Thursday, December 29, 2016

Six hours in Hanoi - and how to make the most of them!

Sometimes it happens. You find yourself in a cool, new place you're dying to explore - maybe it's a layover, maybe it's a business trip - and you find yourself with very little time. I found myself in exactly this situation in Hanoi, Vietnam. 40 hours - but of that I'd be working at least 18, sleeping for 16, and trying to adjust to an eleven hour time difference.  How best to take advantage of the few hours I had to explore?
First - it can't be said enough - location is key. If you can stay within walking distance, or an easy cab ride, of a number of attractions, you have crossed your first hurdle. Hanoi is divided into neighbourhoods, and a convenient one for both business traveler and tourist is the French Quarter.
Here you will find wide, shady boulevards, French colonial architecture and sidewalks. Really - sidewalks - it doesn't take 6 hours to discover how rare these are in Vietnam. With an urban population of more than three million people, and twice as many motorbikes, a sidewalk is a luxury you will come to appreciate.
The French Quarter is also where you will find the infamous Hoa Lo Prison or "Hanoi Hilton", and the well regarded Museum of Vietnamese Women. Both open at 8am, so you may be able to
squeeze in a visit first thing in the morning. You should be able to comfortably cover both in two hours.
An alternative in the morning is a walk to Hoan Kiem Lake, just north of the French District. Morning is a particularly good time to explore, before the city heats up and the humidity becomes oppresive. Due to the pleasant weather, morning is also the time to see the local population out exercising. Impromptu badminton games in local parkettes and a trove of seniors doing push ups, yoga and aerobics around the lake. Admire Turtle Tower in the distance; it honours the magical turtle who guards the sword for which the lake is named. Continue around the lake and visit Ngoc Son Temple. Open early as well, pay a small entrance fee, cross the bridge and explore the picturesque Buddhist temple located on a small island. A short cab ride away, and also open at 8am, is the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. Confirm first that it is not closed for maintenance, and remember to dress respectfully.
If you have some time midday, you may want to hire a cyclo for a tour. Either pick an organized tour or negotiate your own ride. An hour should cost you no more than $5. Your driver will show you some sights and you
can enjoy being a part of the crazy traffic rather than spending all your energy dodging it! An alternative is a scooter tour. Again, you can choose an organized tour, which will often include a lunch stop, or you can negotiate your own rates. It is amazing how much safer it feels on a scooter than trying to navigate around them!
So much to choose from in the evening - this will be a hard decision if your time is limited. Perhaps a performance at the beautiful, historic Hanoi Opera House, or a water puppet show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. Productions at the Opera House vary - symphonies, opera and ballet are all performed here. Water puppet shows, a unique tradition, are performed at 2pm and 8pm daily. Tickets are in high demand, and it pays to sit up close, so plan accordingly. Perhaps, instead, it's time to get in a little shopping and dinner. But first, you must try bia hoi or fresh beer! Dirt cheap, light and crisp, low in alcohol - so it's easy to throw  a few back quickly - bia hoi can be found all through the Old Quarter, just north of the French Quarter, on the east side of Hoan Kiem Lake. Made daily, without preservatives, bia hoi must be consumed the same day. The after work crowds are thickest between 5 and 6pm, but come any later and you may run the risk of an empty
So many choices for dinner, but if you've never had pho in Hanoi...pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup, made with loads of green onions and beef or chicken in a spicy broth is a must have. Wander through the shops and stalls of the Old Quarter. Buy anything from bras to televisions to tourist tchotchkes. Enjoy live music, impromptu street theater and endless opportunities to people watch. In a country where youth compose half the population, the streets are a lively extension of the home.
Remember the sidewalks in the French Quarter? You won't find any in the Old Quarter- and what space there is, is used to park motorcycles. It's not the parked ones you need to look out for however; there is no place that bikes may not try to go, so be vigilant. Vietnamese drivers do not give pedestrians the right
of way. When you decide to cross a street try to do so beside other people; give motorbikes room to move around you. And remember - he who hesitates is lost - or run over. Drivers will anticipate where you are going to go, so don't stop suddenly or make any unexpected moves.
Lastly, you must try ca phe trung. All Vietnamese coffee is delicious, but there is nothing like ca phe trung, or egg coffee, anywhere else in the world. It's not easy to find Cafe Giang, a hole in the wall joint located in the Old Quarter, but the recipe, created by the present owner's father in 1946, is the stuff of legends. Join throngs of Vietnamese people who come to sit, chat and sip the sweet marshmallowy yumminess which is ca phe trung.
Short but sweet - but better than nothing! Hanoi will leave you wanting more. The people are friendly, the weather is warm (okay - hot and wet - bring a rain poncho), and the food is delicious. For more travel tips on visiting Hanoi, contact Tour Guide Jack at, or visit Next stop - Ho Chi Minh City!

Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre

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Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre.

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Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Where to stay in Rome and why!

I probably spent more time deciding where to stay in Rome than the time I actually spent in Rome. It was an agonizing decision. Most people want to stay near the historical centre of Rome, and that is where you will spend the majority of your time. But the closer you get to the Trevi Fountain, the more Euros it is going to cost you. And if you, like Tour Guide Jack, travel on a budget, it may be hard to decide how much it's really worth.

First, consider how are you getting into the city? If you are coming by train, disembark at the Termini train station. If you are coming from Fiumicino Airport, you have the usual choices - bus, taxi, train and metro, or airport shuttle. Choose, bearing in mind, cost and convenience, but remember what looks great in theory might not seem so great if you've just gotten off a transatlantic flight. A taxi will set you back about 40 Euros; the Leonardo Express is a direct airport to Termini train costing 11 Euros each. If you are coming by taxi, it won't much matter where in the city centre you end up. If you're coming by train, then there's a lot to be said for staying within walking distance of Termini, the central train station.

Next consider where you will spend your days. If you're a first time tourist, odds are you're going to want to check out the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain. Two of those are located beside Metro stations - the Colosseum and the Spanish Steps. Although Rome is an immensely walkable city, its sheer size will mean at some point you will be wanting to return to your hotel for an afternoon siesta. Staying near Termini, and near a metro station, means you are never more than 1.50 Euros away from a well deserved nap. And if you're trying to pack more into a few days than might be humanly possible, the Metro will be a godsend. Especially when you discover how hard it is to hail a taxi in the Eternal City...

At some point, particularly in the heat of the summer, even the most hardy of explorers may need to put their feet up, and when they do - no need to stop sightseeing - jump on a Hop On, Hop Off bus. The particularly savvy traveler picks a hotel near a Hop On, Hop Off pick up stop. That way, when the day is done, you can hop off and hop right into bed.

If figuring all that out sounds like a lot of work, never fear, that's why Tour Guide Jack is here to help.
If clean and cheap, with a/c sounds good, try Hotel Montreal on Via Carlo Alberto. Free wifi and free breakfast - and an elevator!  A little more money, same street, Mecenate Palace - boasts a roof top terrace with beautiful views. Check them both out on But whichever you choose, choose early. Booking in December for the following July will already mean limited availability. Either one has you minutes from Metro stop Vittorio Emanuele, less than a ten minute walk from Termini train station and just minutes from the Santa Maria Maggiore bus stop. You are four metro stops from both Spagna (the Spanish Steps and Villa Borghese Park), and Colosseo (the Colosseum and Forum), and 7 stops from Ottaviano (the Vatican). And should you decide to splurge, you'll find a taxi stand close by - Piazza Navona is only a 10 Euro ride away!

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Should Cinque Terre be on your bucket list?


 Cinque Terre. Five tiny towns in the Italian Riviera. Rick Steves would have you believe there is no more magical place on Earth. And if you're the type that enjoys sitting on a rock, taking in the view, enjoying a glass of wine and the antics of fellow tourists, you will have a lovely time. So long as this will keep you endlessly entertained. Because, let's face it, in reality there's not much else to do.

Prior to my visit, I scoured the internet for things to see and do in Cinque Terre. There's not a lot of information out there. Now I know why - and I'm going to share my epiphany with you. That whole sitting on a rock, drinking a glass of wine thing? That about covers it. If you enjoy hiking, there are some of the most awe inspiring views to be had, but plan your visit accordingly. Not June to August when the heat is oppressive and a hike akin to setting yourself on fire. Perhaps April or October, when the crowds have thinned and the climb is not just bearable but enjoyable.


