TEA AND MORE IN PARIS
No one loves their tea like the British, but give me tea in Paris any day over tea in London. Specifically, Ladurée in Paris has been serving tea, hot chocolate, and coffee along with the best confections known to mankind since 1862. Clearly, the people here have had a lot of practice, and they have perfected the art. I’ve had high tea at the fabled Brown’s and Claridge’s in London, lovely indeed, and full of ladies in tweeds and sensible shoes. But there’s more to tea than just tea, and Ladurée offers sumptuous treats, featuring its specialty, macarons. You can get the mini macs, but I prefer the hamburger-sized ones. The chocolate are to die for, but the lemon, almond, pistachio, and strawberry are divine too. Try them with a pot of the hot chocolate, creamy and rich. On a recent trip to Paris, I wrote in my journal: “It was as if they took a thick bar of Neuhaus and just melted it.” Soon I’ll be able to get a quicker fix. Ladurée will open a tearoom at 396 West Broadway in Soho this month. Bon appetit! www.laduree.com/en_fr/
ST. MARK’S AFTER DARK
“Wow. Now that is some serious bling!” said the woman next to me, as we stood before the Pala d’Oro. This Byzantine altarpiece is studded with more than 1,900 sapphires, garnets, emeralds, pearls, rubies, and other gems, making it the most precious (and jaw-dropping) treasure in St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. (As the story goes, it survived the Napoleonic raids thanks to a Venetian citizen who kept it hidden in his home.)
If we’d come during the day, we barely would have gotten a glimpse of this dazzling work. The basilica, consecrated in 832 AD, is the most famous landmark in Venice, and one of the most magnificent churches in the world, so it is crammed with visitors. By night, without the tourist hordes, the Italian-Gothic basilica is astonishing to behold, and enchantingly atwinkle with 43,000 feet of illuminated mosaics.
A company called Walks of Italy offers St. Mark’s Basilica After Hours tours for small groups (12 people or fewer), a perfect way to experience the grandeur of the basilica without distraction. And when the custodian unlocks the crypt, revealing stains from the floodwaters that have devastated Venice, it seems all the more miraculous that this remarkable church and its glittering adornments still exist. One-hour tour $67; offered May-September. 202-684-6916, www.walksofitaly.com
The highlight of my recent travels was a visit with my sister at Twin Farms, a 300-acre property with 10 cottages, six suites, and four rooms located in the bucolic hills of Barnard, Vt. The all-inclusive rate covered everything we could imagine eating (farmhouse breakfast, customized picnic lunch, afternoon tea, evening cocktails, elegant dinner, late night cookies) and doing (bicycling, swimming, tennis, skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, canoeing, fly-fishing, billiards, darts). Our favorite moments were simple ones: soaking away stress in the 104-degree waters of a Japanese furo, and sharing late-night stories by the light of our bedside fireplace. Doubles from $1,450 a night. 452 Royalton Turnpike, 800-894-6327, www.twinfarms.com
NEW YORK FANTASY STAY
I am a fan of posh hotels (I immediately check the brand of soap and shampoo to determine the level of hotel I’m patronizing) and I tend to be a bit of a snob about accommodations. Checking the brand of shower gel was not necessary at The New York Palace. Mine was a room like no other, and I’m pretty sure the suite was larger than my Boston apartment. In a fantasy, I strolled from the giant bedroom and surveyed my temporary domain. A bath and a half, a palatial living room, and a full kitchen. Foyer? Coat closet? Check. The property just underwent a $140 million renovation and was dripping in rich materials. It was, hands down, the nicest (and priciest) place I’ve ever stayed. I even hosted a party. With a view of St. Patrick’s Cathedral below, I enjoyed a lovely night sampling the one percenter life. One-bedroom suites from $995 a night. 455 Madison Ave., 212-888-7000, www.newyorkpalace.com
WINTER FACE TO FACE
