10 Questions For (5): Karen Bryan of the Europe A La Carte Blog

Ehm Sorry for this. I just upgraded this blog to WordPress 2.1.6 and because I didn’t know exactly how to handle the interface, accidentally deleted this post and probably the comments as well. I reposted as soon as possible. The lay out may differ a bit now.

Happy to introduce Karen to you.

Karen Bryan practicing Meet the Blogger when I showed her The Hague

1) Who Are you?
I’m the founder and editor of the UK based Europe a la Carte, which focuses on authentic travel in Europe on a modest budget. I started the site in 2002 in response to the growing number of travellers putting together their own trips by booking low cost airlines and their own accommodation online.
In October 2006 I started the Europe a la Carte blog and in June 2008 I took on a team of bloggers to transform Europe a la Carte to a multi author blog.

In July 2008 I created the Euravelers travel social network so members could exchange tips and advice to revel in their travels discovering the real Europe.

But that’s only part of who I am. i work part time as a freelance social research interviewer. I met my beloved husband more than 30 years ago and we have 21 year old twin sons. I’m a Scot living in Berwick upon Tweed in the north east of England.

2) What do you like about what you do?
I love travelling in Europe, especially to places that are not so well know to tourists, so running site on this topic is so interesting for me. Of course there’s never enough time and money to see all of Europe. Running a travel site and blog may sound glamourous but the vast majority of my time is spent sitting at the computer.

I’ve made friends and contacts from all the world that I would have never been able to meet without the internet like the Happy Hotelier whom I’ve met twice, firstly at the Travel Bloggers Summit at the ITB in Berlin in March 2008 and more recently at the citizemM launch in Amsterdam in June 2008.

Two Great Bloggers: Karen (R) and me (L)

3) What don’t you like about what you do?
I’m a non techie person, fortunately one of our sons in a computing student so he’s my IT consultant. It’s very frustrating not being able to do all things techie yourself or taking ages to do a simple thing.
I’m hopeless at proof reading and never notice my own errors, even after reading a piece several times. It’s very hard to get noticed as an independent travel blog. It’s always said that if you have good, unique content you’ll succeed but that’s really isn’t enough. This was highlighted to me when I started writing for Wandalust which is part of the Creative Weblogging network of more than 130 blogs, so it has 130 links before any content is added. It’s similar story for travel blogs which are an extension of a newspaper or print magazine which already has an established readership. I also think part of the problem lies with the blog label, which I believe alienates many potential readers, sometimes I think that I should rename the blog an “interactive online travel magazine.

Europe a la Carte takes up so much of my time, that I don’t have enough time for family and friends.

4) Please tell us all about your blog and your aims with it
I started the Europe a la Carte blog after receiving an email from a Tourism student writing her dissertation about travel business blogs. I was intrigued by the notion of a business blog as until then, I’d thought of blogs as online personal diaries. I did some reading and it was all so positive that I thought I’d start a blog on my site. Well it was the right decision as the blog now accounts for more than 80% of site traffic. Blogs are great from bringing traffic even if you’re not a Search Engine Optimisation expert.

As I want my blog to be the best resource for travelling off the beaten track in Europe I made the decision in June 2008 to transform it to a multi author blog and recruited a team of bloggers. I realized that I couldn’t write a wide enough variety and volume of content myself.  In some ways it was hard to relinquish control of the blog. But it was more than that, I thought that the blog might become impersonal and lacking in coherence having several writers. However so far it’s all gone very well and I’m not feeling put out that some of the content from the blogging team outshines my own efforts.  I’ve never really considered myself as a travel writer. Although it sounds very mundane, in some ways, I think of myself more of a collator of travel information rather than a travel writer.

5) Your top 3 destination experiences you’ve ever stayed to date and why?
We had a three week family holiday to California in 2001. It was pretty hard to find a destination which we’d all enjoy as our sons were 14 at the time. We spent one week in San Francisco and we all loved it. One of our sons was into to skateboarding, so he was in skateboard heaven. I was a big fan of “The Streets of San Francisco” starring Michael Douglas as a youngster and it was great to finally make it to the city, there I was riding a cable car and walking across the Golden Gate Bridge. I thought that the the variety and quality of the food in restaurants in San Francisco was amazing, great Mexican, Chinese and Vegetarian restaurants. The whole Bay area was very beautiful.

