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.

La Dolce Vita in Capri

If there is a place to roll around on your bed in La Perla underwear while eating bonbons and drinking expensive champagne, it is Capri. So if this sounds like your thing, then book your tickets, drop your kids/pets/live-in manny at your mother-in-law’s house and fly to Italy as soon as humanly possible.

Once used as a getaway for Roman emperors and later on, as a destination for the world’s fashionable elite, it should come as no surprise that Capri is overwhelmingly chic. It’s the Audrey Hepburn, the Carolina Herrera, the dare I say it…Jackie O. of the vacation world. Yet what separates this Italian island from other exclusive retreats is that Capri isn’t overdone. It’s not a scene, nor does it cater to tourists in all of the obvious ways that so many destinations often do in order to attract business. There are no flashing lights or casinos. No Pizza Hut darkens these shores (thankfully this is the land of homemade pizza dough, made with real herbs and recipes passed down from Nonna). And since there are no sixty floor mega-hotels crowding the waterfront, when you ride the funicular on your way up the steep, rocky coast to the top, all you see are tiny whitewashed villas perching daintily over miles of sparkling turquoise sea.

Refreshingly, the locals own thriving businesses cooking, managing small hotels and operating upscale boutiques. Vespas cruise up and down side streets while children walk home from soccer practice. The fact that locals continue to live here adds an element of timelessness to Capri’s beauty that one rarely finds when traveling. There is nothing manufactured about this island’s glamour and in stark contrast to a place like Dubai, it is the island’s appealing authenticity that is a simple luxury in itself. Its homage to culture, tradition and antiquity is something that exists organically, upping the charm factor immensely.

On my recent jaunt here I began my day at the Piazzetta, the social heart of the island where over glasses of Italian wine my husband and I watched men in cashmere sweaters savor bowls of pasta, immaculately turned out in leather shoes and cufflinks. Europeans on vacation lazily read newspapers at nearby café tables, shaded from the sun by large umbrellas. Women laden down with gold jewelry and oversized Tod’s bags navigated the cobblestone streets in stiletto heels. There was bubbly conversation. Air kisses were exchanged. Cocktail waiters bustled between the crowded bistro tables with silver trays balancing cocktails and bowls of taralli, a sort of savory, addictive Italian cracker. It could have been the beautiful weather or the result of a limoncello-induced haze, but everyone seemed to be smiling, staring at the cloudless blue sky and taking their time eating, drinking and enjoying life through the lenses of their very expensive sunglasses. It’s a very welcoming place this Capri, especially after a few glasses of Chianti.

Sadly, our plan to visit the Blue Grotto was foiled as it was closed due to rough seas so instead Matt and I made the executive decision to scoot down a series of turret-like steps to La Pergola for lunch. Our table practically hovered over the water, situated as it was on a stone terrace surrounded by breathtaking ocean views on one side and a fragrant lemon grove on the other. Hours passed along with the courses - a Caprese salad, crusty bread, fresh seafood, fruit, more wine. Our waiter, applauding our basic attempts at Italian conversation loaded us down with free glasses of the chef’s personal limoncello, made from the fruit trees in the garden. It is at this point that I fully fell in love with Capri, and maybe a little bit, our Italian chef.

The generosity of the welcoming locals, the so-simple-it's-sophisticated food, the impressive cliffside views and flowering vegetation all create an enveloping experience of understated elegance. In Capri you can sink into a lazy afternoon from a hotel balcony, sip a bottle of the best wine in the world or shop for $30,000 jewelry crafted out of diamonds and coral. Or you can swim in the sea, nibble on lemon granita and spend the afternoon in a local’s kitchen. This island is at once sophisticated and childish, luxurious and humble. You can engage exactly as much or as little with the world around you as you wish, which is why it makes the perfect spot for a honeymoon as well as an ideal place for a family vacation. My idea of a perfect day would involve quietly lounging poolside, listening to the ebb and flow of the waves below while reading and drinking strong, Italian espresso. In the afternoon I’d dress for shopping, cocktails and a fabulous Italian dinner followed by a walk with my husband down those romantic alleyways, overgrown with flowers and vines. Needless to say - I'm coming back as soon as I possibly can.


J.K. Place – This fashion forward boutique hotel set above the Marina Grande offers concierge service including helicopter transfers and boat rides, the use of a stunning heated outdoor pool, posh dining room, bar and spa services. Prices range from $500 to $2,200 Euros a night.

