments the wide hallways and along with the dim overhead lighting provides a relaxed feeling to the surroundings.

Les Plumes Hotel 4th floor
During our stay we have been using the elevator but the stairs are easy to navigate. They take very good care of the premises. The entire hotel including our floor is spotless. The a/c also works great and is very quiet.

Nice stairway and hall
With the 4th floor explored and our itinerary set we proceeded downstairs for breakfast. I tried some different items today including a little crepe and some eggs. They were okay but in the future I would stick with the cheese and fruit.

Breakfast on our last day
There was plenty to sustain ourselves until our lunch break.

We waited in the lobby while reception called a taxi to take us to the Flea Market as it is a bit out of town in the 19th arrondissement. You can take the Metro there but it is a long walk from the nearest stop so a taxi is more efficient.

Lobby Les Plumes Hotel
We brought our bags down with us and left them at the front desk as we will return past checkout time. The hotel staff are very kind and I have been very pleased with our choice of Les Plumes Hotel. Sometimes it doesn't work out that way but it has been a pleasant surprise. Originally I planned to stay on the Ile Saint-Louis near Notre Dame. The island is charming and has the feel of a small neighborhood. I cancelled the hotel I had booked there when I discovered Les Plumes. I love boutique hotels and it satisfied all our requirements with a great rate, twin beds, stylish decor, a/c, location on the Right Bank and within close proximity to the train stations.

The taxi arrived and we zoomed north to the edge of town. But it was far from the "edge of darkness" as I had feared. I had read about this area being dodgy but it appeared quite safe. The Les Puces St. Ouen market is well established and has been located here since the late 1800's. As there was no traffic it took less than 20 minutes to arrive at our destination. It was so easy and quite reasonable. I am glad we did not take the Metro.

Clignancourt / Les Puces de Saint Ouen

I was very much looking forward to visiting the most famous flea market in Paris at Porte de Clignancourt. Known informally as Les Puces de Saint Ouen "The Fleas" (sounds lovely doesn't it?) it covers 7 hectares  (17 acres) and is the largest antique market in the world. It is open every Saturday, Sunday and Monday. I read about the propensity for pickpockets and will be vigilant.

Rue des Rosiers
We were dropped at the beginning of Rue de Rosiers which is the main street for the market. From here you can access separate markets which run perpendicular to it. However all the markets sort of run into one another.

Map Les Puces
I had the map above with me to help us navigate the different markets.

Walking down Rue des Rosiers we immediately found several interesting shops selling Empire-style furniture, chandeliers, fireplaces, mirrors and other wonderful decorative items.

Shop on Rue des Rosiers
This shop with the chandeliers was amazing. I loved the tiered Art Deco chandelier in the center. We had no plans to buy anything today. Initially we just planned to look. However, it was a constant struggle not to wander inside and ask about prices.

I was enamored with the marble and bronze Chenets at the foot of the table but didn't inquire about the cost. I am guessing several thousand dollars. They were very tempting!

My mother loved the fireplace screen on the lower left. I agreed that it was very nice and perhaps we should have gone inside to take a closer look. How amazing we both found items to covet within 5 minutes of our arrival!

Baccarat Table
Continuing down the street we saw more beautiful pieces. This Baccarat table was very impressive but it doesn't appear that useful. . I am guessing it is used in a dining room or bar area. Our window shopping so far is a big success and it wasn't costing us a centime!

This shop wasn't as fancy with a metal door and more closely resembled a storage container. The items looked very nice though.

This shop named Evelyne wasn't open yet but they had a good selection of smaller decorative items we could spot from the window. I particularly liked the lit rose colored pendulum chandelier in the center. Good thing they are closed. My self-control is holding but at any minute I might be in trouble!

It was wonderful to see these items in person instead of through a Christie's catalogue. When we finished walking up the street we then made our way to the other markets including Serpette, Vernaison, Antica and Biron.

After Vernaison and Antica which didn't take long, our next stop was Serpette. Here we spotted some unconventional merchandise. All the shops in this market are located inside an enclosed building. There were a few closed shops too as the poor economy has sadly put some dealers out of business.

I found this small kiosk that designs clothing in unusual styles. I don't think I could get away with rocking a skirt made of ties but I am sure someone could!

Next door was a truly amazing shop selling vintage jewelry. We meet the owner, Ms. Olwen Forest who definitely has a flair for the dramatic sporting spiky red hair and an abundance of bright green eye shadow. Her shop is a labor of love and she delighted us with an explanation of her amazing collection. .

Olwen Forest

Olwen Forest is British by birth and was a dancer in Southern California. Her specialty is costume jewelry from the golden age of Hollywood. Many of the pieces were created specifically to be worn in films including Liz Taylor items in Cleopatra. Now thousands of miles from Tinseltown the collection at her little booth on the outskirts of Paris is spellbinding.

