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 01 December 2016)

Piemonte 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 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.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend eating at the Hotel Castello di Sinio. I had Thanksgiving dinner here and it was memorable and the wines outstanding. Although I thought it a bit overpriced for what it was, I would certainly come here again and give it a second chance.

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)

Cantina Vignaioli Elvio Pertinace (Barbaresco)

Azienda Agricola Sottimano (Barbaresco)

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.

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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Santiago – a unique blend of old, communist, and avant garde

Santiago de Chile is an interesting place to say the least: there are gorgeous examples of old architecture, remnants of hard times gone by but still in use, and modern buildings and streets that look forward to the future. For a brief stint – perhaps on your way to Patagonia, over to Easter Island, or in combination with Buenos Aires – this city has much to offer. For a longer stint, for which I must admit I was here on business, it can get a bit tough to keep yourself occupied I’m afraid. But don’t let that stop you as a lifetime is really not complete without a visit to Santiago and to experience the charm and friendliness of the Chilean people.

Nites

I had the great fortune to stay at two amazing hotels while in Santiago. In the Providencia neighborhood, and close to numerous forms of public transportation is the Le Reve Boutique Hotel (http://www.lerevehotel.cl/). The rooms are large and comfortable, the breakfast is ample and delicious, and the staff are amazing. And the gardens! Stunning and a welcomed respite from the craziness that can be just outside the front doors of the hotel.

The other hotel that I can recommend is The Aubrey (http://www.theaubrey.com/). More expensive than Le Reve, this lovely hotel with just 15 rooms is situated at the base of the Cerro San Cristobal in the Bellavista neighborhood. Fun, hip, restaurants are just around the corner and the staff is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered; I didn’t want to leave the room or the hotel.   And the bar! My god, the bar!

The Aubrey bar 02The Aubrey sitting room

Bites

Santiago, and Chile as a whole, is not really known for the culinary charm but I had the pleasure of visiting a few restaurants that I would gladly return to.

If you only had one night in Santiago, I would recommend Su at the Merced Boutique Hotel (http://www.sumercedhotel.com/#!restaurant/ca1m). The chef is an award winner for best young chef and the food was evident that this was a well-deserved accolade! The setting was calm and inviting and never was there pressure to finish or even leave the restaurant. I loved this restaurant, the food, and the service so much that I actually returned here on my last night in Santiago.

If you have a second evening, I would go to Miguel Torres (http://www.restaurantemigueltorres.cl/) located just off of Vitacura. A truly stunning restaurant with lovely ambiance and food, you will find a plethora of options that will even satisfy the vegetarian in the group.

For a slight change in food, or perhaps just something a bit more traditional(ish) is Los Cuates (http://www.restaurant-loscuates.cl/). There’s nothing overly special in the décor but the staff are amazing and the food (all Mexican) is outstanding!

If you stay at La Reve, there are a number of restaurants on the small street that the hotel shares. Luco’s Hamburgueseria is a charming place that only serves burgers but has great happy hour drinks and makes a mean pisco sour. And as of this writing, there’s a charming guy named Juan who will keep you happy all night long! And on the same street, just a few doors down, is El Huerto (http://www.elhuerto.cl/), a cool yet calm vegetarian restaurant that was a welcomed retreat from much of the heavier food

Sites

Sadly, I didn’t happen upon anything that I didn’t read about in guidebooks and articles about Santiago. But as I always do, the opportunity to just walk and get lost is an experience in and of itself and I encourage everyone to at least do that.

virgin mary atop cerro san cristobal detailed side

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Berlin – where old meets new and a fresh look forward

(updated 08 July 2018)

I love Berlin. You see that on shirts and mugs all over the city but I really do love it here; it’s vibrant, it’s old meets new, and the people really are some of the nicest people I’ve met in my travels. Or perhaps I should say “I love Berliners”.

Nites

I’m still on the look out for the perfect place to stay in Berlin. A while ago I found the hotel Ku’ Damm 101 (http://www.kudamm101.com/en/) which is a funky hotel in the Charlottenberg area of Berlin and I must admit that it is well located and the staff really are quite friendly. But reader beware: rooms on the lower level facing the Ku’ Damm can be quite loud so don’t accept the first room that you receive and if you aren’t happy, let them know because, speaking from experience, the traffic noise can be loud. But other than that, I like this hotel.

