Friday, July 16, 2010

Free Willy (Hermanus, South Africa)

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The World Cup may be over but there are still plenty of reasons to visit South Africa. One of those reasons is whale season and we think there is no better place to watch the whales then Hermanus. Hermanus is a small but magical town on the southern tip of the country where you, if you plan your trip right, are guaranteed pure amazement. You can watch huge Southern Right Whales come right near the shore to nurse their young in the small inlets along the coast line. Whale season is July to late November but we think the best time to visit is late September, when you can catch the whale festival as well.
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In our opinion, there is only one place to stay in this town and that is the Birkenhead House. You drive along in this seemingly unassuming coastal town to pull up to what seems like the garage of your own home. Don't judge a book by its cover - what lays beyond the garage is a beautiful and luxurious home perched on a dramatic cliff overlooking Walker Bay and ideal for whale watching. When we were here, the hostess showed us to our room sprinkled with rose petals. Imagine a moment when the hotel door opens and you see a sight that gives you the urge to squeal in delight and jump on the bed. We managed to keep it together while she described the hotel facilities which included two pools, one which overlooks the infamous bay.

As she was describing the daytime excursions to our gaping open-mouthed faces, another person slipped in almost unnoticed and popped open a bottle of champagne. Oh no - we protested - we did not ask for this - we'll have a glass later. She then smiled and said - "Oh dears, everything is included here. Please enjoy as much food and drink as you like." In our book, this is reason enough to come visit this dream-like place. Note also that they have an adjacent property called the Birkenhead Villa for those families travelling with children.

Dinner was another experience..you descend down the stairs where the chef prepares you almost anything you like served up in a luxurious style in a 5-star setting. We almost forgot we weren't famous.

If more standardized luxury is your cup of tea, leave it to Relais & Chateux to have your spot. The Marine Hermanus is yet another luxury hotel with perched right on cliff with 42 individually fresh and sophisticated rooms and suites with all suites having a view of the bay. They have an open kitchen at the Pavilion with Mediterranean and Eastern cuisine with seats designed in a way to be able to whale watch during your meal from July to November.


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If you want something a little more adventurous, your hotel can organize a shark dive tour. You will be placed in a cage and shark bait is delivered around the cage so that you can get a close up view of a hungry shark. We were assured that this was safe but definitely not an excursion for the faint of heart (or stomach, as we learned).

There are also several boat operators including Dyer Island Cruises that can take you on a boat to get a little closer to the magical whales. During whale season, you will also most likely get to see penguins and dolphins on your trip.
We think the best thing to do here is to take a walk along the perfect path carved out on on the cliffs overlooking the bay on the Overberg Mountains. This path is filled with finely manicured gardens with flowers and even insects that you most likely have never seen before. There are little benches and chairs along your way where you can sit and have the ideal spot for enjoying the scenery and watching the whales. If you forget to pack your bottle of Veuve, a perfect spot for having a cocktail with a view over the bay is the Sun Lounge at the Marine Hermanus.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Home Away from Home - Really! (Agrigento & Palma di Montechiaro, Sicily)

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There just are not enough hotels in the world that really make you feel like family.

We love the feel of coming home and seeing the extended family but let's be honest, Christmas comes but once a year. Lucky us for finding a beautiful olive oil farm in southern Sicily with Sylvia and Gisueppe, the two owners who feel like your loving aunt and uncle welcoming you back home. Azienda Agricola Mandranova is a stunning olive oil farm complete with spacious rooms luxuriously designed by someone who knows how to bring a little heart into modern design.

The property stretches over many acres and includes 10 doubles, 5 suites, and two self-catering villas if you choose. One villa comes with its own sulfur infinity pool overlooking the olive trees. The farm also has a regular medium sized pool that also overlooks the property. There is no TV or phones in the rooms but Giuseppe is more than happy to play a billiards game or watch a movie with you in the main living room. You really can't get any better than the Sicilian hospitality here at Mandranova. An added bonus - Sylvia offers cooking classes in which you learn three main things: don't cut corners, don't waste anything, and the end product will be worth the time and effort. Quite a good motto for life too, we must say.
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Dinnertime at Mandranova is the real highlight. Guests gather around the small lush "piazza" area around 7:30, mingling and enjoying a glass of prosecco or wine. Syliva then asks guests to sit at small tables outside all close enough to feel as though you are dining with your extended family. Giuseppe weaves in and out of the tables offering a wonderful Sicilian wine collection, all priced at cost. He then also brings their prize winning olive oil around the tables, proclaiming various things are "beauty-vool!" Then comes the food. The food, the food, the food. At first you think Gisueppe is the charmer but now you learn that Sylvia is the real soul of the operation - offering four courses which include appetizer, primi, secondi, and dessert. She serves what can only be described as gorgeous food, and comes around and encourages seconds of every course (just like mom!). Highlights from our stay included a perfectly al dente sicilian penne norma (tubes with eggplant and ricotta with chili peppers), spiced mustard pork loin, and a to-die-for chocolate cake with the leftover chili baked in with a perfect touch of surprise heat.
If you are here for a longer stay (we don't recommend venturing out for dinner unless you are here for longer than three days) and are craving a fine dining experience, we would suggest you try La Madia, a 20 minute drive from Mandranova to the small town of Licata. This area is not known for many restaurants, so they are lucky to have such a great restaurant in the neighborhood. The decor is not much to speak of and it may be a bit cheesy to some, but the food is delicious and worthy of its two Michelin stars. The chef is mostly self taught which is rare for this caliber of a restaurant and is more than happy to stop by and chat with you (er, in Italian) about your dining experience.

