Sunday, March 8, 2015

Genoa: Birthplace of Columbus Awaiting Discovery

Planning a trip to Italy this coming spring or summer? Chances are you’re planning to visit Florence, Venice or Rome, right? But why not add one more destination, one that’s not on most travelers’ itineraries?

Birthplace of Columbus, ancient seapower and still-functioning seaport, Genoa, Italy attracts few tourists—a shame for it, but a great opportunity for the curious traveler seeking that rarity: an Italian city without tante turiste.

To wit: these days it’s tougher than ever to escape crowds. Paris hosted 32.3 million tourists last year, Machu Picchu 3.1 million, and the Grand Canyon 4.5 million. Every year, more travelers crowd the world’s most popular sites and cities—which makes the less popular ones all the more appealing.

My parents taught me to get off the beaten track and stray from where tourists clustered, so from my first stop in 1989 at the atmosphere-rich, old Genoa train station sandwiched between bluffs and crumbling, terra cotta colored walls, I knew I had to visit.

And that visit finally occurred this past October.

And what did I find? An active seaport that boasts a row of grand palazzi, a harbor lined with cafés and restaurants, and one of the largest medieval quarters in Europe.

And the icing on the cake: the seaside city receives barely a trickle of tourists.

So why isn’t Genoa thronged with tourists? Well, the Mediterranean seaport is a little rough around the edges, more Naples than Florence. But if you prefer a city with streets lined with shops and businesses that serve residents instead of tourists, you’ll find plenty that pleases.

Winding, dark streets in the medieval quarter don’t have an abundance of polished cafés and restaurants, but serve as home to middle and working class Genovese. Toward the west, the quarter is occupied by immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. Throughout the neighborhood you’ll find small shops, stand up coffee bars, churches, small groceries, and few t-shirt shops. Churches are dusty, grand, and quiet.

Once one of the toniest streets in the world, Strada Nuova still boasts palazzi, but today they’re open to the public (complete with rooftop views of the harbor and medieval quarter).

For the kids there is a harbor side aquarium and sea cruises that feature dolphin sightings and views of seaside towns. For the parents, there’s great shopping (including, um, leather goods) and Old World cafés just outside the medieval quarter.


Best of all, Genoa is relatively undiscovered by the American tourist, so you can play a little like Columbus in reverse and discover his hometown.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Bosque del Cabo: For Spotting Lions or Lying Around, a Sublime Lodge in Costa Rica


For many years I preferred active vacations, whether it was backpacking to Machu Picchu or wandering the streets of Montmartre. To me, vacations were a chance to experience the world—not to merely melt into the sand on a beach or swing in a hammock.

These days, hectic workdays and creeping age have combined to make a slacker’s vacation more attractive.

I’ve traveled to Costa Rica many times and have wandered the tourist route (Monteverde’s cloud forest, Arenal's volcano and hot springs, the Nicoya Peninsula’s beaches, Manuel Antonio’s wildlife-packed national park) and explored some lesser-known spots such as UvitaDominical and San Gerardo de Dota. 

Before this February, though, there were some recommended areas, the Osa Peninsula and Corcovado National Park, that I hadn’t made it to yet. I was told that these areas—with only a few hotels and a remote location—were the most pristine and boasted the most wildlife.

Bosque del Cabo, a 45-minute drive on a pockmarked, rock-strewn road from a little airstrip in the dusty town of Puerto Jimenez, is an off-the-grid rainforest lodge and reserve that bills itself as the best place in the country to spot a rare and elusive lion (or puma, as they’re called in these parts). I’ll admit: I was skeptical. Staff at other reserves I’ve visited (in every Central American country except El Salvador) advised that pumas are never sighted.

Well, after my arrival at this isolated and verdant slice of pristine rain forest, I decided that merely spending some days in the company of giant trees, adjacent to thick, emerald-green jungle and 500 feet above the Pacific would be enough. I didn’t need to see a lion. Heck, I didn’t need to see any wildlife.

Upon our arrival, smiling staff greeted us with tumblers full of blackberry juice, so fresh, rejuvenating and delicious I didn’t even mind that it wasn’t sluiced with some spirit.

Before being escorted to the house we rented (and stopping off to see a slumbering sloth locked onto a tree limb), we inhaled lunches full of locally sourced ingredients, including fish, crisp greens, citrus and nuts. The setting for the communal meals is an enormous palapa (an open-sided, thatch roofed structure) overlooking sweeping lawns dotted with blooming bushes and palms. I was sorry to leave such a setting, but when I arrived at the house, I was quickly smitten. Spacious rooms and an expansive terrace of polished, mahogany floors, plantation shutters, and private views overlooked a tangle of jungle that plunged to the ocean far below.

