Pendry Hotel, San Diego

It wasn't that long ago on our travels when people learned we lived in San Diego we'd get responses like, "Oh, that's near Mexico, isn't it?" or "We've been to LA. Is San Diego near there?" But in the last few years, people that we've met around the world now know exactly where San Diego is because they've visited - and they loved it! It seems hotel developers have gotten the message too and the city is in the midst of a hotel boom. San Diego's downtown already has its share of good convention and family hotels but could definitely use more properties in the luxury, boutique or cool-factor categories. The Pendry Hotel hits the mark in all three categories as we found out when we stopped by for lunch after attending the San Diego Travel and Adventure Show last weekend. The 12-story hotel has an ideal location in the Gaslamp Quarter on the corner of 5th Avenue and J Street and is just a short walk to the San Diego Convention Center and Petco Park.

Pendry is an offshoot of the luxe brand, Montage Hotels and Resorts, a management company which oversees such distinctive properties as Montage Laguna Beach, Montage Beverly Hills, Montage Deer Valley and Montage Kapalua Bay. Pendry is the company's second brand which skews to a younger clientele with its edgier design and personality. A second Pendry hotel, in Baltimore, is slated to open this month and there is a third in the works for West Hollywood. I can't ever remember a time when San Diego got a cool hotel before L.A. did.

The tenet of the Pendry brand as it states on its website is simple luxury, clean design, well-crafted restaurant experiences, vibrant bars with a perfect balance of polished comfort and modern edge and a taste for rebellion. It was all on display as we were lucky enough to get a peek inside after we introduced ourselves as local travel agents to the concierge in the lobby. Ryan offered to show us a couple of the hotel's 317 guest rooms and invited us to take a look at the rooftop pool deck and spa before heading off for our lunch at the hotel's Provisional Restaurant.

The lobby reminded me of a grand train station from the Art Deco era with its wood paneled ceiling, curved polished lobby desk, tufted velvet settee, mosaic-tiled floors and wrought iron and brass accents on furniture and lighting fixtures. The lobby was bright and airy with large windows, lush plants and an inviting sitting area with a fireplace situated beneath a giant birdcage pendant light.

We rode the elevator to the second floor where Ryan showed us a Premier Room with large windows and modern furnishings in soothing ocean-inspired colors. The king bed was dressed in luxury linens and the nightstand held a Bluetooth-enabled Nixon speaker for streaming music. The only separation between the bed and bath was the floor-to-ceiling glass shower enclosure which could be concealed with a curtain. I thought it was odd but after pondering for a moment I realized this feature speaks to Pendry's slightly rebellious character and I think its young, edgy clientele would likely embrace the concept. The bathroom had luxurious touches like a marble vanity, chic Waterworks accessories and custom amenities from the east coast parfumerie MiN New York.

On the third floor, Ryan showed us one of the Deluxe Suites which featured a separate living room with wet bar and floor to ceiling windows offering views of the city skyline. The luxury bathroom included a dual marble vanity, MiN New York bath products and a dual-head, walk-in shower.

We passed through the spa on our way to the rooftop deck and Pool House lounge which overlooks the Gaslamp Quarter's bustling 5th Avenue and city views beyond. The Pendry's penchant for simple luxury and clean lines are evident on the deck. The poolside lounges and cabanas are decorated with classic striped cushions, pillows and light, billowy drapery. There is also a 1,082 sq.-foot Cabana Pool Suite with full kitchen, dining room and entertainment area that opens up directly to the pool deck. The bedroom has 180-degree views of the Gaslamp Quarter.

We didn't get to see Lionfish, the hotel's fine dining restaurant specializing in seafood and prime cuts or the Oxford Social Club, a cocktail lounge open Thurs. - Sat. from 10pm-2am. We checked out some of the special event spaces, looked in on Nason's Beer Hall (which wasn't open at the time) and Fifth & Rose, the elegant and chic bar just off the lobby. I was really impressed each space had its own personality but blended well together. The design team did a great job bringing together classic elegance, industrial detailing and modern flare throughout the property. 

We bid farewell to Ryan and went to have lunch at Provisional, the all-day dining option in the hotel. It's a restaurant-marketplace with dining room and bistro seating or carry-out options from the coffee/pastry bar or gelato counter. We ordered light lunch from the Cafe Menu and added two beers from the nice selection of bottled craft beers. The staff was amazingly attentive (and because we live in San Diego we can attest that some wait staffs tend to be a little too laid back) and saw to our every need. We asked our waitress if Provisional had been busy since opening and she said lunch was their busiest time as it draws a good local business crowd and many residents from the numerous nearby condos. We shared a gelato and our waitress gave us two samples of coffee from the elaborate cold-brewing contraption on the counter. We had inquired about it while we were having our lunch and she just thought we'd like to try it. Nice!

I know new hotels can have service issues when they first open but every employee we encountered was exceptional, poised and exceedingly helpful. We had just stopped in to check out the hotel and have lunch but ended up getting a tour and were treated as if we were guests. Obviously, we didn't stay at the hotel but will definitely come back to try the other restaurants and have cocktails before a show, concert or ballgame at nearby Petco Park. If the Pendry staff is this nice to "drop in" visitors I can only imagine how well it takes care of its guests. 

Windstar Cruise - Costa Rica & Panama Canal

Two years ago we cruised with Windstar on the Star Breeze from Barcelona to Lisbon and fell in love with sailing the seas on this small luxury ship. So, when we found out the Star Breeze would be cruising Costa Rica and the Panama Canal we knew it would be an ideal ship to transit the Canal. The Star Breeze is just one of three power yachts in the Windstar fleet which the cruise line purchased from Seabourn back in 2013. The Star Pride, Star Legend and Star Breeze all underwent $8.5-million makeovers to enhance their all-suite accommodations, public spaces and dining rooms to create luxury cruising experiences for its guests.