By all means, explore the towns: Riomaggiore, Vernazza, Manarola...all beautiful. Soak up the views, take lots of photos - just label them, because you will have a hard time telling one from the other when you get back home. Corniglia stands out, as the one high up on top of the cliffs; the others blend together into a beautiful, pastel, hazy sort of memory.

Can they be seen in one day? Some people make Cinque Terre a day trip. Consensus on the internet is that you cannot see them all in one day. Agreed. All you would take away is the memory of waiting in train stations. If your time is limited, pick no more than two. Have two or more days, then do yourself a favour and set yourself up in Monterosso, the most northern of the five towns, and by far the largest. But I mean large as in more than one street - not bustling metropolis. The other towns consist each of a single main street that never took more than ten minutes to explore from end to end.

When you disembark in Monterosso by train (or car, but hey this is a holiday, why drive?), allow your hot, sweaty self a moment  to just take in the view. This is Spaggia di Fegina, the largest and cheapest of the two beaches in Monterosso. It's close to some good eats, including take out, a few small stores in case you need some sun bloc or a floatie, and the price of a chair includes wifi and a washroom. You won't find much beach in the other towns, and if you have come in the hot summer months, this is where you will want to be. The water is warm, and deep, and the beach is rocky - bring water shoes. Flip flops don't cut it. You can rent a kayak or a stand up paddle board - just be prepared to leave a deposit - a credit card or cell phone. The prices aren't cheap, for either the

Many of the towns lack an easily accessible beach.

toys or the chair, but the tiny portion devoted to free public sunbathing is crowded and shade less. This will be money well spent.

Where you stay in Monterosso won't much matter. There is only one main street, running parallel to the beach, and another running inland into the historic section. It does have the odd local car trying to make a delivery, but is less hilly than the other towns and easily navigable by foot. If you are setting up base camp here for a few days, you will also appreciate the laundromat, small grocery store and wider selection of restaurants and wine bars. Just note,  take out sandwiches and pizza will be either unavailable or severely limited in the evenings so count on dining out, or stock up ahead of time.  By day, food choices are more plentiful, including an excellent patio restaurant situated at the far end of the smaller, more pricey beach, Bagina di Fegina.

Cinque Terre is made to be admired from afar. So be sure to get out on the water at some point. Rent a boat, or take a guided tour, or even just ride the ferry that links the towns. But plan accordingly - if you are breaking up a tour of Italy and need a break


from churches, art and mopeds, Cinque Terre is a delightful oasis. If you are not a beach person, come when the weather is most suitable for hiking. On a side note, many trails damaged form the 2011 flooding are still not restored. If you would enjoy a beach break in between Venice and Rome, be sure to stay in Monterosso, and explore the other towns late afternoon and evening. But if you can't squeeze Cinque Terre into your travel plans, the Amalfi Coast is equally beautiful....



Friday, April 8, 2016

Ten tips to save money like a travel pro, before you go!

Caught the travel bug? When it strikes, many people are apt to feverishly throw money away. Could be the margaritas, could be too much sun. But a few simple tips from Tour Guide Jack can help you save some of that dough - and put it toward something really worthwhile, like another vacation!

Tip Number 1: Before you book those flights, check what perks your credit card company may offer. Many cards include free cancellation insurance, health coverage, and rental car insurance. Know what you have, before you purchase any more.

Tip Number 2: Booking your travel online? Purchase travel through an Ontario registered company (regardless of where you live) and you are automatically protected if that travel agency, airline or cruise ship goes out of business. Travel agencies in Ontario, Canada must belong to TICO (Travel Industry Council of Ontario), an organization that protects consumers and regulates the travel industry.
Tip Number 3: Don't just compare the cost of airlines when you are pricing out your next flight - be sure to check what is, and is not included. If the cheaper flight charges for checked luggage, food and in-house entertainment, it might not be the best deal after all.