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Agrigento is a perfect stop for all of the history buffs out there with the beautiful Valley of the Temples. Some say that in Sicily you find better preserved Greek temples than exist in Greece itself. Originally called Akragas, the Valley of Temples was founded as a Greek colony in the late 6th century BC. You can take a tour on site which will take you through this amazing archaeological park and learn the story of the rise and fall of one of Sicily’s most important ancient cities.

The beaches here are not the most beautiful beaches in the world but they are still fun and filled with Italian families vacationing here in the summer. Our favorite stop was Lido Miramare near the Baia D'Oro Hotel. The best part of this small beach is the delicious fresh fish and white wine served up at lunchtime. They also have fresh bruschetta and spaghetti all served up with the divine Mandranova olive oil..

Modica is a bit further away at about an hours drive but this is where the first chocolate was ever made. Needless to say, it has been perfected here from ancient recipes at the world's first chocolate factory. Worth a trip if you can tear yourself away from the beach.


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In addition to the cooking class offered by Silvia, Giuseppe takes guests out dolphin spotting - or swimming in the warm season - with a tasty lunch on a small island ending with a trip to the fish market in Port Licati. He can also take you on a tour of the olive oil grounds, regaling you with stories of his family's land, olive oil production, and even the Mafia. Plenty of things to do here but we preferred to lay by the fresh water pool, overlooking the beautiful grounds, drinking a glass of olive oil. Olive oil, you balk? Don't judge us until you've tried the stuff.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Insomnia in the City (New York City, USA)

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In honor of the day Thomas Jefferson and John Adams penned our Declaration of Independence and (in a strange twist of fate) died the same fourth day of July fifty years later, I have decided to focus this edition a little close to home. Many parts of this country inspire us but the one city that still gives us the butterflies is the one that never sleeps. It is, after all, the concrete jungle where dreams are made of. And since we made it here, yea, we can make it anywhere - let's hear it for New York! (thanks to Jay-Z & Alicia Keys to some of the best lyrics of all time). We have focused this edition on the city with the big lights that might just inspire you.


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If money is no object, the best there is for a summer weekend is the Soho House. It's outdoor pool is where the who's who get to be seen by the other who's who. The rooms have a quiet industrial vibe with a crazy mix of styles in every room - decor ranges from modern with an antique flair to contemporary with a retro hippie touch. We happen to love the small unassuming entrance that you would walk right past if you weren't in the know. The hard part is getting a room - if you happen to be one of the lucky few, don't forget your designer swimwear.

If you are a design junkie, there is one hotel you can't miss. Praised by almost every important design magazine, the Crosby Street Hotel is a piece of art. You won't have to visit an art museum when you sleep here in an environment that has almost every color, creating a little bit of modern sophistication with a touch of Alice in Wonderland.

For those people in the know, Robert DeNiro's Greenwich Hotel is what other hotels in the city strive to be. It has a simple comfort that has perfected the melting pot design vibe. Exposed brick walls are classic New York City with Asian and African influences and comfy furniture that make you wish this was your home. The selling point? Locanda Verde is the hotel's restaurant, where chef Andrew Carmellini makes high-end Italian comfort food like pumpkin agnolotti, grandmother's ravioli, and melt-in-your-mouth lamb sliders.

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Although speakeasys are a badly kept secret in this city, we love the pretend secrecy and great drinks. Little Branch is a special place that makes us feel as though we are part of a inner circle of artists enjoying a drink during p
rohibition. Once you are inside, the "mixologists" know every cocktail ever invented on the planet and probably will serve you up the best version of your favorite drink. If you don't have a favorite drink, leave your fate in their hands. Tell them what you are in the mood for, and be prepared to tell all of your friends about it. If you can remember it the next day.

Tillman's Bar & Lounge is a hidden spot where Cuba meets New York meets Harlem. If you know another place where we can hear Billie Holiday and Bob Marley while sipping champagne and eating a grilled cheese, let us know. We'll be in the middle booth.