Once aboard the Star Breeze, it was easy to settle in to the yachting lifestyle again. Thankfully for us, there were no formal nights or set times for dinner. (There is a dining room dress code though.) We liked having the breakfast options of the hearty buffet or smaller offerings of granola parfaits and smoothies found in the Yacht Club each morning. The casual, outdoor Star Bar was a great gathering spot for a drink before dinner and to enjoy the onboard entertainers - two different duos who performed nightly. On the second day we were on a first-name basis with crew and other guests and felt comfortable strolling to the ship's bridge to chat with the Officer of the Watch, who was always generous with information about the navigation system or questions we had. You really start to feel like you're on your own yacht!

With only 212 guests, the power yacht experience feels intimate and authentic. On our Panama Canal cruise we experienced the magnitude of the man-made interoceanic waterway but also felt fully immersed in the nature that surrounded us. At each port, the Star Breeze dropped anchor near small marinas or in picturesque bays where we were the only cruise ship and sometimes the only ship. Sporty inflatable Zodiacs, not smelly, lumbering lifeboats, were used to transport guests from ship to shore and back.

The service is extremely personal at every level and the food was very good. Windstar played to its strengths by hosting an elaborate dinner BBQ one night on its outdoor decks and showcased the talents of its predominantly Indonesian galley team with a buffet lunch of authentic Indian cuisine one afternoon.

I hope you enjoy the trip recap below and please feel free to contact us if you have specific questions about cruising with Windstar or any other cruise line. We've sailed on the Wind Surf and the Star Breeze twice. And if you would like assistance in planning your vacation we are a full-service travel agency and would welcome the chance to work with you. Please click here to contact Putnam Travels or to read more about us. 

For more information on Windstar Cruises click here.

Disclaimer: As a travel agent, Larry received a reduced rate for this cruise but there was no compensation provided in exchange for editorial coverage. All opinions expressed are our own and all content on Putnam Travels Blog is for informational purposes only. We are not liable for any errors or omissions in this information and accept no responsibility for any damages or losses arising in connection with the use of this website. Links directing to third-party websites are for informational purposes only and serve as a resource to the reader. We do not accept responsibility for the content of these sites or liability from use of them. 


Feb. 11, 2017  Embarkation: Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica

We hired our own driver to pick us up at our hotel in San Jose and take us to Puerto Caldero where we boarded the ship. We were traveling with a group of six so we opted to hire private shuttles and schedule some private tours throughout the cruise so we could customize our excursions and have our own transportation.

It only took about 20 minutes from the time we stepped off our shuttle until we inserted our newly-minted keycard into the door of our spacious cabin and began to unpack while we sipped our welcome-aboard mimosas. With only 212 passengers, the boarding process is so fast and easy - no lines - just a quick check through security and you're aboard.

Our suite was a spacious 277 square-feet including a sitting area, desk, bar, flat-screen TV, walk-in closet and large bathroom with combo tub-shower and a generous supply of bath amenities from luxury label L'Occitane. The bed and comforter were dressed in Egyptian cotton linens and robes slippers were provided.

The public spaces are designed for intimate conversations or for groups who want to sit together. It's so easy to meet people on a small ship and by the second day we recognized everyone. Photos: Clockwise from top left - The Yacht Club; Star Bar; Compass Lounge, AmphorA Restaurant. 

There are plenty of lounges and sitting areas on the sun deck plus a jacuzzi and swim spa. We used the gym a few times which had ample space and equipment. The ship also has a Spa and Wellness Center. The spa offers a large array of services including facials, massages, mani/pedi, waxing, hairstyling and tooth whitening. The Wellness Center under the direction of the Fitness Director provides complimentary daily fitness classes and personal training, body composition analysis and nutritional consultation for a fee.

Feb. 12, 2017  Port: Quepos and Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

The ship offered its own shore excursion to Manuel Antonio National Park but we pre-booked a private tour with our own professional tour guide prior to leaving home. The guides in the national park are professionals who undergo vigorous training and have a camaraderie that is evident on the trails. They are quick to share information with one another and inform fellow guides of animal sightings along the trail. Our private guide, Manuel, was outstanding and I would highly recommend him to anyone booking their own tour. He took some fantastic pictures for us though his telescope (the owl photo above was taken with my iPhone 6s through Manuel's telescope.) Before becoming a guide, Manuel traveled all over Costa Rica to surf the best spots but was always intrigued by the plants, birds and animals he would find in the jungles near the camps where he stayed. His passion for surfing eventually gave way to his passion for nature so when he returned back from one of his surfing trips he decided to train to be a guide. Please contact us if you'd like information about booking with Manuel.

Quepos, Costa Rica

We stopped for lunch in Quepos and bid farewell to our driver because we decided to walk through town on our way back to the marina. For lunch I had ceviche and fried plantains with a cold Imperial Light - the local beer. And we had time for a margarita at the marina before we boarded a Zodiac back to the ship.

Feb. 13, 2017  Port: Bahia Drake, Costa Rica

Windstar's excursions at this port included horseback riding, ziplining and other nature tours but we decided to stay aboard and enjoy this small bay by kayak, paddleboard and snorkel and fins. The Star Breeze has a watersports platform that opens at the aft of the ship and passengers have use all the sports equipment and water toys. If weather permits, experienced passengers can also waterski. We also spent the day enjoying the whirlpool and sun bathing on the deck.

Feb 14, 2017  Port: Puerto Jimenez, Costa Rica

Puerto Jimenez, once a bustling little logging and mining town, is now home to just 1,780 residents. Located on the southeastern tip of the Oso Pennisula, the little town is a bit rustic with its dusty roads but the area is teeming with natural wonders. We had scheduled a private kayak excursion for our group of six and met up with our guide, Roberto, on the beach. We claimed our kayaks and and began the two-hour paddle on the calm waters of the Golfo Dulce. We tried snorkeling at our stopping point but visibility was poor and the water was very shallow. The shore was muddy and not conducive to swimming so we headed back with our kayaks tied end-to-end and towed by Roberto's little skiff. Back on land we enjoyed sandwiches and fruit provided by Roberto and watched parrots, macaws and monkeys in the trees above us.

Feb. 15, 2017  Port: Isla Parida, Panama

We've been on cruises that have hosted beach barbecues for guests on private islands but none as fun and relaxing as Windstar's BBQ on Isla Parida. There were plenty of lounges for guests to enjoy the view as well as full bar and impressive buffet. The water sports team brought the kayaks, paddleboards and snorkel gear to island so there were lots of activities to work up an appetite. A few guests made an impressive showing in a volleyball game with the crew and others showed off their waterskiing talents. 

