Venezia, Italy – a place of quiet and intrique around every corner

[updated 20 January 2019]

My heart will always belong to Rome, but my dream is to live in Venice.  There is a magic about Venice that is hard to explain and holds a very dear place in my heart.   If you have not been, go.  And if you have been, go again!  It has become a tradition for me to go to Venice in February when the tour groups are gone, there is a chill in the air, the aqua alta may be in residence, and the canals and “streets” and fogged over in the morning and night.

And before we go any further, there is one bit of advice that was given to me years ago and worth remembering: lose the map!  It’s an island so you can’t get too lost.  And that’s part of the charm and how you will see things that you will never read about in a guidebook or on this website.

Nights

The Ca’ Pisani hotel (http://capisanihotel.it/) and has definitely become one of my go-to hotels when I return to Venezia.  The art deco design is close to my heart and the rooms are amazing.  If you can get a room facing toward the Rio Terrà Foscarini, do it: watching life happen close to the Dorsoduro neighborhood is a part of Venezian life that not everyone gets to see. Breakfast is ample and although I’ve not dined at the hotel, there are options from wine and cheese to a full meal.  And given that it is footsteps away from the Ponte Academia and the vaporetto stop, you’re well connected to other wonderful restaurants in this stunning city.

If you are looking for an affordable place to stay that is so close to everything you must see, the Hotel Flora (www.hotelflora.it/) is a wonderful option.

For the longest time, I thought this was a 4-star hotel and only recently found out that it is actually a 3-star hotel.  That says it all!   And although the hotel has no canal views – I’ve stayed at one of those before and although a truly gorgeous view, you may also have the scents from the canal and the noise from people walking below your window – it is 5 minutes from Piazza San Marco, 2 minutes to La Fenice, and easily accessible to everything else!   The staff is outstanding and the improvements to the breakfast buffet a wise choice for the varied clientele!  Search for me in January/February at this hotel because I will return!

If you want the same level of hospitality as the Flora, but on a smaller scale, head straight to Hotel Novecento (http://www.novecento.biz/en/); it’s owned by the same family!  Comprised of only 9 rooms, the staff is amazing, the location a wonderful respite of solitude and relaxation, and yet still close enough to everything that you’ll never feel like you are missing anything!

If money is no object, the Ca’ Maria Adele (http://www.camariaadele.it/html/index.html) is an absolute gem of a hotel and if you have the opportunity to stay here, I highly recommend you do. When you first arrive, not only are you greated by some of the most amazing staff, but you are then walked to the lounge where a bit of prosecco and some biscotti are provided while your room is prepared and the luggage delivered. That’s a great start in my book! But more importantly, the location of the hotel, in the Dorsoduro neighborhood is close enough to everything that you want, yet far enough away that it is quiet and a true get-away. And the breakfast?! AMAZING. Every evening you select what you want for breakfast, and where you want to eat it – your room, an indoor “hall”, or an outdoor balcony – as well as what time you want to eat and the rest is taken care of for you. Truly, this is absolutely astounding and it was difficult not to be little piggy and order everything on the menu!

Ca' Maria Adele with flash Ca' Maria Adele breakfastBites

As long as you avoid the tourist traps located around Piazza San Marco, and any of the ponti, you really can’t go wrong.  The restaurants will be small, and there may be a wait, but if you plan in advance, your dining experience in Venice will leave you with many happy memories.

If I only had one night in Venezia, Ai Artisti (www.enotecaartisti.com) is where I would go! The food is always amazing and although they no longer have an extensive list of wines by the glass – something I was sad to see go with the recent remodel – they still offer some wonderful whites and reds by the glass. My last night in Venice is typically spent here and every time, I stroll the canals with a full belly and a smile on my face.  I want to return right now!

Another find was the Alle Testiere (no website but on Castello 5801 on the Calle del Mondo Novo).  Again, amazing food and a terrific wine list with wines by the glass.

And then there is Osteria doge Morosini (www.osteriadogemorosini.it).  This is a tried and true seafood restaurant and worth every penny.   Although I don’t eat fish, I can certainly appreciate the smells, the ingredients, and the words of praise from those around me.  And how did this vegetarian fare?   Just perfectly because there are always vegetables on the menu and most pastas if they aren’t vegetarian, can easily be made vegetarian by leaving the fish out of the sauce.

As much as I love Ai Artisti (still my favourite in Venice) and Alle Testiere (even though they look at me oddly when I say I’m vegetarian), I decided to expand my knowledge and am proud to say that I have two additional restaurants that I can highly suggest.

The first that I tried was Vecio Fritolin (http://veciofritolin.it/en/).  When the front desk of my hotel smiled when I asked for a reservation, I figured I was in for something good.  If you want a lovely experience, with the white table cloths, proper wine and water glasses, and the attention of a 5-star restaurant, you must go here.  And if they still have it, there is an appetizer that is something akin to a parmaggiano and polenta cube with balsamic vinegar that was out of this world.  (Honestly, I can’t remember my pasta dish, or wine, because all I can think of is the antipasto!)

Vecio Fritolin interior

The other restaurant that may very well become my second go-to place is Corte Sconta (http://www.cortescontavenezia.it/).  Trust me when I tell you to use this web address and no others; your fist hit will be another chain or restaurants with a similar name that, I recall, focus on pizza.  This Corte Sconta is no pizzeria!  The service was amazing, the options phenomenal, and the wine list outstanding.  And what gets this restaurant a special nod from me is that, even though it is a fish restaurant – that everyone was raving about (in English, Italian, German, and I think Russian!) – when I told my waiter I was vegetarian, he showed me the listed options and then started to offer some ideas of things not on the menu.  In the end, I had tagliolini with pesto that was plate-licking delicious!

Because of an unexpectedly closed restaurant upon my arrival in Venice, the hotel had to recommend an alternate. I’ll leave out the gory details but suffice it to say the staff was rude and when I said I was vegetarian, they said “no.” So I needed a new restaurant and returned to Al Ponte Storto (no website) who kindly directed me to the failed first restaurant. Al Ponte Storto is not fancy but I promise you that the staff is wonderful, the food classic home-cooked fair, and not expensive. So, if the prices of Venice get to you yet you want a lovely, and simple meal, go here. I would return.

And lastly, if you’re looking for something fairly inexpensive, Oké ristorante and pizzeria is a good alternative.  I went for the pizza – yes, even I need a break from the pasta once in a while – and it was delicious.  There are a lot of students and locals here, so it’s a safe bet and not overly touristy.

Sights

Venice is a wanderers paradise.   When I go to Venice, I walk for hours every day and just let my feet take me wherever they may go.  If an alley looks cool, I will take it.  If a cafe looks inviting, I will stop.   It really is all about the experience.

If you need specific places to go, there are a few that I highly recommend.  The Guggenheim museum (http://www.guggenheim-venice.it/) is worth seeking out not only because it is fun to get lost trying to find it, but the exhibit alone is truly outstanding for the modern artist in all of us.  And before you leave the museum, be sure to go out on to the veranda: you are as close to the Grande Canale as you will ever get in a former residence.

The Scuola Grande San Rocco (www.scuolagrandesanrocco.it) is an amazing gem that should not be missed.

After paying admission and walking up the stairs, look for the chairs dotted around the center of the floor: there should be mirrors that you can use to best view the ceiling above.  (Trust me, it will save your neck!)  The silence is amazing and the beauty of the frescoes  calming and haunting all at the same time.

I also recommend doing a self-guided tour of La Fenice (not to mention going to the opera if you can).

The restoration of La Fenice is stunning and the architecture over the top.  When I went, I was able to sneak in to one of the boxes and get a feel for what it would be like to sit in a box and watch one of the acclaimed performances.

And, of course, you can’t go to Venice without stopping in one – if not every one – of the churches throughout the city.  In the heat of summer, this is a lovely respite and a place to sit for just a minute.  And in the winter, it too provides shelter from the chill air or maybe even the aqua alta!

And, of  course, a trip to Venice wouldn’t be complete if you didn’t go to Murano.  (Sadly, the glass sculpture below no longer exists after many many years.  There still remains a blue sculpture – admittedly my least favourite of all the sculptures – but that is all.)

The glass is gorgeous and it is fun to watch a glass blowing demonstration.  And if you must buy something, don’t buy it near the vapporetto stop and be sure to haggle: most prices are negotiable.   But don’t stop a few hundred metres from the vapporetto stop: go further.  Murano truly is a wonderful island with some lovely restaurants, cute shops, and some amazing churches to just stop and investigate.

If time permits, don’t forget to Burano and even Torcello!  The colours of Burano are amazing and bring a smile to my face whenever I think of it.  And the pizza some of the best that I have ever had.

A German couple  in Venice recommended a lovely restaurant in Burano.   They raved so much about this restaurant that we had to try it.  If you go, make a reservation at al Gatto Nero (www.gattonero.com), definitely the best fish restaurant on the island!  And although there were definitely tourists there  – dining options on the island are fairly limited – the restaurant was also packed with locals for their Sunday brunch.   Amazing!

And Torcello?!  How quaint and lovely.  There is even a small Locanda on the island that I am dying to stay at (although they are closed in the winter when the tourists are gone!)

The first trip  that I ever took in my life was to Venice for one full week.  Everyone thought that I was insane and wondered how I could spend 7 days on such a small island.  Twenty years later, and I still go as frequently as I can and soak it all in.  Get lost: you won’t regret it.

And if you’re looking for some tapestry, fabric, or those lovely little tassles the best place is Mario Bevilacqua. There are 2 shops, both equdistant from Piazza San Marco but my favourite is the one at 337B, Fondamenta Canonica. It’s a little hard to find – being right behind the Basilica San Marco – but I find the staff there very approachable and absolutely lovely. But be forewarned: it’s hard to leave with just one thing and they are not cheap.

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Milano – unlike much of Italy but still quintessentially Italian

(updated 20 January 2019)

Most people I know either love Milano or hate Milano: I’m still not sure why because I think it a fascinating, multi-cultural place with so much to see and do that I just can’t get enough.  But, perhaps, in retrospect, people don’t like Milano because it isn’t like the Italy we grew up with in our heads: little streets, little buildings, and lots of ruins.  But these are, in all honesty, what makes Milano such a fascinating destination.

Nights

Milano has every possible price point in terms of hotels.  And, needless to say, I haven’t stayed at all of them (!), but I do tend to stay at group of hotels, all of which I highly recommend.

If money is no object or you just want to splurge, you must stay at the Park Hyatt Milano (http://www.milan.park.hyatt.com/hyatt/hotels/index.jsp?null).  The hotel is located right next to the Gelleria Vittorio Emanuele II (the famous stain-glass covered shopping arcade) and the Duomo.

If you need something a little cheaper, but still close to the Duomo, go to the UNA Maison (http://www.unahotels.it/en/) which is about a block and half from the Duomo and a hotel of calm with a pallate of whites and beiges.  I love this hotel!

About a 15 minute walk further east (I think) is the Petite Palais Hotel ( http://www.petitpalais.it/).  This hotel has been hit and miss for me but the design, decor, and location make me keep coming back hoping for a good  room, as opposed to a corner room on the second floor that seems to invite all of the outside noise at all hours of the night.

And finally, if you are in Milano for a conference – and not interested in staying the centre but rather out near the fair grounds – I’ve stayed at the Regency Hotel Milano ( http://www.regency-milano.com/).  It’s probably a 3 star hotel but actually quite lovely and quirky in it’s decor.  If you don’t want to be at a conference hotel, I would stay here (if I couldn’t stay in the centre).

Another more recent find is “the Yard” (http://www.theyardmilano.com/) a new endeavor by a truly lovely family.  This is not so much a hotel, as it is a bed and breakfast: the family is always there, their sun a sweatheart, and everyone just wants to help you.  The only downside, if there is one, is that you don’t exactly have privacy: the family is literally just down the hall so, I imagined anyway, that they can here everything that you are doing.  It was a strange feeling.  But all-in-all, I would stay again.

And if you are looking for something truly unique, I highly recommend the “TownHouse Collection” (http://www.townhouse.it/) of hotels.  Each is unique, close enough to everything that you want to see and do, and you don’t feel like you are staying in staid hotel.  I love TownHouse 33.  I love the TownHouse chain and this hotel did not disappoint.  The communal breakfast in the morning was more than the typical Italian breakfast but not quite the American smorgasbord breakfast that some may be used to. I loved it! And in terms of the rooms: some rooms look to an inner courtyard and these, I suspect, are quieter than those looking on to the street.

Bites

Finally, I have found places in Milano that I can recommend for the hungry traveler!

I have fallen in love with the Trattoria del Nuovo Macello (http://www.trattoriadelnuovomacello.it/)! I am literally dreaming about the staff, the food, and the wine list. I could go on and on about this restaurant but, instead, just take my word for it and go, but know that, like many restaurants in Italy, they are closed on Sundays. And when you do, be sure to get the saffron “rice pudding” with strawberries if it is available. Oh. My. God.

In the Navigli neighborhood, I was taken to one of the growing slow food establishments that I honestly cannot wait to return to: L’Osteria Grand Hotel (http://www.grandhotelosteria.it/). It’s not the easiest place to find – to say that it is tucked away off of a busy street is an understatement! – but with a good map and a bit of patience, it will be worth the trip! At first, I wasn’t sure if they spoke anything other than Italian but I am happy to say that I heard a bit of English and a bit of German the night I was here. The antipasti and the primi were truly mouthwatering and the dolci, which I don’t typically take, was incredible. Make this a stop on your tour of Milano!

My latest find is a keeper!  La Bettola di Piero (no website but on Facebook) is a quintessential Italian restaurant.  There is nothing fancy, the tables are covered in checked tablecloths (not to be kitschy but for real), and there are old pictures hanging on the walls.  But the food is absolutely divine, the owners are so genial and check on every diner, and the ambiance is so inviting and welcoming.  They do have an English menu available but I honestly can’t tell you if they speak English as everyone in the restaurant – except for yours truly – was Italian: I did not hear one word of English spoke then entire time!

And if you are in need of some great, classic, and unpretentious Italian food, head no further than La Cantina di Manuela, a 10 minute walk from TownHouse 33.  A small enoteca with wonderful wines by the glass, the food was outstanding and full of locals so you knew it would be good.  I will be back in August, if not sooner, and cannot wait!

If you are near the Duomo and are looking for great, yet affordable pizza – for either lunch or dinner – I can highly recommend Mozzarella e Basilco  (http://www.mozzarellaebasilico.com/).  Tucked away behind the Duomo, off of Corso Vittorio Emanuelle II, is some of the finest pizza from Napoli that I have found this far north. The restaurant is filled with everyone – young, old, local, and tourist – and the staff and managers are just outstanding!  It is so good that I am literally drooling as I write!  Be sure to put this on your list of places to visit.

If you are in Milano for a conference, I can highly recommend Ristorante Controvento (www.ristorantecontrovento.com) (which is not far from TownHouse 12)! If I hadn’t been in search of multiple suggestions to add to this blog, I honestly would have eaten here every night. The staff are amazing, they speak about every language possible, and the food is absolutely divine! And the wine list, already outstanding as it is, but if you ask the owner, he may just suggest a few options that aren’t on the list.

Another place that is about a 30 minute walk from the Ferie area is Osteria Borsieri. It’s not swank like any of the other suggestions above but the pasta was classic – like “mama would make” – and the staff wonderful. The wine list has much to be desired but this is a neighborhood restaurant so they aren’t catering to people who eat there on business but, instead, to the locals who don’t want to cook at home. (And I think there is only one person there who speaks English, just so you know.)