Tip Number 4: Know where you want to go, and when's the best time to go there. High season tends to be when school is out. From North America, you will pay a premium to fly anywhere July and August. Traveling in May, June, September, or October could save you hundreds of dollars. Having said that, be aware of the weather at your destination. September is quiet time at the Disney parks; it's also the height of Orlando's rainy season. Of course, traditionally fall is also when Disney offers a free meal plan to on-site guests. So weigh your pros and cons!
Tip Number 5: Pre-plan and book your excursions before you leave. Although going with the flow can be tremendously appealing, a little preparation can save you time and money. Book your European train travel ahead of time, and save as much as fifty percent off the cost of your tickets. Trenitalia in Italy, for example, sells limited numbers of tickets at a "super economy" price for early bookers, and there are sites that will notify you when seats are released so you can be sure to snag yours early.

Tip Number 6: The trend is to pack lightly and try to squeeze it all into a carry-on. Sometimes, this is a great idea, particularly if you are on a multi stop trip and have to drag luggage on and off trains, or up and down steps. But if you are travelling to a single destination, consider the potential cost of purchasing an item you left at home because it didn't fit in your carry-on. Not to mention the cost of purchasing toiletries if your 100ml size doesn't last the week. Variable weather might mean you want both the tank tops and the sweaters, not to mention the extra shoes. Sharing a full size suitcase with your travel mate might be more economical.
Tip Number 7: Invest in an e-reader. Carrying around an arm-load of books is heavy and cumbersome. Running out of books on vacation means either having to settle for someone's leftovers, or paying for over-priced novels with limited choice. Reading on your tablet requires wifi, and is nearly impossible under sunny conditions.  Besides, the battery life of an e-reader lasts forever and no one will want to play a game on it. And if you do run out of books, hook up to wifi and buy more. At the regular price.

Tip Number 8: If you are headed to a warm, sunny beach, and you are planning on some underwater photography, consider investing in an underwater, digital camera. Otherwise you might succumb to a disposable camera, which, it's easy to forget, cost a lot of money to develop.
Tip Number 9: Throw an empty water bottle in your bag, and fill it up once you have gone past airport security. No more over-priced airport water for you my friend! And to go with that water, how about a snack? Most airlines permit you to bring food through security - just make sure it is not liquid based. Enjoy your snacks either at the gate or on the plane. Just be sure to finish it all before arriving at your destination. Food cannot go through customs, so keep it out of your checked baggage.

Tip Number 10: Save time and money by having TourGuideJack plan a customized itinerary for you! Visit us at, mention this post and save 20%!
Happy travels!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Tip toe through the Tulips, eh?

With daylight savings, come thoughts of spring - and if you are thinking of tulips, Ottawa, Canada is your springtime destination. From May 12th - 23rd, Ottawa will be celebrating its annual Tulip Festival with music, buskers, WWII memorabilia and of course, millions of tulips. There's a bit of history behind this colourful, fragrant display - in May of 1940, following the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands, Queen Wilhelmina and the Dutch Royal Family were spirited out of the country to rule in exile from the United Kingdom. In June of that year, Princess Juliana brought her daughters Princess Beatrix and Princess Irene to the safety of Canada, They were housed at Stornoway — now the official residence of the Leader of the Opposition. And there, two and a half years later, Princess Juliana gave birth to a new daughter, Princess Margriet, at the Ottawa Civic Hospital. The problem with an otherwise joyous occasion, was that should baby Margriet be a Canadian by virtue of her birth, she would jeopardize her position in the line of succession. The solution? Temporarily declare the hospital Dutch territory and ensure the princess would hold exclusively Dutch nationality.
May 2, 1945, Princess Juliana and her children returned to the Netherlands. To thank Canadians for their hospitality, and their part in liberating the Netherlands, Princess Juliana sent a gift of 100,000 tulip bulbs. Juliana, who became Queen of the Netherlands in 1948, continued to send a gift of thousands of tulip bulbs to Canada each year of her reign.
Visit the Canadian Parliament Buildings, eat a beavertail at the ByWard Market, explore the Canadian War Museum, sleep behind bars in the former Carleton County Gaol (or at least take the Haunted Walk), tour the Supreme Court or check out the locks on the Rideau Canal - but be sure to take some time to stop and smell the tulips!

