Monday, October 6, 2008

The Best Fall Getaway: New Orleans

A luxurious yet affordable trip? In a major American city? It can be done this fall, despite soaring gas prices and an economy on the fritz. Travel to the city of New Orleans where extravagance is possible – if you only know where to look.


The Soniat House – Featured in 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, this glamorous boutique hotel exudes traditional New Orleans charm from its convenient perch in the French Quarter. Formerly a Creole carriage house, the owners have updated the space with sparkling chandeliers, marble soaking tubs and gorgeous linens without compromising any of the property’s historical integrity. Silver tea service, valet parking and a romantic stonewalled courtyard simply add to the magic. Twenty percent off specials available now, Sunday through Thursday with rooms starting in the $200 range.

W Hotel – Unabashedly modern, this cutting-edge Starwood property offers rooms as low as $189 while a new promotion gives the third night away for free to guests arriving on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday. Winner of AAA’s Four Diamond award, this hotspot is trendy enough for hipsters (Rande Gerber designed lounge, poolside cabanas) yet still within the realm of affordability.

Omni Royal Crescent – Perfect for families, art aficionados or those looking for an amazing deal, this hotel’s location in the chic Art District spells savings. Although it’s only a short walk to the French Quarter, the difference in geography makes for massive reductions in price with specials beginning as low as $99 per/night. Floor-to-ceiling windows, free wi-fi and a rooftop sundeck and hot tub pamper guests.


Music, Festivals and Art:

Crescent City Blues & BBQ Festival – Hot music, Southern soul and delectable barbeque. Come hear local artists like Marva Wainwright and Walter “Wolfman” Washington free of charge.

VooDoo Music Experience – Diverse musicians unite at this three day concert in City Park with big-name acts like Panic at the Disco, Joss Stone, REM and Lil Wayne. Tickets range from $40-$50 per/day (discounted three-day passes also available) with free admission to children under the age of eight.

Swamp Fest - The Audubon Zoo hosts a festival celebrating Cajun music, food and culture with special events for children.

Prospect 1. – Contemporary art showcase of massive proportions, founded and curated by Dan Cameron, formerly of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City.


Swamp Tour – Watch alligators, nutria and other wildlife from the safety of your boat – just remember to keep your hands safely inside.

Oak Alley Plantation – Featured in Anne Rice’s Interview With a Vampire, this breathtaking property is famous for both its history and its popularity in movies.

Laura Plantation – Tour guides tell fascinating stories about the families who ran this two hundred year-old Creole sugar plantation, mainly based on the writings of Laura Locoul Gore.

Sporting Events:

Football – Come see the legendary New Orleans Saints in the Superdome or visit for the Bayou Classic.


Commander’s Palace – This gloriously over-the-top restaurant has been awarded top honors by the James Beard Foundation, Food & Wine and Gourmet. Although dinners here are costly, lunch is affordable with twenty-five cent martinis and entrees under twenty dollars.

Jacques Imo’s Café – Locals love the eccentric atmosphere and Creole cooking. Since it’s outside of the traditional tourist areas, prices are reasonable and generous portions of spicy blackened fish, mashed sweet potatoes and barbeque shrimp abound. Wild bayou murals and multicolored Christmas lights add to the zany, New Orleans ambience.

Central Grocery – Featured on NBC’s Today Show, this deli serves enormous muffulettas (round, sub-like sandwiches stacked with Italian meat, cheese and marinated olive salad) that could feed a family of four.

Café du Monde – Opened in 1862, this outdoor café has become a New Orleans institution. Grab a bag of warm beignets dusted with powdered sugar, a café au lait and sit down at a table near the Mississippi River like a true local.

It's Young, it's's Wine?

“Wine without the attitude,” is the surprising yet encouraging mantra of the maverick Neighborhood Tasting Society, a New York City organization as friendly and hip as its founder and director Stefani Jackenthal. As Stefani will gleefully inform you at one of her public classes, there are no right and wrong answers when tasting wine, merely differences in opinion. Each two-hour class focuses on a specific topic with past events ranging from the holiday themed Pinot Bianco & Pinot Noir…and no Green Beer to the sexy Cool Coastal & Mediterranean Wines for H-O-T Nights. Both the range and depth of varietals covered in her classes make it easy for beginning oenophiles to experiment, while her wine tasting mixers combine education along with amore.

