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Travel vs. Carpet

February 11, 2011 - Phyllis Sigal
I had the pleasure of speaking for the Moundsville Woman's Club Feb. 11, which incidentally celebrated its 100th birthday last year. Congratulations to them! Thanks to

I was asked to speak about travel ... truly a subject near to my heart.

I thought I would share my talk by way of my blog.


"Mom, Why don't we have nice carpet?" ... That was Amanda at the age of around 12 or so.

My response to her was this: "Because WE spend money on travel. Some families spend money on cars or boats or campers. Some on furnishings for the house. We spend money on travel."

And, when my son Leland raked in a bunch of cash for his bar mitzvah, I told him he might want to sock it away for later. Maybe he'd want to travel somewhere, when he was older.

I wanted to provide my children with EXPERIENCES as they were growing up ... not just things. (Although, they were a little miffed when we redecorated the living room and dining room AFTER they left for college. "NOW the house looks like Better Homes and Gardens and we're not here to enjoy it?" they complained.)

But travel, at least annual vacations, was a part of their lives. We didn't really go to too many exotic places, but we were always going somewhere, always planning a trip. Some summers to the beach. Some to historic venues. A few theater trips to Toronto, Canada, and New York City.

We saved and saved and saved to finally take a two-week family trip to London and Paris as Amanda's graduation trip. (I was pleased that Amanda preferred that option rather than a week at the beach with her high school friends, as so many kids seem to do.)

So, while we were in Europe for Amanda’s trip, Leland decided that he wanted a trip to Italy for HIS graduation. I told him chances are we wouldn't be able to save enough in just two years for another trip to Europe.

But, lo and behold, Amanda was studying in Venice during Leland's senior year, and I made it work that he and I could visit her for 10 days over his spring break that year. We didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to visit her; plus, free lodging!

Which leads me to TRAVEL TIP No. 1: Do your research. It's important to know where you are going, what the weather is like, what the rules are, how the currency works, etc. etc. etc.

Also, it's good to know if a restaurant has one dollar sign next it in the guide book. Or five dollar signs.

Case in point: It was on that trip to Venice when I learned that lesson the hard way.

I wanted to have dinner at Harry's Bar. I'd heard about the place; it was where the Bellini was invented, which is sparkling white wine and peach puree. It was also where carpaccio was created. Carpaccio, for those who may not know, is paper thin slices of beef tenderloin, served raw with a vinaigrette, arrugala, some cracked black pepper and shaved parmesan cheese scattered on top. I love it.

So, we went. “Dining room or bar?” we were asked as we waited to be seated. “Dining room,” I said. The maitre'd ushered us upstairs to the dining room; it seemed too fancy to me, for a place called "Harry's BAR." We were dressed for comfortable touristy things. We had shopping bags. We weren't dressed for white table clothes and pretense. And then our waiter arrived. (speaking of pretense.) He asked if we wanted a bottle of water.

He brought us a bottle of sparkling, I believe. And THEN he brought the menus.

The water was 10 euros. About $13 or so at the time.

The price fix dinner was 125 euros. The cheapest food item on the menu was a bowl of asparagus soup. And it was 27 euros!

I was quickly losing my appetite.

I looked at the menu. ..... I looked at the kids.

"You know, guys," I told them. "If we eat here tonight, we don't eat the rest of the week."

The waiter came back for our orders. I said, “I think we're going to leave. But let me pay for the water.”

We were sitting in one of those round booths against the wall. He pulled out the table so we could scoot out, then he raised his hand, and said, "No. Just go," and he flicked us away.

We retreated downstairs, through the crowded bar area. "Do you guys want to stop for a Bellini?"

They didn't. They just wanted to get the heck out of Harry's.

TIP No. 2: Try an all-inclusive resort. Especially to avoid those embarrassingly high-priced restaurants.

A few years later, we took Amanda and Leland — who at the time were both in college — to an all-inclusive resort in Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. Having been to one in Mexico the year before, I decided I wanted them to experience a vacation where you don't worry about every nickle and dime or euro. You can walk into a restaurant and order whatever you want without regard to price. An all-inclusive is a wonderful vacation for that reason — a real vacation from financial concerns, etc. They loved it. (I did tell them not to get too used it. In real life, you do need to look at those things. But, just for a week, every now and then — it really is a treat.)

Not all trips have been successful:

For several years, we took them to First Night Celebrations for New Year's. Wanting to make New Year's a family holiday, we discovered First Nights about 15 years ago when a musical act from Pittsburgh that we followed, called Squonk Opera, was playing in Annapolis, Md. We had never heard of First NIght, and upon investigation, it sounded pretty cool.

