A travel photo essay with day by day itineraries to inspire you to get out there and be a Luxe Traveler.

Prague - A City Of A Thousand Spires.

I was in London for work and we decided to take a long weekend trip to Prague. It's only a quick 2 hour flight from London.

I did a lot of research on hotels and chose the Golden Well Hotel because of the rave reviews online. It's a great boutique hotel located steps from the Prague Castle with breathtaking views of all of Prague (I took the photo above from the hotels rooftop restaurant).

Golden Well Hotel: (about US $365-950 per night).
Location  * * * *
Rooms  * * * * *
Service  * * * * *
Beautiful, romantic rooms with most that have views of Prague. It's not in the heart of the city and this was perfect for us. Only a 15 minute walk and your right in the center of the city which also means that at night, the hotel is very quiet. They also have a really good rooftop restaurant called Teresa U Zlate Studne offers some amazing food as well as views of the city below.

The Charles Bridge is a famous historic bridge that crosses the Vltava river. Construction on the bridge started in 1357 and wasn't finished until the beginning of the 15th century. There are 30 baroque statues various saints and patron saints lining the bridge.

Prague is home to one of my favorite authors, Franz Kafka. The home in which he was born is located in Old Town next to the Church of St Nicholas. It is now a permanent exhibition devoted to the author.

A popular tourist attraction is the Prague Astronomical Clock. 

It's located in the Old Town Square and at the top of every hour features a show of figures of the Apostles and other moving sculptures; and a calendar dial with medallions representing the months.

There's a really interesting behind the scenes tour available. An elevator takes you up to the top of the clock tower where you learn about the history of the tower as well as a unique behind the scenes perspective during the hourly show that very few see.

There's plenty of restaurants located right around Old Town Square that not only offer a great mid day cocktail and snack but also has some of the best views of the city.

Another must see is the 600 year old St. Vitus Cathedral located near Prague Castle. It's the biggest and the most important church in the Czech Republic.

It’s a place where saints, kings, princes and emperors of Bohemia are buried. Check out the amazing Gothic architecture.

The John Lennon Wall is located In Mala Strana, near the French Embassy. When John Lennon was murdered in 1980 he became a sort of hero to some of the young and his picture was painted on this wall along with graffiti defying the authorities.

If you continue to walk along the Mala Strana you'll see small locks on the gate over the canal. It's called "Locks of Love". Legend has it that couples write their names on a lock and lock it onto the gate professing they're love forever. 

You then throw the key into the canal. You can also find "Locks of Love" in China, South Korea, Japan, Guam, Italy, Hungary, Latvia, Russia, and the USA.

The Dancing House, also know as the Fred and Ginger building was designed by Frank Gehry.  It you look close, the house resembles a pair of dancers with the male dancer on the right pulling his female compaignon on the left close to him.

Another interesting piece of art is a sculpture located near the Wenceslas Square. Hanging by its feet the dead horse is ridden by a knight. It was created in 1999 by artist David Cerny as a parody of a right-side-up statue in a nearby public square.

One night for dinner we went to the restaurant U Maltezskych Rytiru, which dates back to the 14th century. Once you go downstairs to the dining room, you feel as if you stepped back in time. We had a really good meal and has to finish it off with a shot of absinthe.

Prague is a beautiful romantic storybook city. No need to spend more than 4 days there. A great city to add on to a European vacation.

South Africa - Safari & City

We're on a 3 day safari in Kruger National Park, which is an hour and a half fight from Johannesburg, and then we're off to Cape Town for 4 days.

Kruger National Park

After a 39 1/2 hour journey...a 12 hour flight from Los Angeles to London, an 8 hour layover, another 12 hour flight from London to Johannesburg, another 6 hour layover and finally a one and half hour flight into the bush, we arrived at Kruger National Park.

We're exhausted from traveling but our adrenaline kicks when they ask if we'd like to go out on the evening game drive. Our first sighting is a heard of elephants about 30 yards away. 

I always imagined the game drive would be like visiting a zoo but I was completely wrong. Seeing these animals in the wild from an open jeep is an experience that's hard to explain. 