Back in the winter of 1985-86, the good folks in Grindelwald, Switzerland, decided to groom about 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) of snow-covered mountain footpaths for winter walkers. The experiment was so popular that the paths, called “winterwanderwege,” have expanded into a network of more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) of machine-packed snow trails. A special pass lets walkers use the same extensive network of gondolas and lifts that skiers use to reach the high mountain stations. Oddly, no other destination ski area seems to have copied the idea. As far as I can tell, this Jungfrau region of the Bernese Oberland remains the only place where people without skis or snowshoes can come face to face with the majesty of the mountains in winter — and I’m not talking just any mountains. The original hike between the mountain stations of Bussalp and Bort crosses frozen streams, tunnels through dark evergreen forest, and follows the barren ridgeline where the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau — the signature peaks of the Swiss Alps — tower as a backdrop. Lift and gondola pass for walkers and sledders from $122 for 2 days. www.grindelwald.ch
MEMORABLE MEAL ON CYPRUS
Wherever you go, slow down when you reach a sleepy town to see what’s going on. You might be surprised. At an unassuming little spot on Cyprus in the village of Panagia Pano, we found Green Leaf Tavern Restaurant, run by a cheery couple, Leonidas and Galisteni Philippou. We drank the wine they made, ate olives they gathered and cured, had plates of rabbit they shot, and nibbled on a steamed lemon cake loaded with eggs from their own chickens. Green Leaf isn’t elegant and it certainly isn’t on anyone’s list of top places. But you won’t find food more thoughtfully made in a place with much more razzmatazz. Entrees about $15. 011-357-26-722438
HISTORICAL, CHIC IN QUEBEC CITY
The Price family opened the Auberge Saint-Antoine in Quebec City in 1992 on a site with an archeological history dating to Samuel de Champlain’s 1608 arrival. Instead of burying 400 years of heritage, the Prices chose to integrate it into the hotel, creating a curated decor that blends contemporary chic with museum-quality displays throughout the Relais & Châteaux-member boutique hotel.
The story begins outside, one block off the St. Lawrence riverfront. Wavy lines embedded into rue Saint-Antoine’s paving stones indicate the river’s shoreline levels in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, and ruins from the 18th-century Dauphine Battery are embedded into the hotel’s foundation. Inside, the battery’s stone walls are integrated into the parquet floors, and more than 500 artifacts unearthed during archeological digs are displayed in glass cases.
The 95 guest rooms all have plush bedding, Bose stereos, and heated bathroom floors; some have deep soaking tubs and river-view terraces; six are historically themed. Other pluses are an inhouse movie theater, fitness center, spa, and the lauded Panache restaurant, as well as a location in the heart of the lower section of the old city. From $189. 8 rue Saint-Antoine, 418-692-221 or 888-692-2211, www.saint-antoine.com
ULTIMATE PROPOSAL IN IRELAND
While enjoying a country drive with his girlfriend, a young man suggested an impromptu visit to see a friend employed at Ballyfin Demense, a five-star boutique hotel commanding a 610-acre, walled estate in Ireland’s rolling Midlands. After catching up over coffee, they toured the masterfully restored and lavishly ornamented Regency-style country house.
After oohing and aahing over the museum-quality art and antiques, they took a supposedly impromptu carriage ride through bluebell-sprinkled woodlands edging the private lake, admiring the grotto and walled garden before stopping at a hilltop tower folly. In on the ruse, the hotel staff had readied the top floor, a glassed-in room with 360-degree views over seven counties and the Slieve Bloom Mountains. He proposed, she accepted. They celebrated with champagne in the property’s temple overlooking a cascading waterfall that steps down to the manor, where they spent the night.
