Monday, October 20, 2014

Here Are Five Reasons Why Aruba is Awesome

One of the “ABC” islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao), Aruba is located about 18 miles off the coast of Venezuela, and is part of the so-called Dutch Caribbean.

It’s about 20 miles across and six miles wide, with a dry climate.  Its location outside of the “hurricane belt” makes it an immensely popular vacation destination, particularly with South Americans and Americans from the East Coast.

Mike and I first visited Aruba in 2001, and it was love at first sight. Since then, we’ve been back over a dozen times. 

Whenever the subject of Aruba comes up with people, at least in my experience, those who have been seem to fall into one of two groups.  They either love it, and go back on a regular basis, and are able to discuss in detail their favorite restaurants and shopping areas…or they’ve been once, and it was “nice.”  These folks have no particular plans to return.

Why does Aruba seem to elicit these two very different responses?  My guess is that the negative (well, okay, not really negative, more like neutral) responses often stem from the fact that Aruba is seen as being very “Americanized.”  English is taught in the schools, and Arubans know that tourism is their bread and butter, and treat visitors accordingly.  Likewise, it is easy to find Burger King, Dunkin’ Donuts and even Hooters on Aruba.

But why do so many people profess such a strong love for the tiny island?  Well, since I am one of those people, and since this is my blog, I guess it’s up to me to try to explain why, at least for me, Aruba holds the attraction that it does.

So, then...Here Are Five Good Reasons Why Aruba is Awesome!

1.  The Aruban People Are Awesome

They really are. They are undoubtedly the friendliest, most genuinely nice people I have ever met. Almost without exception, they go out of their way to welcome you to their island, to make sure you have a great time, to try to help you in any way they can.  They are the main reason why, when I step off the plane in Aruba, I usually turn to Mike and say, “we’re home!”

One story about the Aruban people, and then we’ll move on to reason number two.  A couple of years ago, a group of us were there in March, and one day there were heavy rains most of the day.  We had a reservation at Madame Janette, one of several favorite dining spots on the island, that evening.  When we got there, we had to be moved almost as soon as we sat down, because the thatched roof above us was leaking.  We were moved, and at some point during dinner, one of our party had to use the ladies room.  When she came back, she was pretty shaken up.  Apparently, there was about six inches of water on the floor in the rest rooms.  By the time we were ready to leave – after yet another wonderful dinner there – the rain was still coming down, and the entire parking lot was flooded.  The staff waited by the door, and when we were leaving, took our keys, found our car, and drove it right up to the front entrance so we could get in relatively easily.  As we were leaving, we noticed a group of Americans sitting at the bar laughing and talking to the staff.  We found out later that the staff personally drove every one of them back to their hotels that night.

2.  The Beaches Are Awesome

There are several beaches on Aruba, but the main ones are Palm Beach, where all of the high-rise hotels are located, and Eagle Beach, where the so-called “low-rise” hotels are located.  The two are very different in atmosphere. 

Palm Beach, where we stay, has calmer water, and is much more crowded.  Depending on where you’re staying, getting a “palapa” for the day (one of those thatched umbrella-like huts you see in the photos) can be an adventure involving getting up at the crack of dawn and waiting in a line.  Once you do get one, you’re usually sitting within 2-3 feet of the family at the next palapa.  This can be annoying, or it can be wildly entertaining.  Often it is a mix of the two extremes.  The people-watching on Palm Beach is endlessly fascinating.

Eagle Beach, on the other hand, is very quiet and considerably less crowded.  There is a much stronger surf there as well, if that’s your thing.  A great place to relax with a book and a couple of beers.  I highly recommend the Balashi, which is brewed right on the island.

Sunset on Eagle Beach

3.  The Restaurants Are Awesome

For such a small island, there are a disproportionately large number of restaurants.  Some, like the afore-mentioned Burger King, are obviously geared towards families with young kids.  Some specialize in local Caribbean cuisine.  Some are gourmet restaurants.  Some are casual.

We definitely have our favorites, among them Madame Janette, which I mentioned earlier.  MJ’s, as we call it, features a lovely outdoor setting, great food, and the island’s best Cosmopolitans.