Feb. 16, 2017  Day at Sea

Our day at sea was filled with activities and leisure time. The galley tour on the Star Breeze was one of the best galley tours I've experienced on a cruise ship in a long time. (Most big ships don't even have them anymore.) The Chef gave a very detailed history of the culinary hierarchy of a kitchen staff and spent time answering guest questions and introducing his galley team who were busy prepping, baking and creating desserts for our dinner. We rounded out the day with a bartending class, sun bathing, relaxing (a lot of relaxing), visiting the bridge (which is open to guests anytime the ship is underway) and attending the Crew Show. By now, we had gotten to know our waiters, bartenders, cabin steward and many other crew members so well that it felt like we were watching a family member perform.  

Feb. 17, 2017  Port: Panama Canal, Panama

The day of our Canal passage started early - 6:45am early! While we were sleeping off the previous night's revelry our crew was welcoming aboard the local pilot who would have full responsibility for navigating our ship through the Canal as well as a local expert who would provide commentary throughout the transit. It was our first time through the Panama Canal so when we heard the public announcement from the hallway that we would soon be entering the first lock we jumped out of bed, got dressed and hurried to the deck where we were greeted with urns of coffee and fresh pastries and many other guests who had risen earlier. The best part of being on a small ship was that there was plenty of room to move around and get a great view. It took just a few minutes to move forward to aft and check out different vantage points to watch the goings on. Traffic at the Canal can be unpredictable but we seemed to be entering each lock right on schedule. We had fantastic weather albeit a little windy. Every guest received a personalized "Order of the Ditch" certificate to commemorate their Panama Canal passage.

Feb. 18, 2017  Disembarkation: Colon, Panama

We spent our last night anchored off the Port of Colon amid many other ships within site of the busy port activities. The next morning we docked and disembarkation was again fast and easy. We had a late afternoon flight from Panama back to San Diego so we scheduled our own transportation from the the ship to Panama City which allowed us a little extra time to sleep in. We were off the ship by 8:30am.

We had time for a quick tour of Old Town and took some pictures of the downtown skyline across the bay. 

San Jose, Costa Rica - A Tale of Two Tastes

Sometimes when you travel and you're short on time you only get a taste of a place but during a short layover in San Jose we were able to squeeze in two tastes - beer and chocolate. Chocolate has a long and rich history in Latin America dating back to the time of the Mayans and Aztecs but beer didn't emerge on the scene in Costa Rica until the early 1900's and craft beer in this country is practically in its infancy but growing up fast. Costa Rica Craft Beer Company started the craft beer movement in 2010 and now dozens more craft breweries are making quality lagers, ales, IPAs and stouts. 

Our home city, San Diego, is one of the best U.S. cities for craft beers so we're always interested to taste what other brewers around the world are pouring. Costa Rica's craft breweries are producing about 100 different draft and bottled beers and we had read about Stiefel Pub in San Jose and it sounded like a great place to taste the local brews.

We were staying in a hotel in the Heredia Province so we took a cab downtown not realizing the bridge to the city was undergoing major repairs requiring lane closures that turned our ride into a 30-minute, bumper-to-bumper crawl. The traffic downtown wasn't much better so once we got to an area we recognized on our city map we decided to hop out and walk the rest of the way and I'm glad we did because we found San Jose to be a city best explored on foot. As we made our way to the pub, we passed massive souvenir shops and small boutiques, stately buildings with ornate architecture and bland buildings enhanced with murals and many hotels, restaurants and pubs. Some areas looked a little rough and some looked absolutely regal. 

A statue of Juan Vazquez de Coronado overlooks a fountain in Parque Espana. The Spanish conquistador played a major role in the colonization of Costa Rica and was the province's first appointed Royal Governor.

A statue of Juan Vazquez de Coronado overlooks a fountain in Parque Espana. The Spanish conquistador played a major role in the colonization of Costa Rica and was the province's first appointed Royal Governor.

A few blocks shy of our destination we espied an ornate, domed structure surrounded by lush, green parkland across the street so we crossed over for a closer look. We entered Parque Morazan and learned the structure which caught our eye was the Templo de la Musica  - a concrete bandstand which looked like it had been recently renovated.

The Templo de la Musica is the work of painter and architect Francisco Salazar. It is believed Salazar was inspired by the temple of love and music in Versailles.

The Templo de la Musica is the work of painter and architect Francisco Salazar. It is believed Salazar was inspired by the temple of love and music in Versailles.

The green space was actually two parks adjoined, Parque Espana and Parque Morazan. It was lunch time so many people were enjoying the shade trees, refreshing fountains and sitting areas. It was a pleasant, sunny day so we spent a little time people watching and enjoying the landmarks throughout both parks. Pleased with ourselves for sneaking some culture into our otherwise indulgently-planned day we headed off to the pub.

The renovated underside of the Templo de la Musica dome.

The renovated underside of the Templo de la Musica dome.

Stiefel Pub is located in the stylish neighborhood of Otoya, the historical district of the city where wealthy and elite families used to live. Many of the mansions once owned by coffee barons have been converted into boutique hotels, cafes, business offices, and galleries. We spotted the big, beer boot logo on a building with green trim and entered the small but bustling pub.

The bold geometric-patterned tile floor and the walls papered in colorful handbills and posters of beer festivals from all over the world made for a cheery welcome. There were about a dozen tables, all but two were occupied and only two bar stools were open. We settled in at an open table and each ordered the beer sampler and an order of the chicken fajitas lunch special to share. The clientele seemed to be an even mix of locals and tourists.

Our samplers arrived on wooden paddles with the name of each beer, percent of alcohol noted and style written next to each glass in chalk. It had taken a little while to get our beers but when I saw the effort that went into the presentation I was impressed by the attention to detail even during the busy lunch rush. 

