The Most Disappointing Destination in Europe?

I love Europe. Who doesn’t? It’s filled with so much sophistication, dotted with beautiful cities and villages, steeped in history that has shaped the rest of the world, and infused with an energy that makes visiting nearly anywhere on the continent an incredibly worthwhile trip.

I’ve been to most of the big countries in Europe, and I don’t think I’ve visited a single town or city that I didn’t like. As are many avid world travelers, I’m amazed by the lives so foreign to mine that people lead even in the simplest or most remote of towns and villages. I can always find beauty in the dreariest of places. The row after row of communist-era apartment blocks in rural Polish communities come to mind, their formerly drab exterior walls now sometimes painted in bright colors to add a splash of life and flair.

I’ve also always been fascinated with small countries, ones so tiny that you can literally walk from border to border or run the entire width or length of the country to get a good workout. And because I’m a history buff – and usually royalty provides us with a living linkage to a country’s past – I’ve always been particularly intrigued by the tiny principalities of Europe.

I was in the south of France in May for the 68th annual Cannes Film Festival. I was actually just going to Nice when I read online that the beaches there left a lot to be desired while Cannes, just down the road, had a nice sandy strip of beach on which I could work on my tan. So I hopped in a cab at the airport and booked a room on Hotels Tonight, and an hour later I was smack dab in the middle of one of the most famous international events in the world.

I love film festivals and I’ve always wanted to go to the one in Cannes, but it was total coincidence that I landed there in the middle of this year’s event. That explained why the room rates were so high, but I just thought it was because it was the French Riviera.

After getting my tan on – priorities! – and being amazed at how this sleepy little village comes to life when stars and elite from all over the world helicopter or yacht in for the week, I was really eager to take the train just up the coast to Monte Carlo and check out one of the most fabled city-states in the world.

I didn’t make it that time, strangely enough, because the Monte Carlo Grand Prix was going on right after Cannes and if I thought hotel prices were high in Cannes during the festival, those might as well have been Motel 6 rates compared to how expensive Monaco was going to be. So I skipped the fairytale principality on that trip but vowed to come back. After all, surely Monaco was worth a dedicated trip all on its own.

The opportunity to go back to the French Riviera came even quicker than I thought recently when I promised a friend I’d meet him in Barcelona for a long weekend while he was there for work. But flights to BCN were too full last-minute, so I caught one to Nice instead that was a little more open.

Since I was there again and had missed out on Monaco last time, I decided that this would be the time when I was going to finally visit the land of playboy princes, hollywood princesses, jet-setters, mega-yachts, ritzy casinos, amazing experiences, beautiful people, glamor, excitement, fashion, fun, and fabulousness – all one square mile of it packed full of the images I’d always had in my head of this place since I was a child.

When I stepped out of the train station in Monte Carlo, which I almost missed because it was so quick to get there from Nice, I was in awe of finally setting foot on Montegasque soil (which is rhetorical because there’s naturally not much left in the entire country that isn’t built upon or artificially landscaped, but in a high-density country that you can walk across in 8 minutes that’s certainly to be forgiven).

Looking out across the narrow road, the first thing you see are yachts, but not nearly as many as I thought and certainly not as many as I had seen in Cannes earlier in the year or even in El Gouna on Egypt’s Red Sea coast. But a few of the yachts were big and beautiful and there were a lot of other smaller boats dotting the marina.

Then you look up and to the south and see the hilltop castle, home to the princes who have ruled Monaco for centuries, former home to THE Princess Grace of Monaco, God rest her soul. While majestic from sheer history and height, it was surprisingly not very castle-like in appearance. But there it was nonetheless, and I forced myself to be in awe because, well, there I was in Monaco standing next to yachts and looking up at the castle… IN MONACO.

I strolled down the boardwalk a little past some dusty run-down storefronts that were closed or dead until I saw a sign for the casino. But this wasn’t just any casino. This was THE casino… in Monte Carlo… in Monaco. This is where, as common knowledge tells us, the rich and the royals and the jet-setters have gone to gamble and frolic for nearly a century and a half. I imagined beautiful women in sequined gowns and fur stoles and men with slicked-back, jet black hair in tuxedos drinking champagne as they crowded around lively games of craps and roulette at all hours of evening, night, and into the morning.

I climbed several flights of steep stairs and wound my way through a garden path to finally stumble on the plaza over which the fabled Casino de Monte Carlo reigns, but was surprised at how small it was. Still, that was it and there might as well have been Red Bull running through my veins because I was so pumped and excited to be standing right where I was at that moment.

