Hotel Review: The Fairmont Pittsburgh

As someone who loves to travel, I appreciate any excuse to do so, even for work. My job recently took me to Pittsburgh, which included a stay at the Fairmont. I’m a longtime fan of the Fairmont brand, having stayed at their hotels in Monte Carlo and Chicago, so I was excited to stay at one more of their locations.

The Property: I immediately liked the clean, open lobby. It was full of modern furniture, with a lounge that made for a convenient spot cocktails. One of the things I loved about the hotel is that there was artwork everywhere you turned. I was told the sculptures and paintings are all from local artists, and there were even a few Warhol prints on hand. The hotel also has a resident canine ambassador named Edie that you can take on walks around the city. How fun is that?
Fairmont Lobby Hotel lobby

Accommodations: The room was what you would expect of a Fairmont – spacious and luxurious, with amenities like comfy robes, high-end bath products and a keurig machine. I was given a room on a higher floor, which offered great views of the downtown skyline and the river. Floor to ceiling windows and binoculars were a nice touch. I was pleasantly surprised with the bed. It was amazingly comfortable and made for a great night’s sleep.

Fairmont Pittsburgh pitt4 Fairmont Pittsburgh Bathroom Fairmont

Location: The downtown location meant lots of restaurants and bars were nearby. We discovered a great dim sum restaurant called Grit and Grace, and Market Square was a convenient 5 minute walk away for breakfast. We also took in a Pittsburgh Pirates game, which was a short jaunt just over the bridge.

PNC ParkThe staff could not have been nicer, and I’d say the hotel is great for business travelers or those visiting for a day to take in a ballgame. I noticed a mix of business travelers, families and even ran into the Atlanta Braves baseball team arriving for a series with the Pirates. Overall a perfect stay, and I would definitely come back if I find myself in Pittsburgh again.

We Have you stayed at a Fairmont? Which location was your favorite?

My Initial Thoughts About Punta Cana

Before going to Punta Cana recently, I admittedly did not know what to expect. I didn’t know anyone who had been there before, so I went into my trip with no preconceived impressions. Here are my initial thoughts on Punta Cana:

Punta Cana

It’s Very Popular: With more flights serving Punta Cana, including our recently-started route on Southwest, our plane was filled to the max with couples, groups of girlfriends and families ready to start their vacation. Maybe I was just unaware of how popular it has become in recent years. With the amount of tourists I saw at the airport, it was obvious that it’s definitely become a huge tourist spot.

Every Resort is All Inclusive: …and you’ll never need to leave yours. Riding through town, you’ll pass mega resort after mega resort. I usually like to leave my hotel to explore local restaurants and nightlife, but everything I wanted was inside my resort, the Melia Caribe Tropical. And since all the resorts offer all inclusive packages, all your meals, drinks and entertainment are included. If all you’re looking for is sun, sand, relaxation and good food, you’ll find everything you could ever need within your resort’s walls.

The Food is Awesome: One of the best parts about staying at an all inclusive resort is the amazing food. It’s a great opportunity to taste the best that the island has to offer, from fresh fruits to classic Dominican dishes like mofongo and sancocho.

Dominican Food

The Scenery and Weather Are Perfect: With blue water, perfect temperatures and tropical landscapes, I can see why people come here for vacation.

dr3

Best Buys From Brussels 

One of my favorite things to do when traveling is visit local shops, stalls and boutiques. I love picking up local finds for myself and friends. Brussels was no exception, and I was able to score some cute (and tasty) gifts. Here’s a rundown of my best bets when visiting Brussels.

Chocolate: Belgian chocolate is known throughout the world as being some of the milkiest, creamiest chocolate goodness there is, so this was an obvious choice. You can even see it being made first hand in some of the shops across the city.chocolate

 

 

 

 

Lace: You’ll see a lot of small boutiques across the city selling handmade lace items. You can find everything from dresses, bonnets, pillows and doilies. Everything is beautifully done, and there’s sure to be something within your price range.