Carte Blanche, featuring one seating a night, is a one-of-a-kind experience, and does not come cheaply.  Still, we wouldn’t miss it on a trip to Aruba.  You arrive between 7:00 and 7:30, and are seated at a u-shaped, 14-seat bar, facing the cooking area.  Chef Dennis van Daatselaar and sommelier Glen Bonset prepare and serve a 5 course dinner while chatting with the group in an intimate setting not unlike a private dinner party.  If you opt for the wine pairing, Glen will match up each of your dishes with an appropriate wine.  The food is wonderful, and the evening flies by.  This place books six months ahead of time, and reservations are an absolute must.

Linda’s Pancakes, a casual indoor/outdoor café located in a strip mall next to a gas station, features Dutch pancakes (gluten free version available).  These are large, light, airy pancakes, which are topped with your choice of fruits, veggies, cheeses, meats, or even booze.  I opt for half strawberries, half bananas, with whipped cream on the side.  Mike’s gluten free pancake is topped with ham, gouda cheese and bacon.  These pancakes are to die for.  And ask for the Dutch coffee, which is much stronger than the American coffee.

I could go on and on, but I won’t, because I’m getting hungry just typing this.

Breakfast at Linda's

4.  Those Colorful Frozen Cocktails Are Awesome

Who doesn’t love a frozen cocktail?  The Caribbean is known for them, and there is just nothing like sipping one at a beach bar, or while sitting by the pool.

I try to sample a few different concoctions on each trip.  I’ve had blue drinks, and pink drinks and drinks that look like sunsets.  I’ve had Pina Coladas and Raspberry Mudslides.  But my favorite frozen cocktail is the Brown Lady.  You can get a Brown Lady pretty much anywhere on the island.  They’re made with vodka, Bailey’s, and coconut cream, and they are yummy!

Those are Brown Ladies in my hands....both of them.

5.  Doing Nothing is Awesome

I am generally not the sort of person who can sit around for long.  After a while, I remember 23 different things I need to do.  And Mike is the same way.  But I always tell Mike that Aruba is the only place I ever see him really relax.

In fact, in Aruba, we have pretty much mastered the art of relaxation.  Time moves more slowly.  We don’t “have to” do much of anything, aside from arriving on time for a couple of the harder to get dinner reservations.  

In Aruba, my day pretty much consists of a walk along the beach, coffee and bagel on the balcony, an hour in the Lazy River at our timeshare, and then several hours of uninterrupted reading, people-watching and occasional dips in the pool or ocean. A nap, a shower, a nice dinner and an hour at the casino…then it’s time to call it a night.  The next morning, it begins again.  And I love every second of it.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Here Are Five Good Reasons Why Las Vegas is Like Nothing You’ve Ever Seen Before

Despite my somewhat “hippie” image, I’m a big fan of “Sin City.”  In fact, I’ve been to Las Vegas something like 15 times.  At one time, we went every year for a week.  Somewhere along the line, we decided a week is way too long to spend in Vegas, but we still go pretty much every year, and we still love it.

When friends say they’ve never been, and wonder if they’d enjoy it, my stock answer is, “It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before,” figuring, it’s pretty hard to argue with that statement.  And if they do go, and end up hating it – well, don’t blame me.  I never said you’d like it.  I said, “It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.”  And I was right – right?

If you’ve never been, you might be asking yourself, “Well, what does that mean?  WHY is Vegas like nothing I’ve ever seen before?”

And, in keeping with the theme of this blog, I am more than happy to give you “Five Good Reasons Why Las Vegas is Like Nothing You’ve Ever Seen Before.”

1.  There Are Fancy Resort/Casinos Everywhere!

Yeah, there are.  If you want proof, just take a look out the window of the plane as you’re landing at McCarron.  If you’re arriving after dark, there’s enough neon out there to elicit gasps from most of the passengers, even those who visit all the time.

There are something like a hundred resort/casinos in and around the city of Las Vegas, Nevada. 

