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April 14, 2010

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WHERE'S JOHNNY JET?                    Gainesville & Brussels

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Bonjour! What a great week this has been. first of all, the press mentions continued to roll in: NY Daily News,, AOL, Martha Stewart Radio, Reuters... and I just did a taping of NBC's Nightly News, which is supposed to air later this week. As if that wasn't enough, I had a speaking gig at the University of Florida in Gainesville. It was my first college talk in a while and based on all the feedback it went really well. It feels so good to inspire people to get out and see the world. If you are interested in having me speak at your school or conference to arm your group with money-saving tips, websites, and stories, please email Whitney Jones.

In honor of all the students who recently signed up to receive our weekly newsletter, we commissioned writer Carly Blatt to share her summer travel tips for students getting ready to hit the road. We then sent our intern Hannah Uram to Weston, Florida, to check out the Hyatt Regency Bonaventure & Red Door Lifestyle Spa. For those looking for an incredible upscale Western getaway, our newest writer, Nicole Rodriguez, takes us to Alisal Ranch near Santa Barbara, California. And as for me?! I'm sharing with my stories/pics and tips from Gainesville and Brussels, Belgium.

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It's not often that I fly across the country for just 24 hours, but I did last week when I spoke at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Instead of taking a nonstop flight from Los Angeles to either Orlando or Tampa, which would have required driving a hundred-plus miles to Gainesville, I decided to fly straight into Gainesville via Atlanta. I took a red-eye since it was much cheaper, and to save even more money (almost 50 percent) I bid (successfully) on TIP: Before bidding, find out what price you should lowball with by logging on to It's a message board with all kinds of insider info. I ended up getting the Courtyard By Marriott for just $61 a night. Score!

I was pleasantly surprised by the folks in north-central Florida. The polite manners began as soon as I landed, as the airport had representatives stationed by both exits to welcome each passenger to Gainesville. I found everyone to be so shockingly nice, from passersby on the sidewalks to even the fast-food workers. It's remarkable what friendly people can do for a place. Even though it's out in the middle of nowhere, the nice people alone make me want to go back.

The Courtyard By Marriott is right next to a 24-hour Steak ’n Shake, so you know I had to hit it up late night after my speech. After tossing back a pepper-jack melt and peanut butter cup shake I felt so good—until I looked at the clock (11:30 p.m.) and then the mirror. In the morning I realized I had made a big mistake, so I did extra push-ups to try and make up for the crazy binge.

Earlier in the day I took a walk looking for a good place to have lunch. It didn't take long to notice that Gainesville has pretty much every chain restaurant America has to offer. I wanted something different, so I chose Sonny's BBQ. I thought Sonny's wasn't a chain, but once I posted a twitpic on my Twitter account I quickly realized it was—so much for trying to find a unique restaurant. It didn't bother me too much, though, because I sure enjoyed my pulled BBQ chicken, baked beans, baked sweet potato, and corn bread, and the waitress kept calling me "hun." On top of that, my bill came to only $7.47 (but that was before I found out about the banana pudding with Nilla wafers).

The next night I was back home in Los Angeles. Sitting at dinner, I realized that I had had quite a day: breakfast in Gainesville, lunch in Atlanta (chicken, candied yams, black-eyed peas, and cornbread from Paschal's), and dinner in L.A. Isn't air travel just amazing? BTW: Dinner was at Culina, an amazing new Italian restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills. Prices are not crazy expensive like I thought: You can get a pizza for $14 or a bowl of pasta for $17.

For those who are new, welcome! I left off last week writing about my recent trip to Europe. A quick recap: I flew from Los Angeles to Berlin via Zurich on SWISS. Then I traveled from Berlin to Wolfsburg to check out the home of Volkswagen and the Autostadt, and now it's time to travel from Wolfsburg to Brussels. If you are up for a little train adventure and some award-winning chocolate, hop on!

