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Thursday, August 29, 2013

9 Things to Know about Riding the Trans-Siberian

Cyrillic for Train Station 
For those of you who heard my segment this week on Around the World Radio (August 29 edition), here are nine more things to know about the train route that spans the breadth of Russia.

1. Most people think that there’s one train called the Trans-Siberian Express running along a lengthy railroad between Russia’s eastern port of Vladivostok and Moscow. But contrary to popular belief, there is no such train. The Trans-Siberian is actually made up of a network of domestic and international trains crisscrossing countries and borders. Yes, a Trans-Siberian journey can start in Vladivostok. But it can also start in Beijing or Ulan Bator. These itineraries, sometimes dubbed Trans-Mongolian routes, follow Trans-Siberian track once they hit Russian territory.

Lenin's Giant Head in Ulan-Ude
2. You can opt to rub shoulders with the locals on Russian train or you can travel in a private train. The latter is certainly the easier and more comfortable way to go. But it is also the more expensive option.

3. The Golden Eagle runs the classic 5,772-mile route between Vladivostok and Moscow. In 2014, The Golden Eagle 15-day trek across Siberia starts at $15,495 per person double occupancy in Silver Class to $29,995 for top-of-the-line Imperial Suites.  All compartments have bathrooms en suite.  

Tsar's Gold by Lake Baikal
4. The 15-day Zarengold or Tsar’s Gold, running between Beijing and Moscow, is less expensive, mainly because it provides a larger selection of compartment types. 2014 prices start at $9200 per person for a Classic compartment (which share toilet and shower facilities). For a compartment with private bath, prices start at $15,820 in Bolshoi and go up to $19,520 per person in Bolshoi Plus.

5. Don't forget to obtain a visa before you hit the road...or the track. Americans need visas for travel in both Russia and China.

6. I recommend traveling East to West. That way, you end up getting more sleep and more daylight along the way, as you go back in time across nine time zones.

It may look cold, but I'm quite comfortable in
Kazan wearing long shorts in May.
7. Load your iPad with lengthy tomes good books and epic movies. Good Russian reads include Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier, The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn , and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (although you may want to skip the ending, where Anna tosses herself under a train). Appropriate flicks include Dr. Zhivago and the lesser-known Transsiberian, starring Woody Harrelson. Cheers.

8. Most Trans-Siberian private trains run between May and early October. Be forewarned: Siberia can be surprisingly hot. Leave your parkas and your mukluks behind.

9. Tsar’s Gold trips can be booked directly through Lernidee at www.lernidee,com; through MIR at www.mircorp.com, or via Smithsonian Journeys www.smithsonianjourneys.org. More information on Vladivostok to Moscow trips can be found at www.goldeneagleluxurytrains.com.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

9 Things to Know About the Inn at 202 Dover

Photo courtesy of MDInns.com
Even though the Inn at 202 Dover in Easton, Maryland looks rather formidable from the outside, on the interior, the place is nothing but homey and cozy. The warm atmosphere is largely due to the presence of owners Ron and Shelby Mitchell. along with all of the quirky touches dotting the mansion. And, of course, there are the bathtubs. But more on those later.

Here are 9 things to know...and love...about the Inn at 202 Dover. Sorry if I cannot curb my enthusiasm.*

1. Our story starts in 2005, when a Brooklyn-born couple, escapees from the worlds of DC law and advertising, buys a bed and breakfast. Mad Man Ron espies a sagging dowager, circa 1874, fading away at 202 Dover Street in Easton. He immediately calls his Legal Eagle wife. She sees it. They buy it. They do a serious nip/tuck. Two million-plus dollars and a little more than a year later, the former boarding house is transformed into a luxury inn, the only AAA Four-Diamond inn/restaurant combo in the state of Maryland.

2. The five rooms are designed by geographic themes. There is a Safari Suite, an Asian Suite, a French Suite, an English Suite, and a more petite Victorian Room. I stayed in the English Suite, the largest of the bunch. But upon examining the details in all of the rooms, I wish I had opted to take the Safari. Check out this sink and towel stand. Ladies, if you are on the hunt for a B and B that doesn't make your manly-man squirm, go all Dr. Livingstone on him and presume to book this room. Your stay will be goodall around.

3. Of course, not all couples are he-and-she. The Inn at 202 Dover is gay-friendly and even hosts gay (and straight) weddings.

4. Normally, when you visit a bed and breakfast, the interior design is 50 Shades of Tacky. You know what I mean---cats, stuffed Teddy Bears, ghastly trinkets, lots of lace and the like. The Inn at 202 Dover spares us from such horrors.The thought and attention paid to every detail is extraordinary. The public area of the inn could be a museum, filled with tasteful, yet playful items. There is a whimsical collection of shadowboxes; a set of pewter Revolutionary War action figures; and various other menageries. Some of the furniture, like this cello chair, is also quite entertaining.

5. Speaking of detail, check this out. As every room has its own theme, every bathroom has a unique bar of  bath soap. Soap in the Asian Suite has hints of exotic spices, while the Safari Suite serves up a hefty Shea butter block. Lathering up in the French and English Suites will leave you smelling like a rose.