The Strip

Even if you’ve never gambled in your life, chances are there is something for you to see at a Las Vegas casino.  The Bellagio has a pretty decent art museum.  The Venetian has a branch of the world-renown Madame Tussauds wax museum – not to mention its own rendering of St. Mark’s Square, including gondolas.  The Mirage has a dolphin habitat and display of beautiful lions and tigers, some on the endangered species list.  New York, New York has a simulated “NYC” feel to it, right down to the newspaper stands with graffiti on them and the steam escaping from the man hole covers.  Paris has, well, Paris (cobbled sidewalks lead to small cafes and bakeries…as well as plenty of souvenir shops).  Main Street Station has a piece of the Berlin Wall…inside the men’s room.  Caesars Palace has gladiators (each one buffer than the last), The Coliseum (which, rather than hosting executions and other public spectacles, hosts the likes of Celine Dion and Elton John), Trojan horses, and even Cleopatra’s Barge (um, it’s a nightclub).  Virtually all of them have a hotel attached, and feature an all-you-can-eat buffet, some (Wynn, Mirage, Bellagio) better than others.  Just about all of the larger casino hotels have a wedding chapel.  Many boast upscale restaurants, most with celebrity chef owners.

The list goes on forever.

2.  There’s Enough Food to Feed A Mid-Sized Country

As alluded to in #1., there are a LOT of eating establishments in Vegas.  And, as someone who loves to eat, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I have my favorites.

When Mike and I first visited Vegas (1993), we ate at buffets pretty much every day.  But, given time to allow our tastes to mature (not to mention our finances), for the most part, we tend to stay away these days.  (That being said, I do have a soft spot for both the Wynn buffet, and the Paris buffet.)

But even without buffets, the dining choices in Vegas can make your head spin.

Do you like authentic Thai food?  Then you need to grab a cab and ask them to take you to Lotus of Siam.  Hailed by many as the best Thai restaurant in the country, this place is on our must-do list every trip.  Located in a slightly grimy looking strip mall on East Sahara, the place is so popular that they make it a point to tell you to make sure you arrive within five minutes of the time of your reservation – otherwise, your table can, and probably will, be given away.  There are articles and discussions all over the Internet about what to order, but among our “go-to” dishes are the Nam kao Tod (crispy rice with sour minced sausage) and Nam Prik Ong, a red chili dip served with vegetables for dipping.  The panang here is also amazing.

Their website ( ) has photos of a lot of their dishes.  This meal is a highlight every time.

There is a restaurant in NYC called Rao’s.  It’s famous for being so beloved that it is literally impossible to get a table there, because the regulars eat there virtually every night.  Never fear – Rao’s has a Las Vegas branch, located in Caesars Palace.  And if the original is better than this place – all I can say is, “wow!”  When we were there last month, I had the Ravioli Purses.  These are pasta filled with Bartlett pear, ricotta cheese, brown butter, sage, and dried cranberries.  I wasn’t entirely sure when I ordered this, but after the first bite, I knew I’d made the right choice.  Absolutely amazing. 

And I didn’t even mention the huge, delicious meatballs!

Thomas Keller owns The French Laundry, the Napa Valley institution often called one of the best restaurants in the world.  The Venetian in Vegas boasts an outpost of Keller’s Bouchon, a lovely French bistro with it’s own charms.  And, at least for me, one of those charms is most certainly the Bouchon French Toast (bread pudding style, made with brioche and layers of apples and custard),  which I have for breakfast whenever I visit.

I could go on and on.  Joel Robuchon and Guy Savoy are represented in Vegas, as are Mario Batali, Bobby Flay and Wolfgang Puck.  Emeril Lagasse has a few places here (my favorite being Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House at the MGM Grand), as does Jose Andres (I love China Poblano).  Giada de Laurentiis just opened a place, and so did Guy Fieri.  If you have a “thing” for celebrity chefs, this is the place for you.

Bouchon's French Toast

3.  If You Have Naturally Curly Hair…

…Like I do, then, trust me, you’re going to love the weather in Vegas. 

Yes, it’s hot as hell a lot of the time (during the summer, it hits 100 on a regular basis, and I once walked down the strip in August in 112 degree heat).  But you know that saying, “it’s a dry heat?”  Well – it really is.  There is very little humidity in Vegas.  And for us curly haired girls, what that means is that there are very few “bad hair days.”  In fact, off hand, I can’t recall ever having one in Vegas.

And there is a LOT to be said for that.

4.  The People Watching is World Class

If you’ve read my blog about the subway, then you know I love people watching.  And Las Vegas takes the art of people watching to a whole new level.

In one morning stroll down Las Vegas Boulevard South (aka The Strip), you can easily encounter “working girls,” people still partying at 8:00 AM (sometimes WITH those “working girls”), Mabel and Irving from Middle America, their mouths agape as they walk along the sidewalk in their fanny packs, members of a bachelor or bachelorette party, businessmen in town for a convention (again, sometimes with those….you get the picture)…you name it, you’ll probably see it at some point during your visit.