A photo of the store on Olwen Forest's website
Ms. Forest was very kind to us neophytes and explained the history of the pieces and the designers who made them. There were photos next to many of the items indicating who wore them from Greta Garbo to Grace Kelly. The items span from 1920 to 1970. We spoke for nearly an hour and learned about designers Elsa Schiaparelli, Hattie Carnegie, Coco Chanel and Kenneth Jay Lane among others. Ms. Forest has intimate knowledge of each piece and they are more like treasures to enjoy rather than adornments for sale.

Elsa Schiaparelli brooch and earrings
Olwen Forest's current exhibition is titled "The Jet Set" and will start in early September 2013.

I asked if I could take a photo of her display with the write-up on the new show and she agreed. She also gave me a brochure and business card. It was a truly fascinating encounter!

We next made our way to the Marche Biron which is adjacent to Serpette and also located in an enclosed building. There are 220 art and antique dealers in Marche Biron which are classified in 6 areas: 19th Century, 18th & 19th Centuries, Asian Art, Printing and Graphic Art, Art Nouveau and Art Deco, and 20th Century. Should we find anything we cannot part with we also spotted a transport company to ship everything home. Many of the items were quite nice but we kept moving.

We headed outside and this time found the inexpensive market areas.

It is not as fancy in this area.

It does look much cheaper here! However, it did not captivate our interest.

This area definitely seemed more like a flea market. As we walked down the street we came across some horses having their lunch. What a nice surprise! They were just gorgeous!

I said hello to one of the horses and he started to walk toward me and his buddy followed!

Here they come! I wish I had an apple or something they would enjoy.

Once they realized we had nothing for them they turned around and went back to their hay. It was not too warm out and they seemed very well cared for.

Around this time we started to make our way down the street to look for a taxi.

Looking for a taxi
We passed this store which my mother found fascinating. I really enjoy this style of furniture too. Perhaps my grandmother's influence has something to do with it.

I love the cherubs on the doors too.

We found a taxi without much trouble and then proceeded to the Marais.

On the way to the Marais
Being Sunday there weren't many people about. However, once we arrived in the Marais it was a whole different story! There were several families enjoying the splendid weather. I noticed lots of dad's with their kids.

Place de Vosges.
The Marais

The Marais literally means "the swamp" and is located in the 3rd and 4th arrondissements. In the 16th century noblemen and the bourgeoisie built magnificent homes in this undeveloped area. Through the 18th century beautiful houses were built with many resembling palaces. This area is also the location for the old Jewish Quarter and provides an interesting cultural backdrop.

We walked around a bit before deciding where to have lunch.

There are lots of cars around the square but it almost  feels pedestrianized. The buildings with the arches provide a shady and cool place to relax, eat and shop.

Above is Carette where I planned to eat lunch but as time appeared to be in abundance today we also looked at few other places. Having extra time is not something that normally happens!

Cafe Hugo in the Marais
We checked out Cafe Hugo which seemed very nice. It was not yet lunch time which made our decision all the more difficult since it was not crowded and we could eat anywhere.

Perhaps perfumes from the Pays Basque?
This shop selling scents was very cute!!

The other main attraction in the Marais besides the lovely shopping and the restaurants is the striking Place des Vosges. The buildings are arranged in a quadrangle and are considered by many as the most magnificent architectural accomplishment in Paris.

Place des Vosges

Place des Vosges is Paris’s first major architectural ensemble, where the whole is more impressive than its parts. Originally known as place Royale, Henri IV ordered its construction in 1605. (Other well-known squares such as place des Victoires or place Vendôme were built much later under Louis XIV (1643 -1715) and place de la Concorde, during the 18th century.) Place des Vosges consist of three stories, steep slate roofs and red brick facades whose corners are edged with quoins in the same white stone that frames the windows.

Between the 18th and 19th-centuries, the Marais was sadly neglected and in the 20th-century, it was planned to be razed through the center of the Right Bank and to widen the Rue de Rivoli. Fortunately once demolition was imminent an immediate intervention was successful and no destruction occurred.

Place des Vosges
We next headed over to the park to get a nice view of it and the beautiful Place des Vosges beyond. Victor Hugo's former home is at number 6.

It is such a beautiful wide area and perfect on a warm summer day.

After enjoying the park it was time to eat. I took another look at the restaurant below as I was having a hard time making a decision.

This place was very cute but since I wasn't that hungry we ultimately went back to Carette where I could order a pastry or dessert.


Carette was founded in 1927 in the Place du Trocadero. They opened the Place des Vosges offshoot several years ago. Famous for macaroons and pastries, the menu also features salads and sandwiches. We whet our appetite by viewing the delectable pastries in the case by the entrance.