There are about 200 First NIght celebrations around the country. It started in 1976 in Boston by a group of artists who wanted a family celebration where no alcohol was served. At First Night celebrations, a number of venues provide all kinds of cultural entertainment from afternoon to midnight ... art exhibits, clowns, dance, music, kids' activities, parades, etc. We would go to the activities, then get to our hotel by around 11, in time to order pizza and watch fireworks on TV.

We've been to First Nights in Pittsburgh, Williamsburg, Annapolis and Columbus .... and finally, just a few years ago, both kids admitted that they HATED THEM!

But, of course the ultimate family vacation is the trip to Disney.

I've been to Disney World four times ... twice without kids, twice with. (They were all fun!)

What a magical place, right? If you've been there you know what I mean. There's something special about being there. Disney just knows how to make you feel special. No detail is left unattended. There is always music. There are always smiles.

My best tip for Disney World ...

Make your dining reservations — breakfast, lunch and dinner — before you go. Then, plan your day around that. We always — as I like to say — "travel on our stomachs" — no matter where we go. And, for Disney ... it's a great plan. It helps you to organize your day, as to where you want to go, what you want to see, in those hours between meals. But, the best part is that you're not wandering around looking for a place to eat and having to wait in line when you’re tired, cranky and starving.

Plus, dining at Disney is as much a part of the fun as going to the shows and riding the rides. There are character breakfasts and great themed places to eat, like the Sci-Fi Dine-In Cafe, where you sit in "cars" and watch movie trailers from the 1950s. Or, the Prime Time Cafe, where you are seated at 1950s dinette sets, watching old tv shows. Your waitress will usually admonish you if you don't eat your vegetables. And, no dessert if you don't eat your dinner! And, you don't want to miss the giant s'mores they have.


I am a beach person. Give me a beach, a book, a drink with an umbrella and I'm good to stay, for the whole day. My perfect retirement would be a gorgeous beach house to hang out in while I write my memoir.

Two of my favorites are Cape May, N.J. and Hollywood, Fla.:

Cape May has great, great, great restaurants (The town attracts New Yorkers and Philadelphians, where wonderful restaurants are the norm. They have to compete.) There is Victorian architecture that can't be beat. A fire took out most of the town during the 1800s, so most of the beautiful Victorian buildings were built around the same time, right after the fire.

Here's an EXCERPT from my travel story I’d like to share with you:

"Once upon a time, a young couple in love discovered the Victorian charm, the delicious restaurants and the quaint shops of Cape May on the Jersey shore. A few years later, pregnant with their first child, they spent a week at a lovely bed and breakfast, participating in seminars throughout the town for Victorian Week, learning the ins and out of Victorian renovation, having just purchased a 12-room Victorian Queen Anne on Wheeling Island. (Although, pregnant with daily morning sickness does not fare well with the "breakfast" part of a B&B.) With two children, they returned giving up the romantic bed and breakfast for the Victorian Inn, with a pool and efficiency apartment. Again, with older kids in tow, a new hotel on the edge of the pedestrian walkway was their home for a few days, giving the tween/teen kids a chance to explore on their own. And, this year, a couple of empty-nesters — still in love — returned to their favorite town. It was still full of Victorian charm with a host of delicious eateries and some of their favorite quaint shops. And they even ended up at the same bed and breakfast inn at which they stayed oh-so-many years ago."

And, I also love Hollywood, Fla. — It’s got a really neat little downtown, which is a bit of a distance from the beach. But, a trolley transports visitors between hot spots. Downtown is full of cool shops and restaurants. And along the beach is a really nice "broad walk" lined with restaurants and shops. The mornings on the "broad walk" are crowded with people not really going anywhere: they are all walking or skating or riding bikes, but it seems like they're all just out for exercise.

Here’s an excerpt:

"I’ve gone and done it again — fallen in love with yet another beach town. Hollywood, Fla., ? ... you had me from '70 and sunny.

But there is more to Hollywood than warm sunshine, sandy beaches, palm trees and tiki bars. (Not that you need any more, but ...)”

I'm not just all about the beach:

If you want luxury, pampering and romance: The Buhl Mansion Guesthouse and Spa ... It's a huge mansion in the heart of Sharon, Pa., which is just about 2 hours north on 1-79. There are only 10 guests room in this mansion. Here's an excerpt from that travel story:

"Multiply your vision of elegance by a gazillion and you've got the Buhl Mansion. No detail is left unattended here. We were pampered by the friendly staff as soon as we walked in the door. They wanted to retrieve our luggage, park our car and serve us champagne, immediately upon arrival. 'I think I"m going to like to here' I thought to myself, feeling much like poor little orphan Annie when she arrived at Daddy Warbucks' mansion. "We do lots of champagne," we were told. "It's all about pampering and romance."

