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Really low fares from London to Paris? Try the train!

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I have been flying across Europe for years, both for business and leisure, and I have to admit I have never had any amazing flight experiences. Not one single great story to tell about equipment, food or service. Sure, I have a slight preference for major carriers due to greater amount of leg room and (usually) easier to reach gates, but I most often end up travelling on low-cost carriers due to the price difference.

But now, I have something to say. Since my move to Paris I have been using the Eurostar train very frequently. THIS is travel!!!

To start, obviously, the train goes from Paris city center to London city center, so I avoid wasting time and money to reach remote airports terminals.

Next big thing: the Eurostar check-in is fully automated and takes about 10 seconds. Security is slightly faster than in airports but a similar process.

The next step is simply to sit down in your comfortable, wide seat and enjoy (or work, as I often do). No queuing up at the gate, no queuing up at the aircraft, no seatbelts, no security demonstrations and, more specifically, if you have to work on a laptop or can’t live without music (or both), no downtime switching off during take-off and landing. No complimentary coffee spilling over your book, no toilets for contortionists, no shaky situations.

Even more significantly: there is relatively little engine noise, so you can enjoy music, focus on work and have real conversations. Not to mention a large bar/restaurant area, where you can stretch and walk around.

The Eurostar booking process is also quite easy. The website is not top notch modern and sometimes goes bezerk, but it allows you to find the best fares and to select your own seat. You can pay online and just pickup your ticket at the machine once you show up for departure.

The Eurostar fares can be just as dramatically low as they can be high. Booking 3-4 weeks in advance gives you fares for 77 euros (60 pounds) Paris-London or London-Paris round trip! But booking within one week can take you north of 600 euros (500 pounds). If you’ve missed the good fares, try to search for ‘secondhand’ tickets on Google: there is one French website where you will easily find tickets. The fine print says that Eurostar tickets cannot be resold (the name is printed on the ticket). In practice, check-in and passport control are separate, and I have never heard of anyone being caught.

The only bad news is there can be queues at peak times.  If you’re travelling on a Friday evening London to Paris, for example, the station will be full of cosmopolitan commuters going home for the weekend.

Bottom line: I am surprised there are still flights operating between London and Paris at all. Unless you live or work next to an airport, or are on a connecting flight, there is no doubt in my mind: you should book early and ride the train.

Oh yes, and one more advantage: at arrival, get off the train, and you’re done! No taxing to gate, no shuttles, no luggage belts, no passport checks, not even customs….

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Where to Dine in Nice, France

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This is the second, juicy post in the Nice, France, series (check out the Nice, Part I blog here). In fact, this will probably be the juicest post of all, given that it’s all about food and wine!

After 7 years living in Nice, I’ve experienced lots of good restaurants…and lots of places to avoid!

I’ll save you 7 years of exploration with these few lines.

Local Specialties

The local cuisine is strongly Mediterranean – think olive oils, vegetables, fresh fish and delicious, roasted meats. Local specialties include the socca, a thin waffle made of chick peas, the pissaladiere, a thin, pizza-like bread with onion and olives, petits farcis, which are roasted vegetables stuffed with flavored meats, and, one of my favorites, la daube, which is basically beef stewed in red wine and served with fresh tagliatelle or ravioli.

There are many small restaurants in the Old City serving local specialties at decent prices – just ask around for a place that serves fresh socca. To try most local specialties in one sitting, look for L’Estocaficada, which has prices around 35 euros and serves 12 or so local specialties.

For some more upscale cuisine, try to get a seat at the bustling La Merenda. They don’t take reservations and only accept cash – it’s very small and always packed, so you can imagine how good the food is!

Local tip: just behind the Nice Etoile shopping centre (tramway stop Jean Medecin), there is a small, hidden street called rue Biscarra with 4-5 small restaurants that have terraces and small tables. These restaurants are beyond the typical tourist radar – definitely worth a visit! The best one is Vin Sur Vin, a winery serving wine (yes), cheese and sausages platters, fantastic meat and a consistently tasty dish du jour.

