Friday, January 25, 2019

Soured on Napa? Sonoma's Still Sweet.

In the 1980s when I first visited the Napa Valley it was casual, recently discovered, and in its adolescence tourism-wise. I casually drove around the valley, visiting different wineries on a whim. And I loved it. After an absence of nearly three decades, I recently made a return visit. And while Napa’s wines might be aging well, the same can’t be said for the valley.

Traffic clogs the area’s few major thoroughfares and the streets of once sleepy towns. Reservations are essential at restaurants and wineries. And everything is large, luxe or shellacked with a perky shopping mall patina of fresh paint, including coffee shops, tasting rooms, restaurants and stores. Even the parking lots of wineries haven’t been overlooked—they’re designed, sculpted, and landscaped. If there’s a speck of dust or something out of place in a town or tasting room, it’s an anomaly.

This was not the Napa of thirty years past, the dimly-lit tasting rooms heavy with the scent of spilled and aging wine, dusty bocce ball courts, or sleepy rural roads. No, that Napa is gone.

MacRostie vineyard.
Fortunately, there are other areas that resemble the Napa of three decades ago. And one of them is a mere hour’s drive from Napa. Sure, neighboring Sonoma isn’t a secret and is a tourist destination itself. But there are still many corners of Sonoma that are quiet, serene, and unpolished.

During a recent visit to Sonoma, I joined family and friends and rented a rambling house on a thickly wooded hilltop above Guerneville. From this convenient base, we visited a number of nearby wineries—all of which were sleepy and casual by Napa norms.

Passalaqua vineyard.
Just to the east, Westside Road carves a meandering route through wooded hills, rolling pastureland, and acres of vineyards. There are enough wineries along the route to spend a few afternoons here, and when you finish, you end up in Healdsburg which offers several excellent restaurants, including Chalkboard and Campo Fina.

As for the wineries, here are some favorites along Westside Road and nearby.

Mill Creek Skip the winery’s dark tasting room and head outside to the terrace which provides views of Dry Creek Valley vineyards, a millpond, and a working water wheel.

Passalacqua With a deck and perfectly landscaped grounds, Passalacqua might offer the most beautiful wine tasting spot in the area. While reservations are recommended, our party of five just showed up, followed an hour later by four more of our party, and we were all accommodated—cheerfully.

Martin Ray offers a number of seating areas, some situated on the edge of the vineyards.
MacRostie Located on a storybook hilltop circled by vineyards, MacRostie offers one the best views in the area. While the airy, sleek rooms inside offer expansive views of the countryside, you’ll want to sip wine on one the decks which seem to hover over the adjacent vineyards.

Martin Ray This small winery offers several seating areas situated in several gardens loaded with colorful flowers. A shaded bocce ball court tempted, but I chose to sit under a colorful umbrella and focus on tasting wine.

Arista Full disclosure: we didn’t visit this winery, but we drove past it several times and were tempted by its verdant setting and excellent reviews.

Passalaqua vineyard.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Last Call: Cairo’s Egyptian Museum

When I first traveled to Egypt in the 1990’s, I was surprised to find that I was drawn to the storied Egyptian Museum--though for reasons different than those of many visitors. The museum was unlike any other I’d seen: ancient baskets, tools, sculptures, tools, ceramics, and all sorts of other relics were stacked—sometimes haphazardly—on crowded wooden shelves, cabinets, display cases, and even the floor.

It was as if the archaeologists of a century earlier had carefully emptied the piles of riches from tombs and excavation sites and hurriedly transferred them to the Beaux-Arts storage facility. The place is a captivating combination of Indiana Jones’ private collection and a dusty, treasure-packed museum from a different century.

While museums across the world modernized during the second half of the twentieth century, creating dramatic displays featuring high tech visual and lighting touches and placing collections behind glass and within hermetically-sealed, secure display cases, the Egyptian Museum changed little. The museum is a Beaux-Arts relic housing a vast collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities—the largest in the world.
The museum isn’t just full to the rafters with treasures; it’s also full of atmosphere. Casement windows stand open to the dust, heat, and the sound of calls to prayer of chaotic Cairo. Stairways and passageways show the passage of time and wear from the feet of millions of tourists. Shafts of golden sunlight, alive with glowing bits of dust and sand, dance in the air currents.

