Sunday, March 13, 2022

Armchair Travel: Serene Scandinavia

While the world continues to open up to travelers, some corners of the planet remain difficult or impossible to visit. But one corner of the planet has always been more challenging for Americans to visit:  Scandinavia. 

A Norwegian coastal village. 
With fewer access points than Continental Europe, smaller cities, a lower population overall, and higher prices, the region, as a whole, can be daunting to visit. While over the past few decades I’ve had several trips to this quiet corner of the planet, one of my favorites involved a cruise. 

Typically, a cruise isn’t high on my list of ways to travel. I prefer to settle into a place and experience its streets and moods in the morning for breakfast, at cocktail hour as daylight fades, and after dinner when lights twinkle. I like to stay in a city for more than a day and ideally for a week. And by design, cruises force a traveler to superficially sample, but never linger in a place. 

So what’s the pay-off of a Scandinavian cruise? 

For me, the advantage was being able to cover a lot of ground in a relatively short amount of time, and to visit some spots that are more difficult to reach (I'm talking about you, Estonia!) 

And for those who don't have unlimited money, a cruise is vastly more economical, particularly in Scandinavia, which tends to be a pricey part of the planet.  

St. Petersburg's Church of the Spilled Blood (never mind the name, it's worth a visit--if and when it's advisable to visit Russia again.)
To cover these same cities and countries via separate trips would be costly—in dollars and time. And many cruises actually sail the Baltic Sea and may include even more difficult to reach ports such as St. Petersburg (Russia),  Gdansk (Poland), and Riga (Latvia).  

The cruise also enabled me to visit an infrequently visited historic and architectural gem: Talinn, Estonia. With its intact, towering medieval wall and cobblestone streets, Talinn offers off-the-chart charm. I’ve visited countless Continental towns, villages, and cities, but Talinn was truly unique.

Many cruises start or end in Stockholm. I’m glad mine started here because our departure made for one of my most memorable travel experience ever. As we set sail from the Nordic city’s deep-water port in the middle of summer, I sipped a glass of wine as we glided through an archipelago inhabited by  summering Swedes and their brightly colored wooden vacation homes. From the ship’s deck, we could see scores of summer-loving Scandinavians on holiday—perched on porches, lounging on lawns, docks, and rocks, and splashing in the clear sea. The backdrop? Pine and birch trees, patches of brilliant wildflowers, cottony clouds, small sailboats skimming across the glittering water, and waves reflecting the golden, early evening sun. 

I wanted to pull into one of those islands and spend a few hours enjoying the view from one of the lawns or gently-aged wooden docks. And that’s the disadvantage of a cruise—there’s no opportunity to linger longer in special spots such as these. Still, I experienced the idyllic islands up close and watched as Swedes celebrated their short, sublime summer. For a time, I was provided a glimpse of another world and another way of living. And isn’t that what travel is all about? 

Stockholm's idyllic harbor. 

TIP: If you book on Silversea or similar, most cabins have balconies. As we pulled into Helsinki and Copenhagen, I was treated to views of the cities, nearby islands, and harbors from the privacy of my balcony—while enjoying breakfast. 

LINKS:

Regent Seven Seas Cruises

Seabourn Cruises

Viking Cruises





Bergen, Norway.





A Swedish summer home. 

Stockholm, Sweden. 





 


Sunday, January 23, 2022

Pandemic Travel: Michigan, Paradise in My Backyard

In this pandemic-era of constricted travel and hemmed-in horizons, those of us hard-wired to travel couldn’t be faulted for falling into a fit of gloom. Many of the places we’ve longed to finally visit or pined to return to are unreachable or associated with risk. 

Michigan's The Fields.

During the past year or so, I reminded myself that I’ve got options. We all live someplace, after all, and though we may have the urge to board a flight that requires a passport or wander further afield, destinations in our own backyards merit discovering—or, in my case, rediscovering. 

While national travel and lifestyle magazines tell us there are only certain places in the world worth visiting, this is certainly untrue. In my case, influencers and tastemakers have long suggested that the Midwest has little more than the mundane to offer, but they’re misinformed. 

