Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Tiny Luxembourg full of surprises

This is the time of the year to visit Europe.
Not only do the airfares and hotel rates drop toward the end of August, but the odds of running into a shorts-with-socks and fanny pack-wearing American decrease significantly.
And one of the best places to visit is Luxembourg, which is so off the map for American tourists that most of your friends and family will look puzzled when learning of where you want to go. Expect many responses along the lines of, “Luxembourg is by (insert random country here), right?”
But after seeing your experiences in this small country — a grand duchy headed by a grand duke — at the crossroads of Europe your friends and family will endlessly hit ‘like’ in envy of your postcard-perfect pictures on Instagram and Facebook.
What to do
Start your trip with a visit to the Luxembourg City Tourism Office located at Place Guillaume II, the central town square. While here, purchase the Luxembourg Card for 27 euros (about $35) per person or 68 euros (about $90) for a family. This gives the cardholder free admission to more than 60 touristy attractions for a period of three days.
From here, embark on a walking tour of Luxembourg City, the quaint namesake and capital of the grand duchy. The promenade tour (free with the Luxembourg Card) takes about two hours and gives you a good lay of the land.
After the tour, explore what remains of the immense fortifications, which were so impressive and militarily significant in its time that Luxembourg’s capital was known as the Gibraltar of the North. A stroll along the walls is particularly nice in the early morning with lovely views of Grund, an older part of the city located beneath the old fortress in the Alzette Valley.
The Grand Ducal Palace is a much lower key version of London’s Buckingham Palace. Take a couple of quick pictures, but don’t spend too much time here as there’s really nothing to admire except the palace’s architecture.
The same is true for Notre Dame Cathedral, which is average at best, as cathedrals go. If you are looking for old churches, do see the Chapel of Saint Quirin. Built into the cliffs, this ancient place of worship sits was a Roman-era “heathen shrine” with the present Roman Catholic structure dating to 1355.
On the outskirts of Luxembourg City is the American Military Cemetery (take a public bus for about 15 minutes from Place Guillaume II), the final resting place for Gen. George S. Patton Jr. and more than 5,000 other U.S. soldiers from World War II.
With the Luxembourg Card giving you free train and bus transportation it’s super easy to go beyond the capital and visit Vianden. Here you will find a quintessentially Old World town with everything you would expect: Narrow cobblestone streets, old houses with carved wooden doors and churches older than America.
If you have heard of Vianden, it is probably because of Victor Hugo, the French literary great, who spent considerable time here. You can even visit his former house, which is now a museum.
The must-see is the very historic Vianden Castle, which dates to the 11th century and could easily be a castle from the famous Harry Potter novels. Leave yourself enough time to fully explore the castle and be sure to take in the impressive views from the ramparts. More incredible views of medieval Vianden and the surrounding Our Valley can be had by taking the chairlift (use your Luxembourg Card!) up 1,476 feet. The Church of the Trinitarians and St. Nicholas’ Church, both dating to the 13th century are also worth visiting.
Where to stay and eat
With its location on Place Guillaume II, Hotel Vauban has one of the best locations in the city. This is a very small hotel with limited amenities — it’s really more of an upscale bed and breakfast inn. Nevertheless, the location cannot be beat and the hotel is very clean. Breakfast and high-speed wireless internet are complimentary with rooms from about 90 euros ($119).
Downtown Café (open from 9 a.m. until at least 10 p.m. most days), located about a two-minute walk from the hotel on Rue Chimay, is perfect for simple meals that won’t break the budget. For something more formal, go to Restaurant Clairefontaine. Just be prepared to spend some euros at this very nice Michelin-starred restaurant.
Another option is the twice-weekly market (Wednesday and Saturday) held literally right outside Hotel Vauban in the central town square. Just about anything can be bought here, including all the fixings for a takeaway meal.
If you want to stay the night in Vianden, the Youth Hostel offers a great value with single rooms from 14 euros (about $18.50).
How to get there
No direct flights are available from the United States to Luxembourg, which means a connection is necessary. This also means you could combine a trip to Luxembourg with a visit to France or Belgium via a train from Luxembourg’s central station.
Fares for most of September and October were $1,114 on United Airlines with a departure out of Detroit. Out of Saginaw, flights on Delta Airlines and its partners Air France and KLM with connections in Detroit and Paris were as low as $1,107. All fares were found using Kayak, Google Flights and ITA Matrix.
— Dennis Lennox

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Amash star power rises after Calley's win at GOP confab

The following is from today's edition of The Morning Sun.

NOVI — It was the convention that never happened.

The Republican State Convention convened here over the weekend to formally nominate its candidates for statewide office, including the marquee contest between incumbent Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley and Wes Nakagiri, a political unknown.