6. The shower and the bath in each room require one page of instructions per plumbing fixture. The showers have a steamer option, which I didn't attempt. But the air-jet bath, complete with bubbles on steroids and chromotherapy, was well worth wading through the wealth of words to decipher. My only beef with the massive vat--no head pillow.

Asian Suite Bed

7. Ahhh, the bed...and breakfast. So comfy,so yummy, respectively. The mattresses, like butter. Plus, the linens smell so good that you are tempted to lick them. But instead of yielding to that temptation, wait for breakfast to exercise your taste buds. You'll indulge in a gourmet homemade breakfast crafted by Ron and one of the best cups of coffee ever.

8. For more gourmet cuisine, book a table for dinner. Douglas Potts is the chef of the Inn's spectacular Peacock Restaurant and Lounge.

*9. I would be remiss not to mention that Ron Mitchell is the doppelganger of one Larry David. Although this picture does not do the likeness justice, let it be said that he could be Larry David's stunt double. He looks like Larry David. He sounds like Larry David. He's quirky like Larry David. However, he does not share Larry David's recalcitrant demeanor. Instead, he's buoyant and effervescent, which are far better qualities for an innkeeper. Meanwhile, wife Shelby is lovely in all ways, and coincidentally reminiscent of a slightly-older Cheryl Hines.

I could write up nine more things to know and love about this inn, but instead, let me steer you to the independent reviews of the place over at TripAdvisor  (average rating--5 out of 5 stars).

The Inn at 202 Dover (866-450-7600) is just 59 miles from Baltimore, 73 miles from Washington, DC and 215 miles from New York City. Rack rates for suites run between $450-$500. The Victorian Room starts at $289. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Manic Punday: A Night at the Improv II--The Video

For those hankering to see my stand-up performance, here it is on YouTube.

Enjoy and let me know what you think in the comments section.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

9 Things to Know about St. Michaels, Maryland

1. It has nice scenery.

Celebrating St. Michaels Day 
2. Locals take history seriously. But, as seen below, they aren't too uptight about it.

3. Dog-friendly doesn't even begin to describe the scene. The dogs are so happy here, they never bark. If you hear a dog vocalizing, he's likely a visitor.

4. The people are friendly, too. How friendly are they? They even cheer the lady who scoops up horse manure as a parade goes by.
Oxford-Belluvue Ferry

5. Old-time ice cream parlors, ferry boats and skipjack rides are throwbacks to simpler times.

6. Police don't give out tickets for parking illegally on a festival day.

7.  The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum is a treasure trove of see-worthy history.

8. Charming neighboring communities of Easton and Oxford are easy to access by car, bicycle, or boat.

Crab at the Peacock Restaurant at
the Inn at 202 Dover
9.  Crab.

For more information on St. Michaels and its surroundings, visit www.tourtalbot.org.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Hot New Travel Accessories for Summer Travel

I will be discussing these products and others this Thursday at 11:15 AM on Let's Talk Live on NewsChannel 8/WJLA in Washington, DC. Tune in.

Keeping dry is the name of the travel accessory game this summer. Wet bags, designed with thick waterproof lining and sealed seams for on-to-go storage of your soaked stuff, are all the rage these days. Colorful fabrics make them both functional and fashionable.

Wilma the Whale is just one of the Roll Down Wet Bag designs offered by Planet Wise. With a quick zip, roll and a snap, Wilma and her sisters securely store clammy gear, with no worries of moisture leaking through. Made in the USA, they come in medium ($18.50) and large ($22.50) sizes. www.planetwiseuinc.com

Travel Happens, by Itzy Ritzy, is another wet bag line with razzle-dazzle designs.The bags are machine washable and eco-friendly. They retail for $17.95 and $21.95, depending on the size. The company also makes Snack Happens Reusable Snack & Everything Bags, perfect for storing drippy sandwiches, juicy fruit, and even toiletries. The 7 x 7 inch pouches sells for $9.99. www.itzyritzy.com

New AirQuart bags are strictly designed to get your liquids through airport security in a stylish fashion. The 9 1/2 x 7 inch transparent case is lined with a trendy trim and topped with an integrated zipper and wrist strap. The gusseted bottom expands for even more space. www.Flanabags.com
On the other hand, sometimes, you just need to let off a little steam when traveling, particularly if your clothing is wrinkled. The Joy Mangano 900-Watt My Little Steamer and Go Mini Set ($49.95) lets you pump out the steam needed to get creases out of linens and cottons. No more relying on old hotel irons, which might leave a black stain on your white duds. www.hsn.com

Doing downward dog is another great way to blow off steam. If the lotus position and the locust are part of your daily repertoire, Manduka has a yoga mat that is perfect for traveling. The eKO SuperLite Mat ($40) weighs in at two pounds and can easily be folded to fit into carry-on luggage.

If you are of the age where reading glasses are a must, how about the specs on tony eye wear that's also comfortable nose wear? Scojo's Gels Collection, made with a lightweight flexible plastic, has designs for both men and women ($42.00-$48.00). www.scojo.com

Monday, August 12, 2013

Manic Punday or A Night at The Improv

I made my stand-up debut at The Improv in Washington, DC last week. Here's an excerpt from the routine, minus the ad libs. Video will be posted within a week.