Larry and I got different beers so we could sample eight in total. Larry ordered the Calypso, a 7.5% IPA brewed by Costa Rica Craft & Brewing; Temporada, a 4.6% Golden Ale brewed by Primate; Ryd'ing Dirty, a 4.6% Rye Ale also by CR Craft & Brewing; and Perla Negra, a 6% Dry Stout brewed by Daba Daba Brew (my favorite brewery name). I ordered the Horizon, a 6.2% Pale Ale brewed by Bri Bri Spring; Tita, a 4.6% Golden Ale and the Stevie Wonder, a 4.6% Stout, both brewed by Baristas Brothers; and Malinche, a 5% Wheat Beer brewed by C Cimarrona. 

One of my favorite features in the pub were the four pendant lights fashioned from plastic beer cups.

One of my favorite features in the pub were the four pendant lights fashioned from plastic beer cups.

Stiefel Pub has such a great variety of local draft and bottled beers and of the eight we tried there was only one neither of us cared for - the golden ale. But as I've mentioned in previous posts, Larry and I are just good-natured beer drinkers and not professional tasters. As we were finishing our beer a young couple from Green Bay, Wisconsin came in and the wife inquired about the sampler we had. Her husband suggested they share one and she looked at him like he was mad. "I want my own, " she said. We all had a good laugh at that. 

The couple from Green Bay, WI. They were waiting to check into their nearby hotel and were already making plans to come back that evening.

The couple from Green Bay, WI. They were waiting to check into their nearby hotel and were already making plans to come back that evening.

We walked to the park to catch a cab to take us back to our hotel across the bridge and the return trip took even longer. Our driver told us the bridge, or "La Platina" as the locals call it, has been the subject of frustration for Costa Ricans for a long time. It is the major route from the capital city to Juan Santamaria Airport and the Alajuela province. If you're planning to travel to San Jose, keep an eye on scheduled closures. Our driver told us that sometimes the bridge is completely closed for 24 hours. On this day, it was only open to public transportation including city buses, tour buses and taxis. There are exceptions during the morning and evening commute hours.


We had scoped out a quaint chocolate boutique next door to our hotel the night before so I wanted to check it out since we still had some time. Nahua Chocolate was tucked into the back of the Plaza Cariari Shopping Center (between the Country Inn Suites and Doubletree Hotel) in Heredia. It's really just a small tasting room but they do make truffles onsite. The packaged bars of chocolate, nibs and cocoa powder are produced at their nearby factory.

The gentleman behind the counter gave us samples of hot chocolate and dark chocolate chips to nibble on while we selected a couple of truffles from the glass case and looked over the milk and dark chocolate bars for sale. The bars came in a wide array of flavors including passion fruit, cinnamon, sea salt, pineapple, cayenne, mint, orange and several more.

We bought two truffles - vanilla (left) and lime (right).

We bought two truffles - vanilla (left) and lime (right).

Nahua Chocolate is made from 100% Costa Rican cacao beans from smallholder growers who are held to the highest standards of social and environmental development. Nahua owner, Juan Pablo Buchert has helped implement programs to support sustainable farming practices which in turn has helped rural farmers revitalize their cacao forests, increase productivity and their incomes as well. Although the chocolate was delicious, I wouldn't go out of my way to come here but if your hotel is within easy walking distance it is definitely worth a stop. We bought a few chocolate bars for our family and friends who would be joining us for a Panama Canal cruise the next day.

Chinese New Year at the Bellagio Hotel, Las Vegas

The Year of the Fire Rooster

Perched atop a 35-foot stone structure, a Fire Rooster strikes an impressive pose as the celebratory figure in this year's colorful floral Chinese New Year display at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. Each year the Asian celebration is the kick-off floral theme in the hotel's Conservatory and attracts thousands to celebrate the annual Spring Festival and its traditions and customs to bring luck and prosperity in the coming year.

The stunning showcase is located just beyond the lobby and front desk and has dazzled guests since the hotel's opening in 1998. The Bellagio will celebrate its 20th birthday next year (I know, it's hard to believe. Vegas hotels grow up so fast!) and with so many new glitzy hotels popping up along the strip I could have easily been tempted to look elsewhere but I still love the European style and elegance of this hotel and it's where I most enjoy staying in Las Vegas.

During Chinese New Year you'll find adornments of the festive holiday throughout the hotel from the cherry blossom banners swaying from the ceiling in the promenade of shops to the large urns filled with red flowers, orchids, lanterns and strings of red and gold firecrackers gracing the front desk but the centerpiece of it all is the 14,000-square-foot Conservatory bedecked in floral grandeur. This year's display was created by Ed LIbby, a favorite event designer of New York society, in collaboration with the Bellagio's horticultural staff and Feng Shui Master George Yau. Don't ask me how, but after a night of revelry I awoke at 5am one morning and scurried to the Conservatory and had the space all to myself while I took these photos.

To reach the center of the garden visitors walk beneath four 17-foot tall rose stems, arcs of shooting water and a 16-foot high Moon Gate flanked by ding-pots burning incense to protect against bad fortune. There, beneath the 50-foot high glass Conservatory ceiling, is the imposing Fire Rooster standing on its mound guarding its flock and brood of fuzzy, yellow chicks. It took 60,000 man hours to build the giant bird which was modeled after a Rhode Island Red rooster and is covered with 10,000 red, brown, gold and black feathers. It's also bedecked with Austrian and Swarovski crystals which glisten when the rooster mechanically wiggles its tail and stretches its neck to crow.

Traditional decorations of the spring festival are evident all around including hanging and pedestal red lanterns which drive away bad luck. The pedestal lanterns were custom made for the Bellagio Conservatory and provide illumination to the garden.

More light shimmers from round windows inset into stone and decorated with paper-cutting designs. Chinese paper-cutting is a centuries-old tradition used to decorate doors and windows to celebrate festivities and happiness.

My favorite vignette though, was of a boy fishing in a Koi pond at the foot of a quaint, wooden bridge shaded by a brilliant cherry blossom tree. The pond actually holds 21,000 gallons of water and is filled with 50 live Koi fish. The cherry blossom tree was also custom made for the Conservatory and stands 18-feet tall and has a 20-foot-wide canopy made of 300 water jet/heat-formed acrylic blossoms and leaves - a process that gives each blossom its own unique form.