Sites

A visit to Milano should not be considered complete without a visit to the Galleria, the Duomo, and the Last Supper.  (For the latter, be sure to book as far in advance as you can as they only allow a certainly number of people in at any one time.) (Click here for tickets http://www.vivaticket.it/?op=cenacoloVinciano. The page is in Italian but you can change to English in the upper right corner.)

And before you leave the Duomo, be sure to pay to go to the roof of the Duomo and walk on the roof.  The views are stunning and it’s something you can do that not everyone knows about.   And,  if the weather is not good, or you just need a break, be sure to go to La Rinascente department store, right next to the Duomo, and go to the cafe on the top floor; it has views of the Duomo from an angle that not everyone has the luxury or knowledge to view.

After you have done the requisite tourist things – all of which I love and recommend – be sure to allow some time to go to the Pinacoteca di Brera art gallery (http://www.brera.beniculturali.it/) something that I overlooked for the longest time and now is one of my favourite galleries in the world.

If you can get in, I highly recommend seeing an opera at La Scala.  It’s difficult to get tickets, but if you can, you won’t be disappointed: it is, after all, where Italian Operas began!

And finally, your trip to Milano would not be complete without a stroll down Via Montenapoleone, Via della Spiga and Via Sant’Andrea.  This is where the pretty people are – assuming you don’t think all Italians are “pretty” – and the clothes aren’t too bad either.  And if  you have the chutzpa (not meant negatively, I assure you), go in to the shops and see some truly outstanding craftsmanship.  I do it every time!

And with that, I will wish you great travels to a city that I adore and think of as a third home.  Buon viaggio!

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Rome, Italy – My home away from home

[updated 20 January 2019]

I will tell anyone who asks:  Rome is to me what the sun is to Superman.  It is my home, my love, and my return.

If you must, take a map but “flying blind” really is part of the fun of Rome: getting lost, finding little cafés, little shops, or just watching people go about their business.  There is so much that I can tell you and suggest for you, but below are my highlights and where I go every time I return to Rome.  I hope that you enjoy it as much as I do.

Nites

The number of hotels opening in Roma are truly fascinating.  There are some old standbys that I still love, and some new players that have joined the scene.

The Hotel Ponte Sisto (http://www.hotelpontesisto.it/) has fond memories for me and is often a place I find myself drifting back to.  The staff have not changed in YEARS and given that the hotel is a short walk from either Trastevere on the other side of the river or the Campo dei Fiori, the Piazza Navona, and everything else you will want to see makes this a fantastic place to start and stop from!

Ponte Sisto at night

If, however, you are a fan of Roman history and architecture, you must stay at the Hotel Donna Camilla Savelli hotel (http://www.hoteldonnacamillasavelli.com/) at least once.  A former convent (or monastery depending on what you read) designed by the renowned Borromini, the architectural influences are stunning and some of the remaining religious touches are breathtaking (there’s a small set of steps with an alter by Borromini that is breathtaking).  Located in my favourite neighborhood of Trastevere, the hotel is relatively quiet but still close enough to everything that you could want to do.

Hotel De’Ricci (https://www.hoteldericci.com/) is a lovely new find located not far from the Piazza Farnessi (with the lovely tub fountains!) and within close walking distance of everything you could wish for.  Designed with a classy art deco feel, the staff are amazing and the rooms spacious.  Because the hotel is in a residential building there is no restaurant so breakfast is served in your room, with multiple add-ons if required (but rather expensive to be honest).  Reader beware: the outside lights that illuminate the façade of the building are rather bright and brighten the jr suites which are located on the first floor: if you can afford it, opt for something higher.  (Disclaimer: I can’t sleep in total darkness so closing the curtains is equally as disruptive as the light flooding in until the lights go off at 6am.)

Near Rome

If seeking a bit of calm and respite from what can seem like the constant cacophony of motorini (scooters), you should seek out the Castello Orsini Hotel in Nerola (http://www.castelloorsini.it/en/). The castello is a converted 10th century castle about 30 miles north of Rome and although a challenge to reach, I promise that, once you are there, you won’t want to leave!  (A spa has opened, but I haven’t tried it.)

Bites

Now, as it regards the food – the fun part of the trip –  I can make a couple of suggestions.  If you want to treat yourself just once, which I highly recommend, ask the hotel to make a reservation for you at “Ristorante Tullio” (http://www.tullioristorante.it/)  This is the restaurant that is known for their pasta with white truffles.  It’s not cheap, but worth every savory bite.  And if you like meat, you must get the Bistecca alla Fiorintina

My favourite restaurant and it’s been in Rome for ages, what some would call an institution!  Da Enzo (http://www.daenzoal29.com/ reservations imperative) is sheer perfection and unpretentious.  Indoors, there are less than 40 seats, all situated quite closely but don’t let that put you off; the food is outstanding, the service efficient but not rushed nor achingly slow, and wine selection not too shabby.  One of my favourite pasta dishses is cacio e pepe and this was, by far, the best cacio e pepe I have ever had.  I want to go back right now!Da Enzo interiorA close second to my new favourite restaurant is Flavio al Velavevodetto (http://www.ristorantevelavevodetto.it/  reservations suggested) a 30 minute walk to Testaccio if you are staying in the center of Rome.  And I promise, it is worth the trek: the restaurant appears to be underground and the dining rooms look as though they are located in former wine vaults that have been painted white.  The service was immaculate and the food simply outstanding.  On the night I dined, I had a duo of carciofi – artichokes – one fried (carciofo alla giudia) and the other cooked in lemon and oil (carciofo alla romana) and they were outstanding.  The pasta was an amazing ricotta filled ravioli with salt and oregano and although I’m not normally a fan of oregano, this was delicious!

Closer to the Hotel Ponte Sisto is La Carbonara located in the Campo dei Fiori.  This is a bit on the touristy side but the antipasto options are outstanding and in a pinch, it will do.

I am ashamed to admit that I forgot one of my friends favourite restaurants: Ristorante – Pizzeria “La Fraschetta” (www.lafrascetta.com) in Trastevere. The carcioffi are, literally, to die for and if you want a real taste of garlic, this is the place for you! And don’t go for the house wine but, instead, ask for a bottle of wine that fits your needs; their selection of wines is outstanding and it won’t break your bank!

Another small place that always puts a smile on my face is Trattoria de Gli Amici, also in Trastevere in Piazza Sant’Egidio. I have never been here for dinner but as a place to stop for lunch, especially on a sunny day looking at the piazza and everyone walking around, it is close to sheer perfection.   And why this restaurant as opposed to others in Trastevere? Because they employ people with special needs and the money goes toward the ongoing support of the Roman special needs community.

One of my other personal favourites is a restaurant called Piccola Roma (no website).  This is close to the Pantheon and a wonderful little restaurant up a flight of stairs.  Mimo, my favourite waiter of all time has sadly for me, but wonderfully for him, retired so I no longer have singing while I eat, or the trust of a man who knows what to eat, but I still love this restaurant.  Go, for old-world true Italian cooking.  (And note: I celebrated my 40th birthday here years ago!)

And right next to Piccola Roma is Giolitti (http://www.giolitti.it/), what I consider to be the best gelato place in Rome.

Another restaurant that I must mention, and am embarrassed that I have forgotten all these years, is Dar Poeta (http://www.darpoeta.com/), one of the best pizzerias in Rome, located just across the river in Trastevere.  If memory serves, and as the lines out the door will attest, Dar Poeta doesn’t take reservations but I assure you, it is worth the wait.

And if you seek an affordable, yet traditional Roman meal, you must seek out Trattoria da Lucia (http://www.trattoriadalucia.com/ reservations suggested).  Even smaller than Da Enzo, the atmosphere is typically Roman as is the food.  On the night was I was there, a table asked what was good and the waiter listed the classics like pasta arrabiata and tripa alla romana.  The staff aren’t known for the congenial demeanor, but the food and wine are worth the trek and when the restaurant is filled with non-tourists, you know you are at a good standard place.

My  latest finds (as of this update in June 2018) is Sora Margherita (https://www.soramargherita.com/).  Located near the Jewish Quarter and although very small, and somewhat rustic, is an absolute must!  I am embarrassed to say that it has taken me this long to find this outstanding restaurant with probably the best fettuccini, with cacio e pepe, that I have ever had!  If I only had two nights in Rome, this would be one of the restaurants that I would have to return to.

Sites

You will see the Coliseum, the Piazza Navona, the Palatine hills, and do many other picturesque things that I won’t repeat what your guide book tells you.  Instead, I will tell you my 3 favourite things that you must see on any trip to Rome.

First, you must go to San Luigi dei Francesci; here are 3 original Caravaggios painted on the walls of the church so they can never be removed.  This is how art was meant to be viewed and the solitude of the church, even though teeming with tourists, is sheer tranquility for me.

Caravaggio at San Luigi dei Francesi 02Secondly, if it is open or you can convince someone to let you know, go to the Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte (on the via Giulia near the Hotel Ponte Sisto) which is the oddest and most bizarre church in Rome: it is full of bones and skull that have been made in to crosses, light fixtures, etc.  And this is no stunt or shock-value church.  It is the real thing.

Thirdly, you must cross the river and go to Trastevere and wander and get lost and have a coffee and stop for lunch at an outdoor café.

And if you find yourself near the Colosseum (really?!), San Pietro in Vincoli is one of my favourite churches, due in many parts because it is hard to find, and thus the church is not overrun with tourists, but most importantly, because of the sculpture of Moses by Michaelangelo that is one of his greatest works.  And a bit of Trivia: the story goes that Michaelangelo was so consumed by this massive sculpture that when it was finished, he was certain that it was real and would come to life and thus threw his hammer at the knee of Moses to make it rise.  (It didn’t.)  And the horns on this head: they were meant to be rays of light but due to a translation issue (sic!) of “keren” for horns was used instead of the intended “karan” for rays.

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Delhi was more than I expected to be honest. The vibrancy and “controlled” chaos is unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere.

(updated 20 January 2019)

Delhi was more than I expected to be honest.   I knew that I would find poverty, immense poverty, and I suspected that I would harassed by men seeing the foreigner and by young children desperate to sell me pretty much anything that they could get their hands on. But what I didn’t expect was the intense kindness that nearly every Indian that I came in to contact with, even those on the streets of Delhi still trying to “help the foreigner.” I’m not sure I would choose to return to India of my own volition, but if given the opportunity to return for work, I would certainly take that opportunity to learn more, explore more, and experience more as I think this conflicted country – between the rich and the poor, the educated and the not, the happy and the sad – has so much more to offer.

monkeys on the roofNites

Being that this was my first time in Delhi, I don’t have a lot to offer but what I can, I am confident of. Hotels near Connaught place are definitely the safer place to stay. I was fortunate to stay at the Shangri-La Hotel (http://www.shangri-la.com/newdelhi/erosshangrila/) which I really quite liked: the rooms were large, the bed was conformtable, the staff were great, and the breakfast was fantastic!

My dream hotel (for my next visit) has got to be The Imperial (http://www.theimperialindia.com/). Oh my goodness this hotel is stunning! The night I was there, there was a reception outside with the hotel awash in lavender and the scent of jasmine everywhere. I truly didn’t want to leave!

The other hotel that I am dying to try – so I guess I need to go back at least twice – is the Claridges hotel (http://www.claridges.com/index.asp), the grounds look amazing and truly removed from everything that you see outside of the hotel gates.

I took this opportunity on this trip to try somewhere new and I can honestly say that the Le Meridien (https://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/delmd-le-meridien-new-delhi/)  on Windsor Place is a keeper.  Just like the Shangri-La above, it is located within about a 45 minute stroll to the Gate of India and 15 minutes or so to Connaught Place.  But the hotel itself if stunning, with ample space and an amazing sense of calmness for such a large hotel.  If you can have access to the lounge on the top floor, do it: dining, or having an evening cocktail in tranquility is such a lovely approach before your day or to end your day before venturing out to dinner.

But reader beware: as lovely as Windsor Place is, or anywhere in Delhi for that matter, the streets are broken up with round-abouts.  Why beware?  Because these round-abouts mean that you can’t walk in a straight line without having to cross traffic and if you are not of a strong disposition, and perhaps a bit of daredevil, this is a crazy thing to navigate.  So, if this freaks you out, call an Uber (SIM cards are only about 600INR for great service and coverage), a taxi, or take a tuc-tuc.

Bites

Hands down, this is my favourite experience, ever, in New Delhi and would be the only place I’d go if I had just one night: Indian Accent (http://indianaccent.com/newdelhi/) at the Le Parker Meridien.  There is an a la cart menu, and there are only 2 seatings each night (19.00 and 21.45) but go for the chef’s tasting menu!  It is a visual parade that tingles your senses with each subsequent course.  And for what amounts to less than $100, it is so worth the adventure.    (And FYI: there is a New York restaurant that I have got to try!)

If I had 2 nights in Delhi, I would choose to dine at The Spice Route (http://www.theimperialindia.com/the_spice_route/). This was truly an experience worth every penny! The interior design was like nothing I have every seen, the food exquisite, and the overall mood of the hotel (The Imperial) breathtaking.

If I had a third night, I would go to Dhaba (http://www.claridges.com/the-claridges-newdelhi/dining-daba.asp) in the Claridges hotel. I had read about this restaurant and was so not disappointed! The idea was to give you the feel of being in a rickshaw with oustanding food to act as a counterpoint.

Sites

If you have the time, and the money, you must go to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. It may sound touristy, and it’s a long drive, but trust me when I tell you it is worth every second.

In Delhi itself, and if you have the stamina for some jostling and some haggling and a lot of horn-honking, you must experience Old Delhi. Everyone told me to try the street food – I couldn’t and I’m not sure you should unless you have a handy dose of antibiotic treatments and a lot of hand-sanitizer – but everything else about Old Delhi is amazing. It makes the soukes of Morocco seem quaint and calming!

Taj Mahal closerDelhi is an amazing place full of joy and sadness, and riches and destitution, and not something that is easily explained or enthusiastically promoted, but I don’t regret going and I sincerely hope that I will be able to return sometime soon and share more of my findings with you.

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Chennai, where the people are so incredibly kind, the city takes pride in itself, and the way that southern Indians meld and blend spices calms me, and takes my breath away.

I love southern India: the people are kind, the city is fairly clean, and the way that southern Indians meld and blend spices calms me, and takes my breath away.

Nites

Oh my goodness, I am in love!  The Leela Palace Chennai is absolutely stunning and peaceful and when you score a Bay of Bengal room, the tranquility is unmatched.  The rooms are spacious with sitting areas and desks, as well as a ginormous bathroom that you may not want to leave!

And if this isn’t your thing, and you want something perhaps a little more central, the ITC Grand Chola (https://www.itchotels.in/hotels/chennai/itcgrandchola.html) is a knockout!  It appears to take up an entire city block and although I haven’t seen the rooms or stayed here, the public spaces are truly breathtaking.

Bites

Southern Spice at the Taj Coromandel hotel is incredible.  Tucked away in a far corner of the restaurant, the staff aptly suggests what to experience based on your preference.  And if you’re lucky, as I was the night that I went, the waiter suggested two half portions so that I could try different things.  And am I glad!  The paneer with ghee, ghost pepper, and 2 other peppers was lip-smacking, but soft on the palate and nowhere near as hot as I was expecting.  It’s a must try.

