Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Paris: Travel Tips

I spent all of six days in Paris and won't pretend to be any sort of expert.  But through my travel research I found many websites and blogs with invaluable advice for any trip to Paris. To me, planning and researching a trip abroad can be (almost) as amazing as the actual trip itself. It requires hours of studying photos, reading reviews and emailing various hotels and restaurants. Every time I visit a new website it's like taking a quick trip; it's escapism.  And it's particularly exhilarating when I'm traveling somewhere new.  Since it was my first trip to Paris, everything I read about was that much more colorful in my mind.   But the trip so far exceeded those daydreams.  I am so grateful to not only enjoy doing the "work" involved in planning my trip but that my research led to what I like to call the trip of my dreams as well.

Tip 1:
Do your research on hotels and restaurants.  I am a huge believer in Tripadvisor.com.  I want to know what people's past experiences are. I realize that every once in a while a wonderful hotel will get a rotten guest so I always take a bad review with a grain of salt.  I also like being referred to hotels and restaurants by people I know or even people I don't know but trust as travelers/ eaters. For this particular trip I found my hotel on Goop.com.  Yes, I know. Gwyneth Paltrow can be completely out of touch when it comes to we "lay" people. But she does have exquisite taste. During one trip to NYC I ate completely off her restaurant guide and loved every one of them.  And when I saw that she recommended a small, affordable boutique hotel in the heart of St. Germain in her Paris blog posting, I went straight to Tripadvisor.com to read the reviews and then booked it. *On the flip side, if you really like a hotel or have any hiccups with it, it is great to visit Tripadvisor.com and write a review. It's like returning the favor to your fellow travelers.

Tip 2:

Plan well in advance.  If you are taking a trip to somewhere as far away as Paris, chances are you book it at least six months in advance. Most of the restaurants I visited were really tough reservations.  I started my reservation "campaign" about four months in advance.  I was only unable to secure one reservation.  Otherwise, I really took the time to work with each restaurant.  I ranked my restaurants in order of what I wanted to go to the most. First on that list was a Joel Roubouchon restaurant so I emailed them first. Once I locked that down I attempted the next restaurant and gave them my available dates so that they could work with me.  And on and on.  Unfortunately, OpenTable.com isn't in Europe yet but they do have a site called http://www.lafourchette.com/.  I was able to get a very tough reservations through the site.  And when you don't have international cell service to phone the restaurants, online reservations are very welcome.  I would get a crazy weird high after locking each reservation down. And that wasn't even the best part.  Little did I know what was to come...  (more on the food in another blog entry).

Tip 3:

Know what you want in a hotel.  Do the same thing you would in making a wish list for buying a new home: what is important to you in finding a hotel to suite your needs?  When it came to finding my hotel in Aix, I really wanted a pool.  After the hustle-bustle of Paris, it was really important that I get some R&R by the pool.  Equally important was it to find a hotel within walking distance to town.  Because I was alone, I didn't want to rent a car.  I also LOVE walking. During those daydreams whilst planning my trip, I envisioned myself sitting by the pool and then walking to town for dinner.  And that is exactly what I did.  What made my decision so easy was that there was only one hotel with a pool and was also within walking distance of town, Le Pigonnet, where I ended up staying.  Done and done!  And because it was a little more expensive than I had planned, I was able to save up for it having planned the trip so well in advance. 

Tip 4:

I'm a geeky foodie.  Reading about restaurants and chefs makes me giddy. I can forget a person's name within two minutes of  meeting them but I never forget the name of a chef at any given restaurant. Everyone who knows me knows that Anthony Bourdain is my God. And when it comes to finding great restaurants, Anthony Bourdain is my go-to source for finding them.  His mantra is eat like the locals do. Avoid American chain hotel restaurants. Eat at the mom and pop spots. Since he has been to most major cities in the world for his TV shows and has had to do a lot more of the travel research than I have, I really trust him and his crew. Every show he has ever done whether it be No Reservations, The Layover or most recently, Parts Unknown, has a bog entry. Not only does he list the names of all the restaurants but the hotels and unique sites to visit as well.  Mind you, those sights will never be the Eiffle Towers or the Arch de Triumphs.  Think really, REALLY obscure. Here are two links to his the Paris blogs for No Reservations and the Layover respectively:
http://www.travelchannel.com/tv-shows/anthony-bourdain/travel-guides/paris-1?cat=all&page=2 & http://www.travelchannel.com/tv-shows/the-layover/travel-guides/40-hours-in-paris?cat=all&page=3