A long-standing tradition of ringing in the Chinese New Year is to set off firecrackers and the louder they are the luckier they are considered to be. As the tradition goes, first a string of small firecrackers is set off, followed by three big firecrackers which symbolize chasing out the old year and sounding in the new year.

In the Conservatory, LEDs provide the fireworks in the form of eight- and six-foot diameter lights dangling from the ceiling. Each node contains four colors - white, red, blue and green and the colors come through acrylic rods that each have a one-inch sphere on the end. 

Chinese New Year is a very happy time for young people as depicted in the playful figures of six children on display in the garden. Schools in China are usually closed for a month and children typically receive red envelopes filled with cash from their elders to symbolize good luck and to ward off evil spirits. I'd be happy too!

Perhaps one of the most important activities of the spring festival is the Reunion Dinner when families gather to enjoy their New Year's Eve feast together. Chinese make every effort to attend which accounts for 4% of the world's population traveling during this time of year. It is estimated that 3.5 billion people around the world are traveling to visit family and Las Vegas is a very popular destination to meet. I can think of no better place to test one's new year's luck than in a Vegas casino. The Bellagio has two very popular restaurants where families can enjoy their Reunion Dinner. Jasmine, with its garden and lake views, is an elegant option which is well known for its signature dishes of Imperial Peking Duck and Chilean Sea Bass. The other, Noodles, offers a wide array of authentic noodle dishes from all over Asia including Thailand, Japan, China and Vietnam.

Chinese New Year kicks off January 28 and the celebration period lasts for about 2-1/2 weeks. However, the floral display in the Conservatory will be on display through March 4 before it goes dark March 5 - 10, and returns on March 11th with a new exhibit to celebrate the season of spring.

Bellagio Conservatory and Botanical Garden is free and open 7 day a week, 24 hours. www.bellagio.com  Want to learn more about Chinese New Year traditions? Click here

Going to Las Vegas? Please contact Putnam Travels. We'd love to assist you.


Selection of bottled beer for sale at Pipa Beer Story

Selection of bottled beer for sale at Pipa Beer Story

The Czech Republic is a beer-loving nation so we decided there was no better way to immerse ourselves into the country's culture and traditions than with a beer tour of Prague. This city has dozens of beer gardens, beer halls, pubs and breweries to pick from so we decided to enlist the help of Eating Prague Tours and its "Brews and Views Beer Tour." If we were going to do a pub crawl in a foreign city we wanted to do it with a local professional.

Our tour began with meeting our host and fellow guests at the sprawling beer garden in Letna Park which sits above the banks of the Vltava river and offers a sweeping view of Prague's Old Town. Jan, our guide, was trim and fit and not exactly what I anticipated a beer tour leader to look like but he was well informed about beer brewing and beer culture in the Czech Republic. On this tour I had expected we'd get small, tasting-size cups but the bartender at the outdoor bar poured each of us a full pint of Gambrinus, one of the most popular lagers in the country. It's made from 100% malt and Czech hops and is quite similar to the more internationally known Czech brand, Pilsner Urquell.

Our group was small, just seven of us. In additional to Jan, there were four other Americans - a young couple from the midwest and two guys from southern California. We introduced ourselves and took pictures of the view while Jan pointed out the major buildings in the distance and gave us a little history about beer making. On this cold afternoon we donned gloves to hold our plastic beer cups and Jan suggested we begin walking to our next stop to warm up and because walking the streets of Prague with a beer in your hand is perfectly legal. 

The Czech Republic is far and away the #1 country in beer consumption at almost 160 liters per capita. That's nearly double the per capita in the United States. And the Czechs make no apologies. In fact, they are quite proud of the distinction. As Jan explained, "Czechs don't drink beer excessively, they drink it regularly." And they have been brewing beer regularly for centuries as the first beer-brewing textbook was written in this country in the 18th century.

We made a sweet stop at Pernickuv Sen

We made a sweet stop at Pernickuv Sen

We made two quick stops along the way to our next beer tasting. The first was a quaint, little shop named Pernickuv Sen where traditional Czech gingerbread is made and we were treated to our very own "beer cookies." The other stop was a modest-sized butcher shop in a passageway in the Old Town section of Prague that we would never have found on our own. The efficiently designed Nase Maso is well known for its aged and matured beef and Prestice pork but it also has a fan base for its takeaway hot dogs. Hot dogs were included in the price of our tour and I opted for the spicy paprika dog which came nestled in a roll that had been impaled onto a toasting rod to create a crisp bun within seconds. Our hot dogs dressed with condiments were wrapped in butcher paper so we could take them to go. We exited the passageway onto the elegant Rybna Street and headed toward our next beer tasting at Maso A Kobliha, a pub and butcher shop located in the New Town.  

Maso A Kobliha

Maso A Kobliha

The English translation of Maso A Kobliha is Meat & Donuts and we got a taste of both in addition to a very good summer-style IPA by Matuska, a microbrewery located in Broumy, about an hour's drive from Prague. Maso A Kobliha always has a craft beer on tap and is a big supporter of the new wave Czech brewing inspired by American craft beer. The pub is bright and has a quirky and nostalgic vibe. Its casual seating area consists mostly of wooden tables and benches which is conducive to larger groups and conversation. The owner, a butcher from England,  brought a bit of the UK's pub fare with him to Prague with his Scotch eggs, which we got to try along with potato fritters with ham and fried pork skins. The platters were laid out family style and we all politely shared the portions until a couple of puffy vanilla custard donuts were set before us. Then, the knives and forks flew wildly as we devoured the famous namesake specialties. I would say if I had to pick only one restaurant to eat at for the rest of my life this would be the place.  Beer. Meat. Donuts.

Jan explaining brewing styles at Pipa Beer Story.

Jan explaining brewing styles at Pipa Beer Story.

Next on our tour was a glass of Bernard Bohemian Ale at Restaurant U Benedikta, a very traditional beer hall where we were also treated to a typical snack often paired with beer in Prague - cheese marinated in oil and paprika. The beer had a 8.20% ABV (Alcohol by Volume) and was brewed in the Belgian Strong Pale Ale style. It was citrusy and had a little carbonation to it which Jan pointed out was a bit like Champagne so we all raised our glasses and he taught us the Czech toast to good health, "Na zdravi!" An easy way to remember the pronunciation is to say "Nice Driveway."