The museum isn’t too cleaned up or too sterile—and that’s exactly what I like about it. 

I saw the King Tutankhamun exhibit when it traveled to Chicago in the late 1970s. Massive crowds clustered around a sampling of the tomb’s artifacts which stood behind thick glass or housed in cases. I didn’t realize at the time that I was seeing only a small sample of the tomb’s treasures. At the Egyptian Museum, however, the entire, massive collection is spread among many rooms. And while the temptation can’t be seriously entertained, it’s possible to touch many of the items here and to bring your eyeball within inches of the artifacts. You can inhale the dust of pharaohs and people who lived two, three, even nearly four thousand years ago. And you can get your eyeball within inches of tools, pottery, baskets, and other items they used.

But all of this will be changing very soon. Within the next year or so, a giant new museum will open near the pyramids in Giza. This new museum, years in the making, will house all of the Egyptian antiquities, including many that have been in storage due to space limitations at the crowded Cairo museum.

While the modern museum will be a masterpiece of design and provide enough space to display more antiquities, it will no longer provide a snapshot of an earlier era or offer opportunities to come face to face with ancient statues and artifacts. 

So make a trip to experience the Egyptian Museum as it’s existed since it’s opening in the early 1900’s. But hurry--it's days are numbered.

Planning a visit? Your Egypt Tours provides expert guides and custom tours of the entire country. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Off the Chain (Hotels)

A few dozen years ago the world was chock full of bland chain hotels. For travelers looking for lodging with a sense of place and style, options were limited. A Four Seasons or Hilton in Frankfort resembled a Four Seasons or Hilton in Honolulu. And non-chain, smaller, and independent hotels were few, particularly in the U.S. 

These days, there are lots of spots that reflect the cities, neighborhoods, or villages they inhabit. Quirky, small, historic, or unique, these hotels celebrate where they are, tempting you to never go further than your cozy room or handsome lobby. 
Guatemala's Lomas de Tzununu.

While this is hardly an exhaustive guide, here are a few of my favorite small spots that offer something the large chains cannot—character, tranquility, and style with a sense of place.

Striking Gold in Guatemala

For more than ten years I’ve made a pilgrimage to Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan, a highland lake seemingly scooped out of the collapsed caldera of an ancient volcano. You can see hundreds of images of the immense lake, its jewel-blue waters dominated by conical volcanoes looming in the background, but still be unprepared for your first view of it. 

A view of Lake Atitlan from La Fortuna.
For many years I stayed at Lomas de Tzununu which perches high above Atitlan and boasts jaw-dropping views. Recently, I returned and stayed at La Fortuna Atitlan, a newer hotel tucked into a thicket of trees between the lakeshore and the steep, jungle-clad walls of the caldera behind it. 

La Fortuna offers a handful of casitas—all with lake views. No two casitas are alike, though all offer al fresco bathrooms with showers open to the tropical sky. Patios and terraces serve as well-designed perches from which to soak up the lake views, birdwatch, or eat breakfast. 

Speaking of breakfast, the meal (delivered to your room) is best enjoyed on the terrace in the company of the volcanoes, benevolent sun, and birdsong. For dinner, reserve a spot at the communal, candlit table in the lodge for conversation and tasty meals (you’ll forget you’re off the grid and far from the nearest village reachable only via boat). 
Breakfast at La Fortuna.

Even if rooms don’t come with views of an immense lake, Mayan Inn in the market town of Chichicastenango is one of my favorite hotels in the world. Adorned with antiques and paintings, bucketsful of charm, and old fireplaces that burn brightly at night when you’re likely to feel the chill of highland nights, the hotel is a pleasing holdover from nearly two centuries ago. To wit, if bright lights, Wifi everywhere, and modern bathrooms are your thing, Mayan Inn will not be your thing. But if you’d like to step back in time to experience a hotel that’s changed little since tourists first arrived here in the early 1900s, this is a place to visit.  