Monday, February 15, 2016

A New Orleans Family Vacation

Booking family travel for the March Break can be a daunting and expensive experience. Dismayed at the prices of airfare to get from Toronto to Orlando, even with connecting flights, I took the opportunity to cross another city off my bucket list and headed, not long ago, to New Orleans, Louisiana. March Break in many cities is an opportunity to reel in the tourists at inflated rates, but in New Orleans, Mardi Gras is over, and deals can be found from Ash Wednesday right through the March Break and beyond. There's lots to see and do -  ghost stories and swamp tours, a world class aquarium and Imax theatre, horse and buggy rides, voodoo shops and cemeteries -  there is a lot more to New Orleans than Bourbon Street, and plenty to entertain the under 21 crowd too.
But for a first time visit, typical tourist attractions will be high on your list, and most can be accommodated by walking if you situate yourself in or near the French Quarter. My then 12 year old son and I chose the New Orleans Courtyard Hotel on North Rampart Street as our home base. Once a Victorian mansion and private residence, today it features free wifi and a courtyard pool. Only a short walk to Bourbon Street and the heart of the French Quarter, the New Orleans Courtyard Hotel is close enough to make wandering Bourbon Street your nightly entertainment.
And entertaining, it is! Street performers, and buskers abound from  kid friendly magicians and musicians to the gold painted gentleman who stood frozen with his middle finger extended - probably the highlight of the 12 year old's trip.   If you're worried a tween/teen may restrict the adults in the party from imbibing a little of that New Orleans "spirit", rest assured, drinks can be purchased from take out windows along Bourbon, and enjoyed in plastic take-out cups.
We spent our first evening on a walking ghost tour, something I always suggest, as it helps you to orientate yourself, and pick places you might want to revisit later. I highly recommend picking the French Quarter Phantoms Ghost Tour. Their ticket pick up location has changed from Flanagan's Pub to the Voodoo Lounge on North Rampart, but the two for one Hurricane deal is still in effect, and you may score an awesome deal off Groupon.  Just under two hours, with a much needed pee break midway, the tour explores some of the better known villains of the area, such as the infamous Madame LaLaurie and her house of horrors, recently owned by Nicholas Cage and rumoured to have been sold to Johnny Depp.

From the balcony of this home, a young slave girl was reportedly chased until she fell to her death. According to our Phantom Tours storyteller, tourists regularly report to the police seeing a young girl fall from the balcony; so often so, that the police no longer investigate. The locals and police alike have learned to leave the ghosts well enough alone. Of course, if you choose to stay at the Andrew Jackson hotel, you may find yourself the unwitting victim of a few, long dead, pranksters. Apparently, the ghosts of several children who perished in a fire when the Jackson hotel was a boys’ boarding school, amuse themselves turning lights and televisions on and off, rearranging furniture and moving guests' clothing. Maybe not as unnerving as staying at the Cornstalk hotel next door, where guests report finding photos of themselves asleep taken with their own cameras.
Having survived the evening (and the sleepless night which followed), we woke up early the next morning for the first of two tours by Cajun Encounters. The first, a city and cemetery tour, took us by bus around the city. Highlights include the homes of Sandra Bullock, Anne Rice and the Manning in the historic Gardens district, an emotional tour of the lower Ninth Ward, still devastated some ten years after Hurricane Katrina, and a walking tour of St Louis Cemetery. 

This tour provides a taste of New Orleans' rich and varied history and explains the Spanish influence in architecture, the emergence of voodoo and the levee system. And if you were ever curious about the origins of the expression "getting the shaft" know that bodies left on slabs inside tombs only need one year to decompose in New Orleans heat, before the bones can be pushed over the edge with a long handled, stiff broom, to make room for the next occupant. Sort of, rest in pieces.
Cajun Encounters picks up and drops off from downtown hotels - we took advantage of this and had the driver drop us off at the base of Canal Street. From there, we took in the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and an IMAX showing of Hurricane on the Bayou. This was particularly meaningful having just witnessed the ravages of Katrina, and as a prelude to our upcoming trip to the Bayou. If you've got money just burning holes in your pockets, be sure to check out the Backstage Penguin Pass, which entitles ticket bearers to meet a penguin up close, and receive a penguin painting, painted by a penguin. Say that three times fast.
Time to take a rest? Enjoy a reasonably priced mule and buggy ride from Jackson Square and then stop for a world famous beignet and cafĂ© au lait. Next, hail a free shuttle ride to Mardi Gras World and check out where and how the parade floats are made.
Last, but not least, on this far too short trip, was a swamp tour in the Bayou. Our second trip with Cajun Encounters took us out to Honey Island Swamp. Guided by well-educated local field guides, we set sail in small groups to explore the wetlands and the fauna. Reptilian fauna. Hanging from trees above our heads fauna. Holy crap those are snakes hanging from trees inches above my head fauna. That kind. Also the long snout, large tooth, jaw crushing, man eating kind. Lots of native fauna. And flora. Mossy, swampy, spooky kinds of flora. A half hour but a world away from New Orleans. And then, tying it all together, were the boats wrecks from Hurricane Katrina, still lying where they were thrown, 10 years earlier.