Bites

I am sad to say that my favourite restaurant in Berlin “d31” (http://www.d31-das-restaurant.de/) has now closed so it’s obvious (to me!) that I must return and find more restaurants to add to my list.  But, until I do, I can still recommend these

Another recommendation that I can’t confirm, but I trust my friend so I include it here, is Weiner Beisl (http://www.wiener-beisl.de/), a charming, traditional German restaurant that if I only had one more day in Berlin, I would be trying myself.

Now, if you want what I can only describe as nouvaeu German cuisine, I would highly recommend that you go to Katz Orange (http://www.katzorange.com/en). It’s in the Mitte part of the city but you can easily get there via the U-bahn and the S-bahn, or just take a taxi. The décor is phenomenal, the staff truly helpful and informed, and the food divine. The traditional flavours of German cooking, in a more modern presentation and style. And oh so tasty!

On my return, I hope to go to eins44 (http://www.eins44.com/). I am literally obsessed by this restaurant based on the website and the menu alone. More when I return!

If you are looking for a break from what can sometimes be heavy food, I can heartily recommend Satyam (no website but the address is Grohlmanstrasse 22, 10623 Berlin-Charlottenburg; tel: 030 312 30 29) which isn’t too far from the Ku’Damm hotel and, even if it were, it is worth checking out.

Sites

I love Berlin and I love walking everywhere, and to as many things and sites as I can. Beyond what every run of the mill guidebook tells you to see, I can’t add to that other to say that this is a phenomenal people-watching city and you must take advantage of it.

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Delhi was more than I expected to be honest.

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.

Bites

If I only had one night 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 second 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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Torino – Italian with a hint of Swiss mixed in

(updated 12 December 2015)

When I think of how to describe Torino, I constantly think of it as a hybrid between Italy and the Swiss: the locals have all of the traits that I love in an Italian but there is something a bit more Alpine – I truly don’t mean that offensively – about them that really does make this place absolutely unique. And the Alps in the distance don’t hurt things either!

the alps from TorinoNites

I love the TownHouse mini-hotel chain in Italy and, thankfully, Torino has the only one outside of Milano: TownHouse 70 (http://www.townhouse.it/th70) which is centrally located to everything that you could ever want to see, and eat!, and is a short walk from the Porta Nuova train station so you don’t even need to take a taxi! TownHouse 70, like the others, offers a communal breakfast but, unlike the others that I’ve stayed in th70 has taken feedback to heart and now offers BOTH the communal option as well as a separate room with individual tables. So, if you don’t feel like sitting with strangers, you can now sit alone.

Bites

The food in Torino, and I suspect all of the Piemonte region, is quite heavier than that of central and southern Italy and, I must admit, took a bit of getting used to. Honestly, I didn’t see a salad on any menu. Granted, this could be because of the time of year, which I respect, but when walking through the Saturday and Sunday outdoor markets, I did see various lettuces and other vegetables so they were coming from somewhere.

But I digress… if you only have one night in Torino, I would encourage you to go to Le Vitel Etonne (http://www.leviteletonne.com/). This was probably the cheapest restaurant that I had the pleasure of visiting and, by far, the best, the most charming, and the most “at home”. When I arrived – as I learned to do when in Venice and being told that they couldn’t serve a vegetarian – I asked if it was a problem and they said “not at all.” And then came this lovely fresh ricotta with a pistachio sauce that was amazing and simply followed by a cross between a soufflé and a round omelet of eggs, cheese, and spinach. And that was just the appetizer! But for the main course, I had asked if I could just have a pasta with some vegetables because there is only so much gnocchi with a gorgonzola sauce that one can eat. (Like I said above, it’s heavy food.) And then before me was a lovely plate of homemade pasta with a bit of butter and fresh artichokes. Add a bit of parmigiano cheese and I was a very happy man. Oh, and before I forget: they have amazing glasses of wine by the glass – how to end a trip to Torino without yet another glass of Barolo?! – as well as a wine cellar that you can pick and choose from. When I left, they asked how the food was and I could say was “I am so very happy”.