Location, Location, Location: Rome’s Hassler

Rome’s legendary and historic Hassler sits like a crown jewel at the top of the Spanish Steps. While it might seem an odd and perhaps cliché choice, its inclusion on this list makes sense if you book rooms in the hotel’s dependency’s rooms. Sitting just below the Hassler, the dependency consists of a small collection of rooms clustered around a narrow, winding stair hall adjacent to the Spanish Steps. Take the steps up and you pop out on a private roof terrace with some of the best views in the area. Take the stairs down and you’ll exit onto a crowded pedestrian street that provides access to this historic quarter. 

Worried about noise? Insulated windows shut out most of the street sounds, though you can easily swing open the windows for views and to welcome in the hurly-burly of the popular neighborhood. 

Surprisingly spacious rooms, decorated in whites and muted tones, marble, and silk, resemble hushed, heavenly oases. Our bathroom’s small window even afforded a picture perfect view of  Santissima Trinità dei Monti, the iconic church that sits atop the steps. 

Take breakfast in one of the many nearby cafés or restaurants or trek up to the Hassler mother ship for a gigantic buffet. 

Chicago Channels Grand Canal at Athletic Association Hotel

No other hotel in the world is quite like the Athletic Association because no other hotel is housed in a former private club designed to resemble a grand palazzo in Venice. With its intact Venetian Gothic windows (that peek over Michigan Avenue, Millennium Park, and deep blue Lake Michigan in the distance), the hotel’s public areas and rooms prompt giddy confusion: am I in an historic palazzo on the Grand Canal or visiting America’s third largest city? 

The cavernous lobby with original architectural features including arches, massive stone fireplaces, and coffered ceilings is the perfect spot for a cocktail. More serious eats in an equally inspiring setting can be found in the Cherry Circle Room restaurant (reservations recommended). 

 Shinta Mani: Shangri-La in Cambodia’s Siem Reap

Designed by Bill Bensley, Shinta Mani and its corridors, courtyards, and rooms reflect careful consideration of every element—no plant, piece of furniture, fountain, or candle is out of place. Laid out using feng shui principles, the hotel represents the antithesis of chain hotels with their cookie cutter layouts. 

Inside, an atmosphere of Zen pervades. Fountains bubble, birds chirp. Small garden courtyards echo with the sounds of silence. 

If there’s a downside to Shinta Mani, it’s that you may be tempted to never leave the spa-like, serenity-soaked spaces of its rooms or its public spaces, If you must leave—and you must because the temples of Angkor Wat beckon—when you return exhausted from climbing ruins and hiking through jungle in the tropical heat, you can fall asleep with images of Angkor Wat depicted in dimly-lit ceiling insets above your bed.

Palatial Lodgings in Belgium’s Medieval Bruge

Belgian chocolate--part of the breakfast buffet at Dukes' Palace.
The tourist-clogged, storybook streets of Bruge can overwhelm, particularly in high season. And that’s the perfect reason to choose Dukes' Palace which sits in a sleepy corner of the historic district. High ceilings, grand stairways, and sitting areas fit for a duke (if not for a king) provide this former palace with atmosphere unmatched in other area hotels.

For more space and privacy, book one of the semi-independent cottages facing the garden at the property’s rear.

For a step back in time (tasty Belgian brews included), check out what may be the world’s oldest bar on a sleepy side street in a residential neighborhood: Cafe Vlisslinghe.

TIP: Don’t skip the Duke’s buffet breakfast which includes Belgian chocolate and champagne. 

One of the Robey's rooftop terraces. 
The Robey: Art Deco in Wicker Park 

For years I admired a flatiron shaped, monumental building in the heart of Wicker Park and thought it would make an interesting hotel. As it turns out, so did a Mexico City-based hotel group. A few years ago, this art deco gem was transformed from an office building into The Robey, a quirky, relaxed hotel that offers easy access to O’Hare, the Loop, and most importantly, the boutiques, restaurants, and bars of one of the most interesting neighborhoods in the world. 