Da Paolino (Palazzo a Mare 11, 081-8376102) – Located only a short walk away from J.K. Place, this classic Capri standby often plays host to celebrities, but still remains popular for its fresh, homemade pasta with locals and visiting tourists. Outdoor seating in a fragrant lemon grove ups the romance factor. Prices range from $30 to $60 Euros per/person.

Guarracino Taverna (Via Castello 7, 081-837-0514) – This rustic, authentic tavern (formerly an olive oil press) is conveniently located a stone’s throw from La Piazzetta and makes you feel like a real Italian without the exorbitant prices so common in Capri.

Carthusia – Go home smelling like those beautiful Italian women or pick up a bottle as a gift for a special friend. These limited production perfumes are created using the ancient techniques of the Carthusian monks, while local flora is added to give the various fragrances their exotic, special scent.

Limoncello di Capri – Lemon trees run rampant on Capri and this traditional Italian after-dinner drink celebrates the local fruit in a delicious way. Less sugary and refreshingly tarter than many other limoncellos available Stateside, this one packs a punch and is the perfect thing to remind you of your vacation once you return home.

Canfora – Handmade leather sandals ranging from the demure to more eye-catching versions embellished with bling, whimsical flowers and sea life are available for purchase. Undoubtedly chic, these classic kicks are the perfect complement to a simple summer shift dress or a pair of raw silk cropped pants.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Athens, Greece

So it turns out that ouzo gives you really bad hangovers. Ditto for absinthe. And since some of us were up late last night drinking absinthe mojitos, shots of ouzo and the odd cigarette or eight - this entry is going to be kind of like my visit to Athens – short, but sweet. The ancient architecture in this city is stunning, so if you travel here be sure not to miss the Acropolis, the Athens Marble Stadium, Hadrian’s Arch, Temple of Olympian Zeus or the National Archeological Museum which all offer glimpses into the city’s illustrious past.

After marveling at the jaw-dropping views of the city from the Acropolis, Matt & I decided to soak up some local culture, something which we found both amazing and insufferable in equal parts. But even the negatives: the loud, screaming chatter, the pushing and shoving on the subway and the apathetic service seemed to melt away when we observed the passion and joy with which the Greeks live life. They are just as quick to buy you a drink as to step on your foot and once you get used to this erratic behavior, it becomes kind of liberating.

We stopped in at Bretto’s Ouzeri, a quaint marble-topped bar crammed with wall-to-wall bottles of exotically flavored liqueur and giant barrels of ouzo. Sip a decadent cocktail, smoke the Cubans on offer and chat with the gossipy locals (who are more than happy to tell you every last detail about themselves). We loved it so much we came back twice in the same day. If you’re into beer, a must-see is Craft, Athens’ only microbrewery. We adored the Weisse Lager and Black Ale and paired them with crispy zucchini fritters dipped in minty yogurt sauce for lunch. After viewing the guards outside the Parliament House and sipping vino at the Grand Bretagne Hotel (don’t miss the views from the rooftop bar on the 8th floor) we strolled around Psiri, an up and coming nabe full of coffee shops and nightlife boites popular with young locals. We popped into the Platanos Taverna for our last meal of the day and located down a series of winding alleyways, beneath the stars this outdoor café was incredibly romantic. In a neighborhood of crumbling row houses and courtyards dripping with bougainviella, we ate in a dimly lit courtyard filled with Greek families. The tender lamb, spicy moussaka, warm bread and feta cheese (washed down with a local white wine) was simple, totally unpretentious and nothing short of perfect. If you're planning a trip - check out Matt Barrett's Athens Guide, it's an insider's guide chock full of practical information and a great resource for any traveler.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Activities Onboard the Queen Victoria

The Queen Victoria is a fab ship with plenty of lavish details (a martini bar with wall to wall glass windows overlooking the ocean) and small luxuries (white gloved tea service). A Veuve Clicquot Champagne Bar, Todd English restaurant, cushy cabins and elegant teak deck chairs only contribute to the posh British ship effect. Plus, Cunard’s emphasis on customer service and a 2-to-1 guest to crew ratio means that you’ll be very well looked after indeed. However, there are a few crucial things you should be aware of before planning to cruise on the Queen Victoria.