Likewise, Royal Vega at the ITC Grand Chola is a vegetarian’s dream!  Treated like a king, for not a lot of money, the menu is divided in to 3 sections: southern Indian, Northern Indian, and seasonal and each looked amazing!  My friend and I chose different sections and although the spice level has been toned down for the tourist clientele, the food was still outstanding.

And if you have three nights – because the above two would probably be my top-two choices – Pan Asia also at the ITC Grand Chola was a winner and great fun with friends.  As you’ll know by now, I am vegetarian but my friends raved over the Peking Duck and the various courses that it entailed.  And the curries for me were pretty outstanding as well!

Sites

I’ve been to Chennai before but never really had the chance to sightsee and boy am I glad that I did this time!  The monuments at Mahabalipuram are true wonders for the eye and deserve their UNESCO World Heritage designation.  The order in which I saw them, which appeared to be fairly important was first the Shore Temple, the only remaining temple (the others were previous further close to the sea and, probably due to rising ocean levels, destroyed);  then the Pancha Rathas (or 5 chariots) which was my favourite just because of their layout; and concluded with Krishna’s Butter Ball, a massive rock seemingly perched on sloping hill that the children try and push over.

Another lovely experience, especially for those of us who haven’t been invited to someone’s home, is the Dakshina Chitra museum, about an hour’s drive outside of Chennai.  Comprised of numerous example houses from Southern India, each gives a sense of homes before the crush of people and apartment buildings.  Scattered throughout are also hand-made goods that can make nice gifts for nominal cost.

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Kolkata is probably the most “melting pot” culture of all the cities that I’ve visited in India.

Kolkata is probably the most “melting pot” culture of all the cities that I’ve visited in India.  And, like New Delhi, you will encounter poverty right next to luxury and with very few exceptions, will one encroach on the other.  (Disclaimer: I don’t know what happened with the inhabitants who lived where the luxury hotels and high rises took life so there was probably horrible encroachment here and for that I apologize.)

Nites

The Grand Hyatt Kolkata (https://www.hyatt.com/en-US/hotel/india/hyatt-regency-kolkata/kolka) is located a little ways out of “downtown” but as it is situated right next to the football stadium, it buffers you from the outside noise and does provide a respite from the intense activity of daily life in Kolkata.  It is tried and true Hyatt so you know what you’ll get, and there are very few surprises.  To be honest, it lacked any feel of being in India but if you need to be confident in what you’ll get, this is the place for you.

The Oberoi Grand (https://www.oberoihotels.com/hotels-in-kolkata/) is stunning!  It is literally so stunning that when I walked in, I literally kicked myself for not staying there even though it cost quite a few more rupees.  Really, if you can swing it, there should be no second thoughts!

Bites

Knowing that, at this point, I would have been in India for over a week, I planned such that I would have a respite from Indian cuisine and go in a slightly different direction.  And my plans did not disappoint: Baan Thai at the Oberoi (see above for the link), is stunning!  And the Pad Thai – available both as vegetarian and traditionally with fish sauce – was perfection. 

Sites

Just as with Mumbai, a tour guide is imperative.  And just as with Mumbai, I didn’t have the best guide so there are no contact details to share.  But if you do your research, or contact your hotel, you’ll be able to see the sites, even if the guide isn’t great.

My experience has been that most guides ask “what do you want to see?” so be prepared.  And in my opinion, the first thing out of your mouth should be “Mother Theresa’s House”.  I must admit that I enjoyed having this as my last stop because it was humbling, and peaceful, and truly returned me to a centered disposition.  There really are no guides within the house, and some places are off limits as the Sisters still live there and practice, so watch for the signs and be sure to see the “museum” (hours vary) and Mother’s bedroom.  Truly, it puts all else in to perspective.

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Mumbai is an incredible mix of old and new, upscale and slums, modernity and the way things have always been done… all of which should not be missed.

An incredible mix of old and new, upscale and slums, modernity and the way things have always been done… all of which should not be missed.

Nites

As this was my first time in Mumbai and I was here for work, it was important that I stay near the center and closer to hospitals and medical colleges so I chose the ITC Grand Central (https://www.itchotels.in/hotels/mumbai/itcgrandcentral.html), a truly stunning hotel that isolates you, and insolates you, from the insane traffic just outside the door.  The staff were amazing and the décor very calm and inviting.  And as part of the Marriott chain, it makes it just a tad more attractive.  (And if you can swing access to the Club Floor Lounge, do it; amazing breakfast in the morning, high tea in the afternoon, and cocktails before dinner.

If Marriott isn’t your thing, or you just want to try other options, the Oberoi chain in Asia is absolutely stunning!  Price can be a challenge here but if you consider what I mentioned in my earlier post (https://www.oberoihotels.com/hotels-in-mumbai/), you might get an affordable price that is just worth a few rupees more!

Bites

If I only had one night in Mumbai – and honestly, if I had two, I would choose the same place! – you must go to The Bombay Canteen (http://thebombaycanteen.com/).  Please, don’t be put off by the online pictures of the outside, and not get frightened when your car turns in to what appears to be a luxury mall; tucked in the back is this larger than expected restaurant with the most amazing staff, who are so helpful, and divine food!  The bar is wonderful as well and I can attest to their classic cocktail skills.  But it was the food: a slightly inventive take on Indian cuisine, but not so much of a take as to call it “nouveau” because, as you know, I don’t like pretentious anything.

I can also recommend Trishna (no website), another out of the way hotel that is truly an oasis on what appears to be a small side street, in a city of small side streets. The outside décor is all glitz and glamour – a bit over the top to be honest – whereas the inside is very small and minimalist.  My taxi driver said it was the best fish restaurant in the city and although I don’t eat fish, I can guarantee that the veg dishes were top notch.

Sites

Mumbai is an amazing and diverse city spread out over unknown miles and the only real way to see the sites is via a tour.  To be honest, my tour guide wasn’t the best – she was supposed to be with me 2 days but switched to another guide on the second day and neither really gave more detail than when a building was built – so I won’t provide any specifics here.  But I will tell you that you must see the Gate of India, the Taj Hotel near the Gate, and most importantly, you must visit Elephanta Island.  Every guide book will tell you this but, truly, it is imperative!  But reader beware: the boat trip to the island is painfully slow with nothing to see, and upon arrival at Elephanta, even if you don’t pay the few rupees extra for the “tram” to the base of the UNESCO site, you will have to walk some steep steps to visit the monument.  So bring plenty of bottled water!

And when you reach Elephanta Island, have your cameras ready: the monkeys are playing everywhere and they are too cute to describe.

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This town, Thalpe, along with Galle Fort to the east, have made me fall in love with Sri Lanka.

Thalpe, along with Galle Fort to the East, have made me fall in love with Sri Lanka.  The people are so kind and the laid back beach culture that has taken over is a welcomed respite especially if you are traveling from other destinations that are a bit more chaotic.

Nites

Hands down, the perfect destination has been The Owl and the Pussycat hotel (https://www.otphotel.com/).  The staff are outstanding, the rooms lovely and each unique, and the food made me enjoy Sri Lankan cuisine just a little bit more.  But it is the view: set on Mihiripenna beach, and thus facing the Indian Ocean, the sound of the ocean calms a stressful day, the ocean breeze, although warm, is refreshing, and the lush garden that invites numerous birds is tranquil in a wind-swept sort of way.  Reader beware: there are a few rooms at the OtP that do not have ocean view rooms.  Those with a B after their room number, ie 1B,2B, are on the back side of the hotel.  Also note that rooms on the ground floor have little privacy as guests walk in front of your room to enter the building and climb the stairs.

If you can’t get in to the OtP – there are only 27 rooms or so – there are some other lovely looking hotels along the way.  In no particular order, consider the following.

Villa Barnes looks stunning.  I believe it is available via Airbnb.

Hotel Kabalan, at least from the outside looks worth looking in to.

Marriott Weligama which is further afield but looks stunning. Just plan accordingly to visit Galle Fort

Bites

After a lot of Sri Lankan food, I was ready for a change and I can highly recommend the pizza at Wijaya Beach Restaurant.  Located directly on the beach, this little place initially started as a restaurant but has recently added rooms.  They don’t reservations so getting a table on the beach is near-impossible but that’s okay: everything looks at the ocean and the constant sound of waves crashing is all you really need.

I can also recommend the Runcible Spoon at the OtP.  Just like the hotel, the restaurant (where you also have breakfast) is situated on the beach which makes an amazing setting for dinner and drinks.

Sites

Take a tuktuk.  Somewhere.  Anywhere.  You get the best views and the most incredible experience going to any destination.

Galle Fort is amazing.  It is very touristic with tons of shops and hotels and restaurants but if you look past these things, you can see an incredible town with stunning architecture and, more importantly, the interweaving of religions with churches, mosques, temples, and I’d bet a synagogue but I can’t promise! And although it’s not a site – and if you saw it, you might be scared – a massage at the OtP hotel is a must.  The massage hut is located in a corner of the grounds looking to the ocean.  And although it may be a little unsettling for some when asked to undress, completely – not only because there are people fishing in the ocean but also, well, we Americans are little conservative that way – it will be one of the most relaxing and peaceful experiences of your life.  Trust me

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Close enough to Yala National Park for the perfect safari

I would recommend 2 days max in Tissamaharama.  I’ve read that there is wonderful history to this little town but much of that has gone, or I couldn’t find it, such that it is a hustle and bustle little town.  With two nights, you arrive on night one, do a safari early the next day, take a hot shower to remove the red clay and dust from everywhere, sleep, and move on to your next destination after the second night.

Nites

This is a tough one to be honest.  If you are able to plan well in advance, there are some stunning hotels close to Yala National Park that I would love to stay at.  But since I didn’t, I will just say that Wild Coast Tented Lodge (http://www.resplendentceylon.com/wildcoastlodge-yala/) is where I so wanted to stay but even 6 month out, they were booked over the Christmas holiday.  On the other side of the small lake is the Una Huts by Uga Escapes, who were also booked out (https://www.ugaescapes.com/chenahuts/).  Both of these hotels are insanely expensive but I suspect worth every cent.  There is also an outpost of the Cinnamon hotel chain, the Cinnamon Wild Yala (http://www.cinnamonhotels.com/en/cinnamonwildyala/) which might be worth checking.  And as I write this in 2018, I’ve heard talk that there is another 5 star hotel going up on the beach about 15 km away from Tissamaharama so stay tuned.

If, like me, you can’t get in to the above, or they are just too expensive, there is the Thaulle Resort and Spa (http://thaulle.com/?lang=en).  Run by a German family and situated directly on lake Yoda, it is a calm and peaceful resort where each of the 27 rooms face the lake (beware the mosquitos friends!).  The rooms have a bit too much wood for my taste, making them very “Germanic” to be honest, but they are large and all have large bathrooms, and gorgeous balconies, and the staff are wonderful so for a couple of days, it does what it needs to do. 

Bites

I wish I had something to offer here but, sadly, there was a serious lack of restaurants that this intrepid travel was intrepid enough to try.  The Thaulle does offer half board dining option so you can try that or, if you have a car or they arrange a tuktuk, I suspect any of the 5 stars above under Nites would be amazing

Sites

Without a doubt, you will probably come to Tissamaharama, or one of the surrounding villages, to do a safari in Yala National Park.  There’s really not a lot else to do other than relax this far away from Colombo or Galle Fort.  I have no hesitation in saying that this is a trip worth taking!  And for me, I opted to do a full-day tour which, in the end turned out to be completely worth it. Immediately upon entering (once the sun rose as you do arrive in the dark), we saw water buffalo and shortly thereafter male and female peacocks, and deer.  But it took a while to see elephants and even far longer to see the elusive leopard.

 But given all the research that I did before the trip, and some of the things that I experienced in total contrast to what I read, I wanted to share some advice.

Reader beware:

  • It’s a safari, not the zoo: your driver will do his best, and communicate with other guides, to find both elephants and leopards if possible
  • The roads are rough so be prepared for a bumpy ride and hold on tight
  • You don’t need a hat as every jeep I saw was covered
  • A dust mask is a good idea; I had one but many people didn’t and were improvising with t-shirt and facial tissue (aka, Kleenex)
  • Mosquito repellant is a must; there is a LOT of standing water for the animals and, thus, for the mosquitos
  • You will be covered in red clay dust by the end
  • And if you do a full day tour, know that it is now a requirement in the park that all jeeps stop driving between 12 and 14.00 so you, and all of the other tourists doing a day tour will hang out near the beach for 2 hours.  (Most tours include lunch but I opted on the side of caution and ate a protein bar.)
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Colombo works in all of its magic and intertwined wonder.

Colombo is an interesting mix of cultures that it really makes this lovely country difficult to point to just one influence: there is the Indian influence, just to the north of this lovely little island; the British influence in its grand architecture; the Dutch and Portuguese influence from decades past; and the more recent Chinese influence who have been partnering with Sri Lanka to rebuild and develop this island country.  And it works, in all of its magic and intertwined wonder.

Nites

Oh my goodness, the Shangri-La hotel is stunning!  Located right across from the Indian Ocean, the lobby is breathtaking and the rooms spectacular.  Opt  to pay a little more, if even just for one night stay, to wake to the view of the ocean is so worth it.  Reader beware: there is a lot of development happening directly across from the hotel that appears to be either a marina or another luxury hotel so the stunning views you see on their website may soon disappear.

Closer to the centre of town is a Taj hotel which looks stunning and if you’d prefer to stay closer to the ocean but there is no availability at the Shangri-La, or it is price-restrictive, there is a Hilton just around the corner from the Shangri-La and the Kingsbury Colombo which looks old-school glamour.

Sites

Colombo is such an interesting place, with so many diverse influences that the only real way to see everything is a tour bus.  But reader beware: what appears to be a hop-on-hop-off bus is the antithesis of that: you can’t hop off.  But don’t let that deter you because the sites, and the architecture that makes Colombo so unique, will be covered in about a 4-hour drive.

And if the weather isn’t too hot – you have your choice between hot, hotter, and hottest – go for a walk and take in the lovely architecture that makes this city such an amalgamation of influences.

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Getting that best deal for that to-die-for hotel

When I begin planning a trip, one of the first things that I do is to investigate hotels.  I mean, I’ve gotta stay somewhere right and if you haven’t figured out from my blog posts, I’m a planner.  A serious planner! I also suspect that some would say I’m a picky traveler.  I like to simply believe that I know what I like: I don’t like large hotels, I really don’t like chain hotels, and I really don’t care about the amenities because I’m not there for room service and the swimming pool.  What I am looking for is cool, funky, and fun with some genuinely unique touches.

So how do I go about finding these hotels?  Word of mouth is key!  But given that I often go places that few of my friends have been too, that doesn’t always work.  So I do web searches and, yes, I even look at newspapers, and travel magazines, but I also like to look at blogs like mine.  If you bypass those first few web pages that have either paid for your views or are part of a conglomerate, you’ll start to find people like me who have a love of travel and want to share their insight.  And no disrespect to those travel review websites but, no, I don’t look at them.  If you like them, do it; do what works for you!

But here’s one of the important things in those early stages of discovery: identify as many hotels that you like.  Don’t focus on just one, unless you’re willing to pay whatever rate it is they offer.  The more hotels that fit your requirements, the more options you will have to choose from.