Waffles: Did you know there are two types of waffles in Belgium? I definitely had my fill of the larger Brussels waffles, which are covered with everything from bananas to chocolate and whipped cream. There’s also the smaller Liege waffle, which is  thicker and covered with an amazing layer of crystallized sugar. I picked up a few packages to take home from an adorable shop called Elisabeth near the Manneken Pis. (These traveled surprisingly well too, due to their crisp top later). You can even find chocolate covered varieties! Many come in cute ribbon-tied packages, making for some very yummy gifts.waffles

Local Beer & Mugs: Brussels is definitely a beer drinking culture. You can visit one of the city’s many beer stores, get a great recommendation on a local brew, then take it to go and drink it as you explore. How cool is that? Specialty local beers and their glasses make great souvenirs for any beer lover.Beer

Speculoos: These crunchy little cookies made from brown sugar and spices are seriously addictive! You can find all sorts of types in Brussels – classic, vanilla, even in a spread. Once home, I found that they go prefect my with my morning coffee. High end bakery Maison Dandoy sells them in beautiful packaging for easy gift giving.

 

 

5 Underrated Summer Vacation Spots

June is here, school is out, and people are taking to the skies and highways for summer vacation. There are the common spots that fill up with families and tourists, but if you want to avoid the crowds (and maybe even score a cheaper hotel in the process), check out these cities for your summer break.

1) Las VegasVegas

If you’re willing to put up with intense temperatures that can exceed 100 degrees, you can get hotels in Las Vegas for pretty cheap during July and August. You’ll be lounging by the pool or hanging out in the air conditioned casinos anyway, right? Make a road trip out of it and head to other desert attractions like Lake Mead or Red Rock Canyon.

2) New York CityWashington Square Park

Yes, it’s muggy and the city heat isn’t for everyone. But on the plus side, hotel prices decrease a little as the city’s residents head east to Long Island beaches on the weekend. Enjoy summer in Central Park and catch a nighttime breeze at one of city’s best rooftop bars.

3) Siesta Key, FloridaSiesta Key

Skip the craziness of Disney and South Florida and opt for the west coast of the state. Close to Tampa and Sarasota, Siesta Key brings warm gulf waters, beautiful beaches void of huge resorts and a more laid back vibe.

4) Charleston, South CarolinaCharleston

Many folks head to the Carolina coastal cities during the summer months, but don’t forget Charleston. This historical city offers great Southern food, museums, colonial architecture and tons of charm.

5) Flagstaff, ArizonaFlagstaff

Phoenix has great summer deals if you can stand the heat, but those looking for a break from the desert heat should try Flagstaff. A higher elevation means cooler temperatures, and visitors can take advantage of the town’s mountains, national parks and outdoor activities.

 

Checking Into the Dominican in Brussels

Hotel Dominican

I recently visited Brussels on the tail end of a trip that saw stops in London, Paris and Belgium. I had heard that Brussels was relatively small, and I was looking forward to having a low-key 24 hour visit before heading back home on an early morning flight. With limited time to explore the city, a centrally located hotel was a must. I came across the luxury Dominican through an online search, and its great reviews made it the obvious choice.

The Location

After taking a cab from the the train station, my friend and I were a little confused when our taxi driver dropped us off in an alley. (He explained that the street was closed to cars, and was thus unable to drop us off at the hotel’s entrance). After checking in and getting our bearings, we soon discovered that the property was actually very close to the first place we wanted to see, the Grand Place (or Grote Markt).  A short walk south took us past small streets filled with restaurants and bars, which filled up with lots of people come evening time. The Grand Place was a ten minute walk at most. The streets surrounding the Grand Place is where we ended up spending most of our time in the city, and it was nice to have it within walking distance. Not having to take the metro to get around was a welcome break after exhausting days navigating Paris and London. The convenient location also made it easy to stop back at the hotel for a mid-day break to freshen up before dinner.