Next, we headed to T-Anker, which could be Prague's best kept secret - a beer garden on a terrace atop a department store with amazing views of the Prague skyline. We arrived at the "blue hour" - that magical hour after dusk when the sky provides the perfect lighting for photo ops. It was too cold to sit outside but we took advantage of the perfect lighting to take photos and enjoyed the much needed fresh air to give us the gusto we needed to make it to the end of the tour. 

View from the beer terrace at T-Anker

View from the beer terrace at T-Anker

We settled in at a large communal table inside the restaurant as mugs of T-Anker Light Lager were passed around. The bar featured several Czech microbrews as well as Belgian classics and the place was lively. Here, we were also served a cheese pairing to enjoy with the beer.

Marinated and baked cheese snack at T-Anker

Marinated and baked cheese snack at T-Anker

As we left T-Anker, half the group took the stairs with Jan and the others took the elevator down to street level to regroup. Jan seemed relieved to see we all made it because by this time, well, let's just say everyone was fully-participating in the beer tour and it would have been easy to lose someone at that moment.

Our happy group walked to the final stop of the tour, Pipa Beer Story located in the basement of the Food Story food hall. This place specializes in beer and food pairings but also offers more than 160 types of bottled beer for sale in their Beertheque. It looks and feels like a tavern and we had the most attentive staff waiting on us. They wanted us to try everything. And we did! We began with a bottle of Permon IPA Sherpa 16˚ which had a creamy, long-lasting head. That was followed by two lagers - one light, one dark, a hefeweizen and we finished with a Primator Stout.

Permon IPA Sherpa 16˚

Permon IPA Sherpa 16˚

I would classify Larry and I as good-natured beer drinkers and we thoroughly enjoyed the tour with our amicable guide and group. The tour delivered on brews and views and the hearty snacks were a great addition and much appreciated (and needed!). There are certainly many pubs to visit in this beer-drinking city and I'm sure self-proclaimed beer geeks and beer snobs have their own list of must-see places off the tourist trail but for us, this tour was a perfect first taste of the beer scene in Prague. For more information about Eating Prague Tours visit www.eatingpraguetours.com

Ritz-Carlton, Budapest

The Ritz-Carlton, Budapest hotel is located in the heart of the bustling 5th district overlooking Erzsebet Square with a view of St. Stephen's Basilica and walking distance to many of the city's historic sites as well as restaurants, cafes, boutiques and galleries.

In a city known for architecture ranging from Roman and Gothic to Baroque and Art Nouveau, the 20-century facade of the hotel is a modern standout. Its exterior reminded me of a stately jewel box with its clean lines and ornate marble statues original to the building erected in 1914 as a headquarters for an Italian insurance company. 

Inside, the hotel is both modern and classic. The design concept was inspired by the nearby Danube river in both color and movement.  Shades of blues and greys create an elegant tone and the curves and swirls incorporated into the design of furniture, patterns on the carpet and custom lighting give the interiors a fresh and contemporary look.

The hotel features 170 rooms and 30 luxury suites.  Ours was a deluxe room on the sixth floor overlooking the park with a view of St. Stephen's Basilica. It was a comfortable-sized room with a dreamy, king-sized feather bed dressed in luxury linens, a writing desk and sitting area with sofa. The large marble bathroom had a walk-in shower and separate tub and was stocked with bath amenities from the London luxury label, Asprey.

I like to hit the gym when I travel to help with jet lag and the fitness center at the Ritz-Carlton was efficiently laid out with treadmills, elliptical and recumbent bike machines as well as a mirrored area with benches and free weights.  It also had yoga mats, bottled water, towels and fresh fruit. The adjacent spa was still under construction but is scheduled to open in January 2017.  The plans for the spa area call for a thermal bath, swimming pool, sauna, relaxing areas and treatment rooms.

The hotel has two restaurants - Deak Street Kitchen (DKS) and the Kupola Bar and Lounge.  The DSK appears to be a standalone restaurant with its own terrace and entrance off of Fashion Street but it can also be accessed from the hotel lounge.  It's a clever design feature which creates the illusion of "dining out" even if you're staying at the hotel.  The restaurant serves Hungarian dishes as well grilled meats, salads, burgers and sandwiches.  It is quite popular with locals and was very busy the day we had lunch during the first weekend of the Christmas Market which was staged just outside the restaurant. Daily breakfast was included in our reservation and was served in the Kupola Lounge. We had our choice of the extensive buffet or ordering off the menu or both.  

The service throughout our stay was impeccable from check-in and the plate of cookies delivered to our room upon arrival to the attentive concierge team who assisted us with restaurant and transportation reservations. The doormen were helpful and engaging and I felt bad every time I used the revolving door forgetting they were standing by poised to open the swinging door for us. And it was nice to return to the Kupola Bar on our second night and have the hostess and bartender greet us by name.

Larry squeezing in a quick nap on the sofa.  

Larry squeezing in a quick nap on the sofa.  

The location was perfect as we like to explore on foot and almost everything we wanted to see was within walking distance.  As much as we tried to see everything beautiful Budapest has to offer we still didn't see enough of it. We plan to visit again and would definitely stay at the Ritz-Carlton. 

12 Reasons Why We Think You'll Love Budapest

Budapest is perhaps the most stunningly beautiful, yet overlooked city in Europe.  It's grand and majestic but almost in a demure way, waiting politely and patiently to be discovered.  And when you do discover Budapest you'll fall in love with the city like we did. There is so much history and tradition here, yet the city feels very modern and romantic too.  It's a first-class music destination boasting one of the premier opera houses in Europe and its local wine, Tokaji is world renown.  Its traditional Hungarian dishes are ever popular but Budapest's restaurant scene has been upping its game to include more sophisticated and internationally-inspired menus and it hasn't gone unnoticed.  The city currently has four Michelin-rated restaurants. 