If simple and small places aren’t you’re thing and you want to splurge, I can suggest two other restaurants on opposite ends of the spectrum. For a traditional, and lovely, meal, go to Tre Galline (www.3galline.it). Don’t mind the area of the walk to the restaurant because I promise, the food is divine and this late in the year, I was still able to have an appetizer with black truffles. This is a very traditional Piemontese restaurant, with a heavy emphasis on meats and meat-filled pasta, but it is worth the journey and definitely the experience.

Tre Galline insideThe other restaurant that I can highly recommend is Consorzio (http://www.ristoranteconsorzio.it/). I read some unflattering things on various sites so I was prepared but I tell you, the guys that ran the restaurant were a delight! Once again, I asked if my being a vegetarian was a problem and my guy – there are only 3 plus the chef – shook his head yes and said “it’s not a problem” – and it wasn’t. The wine was great – if you’ve not tried a Ruché before, ask for it here – and the food outstanding, if not traditional Piemontese: the plates are smaller, the food a bit more “nouveau” and perhaps even moving toward the refined and perhaps even French scale of cooking. But I loved it and I will return.

A new addition to my list of recommendations is L’Agrifoglio (http://www.lagrifoglioristorante.com/). Although not near the “centre” which is also where the Townhouse 70 hotel is, you can reach it by walking, just allow yourself a leisurely 30 minutes to get there but I promise, it will be worth it: the food is simple and traditional, which is what I search for in a restaurant, the staff was outstanding and amazingly helpful to this vegetarian, and the prices were so affordable that I did a double-take at the bill to make sure that they didn’t forget something!

And because I found this “fornai” (bread shop and more) and wandered in desperate search of it the following day, I encourage everyone to find Perino Vesco (http://www.perinovesco.it/it/). It is amazing! The staff was sweet (and remembered me on only the second day), the pannini, the sweets, and the coffee were outstanding! Honestly, the things they had on display here made it difficult for me not to buy everything in the entire store! And the fact that it was crowded both times I went in tells you lots. (And I was the only tourist that I could hear!)

Sites

Beyond the standard guide book things to do, I can’t honestly suggest other sites that one needs to visit. The first Eataly and the Olympic stadium are well outside of the centre and a serious hike – Eataly took me 45 minutes to walk to from the centre and the Olympic Stadium further AND there was a Juventus game so I couldn’t tour that day anyway – but as I always do, don’t worry about what a guidebook says you have to do, but just wander and take in this lovely city.

I want to return to Torino as I have visions of truffles dancing in my head but even if you can’t come in the fall, for whatever reason, Torino really should be on your bucket list of places to visit and explore. It really is a different version of Italy than you are probably used to.

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Taormina may be a tourist mecca but it really can’t be missed.

Taormina is an interesting place for me, and also a bit of a quandary: it is incredibly touristy, and you are often overrun by tour groups but at the end of the day, both literally and figuratively, I do love this city and its people and think that everyone should visit at least once in their life.

Nites

Finding anything other than tour-group overrun and typical is pretty difficult in this hill-top town, if not impossible. Although it’s not the most unique hotel, I did enjoy the Hotel Monte Tauro (http://www.hotelmontetauro.it/eng/index.html). The breakfast was lovely and if you are patient and wait until the inevitable tour group that has overrun the hotel have departed – typically after 9am – you can enjoy a peaceful breakfast looking over the sea. And despite the tourists, I must admit that the rooms, and more specifically their balconies, are worth the price (although I suspect every hotel in the city has balconies with views).

Bites

Despite all its restaurants, Taormina only has one slow food movement restaurant and trust me when I tell you, it is worth the trek and you really must find it: Tischi Toschi (no website). The inside restaurant has only a few tables and the outside just as few so be sure to book in advance because it is so worth it.   Thankfully, the restaurant had vegetarian options for me but the food that passed my table, regardless of what it was, smelled and looked absolutely divine.   And if you only have one night in Taormina, and you go here of course, you must have the “Sicilian pesto”: a wonderful combination of oil, garlic, almonds or pistachio, and a bit more garlic. Mmmmmm.