The Wolfsburg train station is a five-minute drive from the Ritz-Carlton, where I had spent three unforgettable days. I took advantage of having a concierge and had them reserve me a train ticket online the day before. The ticket cost 109 euros and it took just over five hours, including a change of trains in Cologne, Germany. TIP: Be sure to have the credit card you used handy because the conductor needs to swipe it.

1. Be sure you get on the right car—the train split into two going in different directions.
2. The conductors give announcements in both German and English.
3. There was a train display that read we were going 139 kph.
4. The bathrooms were clean.
5. They sell snacks and drinks, including coffee.
6. There was no Wi-Fi.
7. If there is not an illuminated sign next to the seat number, that means there is no reservation and you can sit there.
8. Bring earplugs or noise-canceling headsets, because some passengers talk on the phone or listen to their rap music too loud.
9. Kids in Europe seem much better behaved than in the U.S.A.
10. Leave your American-size suitcases up near the front—but don't have anything of value in them.

From Bruxelles-Midi train station I took the metro four stops to La Bourse, which dropped me two blocks from my hotel. FYI: A single journey on the metro costs 1.70 euros (use an automated machine or go to the teller).

When I first pulled into Midi it was sunny out, and I emailed a friend saying, "This is the first time I've ever arrived to Brussels and it wasn't either raining or snowing." Well, I jinxed myself because by the time I got off the metro it was raining—and my umbrella was packed at the bottom of my suitcase. Tip: When in Brussels, have your umbrella handy.

I stayed at the 217-room Novotel Tour Noire. It's a solid hotel in a fine location (near Chinatown and less than a kilometer from Grand Place). The hotel is clean and the walls are solid (but the pipes are loud). Across the street from my window was a picturesque church, but sadly I didn't visit or even get its name. However, I did bang my head on the doorknob when I stood up from the toilet-that's how tight a squeeze the separate private loo was. Luckily they put the sink in the main bathroom.

Although the bed wasn't that comfortable I passed out at 9:30 p.m. and didn't wake up until 6 a.m. It was my first full night of sleep of the trip, which meant I had finally adjusted to the time change. What I liked least about the hotel was that the maid came in and cleaned even though I had the Do Not Disturb sign on the door. Don't you hate that? Breakfast is included in most rates and they have a decent spread: eggs, bacon, baked beans, cheeses, deli meats, cereal, croissants, fruit (canned/fresh). Novotel Tour Noire, Rue de la Vierge Noire 32, 1000 BRUSSELS.

The hotel is in the center of town about seven blocks from the Grand Place and 12 blocks from Mannekin Pis. Although I've been to Brussels a number of times, I still couldn't not walk through the Grand Place or see the naughty boy without feeling guilty. On the way back I grabbed a steak sandwich and some pommes frites from Fritland. It was quick and cheap and right by my hotel.

The next day I took an 11-euro taxi to chocolatier Manon in Jette, which is one of Brussels' few remaining boutique chocolate shops. Everyone knows that Belgium is famous for its chocolates, but not everyone knows that some productions are still hand made and filled with the best fresh butter and hazelnut creams like Manon's. Manon's has been around since 1942 and Christian Vanderkerken (aka Mr. Manon), whose grandfather created the company, showed me around.

When I first arrived it looked like I was in the wrong place, because it's located on a residential street and you need to enter through a garage. Inside the small shop are a few museum pieces and some display candy. But the real magic is behind the factory door. It's here where Mr. Manon offers 90-minute guided tours for 12 euros per person (for groups of less than 15 people) and 10 euros per person for larger groups during the week (12 euros per person during weekends). FYI: No visits to the factory during the three weeks before Easter or the month of December. He also only accepts cash, no checks or credit cards.

When I first saw the set up it reminded me of the old I Love Lucy episode. Mr. Manon had one helper, and he admitted that his prices can be up to 60 percent more than Godiva's or other well-known machine-manufactured chocolate companies, but that's because all his chocolate is hand made with the best ingredients. He demonstrated how he hand molds and dips the chocolate.

Each piece he creates is a jewel, which is why he's won so many awards. He's famous for his Sputnik bonbon: It's made with two kinds of chocolate and filled with orange-flavored crème fraiche; the nose cone part of it is filled with cointreau-laced marzipan. When I started to take a little bite he basically yelled at me and said you have to pop the whole thing in your mouth at once. The man doesn't mess around.

