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.
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.


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


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


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: 

Monday, July 8, 2019

Amsterdam’s Pulitzer: A Prize for Redefining Posh

The best way to experience the canals? The Pulitzer's vintage boat.
I’ve visited Amsterdam several times in the past 30 years. And with each visit the city grows more interesting (and no, I’m not talking about the Red Light District). Years ago hotel options were basic and tiny, grand and fussy or, when I visited in 1986, well, Spartan and sterile (as in a youth hostel.)

These days, hotel options in the historic city offer much more variety. While the storied, grand hotels for which Europe is known remain, they have creative competition from contemporary spots that redefine luxury. Of course, what does “luxury” even mean anymore? Does it mean silk draperies, plush carpets, servile service, and Louis XIV armchairs? Or maybe today the concept has progressed beyond pretension and fluff and landed in a world equal parts Alice in Wonderland, old school luxury hotel, and creatively-styled, non-chain hotel.

During a recent visit, I stayed at just such a place—The Pulitzer, a one-of-a-kind, quirky hotel smack dab in the center of the old city center. Housed in a cluster of Golden Age canal houses cobbled together and huddled around an expansive courtyard, the hotel manages to be au courant, historic, and refined.

The charm and character here don’t come cheap, however. To save some euros, book a “cosy room” with a view of the courtyard garden. No canal view, you whine? Well, I stayed in such a room with giant windows providing expansive views of the charming gardens, church tower, and jumble of classic Dutch rooftops. But the best part of the room was the birdsong and church chimes that serenaded me in the mornings.

Besides, Amsterdam’s canals are often loud and sometimes traversed by party boats. (Seriously, wouldn’t you prefer a view of a charming courtyard garden the sound of birdsong—while saving those euro for some gouda, or other Dutch treats?)

And speaking of treats, no matter whether you lay your weary head to rest in a canal or garden room, you’ll be subject to a never-ending supply of delectable stroopwafels—a cookie of two thin layers of baked dough with a cavity-inducing, caramel syrup filling.

And what should you drink with this surfeit of stroopwafel? Well, rooms come with a supply of small batch coffees roasted for the hotel and an assortment of premium teas. Though rooms are relatively small, they’re full of well-designed touches like portholes, settees, and art (both contemporary and antique). And because this is Amsterdam, an old school bike tire repair kit is included—perhaps the most unique amenity anywhere.

The Pulitzer's private garden.
Breakfasts in the hotel’s Junz restaurant are ethereal as morning light cascades through the large mullioned windows of the restaurant’s rooms. In the evenings, the Pulitzer Bar is a destination for locals and tourists alike. While the bar’s cocktail program isn’t exceptional, it’s adequate. The real attraction is the fetching design of the rooms and the crowds of happy-go-lucky Dutch who don’t seem to notice—or care.

Intimate Bussia sits steps from the Pulitzer.
Looking for restaurants to complement your sublime stay here? Just around the corner sits Bussia, a small Italian restaurant with a limited, seasonal menu. An upper gallery and open kitchen compete for attention with the street scene outside the large windows. Reservations essential.  

Further afield is the Michelin-starred Het Bosch which boasts views of a small harbor and marshes (and summer sunsets that last hours). Reservations essential.

A Last Hurrah: Experiencing Amsterdam's storied canals is a must. Tour boats ply the centuries-old waterways, offering cheap food and mugs of Heineken. Wish to avoid jostling cheek to jowl with boatloads of other tourists? Well (and doesn’t it figure?), Pulitzer guests have a fetching option: the hotel’s vintage wooden boat. Take one of the regularly-scheduled complimentary cruises with cash bar or even better, book a splurge-worthy, private putter.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

When Visiting Egypt, Don't Sail Solo

Hassle-free private camel rides at Giza.
I’ve long been an independent traveler, preferring to make my own way instead of having someone show me the way. Typically, I want to discover places on my own, thank you very much.