We spent our 20th wedding anniversary in Rome.  I call Rome a living museum that because wherever you turn there are amphitheatres, temples, medieval streets, squares and Renaissance palaces. Rome is one of these evocative places I’d pictured in my mind whilst reading about the Roman Empire during history lessons and seen in various films. I was totally overawed by Rome.

I have to say that I’ve only truly appreciated parts of my own country, Scotland, whilst doing research for Scottish destination guides for my site. There were areas that I thought I knew but realised that I didn’t when I spent more time there. A couple of years ago I decided that I was neglecting Scotland, partly blinded by my love of Italy. I also believed that more UK residents would take holidays on home shores due to concerns about the environment and the hassle and expense of flying abroad so it would be a good thing for the site to have more content about the UK.

The view from The Knock, Crieff, Perthshire. Scotland

6) Your top 3 accommodations you’ve ever stayed to date and why?
The Masseria San Domenico in Puglia, Italy has to be the most beautiful hotel in which I’ve ever stayed. The Masseria has been restored and extended. The outdoor pool is filled with filtered sea water is large and alluring, our room was low key but beautifully furnished and there was a terrace outside. I love Lake Iseo in Lombardy in northern Italy. I’ve stayed in a few different hotels and apartments there but overall for location by the lakeside with wonderful views and value for money I’d nominate the four star Ulivi
in Paratico on the south western shore of Lake Iseo. There is a good selection of restaurants and cafes within easy walking distance.  Double rooms cost as little as 60 euro including an excellent buffet breakfast.

Hotel Ulivi pool with views of Lake Iseo

I often stay in Travelodges in the UK and if you book at least 21 days in advance you can find family rooms for as little as £19. Not all Travelodges are at service stations in the middle of nowhere, there are some in city centres.

7) Your top 3 most memorable food experiences to date and why?
We spent three nights on half board at the Wide Mouthed Frog, a seafood restaurant with rooms near Oban in the north west of Scotland. The fresh seafood was so good.

The Grange Restaurant in North Berwick, east of Edinburgh has freshly prepared dishes using local produce.  The three course lunch menu costs £9.95. Then you can have a walk along the beach and enjoy views over to the Bass Rock.

North Berwick beach with a view to the Bass Rock

When I’m in France and Spain I”ll generally have the “Menu of the Day” which costs around 15 euros for three courses and I don’t think I’ve ever had an awful meal.

8) Your 3 worst destination/ accommodation /food experiences to date and why?
The Hotel Villa Maya near Pisa in Italy which I christened the Boot Camp because of all the rules, regulations and extra charges.  What upset me is that it was the most expensive overnight stay on our one week tour of Tuscany and Umbria in May 2008 and I choose it because of it’s alleged charm and atmosphere

The Lodge Hotel in Hunstanton in Norfolk, the reviews were good and the hotel looks very attractive on the exterior. It is a listed building, a former Dower House which has retained some period features. However when we entered our room it was as though we were in a different building. Our room was small, totally lacking in charm or character, with bland white furniture, a ripped sheet and patches of mould growing on the shower tiles. The breakfast was not great, no fresh fruit, warm fruit juice and rubbery fried eggs. It cost £65 a night and the £15 Travelodge room in which we stayed on our way home was far superior.

My worst experience was on the overnight ferry returning from Netherlands to Newcastle during very rough weather.  I was so sea sick and it was awful to know that I was stuck on the boat for the whole night.

9) Can you offer the readers 3 travel/ food / accommodation / things to do tips about the city you are currently living in?
I’ve lived in the town of Berwick upon Tweed in the far north eastern corner of England for two years. It is rather confusing as there’s a North Berwick on the east coast of Scotland, around 45 miles north of Berwick upon Tweed.   Berwick upon Tweed lies three miles from the border with Scotland, on the estuary of the River Tweed. It’s a beautiful town with intact Elizabethan town walls and a beach at Spittal.

The best things to do in Berwick are the walks:

a – You can walk around the town walls and along the pier encountering very little traffic.

Berwick upon Tweed pier

b – Walk along the riverside and spot many birds such as herons, cormorants and the large colony of mute swans. Sometimes the seals come quite far up the river.

c- Walk along Spittal Beach with views of Bamburgh Castle and Holy Island to the south.

10) Any Question(s) you’d expected me to ask that you would like to answer?

Happy Hotelier I think I’ve been interrogated sufficiently.

Thanks a lot, Karen. This must be the longest post I’ve ever seen you writing. I do believe the multi author policy is rocketing your Blog!

