By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox
For several years we have been fans of Pierre Hermé macarons, lightly flavored ethereal French pastries (see Pierre Herme Paris bakery for glorious macaron pastries). It had been a while since we had macarons and we were eager to find out if they were as good as we remembered. Soon after arriving in Paris, France we headed straight for the nearest Pierre Hermé shop we found.
It was in the basement of the very crowded Gallerie Lafayette department store not too far from our hotel. It was the first time we visited a satellite of the famous French pastry chef and although not all the macaron flavors were available there were enough to satisfy us until we could make our way to the pastry maker’s boutique in the Latin Quarter near the Church of Saint Sulpice.
The prepackaged box of specialty foie gras macarons
Time flew away from us and it wasn’t until Christmas Eve morning that we found the time to visit the Latin Quarter Pierre Hermé shop. We made a point of arriving early in the day to avoid the afternoon lines we had seen in prior years during the Christmas and New Year holidays and were surprised to discover a line of customers that spilled outside the shop onto the sidewalk and snaked past the corner. It was snowing and gray but nobody seemed to care as we all stood patiently on the sidewalk waiting our turn in the queue in the freezing cold.
A pleasant young lady from the shop kept the line from bunching up in front on the neighboring store to the bakery. Another lady passed the holiday catalog to patrons in the line and a third young woman held an umbrella in one hand and a tray of chocolates in the other hand while she offered chocolates to patrons waiting in line. The chocolate bite was nice.
The festive window display featured macarons as ornaments
After a 20 minute wait on the cold and windy sidewalk we entered the small boutique. We were excited to be back and immediately searched the store for macarons. The busy boutique was filled with French, English and Japanese speaking customers and a about a dozen staff members behind the counter. As soon as we approached I saw beautiful seasonal Buches de Noel, pastries and further along, in the display case area nearest the register, the reason for our visit, rows of macaron pastries in a variety of colors and flavors.
No sooner had we joined the line that a young woman offered to help us. We had taken the time while in line outdoors to select our choices from the color catalog and were ready to order.
Another window display
With gloved hands she gently picked up the macarons and placed them in our box. After the first selection of Rose macarons she had to stop and wait. It was so crowded behind the counter that she couldn’t reach the macarons to place them in our box. Three of our picks were sold out.
In the past the Macarons D’Excepcion seasonal macarons were available for purchase individually. This year, specialty flavors, seasonal and foie gras, were only available in prepackaged boxes of 16 for 38 euros. One box contained four each of Envie, violette et baies de cassis; Pomme Verte et Angelique de Montagne, pomme verte, angelique de montagne et pommes aciduelees; Fortunella, kumquat, anis etoile, kumquat confit; and Agape, citron et pain d’epices. We knew from past visits that the two foie gras macaron flavors, Chocolate et Foie Gras and Eglantine, Figue et Foie Gras, were favorites and ordered the box containing eight of each.
Our selection of macarons
On December 31 we made another trip to the Pierre Hermé store in the morning. Once again there was a line of customers spilling outside the entrance although this line was shorter than the one we had encountered on the previous visit. Staff were managing the queue and handing out chocolates which were divine (it was only possible to purchase them in a variety box rather in single flavors). This time a young lady on seeing our camera while we were outside the store indicated quite firmly to us and the lady in front of us who was photographing the window display that “photographs inside the store are forbidden.” This morning they had no rose macarons, one of my favorites.
As we headed home we collected our thoughts and discovered that although we enjoyed sampling the macarons with a combination of flavors our favorites were the two foie gras varieties and the macarons with a simple combination of flavors, Rose, Truffe Blanche et Noisette (white truffle and hazelnut), and Infinitement Caramel (caramel with salted butter). The best discovery was that we still thoroughly enjoyed the Pierre Hermé macarons. Even after waiting in line in the cold Paris winter our macarons had been satisfying and as good as we remembered them. Vive les Pierre Hermé macarons!
Article and photos by Elena del Valle
Getting to Siem Reap, Cambodia, the nearest city to the world famous Angkor Temples, from the United States required many hours of travel and a change of airplane in several cities. After spending a few days in Thailand to adjust to the eleven hour time difference and relax a little I headed to Cambodia with some trepidation (after reading about incidents with visas and border guards among other issues). To minimize problems I paid the extra fees to purchase a Cambodian visa online ahead of my trip and requested an airport transfer from the Hotel de la Paix, my Siem Reap hotel. Fortunately my stay was without incident.