That’s the problem with this place: there are so many idyllic spots that I felt as inconstant and fickle as a teenager. No matter where I was—the hammock, the terrace, a groomed trail, a hanging bridge, the pool or the restaurant—it was my favorite place.

After settling in, we quickly figured out that an expensive trip to nearby Corcovado National Park was unnecessary: the private reserve right where we were boasted more wildlife and groomed trails to boot. For the ambitious, there’s a steep trail that descends to the pristine shoreline and its empty beaches. Walk to the right and you’ll enjoy miles of uninterrupted beach and rough surf (there’s no swimming here). For those who prefer a swim after their hike, a different trail descends from the hotel grounds to the wide and equally empty swimming beaches along the calm Golfo Dulce.

But a person doesn’t travel to Bosque for the beaches. It’s the wildlife and rain forest that attract a small but steady flow of tourists to the two-dozen bungalows and houses.

All four species of monkeys swing in the nearby trees - and oftentimes from the trees above your bungalow. Brightly colored frogs, armadillos, peccaries, capybaras, and snakes (yes, even some venomous sorts) hang out in the neighboring forest (while the four-legged animals and monkeys are known to visit the grounds, snakes stick mostly to the jungle. Mostly.)

Mornings start before first light with the calls of howler monkeys. (Yes, this would be sometime around 4:00 am.) Second-string parrots and myriad songbirds join in around 5:00 or so. And just after dawn, late-to-rise but instantly garrulous macaws spin overhead and fill the air with their primeval call. I’ve seen scarlet macaws in other spots in Costa Rica, but never have I seen so many so often.
And then there are the pumas. One was spotted on one of the trails near the Casa Blanca where we stayed just a few days before we arrived. And another was spotted on the main road just after we left. (For updates on puma sightings, check out Bosque’s Facebook page.)

Thankfully, the open-air restaurant has plenty of steaming, dark, local coffee available, so even if the call of monkeys, locusts or birds drives you from your mosquito net-cocooned bed early, there’s an eye-opening cup of fragrant java to help you appreciate your surroundings.

If walking the private trails, observing abundant wildlife, lolling by the pool or gazing out over the cobalt Pacific starts to bore, trips to nearby beaches, snorkeling, kayaking and other short excursions are available. To me, though, leaving any spot in this place is difficult. When my friends and I returned to the tranquil grounds of the hotel—rich with birdsong and dappled with blooming flowers—I felt like I was home. As much as I enjoyed the communal dinners and hikes, it’s the terraces, decks and bungalow spaces with their private slices of jungle and views that thrill. 


In such a place, the reality that days in the Tropics don’t last longer saddened me. From late afternoon through sunset my friends and I were sprinkled across the terrace, tucked into hammocks or reclined on lounge chairs. We read, sipped wine, puzzled over crosswords or simply gazed out over the Pacific, into the thick jungle or at the infinite sky. As sunset approached, everyone’s attention shifted to the horizon and the spectacle of a colorful blaze illuminating the horizon while the world around us gradually fell silent. The jungle—a cacophony of locust buzzes, birdcalls and monkey howls—lapsed into deep stillness as the light faded from the sky. The sky turned black and was thronged with stars while the ocean crashed below. 

Sure, there could have been pumas about, but I could’ve cared less. They’d like you to think that it’s the pumas that make Bosque del Cabo unique, but that’s not it at all. Awaking to the sounds of monkeys, the crash of the ocean, the call of a macaw or the scent of the rain forest, I realized that there’s much more to this place than some rare felines.

But you need to experience it to understand.

Details:

Bosque del Cabo can be reached via small plane commercial service (about a 45 minute flight) from San José to Puerto Jimenez. The lodge can also be reached via rough roads.

A few categories of private bungalows and houses can be rented, most with ocean views. Prices per person range from around $150 per day (including meals) to around $250, depending on accommodation type and season.

The excellent restaurant is the best option for guests. Meal packages are typically included as part of the rate, though guests staying in houses can opt out. 

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Monadnock: Architecture Meets Atmosphere

Preoccupied with the future, we Chicagoans don’t spend much time fawning over our past. After all, what other city would raze architectural gems by American icons such as LouisSullivan and Daniel Burnham? Yes, we’ve torn down probably half of our architectural legacy, but we’ve made some notable exceptions.

One of my favorites is Burnham and Root’s Monadnock Building, a hulking, solid masterpiece that recalls an era when the height of structures was restricted by the weight its loadbearing walls could handle. The building is associated with many firsts, but what I like best are its look and feel—outside and inside—and the handful of independent, local shops that line its dimly lit lobby.