First, Cunard markets themselves to an elderly audience. I kid you not: seminars on arthritis and swollen ankles, vegetable carving demonstrations and bingo games are daily occurrences. But the sports on the ship are truly redeeming and include: paddle tennis, table tennis, outdoor chess, an indoor gym, shuffleboard, deck quoits, golf chipping cages (for an additional fee), fencing, ballroom dancing classes and use of the two pools and four Jacuzzis.

Additional activities include: wine tasting seminars, travel lectures, musical theater productions, an internet center, board games, line dancing classes, cocktail mixology classes, whist and bridge tournaments, black-tie balls, art auctions, comedians and daily trivia. The casino features slot machines, blackjack, roulette, Caribbean poker and 3-stud poker. Matinee movies are offered at 2 p.m. daily and range from classics (Gone With the Wind) to current (No Country For Old Men). There’s also a two-story library which has a nice selection of fiction and non-fiction as well as a massive assortment of travel books. And then of course, there are the bars & lounges in which to tipple an expertly made cocktail and dance the night away.

You won’t find ice skating rinks or video arcades – so if you’ve got young kids or are looking for people under 40 to party the night away with, this might not be your ship. But in a strange way, this lack of trendy activities is actually an asset for those passengers looking to avoid the dreaded "family vacationers" so prevalent on other cruise lines. Meaning that on the Queen Victoria you can settle into your enormous chaise lounge, wait for the waitress to take your drink order and then happily sip your daiquiri in adults-only peace (no screaming kids by the pool…no hordes of roaming teens in the clubs...hooray!) while you listen to the sound of the waves quietly crashing below you.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Egypt: Luxor, Karnak & Valley of the Kings

Sleepily, we board our bus at sunrise and watch the tiny port town of Safaga recede into the distance. Mountains give way to barren desert plains brushed in shades of ochre and burnt umber, the landscape so utterly remote that it reminds me of emptiness. Nothingness stretches into nothingness here, flat sand blows unchecked for miles, and every twenty minutes or so we spot a Bedouin woman cloaked in black, moving slowly under the bright sun as her people have done for generations. Tiny makeshift homes of falling stone seem to appear out of nowhere while children crouch nervously in their shadowed doorways, the odd camel hitched to a post nearby. Occasionally we pause at a military checkpoint in a town of 50 or 100 where armed guards poke their heads out of watchtowers, aiming rifles at the road while men on donkeys pulling carts of sugarcane allow us to pass. There are smiles and waves exchanged. And then once again we are traveling through the desolate acres of sand, staring at nothing but the open sky.

And yet, once we arrive at our destination it rises like a mythic city out of the windswept desert. The Karnak Temple sprawls across 62 acres of sand, its tall obelisks, pillars and sculptures diverting sharply from the otherwise flat horizon. We walk through this massive complex of ancient ruins built by pharaohs over a period of two millennia and the effect is humbling in both scale and architectural grandeur. We roam like children through the labyrinth of corridors, beneath pillars scraping the sky, into dead ends and twisting alleyways of walls carved with birds, scarabs and ankhs, getting lost amid this romantically crumbling maze of stone.
The Temple of Luxor sits nearby, and shares some of Karnak’s architectural renderings. We visit the Avenue of human headed Sphinxes approaching 1.5 miles in length and crane our necks upwards to see the enormous sculptures glaring down at us. At sunset the effect is magical here, the orange sun descending into the Nile, the haunting song of the muezzin as he calls people to prayer, the echo of footsteps through dark stone passages. We also visit the Valley of the Kings, a city of the dead consisting of 62 tombs, including legendary King Tut’s. These tombs are carved straight into the mountains and upon descending into their innermost recesses, it is as if you are discovering a secret cave – one filled with elaborate wall paintings and carvings left thousands of years ago.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Shiver Me Timbers

Nothing spoils a vacation quite like raping and pillaging, that's what I say. Apparently Cunard agrees, since they've just installed a sonic boom canon designed to deter people of the peg-legged, beer swilling, pet bird keeping variety from hijacking our ship. Unfortunately, this cannon like, so totally kills my idea for a passenger pirate-watch party sponsored by Captain Morgan Rum. Throw in a few pairs of binoculars, an all-you-can-drink rum bar and some wasted cruise guests and I'm thinking this would be much less expensive than the LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Technology), but what the hell do I know about marketing or business strategy. Seriously though Captain Morgan...if you're out there...I'm looking for a job in May.

Even though it ruined my Great Idea of the Century, I will forgive the LRAD's presence onboard since it will prevent us from being kidnapped for ransom like that French yacht and will save us from gunfire in the Suez Canal (where we happen to be headed).

