Thursday, January 26, 2012

Clearwater Beach Bargains

I recently returned from spending time in beautiful Clearwater Beach, a resort on the west coast of Florida (and in some ways wish I were still there.) I was pleased to discover that there are still many bargains in the area, particularly on restaurants. This is now high season, so lodging bargains are scarcer.
Most restaurants in this part of the world serve basically American fare, though there are also ethnic eateries. One of the best of the latter is the Columbia Restaurant, a Cuban place with more than 100 years at its original Tampa location. There are several branches, including one on Sand Key where in good weather you can eat right beside the inland waterway, where you can sometimes see dolphins frolicking. I usually have the arroz con pollo or chicken with yellow rice, a filling dish I remember from childhood when I visited the Tampa restaurant with my parents. At $8.95 it is a tasty bargain, especially considering it is served with warm bread. The large house salad is also very good, a meal in itself.
Bob Heilman's Beachcomber on Clearwater Beach is known for its good but pricey home cooking. But at the associated Bobby's Wine Bistro, you can enjoy a burger and a glass of good wine for a very reasonable price--less than $20 per person, and it too comes with warm homemade bread.
The Sandpearl is a new luxury hotel that stands on the site where the Clearwater Beach Hotel was for about 100 years. Its restaurant is moderately priced for lunch, especially if you pass on the alcohol. I was not much impressed by a grilled chicken sandwich, but a friend raved about a steak sandwich that cost $12. This place has a great view of the beach, and pleasant service.
Perhaps the best bargain among the more elegant restaurants is at the Island Way Grill on Clearwater Beach. It is an early bird special, which means you have to order by 5:30 p.m. But if you do, you get two early dinners for $25, and low prices on house wines and house drinks. Best of all, the meals are filling and very tasty. Try the salmon croquettes or other seafood dishes. I particularly love the mashed potatoes made with pungent wasabi mustard, which come with virtually every choice. Save this restaurant for a time when you are especially hungry.

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Some Good News about Airlines

At last I received a cheque from Continental Airlines ( reimbursing me for the cost I incurred last July for a hotel room when my connecting flight out of Cleveland was cancelled for mechanical reasons. It took more than four months, partly because it was hard to discover from the airline's Website what the proper procedure was to request a refund. Continental is in the process of merging with United Airlines, so this may also have had something to do with the delay. In any case, it is good to be aware that refunds in cases like these can take a long time.
My friend Margaret (yes, same first name) recently flew for the first time on Toronto-based Porter Airlines ( and reported a good experience. Her route took her from Montreal to Toronto's Island Airport, where she said facilities were good with free coffee and wi-fi, and on to Chicago's Midway Airport. Porter flies the Bombardier Q400 series turboprops, a short takeoff and landing plane. This is not the same STOL plane I remember that used to fly between Ottawa and Montreal, but a new quieter version. According to Margaret, the centre aisle is very narrow (fortunately she is slim and in very good shape) and there is limited on=board space for carry-on luggage. On the positive side, there was a free snack and free wine, beer, coffee and soft drinks.
Porter is growing quickly, and now offers service not just within Canada but to many U.S .destinations. In April of this year they will begin service to Washington DC. I'm not sure what Margaret paid for her trip, but the price must have been very competitive because she is one of those people who often crosses the U.S. border in search of cheap flights.
Earlier this week I had my second experience with West Jet ( on flights from Tampa to Montreal via Toronto. It was a very stormy day across the Ohio Valley and central Canada, but we made it with just about an hour's delay at Toronto. Service was good and even included free beer or wine on the second leg of the journey, but I wish some West Jet flight attendants would not confuse themselves with stand-up comedians. It's all right to be friendly and casual, but some of them take it too far and seem somewhat unprofessional.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