The city has two sides divided by the Danube River - Buda and Pest.  Buda is the hilly and historic castle district and Pest is the more bustling business area.  There are 23 districts laid out and numbered very much like Paris' arrondissements in a widening circular fashion.  Budapest is very walkable but we did take Bus #105 which was a great way to get an overview of the city.  The route connects Hero's Square on the Pest side to the Buda side of the city and travels along elegant Andrassy Boulevard before crossing the Chain Bridge into Buda.  Andrassy Boulevard is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is lined with neo-Renaissance mansions once owned by the city's most wealthy families and the impressive Hungarian State Opera House. Today, those historic mansions are occupied by business offices, cafes, luxury boutiques, theaters and restaurants.

We fell in love with Budapest at first sight and will definitely be going back to see more but here's a list of the not-to-be-missed sites we did visit.


Climb to the top of St. Stephen's Basilica


It's worth the small fee to walk up the 364 steps to the observation deck of St. Stephen's Basilica and take in the panoramic view.


Take a Bath

Pamper yourself with a day at Szechenyi Baths where you can relax in medicinal natural hot springs in 18 pools or book a massage and other spa treatments.  Save yourself time and money by researching discounts, booking online before you go and bringing your own robe and slippers. I'm sure your hotel won't mind if you borrow the ones from the closet just be sure to return them.


Walk Across the Chain Bridge

The most famous of Budapest's eight bridges, the Chain Bridge was the first permanent stone bridge connecting Buda and Pest and is considered one of the city's most iconic structures.  At the end of World War II, the retreating German troops blew up all of Budapest's bridges but the pillars of the Chain Bridge remained intact and so it was decided to rebuild it in the spring of 1947.  It was finally completed in the fall of 1949.


Take a Tour of Parliament

Located on the bank of the Danube River, the Hungarian Parliament is one of Europe's oldest and largest buildings.  The Changing of the Guard takes place at 12 noon and is free.  Tours of Parliament are available and we suggest booking online so you can skip the queue at the ticket office.


Explore the Buda Castle Quarter

The Buda Castle Quarter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and encompasses the historical Gothic castle and palace complex of former Hungarian kings in Budapest.  Today, you will find two museums within the Royal Palace - the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum.  On Buda Hill you'll also find Matthias Church, Gellert Bath, Fishermen's Bastion as well as panoramic views of the Danube, Chain Bridge and the Pest side of the city. 


Ride the Funicular up Buda Hill

There's an easy footpath with switchbacks you can walk up to the top of Castle Hill but taking the nostalgic funicular is a fun, three-minute ride.


Dine in a bistro with Traditional Gypsy Music

Be sure to make a reservation to land a table at the restaurant you desire or ask your hotel concierge for help or suggestions. We dined at Rezkakas Bistro, a casually elegant restaurant in the 5th district serving traditional Hungarian dishes and international cuisine.


Visit the Jewish Museum

The Great Synagogue is the largest in Europe and the second largest in the world.  Located in the 7th district on Dohany Street, it bordered the Budapest Ghetto during the Holocaust.  The complex includes the Synagogue, the Heroes' Temple, the graveyard, the Memorial and the Jewish Museum.

Take a Stroll Along Kiraly Street and Visit a Ruin Pub in the 7th district

Kiraly Street is Budapest's lively "design street" with boutiques, home decor and furniture stores, art galleries, cafes and even one of the city's popular "ruin pubs" - Kuplung.  Ruin pubs are old warehouses and abandoned buildings which were turned into rustic drinking places in the early 2000's by clever young men seeking places for cheap drinks.  The bars tend to have rough interiors, mismatched furniture and are decorated with a hodgepodge of found objects.  Kuplung means "clutch" and is housed in a former car repair shop.  There are several ruin pubs in the 7th district including the original one, Simple Kert, which was our favorite.


See the Shoes on the Bank of the Danube River

The "Shoes on the Danube" is a moving reminder of the Jews and others killed between 1944 and 1945.  The 60 pairs of rusty period shoes represent the men, women and children rounded up by Arrow Cross militiamen and shot by a firing squad at close range so their bodies would fall into the river.  The "Shoes" can be found in front of the Parliament building along the river bank.

Get a Budapest card


The Budapest Card gives you free public transportation as well as free or discounted admission to dozens of museums, attractions, theaters, exhibitions, sights, restaurants, theme parks and tours.  Budapest is a very walkable city but it was nice to be able to jump on the metro or a bus anywhere in the city at anytime.


Live in the Lap of Luxury

We splurged a little on our trip to Budapest because we were celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary but we found the 5-star hotels and highly-rated restaurants (Budapest has four Michelin-rated restaurants in the city) quite reasonable compared to other European capital cities.  


Putnam Travels offers a $300 per person shipboard credit on most AmaWaterways 2017 cruises. Contact Putnam Travels for details.


AmaWaterways' AmaSerena docked in Passau, Germany.

AmaWaterways' AmaSerena docked in Passau, Germany.

River cruise ships usually dock right in the heart of the city where you'll receive a warm welcome by an expert local guide who will see to your comfort and needs until you return to the ship.  All tours have individual headsets so you can easily hear and understand the guide. Or, you can opt to stroll right off the ship and explore the city on your own.



We took the exhilarating 18-mile bike excursion to Klosterneuburg Abbey in Vienna during our AmaWaterways cruise in November.

We took the exhilarating 18-mile bike excursion to Klosterneuburg Abbey in Vienna during our AmaWaterways cruise in November.

Most shore excursions involve a bus ride into the port city and walking tour with a local guide but cruise lines now offer more active excursions like city tours by bike or hikes in the local hills for clients who prefer a little more action in their vacation. For example, AmaWaterways and Backroads have teamed up to offer river trips featuring Backroads' cycling itineraries.



AmaWaterways offers private boat safaris along the Chobe riverbank.

AmaWaterways offers private boat safaris along the Chobe riverbank.

Although cruising in Africa can be luxurious it is better suited for the more adventurous traveler. You'll still travel aboard upscale ships, dine on gourmet cuisine accompanied by fine South African wines but air conditioning might be limited, dealing with bugs are part of the journey and you'll need patience at the multitude of boarding crossings.  