The old town is also full of hidden surprises. If you want join some locals for a few drinks, look for Les Distilleries Idéales or La Civette du Cours.

A (Michelin Star) Japanese Chef in Nice.

Yes, Keisuke Matsushima is a Japanese chef who has practiced French cuisine with top culinary experts; lucky for us, he ended up in Nice, where he setup a comfortable Zen-style restaurant, “Keisuke Matsushima” (previously called Kei’s Passion). This French restaurant – with a Japanese twist – is definitely worth a visit: think wasabi beef or fried zucchini with green tea sauce. Yum. His Michelin Star means prices are in the range of: 40-50 euros (lunch) and 130-150 euros (dinner).

(If you can’t live without your Japanese food while on holiday, there are plenty of sushi/Japanese restaurants in Nice, but they are mostly managed by Vietnamese or Chinese staff. In fact, there is only one real Japanese restaurant called Kamogawa, with real Japanese staff. Sushi-ya is a decent sushi shop with a Chinese chef, who did actually work for years making sushi in Japan. MySushi in the old town has a real Japanese chef but it’s overpriced , probably due to it’s centural location.)

Italian Restaurants in Nice

Given Nice’s proximity to Italy (and remembering that the Nice region was once part of the Italian Kingdom!), it’s not a surprise to find a flurry of Italian restaurants – pasta, pizza and all the rest – scattered throughout the city. But beware! Most of them are pale imitations, copying the Italian menus but delivering bland versions of the dishes. For a relatively safe bet, try La Villa d’Este and La Voglia (same owners, different locations – the first in the pedestrian rue Massena and the second just next to the Cours Saleya or “flowers market” in the Old Town). Both places serve wood oven-fired pizzas, abundant antipastis and pasta al dente. Unbeatable is their spaghetti ai frutti di mare (with seafood), served in the perhaps the largest individual bowl I’ve ever seen. Also delicious is their tiramisu dessert.

For something upscale, right across the street from Villa d’Este is the Boccaccio, famous for its seafood platters. For fresh seafood, don’t miss the traditional Cafe de Turin in Garibaldi Square. Another nice pick is the vegetarian-friendly La Zucca Magica, next to the port, with a fixed price menu (around 30 euros) changing every day.

Ice Cream (French – glace ; Italian – gelato) in Nice

Despite its proximity to Italy, the vast majority of ice cream shops in the French Riviera are rip off joints, only serving scoops of the same industrial ice cream that you can buy yourself in any supermarket.

A couple of exceptions can be found in Nice: Fenocchio and Crema di Gelato.

Ice Cream in Nice, France

Fenocchio has 2 shops in the old city, the largest one on the small square Rossetti, where they serve many flavors including local herbs (and even flowers!), such as tomato, garlic, lavander, thyme, violet, or rose. A must try experience.

Fenocchio’s icecream is produced in-house and is colder and icier than the real Italian gelato (if you squeeze it with your teeth you will feel like you are crunching many microscopic ice crystals….)

Crema di Gelato, on the sqare facing the Justice Palace, is totally Italian (so Italian that the owners barely speak French) and only serves 15-20 flavors, but the quality is divine. Unmissable are nocciola (hazelnut) and amarena (sour cherry and cream).

(Italian gelato is softer and smoother than ice cream as you may know it…)

Two other excellent gelato shops, which are located less central, are La Gelateria Torinese in Avenue Gambetta, and Arlequin on Avenue Malaussena.

Nice’s Nicest Beach Restaurants

Don’t expect to find fancy food here, but the charm and atmosphere of dining on the beach – overlooking the blue sea and sailboats zigzagging around the bay – is unmissable. I guess this is why the food is generally overpriced.