Nearby the Buhl, is its sister inn, Tara — A Country Inn. The outside looks just like Tara, while collectibles from the Civil War era and “Gone With the Wind" abound.

"Step inside and you enter another era, a time when life was slow and elegant. You can just hear Scarlett and Rhett in the next room, speaking in their southern drawls. Women in long gowns greet you at the door. Hospitality is not taken lightly at Tara."

And for history: St. Augustine, Fla.

Another excerpt:

“Just pack your bags and all your belongings — lock, stock and barrel — right now, because it'll save you time later. ... Later, as in after you've visited the quaint city of St. Augustine, Fla.

"There is something about the town, a certain affection that wells up inside, as you enter the heart of St. Augustine. It swallows you up, and you want to be a part of it. And before you know it, you're searching for real estate and a job.”

There are so many historic attractions: St. Augustine bills itself as America's oldest city, established more than 400 years ago. There is the Fountain of Youth, the Colonial Spanish Quarter, Castillo de San Marcos, which is a fort constructed in the late 1600s, a lighthouse, ghost tours and pirate lore. St. Augustine is considered one of the most haunted cities in the country.

For food — as I said, we travel on our stomachs. And some trips have been all about the food.

Believe it or not Cleveland is a town fit for foodies. There are tons of restaurants with great chefs. I had the pleasure of joining a four-day food editors' tour a few years ago. For four days, we ate and ate and ate.

Here's an excerpt from "A Taste of Cleveland."

“Singer Tony Bennett may have left his heart in San Francisco. But I left my waistline in Cleveland. And I loved every morsel of delicious food responsible for that.”

Another favorite eating excursion was to New York City.

I took a "bite out of the big apple" by taking a walking food tour of Greenwich Village a few years ago and also by revisiting many of our restaurant experiences over the years in a story:


"How many restaurants are in New York City? Too many. Too many from which to choose. Too many to ever try in one's lifetime. Too many expensive ones way beyond my limit. Too many bad ones that will be closed before I even get to them. Just too many. But what a great hobby: to attempt to try as many as possible."

And, if you want to feed your mind: Check out Chautauqua Institution, one of my favorite places on earth.

EXCERPT: "I need to clone another three of me," said a guest at the Chautauqua Inn one morning at breakfast. That would be the only way she could attend all of the activities that appealed to her that day. Busy, busy, busy. Chautauqua Institution — it's that kind of place. Classes, lectures, brown bag lunches, play readings, church services, book reviews, art openings and exhibits — the events of just one day take up a good couple of columns of The Chautauquan Daily. It's also the kind of place where you can sit on a bench in Bestor Plaza or Miller Park and watch the day go by. .... But few do.”

It's an amazing place, and it’s just a little less than 4 hours away, in Western New York.

I think I may have been bitten by the travel bug when I spent a semester in London during my college years, and did lots of traveling while there — to the continent and to Africa.

Bruce and I started traveling early in our marriage. Besides the trips to Cape May and other assorted beaches, we spent six weeks wondering through Europe. A week in London, four weeks on the continent in the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, France and one last week in London — all on Frommer's "Europe on $50 a Day" guidebook.

We still subscribe to Frommer's restaurant and hotel tips whenever we travel. (Look for the three-star, one $ sign restaurants for some real treats!) There's even an app for that on your smart phone.

Like I'd hoped, my kids have both become world-travelers.

When Amanda was in Venice for her semester abroad, she spent as much time as she could exploring some other places in Italy. And she went on a mission trip to Nicaragua.

When Leland graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, he used that socked-away bar mitzvah money to take himself to Ireland and Italy for three weeks to visit friends.

When Amanda started to think about her honeymoon, I took her to visit a travel agent, who only showed her those beachy all-inclusives. She really wanted a trip to Europe, perhaps Spain or Portugal. Someplace with some adventure. That ended up being a bit too costly, but, instead the newlyweds chose relaxing in Sonoma and sightseeing in San Francisco.

Recently, Leland got to travel to Berlin to shoot a commercial. I got an email upon his arrival to tell us he was safe, yet very tired from the hours of travel.

"I'm really happy. I'm here and grateful. This is what I always wanted. To be able to travel around the world as a working actor. Pretty sweet huh? I'm not sure what more I could as for. .... Other than a nap."

And, one last quote from one of my kids:

“Mom, I really want to spend my money on travel — not things ... “ that was Amanda at age 23, just about a year ago.

I guess SHE may never have nice carpet, either.


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