We ended our trip with a cab ride back to Louis Armstrong airport, past the abandoned Charity Hospital. Friendly and chatty as most New Orleans natives are, the cab driver related the story of the Hospital's abandonment, which can now be seen and heard in a world class documentary  that focuses on the greed and corruption that followed in the wake of Katrina. Orlando may be the most magical place on Earth, but New Orleans - emotional, historical, spooky and raunchy -  wins hands down, the title most intriguing. Take a trip to the Big Easy; you won't be sorry you did.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Tour Guide Jack Goes To Venice - That's Amore!
What better way to celebrate a twentieth wedding anniversary than going to Italy? And if you have stayed happily married for twenty years, you might know one secret to marital longevity is...separate vacations!!
So this July, Tour Guide Jack travels to Italy sans spouse. Of course, it is a very romantic country, and Venice vies with Paris for the world's most romantic city. So in that light, let's explore all the wonderful ways to enjoy romantic Venice!
You must of course visit St Mark's Basilica and the Doge Palace, but if crowds are not your thing, go early; the Palace opens at 8:30am. Just remember, this is not the time to show off those sexy legs - St Mark's has a dress code and you'll need to cover up legs and shoulders. Admire the mosaics, works of art, and jewel encrusted altarpiece, the famous Pala d'Oro. Emeralds, garnets, sapphires and pearls - over 2300 gems makes it worth the small admission fee. Next visit the Doge's Palace,  one-time fortress and home of the Doge, the thousand year old building housed the legislature and courts. Be sure to cross the Bridge of Sighs to the prisons and imagine what that last look at Venice meant to those who were incarcerated. If your honey hates waiting in line, save some time by buying your tickets up to three months in advance.  If the crowds really turn you off, consider an after hours tour by Walks of Italy.  They offer an exclusive, after-hours tour of St Mark's in a small,intimate group.

Of course it's the canals that Venice is most famous for, and nothing says romance like a ride on a gondola.
This can make for an expensive date; just be sure to check the price list - gondoliers must post municipally approved rates. Be warned; evening rides are more expensive, and serenading costs extra. An alternative is a tour up the Grand Canal one evening in a vaporetto. Venice's version of a city bus, vaporettos are notoriously crowded. But once the sun goes down, and the majority of cruise dwelling tourists have returned to their ships, the vaporettos provide a glorious tour of Venice. Head away from the train station toward San Marco to avoid the last of the day trippers. To get a bigger bang for your buck, purchase a pass (12, 24, 72 hours etc.). Nothing says romance like saving a few euros, especially when you will want to wine and dine your honey afterwards.
It is said that there is nothing more magical than getting lost in Venice. Save time to wander through the alleyways away from the maddening crowds. Explore less visited neighbourhoods such as Cannaregio and Dorsoduro.  Of course finding your way back may be a challenge, but remember you are on an island and really can't get that far! If you're more the adventurous, sporty type, try your hand at gondolier lessons, or even kayaking. Just remember, the Grand Canal does contain raw sewage, so save your bikini for the beach. If you need an excuse to hold your honey tighter, take a ghost tour. In a city that's been inhabited for 3000 years (and seen its fair share of plague), there have to be a few things that go bump in the night.
Walk, shop, explore, dine, and marvel at her sheer beauty. And raise a glass to the beauty of Venice too. Saluti!!