In addition to having brick walls as thick as those of a medieval castle, the Monadnock offers a rare glimpse of an office building circa 1893—the year of its construction. Mosaic tile floors, iron staircases and gleaming woodwork mark the interior, making it unique and rich with atmosphere. Stepping into the shadowy hallways of the building is like stepping back in time. Retro light fixtures flicker, offering yellowy, other-worldly light by which you can view generous amounts of marble décor, mosaic tile floors, and dramatic stairways that rise into warrens of offices inhabited by small businesses, attorneys, not-for-profits and accountants. The building’s dimly and naturally lit passages are movie set perfect.


The main floor stores offer a variety of Old School products and services, including bespoke, locally-made hats at Optimo, cigars, flowers, shoe shine and repair, custom men’s suits, women’s clothier Floradora, a restaurant and a suitably dark bar with a popcorn machine. There are no chains here, unless you count Intelligentsia, a refined local coffee outfit that churns out award winning coffees and world champion baristas. 

When German Chancellor Helmut Kohl visited the city a few decades ago, he was shown all of our famous architectural towers—the Wrigley, Tribune, Hancock, Sears and Marina City. But it was the Monadnock that impressed him the most. To him—and to me—the Monadnock is everything an earlier Chicago skyscraper should be: brawny, understated, modern, and well-designed.

And the fact that within its thick brick walls you can purchase a hand-crafted hat, sip a tasty cup of coffee and have your shoes shined while reading the newspaper, makes it truly unique and quintessentially Chicago. 


Friday, March 8, 2013

Guatemala’s Lomas de Tzununá: Tranquil Inn Boasts Volcano Views

When it comes to hotels, it's tempting to think that there’s not much new under the sun. Chain hotels are everywhere and a Hilton in Chicago looks pretty much like a Hilton in Paris. Or Calcutta. Or Cancun.

At the same time that the large hotel chains appear to be expanding, the number of small, independent hotels also appears to be increasing. While I can’t back up this observation with data, I’ve never seen so many options for small, independently owned lodgings.

One of my favorite small hotels perches on the lip of a collapsed, ancient volcano in Guatemala. Lomas de Tzununá, owned by a friendly Belgian-Argentinian couple, consists of simply-furnished, modestly-priced cabins that boast million dollar views of Lake Atitlán and distant volcanoes.

Getting to Lomas takes a bit of doing (which is probably why it hasn’t been bought out by Radisson or Marriott.) First there’s the two and a half hour drive via shuttle or private taxi from Antigua or Guatemala City, a 30 minute ride on one of the rustic boats that serve as ferries on Lake Atitlán, and finally—and most significantly—a climb up a steep set of stairs (350, to be precise) carved into the side of the collapsed crater.

Moments after the boat drops you and your luggage at the hotel’s sleepy dock, porters who have raced down the stairs snatch your luggage and fly back up the stairs with it. So your sole, but not insignificant task is to drag your own body up the 350 steps. No escalator, elevator, or litter, but once you’ve made it to the top you’ve earned (at least) one of the hotel’s tasty fresh juices, a beer, or a cocktail mixed by the owner.

Once you’ve conquered the stairs and begun to attempt to absorb expansive views of the deep blue, mirror-like lake, and volcanoes Toliman, Atitlán, and San Pedro, you might decide to venture no further than the steeply sloping grounds of the hotel.

On some days, staying at the aerie-like hotel is enough for me. Breakfast is served on a terrace with the same stunning views, homemade bread and pastries, fresh squeezed juice and steaming, rich coffee. For someone normally surrounded by the clatter and hurly burly of city living, I revel in the tranquility of the place. Hummingbirds chirp, their wings whirring as they check out bougainvillea and other brightly colored tropical flowers that surround the restaurant terrace. With no cars, roads, or airports nearby, there are no sounds other than the birds and breeze. I might get too hot at the pool, or become sore from sitting too long on the terrace, but I never tire of the view.

Evenings are equally relaxed and charmed. With each passing year there are more lights shining from villages across the lake, but the Atitlán sky remains crammed with stars. And if you’re lucky, you’ll see glowing lava spilling out of distant Volcan Fuego far across the lake. The restaurant has tasty meals, including black bass pulled from the clear waters of the lake and local chicken. On many nights, the Belgian owner plays classical guitar which is the perfect complement to the bright stars, candlelight and stillness.

If the tranquility, views, warm sun and beverages don’t make you feel happily comatose, order a masseuse who will walk a mountain path from a distant village and provide a bargain priced massage in your room. 

When your private balcony, the restaurant terrace and the pool seem too small a universe, descend the steep crater-side to the dock, wave for a passing boat and head to a nearby village. One of the nearest is Panajachel which offers restaurants, a tourist market and crowds of gringos. Chichicastenango—with its extensive market and unique hybrid of Catholic-Mayan colonial churches (built atop Mayan temples)—is about an hour away from Panajachel.

