The Best of the Best: Travel Edition

When you travel as often and fabulously as I do, it’s important to sneak small moments of reflection and gratitude somewhere between the time zones. I want to remember how wonderful it is to wander this world.

I usually relax into this reverie just as soon as I’ve organized my Diane von Furstenberg toiletry bag into the seatback pocket, loosened and buckled my seat belt low across my hips, and laid an airline blanket over my legs as if tucking myself into sweet travel. Mark is usually busy firing off last minute emails or reading some depressing world-news, so my brief contemplation of the places we’ve been hardly garners notice at all. To him, I simply look like a young woman blissfully sipping her champagne. And he’d be right about that; I am quite happy that our airline offers preflight bubbly to get into the jet-set spirit.

On this occasion, relaxed and ready to return home from an engagement excursion to London, my gaze fell upon my drink. Like the golden bubbles rushing to meet my greedy lips, memories of some of the very best bits of our travels sprang to mind.

The Best Spa Facial Treatment:

Prepare to raise your brows in disbelief. The very best spa facial treatment I’ve ever had, and I’ve had easily a hundred all over the globe, was inside an Embassy Suites Hotel in Huntsville, Alabama. I’ll pause for a moment; allow you to blink your eyes back down to size. In all seriousness, I mean, this is beauty we’re talking about here. I’m not joking or exaggerating about this in the slightest. ‘Bama brings the beauty.

Let me paint you a picture: Huntsville is a relatively small, but notable city due to its U.S. Army affiliation and southern sensibilities. Every meal resembled Thanksgiving Day and my lengthy bar tab was possibly the cheapest I’ve ever seen it. The Embassy Suites is the nicest and highest rated hotel for miles. It’s located downtown and has pretty adorable views of a large geese-filled pond. The “spa” is located on the 2nd floor and while its lobby area made me feel like I was waiting to see the dentist, the treatment room was warm, quiet, dimly lit, and expertly enhanced with soothing music that didn’t make me want to pee. I have no idea what product line graced my face; all I recall is the movement with which she applied, massaged, and removed everything. It was as if she had an orchestra in her mind and her hands were performing its exquisite sound on my skin. What’s more, I was radiant for days. Should life ever send you to Alabama, pack your fat jeans and book a spa facial.

London Bridge bath time

The Best Bath:

Beginning to see a theme of relaxation here? Yes, I’ll admit; I am fully committed to chilling out. Consider me a lady of leisure. But back to the bath: It’s not every trip that I take time to relax in the bathtub. Considerations like the country’s water quality or my tired tourist desire to hit the sheets usually thwarts the tub’s calling. However, a Japanese style soaker tub overlooking 48 -floors of London’s skyline just couldn’t be ignored.

The view came complete with one of those cup/book racks and bath salts. My clothing hit the floor faster than the salts could sink. Hair up, butt down, this was some of the best sight seeing I’d ever done. The Tower Bridge was even more marvelous from here than it had been from a safe selfie distance. As if on cue, Mark strutted in with bubbly, binoculars, and that generous grin. Channeling my inner Bond Girl, I spied on the royal city, sipped expensive champagne, and began this very blog thanks to that handy book-turned-iPad rack. All details considered, I’ve never had a better bath in my life. Get yours at the Shangri-La Shard, London’s tallest building — boasting brilliant bathtub views.

The Best Hotel Staff:

Constantly checking in and out of hotels, as glamorous as they may be, can be a little daunting at times. True jet-setters come to appreciate things like quality toiletries, turndown service, a high-end well-stocked minibar, and prompt dry cleaning service. To us, it’s so much more than just a place to crash; it’s our home away from home. Which is why a professional, courteous, and well-dressed staff offer the awesome ability to make it more than just a hotel stay; they can make it feel like home sweet home.