At least that was supposed to be the race to watch. In reality, it failed to live up to all the hype of the past several months.

The lack of support for Nakagiri's challenge to Calley’s re-nomination as Governor Rick Snyder's running mate became clear early Saturday morning when he was glad-handing on the vast concrete floor of the Suburban Collection Showplace without handlers or anything remotely approaching an entourage.

In the end, the sensible conservatives (aka real Republicans) were heard loud and clear when they gave 65 percent of the convention's votes to Calley.

That is impressive considering many were expecting floor fights and the sort of contention seen and heard at the Democratic State Convention in Lansing, where pro-abortion delegates disowned William Murphy, the party nominee for Michigan Supreme Court justice, because he received a pro-life endorsement in a race many years ago.

Calley's victory was mostly the result of the first statewide precinct delegate — the last ballot line on each party’s primary election ballot — recruitment campaign since 1988, when a civil war between supporters of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, Jack Kemp and Pat Robertson resulted in dueling conventions at the height of the GOP’s nomination campaign to succeed outgoing President Ronald Reagan.

Another critical component in his win was the surrogacy of Justin Amash, the unabashed libertarian congressman from Cascade Township in Kent County.

Amash, whose district zigs and zags from Montcalm County south to Calhoun County, was inseparable from Calley’s side throughout much of the last year.

All this political capital will serve Amash well, as he now has to choose between being a congressman for life and say the GOP convention nomination for attorney general four years from now.

Right now, Amash seems to relish being the libertarian voice in the lower house of Congress, but he has real star power and quite a few political favors to call in that could make him more than viable if he ran statewide.

LOCALLY: This race won't be on the November ballot, but the campaign for speaker of the state House of Representatives is in full swing.

Kevin Cotter, whose Mt. Pleasant-based constituency includes parts of neighboring Midland County, is fighting it out with Al Pscholka, of Stevensville. Both Cotter and Pscholka have teased endorsement lists with most returning GOP lawmakers and nominees in safe seats lined up behind one or the other. The wild card is Saginaw County's Tim Kelly, who hopes to emerge as a consensus candidate for speaker, if neither Cotter nor Pscholka can cobble together enough votes.

Of course, this is all dependent on Republicans keeping majority in the state House, but that seems increasingly likely what with Democrats focusing on the U.S. Senate campaign in an election year that otherwise favors the GOP.

— Dennis Lennox

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The battle for the Michigan GOP

The following is from today's edition of The Detroit News.

The tussle between Michigan Republicans over the re-nomination of Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley may be getting the headlines, but it is little more than a proxy war for control of the GOP.

Calley finds himself in an unprecedented offensive position heading into the Republican State Convention this Saturday in Novi, when no more than 2,000 Michiganians will decide something that has always been little more than a pro forma vote as the gubernatorial nominee of both major parties has usually picked their running mate since the adoption of the present state constitution. (Before 1963, the lieutenant governor was elected on a separate ballot line, which on occasion resulted in the occupants of the state’s two great offices being from opposing parties.)

The opposition to Calley’s re-nomination isn’t really about the affable, mainstream conservative who served two terms in the lower house of the Legislature from Ionia County.

Rather, it’s an attempt by a vocal minority of extremists, who seek to overthrow anyone with an established, credible position and instead install a junta atop the party apparatus.

This was evident at GOP county conventions a week ago, when the extremists took over some counties and presided over a reign of terror that is doing more to derail incumbent Gov. Rick Snyder’s candidacy than anything Democratic nominee Mark Schauer could ever do.

These extremists are what Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson rightly calls the “Taliban wing” of the GOP.

While the extremists attempt to portray themselves as principled conservatives fighting against what they claim to be Republicans-in-name-only (aka RINOs), the truth is they are the pretenders.

That isn’t to say everyone in the tea party is a conservative pretender.

Far from it, actually.

Unfortunately, the mothers, fathers, grandfathers and grandmothers who filled parks and courthouse lawns four years ago were preyed upon by all sorts of hucksters and grifters, who declared themselves to be the tea party leaders.

They then aligned with extremists, themselves the descendants of the John Birch Society who were rightfully expelled from the conservative movement by Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley Jr. and Michigan’s own Russell Kirk when these three served as the political and intellectual leaders of conservatism.

That’s why political leaders and activists who were the tea party long before the tea party existed — Macomb County’s Leon Drolet comes to mind — have went to great lengths to distance themselves from the extremists, who have destroyed an otherwise powerful movement for average Americans with genuine concerns over the size and scope of government today.