As I looked around the small plaza, Ferraris and Lamborginis and Porches and Bentleys were parked all around its edges, and tourists and Monegasques (ok probably just tourists) sipping espresso and wine filled the outdoor cafes on what turned out to be an incredibly gorgeous early autumn day. A billboard promoting an upcoming concert by Tarkan, the Turkish mega-star, lorded over everyone in the distance, and the ultra-modern architecture of the buildings across the road contrasted beautifully with the classic facade of the Hotel de Paris to round out the plaza’s perimeter.

But it was still early and I must have looked like a hot mess because I came straight from stepping off of an eight-hour flight to hopping on the train to walking half-way across the country (literally!) to finally find myself in the middle of it all. I hadn’t even checked into my hotel yet, but luckily I was only traveling with a small backpack filled with my MacBook, a few magazines, and a few starter clothes (I usually prefer to buy a few outfits when I arrive so I don’t have to carry as much luggage). Still, I wasn’t dressed for my first real Monaco experience, so off to find my hotel I went.

I walked nearly the entire length of the country in my first hour there between my initial exploring and making my way to the hotel. I had a reservation at the Le Meridian, which is at the top edge of the country just inside of its northeastern border with France. As I strolled about en route to the Le Meridian, I passed Ferrari and Rolls Royce dealerships and shops for some of the most recognizable names in high fashion, but I was strangely taken aback by how 1960-ish most of the buildings looked. This was Monaco, but it looked somewhat like Baltimore, just with more Ferraris casually passing by.

The hotel was nice enough and I was exhausted by this point, so I opted to settle in for a little while and take a short nap to get ready for what would surely be a dazzling Friday evening and night out on the town in Monte Carlo. I don’t normally travel with a tuxedo, so after my rest I threw on the trendiest outfit I had with me and stuck back out to hit the town.

Back at the plaza, I pre-gamed on pumpkin ravioli and white wine at a cute little outdoor cafe and watched the tourists and the Ferraris come and go. I instagramed my dinner, finished off the bottle, splurged on dessert, then made my way over to the casino to win my playboy fortune.

There was a 10 euro cover charge for the casino, which I was totally ok with because I assume tourists come there all the time just to check out the famous casino and not actually patronize it. But I was there to gamble, and 10 euro was a small price to pay for the glamorous evening that surely awaited me inside.

Once in the Casino de Monte Carlo, one can’t help but be struck by the ornate grandeur of its interior. The building was no doubt beautiful and classy, even if it was rather small. But that’s about where the fairytale came to a screeching halt. When my head turned from looking up at the ceiling to looking around the room, it pains me to say that I was sorely disappointed in what I saw – two wide open rooms largely devoid of not only people, but also gambling.

There were a few games here and a few tables there, a few small restaurants off to the side, and of course a bar, but that’s about it. I’ve seen a more robust gambling scene at roadside bingo halls in the Carolinas than I was seeing at THE famous Casino de Monte Carlo in Monaco. Surely this was all just a bad dream and I had yet to wake up from my nap. Alas, it wasn’t so.

Of course I still couldn’t give up the opportunity to play a few hands at blackjack. There were only two tables – a 25-euro table and a 100-euro table. I started out at the 100-euro table and played for about 20 minutes before I got bored. There was only one other player at the table and just no excitement whatsoever in the room. It was a Friday evening in Monte Carlo, and I might as well have been at a nursing home in Madison.

After losing a few hundred euro, I left. I have no problem paying (i.e., losing) good money for a few hours of fun and excitement in a casino. But this was a snoozefest, and I bolted to go explore some more.

I wandered into the centrally located Fairmont Hotel just around the corner, which, like many of the buildings in central Monte Carlo, appeared rather bland and run down. But just off the lobby was another casino that looked ever so slightly more lively than the Casino de Monte-Carlo, so I settled in there for a few more hands of blackjack. Within an hour I had won 1000 euro and I cut myself off. I decided to go back to my hotel and call it a night.

I had held Monaco in such high regard my entire life as a glamorous playground for the rich that was always abuzz with fun and excitement. This trip certainly burst the bubble of that image, and I could not have been more disappointed. Perhaps there’s more to Monaco that I didn’t see or experience. But on a Friday night in the center of what everyone thinks of as the global capital of ritz and glamour, nothing to justify the hype was evident or apparent.