Last edited by Happy Hotelier on Thursday, October 15, 2009

Dutch Design (30): Marcels Wander's Sexy Happy Hour

Marcel Wander's Sexy Happy Hour 01

No, this photo is not upside down and it is not on its side: WYSIWYG (What you see is what you get).

Marcel Wanders as a Clown

Marcel Wanders is a versatile Dutch Designer. Sometimes he likes to pose as an enfant terrible, sometimes as a clown.

Mooi Collection

He is involved in many facets of design. He is involved in Mooi and designed for Droog Design

Marcel Wander's Sexy Happy Hour 02

But here he is partying in a play of his own design.

Marcel Wander's Sexy Happy Hour 04

together with a lovely model

Marcel Wander's Sexy Happy Hour 03

and some sparkling Veuve.

Marcels Wander's Sexy Happy Hour 05

You can have some grapes, if you like,

Marcel Wander's Sexy Happy Hour 05

or some caviar, if that’s more to your liking.

This is about fun, decadence and luxury: Marcel Wander’s famous Sexy Happy Hour project.

10 Questions For (4): Barbara Weibel of Hole in the Donut

For the third edition I’m happy to be able to present to you another real Globetrotter: Barbara Weibel (@holeinthedonut)

Barbaral Weibel, Sarasota News, 2008

1) Who Are you?
Who am I? Well, that’s the question we’re all trying to answer, isn’t it. I can best answer the question by telling you who I am not. I am not defined by my job, by the friends I choose, the clothes I wear, or the things I own. I like to think I am a woman who tries to be the best person she can be, who helps others whenever possible, accepts people unconditionally, and lives in loving kindness. At least that is my goal. In order to get to this point, I had to abandon a successful real estate career and backpack around the world for six months, searching for what brings me joy. I discovered that travel, photography, and writing are my true loves. Upon returning, I moved to Florida (U.S.), where I am working on recreating myself as a freelance writer.

2) What do you like about what you do?
I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE to write.

3) What don’t you like about what you do?
I have been discouraged to discover the extent to which the editorial content of local and regional magazines is driven by advertising. I dislike writing articles that are thinly disguised advertisements.

Barbara Weibel Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe
Barbara Weibel at the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe

4) Please tell us all about your blog Hole in the Donut and your aims with it.
Initially, I started Hole in the Donut so that my friends and family could keep track of me as I traveled around the world. I discovered that I loved blogging, so I kept it going when I returned from my around-the-world trip. Since then, it has morphed from a site solely about travel to one about life in general, with emphasis on my search for a meaningful life. In addition to posting about my ongoing travels in the U.S., I also write philosophical issues, post inspirational videos, criticize our government; basically anything that comes into my mind or interests me ends up on the blog. I often write with a sometimes sarcastic tone that most people find humorous. Although I hope to make the blog commercially viable as my traffic increases, I also consider it a venue for potential publishers to sample my work.

5) Your top 3 destination experiences you’ve ever stayed to date and why?
#1) Thailand. Aside from the fact that it is a feast for the eyes, I find the Thai people to be gentle, warm, and welcoming. It has something or everyone: including five star hotels, nightlife, and world-class shopping in Bangkok, gorgeous white sand beaches and stunning scenery along both coasts on the southern peninsula, and even trekking to visit the remote tribal ares in the northern mountains. Plus, Thailand is still a very affordable destination.

#2) Zimbabwe, specifically the Victoria Falls area in the south. Unlike other areas of Africa, where the people get in-your-face angry if you try to take a photo of them, the people of Zimbabwe are gracious and truly know how to make tourists feel welcome and appreciated. And while the falls are spectacular, his part of Zimbabwe also offers sunset cruises on the Zambezi River and day safaris in neighboring Botswana, where the animals are said to be the most abundant in Africa. Unfortunately, Zimbabwe is experiencing tremendous political unrest right now, making it increasingly difficult to visit this country.

#3) New Zealand. This small island nation is blessed with some of the world’s most amazing scenery, from the lush green hills on the North Island to the snow-capped Southern Alps on the South Island. I could spend a lifetime hiking New Zealand and never grow tired of it. And I believe that Kiwis must be he friendliest people on the face of the earth.