The splurge-worthy rates at Ballyfin include packing and unpacking services; elaborate meals served in a choice of venues; the opportunity to dress in period costumes for dinner; afternoon tea, wine, and whiskey tastings, and predinner cocktails; use of the estate’s facilities, including an 80-foot library, a glass conservatory, a wine cellar, fitness room, and an indoor pool; and activities such as bicycling, tennis, boating, fishing, and lawn games. Doubles from $1,100. Ballyfin, County Laois, 011-353-5787-55866, www.ballyfin.com
FEARLESS IN THE RAIN FOREST
On our last day in the Peruvian Amazon, our guide took us down the river to a remote lodge where they help injured jungle animals — and where there is a platform 150 feet over the Tambopata Rain Forest. We slogged about an hour in the mud — knee-high rubber boots are a must — until we arrived at the “tree house,” as it is called. Here, we began climbing a series of wooden ladders, until we reached a hanging bridge made of metal netting. It was rickety, and the bridge, whose sides we had to grasp to get across, was tattered in places. It led to one final platform in a 200-year-old acacia tree. Once there, our view was spectacular: a jade expanse of canopy, treetops, and jungle pools. We could see and hear the chatter of the local denizens: monkeys, parrots, and macaws. For me, with a fear of heights, the descent was even scarier because it had started to rain. Our guide told us about a couple of women who had stopped at mid-bridge and refused to budge until he led them by the hand. I laughed, but secretly I understood their fear. I was glad I’d done it, and glad it was over. http://tambopata.com
SOAKED IN TRADITION
The women of Marrakech, Morocco, swear by the traditional bath, or hammam, as the secret to smooth, soft skin. “I go at least once a week,” one woman said, “for the hot room, a scrub, and the lotion.” Hammams dot the city, but for the ultimate experience, book the hammam treatment at La Mamounia, the gracefully elegant hotel that embodies the Moroccan style. You begin the ritualized treatment by steeping in a hot steam room before the attendant lathers you from head to foot with local black soap under a gentle shower. Just when you’re feeling clean and relaxed, she gives your skin a vigorous exfoliating scrub with what feels like a vegetable brush. Eucalyptus salve soothes the skin before another shower and an application of body lotion. The process is not for the modest. But even without benefit of a New Age soundtrack, my nerves were as soothed as my skin and I was ready to rejoin the frenetic swirl of Marrakech. The MarocMaroc Hammam Ritual $125.www.mamounia.com
CONCH SHELLS, SWIMMING PIGS
Situated in the center of the Exumas chain in the remote Out Islands of the Bahamas, Staniel Cay Yacht Club is a picturesque destination. The club is simple, with pastel cabanas resting on weathered pilings above a beach of conch shells. There’s no need to leave the excellent dining room, pub, or poolside, but you’ll want to.
Surrounding Staniel are a series of unique islands, easily navigable with a rental motor boat. Explore neighboring Big Major Cay, where a resident population of swimming pigs will pester you. Tunnel into Thunderball Grotto, where the James Bond movie was filmed. Or swim with a cluster of docile nurse sharks on Compass Cay, stopping at Pipe Creek on the way to catch some bonefish.
In all there are 365 islands in the Exumas, “one for each day of the year,” as locals say. Avoid Nassau and fly direct on Watermakers Air from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Packages from $175 per person. www.stanielcay.com
DINING AT THE SOURCE
Having Juan Mari Arzak cook your lunch is like having Rembrandt paint your portrait. Arzak helped revolutionize traditional Basque cuisine four decades ago, and chefs throughout Spain nod to him as influence and inspiration. Rather than dally with reproductions, I made the pilgrimage to San Sebastián to experience the original at the Arzak family restaurant. Even at lunch the eatery was filled with a mostly local crowd. Arzak and daughter Elena share the kitchen and dedicate two days a week to inventing new dishes. Diners never know what to expect, except that they will be wowed by such inventions as tomato soup with ham smoke or a smoky tangle of grilled baby eels on toast. My main course was fish as farce: a monkfish fillet on a faux ocean floor, surrounded by clamshells of piped clam cream and dots of red pepper puree that doubled as “caviar.” The distillation of Spanish flavors with wit, whimsy, and drama embodied feast as fiesta. Tasting menu $250. www.arzak.info
FLORIDA TIKI BAR OF YORE
We were looking for a drink in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and what we found instead was a retro paradise. When I spotted the Mai-Kai restaurant on Federal Highway, I assumed it was one of those grand tiki bars of yore that had since shut its doors. Instead, it is a vibrant kitsch treasure with Polynesian artifacts (including the menu), very strong rum-based drinks, and a floorshow complete with grass-skirted performers. There is a tropical, torch-lighted garden in the back, ideal for an after-dinner stroll. The restaurant is massive and feels like it has changed little since it opened in 1956. There was a time when these places dominated the country. Now they’re on the verge of extinction, which makes the Mai-Kai a fun vintage find. Drinks from $6.25, entrees from $16.25. 3599 North Federal Highway, 954-563-3272, www.maikai.com
GALÁPAGOS ISLE STAY
Almost half of the 170,000 people who visited the Galápagos Islands last year chose a land-based tour instead of the typical cruise. The advantage of staying on the islands is that you travel independently and meet locals. One spot worth visiting is the Floreana
Lava Lodge on Floreana Island, the smallest of the inhabited islands. Here simple wooden cabins face the ocean and the sound of pounding waves lulls you to sleep. The owners, brother and sister Claudio and Aura Cruz, are two of 12 siblings who were brought up on the island.