In addition to being a planner, I also like to get the best value for my money that I can.  Which leads me to my next bit of advice: write to the hotels directly.  Don’t be afraid and don’t be embarrassed.  Write to them.  Tell them when you are planning to come.  If it’s for a special occasion, or you are even a return guest, tell them.  And ask then what the best possible rate they can offer will be.

Through trial and error, I’ve learned – yeah, the hard way sometimes – that it’s best to be as specific as possible.  If you see a room that has a balcony that you’d like, or the décor is a specific colour or style that appeals to you, or whatever, ask for rates that reflect that room type.  If you just say that you’re looking for a “room for two and what’s the best possible rate that you can offer?”, that best possible rate could be an interior room with no windows (yep, that happened to me) or the room on the back side of the hotel with no views of the ocean but, instead, a view of the hill behind the hotel that had a path right in front of your window so strangers could look in (that one’s happened a couple of times!)

Some hotels won’t reply, and some may not offer anything better than what you find on their website, but very frequently I’ve found that the hotel will give me a better rate, they will recognize me when I arrive, and sometimes, there is even a very kind welcome drink waiting for me in my room.  I mean, seriously, what’s wrong with that?  For a few minutes of emailing the various hotels that you identified from the start, you may just end up at a gorgeous hotel, at a better rate than those who book last-minute, and a few additional bucks in your pocket for something else.

And last but not least, yes, go back to that social media feed and tag the hotel both when you confirm – it shows your excitement and appreciation and gives them a little free marketing – as well as when you arrive – all for the same reason!  It’s a two-way street: remember that!

Obviously, you can take all of the above with a grain of salt.  If you like a certain chain hotel, then stay there, by all means.  And if you want to accrue points on a hotel booking site, then do it!  It’s your vacation so do what’s right for you so that you have the best possible vacation!

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Craig’s 50th Grand Tour

For as long as I can remember, I’ve known that I would celebrate my 50th birthday, in Italy, and with my friends.  Over time, bits and pieces would form in my head and ultimately become reality: once I knew what I was going to do, it never changed. And once I realized, years ago, where it would be, I never wavered on the location or anything else.

It was a humbling experience, and a memorable one at that.  Those who were able to attend, along with those who couldn’t but were there in spirit, have had to hear me reminisce, and tell and retell long stories, and yes, still get verklempt at the fact that many people came a long way. For me.

So here’s my story.  And if you want to follow my path, and visit my special places, I hope you will and I hope you’ll let me know if I can help you as this really was unforgettable.

Nites

I started off the Grand Tour at a hotel that I’ve always wanted to stay at but never had the opportunity either because they were closed (they close in the winter) or they were fully booked (they only have 5 rooms!): the Locanda Cipriani (https://www.locandacipriani.com/en/).  I wanted a little time to myself, before everyone arrived, and I knew that this would be the perfect place.  The island of Torcello is perfection and the calm and solitude that you feel when walking on this island, after all of the day-trippers have left, is absolutely stunning!

I next moved to the Cima Rosa (https://cimarosavenezia.com/) in Venezia.  I’ve always wanted to stay on the Grande Canale in Venezia but never wanted to stay at one of the large touristy hotels.  When I first read about the Cima Rosa, I knew that this was more my style.  But reader be warned: staying on the Grande Canale, regardless of hotel type, is not cheap!  As this was my 50th birthday celebration, it was worth the splurge, but splurge it was.  And the hotel itself?  It’s a little quirky – I’m still not sure how I felt about the bathroom for my room being across the hall, even though it was private to just me – but you feel like family and the rooms really are comfortable.  (When we were there, they had also created another suite on the ground floor that looked divine.)  The staff are outstanding and the location really is gorgeous and pretty quiet (ie, no tourists walking under your window).

The site of the party for most of my friends was the La Gare Hotel Venezia (http://www.lagarehotelvenezia.com/en/).  I love this hotel for numerous reasons: the staff are fantastic, the location on Murano is great because it is close enough to Venezia to go as often as you want but far enough away that when the day-trippers leave, it is like living on an island as the Italians do, and the rooms are modern and large, something that you don’t often find in Venezia.

Bites

The food.  It was all about the food.  And having one belly laugh after another with my friends.

I’m not normally one for hotel restaurants but given the secluded nature of the Locanda Cipriani, and the fact that I was having a birthday luncheon there, I figured I should check it out.  Oh my lord, I am so happy that I did.  I’m certain that there is a menu – I may have even seen it but I can’t recall – but when I told the waiter that I was vegetarian, he made a few suggestions, spoke with the chef, and came back with other suggestions. Divine!  (And yes, the birthday luncheon of manicotti stuffed with cheese and vegetables was delectable!)

Next up was Venissa (http://www.venissa.it/), a restaurant I have been dying to try but could either never get a reservation for, or it was closed, or I couldn’t get there and back.  I am so pleased that I finally made it and literally sit here dreaming about the food, the staff, the location, and the décor.  There is the Ristorante which has a Michelin star and looks amazing.  I haven’t eater here, but I will: it will be a splurge, but one I suspect is worth it.  The other restaurant is the Osteria which, unlike your typical Italian osteria, is a bit on the pricey side and a little nouveau but it was outstanding.  And I must say that, even after all that food, and having no room for a bit of dolce, the wonderful staff brought a bit of lemon torte that was mind-blowing!  I don’t care if you are full, you must try their dolce!

After moving to Venezia to spend some special time with a dear friend and new friend before the start of my birthday festivities, the first restaurant that we tried was Da Fiore (http://www.dafiore.net/en/restaurant/).  As a group of three, we couldn’t do the one window table on the small canal but we were close and it was divine.  And the food?!  Absolute stunning!  And with an outstanding wine list, there was no way that we could not have a fantastic meal of pasta (for me) and shellfish for my friends (it is Venezia after all!).

Our last meal in Venezia, before moving on to Murano, was Anice Stellato (https://www.osterianicestellato.com/) which required a lovely walk through parts of Venezia to this wonderful, small, and not pretentious osteria.  Although the staff were a bit rushed – it had the feeling of being slightly short-handed that evening – the antipasti and primi were everything that we had hoped for after a long day of walking and talking.

And then Murano and the start of Craig’s birthday celebration.  The first night, that Friday the 6th, a bunch of us went to Corte Sconta (http://www.cortescontavenezia.com/).  If you’ve read my blog on Venezia, you’ll know that this is one of my favourite restaurants in Venezia: the staff are amazing, the food is always outstanding – especially because they happily accommodate this vegetarian – and the location which is off the beaten path is just perfect.  And it was no different for 16 people with a variety of preferences and dietary restrictions. After a bit of confusion, we ultimately decided on antipasti for vegetarians and antipasti of fish.  Insane!  I can’t even recall each of the platters of antipasti but I do recall that there were 3.  Yes, 3 platters of antipasti.  And we hadn’t even had the main course!  But fear not, the primi was everything that I knew it would be and we were not disappointed.  Oh, and of course, we had to have a bit of dolci of vin santo and cartucci (before the taxi ride back to Murano).

On Saturday the 7th, we all went to AcquaStanca (http://www.acquastanca.it/homepage-en/) run by the lovely and welcoming Giovanna, and not far from the La Gare Hotel in Murano.  Knowing that some friends came a very long distance, I wanted something close and welcoming and this is, in my opinion, pure perfection.  In my opinion, this was the restaurant that Murano long needed and it will forever hold a special place in my heart: not only is the restaurant amazing, and the staff so inviting and welcoming, but it was Giovanna who introduced me to one of my favourite antipasti combinations which is exactly what we had as a starter: mozzarella di bufala with artichokes.  And, as always, the pasta was amazing, the gnocchi with scampi that some friends orders pillow-like, and the fish perfection.  And the wine that never seemed to end?  Perfectly matched!

The birthday day celebration was one for the memories: we started with a boat from Murano to Torcello to the Locanda Cipriani and a luncheon in the garden.  The weather was perfect with hardly a cloud in the sky and the manicotti stuffed with cheese and vegetables in a béchamel sauce ideal.  And given the heat of the day, the house made gelato with strawberries a perfect way to end that meal before heading back to Murano on our private boat.

And that evening, the penultimate celebratory meal was at one of my favourite restaurants – easily one of 2 or possibly 3 in all of Venezia – Vecio Fritolin (https://www.veciofritolin.it/en/homepage).  Perhaps we were a little loud, and perhaps we laughed a little too much, but it was exactly what I wanted thanks to Irina and everyone at the restaurant.  We started with lovely amuse-bouche that were appropriate for the meat eaters, the fish eaters, and the vegetarians, not to mention the amazing breadsticks that had a lattice-work of parmigiano (that no one knew if they could eat or not, that’s how pretty they were!).  And then the pasta, hand made in house, with the right sauce that was literally to die for.  It wasn’t so much so that you felt like you had overeaten but just the perfect portion to leave enough room for dessert: tiramisu!  It was my birthday so I had to have my favourite.

The Monday after my birthday was emotional as friends began to leave and I wanted to say goodbye to each (beginning at around 5am and about 3 hours of sleep).  But what softened the sadness that everything was over was seeing people who had not met before that weekend connecting on social media and sharing personal contact information.  As I write this, I am overwhelmed by the beauty of these friends, and the love that they have to give.

And thankfully, the food tour wasn’t quite over as a few of my friends who hadn’t left yet went to La Bitta (no website) a small, traditional restaurant near the train station that only seats in two waves: 19.00 and 21.00 (but best to check when making the much needed reservations).  The menu is small, and the wine list just as small but when you focus on such a few items, the food cannot help but be perfect, and it was.

From Venezia I traveled to my other happy place, Rome.  I knew that my Grand Tour could not conclude without a visit to Flavio al Velavevodetto (http://www.ristorantevelavevodetto.it/) which, hands down, has the best cacio e pepe in Rome. Hands.  Down.  But coming in a very close second is one of my new favourite restaurants that I, sadly, didn’t know about when I lived there: Sora Margherita (https://www.soramargherita.com/) a small little restaurant close to the Jewish Quarter.  Unlike any other place that I have visited, Sora Margherita lets you choose the fresh pasta that you want, and then the topping.  Of course, I had to choose cacio e pepe and, when I did, I then asked which pasta to have and the waitress quickly replied “you should only have the fettuccini”, so I did.

Sites

Anyone familiar with my blog knows that I always include those sites that are either off the beaten path and not included in the many guide books available, or that are so outstanding that I just have to mention them.  But for this event, the sites were the sound of laughter, the clinking of glasses, and the making of new friends as well as my favourite places, my favourite restaurants, and my favourite drinks.  I wanted everyone to see what it is about this place – this Venezia, this Murano, this Torcello, this Burano, and this Roma – that has a hold over my heart. It may have only been a small peek in to this happy place, but hopefully enough to make you want to return or to go for the very first time.

The deets

Sunday 01 April

18.05                     Depart JFK

AA Flt 198

Monday 02 April

8.20                        Arrive Milano

11.45                     Train to Venice

Staying at:

Locanda Cipriani (confirmed)

30142 Torcello

Linea 3 to Murano Faro – Linea 12 to Burano – Linea 9 to Torcello

Tuesday 03 April

19.30                     Venissa Osteria (confirmed)

Burano

Wednesday 04 April

Linea 9 to Burano (every 15 minutes) – Linea 12 to Murano Faro – Linea 3 to P.Le Roma – Linea 1 to San Stae

Staying at:           Cima Rosa Venezia (confirmed)

Brittany

20.00                     Da Fiore (http://www.dafiore.net/en/restaurant/) (confirmed)

Thursday 05 April

10.30 – 15.00     Go to Corte Sconta to leave deposit for Friday evening – Lucia Zambon

Aperativo Vino Vero or Timon on the fond. Misericordia

20.00                     Anice Stellato (https://www.osterianicestellato.com/)

Friday 06 April

Linea 1 to P.le Roma – Linea 3 to Murano

Staying at:

Le Gare Hotel Murano (confirmed)

Riva Longa 49,

30141 Murano Venezia

19.30                     Corte Sconta (confirmed)

Calle del Pestrin
Castello, 3886

Saturday 07 April

20.00                     Dinner at Acquastanca (confirmed)

Giovanna

Sunday 08 April

11.30                     Depart for Torcello

12.30 – 14.30     Lunch at Locanda Cipriani (confirmed)

15.00                     Return to Murano

19.00                     Depart for Venezia

20.00                     Dinner at Vecio Fritolin (confirmed)

Irina

22.30                     Bussola Cocktail Lab?

Near Ponte di Rialto

Monday 09 April

19.00                     La Bitta (Confirmed)

Tuesday 10 April

10.18                     Depart Murano Museo

10.47                     Arrive P.Le Roma

11.25                     Depart Venezia for Rome (4 nights in Rome)

Staying at:

The Corner Rome (confirmed at 162 euro per night)

Viale Aventino 121

Rome Italy

20.15                     Settimo al Pellegrino (confirmed)
Via del Pellegrino 117
06.688.01978

Wednesday 11 April

19.30                     Caroline and Tony

Da Enzo (confirmed)

Via dei Vascellari, 29
00153 Roma (Trastevere)

Thursday 12 April

13.00                     Meet Rita at the Ludovisi Palace hotel (via Veneto)

20.00                     Sora Margherita (confirmed)

Piazza delle Cinque Scole, 30

00186 Roma

Friday 13 April

20.00                     Flavio al Velavevodetto (confirmed)

Via di Monte Testaccio, 97

00153 Roma RM, Italia

Saturday 14 April

8.00                        (taxi to Ostiensa to Fiumicino)

11.05                     Depart Roma

AA Flight 721

15.50                     Arrive Charlotte

17.20                     Depart Charlotte

AA Flt 5276

19.02                     Arrive LGA

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Burano – the colours, the solitude, and the tranquility calm me and inevitably bring a smile to this sometimes-hardened face.

A trip to Venice is never a trip without an excursion to Burano, probably my favourite island (yes, even more so than Venezia), only because the colours, the solitude, and the tranquility calm me and inevitably bring a smile to this sometimes-hardened face.

Nites

In my next iteration, I will build a small, boutique hotel on Burano so that a lucky few can enjoy the wonders of this magical island.  Why, you ask?  Because there are no hotels on this island!  But thanks to the folks at Venissa (http://www.venissa.it/ospitalita/wine-resort-camere/) they’ve begun buying individual flats at both the restaurant location on Mazzorbo as well as around Burano.  I must admit that I have not had the pleasure of staying here but it won’t be long.  Trust me!

Bites

Venissa (http://www.venissa.it/) is three parts, not equal but each divine in their own right.  Il Vino is a lovely wine tasting venue of their outstanding local wine.  Il Ristorante is their Michelin starred restaurant that serves haute italiana cuisine, if I can say that.  They specialize in either 5-, 7-, or 9- course menus, and none are cheap, but I would argue that each is worth the experience.  They also offer a la carte but don’t expect the prices at the local trattoria.  And then there is the Osteria, which is my favourite, simply because I love the décor, the staff are outstanding, and the food divine.  It’s still not nona’s cooking at the local osteria, so the prices are a little higher, but my goodness it is worth it.

And if you’re on Burano during the day, and you need a bite to eat, the Trattoria al Gatto Nero is just as wonderful, and just as difficult to get a table at.  So, make a reservation in advance or be prepared to wait in line for up to an hour or more http://www.gattonero.com/.