Another find that was actually recommended by the hotel was A’Zammara (http://www.zammara.it/lang1/) which truly was fantastic.   Situated on a small side street, with its own garden, the food was lovely and expertly prepared, the staff really quite sweet, and solace of being away from the hustle and bustle of the tourists a welcomed respite from it all.

Sites

I’m not sure there are really sites that can be recommended besides those that are in every possible guide book. I would, however, strongly encourage you to take a day trip to Etna, even though it is touristy, as you can, for the most part, do whatever you want, and take as much time or as little to explore and see one of the largest and most active volcanoes in Europe.

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Siracusa – a peaceful and relaxing get-away from the craziness that can be Sicily

Siracusa has such fond memories for me and my latest return did not let me down. The city is old, and there are parts that are falling down and in desperate need of repair, and then there are parts that are charming and inviting and, inevitably, the whole place puts a smile on my face.

Nites

In trying to find hotels that I could recommend, I happened upon the Charme Hotel Henry’s House (http://www.hotelhenryshouse.com/en) which I recommend whole-heartedly. Henry’s House is not your cookie cutter hotel so if you are looking for bland rooms and uniformed staff, this is not the place for you. But if you want the most amazing and helpful owners – the brothers were simply the best – the funkiest rooms, and some of the most amazing and stunning rooms, this is the hotel for you. I loved this hotel and can’t wait to try another room now that I’ve stayed in what I believe is affectionately called “the boat”.

If you want something that isn’t quite as funky as Henry’s House, but is still a total charmer, I would highly recommend the Algila Ortigia Charme Hotel. This is true stunner of a hotel in Ortigia and there is something about this hotel that reminds me of Alacati and the hotels and the town combined.

Bites

There are currently only two slow food movement restaurants in Siracusa (and arguably a third, but more on that in a moment). And as a fan of the slow food movement and what it is that they promote and are trying to do with their food, I am so very pleased to say that neither disappointed.

The Taberna Sveva (no website) is not far from Henry’s House and is absolutely divine! Even in late October, Siracusa is still warm so al fresco dining is possible, and encouraged, and I was fortunate enough to sit outside, gaze upon the up lit buildings and enjoy the most amazing gnocchi with pistachio cream sauce I have ever had. And as someone who really doesn’t enjoy gnocchi (I find it a tad too heavy), and on a warm night even less enjoyable, Teberna Sveva changed my mind! And kudos to the staff for, when I saw that they only had wine by the bottle and I wanted to have a glass with my dinner, they opened a bottle and gave me a glass. Thank you Taberna Sveva.

The other slow food restaurant in Siracusa that I loved and cannot stop thinking about is La Gazza Ladra (http://www.gazzaladrasiracusa.com/).  Situated right in the heart of Ortigia, on the primary shopping street, this little restaurant (of 30 or so seats?) is an absolute oasis. The restaurant is adorned with kitschy photos and paintings and you won’t sit down to china and crystal stemware.   But you will sit down to amazing food, much like nonna would make, that is simple, classic, and truly mouthwatering.

The third restaurant that I tried, which should arguably be a slow food restaurant was Osteria del Vecchio Ponte (no website). I honestly don’t remember how I found this restaurant, and the guys at Henry’s House had no idea about this restaurant, but it’s a short walk over the bridge from Ortigia and located on a small side street. When I arrived for my reservation, there was only one other table occupied which made me nervous. And then when I looked at the menu and everything was fish, I was more nervous. But then the owner (and chef) came over, I asked if it was a problem that I was vegetarian and he said no. But, better yet, as we were figuring out what to make, his daughter (I think), came over said she didn’t like to eat too much meat and suggested one of the pastas just without the pancetta. And it was absolutely divine: pasta, with tomatoes, zucchini, onion, garlic, and hidden beneath the pasta, the softest, most delicious soft cheese that when combined created the most amazing cream sauce I have ever had. (Yes, my mouth is watering!)

And before I forget… after dinner, as you take that lovely stroll, whether it be to your hotel or just to take in this lovely city, be sure to stop at Bel Bon.  It’s a chain of gelaterie around the city but they are amazing.  And if you can’t make up your mind, go with riccotta gelato.  I salivate just thinking about it!

