Is Airbnb for me?
I love to travel. When I do travel, I love to live like a local. I want to eat where the locals eat. I want to take buses and subways and ride bikes. I want to find a dive bar or a hidden gem bar that isn’t on TripAdvisor or another guidebook. I don’t (necessarily) want to be viewing a city from a multi-room suite, high above the residents of that city. Don’t get me wrong, I do love a beautiful suite upgrade, but if I’m trying to experience a city like a local, why don’t I live like a local?
I’ve never once stayed at an Airbnb. To be more clear, I’ve never stayed at any sort of short term rental arrangement like Airbnb, VBRO, FlipKey, Wimdu or any other the others out there. I have no problem with other aspects of our “share-economy” – I use Uber/Lyft all the time. I can’t even remember the last time I took a traditional taxi someplace. I just have never pulled the trigger on an Airbnb.
I have dozens of friends who’ve stayed under these arrangements before. They swear by them too. I can’t quite put my finger on why I’ve shied away. Maybe it’s be cause I like daily maid service when I travel. Perhaps I like the idea of a full service bar/restaurant in a hotel (even though, I rarely dine at the hotel in which I stay). Perchance I have an unhealthy fear that someone will come into this property and rob/murder me.
Well, all this is about to change. I have to go back to Oregon this weekend – I’ll be in a small town that does have a couple of hotel options, but they didn’t appeal to me. A couple were in the Super 8 class of accommodations, plus those were out of town, more on the highway. I want someplace where I can walk to grab a bite to eat or drink, if the mood strikes me. You know how much I loathe driving. One option required me to share a bathroom with an adjoining room – it’s a great hotel and I love the concept (a rehabbed turn of the century hotel in a historic downtown setting), but I am not going to fight a neighbor for a shower or a toilet — and I am sure as hell not going to walk down the hall to use the toilet…and wait in line for the privilege to do so. One final option, was to stay at a loft hotel, one where I’ve stayed before – but the rates were nearly $300 per night. Which is utterly nuts, if you ask me.
That left me with an Airbnb option. Friends that I’m meeting this weekend are also staying at another Airbnb – and they stay in them all the time. So I downloaded the app, created a profile and booked a room. The rate was almost a third of the hotel costs. It’s right where I want to be. It has good reviews and appears to fit my needs.
It’s just one night – how bad could it be?
Am I nuts for not trying Airbnb before? What advice do you have for a newbie? What are your Airbnb horror stories?
Travel and the NRA
National membership organizations help like-minded people come together, communicate, meet up and push the political agenda. I’m sure many readers belong to one or more of these type of organizations. AARP, ABA, NAACP and the NRA are just a few that come to mind. While these organizations have their own distinct agendas, they all offer some additional perks for members – including discounted hotels, airfare and rental cars. If you travel enough, sometimes these discounts can save you more than the cost of the membership itself.
Often times these discounts are really nothing – I’ve checked dozens of times to see about getting a meaningful discount with these memberships and I’d say the only one that ever gets me anywhere is AAA and their better than average rate and cancellation flexibility with Starwood.
I’ve always wondered how much vetting goes into these partnerships. I figured as long as you met a couple of basic rules (non-profit, legally organized organization, etc) you could get a special code and discount. The amount of traffic you drive to these airlines, hotels and rental companies would likely impact the amount of discount you were offered, but I figured it ended there. It was a win-win for the travel provider and the membership organization.
After the mass-shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, we are seeing more and more organizations turning their backs on one membership organization in particular. The rental car companies were the first to go. Yesterday Alamo, Avis, Enterprise, Hertz and National have all ended their relationships with the NRA.
Earlier today both Delta and United announced on Twitter that they were cutting ties with the NRA as well. Kudos to them. Kudos to all of them.
Just because it is the largest membership organization in the United States doesn’t mean you have to play ball. If their beliefs are no longer in line with yours, then cut them out of your life. Will this hurt these travel providers? Some people may actively choose not to rent of fly with these guys again, but most travelers, especially when it comes to rental cars are more price sensitive. They aren’t going to pay more money to rent with an organization that never had ties to the NRA in a way to punish the ones who use to.
Air travel is the same thing – people want to travel from a close airport, to their destination and pay as little as possible. Yes, there are some people who will get pissed that they can’t get their discount on Delta any more, but those people likely weren’t flying Delta because of the partnership.
I don’t think this will materially impact any of these companies’ bottom lines, but the message is clear – We do not agree with your politics and we aren’t going to continue to provide support to your message.
Thank you, Alamo, Avis, Delta Enterprise, Hertz, National and United for taking a leadership role. If you want change you have to make change.
How will these partnership changes alter your travel plans and preferences?