Wine bars are commonplace pretty much everywhere, but Casellula in Hell's Kitchen has mastered the concept. It's everything that you expect from a wine bar - cozy, intimate, dark, and a great wine list. But the reason to come here is the food. They have an amazing cheese list and each cheese you order is paired with a unique spread. Ordinary jams and nuts are for losers here as the fromager pairs each selection with rare things that have included peanut brittle, preserved pear, bell pepper marmalade, and curry flavored caramel popcorn.

New York is known for its attitude and we've never understood the velvet rope culture. However, the hardest place to get into in the city is the Boom Boom Room in the relatively new Standard Hotel. This club is a throwback to the Rainbow Room - complete with 70s decor, gorgeous waitresses, and glitz and gold literally dripping from every corner. The cocktails are pricey but worth it.





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there are plenty of restaurants to spend your entire paycheck on in this city, but we think Jean Georges is the best place to do it. It is a top-of the line dining experiences where you definitely need to master your cutlery skills before entering. You will feel like someone special here as waiters present the delectable French delicacies with the anticipated "voila!"

If you can manage to actually get a table with the online poker-esque reservation system, momofuku ko is a foodie delight not for those with a faint food heart. David Chang is nothing short of a genius, and he serves up his masterpieces in a bar setting with barstools and Pink Floyd playing from his iPod. We were lucky enough to get a table here one night and our highlight was frozen shaved foie gras over riesling gelee and pine nut brittle. I think we can leave it at that.

If you are in the mood for honest Tuscan fare, go to Pepolino in Tribeca. It's delicious with simple ingredients with real Italians serving up the fare. Try the lemon tagliatelle or the spaghetti cacio e pepe.

If the recession has you down, cheer up with a classic cold beer and delicious burger. We believe Corner Bistro does it the best and you can have your combo for a mere $10.

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If you actually find time to venture into any of the other boroughs (what? there is another borough?) Buttermilk Channel in Carroll Gardens (Brooklyn) is worth the trip. If you can snag a table at brunch, you can enjoy chicken or cheddar waffles and hot strawberry and rhubarb tarts.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Ein Bier, Bitte! (Cologne, Germany)

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There may be many reasons to visit Cologne, Germany. Its status as the fourth largest city in Germany is a good one. It location on the beautiful River Rhine is another. However, we believe white asparagus season is the best reason to visit. We don’t get to indulge in this tasty treat here because it is popular only in northern Europe - it is harvested in Germany between April and June 24th of each year. The farmer hills up sand and compost over the root stocks to blanch the shoots as they grow. We were lucky enough to visit this city on the Rhine during this season and enjoyed our new found vegetable with a little bit of sun.


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As usual, here are our recommendations for unique and interesting places to stay:

You can’t really get better than having a Michelin starred restaurant on the top floor of the tallest old building in Europe, but
Hotel Im Wasserturm manages to have both. This tall circular building has unusual room floor plans with a touch of Paris and a sprinkle of deco. But don’t let the age fool you - this hotel has everything top-of the line: a great lounge, spa, delicious breakfasts, and everything else you would expect from a luxury hotel. The hotel is also just outside the city center so you can relish your unique luxury in a calm environment.

The most famous and grand hotel is the Hotel Excelsior Ernst. Built in 1963, it has had guests from every state head to any important VIP to visit Cologne. The rooms are magnificent and ornate, complete with rich fabrics like heavy silk and velvet. The hotel is still luxurious today, complete with all modern luxuries like flat screen satellite TV’s, spa, and every major city newspaper delivered to your door in the morning. The best part? The amazing French restaurant Hanse Stube that will leave you amazed. In case the hotel gets you in mood for old-world style, you can relax after dinner at the old-fashioned piano bar, complete with mahogany panels.

dine

In addition to the two hotel restaurants mentioned above, we found a couple more places worth the trip:

La Societe is a small unassuming restaurant with a hefty price tag but the most creative cuisine we have ever experienced. The chef’s surprise menu is definitely worth it - highlights include a passion fruit gelee with a vodka martini foam (woah!) and a very generous cheese plate with samples from almost every region in France.

3 Fritz is a small café in the center of town that makes a mean currywurst with prosecco. Just in case you wanted your bratwurst with a side of sophistication.

don’t miss

You can’t visit any town in Germany and not have a beer, and Cologne is no different. The local beer Koelsch, is a light and fruity ale served in small skinny glasses and has a respect from locals similar to a fine wine. Get your fill of this tasty beer in the historic pub Frueh or in the more young and hip Scheinbar. Be sure to notice the Kobes, the waiters dressed in blue that serve up this local drink.

If listening to the latest tunes is more up your alley, be sure to stop by Paeff, the sister bar to Paffgen. Wear your earplugs, its loud in there.