And FYI peeps. Mark your calendars. Or treasure maps. Or whatever. International Talk Like a Pirate Day is September 19th.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Todd English On The Queen Victoria

Matt and I have now been to the Todd English restaurant onboard the Queen Victoria several times and it just keeps getting better. At only $20 per/person for lunch and $30 per/person for dinner it’s a real value in terms of service and food. Generous baskets of warm rolls and seasoned flatbreads are served upon arrival with assorted tapenades. The décor is muted and intimate with its chic booths overlooking the ocean and tables covered in simple white table linens – a drastic departure from the main dining room which can be huge, crowded and impersonal. The appetizers and entrees are always competently cooked, not to mention enormous and expertly plated. We particularly love the seafood here and there’s no doubt that the ingredients served in Todd English are held to a more rigorous standard than elsewhere on the ship. They are simply fresher and of higher quality than those served in the Brittania dining room so come here to celebrate a special occasion or to splurge on a romantic meal for two with a bottle of wine. You’ll leave feeling well-looked after, satisfied and content with this sophisticated departure from the rest of the ship’s old-fashioned fare. A little piece of modern Manhattan gastronomy has found its way onto the Queen Victoria and all I can say is Hallelujah for that!

Friday, April 4, 2008

Oman's "Second City" - Salalah

Salalah, located on the southeastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula is all stunning white beaches and acres of desert. This stark landscape seduces the imagination; this striking contrast of camels and men in white dishdashas and muzzars silhouetted against the vast expanse of sky seems to channel scenes straight out of Lawrence of Arabia, making you feel as if you are very, very far away from home. Upon arrival, it so hot that the air seems to waver, while swift breezes sweep across the flat terrain, rustling the palm fronds and propelling sand across the few pavement roads. Several passengers are pick pocketed in town, though we experience none of this threatening behavior, and are instead driven around by an amiable Ahmad, who races his taxi at Grand Prix-like speeds down the deserted highway.

Though Salalah possesses several points of interest for tourists (Job’s tomb, Al Balid archaeological site, Mughsail Beach), the city is most famous for its abundance of frankincense, available for purchase at the Al Husn Souk. Matt and I chose to forgo this shopping excursion in order to drink margaritas, having purchased all of the frankincense we need, which is to say, exactly none. Instead we spent the afternoon enjoying the sound of waves breaking on the beach from a pair of lounge chairs at the Salalah Hilton Resort. Though it’s located in the middle of nowhere (which says a lot, since the town of Salalah is already sort of in the middle of nowhere) its isolation only serves to increase the level of exoticism one feels upon arrival.

Hammocks dot the sandy beach and soft music is piped in by the poolside, where waiters quietly bestow drinks on the few vacationers scattered here and there. The Hilton’s Palm Grove Restaurant offers world class satay, beautiful spiced kebabs and crisp salads. Kitted out in an Arabian Nights-meets-Ikea minimalist décor, the design truly inspires the simple beachside boite, making it a zen spot in which to dine while gazing at the turquoise ocean. We finish off the afternoon befriending locals by assuring them that though we are American, we aren’t Bush supporters. Oddly (or not), this brings on a series of enthusiastic kisses from a Muslim man who then attempts to sell me a taxidermied lobster. Puzzled but ultimately amused, Matt & I speed back to the ship passing a vista of palm trees and sand, palm trees and sand as we prepare to set sail for the distant shores of Egypt.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Dubai:Playground of the Rich & Famous

Like a Hollywood movie set on steroids, Dubai is a city of exotic facades designed to excite the senses and create a faux reality for those who can afford it. Ski hills in shopping malls, manmade islands visible from outer space and rotating apartment buildings are only a few examples of Dubai's "more is more" philosophy. Yet it's a city of contradictions - modernists struggle to make Dubai first in tourism and trade, yet they must work within the confines of social traditionalists trying to preserve local culture amid a constant influx of expats. In a city where law is deeply rooted in the Muslim belief system, unmarried pregnant women can face deportation, alcohol is sold only in hotels and eating and drinking in public is punishable during the month of Ramadan. It is this constant push and pull of conflicting desires which to me, defines Dubai.