And when you walk into one of those glittering casinos, you’ll be transported to a world where people watching could be an Olympic sport.  Glamorous couples dressed to the nines play slot machines next to down-and-out folks in rags, turning their pockets inside out in hopes of finding one more quarter.  Hefty ladies in polyester walk along the carpet next to punks with pink hair and leather jackets  It’s a veritable goldmine of diversity!

5.  The Gambling is Pretty Good, Too

Okay, some of you might be saying to yourselves, “well, okay, but does she actually do any gambling out there?” 

Yes.  Yes, she does.

Both my husband and I like to gamble.  We’re not “high rollers,” by any stretch of the imagination, but we do like to play.  I’ve been a Video Poker player for over 20 years, and Mike loves Blackjack, Roulette and Craps.

And, while we can drive a couple of hours to Connecticut to play, the games there just do not compare to what you can find in Vegas.  Without boring those of you who either already know a bit about the subject, or don’t care at all about the subject, one video poker machine is not necessarily the same as another.  They all have what is called a “pay schedule,” which can vary even from one machine to the one right next to it.  And some pay schedules are more player-friendly than others (in other words, one machine might be much easier to win money on that another).

The Holy Grail of video poker players is something called “9/6 Jacks.”  While this game is difficult, if not impossible, to find on the East Coast, it is somewhat easy to find in Vegas, if you know where to look.  I personally prefer a game called “Double Bonus.”  While I can find the not-so-profitable “9/6” and sometimes “9/7” versions of this particular game at my local gambling spots, the best version, “10/7,” is just not available.  I know exactly where to find it in Vegas, and I head downtown to play at Main Street Station at least once or twice every trip.  (All of this is very much just scraping the surface of the wonderful world of video poker.  This blog is not a gambling blog.  Just Google these terms if you are interested in learning more.  You’ll get hits galore.)

Likewise, Vegas is where Mike can find single or double deck Blackjack (in other words, the dealer uses one or two decks instead of the usual six or even more).  He can also find better craps games and better roulette games in Vegas.  (I don’t play any of these games, so I don’t pretend to be able to explain much about them.)

While we both came home “losers” on our recent trip, that is a fairly rare occurrence.  Generally at least one of us returns with a profit, albeit a small one.  And neither of us ever loses a lot of money. So, even though there are casinos everywhere these days, for the most part, there is still no comparison between them and the Vegas casinos, as far as “bang for your buck” goes.

And in Vegas, they are more than happy to reward you for your play.  Free rooms, free food, free shows, they are all there for the taking if you play enough.  (We don’t – but we know plenty of people who do.)

My Personal Nirvana

So there you have it, five pretty good, and pretty diverse, reasons to visit Vegas.  And I didn’t even get to the shows, some of which are amazing!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Here Are Five Good Reasons Why I Love Fictional Characters

I’m a big proponent of fiction.  Whether it’s a film, a television series, or especially a book, I strongly prefer fiction to reality.  After all, aren’t all of those mediums supposed to be escape mechanisms?

Just as I fall in love with songs, or get attached to cities, or novels, or bands, I also tend to become obsessed with the fictional characters I encounter in my reading or watching.  For the most part, they’re just so damn much more fascinating than so-called “real” people, plus, not only do they generally not have many faults (and the faults they do have are charming or interesting, of course), but they also don’t have a problem with your faults.  I mean, Dexter Morgan might have been a serial killer, but he never criticized my taste in music.  He never even noticed when I gained weight or dressed in sweats.

Of course, I have my favorite fictional characters.  If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to title this blog entry “Here Are Five Good Reasons Why I Love Fictional Characters,” now, would I?  Since I know you’re just dying to find out who they are, let’s get right to it.

1. Louis de Point du Lac

As I confessed in an earlier blog post, my favorite novel of all time is Anne Rice’s “Interview With the Vampire.”  Unlike the subsequent novels in the so-called “Vampire Chronicles,” the main character in the first one is not Lestat, but Louis. Louis is, to me, one of the most romantic and fascinating characters in literature.  A young man from a plantation family in the New Orleans of the 18th century, he is transformed into a vampire by Lestat, completely against his will and his wishes.  Throughout the novel and its successors, Louis struggles with his vampire nature, trying desperately to hold on to his humanity.  He rejects Lestat’s cold-hearted approach to killing and feeding.  In an act of desperation and loneliness, he makes an orphaned young girl into a vampire, and they form a sort of other-worldly father/daughter team, searching throughout Europe for others like them.  It is this dichotomy in Louis that I find so compelling.  In the later novels, he does more or less come to terms with his lot in life (or is it after-life?), but he never really loses his innocence or sense of wonder.