Hotel's location

The Property

The hotel’s luxury could definitely be felt in the main lobby. Sleek furniture and elegant touches like mirrors, glass accents and flowers added to the overall glamour. The lobby and the rest of the first level are mostly open, which allows you to see the hotel’s lounges and seating areas. Being pressed for time, we were unfortunately unable to experience any of the dining options. We did notice lots of people having an evening cocktail in the lobby bar, and there was also a beautiful courtyard restaurant that looked like a wonderful place to have drinks or dinner.

Europe 2015 807flowers

Europe 2015 810 Europe 2015 811The Rooms

We stayed in a Deluxe room, which was cozy but had enough space to fit two people comfortably. The hotel’s underlying religious theme was present in the room, notably from the old church music that came from the TV speakers and within the carpet designs. My favorite part was the bathroom, which was sleek and modern. It had a masculine vibe, with black finishes and contemporary elements like a chrome hair dryer, not to mention an amazing shower.

Europe 2015 675 Europe 2015 677 Europe 2015 680

The Dominican really was the perfect hotel for a one day stay in the city. The greatest selling points of this property really are its location and lux features. The staff was also very friendly and accommodating. Rooms start at 140 euros a night, and more info can be found on their website.

A Lovely Stay in London

A friend and I planned a 2 day stay in London during a week long European vacation and were in need of a hotel . This was my second time in the city, but there was still a lot on the agenda. We planned to take in a few tourist attractions, but mostly wanted to get off the tourist track and explore London’s various neighborhoods. On a previous trip, I stayed near the Tower of London. While it was had a tube stop and was near the Thames, it offered few options for dining, shopping or entertainment. This time we chose Kensington for its location and neighborhood amenities. After a lot of online research, we decided to go with the Millennium Gloucester.

Location:

The area surrounding the hotel seemed mostly residential, but had ample restaurants, coffee shops and a few grocery stores. We were easily able to walk to a late dinner or pop into the Tesco across the street to pick up water or snacks. The Gloucester Road tube is less than a block away, and runs on the green and yellow line. This made for easy access to pretty much anywhere in central London. And if you’re like me and can’t resist the lure of a casino, there’s a small one around the corner.

The Room:

We arrived early in the morning from oversees and were lucky enough to have a room ready for us. We were kindly upgraded to a Club Room, which is located on the hotel’s Club Level. The room was the perfect size for two people and luggage, and somewhat large by London standards. 
Treat from the hotel

The Highlights:

One of the perks of our Club Level room was access to the hotel’s breakfast. It was located in a quaint room overlooking a charming South Kensington side street. The breakfast spread was pretty standard, with hot and cold items and fresh juices. An espresso machine made for a nice addition. Europe 2015 371
Complimentary wifi was also a plus (even though I think it should be standard these days!), and the front desk staff could not have been friendlier.

The Millennium Gloucester is located near the intersection of Gloucester and Courtfield Roads in Kensington. More information can be found on their website.

 

Quick Tips for Visiting Paris

Courtesy of Wikicommons

Travel is definitely a learning experience. Over my last few visits to France, I’ve picked up a few pointers along the way. Before making a trip Paris, here are a few tips to keep in mind.

Buy Your Tickets Online: Who wants to waste time waiting in line? Save time by purchasing tickets online before hand. This one applies to other cities too, but it’s a must in Paris, given the amount of visitors it sees every year. Major attractions like the Eiffel Tower may sell out weeks and sometimes even months in advance, so locking in tickets ahead of time is always a smart choice.

Skip the Metro: Sure, the Paris train system is efficient and economical. But instead of only using the metro to get around, try one of the city’s many hop-on, hop-off boats. They conveniently stop throughout the city AND offer amazing views. There are many tour operators offering everything from all day passes to dinners to champagne cruises. I recently used Batobus and at 16 euros a person, it’s an economical way to get around. I was a little disappointed that our boat was enclosed with windows, so opt for an open air one if you’d like to feel the breezes from the Seine.

Be Courteous: It may seem like a common courtesy, but it’s expected and highly valued in France to say bonjour or bonsoir when walking into a shop or entering a cafe. It seems to me that proper manners are valued more in Europe than in the United States. Even with my (very) minimal French, I’ve never had a negative experience in the city, and I think that has to do with the friendly greeting.