Should you be willing to shell out more serious bank, Jackenthal and uber-chef Yvette James will demystify the world of wine and food pairings in the privacy and comfort of your own home. The NTS also performs corporate events, offering employers everything from team building exercises to wine etiquette lessons. Contact the NTS directly for rates.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Not Your Average Mac & Cheese

Let's be honest. Your travel photos can generally be found in one of two places: either stuck in hard drive limbo or stuffed in an old shoebox under the bed. Tragic? Totally. Because after using your camera to capture gazelles roaming the African bush and your brother’s destination wedding in Jamaica, you should preserve these treasured images along with the memories. Fortunately there's a solution. Round-up your JPEGS and email them to Mac and Cheese Design. Founded by two Parsons Grads, this design firm will transform your dusty stack o' pics into a glossy book faster than you can say vavoom. The resulting photo albums are effortlessly chic, fashionably sleek and coffee table ready. Did I mention they're customizable with fabric and layout? They also make meaningful gifts for family and friends - think anniversaries, weddings and showers.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Lisbon's Sexy Vibe

Lisbon's vibe of decaying grandeur makes it unintentionally sexy and smolderingly atmospheric. Eccentrically cool in a Grey Gardens "descended from aristocracy but fallen on hard times" type of chic, I can't get enough of the rusted ironwork balconies or weathered shutters. American stores like Anthropologie are always trying to manufacture the distressed look but it lacks a certain authenticity. Needless to say, Lisbon is muito cool since it's all leggy girls smoking cigarettes in outdoor cafes, antique stores packed floor to ceiling with funky art, and beer bars that keep it real with a combo of sophisticates and grizzled, unseemly drunks for patrons. New York City's East Village would kill for Lisbon's edginess. Oh and did I mention the crumbling castles or late night boites leaking Fado music into the evening air? But ladies, just a word of advice given the ancient street sitch - leave the Manolo slingbacks at home. From personal experience I can vouch for the fact that: Drinks + Cobblestones + Heels = Disaster.

When you visit you'll want to spend the morning walking through a romantic wormhole to the past in a neighborhood known as Alfama. The oldest and most atmospheric quarter of Lisbon, it resembles a Portuguese Norman Rockwell painting come to life: children kick soccer balls down dusty streets, neighbors yell across balconies and women in aprons string laundry up on clotheslines. It is in Alfama that Matt and I stop into a café of questionable provenance whose presence is announced by no open door, no official looking sign, but rather - a piece of paper taped outside that merely reads “vinho verde” in black marker. Intrigued, we enter this dimly lit haunt and enjoy our sweet, carbonated white wine while chatting with the owner about soccer and politics in a mélange of English, broken Spanish and charade-like hand gestures. The menu, another piece of paper taped to the wall features six choices - all of them fresh fish.

Nearby we visit Castelo de Sao Jorge, a sixth century castle full of high towers and ancient ramparts. After touring the grounds we tram it down to Solar do Vinho do Porto. Offering more than 200 varieties of Port, this specialty bar is housed inside a converted mansion and makes a great, if expensive, starting point from which to sample Portugal's famous fortified wine.

Dodging an afternoon rainstorm we take haven inside A Brasileria, a bohemian cafe serving custard tarts, coffee and a whole lot of atmosphere. But having heard rumors about Lisbon's legendary Ginjinha (local cherry brandy) we head around the corner for a taste. Rumor has it that the cherries placed in your glass contain lethal amounts of alcohol - sadly, ours come sans fruit but the brandy itself packs a punch. For dinner we repair to Cafe Martinho da Arcada in the Baixa district. Founded in 1782 it retains the honor of being the oldest cafe in Lisbon as well as a former literary haunt. Jacketed waiters serve rustically prepared cuisine - shrimp simmered in garlic, crispy herb roasted potatoes, fresh fish and steak wrapped in aged ham that all hit the right notes at our last official port of call.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Wine Tasting Aboard the Queen Victoria

Wine tasting seminars with Chief Sommelier Michael Standen are pretty sweet. First of all, you get to sample six different wines and pair them with nibbles like fruit, cheese & meat. He’ll also arm you with an informative booklet featuring wine aroma and mouth-feel wheels to help you hone your sense of smell and taste. But admittedly, the wheels are also useful for crafting pretentious phrases like “I detect vegetative notes of cut grass.” The buzz words you learn in this seminar (terroir, palate, tannins) while useful for wine tasting, can alternatively be used to pick-up women or also, to impress your boss at company dinners.

