After a few days in Istanbul, I wanted to visit one of the beach areas of Turkey. I chose Bodrum which is frequently referred to as the “Turkish Riviera” since many of the wealthy Turks spend weekends and the summer there. Istanbul to Bodrum is like New York to Miami. And the best part is the short 45 minute flight.
When I arrived in Bodrum, I checked into the Caresse Resort and Spa, which is part of Starwood’s Luxury Collection. It is new and beautiful!
I could tell that this was going to be a great stay in Bodrum!
Today I was out and about in Istanbul. I wanted to see some things but not go too crazy, so I planned my strategy carefully. I would take a taxi from my hotel to the Sultanahmet (Old City) area. I would then see the Hagia Sophia (the number one thing to see in Istanbul), cross the street to see the Basilica Cisterns, take the trolley for a 5 minute ride to get to the Egyptian Spice Market and then cross the street to catch the public ferry which crosses the Bosphorous waterway to get from Europe to Asia. Not totally ambitious, but enough to see and do some important things and finish at just about the time the terrible Istanbul rush hour begins.
Istanbul is a great value now. Why? Because people are spooked about several explosions in public areas since January. But as the great Warren Buffett says, “When people are scared, be greedy”. Not to downplay the severity of these events, but most were in the capital city of Ankara (several hours away on the Asian side of Turkey) or near the border with Syria. One was near Taksim square in the New City (where I was not going) and one was in the Old City (where I would be going). Then again, no one abandoned New York City after 9/11 or Boston after the marathon bombings, so if you don’t go, they win. And since many were spooked, the 5* Hilton hotel where I am staying goes for about $100 dollars per night (in a beautiful room which would be well over $500 per night in Manhattan). And there was virtually no line to enter the Hagia Sophia, an attraction which generally has a line a quarter mile long. With this in mind, I set out.
The Hagia Sophia (Church of the Divine Wisdom in English) is one of the world’s great attractions. Originally built as a Christian Church, it was converted to a mosque by the Ottomans when they conquered Constantinople (Istanbul) and is now a museum. The tile work done by the Ottomans is beautiful as are the paintings of Mary and the Archangels done by the Christians. The size of the Hagia Sophia is overpowering. There are two columns brought from the Roman temple to Artemis at Ephesus. And the marble provides a welcome relief from the hot Istanbul sun.
Across the street from the Hagia Sophia are the Basilica Cisterns.These were built and used by the Romans about 1500 years ago to store water. They are underground, dark and mysterious. These also provide a welcome relief from the heat. There are upside down Medusa heads on the base of the columns which the Romans believed would protect the cisterns and the city. They are upside down and the eyes are closed so they would not harm any of the good people looking at them. The cisterns were basically abandoned by the Ottomans who preferred running water to stagnant water stored under the ground and they were only restored and reopened a few years ago. Well worth the visit!
I try to avoid bazaars, so I opted to not visit the Grand Bazaar, which is a labyrinthine maze of shops selling cheap Chinese goods and full of cigarette smoke from the ubiquitous Turkish smokers. I did however, visit the Egyptian Spice Market, which is a much smaller bazaar selling dried fruit and nuts, spices and the famous Turkish delights sweets (I could not resist!) You will be offered so many samples that you will be full, but buy some anyway as the craving comes back real soon!
I then took the public ferry to Kadikoy on the Asian side of Istanbul.It was one of the things I had always wanted to do. The boat ride is about 20 minutes and has amazing views of the Bosphorus (the waterway between Europe and Asia), the sea of Marmarmis, the Asian side of Istanbul and the Old City on the European side. Upon alighting, I walked to the famous Ciya Kebab house where I had mouthwatering lamb Shish Kebab and some of the delicious Turkish bread which comes to you looking like an inflated, small pillow until you pierce it and all of the smoke comes out.
Having eaten, I quickly walked back to the ferry back to the European side and from there it was a short taxi ride back to my hotel before the horrendous Istanbul rush hour began (during which you will literally not move).
So if you ask me if I can cross the Bosphorous, I say of course-erous and do!
Istanbul is simply overwhelming. A city which straddles both Europe and Asia and has a population of about 14.2 million (with nearly 10 million living on the European side), its rush hour traffic makes New York City’s look inviting. Many of the hotels are in the popular historic areas such as Sultanahmet (old city) or Taksim (new city) but most of the time thec streets of these areas seem like a non-stop flow of humanity. That is the reason that I chose to stay at the Hilton Bomonti-a new five star hotel which caters to business people and conventions. The hotel is located in an upper middle class section of Sisli, an Istanbul neighborhood. A ten minute walk to the metro, you can get to all of the popular parts in the old or new city in about 20 minutes. The hotel is beautiful. It has a nice spa, indoor and outdoor pools and one of the best Executive Lounges I have seen anywhere both in design and food/drink offerings. The rooms are large and modern. The wifi is great. But its greatest asset are its people-willing to offer you (and guessing when you need) help. The GM Remco Norden has done a great job in making the Hilton Bomonti one of the best hotels in Istanbul. But for me the best part is the welcome and calm embrace it gives you when Istanbul begins to overwhelm you!