But there are a few places where booking a tour isn’t only recommended, but the smartest way to go. Egypt is one such country.

And I learned this the hard way. I first visited the country in the mid-90’s and traveled with a German friend. Childhood friends who lived in Alexandria at the time had highly recommended Luxor. “Don’t miss it,” they advised.

But my friend and I skipped it because it seemed too complicated to visit (unless a glimpse of the Valley of the Kings from an airplane window counts.) Instead, we explored Cairo on our own before joining my friends who showed us around Alexandria and the sleepy, undeveloped Mediterranean coast. The trip was enjoyable, but I didn’t realize how much I had missed until I returned nearly two decades later.

In short, I’d missed the stunning Karnak and Luxor Temples, the Valley of the Kings and its tombs, a half dozen smaller ruins that would be major attractions anywhere else, and the scenic Nile bordered by a verdant patchwork of farm plots—plots that have been farmed in relatively the same fashion for a few millennia. And that’s just a sampling of the sites I’d missed.

Iconic Abu Simbel.
In this country, which considers itself the cradle of civilization, there are so many sites to see and so many layers of complicated history, that it would be difficult if not impossible to see much or even understand what’s before you without a guide.

In addition, without a guide you’ll spend precious time arranging transportation from one spot to the next, standing in lines to buy tickets, and then arranging for a guide at the gate—or worse—visiting sites without a guide.

For my recent trip with a group of friends, we created a custom tour with Your Egypt. We had an idea of many of the sites we wanted to see and created a draft itinerary we provided to the tour agency. Your Egypt added guides, transportation, tickets, and recommended some additional sites. After a few minor modifications, we agreed on an itinerary and paid a deposit.

Aswan's Old Cataract Hotel from the Nile.
With a tour, we were able to see more sites and visit some spots that many tourists miss (such as the Temple of Esna, which we wandered with only the echo of the call to prayer, pigeons, and the site caretaker to keep us company.) Best of all, we were able to understand what we were seeing thanks to our knowledgeable guide.

To visit must-see Abu Simbel and its four iconic seated statues of Ramses II, we departed Aswan before dawn and were picked up and dropped off at The Old Cataract Hotel (the same spot Agatha Christie penned Death on the Nile.) We leisurely explored the massive temple complex, stopped at an essential oil manufacturer in Aswan on our return, and still had enough time to swim, sip cocktails, and soak up the stunning Nile and desert views at our hotel. Without a private guide and expert planning, we would never have been able to experience so much in only a day.

Rooms with a view (of the Nile) at the Old Cataract Hotel.
Another highlight?—a private felucca cruise shortly before sunset around Aswan’s Elephantine Island. Our perfectly-timed sail started an hour or so before traditional sunset rides depart, so we had the Nile nearly to ourselves. Khaki-colored desert mountains rose in the distance while water birds waded in the emerald-green reeds along the shore. And the Nile was virtually silent except for the creak of the mast, birdsong, and a serenading child sweetly singing Frere Jacques from a small canoe next to our boat.

By the time we bumped up to the pier at the Old Cataract, dozens of tourist-filled feluccas rides were just departing. And we were ready to enjoy our view of a glassy Nile filled with the white sails of feluccas while sipping cocktails on our private hotel terrace.
Tour agencies can arrange for a pre-dawn ballon ride
over the Valley of the Kings and Nile farms. 

My unique and sublime sailing experience on the Nile wouldn’t have occurred had I planned my trip without the assistance of a local tour guide. And for that reason and dozens of other experiences, I recommend booking a private tour of Egypt.

Don’t Miss:

A camel ride with the Giza pyramids in the distance. Cliché? Yes. Boring? No.

A private boat ride across the clear waters of Lake Aswan to Philae and its temple ruins.

A leisure drive from Aswan to Luxor, stopping off at lesser-visted sites along the Nile, including Esna.

A balloon ride at dawn over the Valley of the Kings and the verdant and ancient farmland along the Nile.

Old Cataract Hotel, Aswan

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