I’ll never remember a beach restaurant for the food that they served me…but they are worth the extra cash for the scenery, especially if you’re with good friends or on a romantic getaway.

Two are worth noting here: the first one is the Castel Plage, which the ‘leftmost restaurant’ on the Nice beach (when you’re staring at the sea). It’s quite posh and located just below the rocks, which makes the scenery even more beautiful.

The second one is the Hi Plage. This is brand new – just opened in the summer 2008, and I haven’t tried it, but it sounds great: the interior is apparently designed by the uber-trendy Hi Hotel, and the food is prepared by the one and only Keisuke Matsushima – him again! Can’t wait to try this one!

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Nice, France – Born Again: November 24th, 2007

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The sunny city of Nice, on the southern coast of France, inaugurated its new urban transport channel – a flashy 8.7 km electric tramway line, on Nov 24th, 2007. You can see an evocative video of the opening ceremony (10 MB) on the Nice city hall website.

But there is much more behind this event that justifies such a Hollywood-esque excitement and celebration: Nice has changed its skin; the dark years are over.

A two minute history of Nice and the French Riviera

The preferred sea resort of wealthy British and Russian aristocrats in the 19th century, Nice and the Cote d’Azur region, also known internationally as the French Riviera, opened up to mass tourism in the 50′s and 60′s, thanks to French and international movie stars flocking to its picturesque villages, including St. Tropez, Cannes, Antibes and Villefranche, while famous artists such as Pablo Picasso found their hideouts up in the hills of Vallauris, St Paul de Vence or Mougins.

The microstate of Monaco and princess Grace Kelly also contributed to the glamorous image of the area – in ’70s and ’80s, the masses invaded. Overcrowded beaches, large cement hotels, huge night clubs, casinos and France’s second largest airport after Paris saw the light, and a high-volume tourism economy made many small and big riches.

The 90′s, however, brought on signs of a flattening fame. Celebrities kept finding new hidden and fashionable destinations and only showed up for special events such as the Cannes Film Festival or the Monaco Grand Prix. Cultural tourists escaped the greasy summer beaches; young, hip travelers preferred the stylish Ibiza. Foodies looked for authentic French gastronomic experiences and thus discovered the southwestern regions of Perigord or Gironde, and ventured to various countryside regions in Italy (ok, not so French, but great food is great food after all).

Nevertheless, the fantastic weather (340+ sunny days per year) and scenic landscapes kept attracting an international and wealthy expat community, thanks also to the tech park of Sophia Antipolis, where leading multinationals such as IBM, Texas, Accenture, and Amadeus set up R&D or European headquarters.

But nothing stopped the decline of the city of Nice. Overpriced hotels and restaurants – not restyled since the 60′s – along with crime, prostitution, corruption, a clogged traffic infrastructure…the population saw it all. The new century saw a dark, old, dirty and boring summer destination on the decline. The number of hotel rooms sold fell by 15-20% between 2000 and 2004.

A destination reborn

Following the global travel recession of 2001, the local politicians came to the conclusion that something different had to be done. They managed to agree and invest in a cross-city development plan targeted at improving infrastructure and mobility in the area.

The plan included:

- A new super modern airport terminal and favorable conditions to attract low-cost carriers from all European cities

- The redesign of Nice’s inner city highway enabling easier morning/evening commuting.

- The redesign of the famous “Promenade des Anglais” seafront with less parking spaces and an enlarged pathway, ideal for beach front jogging or inline skating.

- The complete “pedestrianization” of the historical old city center and nearby areas.

- The cleaning up of all beaches with dedicated areas for volleyball, as well as sandboxes for babies (the rest of the beaches are pebbly), and reasonable alternance of free and paid-service beaches.

- And, of course, the grand opening of the high-tech electric tramway, crossing all key areas of the city of Nice, from the rail station to the shopping district, the old town, the bus station and the seafront.

All of these works didn’t come for free. Construction works made the life of the Nicois miserable, created endless traffic jams, opened the door to more political corruption, and took years longer than originally planned.