Barbara Weibel food at the 'resort' at the Khlong Saeng Sanctuary in Thailand
Barbara Weibel: food at the ‘resort’ at the Khlong Saeng Sanctuary in Thailand

6) Your top 3 accommodations you’ve ever stayed to date and why?
#1) The Windsor Hotel B&B in Christchurch, New Zealand. These folks really know how to make a guest feel welcome and comfortable. The common room was always filled with people willing to share their vacation adventures, breakfast each morning was delicious, and they even packed me a brown bag linch for the plane on the day of my departure.

#2) The Cape Pines Motel in the village of Buxton, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. This small, older motel is run by a couple who has spent their lives in the hospitality industry, Bill and Angie Rapant. They go above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that their guests are made to feel like one of the family. The rooms are nicely decorated, well-maintained, very clean, and reasonably priced.

#3) My Hotels La Spezia, on the Italian Riveria, just outside Cinque Terre. Rather than stay in one of the Cinque Terre villages, where the hotels are pricey, I opted to stay in La Spezia, an easy 10 minute train ride from Cinque Terre. This hotel was friendly, reasonably priced, and well-located to see everything, plus it was in the middle of the designer shopping district. The room was spacious, had a fabulous bed, and a wireless connection for no extra charge. Plus the breakfast each morning was excellent. One of the best values I found in Europe,

7) Your top 3 most memorable food experiences to date and why?
#1) Almost anywhere in Thailand would qualify, but perhaps the best Thai food I have every had was at a remote lake in the Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary. Getting there required an 7 our train ride, an hour van ride, an hour in a long-tail boat, and a 45 minute hike up and over a mountain to reach a second lake. There ?is only one family living within the boundaries of the Sanctuary,and they operate a ‘resort’ that offers primitive bamboo huts that float along the shore of the lake. Although the accommodations were spartan, the food was gourmet.

#2) Mofongo in Puerto Rico.Mofongo is the signature dish of Puerto Rico, a mashed mound of plantains into which a combination of seafood, meat, or vegetables is added. The best I’ve ever had was at Parador Hacienda Juanita, located high up in the hills of coffee plantation country in the central western portion of the island. Not only was the food excellent, the view over the mountains from the restaurant was spectacular.

#3) Gado Gado at the Puri Lumbug Cottages in the tiny village of Monduk in the central mountains of Bali Gado Gado is a traditional Balinese dish consisting of a heap of vegetables sauteed in peanut sauce, topped with homemade tofu and accompanied by steamed rice. If it was up to me, I would rename this dish Oh God! Oh God! It’s that good. And the view over the misty mountains and terraced rice fields from the?open air restaurant can’t be outdone.

8) Your 3 worst destination/ accommodation /food experiences to date and why?
#1) Aside from Chicago, the Midwest part of the U.S. is not exactly known for its food. It’s mostly meat and potatoes country, and not lot of fancy meat and potatoes, either.

#2) South Africa. This country has fallen on hard times. The unemployment rate hovers near 40%, crime is rampant, and there is tremendous political unrest. Although my accommodations in Cape Town were located in the busiest tourist section, it was not?safe to go out alone at night, and it is never pleasant to be traveling in a place where you feel unsafe. Plus, I never really found any good food in South Africa. I will say, however, that it is a beautiful country and well worth the visit when they finally solve their problems.

#3) My Safari in Tanzania was the trip of a lifetime, as I had dreamed of going on safari since I was a child. The experience did not disappoint, but the food did. The fact that I am a vegetarian confused our cook, and every meal for the entire week was loaded with simple carbs. My box lunch each day consisted of a cheese sandwich, a hard roll with butter, a packet of crackers, a packet of cookies, and a chocolate bar. Dinner wasn’t much better. Ugh!

Barbara Weibel This is the restaurant and view at the Puri Lumbug Resort in central Bali
Barbara Weibel, the restaurant and view at the Puri Lumbug Resort in central Bali

9) Can you offer the readers 3 travel/ food / accomodation / things to do tips about the city you are currently living in?
I live in Sarasota, Florida, a fairly small city with a population of about 50,000. However, for a small city, it offers amazing art and cultural opportunities, so I will suggest three artsy destinations that should not be missed when visiting Sarasota:

#1) The Sarasota Opera, which now has spring and fall performance schedules
#2) The John and Mabel Ringling Museum, offers 21 galleries of European paintings as well as Cypriot antiquities, Asian Art, American paintings, and contemporary art, in addition to one entire facility filled with memorabilia from the days when the family operated the Ringling Circus.
#3) The Bishop Planetarium in nearby Bradenton, an all digital full dome planetarium/theater that features astronomy presentations, sound and light shows and wide-screen large format programming

10) Any Question(s) you’d expected me to ask that you would like to answer?
Nothing comes to mind. And I think I am finally out of words!