I would love to visit Monaco again and be proven wrong. I would love to find the true Monaco that I’ve always dreamed of. I’d love to wake up from my nap and waltz into the room that must be out there of beautiful women in sequined gowns and handsome men in tuxedos laughing and engaging in witty and sophisticated conversation in French and English, clutching champagne flutes while throwing down hundreds of euros on a few hands just for entertainment during conversational lulls.

But until Monaco returns to its glory days, or until someone wakes me up to the hidden Monaco that I didn’t see, I’ll just have to keep dreaming.


Is Israel Safe for Tourists?

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Israel is located smack dab in the middle of one of the world’s biggest political hotspots. But it does take a few to keep this tiny country along the eastern Mediterranean safe and secure, and that seems to be why Israel is bouncing back big time in 2015.

Israel is no doubt one of the planet’s top bucket list destinations for travelers from all over the world. As a hub of three of the world’s major religions and being cradle-of-civilization-adjacent, the modern state of Israel literally sits on top of thousands of years of incredibly dense history. At the same time, it is also a diverse, vibrant, trendy, and modern country with great night life that would be a top tourist destination even without its ancient biblical roots.

In the past, semi-frequent wars and skirmishes with its neighbors have kept many would-be tourists at bay, and as recently as last summer a short conflict with the Hamas-led government in Gaza on its southwestern border ensured a recent flood of sensational news headlines in the States and Europe that left Israel’s tourism industry decimated.

But unbeknownst to many, over the past 15 years Israel has implemented a series of both low-tech and high-tech solutions that have amazingly rendered the vast majority of the country perfectly safe and secure even during the occasional flare-ups around its borders.

In 2002, following another round of suicide bombings intentionally targeting Israeli civilians, the government built a physical wall around nearly its entire border with the West Bank. The combination of enormous concrete slabs along some of the more urban stretches with highly sophisticated “smart fences” (which can detect cutting, climbing, jumping, and even stray animals) along the more rural parts of the border almost immediately helped bring about a 98% decline in terrorism in the country by the following year.

Similarly, Israel’s state-of-the-art Iron Dome missile defense system detects and shoots down any rockets that are now fired into the country from the militants who embed themselves in civilian neighborhoods in the neighboring Gaza Strip. While these rockets usually don’t go any farther than the desert area surrounding that border, ones that find their way farther into the country are met with not one but two Iron Dome intercept missiles as backup. Israel is even now nearing completion of a much more advanced system to intercept and destroy longer range guided missiles, such as the kind that more militarized countries like Iran would have access to.

While we in the United States have only had marginal success developing our own missile defense systems dating back to the days of the Star Wars initiatives under President Reagan, Israel has implemented a system of both tight border and air security that allows Israelis to now go about their daily lives under a blanket of relative calm, stability, and security. For tourists to Israel, this means that visiting the country and even traveling around within it is completely safe, despite the occasional incident or flare up that makes the news back home.

Last September, just two months after the brief conflict on its border with the Gaza Strip, a friend visited Israel for a week of vacation just to see what the situation was like on the ground. As predicted, hotels were empty, ancient and holy sites that are usually bustling were quiet, and tour guides were out of work and twiddling their thumbs on their couches. My friend said he felt like he had the whole country to himself at times, and indeed he was posting no shortage of fabulous selfies of himself alone at the King David Hotel’s pool and walking around the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Wailing Wall, and the Mount of Olives without anyone else in sight.

Despite tourists’ initial queasiness with returning to Israel in mid to late 2014, this year has begun to see a return to higher levels of international visitors. Just this month, in fact, Israel once again hosted the Middle East’s only LGBT Pride celebration in Tel Aviv and it was its largest one to date, not to mention one of the world’s hottest (and I’m not talking temperature) and most diverse Pride celebrations anywhere.

DJs on the beach pumped music out over the white sand and azure Mediterranean by day, and clubs and bars packed in crowds from all over Israel in addition to Europe, Asia, Africa, and North and South America by night. Cafes, restaurants, and tourist sites throughout the rest of the country were finally bustling again, and many visitors were even giving Jordan a little tourist love too by jetting over to Petra for a day while they were close by.

There’s no doubt that the political situation in the region remains tense and there are some very serious and consequential issues of territory, citizenship, and governance of the Palestinian people that must be settled before a true blanket of peace will fall on this part of the Middle East. But even while the political processes, dialogues, negotiations, and yes even occasional fights and skirmishes continue, the reality on the ground within Israel proper is that the country is certainly a secure and safe destination for international tourists to visit.


Where to Stay in Montreal

Montreal is all about F words – fun, food, fashion, fitness, French, and a whole lot of fabulousness!

