Monday, April 16, 2012

The Layover: 5 Great Vacation-Extending Cities

There are cities in this world that, while possessing a certain attraction, a few interesting sites, a unique personality and charm, just don't rank on the top of our must-see list. They aren't the dream destinations we plan a vacation around, but they certainly merit a day's worth of exploration, and they add cachet to our "I've been there" list. I call these cities the perfect "Layover" city, tacked on to the beginning or end of a different trip, sometimes due to a happy accident of scheduling or airport delays, sometimes a purposeful punctuation to the trip. More and more, I've been intrigued by this chance to cross off a new destination in combination with another adventure, to the point of scheduling itineraries specifically with the layover in mind. It's like a free bonus trip, an extra adventure to delay the inevitable "back to reality" that coming home entails. Here's a few of my favorite layover experiences in Honolulu, Brussels, Dubai and Iceland.

12 hours in Honolulu, Hawaii

My first experience with the magic of a long layover came on the way home from a Kauai / Maui vacation. Due to the vagaries of mileage award travel booking, hubby and I were booked home on separate flights to the mainland from Honolulu,
with mine scheduled for an 11 AM departure and his for 11 pm. When we got to Honolulu the fates intervened and my flight was delayed 12 hours. Has such a delay ever been welcomed so wholeheartedly? I think not. We headed straight to the rental car counter, procured ourselves a convertible for the day, and hit the island.

Now I love Hawaii for its gorgeous beaches, amazing landscapes and incredible sea life, and I've visited many of the islands, but Honolulu was never on my must-do list. Too many high rise tourist apartments, too many ritzy shops, too many people on the beaches. Our one day adventure was the perfect chance to see the sights (while reinforcing the notion that our next prolonged stay on the islands should definitely be back in Kona!).

First stop, the Pearl Harbor visitor center for a bit of history. Then a drive up to the top of Diamond Head, for the view. A walk down the beachfront shopping district to gape at the bikini-clad Prada shoppers, and a quick lunch at a ramen counter that made us feel more like we were in Tokyo than in the US.

We had time to see the sunset, complete with green flash, while sipping a tropical concoction at the beach-side bar of the famous pink Royal Hawaiian hotel, watching the surfers and the beautiful people at the famous Waikiki beach. Then on to dinner at surfing legend Duke's Waikiki. A great day, a legendary location, the perfect layover.

Hotel Last Minute Deals Honolulu

24 hours in Brussels, Belgium

Another punctuation to a great trip led us to Brussels, Belgium for 24 hours. After spending a few weeks in Italy, another attempt to saving money on airfare had us flying a discount airline from Pisa to Brussels in anticipation of our international flight home. We arrived unprepared, with no particular plan and mostly ready to get home. But a charming, old school hotel within walking distance of the town center revived our spirits.

We ventured out past the famous boy peeing statue (and associated tourist shops where t-shirts are sold) and managed to spend an obscene amount of money on one bucket of mussels and a bottle of wine along the famous neon-clad seafood strip. "I met a man from Brussels, and he was full of Mussels" sang Men at Work, now I can say I fully understand the meaning.

The next morning, we had time to venture out to a local antique / swap meet in the street, practice our French at a creperie, and try a whole lot of Belgian beer. I still have a fabulous wire flower bouquet we bought from a street artist as a souvenir. 24 hours was perfect to get a taste of the city, a feel for the culture. No time for museums or in-depth tours, but just enough to feel the flavor.

Dubai in 10 hours

The glittering mecca of Dubai jumps out from the Travel Channel as a fantastically strange world of modern excess meeting traditional Arab values, rising out of the desert like a mirage. Confusion over the time changes and "+2 day" arrival times on my airline tickets for a recent business trip to Southeast Asia meant I didn't even realize I had a long layover until we arrived in Dubai. Ten hours till takeoff? Visa on arrival? A perfect chance to get out into the Middle Eastern sun.

Of course the famous Ski Dubai shopping mall ski slope was a must-do. A short taxi ride to the mall evoked feelings of Vegas (glittery buildings and lush landscapes with desert on the edges). We saw camels in the field and we saw the offices of major worldwide corporations. We saw a mega-mall with every shop imaginable and the ski slope right in the middle of it. A 2-hour pass was plenty of time to conquer the slope, and luckily your pass comes with everything you need – parka, boots, skis. Gloves and hats can be purchased as a take-home reminder of your travels (and to show off to your friends on your local ski slope). We schussed down the gentle slope, waving to the TGI Friday's diners whose balcony overlooked the run, and clamored to the chair lift among a throng of look-a-like skiers (it's hard to find the others in your party when every single person on the slope has the same red and blue Ski Dubai outfit on).

Apres ski, we headed into town to wander the famous Gold Souk. Wandering in and out of narrow streets it's hard to reconcile this ancient world with the modernity all around. A short cab ride away, in the canal district, modern young couples and urban professionals were out strolling, enjoying the hookah bars and delightful outdoor dining. In search of libations, we had to ask our cab driver for a recommendation. He dropped us off at a "western" hotel, the only place where alcohol is served. The top floor bar offered a gorgeous view and a stiff price for a Coors Light. Expensive, but memorable. . . and no need to return.

Dubai Hotels

7 Hours in Iceland

The Blue Lagoon, Iceland
The Blue Lagoon is a paradise of relaxation
I booked a recent trip to Paris via Iceland air, who does everything possible to make it easy for travelers to stay over for a visit to their home country.  A great opportunity to break up our return travel with a few extra hours in Iceland, I thought.   When else would I get a chance to see it?  Turns out, the 7 hour layover was the perfect amount of time to visit the Blue Lagoon.  A long soak in this natural geothermal hot springs surrounded by black lava was the perfect relaxing end to our busy vacation. 

Memories of these "layover cities" are like exclamation marks in my travel journal, they pack a big punch in a short time. They're a bonus trip, unexpected, unplanned and unscripted, a chance to see what a city has to offer and to decide if you want to go back for a longer trip. 

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