Paradoxically, this was exactly what was needed, in evolutionary terms, to get rid of the weakest individuals of the population.Many small business owners who made their money without much effort in the previous decades decided to give up and retire, scared by the further loss of business due to all the ongoing works. Small restaurants, shops, hotels and entire shopping centers have been progressively taken over, shut down and refurbished by young and global-savvy teams, importing design trends and ideas from the world’s leading capitals. In particular, a prominent gay community elected Nice as a favorite trendy and fashionable European hotspot.

The city unveiled its new look on Nov 24th, 2007, with a grand ceremony to welcome the new tramway.

This is the first of several post about things to do in Nice, France. I live there (here),as I write.You can easily subscribe to the feed alerts by clicking the big bad orange square button below (or on top of the page), and feel free to ask questions while I’m still a Nicois.

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Orlando for Dummies

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My American friends call it Orlando, Florida, which means there are probably tens of other Orlandos across the US? But this one is the holy grail of consumer tourism. Theme parks have popped up like mushrooms with a symbiotic generation of hordes of hotels and restaurants to welcome fun hungry tourists.Beyond Disneyworld, EPCOT, Animal Land, Universal Studios, and Sea World, there must be other 20 parks: the pirate’s park, the water park, the fear park, the parrot’s park…And rolling across Orlando by car is an endless sequence: hotel, restaurant, hotel, restaurant, park, hotel, restaurant, t-shirt shop, restaurant, park, hotel..At the airport, I ask for a map to find out how to get to the hotel. I get offered a free, 150-page guide. The requested map is one on one thin page, and the other 149 pages are dedicated to ads for parks, restaurants and hotels. The last page is the pearl – a tipping guide, teaching Europeans how to tip! 15% for cabs and restaurants, 1 buck for suitcase handling, 1 buck for asking the concierge for directions, and 2-3 bucks if the directions are complex.Orlando, Florida: Land of the Tip.Restaurants are competing in a permanent race to put more stuff on your plate. We spent the first evening at a conference buffet. Great idea: you can pick, choose and pace your meal. But the second evening, we had a team dinner at a famous steak house, where obviously, they do steaks. The waiter carries a large tray full of fresh meat cuts – it’s the menu. WaiterShe goes on to tell us every detail about every cut: age, weight, texture, taste, most appropriate cooking method. She’s fighting for her 15% tip. (I should have recorded the speech).I go for a respectable, 23 ounce filet mignon (there are only 2 in each cow, I learn). It’s called “The Fabulous.” When I order, she nods in confidence: “The Fabulous – good choice.” I feel important. The slab of meat, which lands on my dish 5 minutes later, also looks important. Perfectly cooked, melts in your mouth.But my ears start buzzing half way through. My body can’t take a full Fab.

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Unique Food and Wine Tasting Experiences in Paris

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For food lovers, no better place to start than Paris, of course. The city is so rich with culinary delights, that any list of “top picks” would be far from complete. But a few unique and unknown experiences do exist for those who want to experience something truly authentic and special.

Cuisine, a key aspect of French culture, is deeply interlinked with French society. The Ecole Polytechnique is France’s most selective and top-ranked educational institution, offering an equally prestigious dining experience to the public. It is possible to take a tour of the Orsay Museum, combined with a gourmet meal at the university’s Maison des Polytechniciens.

Or, if you are looking for something even more intimate and educational, you can take a private cooking class , led by a Countess in her private mansion in the charming Montmarte area.

Perhaps you are a wine lover? I recommend taking this small group wine tasting tour through central Paris. An expert guide will take you to a few specialised wine bars, or bistrots, allowing you to taste some of the finest wines produced on country.

Here is another small group wine tasting itinerary in the Latin district (rue Mouffetard).

Paris is also well-connected to the unique, delectable experiences of neighbouring cities and regions. Try any of these:

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