On a recent trip to Quebec, I spent some time in Montreal exploring some of its higher-end hotels and figuring out what makes each one of these properties unique. While there, I visited, toured, stayed in, and checked out the services and amenities of three of the city’s most luxurious (and surprisingly affordable!) hotels – the W Hotel, the Loews Hotel Vogue, and the InterContinental Hotel. I found that each property has gone to great lengths to carve out a unique niche while also putting a distinctive Quebecois twist on their respective well-known international brands.

For the latest episode of The AIRistocrat on “Where to Stay in Montreal”, check it out here:

[Read more…]


HuffPost Travel: “Why I Left Delta and Took My Diamonds Elsewhere”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADelta Air Lines used to be the shiz in my eyes, and I used to pay a premium to fly them even when cheaper options existed elsewhere. But lately, I’ve come to prefer other carriers and I took to HuffPost to explain why:

“At the height of my Delta patronage, I probably spent at least $50,000 to $60,000 in one year alone (2012) on Delta tickets for myself and my company’s clients. I easily achieved their top tier loyalty level, Diamond Medallion, and was even a member of their exclusive Delta Private Jets club…

…But Delta had it’s chance to impress me, to keep me flying it’s friendly skies, and to make sure those skies were consistently friendly. They weren’t, and as a result I took my and my clients’ frequent travel business elsewhere.”

Read more on my other blog over at HuffPost Travel.


HuffPost Travel: “Working It Out on the Go”


Yes, that’s really me. ;-)

It’s not easy trying to stay sexified, and its even harder when you’re traveling. All you gorgeous readers out there know what I’m talking about:

“The airline travel experience accommodates most of our modern lifestyle obsessions, from greasy fast food options in every terminal to mobile charging stations at every gate and even wi-fi now on most flights. But there is one modern lifestyle obsession that the airport/airline industry has yet to catch on to and accommodate — fitness.”

But there’s one thing that could help all you jet-setters keep up with your hotness on the go. Its it the wave of the future for airports and airline lounges, or just my wet dream?

Read more on my other blog over at HuffPost Travel.


Mom’s Private Chopper Charter Stunt + Delta’s Bait & Switcheroo

heliSo the AIRistocrat has been laying low for quite a while, hanging out incognito in Washington, DC and stirring up trouble there. Today I got word, however, that my mom had a stroke this afternoon and is being helicoptered from the sticks where she lives and plays bingo (kidding… that’s a sin) to a hospital better suited to treat stroke victims. Since I’ve shockingly never flown in a helicopter before, I’m fully expecting to get there tonight and find out she was just trying to one-up me on first-class private travel. She did that once before in 2008 when she conveniently decided to get severe pneumonia and go into congestive heart failure and then a coma just to get a private charter copter ride over to Duke. That sneaky snake! She was later fine back then, and I’m sure she’ll be fine after this episode too. My mom’s a tough cookie.

So as soon as I found out she was headed via air to the hospital, I booked a ticket to fly down South from DC. When I booked, Delta decided to tease me by offering me an upgrade to first class for only 70 bucks or so above the fare I was already paying. Damn them. So I went for it and figured, what the hell. If I’ve gotta stress for the next few hours, might as well stress in style again.

Well… imagine my surprise when I load my boarding passes on the spiffy Delta app and realize my second flight is in economy. Say whaaaa? Surely the short connection hop is a one-cabin aircraft, you’re thinking, right? Wrong! Turns out, Little Miss Delta did a bait and switch on me today. “Pay more to upgrade your ticket to first class.” Sold. Checkout. Then, BAM! I get my boarding pass and their tune is suddenly – “haha just kidding! That up-sell you paid more for was only for half of your trip today. We just forgot to disclose that in our tease.” Wtf?!?

When I get to the airport, homegirl at the ticket counter is evidently annoyed that I have a question about the bait n’ switcharoo and thinks that I should just be thankful that I’m on the status-based standby list for an upgrade, should one become available. However, the likelihood of that happening now that the cabin is sold out is somewhere between not gonna happen and “all those Tweens being ice-bucket-challenged are actually gonna follow through on those donation pledges” likely.

So Delta squeezes more money out of me by offering an upgrade to first class, but what they really meant was an upgrade on one segment only, but they didn’t say that in the tease or any-freggin-where before I hit “purchase” and dash off to the airport. And that’s legal and ethical how again?