There are of course pizzerias along the main tourist area, and scattered along the numerous canals but it is the above that I would gravitate too without hesitation.

Sites

There aren’t specific places that one must seek out while in Burano, or Mazzorbo, but, instead, walk.  Just walk, and walk, and walk, and when you find a canal that looks intriguing, take it.  It’s an island after all, and a small as well, so you really can’t get lost except for getting lost in the stunning colours of the city.

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Torcello – during the day it is a day-tripper’s dream and a night it is calm oasis of nature sounds and the occasional lapping water along the canal sides.

My day job is as a medical publisher and one day, I was speaking with an author about a forthcoming trip to Venezia and she said “you have to go to Torcello!  The island is beautiful and the Locanda Cipriani is amazing!”  I laughed and assured her that I was, indeed, going to Torcello and actually staying at the Locanda AND hosting a party there to which she replied “of course you are!  I think you know Italy better than I do and I’m Italian!”

Nites

The Locanda Cipriani is a charm like no other.  https://www.locandacipriani.com/en/  The inn only has 5 rooms and each are on the first floor.  And I honestly wouldn’t call them luxurious, but they are charming in a familial sort of way.  And although you can hear the other guests coming and going, it’s only because of the old floor boards and closing doors: each room has a double door in order to help with a bit of privacy.

Bites

I am not one for eating at hotel restaurants but the restaurant at the Locanda is absolutely divine.  I’m pretty sure there’s a menu but when I went there – twice – both times I said that I was vegetarian and the waiter kindly offered suggestions based on local produce that was purchased that day.  And I will tell you, I often get nervous in the north of Italy as the food can be heavy – gnocchi with cream sauce and veg for instance – but the food here was not heavy.  It was heavenly.

If you want to venture away from the Locanda, you really should go to Venissa (http://www.venissa.it/) on Burano.  Be sure to check the vaporetto times, unless you have your own boat, because this is well away from Venezia and the frequency of boats aren’t that frequent.

And although I didn’t eat here – I tried but they were closed on the day I had free – the Osteria al Ponte del Diavolo was consistently packed and the menu looked truly inviting.

Sites

The site is the island.  It is not a large island, and not a lot of people live here, but during the day it is a day-tripper’s dream and a night it is calm oasis of nature sounds and the occasional lapping water along the canal sides.

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I am in love with Bergen. I can’t say anything more than it’s been some time since I’ve been to a place that is this inviting, the people this welcoming, and the food this outstanding.

I’ve heard Bergen described as being very German but I found it unique, inviting, lovely, and fun.  I would live here in a heartbeat and I can’t wait to return.

Nites

As the second largest city in Norway, Bergen has many options in terms of hotels: the Clarion collections, the Scandic hotel chains, and Radisson.  But I chose an independent and would stay here every time, even if there aren’t views to the water like the other hotels offer: Det Hanseatiske Hotel (http://www.dethanseatiskehotel.no/en/).  Truly stunning and unique rooms, each different I  believe, and centrally located.  But most of all, the staff, especially Erik, were fantastic and the breakfast outstanding!

Bites

Oh my god.  If you only have one night – or even if you have many! – there is only one place to go.  Lysverket (http://lysverket.no/).  Located in the museum Kode 4, this is a dining experience that must be enjoyed.  Lysverket offers 4 and 7 tasting menus, and you can have it paired with wine, so do what’s best for you.  And as luck would have it, and on a whim, I wrote asking if they could accommodate a vegetarian.  And they could!  So I chose the 4 course option and I tell you that there were 3 “introductions” before the actual meal began.  And each one was stunning!  And kudos to the chef: when I received a course that had poached eggs – something I don’t particularly like but tried – and the staff took the plate away (with mostly uneaten egg), the chef sent out another course to make up for the eggs.  I am still dreaming about this experience.

If you don’t want to eat at Lysverket every night, which I understand as it is a bit on the expensive side, I can highly recommend the Bergen outpost of Kitchen and Table (http://www.kitchenandtable.se/).  Although I liked the version in Tromsø, I loved the outpost in Bergen.  This version also has vegan options available which, even if you are a meat or fish eater, sometimes giving your body a rest is a good thing and the food hear outstanding!

And one final option just because I loved the décor and the old world setting: Potetkjelleren (http://www.potetkjelleren.no/).  Meaning “potato cellar”, this stunning restaurant has an upstairs and cellar restaurant.  The food is beautifully presented and although the options for a vegetarian aren’t numerous, what they are able to offer is lovely.

 Sites

The Bergen card is what you have got to do.  Go to the Akvariet, the museums, and the Floibanen which, totaled up, is more expensive than the Bergen card.

And a must is the Akvariet (https://www.akvariet.no/).  A gorgeous walk, that doesn’t take more than 20 minutes from the city centre, this is a must.  The sea lions, the penguins, the seals, and everything else that they have in this small aquarium are worth it.

The other thing that you must do, which is totally free, is that you must wonder around this gorgeous city, with its stunning houses perched on the hillside overlooking the fjord below.  Be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes as the various roads, alleys, and stairs will invite you to continue exploring and taking photo after photo. It’s literally like walking in a dream village.

I am in love with Bergen.  I can’t say anything more than it’s been some time since I’ve been to a place that is this inviting, the people this welcoming, and the food this outstanding.   Literally, when I win the lottery, this will be my third home!

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Located over 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Tromsø is an amazing, but small town, that invites all travelers with open arms and stunning views.

Located over 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Tromsø is an amazing, but small town, that invites all travelers with open arms and stunning views.

Nites

Tromsø doesn’t have boutique hotels, as far as I could tell, and seems to be populated with a couple of major Nordic chain hotels, so my typical effort to find unique places was a bit thwarted on this adventure.  But after reviewing the available options, and seeing what the best deal I could find would be, I decided upon the Clarion Hotel With (https://www.choicehotels.com/clarion), part of the Clarion Choice chain.  The staff were incredibly helpful and the breakfast in the morning (included) fantastic with everything that you could hope for.  When booking, confirm a room with a water view.  But be forewarned: the rooms are small as you pay for the view, and not the space.

Pretty much next to the Hotel With is the Scandic Ishavshotel.  I didn’t stay here but as most of the tours either meet here or across the street at the Radisson Blu, either would undoubtedly be an excellent place to stay.

Bites

A note on dining in Tromsø: being this far north, and if you’re there in the winter, options become a bit smaller and for a vegetarian, the options even fewer.  But they will try so venture out.  And if you enjoy fish, you can’t go wrong!

If I only had one night in Tromsø, I would go to Bardus (http://www.bardus.no/).  Located right across from the library (a former swimming hall), a seat on the window will provide a stunning view of life passing by in a lovely and quaint environment.  Although they didn’t have many options for a vegetarian, the chef tried and they were able to offer a starter and an entrée.

Another option, albeit located in a hotel, is Marcus Samuelsson’s Kitchen and Table (http://www.kitchenandtable.se/).  I loved it, although my friend wasn’t quite as impressed as I was, but the setting was amazing and the staff so incredibly helpful.

And the last place that I have to recommend, simply because it was my favourite, even though I didn’t eat here: Campagniet Restaurant (http://www.compagniet.no/).  We went to the bar and it was fantastic.   It was crowded and the list of wines by the glass, along with the beers, was outstanding!  Located on the second floor of an old building in the centre, try for a window seat as watching the city walk and drive by is really mesmerizing.  I would love to sit there right now with a glass of wine and tired feet.

Sites

Most people go to Tromsø for the sites and, as such, guidebooks and websites will tell you the various options available to you.  And since we were no different, I can make the following recommendations.

If you only have one night – as some of the tour groups did – you’ll want to try and see the Northern Lights.  I chose Enjoy the Arctic (http://enjoythearctic.no/).  Andrei was very informative and was as determined as we were to see the Northern Lights.  It was slightly precarious with the incoming clouds but we saw them and it truly is everything that you think it will be.  And props to Andrei for accommodating us with vegetarian food by the fire.  Note to the reader: it is cold so put your pride aside and take Andrei up on his offer of a snow suit.   We didn’t and it got very uncomfortably cold quite quickly!

If you have a full day, the first thing that you really should do is just explore Tromsø.  It really is a stunning city and really fun to get lost and to find your way back.  But if you have a second day, consider doing a whale watching tour.  Sadly, because of global warming, the herring aren’t coming as far “south” as Tromsø and, as such, the whales aren’t coming this far “south” either.  We chose Fjordtours (https://www.fjordtours.com/).  So, a whale watching tour will inevitably require you to take a boat about 2.5 hours north.  But it is so worth it; we were fortunate to see roughly 100 orcas and although we couldn’t see the humpbacks – as they don’t really come out of the water – you could see them spew water in the air from their blowholes.  Stunning!

Polaria (http://www.polaria.no/home.155300.en.html) is amazing!  The architectural design of the outside will elicit either a love-it or hate-it reaction: personally, I loved it and the idea that the building is slipping in to the water!  But most of all, I loved Bella the bearded sea lion.  When I heard that she was “fickle” and “opinionated”, how could you not love her in all of her big-girlness.  But more than Bella, being able to see and learn about sea life above the Arctic Circle was amazing and, suffice it to say, informative.

And last but not least, you must take the Fjellheisen (https://fjellheisen.no/en/) to the top of the mountain on Tromsdalen, across the fjord from Tromsø.  You can take a taxi over or, if you pay attention to the stops, you can take a bus from the city centre for a lot less.  Note to the reader: the bus stop is past the entrance to the Fjellheisen.  But trust me when I say that the views are stunning, and with sturdy hiking shoes, you can really enjoy some truly stunning vistas that you won’t get to see anywhere else.

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Shanghai – the new, modern China that is probably more “western” than any other place I visited.

Nites

Oh my gosh!  The Waterhouse on South Bund is amazing and I could easily have never left my room (beyond the fact that it faced the Pudong side of the river which was amazing).  If you’re looking for cookie-cutter hotels, this is not your place: there is exposed concrete, brick, and steel everywhere.  The only place I saw carpeting was in the hallways, which was odd, but I suspect because of the noise that concrete and steel can cause, this is for the benefit of guests.  But the “design” is unique and oddly comforting which is why I forced myself to leave daily!  (The Cool Docks are right across the street and although it didn’t really offer me much while I was there, I suspect that this, too, is going to be the “it” place to go in the very near future.

Bites

If you only have one night in Shanghai – heck only one night in China! – you must, must, go to Wujie on the Bund (22 Zhongshan East Road [as there is another Wujie that is more casual]).  The staff are attentive, without being intrusive, and the design – both of the space and the uniforms – is so well thought-out that I was blown away.  And the food is absolutely divine!  Predominantly mushroom based, I found the food flavourful, stunningly plated, and very filling.  There is a tasting menu available – that really doesn’t cost much more than the a la carte menu – but as this was my first time, I wanted to choose my meals.  Next time, I WILL be doing the chef’s tasting menu.  Know in advance that this is a vegetarian restaurant, but one that serves wine (thankfully) and, in one week’s time (as of this writing) may just earn its first Michelin Star

Sites

There are sites everywhere in Shanghai, no matter what corner you turn.  Like most people – locals and visitors alike – you can’t visit Shanghai without walking along the Bund: running along the Huangpu river, the sites across the river to the Pudong are stunning.  Likewise, some of the old “western-style” buildings across the road from the pedestrian walkway, are gorgeous as well.  But most stunning is at night: there is literally a light show on the buildings of the Pudong that will hold your gaze for hours (unless you’re at the Waterhouse in room 31 which has direct views to the light show!).

The Wujiang Road from the Bund is basically a pedestrian only walking street.  It’s cool and gives you a sense of an Eastern pedestrian only street which I quite enjoyed.  But reader beware: there are “hawkers” everywhere offering bags and watches and they are really persistent.  There is also an odd thing that happens, that I’m really not sure what’s happening, but it is without a doubt that you will be approached by a young woman – you’ll see her walk straight toward you – and when she gets close, she’ll say something, but I have no idea what it is.  Being the skeptic that I am, I suspect prostitution – I thought I heard one whisper “sex” – but, regardless, stay clear and be on your way and your trip will be amazing.

Shanghai is an amazing place, and one that I would certainly want to return to.  It’s arguably the most modern of China’s cities, if not the most western, but when taken in to consideration with the rest of China and what it has to offer, it really shouldn’t be missed!

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Hangzhou/West Lake – a wonderful, relaxing, lake-side retreat to recharge and recenter before your next stop in the mad-packed land that is China.

A friend of mine, when I told her that I was going to see the “silver lake” she questioned it and said “okay, if you really want to see the grey lake”.  I get it, and it’s not the place that you would spend an enormous amount of time, but I must admit that I really liked it here.  Granted, it was hot, and teaming with people, but it was also oddly calming and tranquil and I enjoyed it immensely.  Advice to the reader: West Lake is a lake, and thus water, which means that there are also mosquitos everywhere.  Bring mosquito repellent!

Further advice: Hangzhou and West Lake, to my surprise, had the fewest number of people who even spoke a modicum of English so be prepared to do a little pantomime, and be sure to have the names of where you are going written out in Chinese (you should do this everywhere you go in China or you will be in a pickle!).

Nites

The Shangri-La hotel is in a prime location on West Lake: you literally can walk out the door and either walk along the Su Causeway or the Bai Causeway.  It was for this reason, and despite the various “unfavourable” reviews that I had read, that made me stay here.  And for that reason alone, I would say that you can stay here and you will be fine.  And I will say that the staff are fantastic and go well out of their way to help you!  But the hotel is a bit tired, and you do pay for your location which I had a little trouble justifying in my head, especially for the breakfast since there are no other options nearby, so just be prepared and you’ll be fine

If you want something exciting and just a bit more of a walk to the causeway, I think I can safely recommend The New Hotel (http://m.thenewhotel.com/About/ContactUs).  The name alone makes it difficult to find on a web search, and thus I would bet just as difficult for a taxi driver to find, but the lobby and the outside look stunning and I did wish I had stayed here.

All of the major chains have hotels around West Lake so if you’re not comfortable trying something different, pick your favourite and you probably won’t go wrong.

Bites

After more than a week of Chinese food, I thought I might be in need of something different so, after reading some glowing reviews, I ventured to the Sawasdee Thai Restaurant.  Unbeknownst to me, the Thai restaurant is in the Wyndham hotel on the north east side of the lake, and although I don’t typically dine in hotel restaurants unless I can avoid it, I must say that food was outstanding!  The staff were great, and the “amuse bouche” that was brought out was stunning: betal leaves with a variety of toppings like onion, peanut, coconut, and of course chillies, with a sweet and sour sauce is now what I dream to have again!  The prices are little higher than many other places that I visited in my travels, and probably 3 times as much as the restaurant the night before (not worth reviewing), but at the end of the day, the food was worth it and we are really only talking about $30!  (Yes, that inexpensive!)

Sites

You can’t come to the West Lake and not walk along the causeways.  If you can go early, before the heat rises as well as everyone else who will be taking a stroll, you’ll have better and somewhat unobstructed views of the lake and downtown Hangzhou.

You will also be remiss if you don’t take a “pleasure boat” to Small Yingzhou Island in the middle of the lake.  It really doesn’t take long to navigate the entire island, and the boat trip to and from is relaxing and, depending on how much walking you’ve done, a welcomed respite for your feet.