As we were landing I saw miles of emerald green fields and began to feel excited about visiting the area. My flight from Bangkok, Thailand arrived early in Siem Reap so that when I exited the customs area I almost missed my driver. He was English speaking and friendly, making the drive from the airport to central Siem Reap pass by quickly.
When I arrived at the hotel I breathed a sign of relief. Friendly and welcoming faces greeted me as soon as we stopped at the hotel’s porte chochere. I immediately liked the new looking and pretty hotel where I would be staying during my five nights in Cambodia. I knew I would be comfortable and safe. With the help of the hotel staff we planned my outings, filling the early part of my days with visits to the Angkor Temples.
By 6 a.m. most mornings I would be on my way to the nearby temples in the company of Chhai Heaor, a hotel driver, and Pouv Siya, an English speaking official guide and photography lover. Both of the young men were courteous and professional in their demeanor, and service oriented. My guide, a self starter who was learning Spanish online in order to increase his income, was keen to show me the many photography oriented angles for the temples and statues he had discovered.
Pouv Siya, my guide
The reason for the early departure was to avoid the ubiquitous crowds at the temples and catch the temples at the best early morning light for photography. I chose to see fewer temples and spend quality time at each one, stressing my preference for crowd free visits whenever possible. My friendly guide was quite pleased with the news and able to accommodate my request.
Between the early arrival time and my guide’s familiarity with the temples (as well as the seasonal rains which invariably caught us) we were fortunate to enjoy relative quiet at the temple sites. Although there were always many other visitors at each temple, often they were in another area of the temple or arriving when we were leaving and for the most part we avoided lines, loud visitors and overcrowded areas.
During three outings of several hours each on three different days we visited Angkor Wat, the most famous (and most crowded), Ta Prohm, Bayon, Sras Srang (King’s Pool), Banteay Srey (Lady Temple), Pre Rup (Red Temple). The temples were in a state of disrepair from years of neglect; many of the statues were beheaded, and there was always standing water sometimes inside and outside. Walking required attention as the ground was uneven and at times very slippery, especially just after it rained and it rained daily, sometimes more than once in a day. At several of the temples there were major restoration projects taking place. Although this was a good thing in the long term during our visit it meant that the tall metallic cranes, scaffolding and staff members at work marred the view of the temples.
The temples were striking, elegant and memorable. Each temple had its own charm although some were far more popular than others. My favorites were the tree filled Ta Prohm famed for the scenes in one of the Lara Croft movies, and the smaller, less imposing and more intimate Banteay Srey. The Lady Temple was popular in spite of the drive through the countryside that was necessary to reach it. Fortunately, the drive was on a good road where we had a chance to glimpse local homes and monks on their daily rounds. Once at the temple there were clean and modern restrooms and a covered entrance where we took refuge from the rain briefly.
In addition to our early morning arrivals, a little rain gear and some advance planning made it possible for us to miss most crowds and lines. As we walked along the temples, admiring their beautiful artwork I was glad I had made the trip to Cambodia. I look forward to a return trip with my husband to discover more of the temples, the people and the natural treasures of Cambodia.
Article and photos by Elena del Valle
The courtyard area of the Rest Detail Hotel
It took many hours of travel and connections in two airports to arrive in Bangkok from the United States. When I arrived late in the evening the rain was pouring so hard we had to wait a few minutes to deplane because rather than parking directly at the terminal the airplane had parked on the tarmac and we had to be bussed to the terminal building. Except for the rain the transfer was all too familiar. It was necessary for us to descend the airplane staircase and cross over onto the bus partly in the rain then wait for the bus to be loaded before riding for what seemed a very long time to reach the airport building.
The breakfast room
I felt tired from the long flights with uncomfortable seats, indifferent service and bad airline meals, most of which I left untouched. Getting wet on arrival and the 11 hour time difference didn’t help matters. I was disillusioned as I exited the customs area eager to find my driver and leave the airport only to discover he was nowhere in sight (the same driver dropped me off in the wrong part of the airport on the return). I called the Rest Detail Hotel in Hua Hin and instantly felt reassured. Tar, the young man who answered, was patient and understanding. An hour and several phone calls later I managed to locate the driver. Within minutes we were on the road in the rain to Hua Hin.