Our sweetest stay to date was at the JW Marriott in Hong Kong. We decided to squeeze in a 32-hour layover on our way home from Malaysia since I’d never been before. We arrived starved and sleepy so imagine our satisfaction when hotel staff was prompt to greet us outside of customs, handle our bags, and escort us into a spacious executive hotel car that smelled clean and was stocked with cool water. The china-clad tea and fresh fruit that was hand delivered to our room only accentuated the spectacular city and harbor views that stunned me from the comfort of our bed. Room service was divine. The executive breakfast lounge was the best I’d seen since Bangkok. Doors were opened, cabs were fetched quickly, and staff was always accessible, which really helped make the most of every minute. In Mark’s early corporate days, he lived in this hotel for four months. Ordinarily I’d be baffled by a living arrangement like this, but two sleeps later and I could see why he felt so at home inside this high-rise. Upon our departure, sitting pretty in another luxury hotel car, I whispered a little promise to myself that should life bring me back to Hong Kong, I’d be checking into this JW once more.

Hello Hong Kong

The Best Layover:

When it comes to international travel, layovers are unavoidable. Even a lot of domestic ventures will have you held up in some city for a short time. Consequently, frequent fliers discover their own airport comfort zones across the time zones. The Charlotte airport, for instance, is wonderful for getting your rocking chair-on and enjoying “flights” of wine at a surprisingly trendy bar conveniently located between gates; I’ve done my taxes over a steamy baked potato inside Houston’s Pappadeaux; and sweet Mark satisfied my sweet tooth when he gave me a cupful of skittles to pair with my cold, complimentary beer inside the Dulles United Lounge.

While we do our best to make the most of our ground-bound travel, nothing beats having enough time to ditch the airport and explore where you are. It feels like stealing time and playing hooky simultaneously – a truly fortuitous adventure! When you visit a place briefly you have to take care to take it all in quickly. Rush to visit various landmarks or relax with a view. Either way – experience it. Listen to the language, savor the cuisine, study the architecture, feel the weather on your skin.

Come to think of it, the 32-hours we spent in Hong Kong was the most eventful and exciting layover I’ve ever had. The city was loud, colorful, and crowded. The architecture was stacked and eclectic. The nightclub was surprisingly familiar and its music was on point. Aside from Arabic, this was the biggest language barrier I’d met. High-end and knock-off brands shared the same block. But the champagne cocktails were exquisite and the views were unparalleled. Honestly, sky, water, greenery, cliffs, rolling hills, modern and historic buildings, ships and yachts, old and new – it all combined to be one of the most scenic memories I’ve ever made. Life may never return me to this financial metropolis, but I’ll always have my post card-worthy memory.

The Best Meals:

In the past five years, I traveled to 11 beautiful countries as the Marketing Manager for a defense company, and four more by Mark’s side just for fun. But none of these places ever stood a chance, because I’d already been to and eaten my way through Italy. In 2008, my mama, “nonna”, and I – dubbed the “3 generations” – toured and tasted Italy for two weeks in celebration of my college graduation. When I tell you that we ate pizza, pasta, gelato, and drank wine daily, I am not exaggerating. In fact, I gained back the five pounds that I’d lost the year prior when I nearly starved in Ireland. Everything about Italy is enticing. Its food, its language, its history, its picturesque sights, its people, its arts and culture – it’s all flirting with you. And who doesn’t like a little flirtatious fun?

mj Paris love lock

The Best Sightseeing:

The more you see the world, the more you fall in love with it. I’ll never forget the crashing waves and eroded cliffs of the Amalfi Coast, or the grassy knolls of Ireland – they were perfectly manicured by sheep and highlighted with a rainbow. Talk. About. A. Sight. To. See. Most destinations can offer something special, but truthfully, only one place continues to enchant me: Paris, France.

I’ve been twice and I can’t wait to go again. I’ve seen most all of the landmarks, galleries, and museums, and I’d see them all once or four times more given the opportunity. But there’s something about Paris – it’s like you’re not just seeing the sights, you’re living amongst them too. Take, for example, the time I winked at Mona Lisa over top the heads of Chinese tourists. They flashed a million photos of her iconic face, while she and I simply made eye contact. I wondered if they saw her at all. Or the late afternoon I spent strolling the gardens of Versailles. Sure, I snapped photos, because it’d be negligent not to, but I also paced about imagining what it might have looked like if all the tourists were replaced with 12th century Parisians, making me a member of the court, quite worthy of the crown. Mark and I have taken leisure like the locals, people watching at a street-side café with wine and cheese while embracing as if we were the only two people in the city – Paris belongs to the lovers. We’ve hopefully, and rather cutely I might add, attached a love lock to the Pont des Arts bridge and slipped into lesser known museums and enjoyed the space to gaze. But perhaps the most beloved Parisian experience to date was our early afternoon picnic underneath the Eiffel Tower. I don’t know which I enjoyed more: the fresh baguette with jelly, the bottle of bubbly, or the good-looking American laid out next to me like a Greek god, but I instantly became a big fan of picnics – and Paris.