Next: French: Cuisine Classique
Next, in Chicago, is one of my favorite fine dining restaurants in the world, is part of the Alinea Group. Foodies the world over know Chef Grant Achatz of Alinea, but I dig the work of chef Jenner Tomaska – trying the new menus at Next is one of my culinary highlights each year. Historically, we have been pretty lucky when it comes to tickets for dinner at Next. For the most recent menus, we’ve just gone online and found a Friday or Saturday night reservation (at a reasonable time – 20h00-21h15 usually…we never do the 17h15 reservations) for later that same week. I’m not confident that our luck will continue to hold out, but so far so good.
We snagged tickets for 20h15 on Friday night. I ended up working until about 19h30 and then just walked over to the restaurant, which for me took about 30 minutes. After a couple minutes of chatting with the team at the front door, checking our coats and briefcases, we were escorted to our table, a booth towards the back of the restaurant – actually the same booth we sat in during our first meal experience at Next. I prefer this seat to any others we’ve had before – you don’t feel crowded and the benches are much more comfortable than the banquette and chairs at the other tables.
Our table was already set with a water glass, napkin and caviar spoon for each of us plus a large sculpted ice sculpture of two fish surrounding a corked cantaloupe. Our first course was waiting for us – as has been the practice for the past couple of menus we’ve enjoyed.
As we get settled (washing hands, blowing noses – it is winter in Chicago after all), a server provided both still and sparkling water and immediately another server welcomes us – he ended up taking care of us most of the night. He started off by talking a bit about the menu (which remained a secret throughout the night, until the course was delivered to our table). This menu focuses on classic French cuisine and techniques – from the 16th-18th Centuries. The second menu of 2018 will focus on more modern French cooking, can’t wait!
The ice sculptures were keeping the first proper course well chilled. The cantaloupe was a wonderfully refreshing aperitif – with cantaloupe and a French wine. We’ll be stealing this drink idea once the weather warms up. We loved it.
The next seven courses were perfectly timed. We’ve had a couple experiences at Next (and other fine dining restaurants) where you can feel rushed or worse, you are sitting around just wondering if the next course is on its way…or if you are done for the evening). As with my previous posts about Next (and others), I’ll spare you the course by course critique and just share with you the photos and then provide further details after.
As I said, we sat down to eat at 20h15 and we were walking about the door at 22h30, while it wasn’t a quick in and out, it was far from the longest meal we’ve eaten at Next. Most of the courses came with a few descriptive sentences not only about the meal, but a bit about the time period and why this dish was specifically selected to be part of this Classique menu.
There wasn’t a single course that I didn’t care for, but that being said, I would say my least favorite was the first dessert, the Ile Flottante. The flavor was just fine and the spun sugar reminded me of razor wire atop a fence.
My favorite course was the Turbot, which surprised me. The crispness on top and the buttery tenderness of the fish paired perfectly with the octopus, mussels and veg that surrounded the delightful fish. I was so surprised by the Timbale too. This was a mushroom filled shell of cooked bucatini pasta. The bucatini was wound tightly making a nearly impermeable shell, which was a little gummy, but since it wasn’t served as a proper pasta, it worked. The lobster course was the most beautifully plated, with a lovely mirrored platter. The trout roe with the asparagus was a bite that I needed more of too.
There were two optional courses you could add on to the basic menu, each cost an additional $150. We chose the sole and absolutely loved it (wasn’t as good as the Turbot though). Another option was squab en croute. The pan that cooked the bird was topped with a very salty dough designed to seal in all the moisture as it cooks. Every service we saw during our meal opted for one or both of the add-ons. The table next to us indicated the sole was the better of the two options.
None of the wines we had really knocked our socks off. We usually take just the standard wine pairings and while we do truly enjoy wine, we aren’t too keen on adding an additional expense to the dinner.
Have you experienced French: Cuisine Classique at Next? Do you plan on enjoying the Moderne menu starting this spring? What has been your favorite menu at Next? What is your favorite fine dining restaurant in the world?
Dining at Gustu (La Paz)
There were two critical things that were high on my to-do list for Bolivia. The first was to ride the World’s Most Dangerous Road on mountain bikes and the second was to dine at Gustu, arguably the best restaurant in La Paz.
Gustu opened in 2012 and is founded on the philosophy that food can help change the world. It isn’t just a great restaurant but it is also a cooking school with most of the students coming from under privileged areas of Bolivia. The head chef, Kamilla Seidler, is originally from Copenhagen, and moved to La Paz to work with Claus Meyer on his innovative project to improve the world through food education and training. She was recently named Best Female Chef by Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants.
We hadn’t eaten much by the time we arrived at Gustu. The high altitude and low oxygen levels were wreaking havoc with our bodies. The altitude sickness medicine really wasn’t helpful for us – or if it was, I’d hate to see how bad it would be without the meds! I wasn’t really hungry, but I hadn’t eaten but a few bites for a couple days now. We forced ourselves up and out – we weren’t going to miss out on this great opportunity. I really just wanted to sit in bed and count the minutes until we left La Paz and returned to sea-level Lima.