Other nearby villages include San Marcos, San Pedro and Santiago, home to Maximon (the bizarre booze and cigarette loving folk saint of Guatemala). The voyage to any of these villages is worth the experience. In addition to views of crystalline skies and the cobalt waters of the lake, you’ll share the boats with Mayans dressed in elaborately patterned, handcrafted clothing. A favorite, anachronistic experience is seeing a traditionally attired Mayan with a basket of chickens headed home from the market while chatting on her cell phone. (For more insights into nearby villages, check out the advice of an acquaintance here.)

The views, culture and scenery at Lake Atitlán rival that of North Americans’ favorite winter destinations of Florida, Arizona and California. But Atitlán is less expensive and its tropical highland weather is reliably warm and comfortable.

Sure, it takes a bit of doing to get to Lomas, but once there you’ll find a hotel that’s off the grid and truly unique. You won’t get frequent guest points, but who needs them when you’ve got that million dollar view?

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Charlie Trotter’s: Marketing Misfire?

History was made in Chicago just a short time ago. Sure, there was that election and all, but I’m thinking less politically and more restaurant related.

After nearly 25 years, Charlie Trotter's, the restaurant responsible for establishing Chicago as a fine dining destination, closed. At the beginning of the year, Chef Trotter announced seemingly on a whim that he would be closing his landmark, eponymous restaurant.

A month or two later, I heard him on WBEZ (Chicago’s NPR affiliate). During his interview, he explained that he wanted to close his restaurant to pursue an advanced degree in philosophy.

But he also told stories about people from the neighborhood suddenly coming by now that they heard he was closing. And he talked about how so many Chicagoans who had never visited the renowned restaurant were now scrambling to make reservations. Where had they been the past few years, he seemed to be asking? And why hadn’t they come in sooner?

And when I visited the restaurant with three friends and talked to chef myself a month later, I got the same impression. Had we visited the restaurant before, he asked the four of us? Two of us had, two had not. Focusing on the two that hadn’t, he asked why they hadn’t come previously. As for the two of us who’d been, he wondered why we hadn’t eaten there more often.

The chef’s kind but insistent questioning and his comments during his radio interview reminded me of the celebrated Chicago chefs who had passed through his kitchen, from wunderkind Grant Achatz to Graham Elliot. These chefs, of course, enjoy hype, packed dining rooms, and plenty of press. And I wondered, did Trotter feel left behind? Had business dropped off, or did he merely miss being the most celebrated Chicago chef?

As we ate mere feet from him at the kitchen table, he reminded us that he was the chef who had created the concept of the kitchen table (as well as the idea that patrons should pay more for the privilege of being tucked into a corner of an action-packed restaurant kitchen.) And he introduced Americans to degustation and seasonal menus. Undoubtedly, he contributed more than the equivalent of a paltry appetizer to the American dining scene.

But was his demise unavoidable, as the New York Times suggested? Had he truly been left behind?

Sure, Homaro Cantu and Achatz had built and expanded on their teacher’s precepts and philosophy, attracting the attention of the media and the adulation of foodies in the process. But just because his students had moved beyond him, was it inevitable that he close his doors?

I believe it could have gone differently.

In France, senior chefs are often treated like cultural treasures. And closer to home, Alice Waters has certainly yielded little ground to the thousands of chefs and restaurants across California, and the States, that follow her farm to table and seasonal approaches.

So why did Trotter relinquish his undisputed position as father to Chicago’s contemporary dining scene? Perhaps he really did want to pursue another career. But based on some of his comments, I wonder if he was disappointed to no longer be considered the wunderkind of the Second City. Or was it simply that the restaurant was no longer filling its tables?

It’s this last question that leads me to suggest that the restaurant’s closing is the hallmark of a missed marketing opportunity. The restaurant could have been billed as a classic, as the place where Chicago’s renowned chefs cut their teeth. Tourists and foodies could have been appealed to. Sure, visit Alinea or Graham Elliot while you’re in town, he could have suggested, but don’t miss the chef and restaurant that launched them both, Charlie Trotter.

Given Trotter’s reputation for possessing a healthy ego, it’s surprising that he or his team never attempted this approach. Or maybe he didn’t want to have to try too hard to persuade diners to visit his restaurant and devour his perfect creations. Or, maybe he just wants to study philosophy.

But I’m not so certain.


 

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 BarnesAndNoble.com & nearly everywhere else. My second novel, The Last American Buffalo, is available on Amazon. Follow me on Twitter or become a fan of The Gods of Venice on Facebook.

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Alan J. Shannon Copyright © 2010