Yummy Carette Pastries

We sat inside and looked at the menus and ordered our drinks. Raspberry soda for me and wine for mother.

While Carette is famous for their pastries I was feeling peckish and decided  to order an ice cream dessert. My mother had a salad.

My Cafe Leigeois was delicious! It is made with coffee ice cream and Chantilly cream and was perfect on a warm day. Until World War 1, the dessert was known as Cafe Viennois.

Afterward we both took a look at the pastries and my mother had one with strawberries and I ordered 2 macaroons.

The pastries are truly the star here. The little wrapped sandwiches looked good too and were also very reasonable. I thought of purchasing a few to save for our train ride later today but passed as they might not do well in the 77 degree temperatures today.

It was now time for some shopping, but again we mostly looked in the windows.

Rue de Francs Bourgeois
The streets were very busy with lots of people. This area has many boutiques but in recent years the appearance of chain stores has become more prevalent.

This is one of older Jewish Quarter buildings.

Saint-Paul Saint Louis Church in the rear
At the end of the street is the Saint-Paul Saint-Louis church in the background on Rue Saint Antoine. The present building was constructed from 1627 to 1641 on the orders of Louis XIII. The design is traditional French with Italian inspiration. It was here on February 15, 1843 that Leopoldine Hugo secretly married Charles Vacquerie. Sadly, Victor Hugo's eldest daughter and her husband died just a few months later when their boat overturned on the Seine. Her heavy skirts pulled her down and her husband died trying to save her. The impact of this event affected Victor Hugo deeply and he expressed his grief in many of his poems.

We continued in the opposite direction of the church. This store had some very interesting jewelry in the windows on either side. Blue on the left and gold on the right. 

I liked the blue ones and my mother preferred the gold items. They certainly make a statement!

We didn't have plans to visit any of the museums but soon arrived at the majestic Musee Carnavalet. It is open everyday but Monday.

Musee Carnavalet
The museum specializes in the history of Paris and its development. The main entrance is to the right. We probably should have spent a little time in the museum but were so much enjoying our walk in the Marais that we decided to pass.

The area is certainly well marked. We continued down the Rue Des Francs Bourgeois and then to Saint Antoine.

Hotel de Sully
Above is the Hotel de Sully at 62 Saint Antoine. It was built in 1624 and was constructed in the renaissance style. It is known as a "Hotel Particulier" which were beautiful townhouses in their day. As these buildings were free standing they were distinguished from the other Paris mansions in not sharing any walls. Apparently it is a gorgeous building inside and the courtyard is accessible but the interior is closed to the public.

We next passed some interesting clothing stores with cute names including Bumba and Lola and Officina Slowear.

We would soon round things up and contemplate leaving. Nonetheless, we still had lots of time and could have stayed a bit longer. We were however worried that finding a taxi might not be that easy and we did want to rush back in a panic.

Jam and tea shops
What better accompaniment to go with jam but some nice tea? I can hear Julie Andrews from the Sound of Music singing in my head "Tea and Jam, Jam and Bread...."  Both stores looked very nice.

It was still a bit early but our taxi predicament was weighing on us. We needed enough time to go back to the hotel to finalize the checkout and pickup our bags and then get to the train station. At first it looked like finding a taxi was going to be a challenge. We had only seen one taxi the entire time we were walking around.

No taxis
We walked a bit further away from the main shopping area and fortunately after 15 minutes spotted a taxi to take us "home". It was just luck though. It could have taken much longer.

Poster of Naomi Watts as Princess Diana
On our way out of the Marais I finally had a good look at the "Diana" posters my mother has been seeing all over the city. I had to inform her that the poster is not commemorating the 16th anniversary of death of Princess Diana. The poster is an advertisement for the Naomi Watts movie based on Diana and soon to open in theaters.

We passed some beautiful buildings on the way to our hotel.

Soon we were back in the Haussmann area of Paris and drove by Printemps again. Paris is actually quite a small city and you can cover a lot of ground in just 15 - 20 minutes.

The stores are closed today so there are no people around.

There was hardly any traffic and we sped along at a leisurely pace.

I liked this narrow building above with its beautiful balconies. I will try to figure out what it is online.

We arrived at the hotel and asked the taxi to wait for us to take us to Gare du Nord.

Exterior Les Plumes Hotel
I went inside to reception while mother waited in the taxi. I finalized our checkout and picked up our bags. I also thanked the staff for a wonderful stay. I ran out, dumped the bags in the trunk and we headed to the train station. It was all very efficient but perhaps we were getting ahead of ourselves. We arrived at the train station early but I planned to spend some time in the Thalys lounge.

Gare du Nord
Once inside Gare du Nord I went to the Thalys booth to inquire about the lounge. I also wanted to see if we could change our seats as they are facing backward on the train. I noticed the seat issue a few minutes after booking the tickets online many months ago but couldn't figure out how to remedy it. Emails to Thalys went unanswered and I was not about to call them as they only had an international number.