The interior of the restaurant reminded me of many other restaurant spaces we’ve visited. Not all that avant garde or exciting, but it was indeed a change from where we’d been dining up to this point.
We were the only ones in the restaurant when we arrived for our 19h00 reservations and by the time we left at 21h00 there were only three tables occupied. Perhaps it was a slow night, or a people were just choosing to dine really late.
We were given several menus, including the drink list, an appetizer listing and one for the main meal. We knew that we’d be doing the tasting menu – which would allow us to experience the best the restaurant had to offer. Unlike most tasting menus we enjoy, we chose not to add on the wine / cocktails pairing. I wasn’t at all sure that my system could handle all the food and booze. I opted for the non-alcoholic pairing.
Once we made our high level menu selection, the restaurant kicked into gear. It sure wasn’t like it was an autopilot, but everything moved so perfect and smooth. The servers didn’t do a great job of properly explaining each course – mostly a function of a language barrier. My Spanish skills are limited as was our server’s English. At a couple points, our main server didn’t deliver the course, and her replacement server seemed very nervous and unsure of himself. Our server stayed back near the kitchen and watched him deliver and provide service. It was clear she was observing and coaching his service – it would have been nice if she had ensured all the details were relayed to us.
Our meal was very good. We were happy to have flavorful food in our bellies. The tomatoes were by far my favorite course. Tomatoes are my favorite fruit, in general, but these were remarkably flavorful and left me wanting much more.
Gustu was a really great experience not only for the food, but to support such an amazing mission. Helping people pull themselves out of poverty by offering a proper training program and support so they can thrive in the restaurant industry is truly a noble cause. Several of this program’s alumni have moved on and started their own restaurants in and around La Paz. Such a great program.
Have you eaten at Gustu? What was your favorite course? Did you struggle with the lack of oxygen like we did too?
Thoughts on La Paz
La Paz was never on my short list of vacation destinations. For this trip, it made sense. I did a lot less research on this city than I should have. The altitude and pollution impacted me more than I thought they would. I struggled with catching my breath after walking just a few hundred meters. For a good portion of my time in La Paz I just wanted to leave. That being said, I wasn’t a complete sad sack the whole time. For the little bit of time that we weren’t sick, we did enjoy ourselves.
After we checked into our hotel, we wandered around and visited the Iglesia de San Francisco and walked over to the Plaza Murillo which is home to the Presidential Palace. The Plaza was surprisingly busy with so many people playing with and feeding the pigeons.
We were hungry but found most places were closed on Sunday. We did stumble across a little cafe just a few blocks from our hotel which was owned and operated by a well traveled Bolivian man. He had even worked in world glass restaurants in the US with chefs like Grant Achatz of Alinea and Next fame.
This small coffee shop had a great Cuban sandwich and reasonably priced beers, and was housed in a beautiful building. We spent a couple hours chatting with the owner – great conversations about travel, food, politics and corruption (both US and other countries). After our time here, I was very excited to see other parts of La Paz and meet other Bolivians.
The next day Mike was feeling under the weather, so we took it slow and joined a cable car tour. La Paz is built in the bowl, so public transit can be a bit difficult – you can’t really build subways like you would in a flatter city, or even a hilly city, the logistics are reversed. The buses must traverse very steep inclines with limited oxygen too. The city decided to build an aerial cable car system, called Mi Teleférico, that connects La Paz with El Alto and various points in between. We stumbled across this tour company as we were checking out Calle Jaen.
Calle Jaen is worth a visit as it is a beautiful old cobblestone Street surrounded by brightly colored buildings. These buildings are home to museums, art galleries and a tour shop.
The tour we took was lead by a woman who was of Spanish decent, but her family had been in La Paz for hundreds of years. She studied in the US and her English was perfect. Our tour had four other people on it, all members of the same family.
The tour connected all three cable car lines, but also required us to take the small local mini buses as well. The views were amazing and our guide was quite knowledgeable about current political events as well as the long and storied history of Bolivia.
One story that was brought up many times as we wandered through Bolivia was the unfortunate fact that Bolivia is now a land locked country. Bolivia use to have a coastline, but lost it in the late 1800s in a war with both Chile and Peru. The Bolivian government was pushing international courts to return the captured land back to them. The Bolivians that we talked to were all confident that their request filed in International Court would be successful. The Peruvians we spoke with were equally confident that Bolivia would NOT be successful.
You will see we didn’t do a lot while in La Paz, we were sidelined by the altitude. We knew we needed to be out and active when we were feeling up to it, so we tried to hit it hard when we could. Our stomachs were in awful shape. We spent so much time just in our hotel.
Is La Paz on your short list? What would you recommend to others who plan on visiting? Biking the World’s Deadliest Road is high on my recommendation list, plus dining at Gustu (read about that soon). What did we miss out on?