Sites

For me, the primary thing to do in Siracusa is to walk. To just stroll, people watch, and take numerous photos. But I must admit that a trip to the Parco Archeologico della Neapolis really should be on everyone’s list. When I first went to Siracusa, the park wasn’t opened so I walked the perimeter and just peered through the fences. This time, it was open and although some parts were still closed, and others not clearly marked so that I got yelled at for being somewhere that I shouldn’t have been, it was truly such an amazing experience. And yes, you must see the Ear of Dionysius (and hear everyone trying to sing and experience the echoes) but the rest of the park is just stunning and enchanting and literally takes you back to years gone by and a completely different civilization.

 

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London – trouble waiting to happen in this inviting and charming city

You can get in to any number of types of trouble when you visit London: lord knows I do every time! That trouble could be shopping, over-eating, drinking, or even just wondering and getting lost. But that’s part of the charm to London so come prepared – and leave that credit card in the room if you have no self-control (note to self) – and start exploring this truly wonderful city!

Nites

The number of options in London is truly staggering and I am still trying to find the cool, funky, non-cookie-cutter options, all without spending a fortune (the latter may not be possible I fear!).

Blakes Hotel (http://www.blakeshotels.com/) in South Kensington is definitely a charmer and as part of the “Design Hotels” group, it gets added points for style and creativity. The hotel is located in a small residential area, but easily walkable to everywhere so I really do love this hotel. But affordability is a relative terms so be prepared (and stalk those sale sites!)

Another option that I just tried was the Andaz London (http://www.london.liverpoolstreet.andaz.hyatt.com/en/hotel/home.html) which, although part of the Hyatt chain, was really quite nice.   The hotel itself is a bit cookie-cutter – and although I love minimalist designs, the rooms were just plain which didn’t exactly scream “come and stay again” – but it’s proximity to the Liverpool tube stop makes it a great place from which to navigate most of the city so that gets plusses from me.

Bites

The Gate Restaurant (http://thegaterestaurants.com) was a fantastic suggestion from a friend and although it’s a vegetarian restaurant, be prepared to make a reservation and don’t be late. (We were 15 minutes late and nearly lost our table!) The food was amazing and the wine list, although small, was brilliant and, for the most part, affordable. The décor isn’t much to write home about but I must admit that the large windows that look out over rooftops was a smart touch.

Another find, this time over near Covent Garden, is Nopi London (http://www.ottolenghi.co.uk/locations). Part of the Ottolenghi chain of restaurants, this restaurant has a formal dining room, that I loved and can’t stop thinking about, and a more “family style” environment downstairs that, the night I was there, was actually fitted for a formal and private banquet. The food was divine and the options for every food type extensive, and I bet, amazing.   Big kudos to the restaurant for the following: we ordered desert but it was late in arriving. Because we were sitting there just chatting and not eating, and they explicitly say you have 1.5 hours to eat (not something I like and find somewhat offensive), the manager came over and politely asked how we were doing. When we said that we were just waiting on desert, he disappeared and quickly returned with our desert. Cool. He then followed up and when we raved about the desert, he took us to meet the pastry chef who then gave us the recipe for his chocolate confection. I’d return just because of this.

Sites

I’m still in search of those sites and experiences that you can find outside of your typical guidebook so stay tuned…

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Sanremo, on the Ligurian coast: an era of days gone by

Sanremo is an interesting town along the Ligurian coast that I had always wanted to visit. For a short visit, it’s a lovely place. For anything longer than 4 days, I would tell you to visit other places with more to do, and more to see. In a perfect world, and if you are the daring type, I’d tell you to rent a car and spend a couple of weeks just driving along the Ligurian coast and stopping along the way; it really is that stunning!

Nites

There are handful of 4-star hotels in Sanremo but none have direct beach access. (Until 10 years ago, the train tracks were between the beach and the hotels but with the relocation of the trains in the mountains, there is now a wonderful bike and pedestrian track between the hotels and the beach.) I chose the Hotel de Paris Sanremo (www.hoteldeparissanremo.it) and loved it. As I always recommend, it is best to write to the hotel directly – rather than through hotel aggregator sites – and describe what you want and see what they offer. Case in point: although I couldn’t afford the direct sea view rooms, I was offered a room with a partial view. When I arrived, I was given a room with no sea view, I showed my reservation, and voila, I was given a room with a partial sea view that made me happy every day! The hotel is very old school with modern touches like the TVs and the bathrooms. And for that added little start to the day, the breakfast buffet was actually quite a lovely start to the day.