We sampled Champagne, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Chateuneuf-du-Pape, Pinotage and a Bordeux Blend. My favorite was the 2004 Chateau Mont-Redon Chateauneuf-du-Pape that smells of black currant and pepper. (See how good I’m getting with my wine aroma wheel? Ha.) I can just imagine pairing it with some lamb, stew or even ribs. But even if you just pop it open with some cheddar cheese and crackers, like I’m apt to do on a Friday evening, it’d still be delish.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Barcelona: Foodie Paradise

In Barcelona the holy trinity of bohemian culture meet – art, food and wine. There is the sipping of sangria. The munching of fried, juicy ham croquetas oozing cheese and the pure pleasure of lounging beneath the shadow of medieval buildings in the Gothic Quarter. Street performers and artists line the sidewalks. Laughter bubbles up from outdoor cafes. It's impossible not to be seduced by the beautiful people, savory food and striking architecture everywhere you turn.

We set out early to view Gaudi’s masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia Cathedral, Barcelona’s most distinctive landmark. Afterwards, we pop into the Picasso Museum, a surprisingly intimate gallery housed in two 15th century palaces. Exhibiting a wide range of art, including the Las Meninas series, it’s a powerful tribute to Picasso’s talent and offers glimpses at many of his earlier, lesser known works.

Afterwards we hit up Bar Pintoxo, an outdoor tapas stand housed inside the Mercat de la Boqueria. With no written menu and even less organized ordering, we mercifully take what the chef brings us - plates of meat, enormous crawfish and glasses of sparkly cava. He cooks for a huge crowd of admirers and as we’re seated a foot away from his tiny stovetop we’re able to marvel at his talent in the kitchen. The confines of elbow-to-elbow dining results in pleasant chatter with friendly locals and plenty of chances to practice our Spanish.

At Irati, the mood changes from frantic to romantic. Professionals speak softly, langouring in the dimly lit, modern space. The glass-topped bar brims with plates of every toothpickable snack imaginable. Bacon wrapped prawns! Warm mozzarella and roasted pepper slices on baguette! Sizzling chorizo! Patrons are charged on how many toothpicks are left on their plate before they exit (of which we have plenty, after discovering the fried seafood). Several glasses of Rioja later, we amble over to Bodega La Plata to drink humble homemade wine out of barrels while grumpy old men gossip loudly and wolf down fried sardines from a giant can on the counter. We're the only tourists here, which makes it worth the walk. (Tip: Try the sardines. Although they look scary they taste awesome, and they're a local specialty. There are only 3 types of wine to choose from - red, rose and white so don't expect bells and whistles but that's part of the fun.)

Forging onwards with full stomaches we hit Taller de Tapas for chilled sangria, laced with floating orange slices. The calamari is perfection, though they come with eyes, antennae and all. Beer lovers should make a pit stop at Bar del Pi for local cervesas (Bock Damm and San Miguel), as this place stocks plenty of choices. If you’re a foodie, an oenophile or enjoy nightlife – this is a city you’ll love – and when you’re not eating and drinking your way around town, there’s enough architecture, art and atmosphere to keep you occupied for days.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Rome - The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Rome, in all of its extremes, typifies the absolute pinnacle and the (at times) worst of Italian culture. On the plus side are the ancient ruins, opulent architecture and world class art collections capable of romancing even the most jaded traveler. Then there is the food (oh, the food!), the satisfying snap of al dente pasta, the creamy decadence of hazelnut gelatto, the rich, salty gluttony of carbonara sauce. And it's hard not to envy a culture where passion rules, pleasure is indulged and relaxing is encouraged.

However, the exchange rate can send a casual dinner into the exorbitant realm quickly, and the crowds of tourists seem to be omnipresent. Most likely you'll be doing quite a bit of walking, so pack comfortable shoes and your patience (or better yet: hire a private car to whisk you around to avoid the madness on the street).

Seeing the Colosseum was the highlight of my day and we took the audio tour (totally worth the few extra Euros) that dispensed lots of historical info about the games, gladiators and so forth. Afterwards we strolled through the massive Piazzas framed by baroque cathedrals and ivy draped mansions. Street after street offered one atmospheric café after another, with fashionable locals in sunglasses smoking and chatting and gesticulating wildly with their hands while bands of serious looking priests wandered past (oh, how Italian!). We munched at crowded outdoor tables, downing snacks here and there – splitting paninis, bowls of homemade pasta and cones of gelato (the Tiramisu flavor is a must-try). One of our favorite spots was Cul de Sac, a streetside enoteca with a huge wine list and Italian tapas. It’s impossible not to be seduced by the charm, number and artistry of the sights, food and culture which is why, even though Rome can be chaotic and loud at times, it's absolutely worth visiting and a once in a lifetime experience.