But the one thing that I enjoyed, which no one really recommended, was the hike up to the Baochu Pagoda and back down by the Baopu Daoist Temple.  It’s a hike, with a lot of steps, but the views are stunning and to see something that isn’t quite so touristy, and certainly less crowded, I loved it!  You can also hike a little higher to one of the highest points in West Lake, which I didn’t due to time and hunger, so if you have the time, I think it’s worth the extended trek!

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Chengdu – pandas, not to mention a laid back city (for China) but also one of the fastest growing and inviting cities.

Pandas.  What more is there to say?!  Yes, Chendu is a cool city with much to offer, both historically, and as the city develops, and not to mention phenomenal shopping, but I would guess that most people come to Chengdu to be as close to the pandas and this is the perfect place.

Nites

Oh my word, the Rhombus Park Aura Hotel (https://www.rhombuschengduhotel.com/) is absolutely divine!  To be honest, I was nervous and even considered changing my hotel before I started my travels to a “known entity” – like the Grand Hyatt down the street, or the Marriott just a little further away – but I am so happy I didn’t.  The room is stunning and looks brand new, the breakfast is fantastic and a great way to start your day, but most of all, the staff – Mia, Jennifer, and Daisy are the bee’s knees – were some of the kindest and most helpful people I met throughout my travels.  Some of the staff speak little English – but hey, I speak no Chinese – but if they don’t understand, they’ll find someone who does.  And for bonus points: when I checked out, it was a very early check-out because of my flight and Daisy made sure that a “to go” breakfast bag was available for the taxi ride to the airport.  Perfect customer service!

Bites

The Wenshu Temple Vegetarian Restaurant is just a tad “up town” from where most of the hotels are located but trust me when I say that it is worth the visit.  There are two restaurants here: the ground floor is a buffet and the second floor is the more upscale a la cart restaurant.  Go for the 2nd floor: it won’t cost you nearly as much as you might think and the room is stunning.  Although listed as vegetarian, I think it is vegan so be prepared for no milk or eggs – I didn’t see anything with either on the menu – and no alcohol.  I’ve never been one for drinking fruit juices with dinner – it fills me up, taking up space for the great food – so I just settled for water.  But here’s what I found funny here, as well as other places in China: the menus are typically on a tablet of some sort, with photos and descriptions.  In any part of the United States or Europe, if I saw pictures of the food offered, I’d keep on walking!  But in China, it seems to be the norm, and when you don’t speak or read Chinese, well, it was a welcomed help.

My last night in Chengdu was supposed to be a food tour with the Chengdu Food Tour but alas, I messed up my times and arrived 2 hours late.  Being somewhat dejected and not too interested in venturing out to find something to eat, I opted to dine at the Rhombus Park Aura Hotel.  And boy am I glad that I did!  When I mentioned that I was vegetarian, the chef kindly came out to discuss what he could do, and what I was interested in and it was lip-smacking delicious!  I think the chef was a little concerned that I didn’t eat all of my food – just a salad and some wok friend noodles and veg – but when I said it was delicious and just too much, he said “but you’re a big athletic man and I thought you needed a lot”, it made me laugh and not feel quite so bad for wasting my food.  If you only had one night in Chengdu, I would go to Wenshu Temple Vegetarian but if you’re tired, or short on time, the hotel restaurant will not let you down and you shouldn’t feel bad for staying in.

Sites

My whole reason for going to Chengdu was about the pandas.  Can you really travel all this way to China and not visit a panda park?  Roughly 1 hour or more outside of Chengdu is the Dujiangyan Base of China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda.  They have an amazing volunteer programme that costs 700RMB which entitles you to work with the pandas (cleaning cages), feeding them, speaking with the staff, and watching a 1 hr documentary.  (I was skeptical of the documentary but it is fantastic and you really must watch it!)  So here are some tips and tricks that I learned along the way:

  • DO NOT BOOK A TOUR GUIDE TO THE CENTER! Everywhere I looked, I found ridiculously expensive “tours” to the center.  But if you write to the centre directly pandaeducatecenter@163.com they will give you the information that you need in order to volunteer which, for the most part, is the completion of a health certificate from your doctor and an application.
  • Once you arrive at the centre, go straight to the turnstile and ask for the Volunteer Programme. They will escort you inside, someone will be your “guide” and that’s who you stay with for the remainder of the day.  Thus, why you don’t need a tour guide as noted above.
  • Getting from downtown to the Panda Centre does require a transfer, probably from your hotel. This cost me 1200RMB and was mostly for the driver to wait all day.  Yes, it’s expensive, but given that there are no convenient busses, and certainly no trains, the only other option is a rental car and there’s no way that I would drive in Chengdu (or anywhere else in China by myself).
  • Pictures with the pandas are the most expensive part, at 1800RMB. But if you think of it as a donation, and a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it makes it a little easier to justify.  You can pay in cash, or with a card, so don’t sweat the details!  You will be given about “20 seconds” with the panda, and the guides will take pictures of you, as well as your travel buddy, so trust me when I tell you you’ll have plenty of photos!

The Wenshu Temple area is also a great place to visit and wonder.  The Temple and the monastery next to it are stunning, with seemingly something different around every corner.  I was shocked at how much land the Temple took up because, from the outside, it looks really quite small.  But a note to the reader: there is a LOT of building happening around the Temple, all of which appears to be shops designed in the shape of the Temple buildings so what is currently a very quaint and, what I assume to be, true representation of old Chengdu will soon become very gentrified (like much of China).

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The perfect place to see the Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China really must be on everyone’s bucket list.  It’s a work  out, and an architectural feat of magnitude impossible to match!

Beigou Village is a little over an hour outside of Beijing but also home to one of the most gorgeous portions of the (restored) Great Wall of China, the Mutianyu.  In recent years, the local government has limited the number and types of vehicles that can bring tourists to this portion of the Wall so, although still occasionally crowded (especially on weekends) it is manageable and something that I’m certain I won’t forget in this lifetime.

Nites

The Brickyard Eco Retreat (http://brickyardatmutianyu.com/) is absolutely stunning and I don’t think I could recommend anything further.  Started some 20 years ago, other “hotels” have started to pop up but this is where you want to be: a quiet oasis, with lovely rooms with two-story glass walls looking out, some toward the Great Wall (room 1-4 is stunning and on the end!). As part of the oasis theme, the rooms have no TV, or telephone, but they do have a fairly strong wifi connections just in case you can’t stay disconnected for too long.

If the Brickyard doesn’t seem to be your thing, they have sister properties called the Commune by the Great Wall (the most expensive) and the Schoolhouse (which has cooking classes if there are enough participants interested).

And for those who don’t want to walk, or take the shuttle provided by the Brickyard, I do know that there is a small hotel at the base of the tourist entry point to Mutianyu.  I couldn’t find any details on line, but I know it exists, so it may be a tour-group only property, or one that only exists in Chinese, but if you really don’t want to stay at the Brickyard – which would be a mistake – I’m sure you can figure it out.

Bites

Sadly, this is where we fall short.  The restaurant on the property is fine, and perhaps even good, but for the price of what you are paying for, it is obvious that we are paying for location and the utter lack of availability anywhere else.  So, reader, come prepared for a lovely stay but also having to stay here for a decent meal. The menu doesn’t change so if you have limited interests or your diet is limited (like this vegetarian) it won’t be the most engaging meal but it does the trick.  And the hotel does have some local craft beers from Beijing available so that was a nice “perk” (albeit expensive).  (I can tell you that I did venture to another place for dinner and it was pretty dire so avoid the onsite recommendation, regardless of what food type you like. And they close around 18.00 which I still can’t get over!)

Sites

Really, is there anything else other than the Great Wall of China?  I think not!  The Brickyard has a map of trails for the adventurous, or they can drive you to the tourist drop-off site with ticket windows and you go up that way.  There are 2 options from the drop off site: you can walk up a bunch of steps or you can take the chairlift (talk about breathtaking!).  But if you are willing, and have good shoes, and are slightly in shape, I highly recommend “Trail 8” from the Brickyard.  It’s a beast, and you will be winded by the time you make it to the Wall (in under 2 hours), but you will also be at the highest peak available and the walk “down” is all the more enjoyable. And the views down through the valley are like little I’ve seen.  Stunning.

You can’t go to China, or Beijing, without going to the Great Wall of China.  You just can’t.  Sure, you can do day tours from Beijing but what I did, and what I would recommend, is that after a few days in Beijing of non-stop walking and touring, you give yourself a little bit of a respite, spend a night or two in Beigou, and really get to know the Great Wall of China.

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The rapidly disappearing old parts of the city – the hutong – are a sight to behold

Nites

As you can imagine in a city the size of Beijing, the variety of places to stay is overwhelming.  If, however, you are prepared to forego the typical chain hotel or “new kid on the block”, I would recommend that you consider the Orchid (https://www.theorchidbeijing.com/).  Located in one of the cities few remaining hutong (alleyway) neighborhoods, it really is a site to behold, especially before more and more of the hutongs are overtaken for gentrification.  Small in size, but big in charm and heart, the staff here will treat you as though they’ve known you for years.  Because Beijing is so large, you really can only do things in this part of town but trust me when I tell you that, with three days, you can see some really amazing things.

Bites

Sadly, this time around, I don’t really have recommendations for bites but, fear not, you won’t go hungry!  Check out “sites” below some suggestions

Sites

You can’t go to Beijing and not visit the various temples dotted around the city.  Every travel guide book will cover these in amazing detail so I don’t need to add to it.  But you must go; they are breathtaking!

If you only had one night in Beijing, I highly recommend trying to book a seat with Lost Plate (http://lostplate.com/).  You and a bunch of your new friends will be whisked around the hutongs of Beijing in cool 4-person tuk tuks to a plethora of small, family run restaurants where you can try different foods (that you may not have tried on your own, or been uncertain of whether it was “safe” or not, and experience a whole new way of life.  Add to the fact that they provide unlimited beer and soda, you can’t go wrong.  As something of an introvert, I had the best time and literally laughed and talked about food for about 4 hours!  Call this a “must do”.

Another thing that I recommend is taking a class at the Hutong (http://thehutong.com/). They offer a variety of cooking classes, tea tastings, and other historically informative tours on their website.  I did the dumpling class and by the time we were finished and I had eaten more than my fair share of dumplings, my dinner reservation for that evening was no longer possible.

Beijing is a big place, with a lot to see and learn and my short 3-day visit didn’t really do it justice but I can tell you it was enough to make me want to return and explore further.  I can’t wait!

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Murano – stunning glass work and so much more!

I have been visiting Venezia on a yearly basis, and every year includes a day in Murano: a day of strolling the canals, looking at the glass work, and occasionally strolling in to a church.  But it wasn’t until this trip that I realized that there is so much more to this wonderful island and I am smitten!

Nights

Sometime in 2016 (I think), the Hotel Le Gare (http://www.lagarehotelvenezia.com/en/) opened on Murano and I have been dying to stay there since.  It did not disappoint!  The hotel is modern, but mixes in the famous glass of Murano, the architectural details and structures from the original building (an old furnace), and is just so welcoming and inviting that you may not want to leave.

I will also tell you that Murano is an island of two faces: during the day, it is overrun with tourists looking for that special gift to take home.  But at night, when the tourists leave, this is a wonderland of solitude, and quiet, and even reflection like few other places I have ever been.

Bites

If you only have one night in Murano, be sure to book the Osteria Aquastanca (http://www.acquastanca.it/homepage-en/).  It’s only a short walk from the Le Gare and the food is absolutely divine!  When I arrived, the entrance was full of locals talking to the owner and the barman.  And immediately after sitting down, the restaurant was joined by 2 other guests, at separate tables: one, a local woman having her dinner and another man, just returning from business, who stopped in hoping to have meal.  And given that they kindly made vegetarian options for me – carcioffi (in season!) with fresh mozzarella – I knew I was in love.

Sites

Lose yourself.  Wonder around.  Get lost.  It’s an island after all so when you see water, and if that’s not where you want to be, then turn in a different direction.

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Vignacastrisi – a tiny village of remarkable strength and beauty

I lived in Rome for nearly 6 years, and I visit at least 2 times a year, and hands down, Vignacastrisi has got to be the smallest village I have ever stayed in.  Yet, it was worth the adventure, and something that I am confident I will never forget about, even if my travels don’t take me back to this small town but, instead to new tiny village adventures!

Nites

From what I can tell, there are few B&Bs, and a couple of agriturismos in Vignacastrisi, and one other establishment (but a hotel?) called the Palazzo Guglielmo (http://www.palazzoguglielmo.co.uk/).  I’m not sure how I found the Palazzo, as there is literally nothing to do or see in this tiny village, but it is an absolutely amazing oasis of call and rest in this out of the way village.  The breakfast  is absolutely stunning and the cappuccini (yes, plural, because they were so good that I had 2 each morning like a little piggy) which made for the perfect start to a relaxing day!

palazzo-guglielmo-breakfast-spreadThe Palazzo has a small pool, but not really room for more than 8 people, and not all in the pool all at the same time.  The rooms are large and spacious but quite open to the other guests unless you close the door-windows (I would beg for curtains so that a little light could come in rather than cave-darkness, personally). The ground floor rooms have their own tiny gardens (often shared) where you can continue to relax and read.  (Note to the readers: there are no telephones in the rooms, nor are there TVs, but the WiFi is pretty good so that you can stay connected.)

palazzo-gugliemo-gardenThis really is an oasis because, within the walls of the Palazzo (and the nearly city block that they have assumed) you have all that you want and English is a nearly perfect second language for those who don’t speak Italian. I heard a number of people saying that this is the umpteenth year in a row that they’ve gone to the Palazzo and I get it: it’s an oasis, without   the stress of having to speak Italian, and a gorgeous opportunity to relax and unwind.  (For the record, I never spoke English at any time in the Palazzo or surrounding areas.)

Bites

I’m embarrassed to admit that I ate at the same restaurant 3 times while I stayed in Vignacastrisi.  But my goodness was it worth it!  The Casa dell’Angelo  is part  of the Palazzo with both an entrance from the Palazzo grounds, as well as from the outside, and the chef is an absolute genius!  On my first night, the Palazzo had let the staff now that I was vegetarian and it was amazing.  Oh, and the wine list, was  incredible and the staff so knowledgeable that not only did I have a constant smile on my face from the wines  I tried, but I also have ordered a case of my favourite wine upon returning home!  But back to the food: on subsequent nites, the staff made sure that I didn’t have the same food as previous evenings and suggested new wines to try.  It really was that good!

casa-dellangelo-antipasti casa-dellangelo-primiAs I said, I’m embarrassed  that I ate at the same place every night which is not something that I normally do.  In my defense, I was to eat at the Agriturismo L’Aia (http://www.agriturismolaia.it/index.php/ristorante) which I heard was wonderful but they were closed the night I wanted to go and on the following night, the torrential downpour and 10 minute walk in said downpour played against me.

Neighbors at the Palazzo recommended the Pizzeria La Stua (never found in any of my searches) (https://www.facebook.com/lastuavigna/).  Although they admitted it wasn’t fancy – “it has paper tablecloths” – they said the pizza was fantastic and the pasta, although simple, was delicious.  And it’s very family friendly.  I wish I had known as I would have tried as the mere word “pizzeria” makes my mouth water.