Hotel de ParisHotel de Paris view with sun 02

Bites

For pizza, one of the staff at the Hotel de Paris recommended Pizzeria Spaccanapoli (wwwpizzeriaspaccanapoli.it) which was phenomenal. You won’t find anything other than pizza here, but the numbers that they offer are staggering!

Another find that a staff member at the Hotel de Paris suggested was Osteria Camelot (osteriacamelot.it) which is in the old town, but not hiking up to the Pigna and the gardens. The food is simple and the décor equally as simple but I really liked the food here. There is a house wine that, I have to tell you, is nothing more than bottled wine from Coop, a chain supermarket in Italy. They do have wine by the bottle, and a wine list as well, so if you can afford it, I would recommend that you ask for the wine list. But don’t let the supermarket wine as the house wine stop you from going here.

But if you only have one night in Sanremo, you absolutely must go to Taverna al 29 (www.tavernaal29.com). This a small restaurant, that is closed on Sundays and Wednesdays, and is a bit of show (more on that soon), but the food was absolutely divine, the bread incredible, the wine list small but spectacular, and the house-made “grappa” a sweet touch. The owner of the restaurant is very sweet and I heard him speak Italian, French, German, and of course Italian. He is the showman and likes to toast with his guests when they first sit down and are offered a house-made “spritz” of prosecco and lavender syrup. (I saw him sip from the same glass for the first part of the night but, I suppose, if he was drinking along with everyone, he would be drunk by the end of the evening!) I would definitely go out of my way to return to Taverna al 29!

Sites

There really aren’t many sites that you need to seek and find: most people come to Sanremo for the sea. The number of “beach clubs” along the coast is truly staggering! They pretty much all offer the same thing: a combination of entrance fee, beach bed, umbrella, and maybe a chair. Why there is a difference in price, I can’t really say so just find the “beach club” that speaks to you and go with it. And whatever you do, be sure to watch for signs that say “no picnic”; they won’t tolerate you bring water or even fruit on to their beach because they want you to buy their food. I found Euro Nettuno Beach and for only 10.50 euro, I had entrance and a beach bed and no hassle for bringing my own water. (14.00 euro if you want to add an umbrella.)

Walking up and through the Pigna is a wonderful trip and the views from the top are amazing. But what I enjoyed most about this endeavor was the opportunity to see how people live, and the walk that they do on a daily basis (regardless of where they have parked their car in the periphery).

la pigna street down 03

As mentioned above, the former train tracks along the coast have now been transformed to a bike and pedestrian path and had I had more time, I may have actually taken a ride along the coast. The Hotel de Paris offers bike rentals and right across from the hotel is a little outfit that also offers bike rentals by the hour or half day. If you’re feeling athletic, or you need to justify that extra gelato the day before, this is the activity for you.

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Bern Switzerland – the capital of an amazing country that acts more like a welcoming village

I must admit that I have never visited Bern before, nor even thought about it.  I guess the largesse that is Zurich and Lausanne just overshadows what is truly an amazing town.  But if your travels give you the chance – whether from traveling around Switzerland or taking a side-trip from Northern Italy – you really should add this to your itinerary.  It will only require a few days, but I promise it will be a few days well-spent.

Nites

Although only my first trip to Bern, I would say that there are definite gaps between hotel ratings in this small yet charming city.  There are 2 five star hotels and if money is no object, I would tell you to stay at the Hotel Bellevue.  I didn’t stay here, so I can’t vouch for the rooms, but I did have drinks here and the décor is amazing and I probably wouldn’t want to leave.

The four star hotels are a step down from the five and I’m not just stating the obvious: the four stars tend to be a bit more rustic and “stereotypical” of what I would expect from a swiss hotel.  I stayed at the Belle Epoque (http://www.belle-epoque.ch/hotel-bern/en/) and although not cheap – nothing is in Bern, or Switzerland for that matter – I really liked it.  The rooms were big and the staff really quite kind.  The one thing I noticed, which you should be aware of if traveling in the summer, is that the hotel does not have air conditioning.  I don’t like AC myself, but the large fan in the room and the windows facing outward could make for a noisy night.  So, beware: if it’s hot, there’s no AC and if you go, ask for a room NOT facing the street.