Be Prepared: In my experience, it seems as though very few taxi drivers in Paris speak English. You’ll want to be prepared when hopping in a taxi to go to your hotel, a certain restaurant or lesser-known street. Be prepared by having your hotel’s name and address printed out. Know what arrondissement you need to be in. Street signs will list the arrondissement, so keep your eyes open to confirm you’re going the right way.

Visit the Eiffel Tower at Night: The Eiffel Tower is a sight to behold at any time of the day, but at night it’s magical. Starting at sundown, the tower twinkles every hour on the hour. It’s truly the best time to take in Paris’ most famous attraction.

Don’t Pay for Water!: It’s common for restaurants to give tourists bottled water, often for exaggerated prices. I recently learned that there’s a law in France that requires restaurants to provide tap water to those who ask. Save yourself from paying for expensive bottles of Evian and ask for une carafe d’eau. 

What to Pack for a Spring Trip to Europe

Spring TravelIn just a few short weeks, I’ll be jaunting off for a girls getaway to Europe. London, Paris and Brussels are on the itinerary, where the weather can be unpredictable. So what does one pack for a trip in April? Rainy, windy days and changing temperatures make these items packing necessities.

Umbrella: A full-cover umbrella in a cute pattern will come in handy when spring showers hit.

Infinity Scarf: This Lily Pulitzer scarf is not only great for the plane, and also if the weather gets a little chilly.

Trench Coat: A classic trench is the perfect lightweight jacket option for spring weather.

Rain Boots:  I learned from past experiences that wet feet make for a very unhappy traveler.  Bright Hunters are the stylish and practical solution.

5 Foods to Try in the South of France

From Marseilles to Nice, it’s safe to say I’ve eaten my way across Provence. I learned that Southern France’s food culture is much different from that of Paris and Northern France. Beef bourguignon and macarons give way to seafood dishes and Provencal flavors. The area’s best recipes utilize fresh fruit and vegetables from local markets and Mediterranean ingredients. These are some of my favorites I’ve had along the way.

Nicoise Salad: Although you’ll find variations of this well known salad all over the world, the classic version can be found in Nice. This colorful recipe brings together tuna, eggs, olives, tomatoes, potatoes, French beans, lettuce and a vinaigrette dressing. The ingredients can also be found in sandwich form in its spinoff, pan bagnet.

Nicoise Salad
Socca: Every city has its street food, and socca is Nice’s. This pancake-like specialty is made from chickpea flour and served hot, and can be found throughout Nice. Socca
Provencal Honey: Provence produces some of the most high quality honey out there, flavored with unique items like chestnuts and lavender. It smells and tastes amazing, and also makes for adorable gifts. Honey
Calissons: The town of Aix en Provence is known for its tiny candied fruits covered in icing. Made from almond paste, candied melon and orange peel, these candies can be found in every shop and market in Aix. Calissons
Bouillabaisse: No list would be complete without Southern France’s famous stew. It’s a flavorful fisherman’s stew flavored with herbs de Provence that has to be tried at least once.  Although attributed to Marseilles, but it can be found in towns all throughout Provence.

Checking Into Barcelona’s Alexandra Hotel

This winter weather has me reminiscing of warmer days. Thinking back to this past summer takes me back to one of my favorite hotels I’ve stayed at in recent years, the Hotel Alexandra in Barcelona, Spain. Why is it one of my favorites? The hotel had everything one could want – roomy accommodations, modern amenities and a convenient location.

Hotel Alexandra balcony

Bathroom Hotel Alexandra

Location:  I always like to stay in the city center when visiting a big city. Part of the reason we chose this hotel was its location in the Eixample neighborhood. This area’s well connected by the metro, with the Diagonal and Passeig de Gracia stations a mere 5 minutes away. We were able to easily walk to landmarks like La Pedrera and Casa Batllo. The area is also home to busy streets full of cafes, shops and high end shopping.