Tip 5:

Visit FoodandWine.com.  Here are two great links regarding Paris eats: http://www.foodandwine.com/articles/paris-travel-guide-paris-restaurants  & http://www.foodandwine.com/restaurants/list/ile-de-france-paris/page/2.  Food and Wine magazine has been around for a long time.  I don't know who is responsible for finding the restaurants in the various cities but I have used their restaurant guides for years.  My Summer trip last year was to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  I was given the task of reserving restaurants every night.  The first thing I did was to Google FoodandWine.com/ Santa Fe.  Most of our reservations were sourced from Food and Wine and they were all excellent.  For this Paris trip, I was surprised to find that a good portion of those that were on Anthony Bourdain's blogs were also on Food and Wine. There is a good chance that wherever you are going, the city will have a blog posting by either Tony B or Food and Wine or both. 

Tip 6:

Join the emailing list for TheParisKitchen.com.  They offer invaluable advice on eating in Paris.  Just last week they posted about the Do's and Don'ts of eating in Paris.  How I wish I would have known the real rule of thumb about tipping in France.  I honestly had no idea what to do about tipping at restaurants and put change down several times at very high end restaurants, apparently this is a huge no-no.  Here is a short excerpt from that posting which was written by actual restaurant employees:

"DON’T leave small coin change as a tip unless you are in a coffee shop. It is insulting.
Forget all the conflicting tipping information out there. DO leave a 10% tip in cash on the table before leaving if you enjoyed the overall experience, because the team shares what you leave."

They also talk about the hottest restaurants of the moment and often have interviews with those chefs and where those chefs like to eat which is always fun to read about.  I mean, don't you want to eat where the best chefs in Paris eat?!

Tip 7:

Go to the restaurants that are the hardest to get into for lunch or at off times.  The one reservation I could not secure was at Le Comptoir which is pictured up top. It is notoriously the hardest reservation to get in Paris.  It requires a stay at the hotel attached or booking at least six months out. They really did try to work with me which I appreciated.  If you are unable to secure a reservation then go to the restaurant at an off time.  I happened upon Le Comptoir on my last night in Paris at around 4p and easily got an outside table.  That's all it took for me to feel like I had "been" to Le Comptoir. It may not have been the famous $45 week night -- prix fix tasting menu, but it was still pretty damn lovely. 

Tip 8:

Leave a few nights free for the concierge to book restaurants for you.  Chances are that if you are staying in a decent to nice hotel, they are going to have connections and be accustomed to discerning traveler's tastes.  My trip to France included four days in Aix-En Provence.  After having studied and researching so much about Paris, I really wanted to know very little about slower paced Provence.  I didn't have a single reservation in Aix.  And one of my very favorite meals came from a restaurant recommended by my hotel called Chez Mitch.  Your concierge will know about off the beaten path restaurants.  There are going to be nights where you don't feel like dressing up and doing a five course tasting menu and want something a little less fussy. Those are the perfect nights to consult the experts on quaint and locals only.

Tip 9:

Grab a map and do the sights on foot or via the metro.  I'll never forget the day that I walked ten miles round trip to Le Sacre Coeur.  It was the first day with no rain and the streets were slick and the sun was shining.  All I had was my map and my tunes.  I strategically planned my route whilst in bed with coffee and set out for my journey after an enormous omelet  at Café Flore. I happened upon an area that was so un-Paris-like to me.  I am so glad I was able to see such a different side of the City of Lights -- the darker, more gritty side. I was also able to see most every tourist spot on foot.  How often do you get to run by the Eiffel Tower or through the Luxembourg Gardens in the pouring rain?!

I feared the metro for my first four days in Paris. Since I had to take it to Roland Garros for the Open, it was time to come head to head with my fears.  Figuring the metro system on my own was no small feat but once I did it felt like I had conquered Paris.

Do things that challenge you or take you out of your comfort zone.  Isn't that what traveling is all about? 

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