Flowers in the common area
The air conditioned car was clean and comfortable and the only noteworthy item during our drive was the military check point we encountered along the road on our way to the hotel. Once at the hotel everything was right. Tar was waiting for me. He welcomed me with a warm smile and took me straight to my suite. The rest of my stay was a pleasure. My luxurious beach facing suite and the hotel’s quiet ambiance, service orientation, and tasty meals provided the restful environment I sought to recover from the long trip and adjust to the time difference. Visit Simonandbaker.com to read about Thailand and the Rest Detail Hotel where I stayed.
On a recent visit to Paris, France one of our teams strolled into the Hotel Ritz on the Place Vendome seeking to browse the menu for L’Espadon, the hotel’s gourmet restaurant, where they had made reservations to dine later in the week. Nearly every hotel in Paris that hosts a fine dining restaurant proudly displays the menu in a glass case outside the entrance to entice potential diners. On approaching the entrance to the Paris Ritz hotel, the doorman took on the demeanor of a security guard and asked them what their business was at the hotel. Once they explained their purpose he allowed them to enter. Just inside the entrance, another man with the demeanor of a security guard was watching the people moving in the lobby and called to our team as they moved toward the restaurant. In terse language he said they could not approach the restaurant and that there was no menu available near the restaurant entrance.
He indicated that if they wished further information they should go to the front desk. On arriving at the front desk and asking to see the menu the young lady who greeted them said they should go to the restaurant and indicated where it was. Two additional desk personnel approached and informed our team that the only information available was on the hotel website (apparently they felt the need to outnumber our team of two, or just had nothing better to do at the time). Truly service oriented staff would have printed the menu from the website using the equipment in front of them rather than simply sending restaurant guests back out into the Place Vendome with nothing but a negative impression. The hotel’s staff attitude and service belied the “When a dream comes true” concept touted on the hotel website.
Our team left the hotel and made plans to dine elsewhere. In a city filled with fine dining venues it was a matter of minutes before they secured reservations at an outstanding gourmet restaurant. We can only imagine that L’Espadon is able to draw an adequate clientele from the hotel guests at the Ritz as the Hotel Ritz in Paris was singularly unwelcoming and borderline hostile at the very idea of non-guests passing through their hallowed halls to visit their fine dining restaurant.
By Elena del Valle
The Canopy Adventures office
On a recent visit to the island of Koh Samui in Thailand I went on a canopy ride. The mid morning ride provided an off the beaten track activity and a pretty bird’s eye view of the local greenery including a waterfall. At my request after seeing the activity listed among the hotel tour offerings, the hotel staff at the Hansar Samui, my beachfront hotel on the northern coast of the island, coordinated the outing. The hotel sorted out reservations and provided transportation to the canopy ride site.
From the paved road a few minute’s drive from the hotel we followed a bumpy dirt road that made me glad we were in a four by four vehicle. When the road ended we found a steep uphill path. At the top of the path there was a small thatched roof hut where three staff welcomed us. Since only two of us were scheduled at that hour we were able to begin quickly. We signed in, promised not to sue them in case of an accident and proceeded with the tour. Minutes later we donned canopy gear and thick gloves (mine smelled awful) and continued up a hilly path to a training spot in the company of two of the friendly staff members.
Ladders to the canopy
A sea of mosquitoes greeted us while we listened to their explanations in thickly accented English. Additional climbing led us to the first of several treetop platforms. Although it was harder than it looked when the guides showed us and required upper body strength to slow down and stop while moving down the line, it looked very safe. Soon we were zipping along the trees and screaming delightedly. The heat and humidity were high even though the sky was mostly overcast. Sweat dripped from our faces and my sunglasses fogged up so much they became useless so I let them hang around my neck.
The secret falls
When we arrived at the last zip line we felt small rain drops. We rushed back to the starting point just in time to miss the pouring rain. While the next group of tourists waited for the rain to stop we wolfed down a plateful of sweet watermelon they offered us and pondered how the ride had gone by so quickly. A short while later the rain slowed down. We took advantage of the lull to say good bye and made our way back down the steep path to the car.
After cleaning our hands with refresher towels in the vehicle we headed back to the hotel in air conditioned comfort, drinking bottled water to quench our thirst while planning our next adventure. Canopy Adventure (Thailand) Co Ltd, PO Box 28, Meanam, Koh Samui, Suratthani, Thailand 84330, Phone + 66 077 414 151, www.canopyadventuresthailand.com, email@example.com