Case in point: during my childhood, one of my family’s annual summer vacations included a trip to the fern-carpeted, pine-scented woods of northern Michigan. In mid-summer, my parents would pack our paneled station wagon with me and my four siblings, swimsuits, inflatables, and shorts, and drive to my paternal grandparents’ house, the final few hours of our drive on near-empty, narrow state roads lined with thick forests after the interstate ended in Grand Rapids. 

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

My grandparents’ house, surrounded by stands of birch interspersed with deep green pines, sat back from the edge of a steep dune overlooking a small cove. The scallop shaped cove, framed by immense trees and littered with reeds, fallen logs, and lily pads, offered a glimpse of a large, cobalt blue lake just beyond a narrow channel. 

A thick wood of birches and pines behind the house rose from an ancient seabed now carpeted in sand swales, ferns, and blueberry bushes. We typically forged our own paths through the seemingly endless woods, ever watchful for bears—which we both did and did not want to encounter—along with sweet, wild blueberries (which we weren’t conflicted about encountering.) 

Summer days at that latitude only dissipate toward midnight, the sun’s final rays burnishing the evening clouds before giving way to a vast, ink-black sky blanketed with glittering stars. My siblings and I spent the seemingly endless hours of these dreamy days in a boxy, simple boat with heavy creaking oars hunting for turtles, frogs, and bullfrogs which we caught and released in the cove while the warm August sun browned our backs. 


When we weren’t rowing around the cove, we swam in crystalline lakes, picnicked, hiked, and always, always visited nearby Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. At the park, my siblings and I would somersault and tumble down ancient dunes the height of skyscrapers and then spend hours exhausting ourselves climbing back up. My parents and grandparents watched from shady, picnic table aeries, likely amused and undoubtedly happy that we had worn ourselves out and would fall asleep in the return car trip. 

There were visits to pine-paneled, clamorous supper clubs where everyone dressed for dinner. Late afternoon stops at ice cream shops featured flavors like Blue Moon and premises-churned ice cream long before anyone thought that was something worth promoting. Occasionally, my grandfather piled us into his tank-like car and brought us to a North Woods bar where he sipped Hamm’s or Pabst beer while my siblings and I, perched awkwardly on barstools, slurped Shirley Temples.  

Leland's historic Fishtown. 

When the pandemic reduced O’Hare flights to a trickle, closing off much of the world I’d previously so easily wandered, I suddenly found Michigan on my mind. In truth, I’d longed to return for decades—my childhood memories never having faded—but I’d postponed visiting. After all, Michigan was easy to get to. And I’d spent a few decades seeking out spots that were remote and difficult to visit.  

At that moment, I realized the pandemic provided a golden opportunity to see Michigan spots I’d visited as a child, and to discover new places that had appeared in the meantime. 

In the decades since my childhood, plenty of other Americans have somehow discovered some of these places. Summer cottages in the pristine, tranquil Leelanau Peninsula are as likely to be owned by heat birds from Dallas or Atlanta as nearby Detroit or Chicago. 

Still, it’s an uncrowded, tranquil corner of the world largely overlooked by glossy magazines and Instagram influencers. And, undoubtedly, like enticing corners of the world near you, it’s easily reached and certainly worth a visit. 

Instead of viewing the pandemic as a scourge for traveling, maybe it presents the perfect opportunity to explore—or revisit—those special spots that exist in every corner of the world, including in our own backyards. 

Western Michigan Picks:

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore For hiking, scenic drives, pristine beaches, and dune hikes for wearing out the kids.

Leland Lodge For strolls around the quaint village of Leland and golfing. TIP: Don't bother with the dingy, overpriced private cottages. https://www.lelandlodge.com 

Lakeside Inn This rustic, former artist colony inn, less than two hours from Chicago, sits on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. Think beach walks, easy drives to nearby quaint towns and restaurants, and campfires. 

Fields of Michigan Glamping with all the fixings—campfires, luxe bed linens, hot water, bike rides through farm country. TIP: Arrange for the private dinner cabin nestled on the edge of a deep green, fairy tale wood.

Virtue Cider Limited release ciders, cidery tours, and light fare surrounded by orchards and bucolic farms. 

Saugutuck Somehow charming despite swarms of tourists. TIP: For Michigan-made bespoke jams and preserves, visit American Spoon

Isabel’s Sublime baked goods and sausages, sandwiches and prepared foods to take away or eat on the patio. 