For all the chocolate lovers out there, be sure to make a stop at the famous Chocolate Museum. You can easily forget about the Dom when you taste some of this delicious chocolate from a continuous sprouting fountain of chocolate goodness. We felt like Charlie in Wonkaland.

Friday, June 18, 2010

holy holland...(Netherlands)

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A trip to Amsterdam may conjure a few seedy images but I spent the last three days in a decidedly different Holland. The mister and I with our babe in tote decided to spend three nights in the Holland countryside. Our first stop is the small waterland Dutch town of Monnickendam - we exit off the motorway to a small town on the water that has the pretty wooden houses, cobblestone streets, and a string of fisherman restaurants and bars next to the mini-canals that protect the town.

We found a treasure that is somewhat common in Europe but less so here in the US: a restaurant with rooms. These finds tend to center around a fine dining restaurant with a small number of cozy rooms upstairs. The Suitehotel Poosthorn was quite a bit more than a restaurant with rooms. They start of course with a Michelin-starred eatery with a decadent five course menu. To that they add 5 perfectly designed suites that are stylishly vintage modern. No detail has been overlooked, from the fur-lined bed pillows to the antique hot/cold knobs in the luxurious over-sized soaking tub.

Monnickendam is close to a few more Dutch water towns, most notably Volendam, Marken, and Edam. A visit would not be complete without a quick visit to Edam (yes the origin of the cheese - yum!) and a chef's surprise dinner at Fortuna in Edam. However, once you are ready to explore the modern capital of Holland, (ps, it's not the Hague) - Amsterdam is a short 15 minute bus or car ride away.

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As usual, here are our recommendations for a other boutique and unique places to stay, and notably they are all in the city and more near the action:

The most chic and hip hotel in the city is undoubtedly the Dylan. The hotel was designed in a theater from the 17th century and screams luxury. The second best thing about this hotel is the location on a very quiet canal street right in the center of the city. The best thing? The amazing restaurant in the hotel that is definitely a splurge worth every penny. Don't miss out on the airy bar in the secluded courtyard in the back. The hotel also has free bicycles for its guests in the front of the hotel. You won't need the bikes to explore the museums; the hotel is next door to the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh museum.

If opulent over-the-top luxury is your style, try the Toren hotel. Think old world style - chandeliers and velvet - all in a modern setting. Each of the 36 rooms is unique and each has a whirlpool to unwind after a long day in the city. Their famous restaurant also will serve you a scrumptious dinner in your room if you can't bring yourself to go downstairs afterwards. The Toren is situated on the Keizersgracht in the centre of Amsterdam, a stone's throw away from the beautiful Jordaan district, which has the Anne Frank house and the tower of Westerkerk.

On a budget but still crave the style? Try Qbic hotels designed around a state-of-the art cube complete with Phillipe Stark accents. You feel transported into the future with a self-service check in and vending machines that have wine, USB ports, and even homemade cookies. Prices are around 60 euros for the night.

Want to save but not into the Jetsens? Try Hotel Vondel. It's a unique design hotel with all the comforts of a luxury hotel and a third of the price. The hotel designer has perfected comfy sophistication and the hotel has a peaceful vibe. Word on the street is that the bartenders serve up a mean cocktail - perfect for unwinding after a long day on the town.

Hotel living not really your style? Try booking the affordable Amsterdam Boutique Apartments. They are five luxury apartments designed with Dutch flair and a touch of the Orient. Each apartment has a fridge, kitchenette, and a couch in the living room that pulls out to a bed.


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The Blonde Hollander is a typical dutch restaurant with all of the local fare: meatballs, herring, potatoes. Go somewhere else if you are watching calories but trust us, this place is worth the extra pounds.

Envy can definitely be the highlight of your trip. It's one of the seven sins that is worth indulging. The food is tapas style portions so you can try a myriad of plates and flavors. Another added bonus is the open kitchen with 26 refrigerators that showcase wines and various food.

If you have a car and can travel a little bit out of town, de kas is absolutely worth the trip. Located on a farm with its own greenhouse, the flavors and textures are as fresh as you can imagine.


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Once you've had your fill of Van Gogh and Vermeer, rent a bike and hit the Nine Streets to see the retail side of creative. These small nine streets house some of the most creative, stylish, innovative, and just plain funky stores. After you have had your retail fill, have a glass of wine in the area at Vyne. Sit outside on the canal if its nice, or cozy up to your date in the long suede benches and dimly lit modern wine cases that line the walls.

There is nothing better than having local friends to show you around a city - you somehow avoid any tourist traps and get to the heart of the town. No local friends? Fear not - try finding a few at like-a-local.com. Your new "friends" can do a host of activities with you: take you on a shopping tour of Amsterdam, invite you to their canal parked houseboat for a nice meal, or explore the less-touristy parts of town on a bike. It can work out to be quite the deal as well - prices range from 20 to 40 euros, and dinners usually include a decent amount of wine.