Matt and I spend the morning touring the quaint, historic Bastakia Quarter built in the late 1800’s by Persian merchants. Located next to Dubai Creek, it shares little in common with the Trump-inspired tourist section of the city. Women in burkas stroll shaded alleyways, men in dishdashas with briefcases hail cabs while abras (small wooden ferry boats) plow through the water. We marvel at the wind towers, used as an early form of air conditioning on the tops of the buildings. At the nearby Bur Dubai Souq vendors haggle with customers, selling silk saris and custom-tailored suits. After a lovely lunch with Matt’s friend Olivia, we pop into Chandelier to engage in the local pastime of smoking sheesha. Choosing from a glorious menu of flavors (grape, apple, strawberry...) we inhale rose flavored sheesha through the top of a hubble bubble, watching the passersby from the outdoor cafe. Though we had hoped to see the interior of the Burj al Arab, the world's only 7-star hotel shaped like a sailboat (see pic) boasting 8,000 square meters of 22-carat gold leafing, they wanted a cool $60 per cocktail so we head instead for the chic confines of Bahri Bar overlooking the beach (and the Burj!). At only $12 a drink, this seems like a bargain in comparison. Sandboarding, wadi-bashing, camel racing and golf are popular here, activites merely adding to Dubai's cache as a year-round getaway for the rich and famous. Between adventure sports, white sand beaches, shopping and dining, Dubai pretty much has it all. But luxury and glamour doesn't come cheap: this is the place to come roll around on your Benjamins in a $3,000 a night suite. Since I'm no billionaire I'll be rolling on my Washingtons instead...or wallet and I are still recovering from the cocktail bill - oh how I miss the $2 cans of brew in Costa Rica!

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Mumbai & Elephanta Caves

I didn’t see the monkey running towards me until one of the locals waved me away. “She’s got a baby with her” he said, and then in a voice designed to prevent me from being bitten on my vacation added “she’s growling, you know.” Aforementioned monkey then glared at me sullenly, as if on cue.

Matt and I had just taken an hour ferry ride from Mumbai to the island of Elephanta, a prehistoric Lord of the Flies locale perfect for dumping dead bodies under the cover of night or filming next year’s series of Survivor. In my mind’s eye I could actually see Piggy being murdered in just this spot. *Shiver* At any rate, we were here to see the Elephanta Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site boasting Hindu sculptures including a 16 foot high monument featuring Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer. And yes, these 13th century caves are worth riding the herky-jerky toy train into the island’s foothills and then navigating the 130 steps. If you wish to avoid the climb, men will carry you in an enormous chair (sort of like a Jewish wedding except that the chair-holders aren't groomsmen who've been drinking all night, making this a safer bet) for the bargain price of $12.

After exploring Elephanta (carefully avoiding the food vendor’s “variety of seafood” kept cold on a quickly melting slab of ice), we jetted back across the harbor to Mumbai – eager for a bit of air conditioning and cold beer. Barely dodging an attack by a vicious eight-year old (who attempted to part Matt from his rupees) we hoofed it into the five star hotel, Taj Mahal Palace and Tower overlooking the harbor. Chic, slick, and swanky, the Taj is an oasis of calm in a city full of constant traffic, haggling salespeople and intense heat. Although Mumbai is an engaging city with a lot to offer it can be exhausting and we happily took refuge inside Masala Kraft, the hotel’s Indian restaurant, where we dined on olive chili and garlic naan, curried chicken, smoky lamb that fell right off the bone and crispy potato cakes.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Cochin, India

“Sometimes when you shake your head ‘no’ from side to side, it actually means ‘yes’ in our culture” says our guide. “It depends on your facial expression.” Now he tells us. For the past two hours I have been smiling and wildly shaking my head “no” at aggressive street peddlers pushing their wares at me with a ferocity second only to that of a cartel of Columbian coke dealers. Ironically, the body language that was intended to deter these budding entrepreneurs from following me paparrazi-like through the streets has instead drawn them towards me in a frenzy resembling something like a circle of hungry sharks surrounding a wounded seal. And so it is here that I have my first lesson in cultural relativism.

Nonetheless, Cochin is a charming little city located on the Kerala coast. With a Portuguese church, Dutch palace, Chinese-style fishing nets and a Jewish Quarter it has retained much of its cultural gumbo, a direct result of its role as a seaport throughout history. We see them all – the Church of St. Francis where Vasco da Gama was originally buried, Mattancherry and Paradesi Synagogue whose floors are paved with hand painted Chinese tiles. We creep about the temple in our stocking feet as the 16th century tiles are too delicate to handle the wear and tear of shoes. Located on Jew Street in the Jewtown section of the city, our guide assures us that this naming isn’t meant in a derogatory way. But perhaps the most interesting sight is that of the muscled fishermen using a system of weighted levers and pulleys to operate the Chinese fishing nets and we watch in awe as they pull in a multitude of prawn, tigerfish and more.

