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

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Barcelona's Great Beyond: Coastal Villages, Stellar Restaurants

When I first visited Barcelona in 1986, the somewhat sleepy Mediterranean city had only recently emerged from the fog of decades of relative isolation under the dictatorship of Franco. At that time, the city was gearing up for the 1992 Olympics which ultimately transformed the somewhat gritty port into a cosmopolitan city overflowing with tourists. And in the intervening decades, that flow has become a tsunami (so much so that the city is considering limiting access to tourists).

Besalú and its 11th century bridge.
Should that happen, don’t fret. As I was reminded during a recent trip, the region of Catalonia is much more than Barcelona. In fact, the surrounding area is full of quaint medieval villages, stunning small cities, and seaside towns.

And so, when I joined some family and friends to rent a medieval castle in the sleepiest of small villages, Sant Mori, we had plenty to keep us occupied—without ever venturing into Barcelona.

The best part? Many of these sleepy pastoral towns offer outstanding restaurants—without the lines, parking hassles, or prices you’ll bump into in Barcelona.

La Barretina de Orfes.
For our first night’s dinner, we drove a short distance along narrow lanes bordered by pastures, thick woods, and rolling hills to Lilliputian Orfes. Approached via a poplar-lined country road, the village consists of a storybook collection of old stone and brick buildings. Somewhat hidden on the second floor of one of the old buildings you’ll find La Barretina de Orfes.

The restaurant’s owner led us to a long wooden table in an empty dining room which overlooked the charming but empty town square (it was 7:30 and no one but Americans eat at that hour in Spain). The room—and the view of the village outside—could have been from the 19th century. But it wasn’t the room or the view that brought us here—it was the food. In our group of nearly a dozen, we sampled some area classics—stuffed peppers, fish, duck, and onion tart. By the time we left, the place was stuffed—and so were we.

A Compartir creation.
This corner of Spain with its idyllic coastline that heads north and east toward the nearby French border has attracted foodies for decades. While the legendary El Bulli is long shuttered, some of the renowned restaurant’s staff serve up fare in several nearby restaurants. One of the best, Compartir, is just up from the beach in Cadaques. Summer is the best time to visit when Mediterranean breezes carry the scent of blooming jasmine and citrus in the atmospheric courtyard.

Hostal Sa Rascassa's quaint dining courtyard.
Our last night’s dinner was the most extraordinary in some ways, featuring the most beautiful—and unexpected—route to the garden courtyard and entry of Hostal Sa Rascassa. Nestled in woods high above the Mediterranean, the restaurant is reached via a winding road that takes you through movie set-like Begur with its medieval tower and weathered stone castle. Sit outside in the restaurant’s Eden-like courtyard or tuck into a table in the cozy rooms of the restaurant. In either spot you can devour perfectly-prepared seafood and plenty of locally-sourced dishes.

Hostal Sa Rascassa offers a few rooms and is walking distance to a beach.
Castell de Rocaberti. 
For larger parties, consider renting the rambling and historic Castell de Rocaberti.

Spend a few hours at Sant Marti dÉmpuries—a sleepy little coastal village with a small street lined with restaurants with outdoor cafés.

Visit Besalú for its stunning 11th century medieval bridge and buildings.

Although it’s not sleepy, the small but bustling city of Girona boasts a lively historic quarter that includes a unique museum devoted to the history of Catalonian Jews (most of whom were forced to convert to Christianity or were expelled during the Great Inquisition).
Sardines in Caduques.
The classic onion pie at La Barretina de Orfes.
Compartir's relaxed outdoor dining area.

A view from the historic Castell de Rocaberti. 

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.


About Me

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I write about food, travel & dining, as well as related topics. I've written for Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune publications and a number of national and international publications. 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