Claudio escorts guests high into the hills to see giant tortoises, many over 100 years old. You’ll walk through caves that housed early German settlers, pick oranges from a tree, and then have a memorable lunch of grilled beef and chicken chimichurri at the former ranch house of the Cruzes’ parents. In the afternoon take a short stroll from the hotel to a sheltered bay where you can snorkel with huge sea turtles. Don’t be surprised if the none-too-shy sea lions swim up to the beach and fall asleep right next to you. www.destinationecuador.com/galapagos-hotel-lava-lodge-floreana.html
BELUGAS ALL AROUND
Snorkeling with beluga whales in the frigid, 40-some-degree waters of the Churchill River in Manitoba is not for everyone. But those who stick it out are rewarded with a thrilling experience.
Churchill, tucked north of the timberline, some 1,050 miles from Winnipeg, is best known as the polar bear capital of the world. Come summer, it’s also where some 3,000 to 6,000 beluga whales congregate. Snorkeling in near-freezing water among the whales is a wild adventure.
“Some people panic when they first enter the water,” our guide warned. Ice water dribbled down the front of our suits, and inside the gloves and booties. After brief moments of hyperventilation and mild terror, we managed to slow our breathing, adjust our eyes to the greenish, gloomy water, and float face down. Within moments, one, two, three white whales swam under us. They nearly glowed in the dark waters, eerie ghostly figures, with porpoise-like bodies and melon heads. The whales measure up to 16 feet, and weigh about 2,200 pounds.
Nicknamed “sea canaries,” the belugas chirped, clicked, squeaked, whistled, yipped, and yapped as they circled above, below, and around us. We couldn’t stay in the water long, but the sights and sounds of the encounter linger. Snorkeling tours from $105. 888-348-7591, www.seanorthtours.com
ROMANCE ON THE SEINE
Paris by night is the stuff of romance. We found it last spring on the glass-sided Bateaux Parisiens, a dinner cruise on the River Seine that glides along that silky dark water cutting through the heart of the city.
We left just shy of sunset from Port de la Bourdonnais next to the Eiffel Tower, dining on exquisite food, including escargot, salmon with chicory, baked eggs with fricassee of mushrooms and bacon, and for dessert, ile flottante, a decadent meringue floating on a crème anglaise island, and flaming crepe Suzette.
The Eiffel Tower was in full, glorious twinkle upon our return an hour and a half later. The wet cobbled streets were a rainbow of colors from neon signs and streetlights, making the walk back to our hotel nearly as romantic as our dinner. About $90 per person. www.bateauxparisiens.com
PAUL E. KANDARIAN
PARADISE IN COSTA RICA
My family was totally charmed from the moment we arrived at Hotel Capitán Suizo, an elegant but low-key Swiss-run beachfront resort on Playa Tamarindo in Guanacaste. Created in harmony with its natural surroundings, the hotel’s many amenities are set amid lush tropical flora and towering trees that attract an abundance of native wildlife. Howler monkeys cavorted in the trees, enormous iguana strolled the walkways (our kids named the one who lived atop our bungalow), exotic birds perched around the open-air dining area, and the sea was just yards away. Our ocean-facing bungalow was screened three-quarters of the way around, affording magnificent views, sweet breezes, and the sounds of nature 24/7. $170-$765 per night, packages available. 011-506-2653-0075, www.hotelcapitansuizo.com
FISH SPEAK IN TORONTO
My love affair with oysters and seafood in Toronto reached nirvana levels at The Chase Fish & Oyster. Open since August, the stylish financial district eatery’s menu features seasonally changing and sustainable seafood, and a raw bar with oysters, clams, shrimp, and lobster. Chef de cuisine
Nigel Finley’s philosophy is to “let the fish speak for itself” by buying “the best possible product and not overcomplicating things.” The result is a small selection of hot and cold dishes such as oyster po’boy sliders, and silky octopus with harissa, salsa verde, piquillo peppers, and spicy pork sausage on arugula. $11-$28. 10 Temperance St., 647-348-7000, www.thechasetoronto.com