Thanks a lot Barbara. Wonderful stories. Thailand is on my shortlist, as friends of us have moved there and keep saying that we have to visit them. I’m a bit concerned now that you mention South Africa. Just this week daughter number 2 (DanceGirl) is traveling there on her own to visit the dance school I wrote about in 2008 Cine Dance Amsterdam.

BTW, whenever your travels bring you in the neighborhood, do come by. Just around the corner of where I live we have a small Indonesian Mom and Dad Restaurant with some lovely Oh God Oh God:-).

Review: Grasse – Bastide Saint Mathieu – A Real Gem!

Bastide Saint Mathieu: Entrance

I’ve preluded to this review a long time ago in French Riviera and The Art of Booking Online: Nothing Zen! Part 3. I didn’t publish this review earlier, because I had terrible problems organizing my photos last year. That problem I only solved recently.


In July 2007 we were probably among the last guests of the Dutch couple who had started Bastide Saint Mathieu:

View from our James Gordon Bennet Suite

A French Bastide recently restored with meticulous care, surrounded by 2 hectares of its own gardens and parkland. It Sleeps 14/17 in beautiful large bedrooms, with marble ensuite bathrooms. Fine terracing and gas flare lit cuisine d’ete for outside parties and entertaining. Huge swimming pool, boules piste. Great views; splendour and privacy in the triangle between Mougins, Grasse and Valbonne; 15 minutes Cannes, 25 minutes Nice.

our beautifully appointed sitting room

It is a villa with 2 suites and 4 rooms, 1 of which is a single room.

Our Bathroom

All rooms are individually and elegantly decorated with period pieces, open log fires, air conditioning and all of today’s facilities. The property is also available fully staffed on an exclusive basis with catering arrangements made available to suit the individual wishes of guests. In a corner of the typical Provencal garden is a lovely pool and sun deck overlooking the olive groves and hills of Mougins. There guests can spend some lazy hours soaking up the sun rays and enjoying the fragrances of lavender, flowers and herbs bordering the area. It is surrounded by various old villages and a vast choice of restaurants and golf courses,

View from the outside breakfast area over the garden

Bastide Saint Mathieu offers a truly unique ambiance of luxury, charm and tranquility.

The former Dutch owners had sold to the present British owners who would start operating it August 2007. That was another reason for publishing this not immediately. It is my view that a lot of the fun of a staying in a hotel is made out by the way the owners/staff receive you. I am glad I could find two recent positive reviews in the meantime.

The Pool

We stayed two nights in the James Gordon Bennet Suite, which has a separate sitting room and bedroom and we were pampered well by the former owner Inge.

La cuisine d’été

Since our stay they have added a pergola to the swimming pool and made a covered area on the terrace for Al Fresco breakfasts, lunches and dinners. They have a marvelous photo gallery on their site.

I wouldn’t mind going back.

Post Alia: Still Nothing Zen!
While doing online research for this post, I found out that sites like Tripadvisor really are putting the smaller hotels like Bastide Saint Mathieu to a disadvantage vis a vis the big chains: Usually not many guests do write in a hotel’s guest book, I would estimate one out of 4 guests. If they write in the hotel’s guest book, they are not likely to write an online review. So my estimate is that less than one out of twenty guests writes an online review. Then the big question is where the review is written online, as there are many possibilities….
So Bastide Saint Mathieu has only 3 reviews on the US Site of Tripadvisor and the same three on Tripadvisor’s UK site. However when I looked at their UK an French sites three weeks ago, the UK site couldn’t find Bastide Saint Mathieu and the French site had 7 reviews….I see now the same 3 reviews. Probably they have now acknowledged he change of ownership…

It used to be a member of Chateaux et Hotels. I’m not sure it is now. Ah, darn, they still are! I wasn’t sure, because Chateaux et Hotels deemed it feasible to change their site. If you now are searching a hotel on their site you only can search for available hotel rooms. If the hotel is fully booked, you can’t find the hotel on the very site of their own marketing organization. This is Mighty Stupid! Chateaux et Hotels took away their maps……Why make it easy (as they did in an earlier version of their site) when you can make it difficult?