The extremists have no raison d’être except to hunt RINOs, as if such a thing even exists today. They have no idea how to defeat Democrats. They have no ideas, period.

And they have no manifesto for governance.

— Dennis Lennox

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Summer is over, but it shouldn't be

The following is from today's edition of The Morning Sun.

MACKINAC ISLAND — There may be a month left of summer, at least according to the calendar, but don't tell that to families and college students for whom summer is now over.

At least that is the atmosphere here in one of Michigan's most-visited tourist locales.

While there are always tourists somewhere up north — defined by this columnist as anything north of the M-55 highway corridor from Lake Michigan and Manistee to the twin cities of Tawas City and East Tawas on Lake Huron — the crowds this time of the year are noticeably thinner from even just a week or two ago.

However, that wasn't supposed to be the case back in 2005, when state law was changed under then-Governor Jennifer Granholm and the Republican majority in the Legislature to prohibit public schools from starting classes before Labor Day.

Until then, schools across the state were on different calendars with many downstate districts — far removed from the tourism-dependent economy of Northern and Upper Michigan — starting as much as two weeks before Labor Day, the traditional unofficial end of summer.

The post-Labor Day calendar change was meant to give the economy a boost as it would allow families to spend more time on vacation and thus more money on cottage or hotel stays, fudge, bike rentals, dinners at restaurants and all of the other expenses that come with a few days of vacation.

The problem is it never went far enough because colleges were left out, as lawmakers more often than not abide by a flawed interpretation of the state Constitution that allows the 15 public universities to operate as autocracies beyond the control of state government in Lansing.

That means middle-class mom Anne and dad Harold may still take son Clarence away for one more trip between now and Labor Day, but daughter Gertrude is out of luck because her classes at Central Michigan University resume next week. She also has to get to Mt. Pleasant a few days early to attend orientation and move into the dorms.

Not only does Gertrude miss memorable time with her family, but it also makes it harder for her to get the piece of paper with an embossed seal that has become so critical to have in today’s economy.

By going back to campus two or three weeks before the time when the summer tourism season should end, she loses the much-needed wages she earns at a summer job to pay her college expenses.

It also hurts Gertrude's summer employer, who could decide hiring temporary foreign workers are better than college students quitting before the tourism season ends.

All this is the reason why this columnist found up north to be quieter than it should be right now.

Those able to take an end of summer getaway probably prefer it quiet, but this ends up hurting Michigan's economy at a time when more growth is needed to propel the fledgling recovery.

 — Dennis Lennox

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Where to go, right now: The other Niagara

The following is from today's edition of The Morning Sun.

When most people think of Ontario’s Niagara region they think of Niagara Falls.
Yet just down the road from one of the world’s seven natural wonders is a quaint, picture-perfect place a world removed from the touristy trap surrounding Niagara Falls.
Niagara-on-the-Lake (population 15,400) is full of lovely shops and upscale boutiques — not unlike the ones of Petoskey or Harbor Springs, though with a lot more history mostly because of the Niagara region’s strategic importance from the time of the American Revolution through the War of 1812. Among its historical anecdotes: It was the British colonial capital of what is now Michigan in the early 1790s.
But there’s a lot more to Niagara-on-the-Lake than its rich history and heritage.
It has some of North America’s best wines, a growing number of fine dining restaurants for Instagram #foodporn addicts and a vibrant arts culture thanks to the Shaw Festival Theatre (running through mid-October).
The best way to explore the town is by bicycle. Rent a bike for $25 from Grape Escape Wine Tours and pedal the Niagara Parkway, which connects Niagara-on-the-Lake with Niagara Falls. This makes for a nice all-day excursion with lots of historic homes, roadside markets and wineries along the way. For a good lunch, stop at the family-owned Kuntz Orchards Farm and Marketplace.
All this and more makes for a perfect weekend getaway between now and early autumn.
Where to stay
The Prince of Wales is Niagara-on-the-Lake’s landmark hotel. If you stay here, make sure to request a room in the historic section of the hotel. Breakfast at the hotel restaurant Escabèche is phenomenal with all-around great service. If you have dinner here, ask sommelier Fred Gamula to see the impressive 8,000-bottle wine cellar.
Alternatively, consider The Charles Inn, a small 12-room hotel that combines the best of a boutique hotel with the charm of a classic bed and breakfast.
How to get there
Niagara-on-the-Lake is an easy drive from central Michigan. The only travel inconvenience is the border crossing, though this is more of an issue when returning home to the United States. A very useful tourism information center just across the Canadian border in Sarnia can provide you with all the necessary driving directions and roadside maps.
Just remember you’ll need a passport or enhanced driver’s license to visit.
— Dennis Lennox