Sites

Truly, there are no sites in Vignacastrisi.  Upon my arrival at the Palazzo, and because I had already broken out in to a sweat – it was HOT and humid – I asked for a map and was given one of Lecce.  So I asked for one of Vignacastrisi and was told that there’s not much in the village but still printed out a Google map so that I didn’t get lost.  In less than 1.5 hours, I had traversed the entire village, and every street.

On a subsequent day, in between rain showers, I walked to Castro, a larger village with a marina and “beaches” a little over 2 km away.  It was a lovely walk, and good to be moving, but there wasn’t that much to do and see in Castro either.

So, why you ask, should you go to Vignacastrisi or any of the surrounding villages?  Because it’s a part of Italy that if you really want to know more about, it is integral to the fabric of this culture, and these people, that I so dearly love.  Italy is more than Milano, Firenze, or Roma but small communities that exist and even thrive on their uniqueness and it is fun!

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Otranto – the furtherst point east in all of Italy

Roughly 40 minutes drive – or longer, if you continue to stop and soak in the amazing vistas across the Adriatic to Greece along the coastal road – is the lovely village of Otranto.  It’s smaller than Lecce, which means that it’s smaller than many typically-viewed tourist ventures, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go.   In fact, you must go.  Put it on your bucket list!  Otranto has a vibrant centro storico and incredible food too!

Nites

As I wondered around Otranto – more specifically, the centro storico and the immediate surroundings outside the city walls – it became very apparent that whatever sort  of lodging you might be searching for, you will find it: B&Bs, 2-star, 4-star, and even 5-star are all available with just a bit of searching.

I chose to stay at the Basiliani Resort and Spa (http://www.basilianiresort.com/en) which is, in all honestly, about a 10 minute walk from the centro storico.  I was looking for a restful place where I could take some sun, read a lot, and just shut down from the work environment and I found it here.  The staff at the Basiliani were fantastic, and the rooms, although minimalist in décor, were large, each had its own balcony of some sort, and an aesthetic that I have come to expect from Italian beach “resorts”.  And so you know, the pool is huge!  There are, however, a few things to be prepared for before booking: the breakfast is horrible but as long as you don’t depend on that as your only sustenance, you’ll be fine .  (And hint: don’t drink the coffee from the machine but ask the staff for a cappuccino and they’ll make a decent coffee.)  And they tend to “charge” for things that, at least to me, seem like they should have been included but, as long as you are prepared, you’ll be fine.

If you want something closer to the centre, I would try the Hotel Palazzo Papaleo (http://www.hotelpalazzopapaleo.com/).  I seriously considered  this hotel for my trip but because the Basiliani had a pool, and the Palazzo didn’t, well… The hotel looks stunning and it is centrally located within the city walls of the centro storico.  I would go here in the non-sun-worshiper months!

Bites

Oh my god.  The food in Otranto is outstanding and I would have stayed here longer to go back to a few places and to find more!

If I only had one night in Otranto, I would have a very tough time deciding where to dine.  Ultimately, I would choose L’Altro Baffo Ristorante (http://www.laltrobaffo.com/).  Reservations are imperative: they literally have a “velvet rope” preventing people from just walking so that you wait for them to approach you.  But it is worth it!  The wine list is impressive and the pours eye-boggling (and for next to nothing!).  And the food outstanding!   I would say that the food is more along the nouvo Italiano sort but it was still fresh, simple, and so incredibly flavourful: where do we get our tomatoes in the US?!

laltro-baffo-vino laltro-baffo-orecchiette-con-le-cime-di-rapaOn  my second night – because I would stay a second night just to eat here – I would run to Peccato di Vino (http://www.peccatodivino.com/).   I say run for two very important reasons, one  of which is that they don’t take reservations.  I arrived shortly after opening and left over 1.5 hours later, never feeling rushed, especially when, upon leaving, I saw the throngs of people waiting to be seated!  And the other reason to run here, is the food is just that outstanding and the head of the house, or the owner, I’m not sure, was so knowledgeable about wines, and what to try, that I could have stayed there forever if only my liver could have held up (and the people outside wouldn’t have shot me!)  And just in case you really only have 1 night in Otranto, perhaps you could consider lunch at Peccato di Vino and dinner at L’Altro Baffo: you only live once right?!

peccato-di-vino-pastaSites

The sites of Otranto are found in just walking.  Your guidebooks and websites will tell you the things that you must see, but the things that you want to see are those things that you find where your feet take you.  Whatever you do, please don’t miss the Cathedral and the Chiesa San Pietro.  The Cathedral will blow your mind with the mosaic floor, much of which you can’t see up close in order to protect it, but enough of it that you can see how much love and respect went in to its creation.  And the Chiesa di San Pietro, the tiny little church in a tiny little piazza has some of the most stunning byzantine artifacts I have ever seen.  I literally could have stayed there for an hour, if there was room in the little church, looking at every aspect of this wonderful craftsmanship.

chiesa-san-pietro-02Otranto may not be for everyone as there really isn’t a lot to do other than to go to the beach or rest at a pool until night falls and you begin your evening with a passeggiata, and perhaps a drink at any of the many cocktail bars popping up around Puglia, and  then dinner, and another post-meal stroll.  It’s the way life should be, if you ask me: relaxing, with friends, and good food, and good wine, and a true respect for that which has preceded us.  I’ll be back… I’ll hope you’ll follow.

strada

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Lecce – The so-called Florence of the south

Halfway down the heel that is the book of Italy, you’ll find the most charming, and welcoming, city of Lecce.  It’s been years since I’ve been to Lecce and upon my return, fond memories flooded back as if only a few months had passed.  Often referred to as “the Florence of the south”, I think it has more to offer and is a monument of civic pride, and beauty, all unto itself.

Nites

There are quite a few options in Lecce for where to stay: from the quaint bed and breakfast to the 5-star hotels in and around the city.  But honestly, because it’s so far south and I’m still uncertain how much tourism there is – or sadly, perhaps tourism is down because of last month’s horrific earthquake in central Italy – your euro will go quite far so think outside the box.

The Risorgimento Resort (http://www.risorgimentoresort.com/) could only have been better located if  it is within the Roman Amphitheatre!  The location alone  is what makes this hotel a charmer but I’m still not sure they quite deserve a 5-star notation: the hotel is great, but it’s tired, it needs some maintenance, and this is probably the first 5-star I’ve been to without luxury toiletries (which I was hoping for, to be honest).   But the breakfast was great, the staff outstanding, and the beds were divine.  And the bathroom!  I’ve seen apartments in NY and Paris that are smaller than the bathroom!

If the Risorgimento Resort is a bit too outside your price range, I had a one-night stay at a funky hotel just outside the city walls called Hotel 8Piu (http://www.8piuhotel.com/en).  But readers be warned: the hotel photos don’t show just quite how outside the city centre the hotel is, nor that they are across the street from car dealerships and next to the strada provinciale (neither of which you can hear).  But that said, the staff are amazing, the rooms quiet, and incredibly comfortable.  I had read things that said, even when the lights are off, there are remnants of the funky “colour therapy” that they have in the rooms, but that wasn’t true for me.   And if you stay here, be sure  to ask for a room looking on to the park/gardens behind the hotel (I was in room 131).

And if money is no object, and you have a rental car (only if you want to leave either destination and go in to Lecce… which I’m not sure I would want to leave) you have to wonderful options: the Masseria Trapana (http://www.trapana.com/en/) and La Fiermontina (http://www.lafiermontina.com/).  I have not had the pleasure of staying at either, but they are both definitely on my bucket list as they look stunning!  And it doesn’t hurt that they’ve been getting a lot of press, arguably the most  visible being in Condé Nast’s Traveler magazine (read more here: http://www.cntraveler.com/stories/2015-11-12/lecce-italian-vacation)

Bites

Puglia is known as the home of burrata and my goodness, it is better than any other place that I have ever eater this Italian wonder!  Fresh, and oozy, and flavourful, and yes, my mouth is watering as I write!

If I only had one night in Lecce, I would eat at Ristorante Il Vico del Gusto (http://www.ilvicodelgusto.it/).  With absolutely no exaggeration, I knew as my antipasto arrived that I wanted to return immediately.  Slightly off the beaten path, which means that it’s not totally overrun with tourists, Il Vico is a proper restaurant with succulent food, accommodating staff and a chef for this vegetarian, and an absolutely wonderful wine list.  This may be the sort of food that one could call “Nouvo Italiano” but that doesn’t matter because it was just that good! There were a few tables  outside but, given the dry heat, I opted to sit inside and never wanted to leave!  (Why did I?!)

il-vico-del-gustoil-vico-del-gusto-burratail-vico-del-gusto-pasta-with-tomatoes-olives-and-oil il-vico-del-gusto-tiramisuMy final night in Lecce was meant to be at Trattoria Cucina Casareccia – Le Zie (http://www.lezie.it/) but, sadly, they called the night before to let me know that there was a death in the family and they would be closed.  Although I am sad for the family, this just gives me another reason to return.  And, sadly, I did not listen to my gut and return to Il Vico del Gusto but, instead, went to another restaurant that isn’t worth acknowledging (despite what some of those travel sites will tell you!)

If you have a third night in Lecce, I would suggest seeking out Trattoria di Nonna Tetti.  It’s  an interesting little restaurant, off a side street in Lecce, with absolutely wonderful food and a nice selection of wine.  My warning to readers is that 1, if you’re there when it is warm, be forewarned that despite having AC, it doesn’t work very well and you know, when you eat hot food, we get hot and…, alas, everyone was sweating quite a bit in this little restaurant with great food.  The other thing to be prepared for is that they don’t have a lot of wait staff.  I think this is, in part, because the place is so small and the kitchen is downstairs and there is a lot of running up and down the stairs, so service can be slow but it is worth it so, as long as you are prepared, you’ll have a wonderful evening.

Sites

Other than what your travel guide or website tells you, there really are no secret gems in Lecce.  It’s an amazing place to wonder around, and simply get lost.  And if you’re in to it, as I am, check out the various churches that seem to be around every corner.  Talk about stunning!  And when you look at the native stone that this city was built of, and you see how it has, slowly, begun to weather, you can’t help but appreciate the craftsmanship and love that the inhabitants of Lecce have put in to this city.

It’s a wonderful place, this city called Lecce, and I encourage everyone to visit and to use it as a starting point for your adventures south in to the Puglia (or Apulia) region.  The food is divine, the vistas breathtaking, and with a good GPS, and stern conviction, you can find an amazing part of Italy that really is different from the more tourist trodden areas that we all (at least me) have come to know and love.

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Vancouver BC – Truly, what a stunning city! And one that I want to return to to investigate, and wonder around, and get lost within. And although my time here was short, I have no qualms in recommending some great hotels and restaurants! Head north and enjoy!

Nites

I typically try to avoid chain hotels if I can but on my first visit, because it was for a conference, I stayed at the Hyatt Regency Vancouver (http://vancouver.hyatt.com/en/hotel/home.html) which was lovely, centrally located to the convention center and shopping, and the staff sincerely went out of their way to help any time it was needed.

The Fairmont Pacific Rim (http://www.fairmont.com/pacific-rim-vancouver/) is absolutely stunning and I will be staying here on my next visit.  I was fortunate enough to see a room – with a water view and it was outstanding! – and it looks pretty close to spectacular.

And if money is no object, The Loden (http://theloden.com/) is your place to go!   It ain’t cheap, and I couldn’t justify the expense, but the pictures on their website make me drool and want to stay here.

Bites

The restaurant scene in Vancouver is hopping and I definitely need more time so that I can share more finds.  But if your time is short, these few options should hold you over.

The Royal Dinette (http://royaldinette.ca/) was probably my second favourite restaurant and if I had two nights in Vancouver, this would definitely be on my return list.  The drinks were phenomenal, the wine list outstanding, and the food exquisite!   And as a farm to table restaurant, I couldn’t help but fall in love.

So why, you ask, did I start with my second favourite and not my favourite restaurant?   My favourite restaurant was a vegetarian restaurant that is not in the center of the city so it might not be the easiest to reach (you need a taxi) nor the most appealing for everyone.  The Acorn (http://www.theacornrestaurant.ca/) was outstanding and I sit here drooling just thinking of the food.  The restaurant is small, and the bar even smaller, but the food was out of this world and the staff were so gracious and kind that I didn’t want to leave!  The food is seasonal, as it should be, so be sure to put this on your agenda.  But reader beware: the Acorn doesn’t take reservations – something troubling to this traveler who doesn’t queue for anything – but the wait was short and the old fashioned that I sipped a little too quickly as we waited made up for everything.

I’m also going to add the Wallflower (http://www.thewallflowermoderndiner.com/) to my list even though I didn’t have the time to go here.  I’ve read a lot about it and it sounds scrumptious so I’m adding this to my list!

And last but certainly not least is Preston’s (http://www.prestonsrestaurant.ca/vancouver/), a short walk from the convention center if you’re in that neighborhood.  I went here once for lunch and then again for dinner and really enjoyed it.  The food was fairly traditional and certainly not overpriced and the drinks were affordable so it’s definitely worth a try!

And for you breakfast buffs, you must go to De Dutch (http://dedutch.com/). It’s unpretentious and wonderful food to start your day!  I had breakfast here and didn’t need to eat again until dinner!

Sites

Sadly, I didn’t have time to see anything except the inside of the convention center (stunning, as far as convention centers go!) and hotels but everyone I know raved about renting bikes and riding around Vancouver Island so I’m adding this in even though I didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy this play time.

So hop on that plane and get yourself to Vancouver!  And if you’re coming from the East Coast of the US as I did, you’ll probably need to stop over somewhere so maybe consider stopping over in Seattle – one of my favourite US cities – and make it a two-fer!  Enjoy and safe travels!

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Asolo – a small Italian town of calm reflection

I’m not sure what drew me to Asolo – as I could honestly spend the rest of my life in Venice or one of the smaller islands – but there was something about Asolo that brought me to this small town at the foot of the Dolomites and brought a calm over me that was much needed. Asolo is only about 1 hour away from Venice (by car or train) and for a short get away, you really can’t go wrong this tiny little hamlet.

Nites

The Albergo Al Sole (http://www.albergoalsoleasolo.com/en) is a stunning hotel just above the town square of Asolo with gorgeous views to the valley below. The lobby fireplace was a lovely respite from my rainy days in Asolo and the large balcony off the dining room was amazing: I would return just for the chance to dine on the balcony alone! The rooms are huge and the breakfast in the morning outstanding! And the staff! How fantastic were they?! Always willing to help, to advise, or just to make sure everything was to our liking. And given the size of Asolo, you truly can’t be more centrally located.

Albergo Al SoleAlthough I didn’t stay here, but the name alone will certainly give you a sense of what to expect, the other competing hotel in Asolo is the Villa Cipriani (http://www.villaciprianiasolo.com/en/) about a 3 minute walk from the town square. The Cipriani presents everything that you expect from this Italian brand: glamour, views, and the staff in crisp suits. As I said, I didn’t stay here but I can tell you that the bar area is classic hunting lodge design and I can only imagine what it would be like outdoors in the summer.

Bites

If I only had one night in Asolo, I would go back to the Locanda Baggio da Nona (http://www.locandabaggio.it/). Although the staff’s knowledge of English was somewhat limited, and the local dialect can be a challenge, I found the food outstanding! The pasta – not on the menu but kindly created for me as a vegetarian who doesn’t like risotto – was out of this world! And the interior design was just so welcoming and charming and the staff doing their best to help the table of foreigners.

pasta at Locanda Baggio da NonaI can also highly recommend Ristorante due Mori (http://www.2mori.it/). If you look at their website, you’ll see the most stunning views of the valley below: sadly, at night in the winter, that view isn’t available but in the summer with longer days and shorter nights, I can only image what that view holds and I will return. The wine list was small but well chosen and the food was akin to a bridge between classic and modern, which I loved.