Bites

As I said above, nothing in Bern is cheap but I certainly did enjoy the hospitality of my friends and can recommend a few places for a wonderful meal.

I loved Verdi (http://www.bindella.ch/gastronomie/ueberblick-ristoranti/restaurant/verdi-ristorante/26/show/) and although not Italian pasta like you get in Italy, it really was lovely.  What helps, without a doubt, is the décor which is charming, funky, and just incredibly inviting.  If you have only one night in Bern, this is where I would go.

If you are searching for something a bit more affordable, Restaurant Zunft zu Webern (http://www.restwebern.ch/).  The staff were incredibly kind and given that I was hankeringfor spaetzle, and the hotel kindly called and asked them to make it for me, how can you go wrong?  The restaurant didn’t really offer much in terms of décor, but it was packed with locals – I heard no English – so it had to have been good.

I was also fortunate enough to be taken to Jack’s Brasserie in the Hotel Schweizerhof (http://www.schweizerhof-bern.ch/).  The food was good and when served by waiters in white coats, how can you go wrong?  And for a Sunday brunch, I thought it was a perfect setting.

I didn’t eat here – but I hear it is amazing – but I did come here for a drink on my last night in Bern: the Kornhaus keller (http://www.bindella.ch/gastronomie/ueberblick-ristoranti/restaurant/kornhauskeller/4/show/).  This is just a stunning place and even if you don’t want a drink, or to have dinner, just pop in and take a look, or a picture, and it will be permanently etched in your memory.  What a stunning place!

Kornhaus kellerSites

I’m not typically one for guided tours but my friends arranged for a tour of the city through the Tourism Office.  It was a cold and rainy/snowy day, as it often is in Bern, and so, on a whim, my guide asked if I wanted to go in to the clock tower.  Yes, I enthusiastically replied.  Although large groups can’t go in, and those afraid of heights and small places might want to reconsider, I loved it and it was definitely a highlight of my tour.  So, if you have the chance, go up the clock tower.  You won’t regret it.

clock tower view down the street

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Cortona Italy – Cortona and the villa near it are truly one of the most amazing finds I have ever made.

The name “Cortona” brings a smile to my face every time I hear it.  And if anyone ever asks for a special place to visit, a place to unwind, or just a place to spend a night on their way to any other place  in Italy, I readily tell them to go here.  This is part of the Italy that I fell in love with and dream of nightly.  This is the Italy that everyone should truly visit at least once in their lives because it is not Rome, it is not Florence, and it is not Milano.  It is, quite simply, Cortona.   And this is the place where I first learned what a linden tree is, and how a scent can take me back to a special place instantly.

Nites

There really is only one place to stay: the Villa di Piazzano (http://www.villadipiazzano.com/en/).  Located close to Pergo and part of Cortona, this villa is a dream location.  The owners and staff our truly unmatched, the rooms fantastic, and the surrounding area and pool just phenomenal.  Really, look nowhere else!

Bites

One of the best meals I ever had was at the Villa di Piazzano: I arrived late, was too tired to drive up to Pergo and just wanted a small meal.  Kindly, the owners of the hotel  told me to take a seat outside – even though they were having a private dinner party with friends – and in a few minutes, a lovely plate of cheese, bread, pears, honey and white wine was before me.   To this day, I don’t think there is anything better to eat for dinner!

If pizza is what you seek, I highly recommend Birrificio Cortonese (http://www.birrificiocortonese.com/).  Located in Cortona and surrounded by shops, this was an unpretentious, but delicious find and my mouth drools just thinking about it now.  (And I think there is a gelato shop almost next door that is  ridiculous!)

Sites

I first went to Cortona to mountain bike and although there aren’t specific mountain biking trails, the fire roads leading through the countryside and around are fairly easy to navigate and worth renting bikes and exploring.  (And I have no sense of direction so if I can d it, you can do it.)  The same fire roads are the perfect place to go for a  stroll or a jog.

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