Cochin has much to offer in the way of historical sights, but it also boasts some lovely resorts and cultural pursuits. At the Taj Malabar Hotel we gobble down an Indian feast – naan, lentils, palak paneer, curried veggies and cold Kingfisher beer under a tent on the great lawn, facing the sea. We kick back and watch Kathakali dancers perform, using only body and eye movements to convey their stories – a truly impressive group of actors sharing their traditions with us – what a lovely way to finish our afternoon in Cochin.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Mamallapuram, India

Upon entering Mamallapuram, you are leaving behind the modern world. It takes us nearly two hours to make the 30 mile drive from the city of Chennai to this fishing village situated on the Bay of Bengal as driving is an exercise in frustration. Passing thatched huts and one-story houses, clouds of dust swirl into the air as honking buses dodge a series of barefoot pedestrians, rambling cows and skinny goats munching on roadside debris. Black flies flit in and out of the bus windows, undeterred by the heat. It is here that stone monuments from the 7th and 8th centuries sit beside tin-roofed stores and homes, a place where wide-eyed children run barefoot alongside tourists, making the international sign for food by placing their skinny hands to lips, their mothers verbally encouraging them from several yards away. A man walking on all fours begs for change near the monuments drawing little reaction from the locals. The abject poverty, lack of good sanitation and medical care is upsetting, and I wonder what the government is doing, if anything, for these people who geographically are so close to one of the largest cities in India, yet so removed from the opportunities and modernity just miles away. Yet there is still beauty here – the landscape is filled with women wearing sherbert colored saris – the lemon yellows, tangerine oranges and blue-tinged berry cottons and silks glimmering through the heat, their long black hair in braids. Men lounge about in lungis, selling leather sandals, carvings and small bongo drums, easily chatting with each other and the tourists that pass by. At Arjuna’s Penance, a stone panel measuring 90-feet in length, life-sized carvings of Arjuna and Krishna tower over those who have come to see these wonders. Pancha Rathas is perhaps even more impressive, with its enormous intricate temples and giant animals carved from single sandstone boulders. To be in the presence of art thousands of years old is to be humbled by your place in the world and staring at these models I feel as a grain of sand might on an enormous beach, an insignificant speck in the story of the world.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Singapore & Malaysia: A Study In Contrasts

For the past few days we’ve been traveling throughout Singapore and Malaysia. The former is a modern city: tall office buildings, English street signs and vast shopping malls line carefully landscaped streets. Notorious for the Michael Fay caning, Singapore is serious about maintaining the peace – even small crimes like littering and jaywalking result in huge fines. But don’t let this get you down. It makes up for its Nazi-like attention to order with its cosmopolitan vibe boasting a diverse mix of Malays, Chinese, Indians (plus international tourists) that makes it as easy to find chilli crab as it is to find curry or dim sum. We popped into the famous Raffles, where the “Singapore Sling” originated. After polishing these fruity concoctions off in the hotel’s Long Bar I shamefacedly admit that we pursued the national Singaporean pastime of shopping hitting hard-to-find British stores like Topshop and Miss Selfridge. Feeling greedy and totally American we took a cab to Brewerkz, Singapore’s only microbrewery. With a vast beer list and a varied menu we cooled off in the air-conditioning with locals on their lunch break and drank until our consumerist shame was obliterated by a beer buzz.

Aside from the shared affinity for shopping malls, Singapore and Malaysia seem to have little else in common. Malaysia appears less solvent financially and even in Kuala Lumpur where Louis Vuitton stores rub shoulders with top hotels, there’s an obvious disparity in wealth. The Petronas Towers define this city skyline which until 2003 were the world’s tallest twin buildings standing at 1,483 feet. After viewing them and exploring the city we lunched at the Mandarin Oriental’s Lai Po Heen, a hip Cantonese spot featuring a glass-encased kitchen and city views. At only $35 for two people one thing’s for sure: even high-end spots are affordable in Malaysia, yet the city seems to lack that indefinable quality of "heart."