January Travel Bargains

January is probably the cheapest month of the year to travel, at least in the northern hemisphere. Because it follows the holidays when many people have overspent, few choose to travel for pleasure this month. Accordingly, hotels, airlines and cruise ships tend to drop their rates to try to attract guests.
My most recent visit to New York City was in January about a decade ago. I was pleased to find a nice hotel room in a convenient location for something in the area of $120, plus of course the city's pesky hotel tax and various other taxes that brought the nightly charge to about $150. Imagine my surprise, then, when on checking prices on recently, I found rates for January in chain hotels in midtown for less than $100--the Best Western President Hotel at Times Square has rates starting at $95, while the Hilton Garden Inn New York on W. 35th Street offers rooms for as little as $98, I suppose we have the economic downturn to thank for the lower rates.
And it's not just in New York--in Washington a room at the Four Points by Sheraton at 12th and K can cost as little as $80. Even the elegant Mayflower, haunt of the rich and famous, has some offerings starting at $149, while for $125 you can score a double room with full service kitchen at the Carlyle Suites Hotel at 1731 New Hampshire Avenue. The latter option would be especially good for families and longer stays, since eating in is almost always cheaper than eating out.
In Chicago, the pleasant Allerton Hotel has rates as low as $119 a night, while the Courtyard by Marriott Chicago Downtown beats them by $10.
If the cold of northern cities does not appeal, consider Las Vegas or a Caribbean cruise. Prices at some Vegas hotels are amazingly low--from $22 for a room at the Hooters Casino Hotel or at Circus Circus, from $29 at the Excalibur. Online reviews of these hotels are not particularly good, but at these prices can you complain? Or what about a Caribbean cruise for six nights to the Western part of that sea? On one of the ships of Carnival Cruises an inside cabin goes for as little as $309 per person, and you get to visit Key West, Florida, Grand Cayman Island, and Ocho Rios, Jamaica.
You can find similar deals on other travel Websites and in other parts of the world. January in Europe tends to be cold and rainy or snowy, but since most European attractions are indoors, it can be a good time for a visit. I read one story by an expat who lives in Rome and said it was about the only time of the year when the city is not overrun by tourists and pilgrims.

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Friday, January 06, 2012

The Simple Life in P.E.I.

Last summer my friend and former neighbour Joan packed up her dogs and cats, bought a new car and set off on an adventure. It wasn't just a vacation, she had sold her condo in Montreal and was relocating to Prince Edward Island in the Maritime provinces of Canada. She had bought sight unseen an old farmhouse with five acres of land about a 30 minute drive from Charlottetown, the provincial capital. The house had not been lived in for several years and had some condition issues, which is one reason that the price was, if I remember right, $57,000, far lless than Joan received for her Montreal condo.
The Maritimes are one part of Canada where real estate prices are still reasonable. About a decade ago another friend was considering buying a place in rural Newfoundland, where houses then were selling for as little as $10,000.
I caught up with Joan again at New Year's, and was happy to learn that she is settling in well,, having done a lot of work on the house to make it habitable for winter. Joan enjoys renovation work and is good at it. She has also been fortunate in finding friendly neighbours, and her dogs love being able to run free on the property.
Now that cold weather is setting in and the wood stove is working, Joan has more time to herself and I am trying to persuade her to write some guest posts here or start her own blog about her experience of moving to the country. She grew up in Edinburgh and lived for many years in Montreal, so it is all new to her. Here's an excerpt from her email: "the potato fields are now ploughed over and the other crops, barley I think, are now just stubble and of course the trees are bare. I take the dogs out across the fields at the back of the house twice a day, and into the woods on my property. Weather permitting we go to the beach about a 10-minute drive from here."
Lots of people dream of moving to the country for a less expensive and lower stress lifestyle. Forget Provence and Tuscany, for low-cost living you need look no further than the Maritimes. They speak English, and you have access to all the usual Canadian services including health care, llibraries and universities (health care only if you are Canadian or a legal immigrant, of course.)

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Sunday, January 01, 2012

Travel Review Sites less User Friendly

I used to post hotel reviews on the Website from time to time. I tried to do it recently, and found that instead of just writing what I thought about the hotel I had to give it a numerical ranking on a number of items and follow a set format. Please--review for free, and also follow their format to the letter. No thanks.
Then I remembered that a friend had talked about writing a review for, and checked that out. I didn't try writing a review, but noticed that the reviews they gave for one hotel also seemed to have numerical rankings, so I suspect they must have a similar system.
There are a lot of problems with crowdsourcing when it comes to travel, so I suppose these sites are just trying to standardize things to some extent. I guess it's OK for those who are willing to comply with their requirements, but to me it is asking too much of reviewers. It's not like we're getting paid, after all.
In any case, both thesee sites are worth checking for up-to-date experiences of real travellers. But, as always, it is reader beware, since one person's standardsand requirements can be very different from another's. That is why I still rely mostly on guidebooks and sites of travel writers who have a lot of experience.
Happy New Year.

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