The Best View:

I’m not the type to willingly stay somewhere that looks like it could be just anywhere, because you have to admit it, this wide world has a lot more beauty to offer you than just some alleyway. I’m talking about a view. To me, it’s absolutely necessary. Just to put how pivotal I think something like “location, location, location” is, realize this: when I watch House Hunters -which is pretty frequently because I’m obsessed with homes, travel, and the competition of guessing which one they’ll choose – nine times out of ten, I forsake all other “wish list” needs and choose the property with the best view. Personally, I’ve signed a lease and even bought a home because they provided me with a majestic mountain view. I wanted the beginning, middle, and end of all my days to be influenced by that scene. Perspective matters!

My hotel homes are no different. The only thing better than slipping on kicks to explore the city is being able to open the curtains and see it bustling right below you. No shoes required.

As far as the best view I’ve ever squinted at – Mark is constantly opening the curtains earlier than I’d prefer – honorable mentions go to: The JW Marriott in Hong Kong, but you already know all about that post card appeal and top-notch staff; the Shangri-la Shard in London, because there’s something powerful about being inside the tallest building in the city, and the Shangri-la in Sydney, Australia, because with sights like the world-famous Sydney Opera House glistening in an orange sunset, sail boats and cruise ships navigating in harmony, and a harbor bridge that normal, everyday humans can hike over like a mountain, the Aussies put on a good show. But ultimately, and with much deliberation, the best view goes to the W Hotel in Washington DC.

All right, I might be a little biased here. After all, this is the place where Mark and I fell in love over a rather tasty room service club sandwich. Or perhaps it’s the career girl in me who will always hold DC in a special place in her heart. Either way, I’ve always felt privileged to be within its walls.

As a guest, I spend nights at the rooftop bar, appropriately named POV, toasting champs with direct view into the White House. I especially like raising my glass when I’ve noticed that the porch light has gone off. “Good night, Mr. President!” I broadcast with drunk-girl enthusiasm. And in the morning, I wake to the sun shining on the Washington Memorial. Its fifty encircling American flags wave good morning, beckoning me to rise and shine. I know it sounds sentimental, but being there makes me happy to be an American.

And that’s what it really comes down to. I’m proud to be an American; grateful to have the opportunity to experience the very best of this world; thrilled to be sharing a life and love with this hunk checking his emails in the window seat; and oh so glad that the flight attendant has just refreshed my glass of champagne. Again.

Change Your Seat / Change Your Life

I rarely sit in the window seat aboard any airliner. I don’t like the way the flight attendant leans over hoping you’ll help her do her job; as a highly hydrated individual, I feel positively trapped; and I rarely bother to look out the window so what’s the point. Don’t put this baby in the corner.

In fact, beyond the age of six, I can recall only three total times I’ve wound up in a window seat.

Two Years Ago:

Two years ago, this very week to be exact, I departed to a place farther than I’d ever traveled before. The UAE. Since my boss was a loyal American Airlines passenger, I’d have to become one also. Talk about a long journey to start from scratch.

When you fly alone you have a lot of time to just look around and think. I remember how oodles of unpleasantries flooded my mind as the boarding process persisted two minutes past the scheduled departure time: I had virtually no status here despite actually having some mileage with this alliance – it was very clear to see that American must have hit it out of the park with business travelers, let’s say oh, three decades ago, because every single dude in a crusty suit boarded before me. I knew I’d have to pee, but I was stuck between the window and a thankfully thin, but very sleepy looking woman who, believe it or not, had even less status than I; and they didn’t serve champagne, Dos Equis, or any other kind of suitable adult beverage for those of us who aren’t red necks.

All right, rant over. It was time to put some major patience powers into place because after an obscene amount of time, I’d be landing in a place that was sure to be a culture shock and that fact both intimidated and intrigued me.