After an uneventful 50 minute flight from Newark to Montreal, I was ready to board the Turkish Airlines Airbus A330 for a 10 hour flight to Istanbul. No wonder Turkish Airlines is consistently voted one of the world’s best airlines! I was seated in business class and the flight had a chef who took your order for dinner (and also breakfast) upon taking your seat. The hard product (plane, seat,food and drink and entertainment system were all excellent) The seat converted into a lie-flat bed. But the best part was the soft product (the flight attendants and chef) who really took pride in their work and went out of their way to show it. I would not hesitate to fly Turkish Airlines to any destination to which they fly. And the surprising thing was that I did not have to wait to arrive in Turkey to have my first Turkish delight!
Many people would consider the United States passport as the world’s most valuable, given its position as the world’s greatest economy and a place where most people in the world would aspire to live due to our education and healthcare systems and the many freedoms provided by our Constitution. In reality, however, it is not the most valuable. The most common metric for valuing the world’s strongest passport is the visa free access it gives to the rest of the world’s 217 countries. When applying this, the results are as follows:
1) Germany (access to 177 countries)
2) Sweden (176)
3) a tie between France, Italy, Spain, Finland and the United Kingdom (175)
4) a tie between the United States, Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands (174)
To put things in a proper perspective, Afghanistan comes in last with visa free access to only 25 countries (we can all probably guess many of them).
And just because a country doesn’t grant United States passport holders visa free access, it is not as bad as it seems. Many of these countries grant “visas on arrival ” at the airport (Dubai and the other UAE), some grant an “e-visa”, which you can pay for and obtain from your smartphone or laptop at any time before entering the country (Turkey and India).
So which countries typically require an American to go through the hassle of applying for a visa through their Consulate or Embassy? Russia, Vietnam, many African countries, China and Brazil, to name a few. But a couple of these also have silver linings as Brazil will grant a visa waiver from June -September 2016 due to the Olympic Games and China has a “72 hour visa free” policy if you stop in certain cities (Beijing) and are continuing on to certain countries (oddly Hong Kong is one).
So now you know-the United States is not the world’s strongest passport-it is tied for fourth (with three other countries) and is weaker than 7 other country passports.
There are many reasons for countries to require visas: security, revenue, political. In my opinion, many of the the weaker economies and underdeveloped countries should not require visas -after all, tourism is one of the quickest and easiest ways to generate revenue and at times people will choose to travel to a country with no visa requirement as opposed to going through the hassle, cost and time it takes to get one. What are your thoughts?
Having been actively “travel hacking” for the past few years, I have learned many things. First and foremost of these is the principle of “earn and burn” aka “your airline frequent flier miles and credit card points will not be worth more tomorrow”. I have also learned that the best way to maximize the value of your points or miles is to redeem them for first and business class international airline tickets at the “saver level”. After all, are your 150K miles more valuable when you exchange them for a $500 television set or a $12,000 first class round trip ticket from the USA to Hong Kong? Nothing against the television set for a non-traveler, just not a good value proposition!
With that in mind, I just booked the following business class itinerary:
New York to Montreal (connection) one hour flight in economy class, possibly will be upgraded
Montreal to Istanbul (business class flat bed seat), 9.5 hour flight
Istanbul to Lisbon (connection) business class seat, 5 hour flight
Lisbon to Marrakech (economy only plane) 2.5 hour flight
Barcelona to New York (business class flight) 8 hour flight
I will be responsible for filling in the blanks, i.e., getting from Marrakech to Barcelona and any other side trips but my point is this: the above award is a single award redemption, making use of a stopover in Istanbul for as long as I want and my destination as Marrakech. As a result, I am taking 3 trips instead of one, seeing Turkey, Marrakech and Barcelona (Asia, Europe and Africa). My international business class itinerary cost me 140K points plus about $50 in taxes. Compare this to a 2 hour flight in domestic (peanuts and a Coke) business class from New York to Chicago at the standard award level- 100k miles and $24.
As Nelson Mandela said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, it goes to his heart.” And according to Saint Augustine, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” Languages and travel-the perfect combination. While there are plenty of blogs on either, there are hardly any which focus on both. This is the purpose of Gringo with the lingo-to teach you to travel in comfort and style in a smarter, better way while appreciating, learning some words and phrases in, or even studying, the languages of your destination. This will only make your trips much more authentic, worthwhile and rewarding! And just maybe, it will ignite a life-long desire (as it has for me) to make travel and language not only a destination, but a journey.