The woman at the booth said she couldn't change the seating but that the lounge was upstairs.

2nd Floor Gare du Nord
However, she forgot to mention that as it is Sunday, the lounge is closed today. We did have a nice view of the station from the second story though. Our Comfort Class tickets included lounge access which offers free wifi so I was disappointed. We went back down in the glass elevator and retreated to the ground level. There were very few places to sit at the station. This is not an exaggeration! We finally found a place at one the food outlets. I ordered a small sandwich just so we could sit there.

Being early and with no lounge to relax in, we occupied ourselves by chatting a little and watching the armed security force march up and down the station. It made me feel secure and at risk simultaneously!

Security at the train station.

As someone had to stay with the luggage, mother and I both took turns taking walks in the station. During my walk I looked at the Thalys trains parked on tracks 6 & 7.

Thalys Train
Thalys is a high speed train operator offering service between Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne. The Dusseldorf Airport station is being added in winter 2013. Peak speed on a dedicated track is 186 mph.

Thalys Routes
The largest segment of Thalys sales come from the Paris-Brussels route. When booking the train I registered for the Thalys Card which you earn points on like an airline frequent flyer program. The card which looks just like a credit card, also has your booking info on it which can be read with a scanner.

I booked our tickets in Comfort Class 1 which is the equivalent of first class. The cost for both tickets together was 186 EUR. Our train will depart at 4:01 pm and will arrive in Cologne at 7:15 pm. It was now finally time to board and we made our way to Coach 22 and seats 52 & 53.

Thalys Comfort 1 seating
The seats were comfortable and had a foot rest.

I went down to the next car to take a photo. In Comfort Class they offer free wifi but I found out later that it was not working. The ride was very pleasant though. At some point someone did come over to check our tickets.

Beautiful Scenery
The scenery was very nice and I love taking the train over flying. The train only had one or two stops before arriving at Cologne.

Aachen Station
We stopped at Aachen which is a small town in Germany and was a favorite of Charlemagne. It was heavily damaged during World War II. The station looked very nice!

Crossing the River
We crossed the river and it was then just a a few minutes before we arrived at the station. We were soon arriving in Cologne. This is our first time in Cologne but unfortunately we have no time to see any of it.

Cologne (Koln) Station
We exited the station and looked for a taxi.

The beautiful Gothic Cologne (Koln) Cathedral known as the Kolner Dom, is directly outside the train station doors. It is perhaps 200 yards away. It may have still be open but due to the luggage we had to just enjoy the view from the curb.

We jumped in a taxi and headed to the Hyatt Hotel on the opposite side of the Rhine. Easier said than done. Apparently they were holding a road race earlier in the day and closed several roads including the main access point to the hotel. Around and around we went and still getting nowhere. We were both tired and it was getting frustrating. I think the driver was doing his best but after the 4th attempt we were ready to just walk there.

We went back to other side of the river and asked a road worker for assistance. He suggested another way to get there and thank goodness it worked! What should have taken 10 minutes ended up triple that.

Hyatt Hotel Cologne
Checkin at the Hyatt was a breeze and we were soon upstairs in our comfy room.

I had planned to eat dinner here so there was not rush to go anywhere. We eventually made it downstairs to the bar area where they have a small restaurant. I thought we might be able to eat outside and enjoy the view of the river but it was closed. The Hyatt also has a second fancier restaurant upstairs but we preferred the bar area.

We sat at a table near the back and looked at the menu. Most of the items were very reasonable and we ordered our drinks. The drinks were taking a looong time as the male bartender was schmoozing a couple from the UK. He was apparently in no rush to make our cocktails but I was rather desperate for it as if it were my last. We gave our food order to another server and inquired about the drinks. She looked over to the bartender gabbing away and with a smile said she would check on it.

That did the trick as our libations were now being prepared. We enjoyed the ambiance of the little restaurant which resembled a small pub with wood tables and low lighting. The cocktails were served and looked super!

Our cocktails At Last!
The food came out fairly quickly as opposed to the drinks. I love Currywurst and usually order it if it is on the menu. The sauce on this one was a bit tame and could have used a little more kick.

During dinner I took a short break to take some photos outside. The hotel is located in a great spot with a spectacular view of the Dom (cathedral) lit at night and the nearby bridge. I had to use my phone as my camera battery had died earlier. I think it came out okay though.

Cologne Cathedral and Bridge at night
It was a challenge to get the photo as there was barbed wire as a protective barrier at the hotel. I actually had to hold the phone outside the hole in the wire and hoped I didn't drop it to take the photo!

I then went back and finished dinner. We were tired from a fun but long day. Tomorrow we will get up early to take the train to the Dusseldorf Airport and then board our flight home.