One thing I learned and will not forget is that he eats chocolate every day, and when I asked him how he stays so skinny he said it's because he only eats dark chocolate. He explained that dark chocolate has a very high percentage of cocoa, while the white chocolate is only cocoa butter, the fat from the pods. No more white chocolate for me.

Most of Manon's chocolates are shipped around the world so you can enjoy them without making the trip to Belgium. FYI: He doesn't spend a lot of money on expensive packaging, but he makes up for it in taste.


*PLEASE tell us what you think of this week's newsletter!

Note: This trip was sponsored in part by Ritz-Carlton, Wolfsburg

Copyright 2010 JohnnyJet, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Pictures From

The Trip




45-Minutes to GNV


Welcome To FL


My Room


Lunch Time


Sonny's Food


Late Night Shake


Pachal's in ATL




Pizza In L.A.


Culina Pasta


Brussels Metro


Novotel Tour Noire Lobby


My Room


My Toilet


View From Room


Free Bikes To Rent




So Beautiful


Weekend Market


Royal Galerie




Say Cheese


Mussels Anyone?




I Love Walking The Streets of Brussels




Naughty Boy


Driving To Chocolate Factory


Godiva Factory


A Real Chocolate Factory


Mr. Manon


Fresh Ingredients


Hand Made






  • Congratulations on being "discovered" - just remember we found you first! Thanks for all your tips and writings. Sophie M - Wilmington DE

  • That hotel is phenomenal- enjoy the restaurant and have a memorable stay! Char T -

  • Seriously, you have WAY too much fun. Terry W – Orlando, FL

  • Fantastic! Bet your dad would've enjoyed this trip; hope all's well with him. I don't have to wish you well, I can see you're doing fine (except you forgot to shave). Keep up the good work! Dick B- Harrisburg, PA

  • I love this email you send. I was wondering.... I am taking my son who is 10 to DC for the weekend and I am hoping you had a write up on visiting DC in a weekend. If so can you forward to me. I am trying to create an agenda. Thanks! Tricia B – Boston REPLY: Thanks for the email! I visited last year and my sister Georgie Jet visited a few months ago I hope these articles help!

  • Thanks for the info on SWISS air. And I like this format better than the slide show. Travel safe. Shirley W - Windsor, Ontario, Canada

  • I read your trip story to Sydney with great interest as planning to go there one day. There are also many useful information ... and you gave it delicately and in needed text places. And I liked your photos! You and your Dad look great! Thank you! Lydia F -

  • GREAT article on Amelia Island! I was planning to visit there in July and was searching for info. Angee M -

  • I know you have had some concerns about the newsletter loading time earlier and thought you might like to know that it is still a problem. My download speed is 10-12 mbps with my ISP depending on the time of day so it should load very fast. Love to read all the news but wish there weren’t a wait to do so. Pam S - REPLY: We sent it to our web hosting company and they are looking into it. The problem is the photos are so large and when a lot of people are hitting the server (especially right after we send the newsletter) it slows it down. Thanks for your support and patience.

  • We sure enjoyed your stories of life and travel tonight at UF! It was really fun listening to you. Fortunately, with family in Washington, California, and Australia, we've had opportunities to enjoy great trips and look forward to many more, especially now with your great tips and suggestions! I enjoyed browsing through the depths of your website, beginning with your touching tribute to your beautiful Mother. It's fantastic! Thanks for encouraging adventure. Valerie S - Florida

  • We thoroughly enjoyed the information you had to share. The information will defiantly been shared with much of the study abroad population during our pre-departure orientations. Dena R - Gainesville, FL

  • I’m pretty sure you have thousands of peoples dream job - professional Traveler. I'm jealous! You’re articles are all very well written and include the right amount of detail to make your readers think twice about a trip, or give them ideas about destinations which they would have never thought to explore. Those are traits of a great writer. Eric I. - Mexico

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