Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A First-Class View

In real time, I'm in Chicagoland, staring out the window above the top of my monitor at today's gray sky. But in my mind, I'm in Amsterdam enjoying the exquisite panoramic view through the bathroom window in room 343 of the Hotel Okura.

It's interesting, the way some things lodge in our memories and spring to life on the grayest of days. Last October's business trip to Amsterdam was a grand one. But among my most alive memories is the glorious moment I first witnessed that view from the bathroom. Never mind I had the same view from the bedroom, but from the bathroom? Through those giant windows surrounding the over-the-sink mirrors? And from the throne? WOWIE!

Lest you think I'm gearing up for potty talk, nay. I'm done with it and moving on to a few other fine Hotel Okura details. As described on their website, the Hotel Okura Amsterdam is "An island of tranquillity in a city full of surprises."


To set a baseline for my review particulars, I am a budget traveler. My typical self-booked itineraries are filled with the likes of Hampton Inns (predictably clean and worthy), coach-class airfare and casual dining. I love Waffle Houses, hot dog stands and a good old greasy spoon breakfast. Sure, during my Dearest Dorothy book tours I was treated to many lavish and wonderful hotels (thank you, Penguin Books), but were I to "credential" myself on my life-long qualifications to review facilities the caliber of Hotel Okura, my title might be something like The Lame Gourmet and Budget Broad. Nonetheless, I know elegance when I experience it.

Marcel P. van Aelst, general manager, and Tamara Tong Sang, PR manager of the hotel, graced our group with a personal behind-the-scenes tour of the Hotel Okura's facilities, including The Suite, which is 5390 square feet and includes a private cinema. Oh, baby. That was something! If you have to ask how much a night, you can't afford it. But if you're one who doesn't have to ask, book it. You will not be disappointed. Our tour also took us through the Ciel Bleu kitchen mid-afternoon (doors not open yet), when chefs were fast at work. Who wouldn't want to eat at that Chef's Table, when again, you have that view?!

A couple more personal favorite highlights of Hotel Okura Amsterdam:

--Ciel Bleu Restaurant on the 23rd floor, the only restaurant in Amsterdam awarded with two Michelin stars. (Honestly, I'd never heard of that starry award before. But now, having eaten there, I get why--and it has nothing to do with tires and all to do with first class.) My rich dinner dining experience lasted for hours. I've never seen so many shapes of dishes; the courses just kept on coming. If you think you go the extra mile to prepare for dinner guests, study that picture. Yes, she is ironing the tablecloth.

MY VERDICT: Every tasty crumb and sauce smear was worth every euro I paid for it.

--Cocktails in the Twenty Third bar. Great, warm atmosphere. Comfortable. Kitschy. Whatever all is in that crunchy blend snack they serve, it kicks popcorn petoot!

THE VERDICT: I went back the second night of my stay, so obviously I enjoyed it.

--The lovely location along one of Amsterdam's tranquil canals (picture from in front of the hotel, not at the hotel), and the easy access to transportation just about anywhere.

THE VERDICT: If I ever get back to Amsterdam, count me in at the Hotel Okura for at least a night. I'm already saving my money for another dinner at the Ciel Bleu and once again daydreaming about Amsterdam, its loveliness--from just about any view imaginable.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Flying High and Grateful

The moment I laid eyes on this photo, I emitted a happy, deep, belly laugh. After a quick study, I cried a bucket of happy tears.

Of course not everyone had the same reaction. Some folks playfully queried the subject, who posted this self-portrait on his Flickr page, as to whether or not the "matter" on his face came from his nose. He explained that what froze to his face came "mostly from deep within the lungs."


Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.

Hear the swoosh. Picture the snowboarder whisking downhill, cutting right, then left. Up. Airborne. Soft landing.

Inhale. Exhale.

Energy. Beauty surrounding energy. Twinkling eyes taking it all in as it looms ahead, rushes by. Warm streams of well-spent exhilarating breath vaporizing in the high-altitude air, collecting as ever increasing evidence that this man travels fast, unbridled, unaware of anything but the freeing rush of his rocky mountain high-speed decent.

If you can't relate to my laughing/crying response to the icy-faced picture, perhaps you didn't look closely enough. Stare deep into his eyes, then allow your eyes to blur a bit, as if allowing those dotted pictures to sort themselves into an emerging 3-D image of ... you. See the happy look in your eyes when you stand knee-deep in a glorious ocean, or slice your water skis through warm lake water, hook a lunker musky, sink a twenty-foot put, ring the bell at the county fair, ace your test, catch that first glimpse of your loved one deplaning--or recognize the muse tapping you on the shoulder with the most playful and uncommon story.


Now can you recognize the look in the eyes of the shining face in the above picture that caused this mother to first laugh, then cry?

The utter look of satisfaction in his familiar, warm, brown, 44-year-old eyes serves as a testimony to this magnificent news: "YOUR SON FLEW TODAY! Your son, your wild child--your born-to-fly child--flew alive and well in his soul. Fast. Downhill. Free. Gathering life, and memories, and a photo opportunity birthed from deep within his precious lungs."

Inhale. Exhale.

Laugh. Cry.

Fly, baby, fly.

With all the muck in the world, I hope this post serves as a reminder that unbridled joy still exists. I encourage you to find small pockets of it, capture it, and pass it on!

Photos used by permission of Bret Lee Haskins, the one and only.