This was the first time on vacation that I truly felt as if I was on the other side of the world.
On the evening game drives, we would have a "sundowner". We'd stop in the middle of a clearing and just enjoy the amazing African sunset while sipping on a cocktail and some fresh h'orderves that our guide would cook up on a portable camping stove.

Singita Boulders Lodge(about US $1,630-3,200 per person per night, all inclusive).
Location  * * * * *
Rooms  * * * * *
Service  * * * * *
Amazing exotic, romantic resort! The best we've ever stayed. One night after returning from our game drive cold and dusty, we discover that our butler has a hot bubble bath waiting for us with about 50 candles lighting the entire bathroom. There's also a bottle of champagne on ice along with chocolate covered strawberries. What a way to end a day!

Singita Boulders Lodge has been voted "best hotel in the world over 15 times" by various international travel publications and reader surveys.

It is an all inclusive resort that includes all meals, a personal butler, all drinks, including premium wines, spirits and liqueurs (excluding champagnes), and 2 open Land Rover safaris per day accompanied by experienced guides and trackers.

Cape Town

After a quick 2 hour flight from Johannesburg, we arrive in Cape Town. We're staying at the Mount Nelson Hotel. 

Mount Nelson Hotel: (about US $355-1000 per night, including breakfast).
Location  * * * 
Rooms  * * * *
Service  * * * * *
The Mount Nelson Hotel is an Orient Express hotel, do I need to say more? Old world glamour, luxury and style all rolled into one. Amazing service from front desk all the way to house keeping and everything in between. The list of celebrities that have stayed here is endless. There's way too many to even list them. Check out this link to see for yourself.

From our room we have an incredible view of Table Mountain. Most of the time the top of the mountain is covered in fog, which is referred to as a "table cloth". The first morning we wake up, we're in luck. The mountain is completely clear. We take the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway all the way to the top for some breathetaking views.

The next day we decide to go out and explore. We decide to hire a private guide and let them do the driving so we can enjoy the sights. We hired Hylton Ross Tours for a 2 day private tour based on the great reviews that I read online. The reviews were right. Great company with very friendly and knowledgable guides. I highly recommend them. The first day we're heading south to the Cape of Good Hope.

The tour continues with a stop at Boulders Beach, home to a colony of African penguins.

The next day we head out to explore the infamous South African wine country. Our destination is a town called Stellenbosch.

We end up meeting some friends that we met while on safari and spend the day wine tasting and lunch at the beautiful 300 year old Vergelegen Wine Estate. 

I highly recommend a trip to South Africa. It's a very long trip and expensive but it's a trip that I guarantee that you'll never forget! I'm already planning a return trip to Africa. Next time, it's Kenya for the great wildebeest migration.

Tokyo, Kyoto and Mt. Koya, Japan

We stayed 3 days in Tokyo and then took the Bullet Train to Kyoto for 3 days. We did an extremely adventurous overnight trip from here to Mt. Koya and then headed back to Tokyo for an additional 3 days.

We took a direct flight on American Airlines from Los Angeles to Narita Airport, about an hour outside of Tokyo. I used my Advantage miles to upgrade us to first class. Boy what a difference there is when you fly American on International flights. Great, spacious private "pods" with a seat/full flat bed that lets you get some shut eye on the long flight. Service matched the cabin class...first class. Very friendly and attentive.
We arranged an airport pick up through our hotel. After a pretty bland hour drive through the outskirts of Tokyo, we get our first glimpse of the city. Any jet lag that we may have been feeling quickly disappeared.

First stop...
Tokyo  (part 1)

There's so much to see and do in Tokyo. The best way to see the sights, but also get a sense of the "real" Tokyo, is to hire a guide. We prefer a personal guide over the group tours. This way you and the guide set up a tour that covers what you want to see and do. We hired an amazing personal guide named Keko through Chris Rowthorn Tours .

Chris has written ten guidebooks for Lonely Planet about Kyoto and the rest of Japan. Kiyomi showed up on time and was excited and eager to show us the city.
We booked a full day tour and saw everything that we wanted and more. For lunch, she took us for a traditional home style meal called Hiroshima Okonomiyaki.