The Lakeside Inn.

  



Virtue cider.


The Fields of Michigan. 

Southwest Michigan is known for its blueberry farms. 

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Pandemic Travel: Beyond Amsterdam in an Armchair

In the midst of a pandemic, planning a trip might seem foolhardy, if not downright dangerous. But I’m re-learning how to appreciate travel the way I discovered it—in an armchair.

Whether I’m reading—or writing—about places, I’m transported. And these days, we could all use a little healthy escape. And when we’re once again able to board a plane and start exploring again, we’ll savor the experience that much more. In the meantime, I plan to armchair travel regularly. 

Holland, my first shelter-in-place stop, is so chill an ottoman is required. Just as there’s more to America than New York City, there is more to Holland than Amsterdam. When I first visited this northern European country at the end of college, though, I was most interested in its largest and most famous city. With its brown bars, Heineken Brewery, Old Masters’ art, and quaint canals—not to mention those unconventional cafés that served space cakes—Amsterdam monopolized my imagination.  

The Keukenhof Gardens live up to the hype.
Sure I knew about the famed tulip fields and windmills in the adjacent countryside and I’d heard about The Hague and Delft, but that’s about as deep as my knowledge went. During a recent trip, however, I made up for my youthful ignorance by exploring a little of the wealth of the Netherlands outsideof Amsterdam. 

For starters, I did more than check a box by visiting the famed Keukenhof Gardens with its acres of brilliant tulips. Despite crowds that sometimes seemed nearly as abundant as the blossoms on display, I found the gardens to be almost overwhelming—in a good way. Over the years I’ve seen plenty of Instagram-quality photos of fields of tulips, but none of these prepared me for the sheer scale and number of flower beds lining the park’s meandering walkways and tucked into its woods. Of course, it helped that I’d visited on a perfect late spring day that offered brilliant sunshine, mild temps, and a gentle breeze, but I’d return again in any sort of weather. 

A house in Breukelen.
After strolling the colorful garden paths of Keukenhof, we drove along the banks of the nearby Vecht River (one of the joys of exploring this petite country is that nearly every destination is nearby.) Running from the Rhine and Utrecht to the former Zuyderzee, the Vecht served as a main traffic route for thousands of years. Possibly the inspiration for illustrations in fairy tale books, the river delights as it skirts medieval villages, an occasional windmill, tidy farms, and vibrant green pastures occupied by goats (frolicking, of course), lounging cows, and bleating sheep.

One village worth a visit, Leiden, dates to Roman times, though it looks hardly older than the mere Middle Ages. Narrow cobblestone passages and streets built for pedestrians can scarcely accommodate cars, making them extra fun to stroll. Equally quaint and historic is Breukelen—predecessor to the New York version minus the hipsters and a few million people. (Think medieval—instead of edgy—charm.)

The banks along the river were first discovered during the 17thand 18thcenturies when the wealthy of Amsterdam and Utrecht built stately manor homes with en
A 17th century weekend home along the Vecht River.
vogue 
tea houses. While the tea houses sat mostly empty when I visited, nearby bars, restaurants, boats, and bike lanes were full of life. On weekends, the Dutch book horse-drawn cart rides along the narrow road or boat excursions on the river and the mood is celebratory and pastoral. 

After exploring the area, have lunch or dinner at Michelin-recommended Slangevgt on the banks of the Vecht. Oysters, seafood, local meats, and bread that must have been baked in heaven make for a menu of options that provide for agonizing decisions. In my experience, though, there are no wrong decisions. Sit outside on the riverbank or in the conservatory-like section of the restaurant which provides the best of both worlds.

Closer to Amsterdam you’ll find Het Bosch which you can reach by boat, car, or bike (of course). Serving French/Dutch cuisine with stellar views of the water and sunsets that seem to last for hours, Het Bosch is a little outside of town but worth the effort to find. The best season to visit is summertime when sunsets last for hours and are reflected in the nearby water. Caution: GPS sometimes has difficulty finding this spot (ours took us to a cottage in the woods). 

Finally, no visit to the Dutch countryside is complete without a visit to the fairytale Castle De Haar. With its intact moat, acres of gardens, towers, and bridge guardhouse, the historic fortress screams Middle Ages.
The Castle de Haar features two rarities: an intact moat & bridge guardhouse.