On the brighter side of the moon, I’m on that flight now (the first class one, not the fraudulent second leg) and I have the cutest and sweetest flight attendant. I bitch and moan and complain so much about substandard service in my travel blogging (because believe it or not, it’s just so damn common), so I thought I’d at least provide some equal opportunity, fair and balanced-ness when I see right happen. I can’t tell this super sweet flight attendant’s name on her super tiny winged name badge and I don’t want to look too hard b/c it’ll look like I’m staring at her boobs then she might get all feminist on me and stuff. Can’t have that. I need her to keep topping off my baileys on the rocks, which she’s been pretty good about thus far.

Turbulence. In life, in love, on this trip, and even on this flight. Ugh. Just give me another baileys. And make it a double, please.


A Hay Ride on Wings

swaTake some industry-bucking practices, add in some thumbing your nose at the mass search engines, factor in staff and flight crew with personality and the elusive airline-industry smile, stir in some actually decent annual profits, and what do you get? No, not Emirates. Southwest Airlines! Say whaaaa? I know, right.

Bless it’s little heart – the one in the middle of those wings in its logo I guess. Southwest Airlines is just… awwwweeeeee. The AIRistocrat wants to dump on it so bad, being the world’s [probably] sole coach-only airline and all, but it’s just sort of too down-home precious for me to go all the way. As one friend described the experience to me today, it’s like “a hay ride on wings.”

So why is The AIRistocrat flying Southwest, with a layover in an airport that has no discernible Elite-Rich-People Club (that I could find… Houston Hobby)? Well, primarily because the trip was a comp, and because the plane happens to dump off in Las Vegas, so at least there was a pot of gold (or casino coins) at the end of the rainbow.

Would I fly Southwest on my own, if not handcuffed and strapped to a gurney (now we’re talking!)? Probably not. But I endured it. I will say, however, that one of the redeeming things about SWA is supposed to be the comedian flight attendants. While they all certainly seem more chillaxed than UpTight Airlines Inc. (i.e., every other American carrier), I didn’t get Pam Ann on either of my two SWA flights today. Bummer.


Flying 3-Room Apartments Are the New “First Class” on This Middle Eastern Airline

Competing for the best first class airline service in the world is SO 10 years ago. Now the world’s best airlines (spoiler alert: none of them are American) are tripping over themselves to one-up one another in the art of spoiling the uber-elite travelers whose uber-elite fares subsidize the cheap seats in the back of the plane (or these days, on the bottom level).

First, back in the day, those first class seats got super fancy schmancy, with fully flat beds and lots of compartments and such. Then that became passé (note: American carriers are still stuck at this level, if that), so the Middle Eastern carriers started adding mini walls around them (talking about you, Emirates). Then those walls got higher,  and we even got the ability to combine two of these “suites class” seats to form a full bed (thanks, Singapore Airlines). They also started adding bars and lounges up there and Emirates even installed a full fledged shower.

Not to be outdone, however, Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways has now built a damn 3-room apartment, which it’s calling “The Residence,” in the front of its new A380s. No, I’m not kidding. No, really… I’m not.

The new flying mini-palace will feature a cozy living room that comfortably seats 2, a full bathroom with a shower, and a bedroom with a full bed. And the airfare… around $43,000. At least that’s for two people.

However grandiose and over the top, this is still cool as hell. Can’t wait to try it! Call me, Etihad.

Etihad Residence




Awesomeness Amid Chaos

I saw this video from Alawj Media linked on someone’s Facebook page and had to click. I thought it was going to be something totally different, given the current chaos going on in Iraq right now, but sometimes it takes a little live-esque video footage to show us the normalcy and timelessness that actually goes on in some of these places that we in Le West believe are burning to the ground as we speak.

I used to do this in Egypt during the revolutionary period, when our media at home always showed b-roll of protests and riots while on the ground it was calm and peaceful and normal. But these time-lapsed vids are unlike anything I’ve seen out of Iraq. While there is certainly some chaos going on there in certain parts of the country right now, this shows that there is also some perennial awesomeness still going on amid said chaos.


Checking You Out While Checking You In

idealfaThis kind of shiznit is why I love Virgin Atlantic. They’re not only fashion-forward and branding geniuses, but they’re tech-forward too. But what’s kind of weird about this is that when one of these cyborg stewardesses approaches you, how do you know if she’s looking at you or the info about you in front of her. And how do we know that he’s not downloading an image of us from one of those body scanners? Not only might those queens be checking out an overlay of your junk as they bring your martini, but they’re more likely to catch those mini bottles of amaretto I hid in my carry-on too. Oh well, if they know to bring me a quick refill on my double bailey’s without me asking, it’s all worth it. Onward sky warriors.