Accommodations: The hotel’s modern vibe is noticeable when first entering the hotel. The lobby is full of sleek seating and houses a bar in the lounge area. We scored a room on the top floor, which made for nice views of the surrounding neighborhood. The room was pretty big by European standards, with one of the sexiest bathrooms I’ve ever seen. The shower was ah-mazing. The room opened up to a spacious patio that was the perfect place to start the day or unwind after hours of wandering the city. We were able to enjoy the warm night air and check out the lively rooftop bars across the way. And the best part? There was a full size BATHTUB on the terrace! Yes, a bathtub.

Perks: We were immediately greeted by the friendly staff when arriving. They were knowledgeable and extremely helpful, which was much appreciated since we were new to the city.  There was free wifi throughout the hotel and in our room – always valuable. The in-room Nespresso machine didn’t hurt either.

Overall I loved this hotel and would definitely recommend it. Given its location, beautiful accommodations and economical cost at under 200 euros a night, it’s worth a stay to anyone visiting Barcelona.

 

NYC for Free

New York may be one of the most expensive cities in the world, but there are also plenty of things to see and places to visit for little or no cost. Here’s a roundup of the tricks and tips to help experience the city on the cheap.

Wander Through Central Park: Exploring the park on foot will cost you nothing, and is the perfect way to spend an afternoon. Check out the Conservatory Garden, lounge on the Great Lawn or people watch in Sheep Meadow.

central park

Ride the Staten Island Ferry: Sure, it’s far from glamorous. But there’s no easier (or cheaper) way to get picturesque views of lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty.

Take Advantage of Free Days: Many of the best museums and attractions in the city offer free admission on certain days. The Museum of Modern Art opens its doors for free for limited hours on Fridays. The 9/11 Memorial & Museum is free on Tuesdays, and the Bronx Zoo is open to the public at no cost on Wednesdays.

Walk the High Line or Brooklyn Bridge: It’s free to check out the High Line and take in a view of the Hudson River. If you’re feeling ambitious, walk the mile or so across the Brooklyn Bridge. Brooklyn Bridge

Bonus: While not entirely cost-free, certain museums do offer suggested admission prices, essentially allowing you to pay what you wish. You can find this option daily at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and at the Guggenheim and the Frick Collection during select hours. This is a nice perk for students, and I definitely took advantage of this when I was a broke 20-something living in the city.

5 Reasons Why You Should Move to France

Ahh, France. Just the mention evokes thoughts of the beauty of Paris, the charm of Provence and the sunshine of the Cote d’azur. I have fond memories of the towns I’ve visited, its sights and its people. Here’s why I find it the idyllic place to live, and why you should too.

1. The Food: The French have a passion for food that shows. They appreciate the art of cooking and presentation and value quality meals. And you have to love everything that’s sold at local patisseries and boulangeries. Beyond that, do cheese, bread, crepes and wine really need an explanation?cheese

2. The Culture: There’s the art, architecture and the elegant language. There’s also something to be said about the often forgotten ways of proper manners and dressing well.

3. The Laid Back Lifestyle: Enjoying long, leisurely meals and seeing shops closed on Sundays are common. It’s the opposite of the hectic on-the-go days that are the norm in the US. Don’t forget about the 35 hour work week and generous vacation time.

4. The Scenery: Of course the architecture and monuments of Paris are a sight to see, but there’s much more. France really has it all – picturesque Mediterranean coastline, lavender and sunflower fields in Provence, châteaux in the Loire Valley and adorable villages in Alsace.provence

5. The Weather: Sure, maybe the weather’s not always so great in the north. However, the South of France boasts about 300 days of sunshine a year, and it’s always an easy train or plane ride away.Antibes

 

Tips & Tricks for Disney World

Cinderella's CastleA recent family visit to Florida over the holidays made for the perfect excuse to take a side trip to Disney. What could be prettier than the parks Disney’d out to the extreme with lights, wreaths and holidays decorations everywhere you look? I soon discovered that the days around Christmas are some of the highest admission days of the year. I learned a few pointers along the way that will help make your visit to Disney World as fun and pain free as possible.