So, I let this tinsel jet and two other One World birds take me to and from the sandy and stupidly opulent Middle Eastern city of Abu Dhabi – where, as fate would have it, my life was forever changed.  I’ll pause for your laughter or scoff, and I’ll even admit to reading that last line dramatically while proofreading. I’m completely aware how storybook “fate” and “forever” sound, but I’m no bullshitter either, everything truly did change.

It was there, over six hundred days ago, in a smoky bar with an eager, yet talented expat cover band, I met the man who would, at another place in another time and in a whole separate blog of its own, make me second guess every romantic decision I’d made to date, ultimately coming to the realization, with fear and excitement, that what was meant to be for me was still to come (spoiler alert: it’s another window seat).

Sounds flowery huh? And it is; in fact, my days are now filled with said flowers, real talk, laughter, understanding, dancing, affection, and a yearning I’ve never experienced in all my years of chasing where I am now. Yet, the most baffling part of it all is that I discovered all of this while away in some land where gender equality is non-existent and people smoke indoors like it’s 1940. I guess sometimes taking a few steps back really can move you forward in the right direction.

One-Year Ago:

I was sky-bound to a place strikingly different from the sheik and Ferrari-filled streets of the UAE. This time, I was flying to a land below sea level where flavors of creole and gumbo, sounds of trumpet-led bands, and the joys of to-go alcoholic beverages, bare breasts, and blinking beads shun the modesty of the East, all while contributing to the culture and celebration known as Mardi Gras. High-five, Thomas Jefferson.

It had been during one of our real talks that we shared our bucket lists with one another. He wants to take the kids and I on a safari one day, which is perfect because I want to ride an elephant again. We both wanted to party on a yacht somewhere picturesque, attend Fashion Week in NYC, and check out Mardi Gras.

In all honesty, hype aside, Mardi Grad isn’t that spectacular. It’s crowded, dirty, and smelly. For me, it was the company I kept that made the rolled ankle on a pile of deserted beads over hundred-year-old cobblestone worth it. We just laughed and danced and took a million pictures we’ll never even share because they seem to belong in that private memory bank. You know, the ones that are just for you and him.

Perhaps it’s to preserve how special it was. The moment I watched him dance without a care in the world. That smile, that rolling shoulder motion. It was like everything else around me fell silent and slightly transparent, because he was all I could see. Or the moment I caught him smirking at me as I chatted up total strangers because I wanted us to make new friends with people we’d never see again. He just let me be my butterfly self, and even though there were hundreds of loud people all around us it somehow felt like we were the only ones at Mardi Gras. Simply put, they’re the moments you can’t recreate even if you tried.

Today:

I’m once again going to give the “I’m a Western girl, in a Middle Eastern world” thing a go. Mark has business to tend to, but being as dedicated to nostalgia as I am, he’s invited me along for the ride.

Not to brag, but we have a pretty impressive list of both similarities and contrasts, which I think contribute to our compatibility as a couple. One of which is that he’s a window seat guy and I’m an aisle girl. It really is the simple stuff, guys. So I’m standing there in the aisle, tucking my belongings into the overhead compartment, when this ever-thoughtful man of mine offers to switch with me because our business class seats faced towards the economy class and he figured I wouldn’t be real keen on being gawked at by Arab men eating cheap airplane food on plastic trays. Yes, my hair is visible and blonde and my body is curvy, now lower your gaze, sir.

Looking around, I knew right away that they’d still be able to see me in the window seat, but when your man is chivalrous it’s best to accept his kindness. Plus, as my mind smartly shifted to my last few window seat experiences I was quickly reasoning how unwicked this seat must actually be. I mean, occasionally sitting there has kind of worked out wonderfully for me. Besides, I don’t feel so trapped in between him and a view. And there won’t be anything awkward about crawling over him to use the restroom. In fact, I think I’ll drink more water now.

Honestly, and in total hindsight of it all, it’s crazy how different things can look when your perspective changes. Now, I can gaze out this double pane window overlooking the middle of anywhere and know that I’m exactly where I’m meant to be. Or I can neglect to look out the window at all and just see him. Either way, the view is nice.

Before lying back to let sleep help dissipate this 14-hour journey, I begin to wonder where my annual contract with the window seat will take me next year? If it’s with him, I’ll go anywhere.