It's kind of like a savory omelet/pancake but with ingredients such as cabbage, shrimp, bacon, octopus, vegetables, kimchi. It's topped with a combination of a mayo sauce along with a sweet BBQ type sauce.

Add an ice cold draft beer and you have a perfect combo to fill you up and give you a taste of a traditional Japanese home style meal.
Chris Rowthorn Tours  * * * *  Great service! Very friendly and knowledgeable guides.

We stayed at The Peninsula Hotel Tokyo, located in the Ginza district. The Ginza is often referred to as the Beverly Hills of Tokyo. We first stayed at a the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong while on our Honeymoon. It's my favorite spoil yourself luxury hotel in the world and The Peninsula Tokyo did not disappoint.

The Peninsula Hotel Tokyo: Great Hotel. One of the best we've ever stayed.
Location  * * * * *
Rooms  * * * * *
Service  * * * * *

The room was spacious with an amazing view of the skyscrapers of Ginza.

The service here was probably the best we've ever received at any hotel. One night we had reservations at Sushi Saito, a Michelin top rated restaurant. After a mix up in dinner reservations, it turns out that there are two Sushi Saito's in Tokyo and we were booked at the wrong one, the hotel took care of us. The concierge re-booked us at the correct restaurant for the following weekend when we would return for part 2 of our Tokyo stay. Upon check out, a bellmen dressed in a head to toe white uniform greeted us and whisked us outside to a waiting Rolls Royce that would take us to Tokyo station.

They didn't just "drop us off and run", the bellman took our luggage all of the way through the station up to the tracks where we were to take the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to Kyoto. He had us wait in the air conditioned waiting room while he stood by our bags next to the track. When our train arrived, he put our bags on board and personally showed us to our seats. He then waited outside the train standing at full attention and proceeded to bow as our train departed from the station. Now that's service!!!

We're off to Kyoto by Shinkansen (Bullet Train).

We went there to experience a slice of the old Japan and Kyoto did not disappoint. We arrived at Kyoto Station after a relaxing high speed 3 hour trip from Tokyo.

We're staying at Hotel Granvia Kyoto. The location is great. It's right above Kyoto station making extremelyy convenient for any day trips that you may have in mind...Osaka, Fushimi Inari (famous for it's thousands of tori gates), and if you're really feeling adventurous...Mt. Koya/Koyasan ( Must do this!!!) . There's a mall above Kyoto Station that has some interesting shopping as well an entire floor...10th Floor, dedicated to only Ramen restaurants.

 These are the real deal. No Top Ramen here. You've never had anything like this!

As for the rooms, they're nice, clean and comfortable but nothing really memorable. Locations makes up for this.  

As you would expect in Japan, the service is great. Very friendly and extremely helpful. They have a concierge in the lobby that will help with sightseeing tips, restaurant suggestions, info on getting around and they'll also translate any directions to Japanese just in case you get lost.

Hotel Granvia Kyoto  : Nice hotel, great location if you want to do day trips.
Location- ****
Rooms- ***
Service - ****

Again we hired a personal guide, Koko, through Chris Rowthorn Tours. She was a wonderful guide who took us to all of the major sights as well as some hidden gems.

left: Private guide Koko / right: Kodai-Ji Temple (founded in 1605)
Make sure that you go to the Gion district. It's an area filed with history. Go to a street called
Hanamikoji dori to see some actual Geisha on the way to the many tea houses that line the street.

Geisha and Maiko (Geisha in training) on Hanamikoji dori in the Gion district
To really experience the real Kyoto, you need go off the beaten path. Wander down the alleys and stop in for a beer and some of the best Japanese style "pub" food ever.

After reading an article in the NY Times, I made reservations at Kikunoi Restaurant. They're famous for their 14 course Kaiseki meal.