We were also fortunate to happen upon a lovely little place that was absolutely fantastic for a leisurely lunch: Pane Vino e S. Daniele (http://www.panevinospa.it/). Located on via Robert Browning, under the curved arches that make this town so charming and memorable, is what appears to be a small café when, in reality, it is a lot larger and the food simple, classic, and wonderful. They also have wines by the class that, had I had more time, I would have returned just to try a few of their recommendations. This is a keeper!

Sites

There isn’t a lot to really go and see when in Asolo itself so a car really is important. But before leaving Asolo, I highly recommend walking up the hill to the castle that overlooks the village, and the Albergo Al Sole, for the views. When I was here, the castle was closed – open only the end of March through the end of October – but from what I could see just from the outside, the views are magnificent.

Right across the small street from the Albergo Al Sole is the former villa of Robert Browning. Sadly, it is not open to the public as it is privately owned by what appears to be 4 families, but the architecture and the grounds that slope down to the town square are out phenomenal. I so want to visit!

Robert Browning's villa 02But with a car, you can visit a number of stunning designs by the famed Italian architect, Andrea Palladio (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrea_Palladio). The Villa Elmo, which is roughly 25 minutes drive from Asolo (and a lovely drive at that!) is a stunning example of the work that, eventually, Thomas Jefferson became a fan of and became a reference for the US Capital building in Washington, DC.

Villa Emo fresco 05Asolo doesn’t have the big shops that Venice does, and the town doesn’t assume so much space that you can walk for hours and hours, but Asolo does bring peace and solitude that sometimes, in this crazy and fast-paced world, we need. I will return to Asolo and maybe I’ll even see you there too, having a prosecco while sitting outside watching the world, slowly, move by.

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St Petersburg – truly one of the most beautiful cities with truly lovely people that I have ever visited.

Everyone keeps asking me “why did you go to St Petersburg” and I honestly can’t answer that other than to say “why not”? But now that I’ve gone, and returned, it is truly one of the most beautiful cities with truly lovely people that I have ever visited.

Nites

My research for hotels for my short stay in St Petersburg were extensive and you can find all levels of accommodation if you look hard enough. But if money is no object, or, if the ruble is still week to the dollar and the euro, I wouldn’t consider any other place other than the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe (http://www.belmond.com/grand-hotel-europe-st-petersburg/). And for just a little extra, splurge for a room that overlooks the park and the Cathedral of Our Savior on Spilled Blood. This is truly a stunning hotel with perfect attention to detail, very comfortable rooms and beds, and centrally located to everything that you really must see.

Belmond Grand Hotel EuropeBites

If I only had one night in St Petersburg, I would go to Vincent Restaurant (http://vin-cent.ru/). The website is in Russian but you can find other reviews on different sites. A wonderful wine bar situated closed to the Mariinsky Theatre, this little restaurant was an absolute joy. The staff didn’t speak English that well – but then, I don’t speak any Russian – but the menu was in English and when I asked for vegetarian options, the waitress left, and out came a manager who spoke perfect English, asked me what I wanted, and a short time later, a lovely plate of pasta with winter vegetables.   And the wine list?! Hold on to your seat because the wine menu is extensive and covers wines from every region in the world!

vincent restaurant interior

For my vegetarian readers, I would recommend Botanika (www.cafebotanika.ru). Slightly off the beaten path, and not an interior designer’s best work, but an easy walk from the Belmond Grand Hotel, this was a wonderful with outstanding vegetarian and vegan options. And the staff! They were amazing and helpful to this goofy American!

Sites

The Hermitage (https://www.hermitagemuseum.org/wps/portal/hermitage/?lng=en). When I knew I would have the chance to visit St Petersburg, this was the one place that I had to go. And trust me when I tell you it is worth the lines and the time. Some of the art is in sad shape and desperately needs to be restored, but the history of the building, and the grandeur of the entire place is so breathtaking that this shouldn’t stop you. We spent an entire day in the original building, seeking out old friends like Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Rubens, and then over to the adjacent building which will soon house all of the Impressionists work like their immense collections of Monet, Manet, and Van Gogh. With another day, we would have been blessed to see all of the other pieces that had to be skipped due to time constraints.

State Hermitage Museum

When in Russia, one must go to the ballet! The Mariinska theatre (http://www.mariinsky.ru/en/) is an amazing venue that really cannot be missed. I visited the New Mariinsky Theatre, so I can’t comment on the old (the original), but the new is out of this world with all modern features and architecture and what I would call cozy: the theatre really isn’t that large so unless you choose seats at the very top, I suspect everyone else has a good view of the stage. But a note to the reader: if you are there at any time when an outside coat is required (rain, cold, windy, etc), bring your patience. Leaving your coat at the coat check is exceptionally easy but retrieving your coat takes the patience of a monk! The lines are long, they aren’t that clearly defined, and it really is quite chaotic. But go! Book that ticket because I promise, you won’t be disappointed!

And the Cathedral of Our Savior on Spilled Blood is a must. This is quintessential Russian architecture and what this writer expected, and wasn’t disappointed. Absolutely stunning!

The Church of the Savior on Spilled BloodAnd although a departure from my other posts, please allow me to give a bit of insight in to getting to St Petersburg. You can fly, of course, but there’s really no fun in that. Instead, I would tell you to go to Helsinki, spend some time in this lovely city by the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea and then take the train to St Petersburg. It’s only 3.5 hours and when else will you get to see the countryside of both Finland and Russia? And trust me when I tell you that, when crossing the border, it is the weirdest feeling, knowing that you are going to a country where you just may not have the same rights as you do in Europe: so close, you so far!

train view to guard towerThis really was a magical experience for me and I can’t wait to return. The short visas offered by the Russian government make it a challenge to see and do everything but even if you only had one day, it is worth the effort (which can be quite extensive!), and the time, and even the cost. I assure you, you won’t be disappointed in this city on the Baltic!

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Piemonte is more than Barolo but that’s a good first reason to go!

(update 30 November 2018)

Piemonte (and Langhe) isn’t a city but rather a region of northern Italy. Arguably, it is one of the most elegant regions of Italy that also acts as a collective municipality overseeing the Barolo and Barbaresco wines. My heart has always been drawn to Venice and Rome but the tranquility of the Piemonte region could very well become my third home!

Nites

I may have stumbled upon the most amazing, and charming, and inviting hotel in the Langhe region that I am honestly afraid to share because I don’t want to be turned away: the Locanda Marchesi Alfieri (http://www.marchesialfieri.it/eng/).  I am literally in love with this hotel.  I didn’t want to leave and when I moved to another hotel that I wasn’t happy with, all I could say was that I wanted to return to the Marchesi Alfieri.  I will return every year if I can, and have already started planning my 2019 visit!

I read an article about the Hotel Castello di Sinio (http://www.hotelcastellodisinio.com/en/) and so I had to check it out. Located in the tiny village of Sinio, this converted castle is a real gem. Denise, the owner, is a hoot and full of information and advice. And the staff, they are a collective dream and literally made every return, and every departing adventure, a real joy.   You don’t stay here if you’re looking for cookie cutter hotels, but you stay here for peace and relaxation. (And, I suspect, the pool in the summer could be a wonderful afternoon reprieve, but I’ll have to report on that at another time.)

In the small village of La Morra – and a short walk from what is arguably the best restaurant in Piemonte: Il Bovio – lies the lovely little Corte Gondina Hotel.  There aren’t a lot or rooms but the rooms they have, are great: some are large with only a minimal view while others are a bit smaller with a balcony where you can see rows and rows of vineyards.  And not to be missed is the morning breakfast with wonderful pastries and divine cappuccini.

Bites

If I only had one night in the Piemonte region, I would go to Trattoria La Coccinella (http://www.trattoriacoccinella.com/). I literally fell in love with this restaurant: the décor so charming and real, the waiters outstanding and in no way intrusive, and the food absolutely divine! Of course, I was here during white truffle season (tartuffo bianco) but even so, I know that the food here year-round will make everyone content. (And, for what it’s worth, I was only the second of 2 tables where I heard English.)

De Felicin (http://www.felicin.it/en/) is, without a doubt, my second favourite restaurant in the Piemonte region and I would insist that you spend two nights  in this part of Italy, just to enjoy.  The owner and chef, Nino, is amazing and so incredibly knowledgeable for all diners.  On my visit, he suggested that he make various antipasti and, if we were still hungry, to order a pasta dish.  We weren’t still hungry!   The antipasti were each unique, tasty, and not too big which can be a welcomed respite from the sometimes heavy pasta that you can find in the Piemonte region.  And not to be missed is the wine cellar: what a site  for both the wine aficionado and the newbie!  Put this one on your list!

If you have a third night, you really can’t skip Bovio Ristorante (http://www.ristorantebovio.it/ita/) which has a bit of history behind it. The short story is that it’s sister restaurant, now closed, was even higher up the hill in La Morra but the views are just as stunning and the wine cellar is rumoured to have over 1 million euro worth of wine. As for the food, it was delicious and the staff really very helpful and the views incredible! So why is this not at the top of my list? Simply because, the food and the interior were just a bit too stuffy, and a bit too showy, and anything where I find the people to be to try too hard, I find it unsettling and not the most enjoyable experience.

Sites

One comes to the Piemonte region to see the wines, to taste the wines, and to hear about the wines. The latter, you say, is an odd thing to hear but I tell you, the stories that the vintners will tell you are mesmerizing and charming and will make the drive on these lovely curvy roads worth the endeavor.

With no disrespect to the large wineries that you will find in this valley of two wines, I would avoid them and seek out the smaller producers. Personally, I can recommend the following but if you know of others, or just want to rely on your hotel, check them out:

Cavallotto Tenuta (Barolo)

GD Vajra (Barolo)

Massolino

Schiavenza

Paitin

Vietti (Barolo)

La Spinetta (Barbaresco) – my favourite

Cantina Vignaioli Elvio Pertinace (Barbaresco)

Azienda Agricola Sottimano (Barbaresco)

and new to the list – only because I can only visit so many wineries and taste so much wine:

Contratto (sparkling wine in a STUNNING winery, not to be missed!)

Ceretto

But a word of advice: a GPS system for your car is imperative. Yes, it will nearly double the price of your rental car but some of these wineries are difficult to find and one of the wineries was surprised that I found them, on time, and when I told them about the GPS, they said that it must have been a great system as most people get lost.

And to note: most of the wineries have begun charging for their tasting.  The fact that they didn’t charge for so many years is one of the things that I found charming. But I understand, and given the tourism trade, it makes perfect sense so be prepared to pay between 10 and 25 euro for your tastings.

So, the next time you come to Milano, go past Torino and head to Piemonte and unwind and check out from the daily craziness of internet and texts and get back to life and to the living of life.

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Easter Island – a true once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that should NOT be missed

Easter Island (Isla de Pasqua) is an environment, a society, and a culture completely unto itself and should be visited by everyone at least once in their lifetime. Why? Many of the cars are old and beat up, but still running (what I expect Cuba to be like when I finally visit). Telephone service and the internet exist, albeit slow and somewhat circa 1990s (be warned you digital maniacs!). Housing is only what it needs to be: protective and safe but really nothing more. But it all works in a non-hurried, self-sufficient sort of way. Here’s a great example: I went in to the “more modern” supermarket (as described by my hotel, amongst the 3 options that were provided) and what I found were large but mostly bare shelves with one or two of each thing except for the staples: rice, sugar, and flour. Everything else, I would venture to guess, is provided by the land and that, ultimately, is what I found so wonderful about Easter Island.

And although I will rarely tell you how much time to allow for a visit, Easter Island is the exception: you need at least 2 full days on the Island to be able to see the numerous Moai and to learn about this amazing land, it’s history, and to meet its people. I flew in on a morning flight from Santiago so I had half a day to walk around the “centre” and left on day 4, in the afternoon, to allow myself the necessary time to explore. And the other tourists I spoke with agreed: 3 nights is the optimal time required.

Nites

In my research, there were three levels of accomodations on the island: the hostal/room in a house for about $60, the mid-range at about $200 – $300, and the all-inclusive for well over $600 – $1300 per night. When choosing your hotel, I would encourage you to choose something close to the “centre” of town as there isn’t much else happening on the island that you can see on your own.

I chose the Hotel Puku Vai (www.pukuvaihotel.com) which is a short 5 minute walk from the airport and one of the mid-level hotels. (Don’t worry: only LAN airlines flies in and out, once a day, so there is no airport noise.) Right off a main street and a 15 minute walk to the main street and “centre”, the staff are kind and helpful, the breakfast extensive, and the rooms clean and what I would guess to be traditional. I will be honest and say that I was nervous when I viewed the pictures on the web but there is something very important to keep in mind that will help you with everything on the island: remember that Santiago and Hawaii are both about 4000km away so everything on this island, if it’s not grown here, is imported. It’s all relative.

Another place that I saw, but was quite expensive when I initially made my inquiries, is the HangaRoa Eco Village situated right on the coast. The rooms look stunning and only a few minutes away from the “centre” so if money is less of an issue, you really should consider this hotel.

Bites

Keep in mind that if it’s not grown on the island, it’s been imported (via the daily LAN flights from Santiago!) which means that things can be expensive and food options somewhat limited. This is also important to keep in mind for lunch and dinner: you can’t just walk up and say “I’d like ___” like we normally do: they have enough food on hand for the planned meals; unplanned meals are more difficult to cater for so be prepared. And for my vegetarian readers, as well as those with food allergies, this won’t be a dining paradise I’m afraid. But you’ll survive and the food choices should not stop you from visiting this amazing place.

La Kaleta (http://www.lakaletarestaurant.com/servicios.html) is a lovely little restaurant in the centre of town, near the ocean. Its location, of course, makes for a lovely site for dinner with sunset views. The menu is mixed, focusing heavily on seafood of course, but there is also meat and pasta dishes, all written on a chalkboard for everyone to view. They also have a full-service bar which is not too expensive and the staff speak varying degrees of English so I would definitely put this on your list of places to dine.

The other place that I dined, and which would probably be my “if I only had one night on the island” choice, was Kaloa Pasta and Bistro at the HangaRoa Hotel. With stunning views over the ocean, which makes for a very special sunset dinner, the prices weren’t much more expensive than any other place on the island, the staff was great and spoke wonderful English, and the kitchen was willing to help this vegetarian with a lovely pasta primavera!

Sites

And organized tour is a must. If you can afford it, I would book a private tour as I am certain that you will learn of things that a larger, group, tour isn’t able to offer. Kia Koe Tours appears to be the largest on the island and that is who I used, based on recommendations from the hotel. The other that I saw, and which appeared to be doing the same route was Mahinatur and, from what I overheard, they seemed to be a bit more in to the history of the island so they might be worth a try but I don’t know the prices.

Rano Raraku Moai seventeen and eighteen

Other than the mandatory tours, there really isn’t much to be done on the island. I was here on a Friday and Saturday night and it was no different than the Sunday night: subdued, relatively quiet (except for the chickens, dogs, and occasional motorcycle), and no nightlife to be had.

sunset day 2 02

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