There are two things you should know about me. One, I’m a travel writer and two, I have a pun fetish. I will consider this night a raging success even if I don’t get a single laugh....as long as I hear a lot of moaning and groaning. I love getting moans and groans while indulging fetishes.

Actually, last year, these two things came together when I did a story on the National Pun Festival in Austin. As part of the deal, I performed a two-minute riff complete puns about Russia and the Soviet Union. I PUTIN a good enough routine to finish Top 10. But my performance needed work. So, I decided to go to comedy school.

Anyway, people are fascinated by the fact that I am a travel writer. Everyone thinks I lead such a glamorous life....that I jet set around the world with a man in every port and a personal porter to carry my Louis Vuitton luggage. And sometimes, I do live the lifestyle of the rich and famous. But the fact is I am poor and unknown, and you’ll usually find me schlepping my own bags.

But the stereotype persists. And I blame those middle-aged white women who write those memoirs--you know the formula-- woman has a mid-life crisis, she throws caution to the wind and heads abroad. She goes eating, loving and preying on unsuspecting men around the world. She goes to Italy and buys a house under the Tuscan sun. And it goes without fail that a hunky man with washboard abs is involved, they live happily ever after, the end.

My stories don’t work that way, people. I go to Italy--my book title is Under the Tuscan Sunstroke.
I could write 50 Shades of Earl Grey, but that would be ..
a tease.
The chronicle of my travels to the developing world would inevitably be dubbed Bridget Jones' Diarrhea. Yeah, I think that would be pretty explosive.

But I won’t run on about that.
The point is, everyone says I should write a book. But my adventures really don’t have a common theme. It would be great if I were one of those women who have sex around the world.
Then, I could dub my book, The Vagina Travelogues. But I won’t beat around the bush. When it comes to what’s going on down here, I just don’t have loose lips.

Then there are those intrepid travel writers who climb Kilimanjaro or trek across Antarctica. That's not my thing. I mean, if I were to write a book about my exploits, it would have to called Adventure Travel for Weenies.
That said, I am not a total wimp. I traveled the world alone. I ridden horses in Montana; elephants in Thailand and camels in the Outback of Australia. I guess you can say I’ve experienced camel tow down under. One more--due to the heat, my camel and I had to stop for a Blizzard at the Dromedary Queen.

Maybe instead of writing a book, I should put together a mix tape of my travels.
This is the part where I do an audience sing-along. Fortunately, the audience came through.
Then I do a few more Russian puns and it's "thank you and good nyet."


Monday, August 5, 2013

Manic Punday: Travel Au Naturel

What nationality is most likely to be naked on a beach? Expedia’s Flip Flop Report provides the naked truth. Germans top the list. Given my experiences at naked German spas, this comes as no surprise to me.

The Flip Flop Report resulted from a poll of 8,000 beach-goers worldwide. While topics ranged from safety concerns to favorite beach activity, I was most interested in the skinny on skinny dipping. The general findings--Europeans are most likely to bare it all, while Americans and Asians are more modest. In studying the results, it does seem that this "worldwide" poll skips South America. If that's the case, the omission of Brazilians may leave the results out of wax.

Archive Photo from the 1970s
 DDR Museum, Berlin
Nonetheless, let's dive into the numbers. Germans are the most brazen when it comes to baring it all.. Nearly one-fifth of all Germans polled report having gone Full Monty on the beach. While nearly half of the Americans surveyed say they feel either comfortable or neutral about beach nudity, the fact is, in real life, they are prudes. Only five percent of American beach-goers report letting it all hang out while hanging five or indulging in other water play. Meanwhile, only eight percent have ever sunbathed topless.
And who is most likely to go topless? Although the survey doesn’t make this clear, I assume this question was asked only of females. The survey says 40% of Danes are happy to go without tops or Danish pasties.  One-third of Italian women feel comfortable saying “arrivederci” to their bra*, while 31% of Norwegian women are happy to titillate.

While 73% of French beach-goers report being somewhat or very comfortable with topless beaches, they are among the least likely Europeans to go au naturel. Forty-two percent say they would never go out without a maillot or Speedo.

Ah, the Speedo. Let me be brief  No, no and NO. But 65% of those polled disagree with me. The French are most approving, with nine out of 10 saying oui oui to the wee wee frock. Italians are equally meatballs about the saucy suits**. Among those most disapproving of the Speedo (aside from me) are the Japanese and the Norwegians. According to the poll, American beach-goers are 50-50 when it comes to considering Speedos acceptable beachwear. However, I would deign to say that the pool of actual Speedos wearers in the U.S. of A. contains but a single digit..

*Explanation of double d'entendre: Bra is also a town in Italy, best known as the home of the Slow Food Movement.

**Baggy swim trunks are banned in French public pools as a matter of hygiene. According to a head pool attendant from Paris's 11th arrondissement,. only small, tight trunks (read Speedos) can be worn for swimming. The theory is that loose swimming shorts can collect sand, dust or beg bugs, all of which have the potential to disturb the water quality..