Take Advantage of Fast Pass: This is a great feature that allows you to book rides at the times that work best for you. You then get to essentially skip the lines, which makes your wait time very short.

Stay at a Hotel with Extended Hours: Resorts located on Disney property, like the Grand Floridian, are the ideal choices because of location alone. If you’d prefer not to splurge on one a pricey Disney property, at least choose a hotel that offers extended park hours. This will allow you to enter the parks earlier and stay later, which helps avoid some of the masses. The Hilton Orlando Lake Buena Vista is a nice property that offers this perk.

Wear Comfortable Shoes: Don’t make the mistake of trying to look stylish. Opt for the tennis shoes. It’s worth it, plus there’s no one to impress. Trust me.

Make Restaurant Reservations: The table service dining establishments at the parks didn’t even allow walk-ins. Be sure to book lunch and dinner reservations far in advance to guarantee a table. Beware, there is also a fee for cancelling a reservation. We had great meals at a few restaurants in the parks, notably the Rose & Crown Pub and Coral Reef at Epcot.

Download the Disney World App: It’s a handy place to find out wait times for rides, learn about special events like the parade, manage your fast pass bookings and view your restaurant reservations.

Leave During the Afternoon Rush: Since you’re allowed to re-enter the parks, we decided to leave during the mid-day peak to escape the crowds. This allowed for a quick recharge at our hotel, followed by a stop at Downtown Disney for dinner. Given the huge afternoon crowds, I highly recommend taking a break during the peak hours.

My Top Travel Moments of 2014

This past year was packed with exciting experiences. The year included visits to Europe, South American, Los Angeles and other spots in the US. Now that it’s coming to an end, here’s a look back at my favorite travel memories of 2014.

Walking a Roman Aqueduct in Nimes, France: The Pont du Gard was built by the Romans in about 50 BC. How often can you say you’ve walked across an UNESCO World Heritage Site?

nimes

Touring the Walled City of Avignon: A 24 hour stop is all it took for me to fall in love with Avignon‘s charming cobblestone streets, 14th century buildings and festive town square. It stands as one of my favorite cities in France.

avignon

Tapas and Sangria in Barcelona: Enjoying local food is one of my favorite parts of traveling. Sampling Spain’s sangria, paella and various tapas was one of the things I was most looking forward to in Barcelona, and it didn’t disappoint.

sangria

Enjoying the Luxurious Life in Monaco: Of course visiting Monte Carlo was one of my favorite stops. All that glitz and glamour in one place can’t be wrong. Visiting the casino, the Prince’s Palace and the port of Monaco is a wonderful way to spend a day. Even the bus ride through its hilly roads is breathtakingly beautiful (and a little nerve racking).  

monaco

Attending a Traditional Chilean Wedding: My sister-in-law’s wedding reception was attended by 500 guests and lasted until 6 AM. South American weddings are no joke.

wedding

The lavender fields of Provence: A check on the bucket list! Visiting the lavender fields the summer months is a must do in Provence, and it’s one of my favorite memories of Southern France.

lavender

A Traveler’s Holiday Wish List

travel giftsHoliday shopping for friends, family and significant others is always a tough job. If you’re buying for a well-traveled woman, the key is finding something that makes traveling a little easier, and maybe adds a touch of glamour at the same time. The globetrotter in your life is sure to put these gifts to good use on their next trip.

Travel Hoodie Pillow: Why didn’t I think of this? This clever accessory makes it easy to shut out the world on long flights.

Luggage Tag: A chic leather tag from Barney’s is sure to impress fellow travelers at baggage claim.

Molten Brown Toiletries: These travel sized products make any hotel shower more luxurious.

Pocket Notebooks: Rifle Paper Company’s bon voyage collection of gifts is simply adorable.

Travel Jewelry Box: Made for girls on the go and done in Henri Bendel’s signature stripe print.

Train Case: Does it get any more glamorous than a vintage-inspired case in a pretty floral pattern?