Stay:

Pulitzer (see my recent post on this unique hotel).

Book:

Visiting the Dutch countryside is possible via rental car or by booking a half-day or full-day excursion through a local tour agency. For a bespoke tour and insider’s look into the area, book a tour through Delta

Eat

Slangevegt on the river. 
Het Bosch on a waterway on the outskirts of Amsterdam. 


Saturday, January 4, 2020

Alaska’s Hotel Captain Cook: Delight-Inducing Homage to the Age of Exploration


In the past few decades I've visited Alaska four times—but three of those visits were taken around 1990 (yes, essentially 30 years ago, if you’re doing the math). During those trips, I explored the Kenai Peninsula, Denali, Anchorage, and pretty much any spot accessible via paved road. I even drove the spectacularly scenic and solitary highway that parallels the Alaska Pipeline and links inland Fairbanks to coastal Valdez on Prince William Sound.


After three trips, I decided I’d seen everything there was to see, including every corner of Anchorage, the state’s largest city.


When I visited Anchorage recently, however, I realized I’d overlooked a spectacular spot smack dab in the city center.  Despite at least six previous stays, I somehow missed the sublime and historic Hotel Captain Cook. Set on the edge of downtown and overlooking the Cook Inlet, Anchorage’s best hotel is named for the British seafarer who explored the area and the Pacific Ocean in the 1700’s.

To me, history and pedigree are all good, but what sets the hotel apart is that quality that’s difficult for hotels anywhere to attain: absolute uniqueness. While Captain Cook’s exterior is rather bland and unremarkable (which might be the reason I overlooked it during previous visits), its interior, inspired by the classic wooden ships Cook sailed, couldn’t be more spectacular.

From a beamed breakfast room that resembles a below deck dining mess to corridors lined with original oil paintings depicting Cook’s travels and the peoples he encountered, the hotel is a romantic tribute to the Age of Exploration and a celebration of the rich cultures and dramatic landscapes of the Pacific Rim.

While the lobby and public areas were the chief sources of my delight, the rooms weren’t so bad either. With stylish and Pacific-themed décor, rooms approximate posh but lack the original art of the hotel’s public areas. That’s okay, though, as many offer dramatic views of the adjacent Cook Inlet (look for the ghost-like shapes of beluga whales in the water just below and snow capped volcanoes in the distance).

The restaurant that crowns the hotel offers the best views and finest fare in the state. On the main floor, expertly poured cocktails in the English pub-like restaurant are matched with decent food, though bar TVs distract from what is otherwise an aura of a previous era.

The hotel’s service is sometimes spotty. But that's easily overlooked, given the hotel's art and unique atmosphere. If you like hotels with a scintillating sense of place, don't follow my lead--visit on your first trip to Alaska.




Monday, November 11, 2019

Under the Umbrian Sun: A Villa in a Less Crowded Corner of Italy

In the 1980s, I wandered around Europe with a small group of high school and college friends. Aligned somewhat with our graduations from college, the trip served as our initiation into independent travel.

Italian villa rentals often feature a garden, balcony,
courtyard, or loggia. 
To commemorate an anniversary of our trip, most of our original group (plus a few spouses and children) planned a reunion trip.

Since my first trip, I’ve been visiting Italy regularly, but have grown increasingly dismayed to find that many corners of the country have grown ridiculously crowded. While the major cities of Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan, Siena, and Sorrento are tough to beat for history, charm, and culture, they’re also teeming with tourists, particularly during summer months. And with all the crowds, I find it increasingly difficult to experience that sweet sense of la dolce vita—one of my primary joys of visiting this Mediterranean country.

I realize the topic of crowds of tourists isn’t exactly late breaking news. Recently, there have been more than a few articles discussing crowds pushing top sites to the breaking point. Just how many visitors can fit into Piazza San Marco or Florence’s duomo, they ask?

The ancient town of Orvieto sits atop a hill in
the southwest corner of Umbria.
The good news is that you don’t need to find out. By opting to explore some of Italy’s less crowded, but equally historic and charming corners as we did, you’ll spend less time in queues and have more time to experience la dolce vita—as well as the charm, history, food, and drink that are integral parts of any trip to Italy.