Brad Pitt, sorely miscast as Louis de Point du Lac

2. Connor MacLeod

If you’ve only watched the “Highlander” television series, and have never seen the original films, you probably have no real idea who or what Connor MacLeod is.  In the series, he is seen only in the premier episode, and far too briefly.  The Highlander in the TV show is Duncan MacLeod, played by Adrian Paul.  But the original Highlander was Connor (according to that premier episode, the two were clansmen in the 1500’s in Scotland).  Connor is an immortal, and, when he appears to be fatally wounded in battle in 1536, but then does not die, his family and the rest of the town believe him to be involved in witchcraft.  He ends up escaping them, and wanders the world for 400 years, settling at first in the Scottish highlands with the beautiful Heather, who he loves right up through her death of old age.  (As an immortal, he does not age…I never said this was particularly believable, now, did I?  And wasn’t the last character I cited a vampire?) 

Connor, like Louis before him, struggles with his immortality, sad to have to watch the woman he loves grow old and die while he remains young and healthy.  

Anyway, I think it was the love story between Connor and Heather that first touched me.  As a woman married to a younger man, I could in some weird way relate to watching as Heather aged and Connor did not.

It also didn’t hurt that the man playing Connor, a French actor named Christopher Lambert, was extremely handsome, with long curly hair (have you ever heard a French actor trying to play a Scotsman?’s…interesting).

There were something like four or five Highlander films.  The first one is by far the best, but they’re all pretty entertaining, in a sort of bad-acting/bad-writing way.

Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, with Heather

3.  Fox Mulder

By now it should be apparent that I like my fictional characters emotionally complex.  David Duchovny’s Fox Mulder, on the great 1990’s sci-fi television series “The X-Files,” is possibly the most fascinating and complicated of them all.  A believer in UFO’s and alien life, Mulder is teamed up with Dana Scully, a no-nonsense detective played by Gillian Anderson.  The relationship between the two is at the core of the series, and the chemistry between them is magical.

Mulder is extremely intelligent and well educated, but also has some rather offbeat hobbies, among them a serious interest in pornography.  (This is broadly hinted at in various ways over the course of the series.)  He is also sarcastic and smarmy, two things I generally find irresistible in characters.  

David Duchovny as Agent Fox Mulder

4.  Lucy Farinelli

 Lucy Farinelli makes her first appearance in Patricia Cornwell’s debut novel, “Postmortem,” which also introduces the Kay Scarpetta character.  Lucy is Kay’s niece, who she is helping raise due to her sister (Lucy’s mother) being irresponsible and just generally inept.  She’s only 10 years old in that first book, but still manages to make a deep and lasting impression.  She is brilliant, precocious and curious, and seems to have a knack for computers.  As the series progresses, she becomes an expert hacker and all-around computer whiz who, when things don’t quite work out with the FBI, develops a search engine that makes her a millionaire by age 25. She’s a Lesbian with a penchant for picking the wrong women, and also manages to get herself into all sorts of trouble with the FBI and other law enforcement sectors, due to her complete inability to deal with authority figures. (All of the books are highly entertaining, check them out!)

Oh, and did I mention she owns, and pilots, her own helicopter?

5.  Isabel Spellman

The Spellman clan is a family headed by an eccentric and entertaining couple who run a detective agency.  Their oldest daughter is Isabel, who spent her high school years stoned, and spends much of her young adulthood drunk.  She works as a private investigator at her parents’ firm, but usually ends up messing things up due to her drinking and her general disdain for authority.  She’s smart, funny, sarcastic, and completely insecure.  This makes for a truly interesting and hilarious character.  In the course of Lisa Lutz’s wonderful series of Spellman books (check it out here), Isabel falls in and out of love, is constantly at odds with her crazy younger sister, Rae, and her button-down older brother David, takes over the family business (but, predictably, has more than her fair share of trouble trying to run it), and just generally makes me laugh out loud.