Most ships are usually around 400 feet in length and hold only about 150-200 passengers, depending on the cruise line. These smaller-scale vessels create a much more intimate atmosphere in which to interact with fellow passengers and crew. The public spaces are arranged for more intimate gatherings so making new friends is easy.



Whether it's having lunch in a private family museum, tasting beer with a local craft brewer or wine tasting in the vineyards overlooking the Douro River in Portugal, almost every cruise line offers its own unique and exclusive experiences for clients.



Although cruising is most prevalent along Europe's rivers, many cruise lines offer itineraries on rivers in more remote parts of the world like the Mekong in Vietnam and Cambodia, the Ayeyarwady in Myanmar and the Chobe in Africa.



Photo by hanker81/iStock / Getty Images

Perhaps one of the most popular cruising experiences is during the yuletide season along the Danube or Rhine rivers to visit Europe's Christmas Markets.

Temporary Update: 12/20/1026 - Our thoughts are with the victims, their families and all citizens of Berlin after the attack on the Christmas Market in the heart of the city. We've visited dozens of markets in Europe and still hope to experience the holidays in Berlin someday. Our hope is for all Berliners to find the resolve to continue to celebrate their culture and beloved holiday traditions.


Putnam Travels has vast knowledge of the cruise industry and has booked hundreds of passengers on all types of vessels including mega cruise ships, clipper ships, expedition ships, river cruise ships, chartered barges, yachts, catamarans and even white-water rafts. Please contact us if we can help you plan your next cruise vacation at Putnam Travels.

Puerto Rico Food and Culture Tour

Guided city tours have long been popular with art, architecture, and history buffs but the growing trend of foraging a destination to find its best local fare is trending worldwide.  So, why not skip the typical guided walking tour on your next trip and instead book a culinary adventure with an epicurean host?  We've taken food and cultural tours in Hawaii, Seattle, Lisbon and most recently Puerto Rico.

We find the number of guests on gourmet walking tours tend to be fewer than on typical city walks making it more comfortable to interact with the host and the other guests.  These smaller groups are often welcome at even the coziest of bars and bistros so you find some real hidden gems on these tours.

On our trip to Puerto Rico last April we booked a tour with Flavors of San Juan Food & Culture Tours.  Our guide, Denise, was a young and energetic woman eager to share the history, architecture, and flavors of Old San Juan.  She had two goals for our group of ten - 1) make sure we had fun and,  2) impart an appreciation of the food, culture and history of her island.  If she could accomplish those two things, she assured us we'd leave at the end of the tour with a full belly and happy heart.

During our three hour tour, Denise took us to six places where we sampled a variety of dishes representative of Puerto Rico's diverse food scene featuring  Spanish,  Cuban,  Mexican, African, Taino and American influences.

Rum is the national drink here and Puerto Rico is the world's leading rum producer so it seemed logical that our first stop was rum tasting.  Our group huddled around the Rum Bar, a little kiosk inside the Princesa Gastropub, located on Paseo La Princesa, a main thoroughfare in the La Puntilla section of Old San Juan.  The bartender introduced us to the many types of rum, ranging from complex sipping varieties to simple spirits that would blend well into any tropical cocktail. The small, but well-equipped bar, stocked many light and dark rums - many produced in the gran enejo or super-aged style similar to Tequila or barrel-aged whisky.  A few guys purchased a shot of the high-end stuff but the rest of us enjoyed our complimentary pina colada. We also got our first bite of the tour with servings of Iberian ham croquettes, and breaded eggplant topped with beef stew.

After a brief stop at Señor Paleta to select an all-natural ice pop to go, we took shelter under a sprawling mango tree at small park overlooking the San Juan Bay and enjoyed our cool treats while Denise gave us some history about the island.  We made our way to a local art gallery and craft boutique which also housed our next stop - Cafe El Punto, where we were greeted with trays of fried plantain fritters and a ceviche appetizer made with grouper, avocado and homemade salsa.  We admired the artists' work while we enjoyed our appetizers.  A short walk took us to our next destination, Spicy Caribbee, where we sampled provisions from Puerto Rico and other neighboring Caribbean islands.  The little boutique had an impressive selection of exotic spice blends,  jerk sauces and condiments including banana ketchup and jams featuring guava, pineapple, mango and papaya.  I think everyone purchased something to take home from the vast array of delicacies and gift items like candles, soaps and lotions.

As we strolled the centuries-old cobblestone streets en route to our next stop, Denise made sure we were taking in the Spanish Colonial architectural sights - from the colorful and ornate facades and balconies to secret courtyards and not-so-secret parks like Parque de las Palomas, or Pigeon Park, home to hundreds if not thousands of the meandering birds.  

The next tasting on the tour required some work on our part to make mofongo, a local Afro-Puerto Rican dish.  Once seated at Rosa de Triana (the building was a former jailhouse), we were each given a wooden pilon, also known as mortal and pestle.  Inside were fried plantains (picked green before ripe), garlic, butter and salt.  Our job was to pummel the concoction with the pestle until it was well mashed.  To that, we added creole chicken, rice and beans from a platter served family-style at the table and quenched our thirst with either sangria or the local beer.


The last stop of the day was bit of a chocoholics dream.  Casa Cortes ChocoBar is an artsy chocolatier with a wildly imaginative menu featuring chocolate in both sweet and savory dishes.  Here you'll find chocolate pastries, cakes and truffles but also entrees like salmon in chocolate butter sauce, sandwiches pairing grilled cheese and chocolate and salads dressed in balsamic chocolate vinaigrette.  Our group was seated in a little alcove where we were treated to cups of decadent hot chocolate served with pieces of dark chocolate atop a small slice of cheddar cheese.  The recommendation of our host was to drop the chocolate and cheese into the cup of hot chocolate and let it melt.  It sounded weird but I did it and liked the slightly tart taste and creaminess it added to the hot chocolate.   Next came warm, mini churros accompanied with a rich chocolate dipping sauce which we all politely devoured.  

Denise walked us back to our starting point where our little group Air Dropped photos, shared email addresses and said our goodbyes with full bellies and happy hearts! 

For more information on Flavors of San Juan Food & Culture Tours visit sanjuanfoodtours.com  To book a culinary tour in San Juan or any other city, contact Putnam Travels.