For our most recent trip, we rented a house in the rolling hills of Umbria and cars to explore the surrounding countryside, including spots in nearby Tuscany. While Tuscany’s golden and rolling, cypress-studded hills are what you probably imagine when someone says “Italian countryside,” there’s more to that than Tuscany. Umbria, an often overlooked—and uncrowded—region, is right next door.

During our week’s stay, day trips were no more than an hour’s drive and included Cortona, Assisi, Orvieto, Cittá della Pieve, Cetona, and several smaller villages so tiny they consisted merely of a cluster of stone homes, a church, and sometimes the ruins of a small castle or tower. With the exception of Assisi, none of these towns was crowded. And even popular Assisi offered many quiet streets and—critical to the coffee and wine drinkers among us—plenty of empty seats at café tables.
The columns of a Roman temple in the
heart of Assisi. 

In order to enjoy the charming villa, shady pergola and refreshing pool—all of which offered soul-expanding views of the countryside—we typically spent mellow mornings lounging in the loggia and then headed for a nearby town between 11:00 and 2:00. Several times, we spent late afternoons in towns such as Orvieto and Assisi and then had early dinners in notable restaurants before wending our way back to the villa. On several evenings, we finished the day with a nightcap on the lawn under a sparkling blanket of stars.

Though we weren’t dealing with the crowds of Rome or Venice, our trip wasn’t stress-free. A primary source of this stress was confronting the daily question of what to do: stay in the villa and soak up its charm and that of the rolling, sun-kissed countryside or explore the alluring villages and small cities of Umbria? Unlike so many other decisions in life, there was no wrong answer.

Oh, and then there was the stress of losing internet access. When none of the adults could connect, we chalked it up to unreliable service. As it turned out, the cause of the disruption was a few teenaged girls who absconded with the wireless modum so they could more easily (and privately) text boyfriends back home.

Our villa rental offered expansive views of verdant Umbrian countryside.
For the few evenings we prepared simple dinners at the villa, we started with sundowners on a terrace with the surrounding countryside bathed in yellow, gold, and orange. And then we sat down under a jasmine covered pergola for simple pasta dinners we prepared from ingredients we found at local stores and markets. There was wine and candlelight and plenty of storytelling and laughs.

Between these memorable dinners and the ones we enjoyed at restaurants in nearby towns and villages, I experienced plenty of la dolce vita—set to birdsong and laughter and without crowds of tourists.

To plan your own villa trip in Italy, see below.


Tips for a Villa Vacation in Italy:

  • Fly into a major city and pick up a rental car at the airport or take the train to the city closest to your villa and rent a car there. We also often stay a few days in a city on either or both ends of a week’s villa stay. 
  • There are several sites that offer villa rentals across Italy. Make sure to research the location—some villas can be remote. We prefer rentals that are a 10 to 15 minute drive to a nearby town or small city. For rentals located in sleepy villages that offer restaurants and stores within walking distance, you can up the relaxation factor by walking more and reserving the car for longer excursions. 
  • Umbria has more than its fair share of excellent restaurants. Plan your visits so that you can stroll a village during the day and have dinner at a restaurant before heading back to your villa. 
  • First visit to Umbria? Take in Assisi, Orvieto, Citta della Pieve, Cortona (just across the across the border in Tuscany), and Cetona. 
  • Renting a villa in the country can have some disadvantages. Wifi wasn’t the most reliable and the signal only usable in half of the first floor and adjoining terrace. And some villas can be very remote which can mean 15 to 30 minute drives to the closest grocery store or village. 
  • Many villa rental agencies offer a grocery box to get you started. Order it. You’ll get eggs, coffee, bread, and other necessities to make the first morning enjoyable. In many cases, rentals begin on Saturday afternoons and given that many stores are closed on Sundays, it’s a good way to make your first villa day a relaxing one. 
  • For Italian villa rentals, try Ville in Italia or Villa & Charme
  • Visiting Rome on your way into or out of Italy? Visit the old school and positively delightful Armando Pantheon in the supposedly haunted shadows of its namesake ancient pagan temple. (Reservations are essential.) 
Restaurants in Umbria: 


 
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