Meanwhile, the island of Penang offers a totally different travel experience – more exotic, more “real” feeling. Much of the colonial architecture still stands here and in contradiction to the skyscrapers of KL, Penang’s Chinese clan houses, Buddhist temples and 19th century structures crumble romantically along shaded side streets. Yet these historic and cultural jewels also come with the reality of less sophisticated dining options and hotel accommodations than are available in the big city. Pockets of severe poverty are evident – tenement houses missing doors and windows are strung with clotheslines and crowded, dirty streets are common sights. Bizarrely, there are 7-11’s everywhere (who would think?) so we brainfreezed ourselves while we wandered in the oppressive heat.


30ml gin
15ml Heering Cherry Liqueur
7.5ml D.O.M Benedictine
7.5ml Cointreau
120ml Pineapple juice
15ml fresh lime juice
10ml grenadine
dash of Angostura bitters
Garnish: maraschino cherry, pineapple chunk, and orange slice

Monday, March 17, 2008

Random Adventures in Ko Samui

If your idea of a good time includes:

a) elephants playing harmonicas
b) a mummy monk
c) curry goodness
d) coconut-pickin’ monkeys
e) gorgeous beaches

Or any of the above…you’ll need to get to Ko Samui for your next vacation. Often called “the island of coconuts” since it produces over 3 million a month, Ko Samui utilizes monkeys to perform the brunt of this manual labor. We couldn’t pass up an opportunity to see monkeys at their day jobs and we found them hard at work...skittering up tree trunks and twisting coconuts with their tiny paws. I would imagine this is a pretty large profit margin for the humans since they don’t have to actually pay their employees and I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking the monkeys get a pretty raw deal. Does PETA know about this??? We also visited an elephant camp where these gentle giants played harmonicas with their trunks and dunked baskets better than Michael Jordan. I will refrain from commenting on the little “Thai Massage” trick they’ve taught them – better see it for yourself in the video below.

Wat Kunaram houses the mummified body of Loung Poh Deang, a Buddhist monk who passed away while meditating in the lotus position over 30 years ago. We visited the temple to view Deang’s body which was never embalmed but miraculously shows little sign of decay. The one exception is his eyes (which have been thoughtfully covered up with a pair of sunglasses to hide the exposed sockets) which makes Deang look the part of a hipster monk in a pair of Ray Bans and his saffron robe. Afterwards we drove north to the Big Buddha temple where I received a holy water blessing from one of the Buddhist monks.

Hungry from all the touring, Matt and I stopped in at the Nora Beach Resort for a Thai buffet full of curried duck, fried noodles, fresh fish and sticky rice with mango. Sitting at our seaside table we took in the aqua ocean and golden sand with a few Tiger beers and fell in love with the tiny beach bungalows (complete with outdoor rainhead showers). Although tempted to stay here and meet the ship somewhere in India we headed back to the ship amid promises to someday come back. Ko Samui is full of surprises – some good, some just…random, but the beaches are gorgeous and the exchange rate makes it affordable.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Bangkok's Royal Palace: Nicer Than White House

The moment our cab driver bought us street food (fried bananas) through the window, we knew we were going to love it here. People are friendly, there’s tons of shopping, the palaces and temples are extremely beautiful and the exchange rate means you’ll be able to kick it in style. We hit the Grand Palace/Wat Phra Keo Complex first. With its zealous application of gild, mirror shards and mosaics on every possible surface these ornate 18th century buildings shimmered brighter than Harry Winston’s diamonds. Glittery spires shot up into the sky topped with ornate finials and the roofs fitted with wind chimes tinkled quietly in the breeze. We kneeled inside the temple in awe of the Emerald Buddha perched atop a gilded pedestal while devout Buddhists prayed and meditated silently on the floor.

Jonesing for some Thai food we popped into Sho Pratumtong, a 4-table local’s spot for some authentic Pad Thai and Ginger Chicken with Rice. Our entrees plus huge draft beers came to $12 – an amazing deal. Afterwards we strolled down the block to Wat Pho , Bangkok’s oldest and largest temple to see the Reclining Buddha, a 46 meter long gold plated structure whose feet are intricately inlaid with mother of pearl. Since we only had a few hours left we did some shopping across town, but my discovery of the day was the Jim Thompson Thai Silk Store. The men and women’s accessories, home furnishings and clothing here is reminiscent of an Asian inspired Michael Kors collection and although not cheap, certainly costs less than it would back home - certainly worth a stop if you're in Bangkok although they also have satellite stores around the world.