Urbane, comfy rooms offer striking views of the surrounding neighborhood and Oz-like downtown skyline. In warm weather, two terraces offer views that will cause architecture fans to geek out. Tasty cocktails help to digest the views. 

Antiques abound at Guatemala's Mayan Inn.

Rooms at the Mayan Inn come with fireplaces--and a dedicated attendant.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Shinta Mani: Shangri-La in Angkor Wat’s Shadows

The Chinese are taking the water,” our young, pencil-thin thin boat driver complained. “That’s why the river is low.”

And the river was low which was causing our rickety wooden boat to run aground. Often. We were attempting to travel from Battambong to Siem Reap, Cambodia on a vessel we dubbed “The African Queen” as it offered all the charm and comforts of that fabled boat.

The trip was scheduled to last around four hours, but ended up taking nine. And much of the delay was caused by our boat’s hull playing kissy-face with the river bottom. The drivers and passengers of nearby boats, as well as the countryside’s kids swimming in the Kahlua-colored river, pushed us through the shallow spots. But the going was slow and we fell far behind schedule. 

When we finally pulled into the dock near Siem Reap at sunset, we were sore, tired, sweaty, thirsty, dirty—and anxious to arrive at an oasis: our hotel.

For around thirty-minutes we drove on a winding, undulating road through Siem Reap’s dream-like neighborhoods full of flowering jacaranda, ginger, heliconia, and bougainvillea while faint clouds of dust glowed pink in the setting sun. We hadn’t even reached our hotel and already we breathed a collective sigh of relief; we’d arrived. 

At the Eden-like entrance to Shinta Mani, hotel staff met us with mint and lemon-grass-flavored water and cool, jasmine-scented towels. Just inside, glasses of champagne waited. To reach them, we walked through open-air passageways decorated with sculptures, orchids, lotus arrangements, reflecting pools, and fountains. Large oil paintings, glowing candles, and lush tropical flower arrangements—works of art themselves—filled the walls, corners, tabletops, and nooks. 

I could have stopped at a half dozen tranquil spots and sank to the polished floor to take a nap or assume child’s pose. But we had yet to arrive in the candle-lit reception room to check in and then to wander more pristine passageways before we ultimately arrived in our refined rooms. 

While we had traveled to Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat, we soon realized that our hotel was a worthwhile destination on its own. 

Designed by Bill Bensley, the hotel’s corridors, courtyards, and rooms reflect careful consideration of every element—no plant, piece of furniture, fountain, or candle is out of place. Laid out using feng shui principles, the hotel represents the antithesis of chain hotels with their cookie cutter layouts. Every element of Shinta Mani seems unique and of the place. 

Just a block away, a major thoroughfare is full of the roar of tuk-tuks, buses, and motorcycles. Inside Shinta Mani, though, an atmosphere of Zen pervades—no noise permeates the walls and green fences. Fountains bubble, birds chirp. Small garden courtyards echo with the sounds of silence.  

In the rooms, arrangements of tropical flowers and fruits doubles as a work of art (and they’re refreshed at least daily). Sunny mornings, sublime and tranquil, are marked by hotel staff who sit cross-legged on a raised platform in the stair hall and speak in hushed, melodic tones as they assemble the lotus and tropical flower arrangements that decorate the public spaces and rooms. 

If there’s a downside to Shinta Mani, it’s that you may be tempted to never leave the spa-like, serenity-soaked spaces of its rooms or its public spaces, If you must leave—and you must because the temples of Angkor Wat beckon—when you return exhausted from climbing ruins and hiking through jungle in the tropical heat, you can fall asleep with images of Angkor Wat depicted in dimly-lit ceiling insets above your bed.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Cocktail Couture in Paris

A perfect Manhattan at La Closerie.
Those forward-thinking cities that were early adopters of cocktail culture often boast classic and historic bars. Of course, some spots are tourist traps and others serve cocktails that don’t match their reputation. In the case of Paris, though, the city has been mixing drinks for more than a century and boasts several bars worth a visit—or two.