This was, how should I put it, the best worst meal that we've ever had. Let me explain that. The setting is beautiful. You are seated in your own private room. A server brings you an assortment of courses of very traditional Japanese dishes. Some you've had before, sushi, sashimi, mushroom soup, mochi, and others that you have not, turtle soup complete with a drop of turtle blood, eel sashimi, grilled Ayu fish that you eat whole...guts and all, to name a few.

It was an incredible experience. If you're adventurous and want to experience something different, go for it. It's a meal that you'll remember forever.

Mt. Koya/Koyasan
A friend of mine convinced me to take a side trip to Mt. Koya/Koyasan. It turned out to be one of the most memorable highlights of the entire trip! It was an adventurous 3 hour trip (due to the fact that once we left Kyoto, no one spoke English the rest of the trip) by Bullet Train to a subway to a local train to a cable car to finally meet our personal guide who completed the journey by car.

Our guide was a retired English teacher who volunteered his time in exchange for the experience of meeting travelers and keeping up with his English.

Koyasan started as a single monastery atop of Mt. Koya and has grown into the town of Koya, featuring a university dedicated to religious studies and 120 temples, many of which offer lodging in working Temples run by monks.

We stayed at Eko-inThis 100-year-old temple has 36 rooms, with origins stretching back almost 1,100 years. This is about as peaceful as it gets. After a walking tour of temples in a redwood forest, we headed back to our room. It was traditional ryokan with a minimal decor.

The living room/bedroom/dining room has Tatami (straw mat) flooring and the bed was a futon put down directly on the Tatami floor, along with a bag of beans for a pillow. It doesn't sound like it, but it was very comfortable. The meals are all vegetarian and are served by the monks living at Eko-in. Amazing food! If I could eat this everyday, I'd become a vegetarian.

In the morning we witnessed the monks fire ceremony. It's one of the most beautiful spiritual ceremonies that we've ever seen.

After a peaceful 4 days in Kyoto and Koyasan, It's time to head back to Tokyo for 3 more days.

Tokyo (part2)
Back to the lights and excitement of Tokyo. This time we're staying at The Park Hyatt. The hotel made famous in the movie "Lost in Translation".

 The Park Hyatt Tokyo: I would advise you to go there and have a drink but skip this place. Doesn't live up to the hype.
Location  * * *
Rooms  * * * *
Service  *

Upon check in, we were greeted by a receptionist, which was more like a concierge. Immediately we were asked if we'd like to be upgraded to a bigger room. I thought "that sounds great, how nice" but quickly found out that we would have to pay for this. I declined and again was asked if I was sure about declining the upgrade. Very tacky! Not a good start. Overall it's a nice hotel but I prefer the Peninsula hands down. The best thing about it is that it's located in the Shinjuku district which is very convenient to get to Yoyogi Park and Harajuku, home to dozens of kids who dress up every Sunday in Cosplay and Gothic Lolita costumes.

We finally got our chance to dine at Sushi Saito and let me tell you, it was worth the wait! The entire restaurant consists of about 9 seats at a single counter. We were the only non Japanese eating there and we decided to go for it. We did omakase and ate everything and anything that everyone else was eating.

It got pretty crazy at one point when the chef brought out what looked like a large mushroom. All of the other diners got very excited and when we were asked if we'd like to have some, we said "of course". I love mushrooms but as soon as I put it in the mouth I realized it wasn't a mushroom. It turns out that it was turtle and it tasted as bad as you'd expect. We powered through it with the thanks of alcohol and had one of the best sushi meals ever.
Another night we felt adventurous and headed over to Kabukichō, also known as Tokyo's red light district.

The most surprising thing that we saw was the abundance of male escorts. You can spot them right away with their hair as if the just stepped out of a 1980's heavy metal video.

Another "must do" is an early morning visit to Tsukiji Fish Market.

I found a great guide, Mr. Nakamura who does small group tours to give you a behind the scenes look at this world famous market. The 2 hour tour starts at 4:30 A.M. and ends with a sushi breakfast. Delicious!

Japan is an amazing, beautiful, spiritual place that will always have a place in our hearts. If you ever thought about going, or if this make you think about it!!! You'll fall in love with Japan.