La Closerie des Lilas

Montparnasse is a bit removed from the main sites of Paris, so plenty of tourists don’t bother to visit. And that’s their loss.

During a recent trip to the historic La Closerie Des Lilas in Montparnasse, we lucked out as the garden lilacs, the restaurant’s namesake, were blooming and filling the courtyard, bar, dining room and brasserie with their sweet scent. And, while they weren’t fragrant, camellias, azaleas, tulips, and daffodils in the entrance garden lent an air of enchantment to the spot.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's spot at La Closerie.
Though charming, the courtyard garden—where Lenin played checkers and Hemingway probably pontificated—aren’t the main attraction. No, many come for the bar, a haunt of literary luminaries including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Simone de Beauvoir and artists such as Picasso (look for brass nameplates on bar tables to see where your favorites sat). All this history comes with a side of expertly-prepared cocktails.

From April through August, the last golden rays of daylight shine all the way into the bar, casting the whole place in a timeless, ethereal glow.

Warning: Bowlfuls of old school, house-made potato chips and green olives accompany drink orders, but may prove addictive.

Café Deux Magots

Most people think of this historic spot for breakfast or a café au lait with a shot of serious café culture. But Deux Magots also serves cocktails and offers one of the best seats in the city for watching a parade of Left Bankers stroll past.
Waiters at Deux Magot dress for work.

On a recent trip, we visited at cocktail hour and the place was packed with regulars, office workers, and tourists. Comfortably seated in classic café chairs just off busy Boulevard Saint Germain, we ordered Old Fashioneds which were poured tableside with a flourish by a poised, black suit-clad waiter. On a mild April night, we people watched, sipped our perfect cocktails and enjoyed a storybook view of the medieval, stone-clad Saint Germain church across the square.

Hemingway Bar at the Ritz

It’s said that when Paris was liberated from the Nazis, Hemingway celebrated with a drink at the old bar at the Ritz on historic Place Vendôme. To Hemingway, Paris was back to normal when cocktails were once again being shaken and stirred in the marble-clad rooms of the old hotel.

Well, the combination of Hemingway, the liberation of Paris, history, and the bar’s pedigree meant the place ranked high on my list of institutions to check out. I’d tried to visit during previous trips, but the stars were never aligned (once I was wearing jeans, once I was too early, and once I was too late and the small two-room bar was at capacity). Well, my fourth visit was the charm. (And I was charmed.)

At cocktail hour, a waiter ceremoniously opened large doors, revealing two intimate rooms with a handful of low, petite tables, a half dozen bar stools, and a smaller room up a few stairs. Memorabilia and ephemera—in some cases seemingly and in others obviously—associated with the Oak Park, Illinois writer fill the walls.

What the place lacks in space it makes up for in ambiance—well, and prices (most cocktails are 30 euro and higher.) Despite a wait for entry and elevated prices, I’m glad I went, though I’m not sure I need to return.

(Note: If you plan to visit, a line begins to form 30 minutes prior to the 6:00 p.m. opening.)

Le Bar's well-equipped, well, bar. 

Tucked into a sleepy backstreet in the Latin Quarter, the storied L’Hotel and its intimate, posh bar offer a welcome retreat from the hurly burly world outside. More luxe and discreet than the Ritz, L’Hotel’s bar offers cocktails that are nearly half the price of those at the Right Bank Hemingway haunt, but every bit as tasty.

If you can swing the adjacent Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Restaurant, book a table well in advance. If you’re doing drinks and dinner, you may as well consider staying the night. The 20-room L’Hotel is the smallest five star hotel in Paris. Having provided rooms for Oscar Wilde, Princess Grace and Elizabeth Taylor, the hotel might be the perfect spot to rest your head after exploring Paris’ cocktail couture.

About Me

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I write about food, travel & dining, as well as related topics. My first novel, The Gods of Venice, can be found on & nearly everywhere else. My second novel, The Last American Buffalo, is available on Amazon. Follow me on Twitter .
Alan J. Shannon Copyright © 2010