Thursday, June 28, 2007
Exploring Kauai – The Garden Island by Barbara Barton Sloane
Want a vacation that encompasses everything from saddles to champagne, with fun-filled activities from morning to night, and that makes you feel like you’ve just stepped back in time wandering through Jurassic Park? Come to Kauai. I promise, it is no place like home!
Doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen it - in movies, on TV -
you arrive in Kauai, Hawaii, step off the plane, walk through the airport, and as a gracious greeter places a lei of fresh orchids around your neck, you feel so special….ok, it’s a bit hokey, but special.
This magical island, approximately 150 miles west of the Big Island of Hawaii, has 553 square miles of beach, rain forest, desert, mountains and plains. At Wai’ale’ale, it rains nearly every day, making it the wettest place on earth. Go a few miles west and rain is rare. The north shore is as lush as any place on the planet, and the south shore is a sunny playground. Kauai is known as the land of a thousand waterfalls; some tumbling hundreds of feet out of the jungle, some small enough to walk across, then jump into a lagoon and swim directly under a symphony of rushing water. One thing is certain. Kauai is nature on a very grand scale.
Let’s Get Physical
You don’t just go to Kauai, you get into Kauai, feeling its age-old beauty, moving through its unspoiled landscapes. Called the Garden Island, it has a calm, peaceful side, but also offers exhilarating diversions – activities and adventures that you will find no place else on earth. So let’s get physical!
Some of the “adventure” activities were clearly outside of my comfort zone, which zone is best experienced from a comfy chaise lounge by a swimming pool. But, loathe to appear totally wimpish before my gung-ho traveling companions, I found plenty of diversions that were well within my “zone”. No, not zipping over a 150 foot ravine or careening through canyons in a helicopter, but activities that were still semi-challenging and lots of fun.
Do Something Dirty!
In reading the pamphlet about the ATV Waterfall Tour, it explained that you venture into jungle-like tropics while sitting in a custom built 2-seater dune buggy, and end with a picnic by a waterfall. I thought “I can do this!” This vehicle is known island-wide as the “Mud Bug,” and as I signed the release form, donned complete head-to-toe outerwear, helmet and goggles, it occurred to me to ask “Why Mud Bug?” I discovered it’s because this long and winding road that we were about to traverse is typically very muddy and full of holes. If it’s been raining, one is encouraged to crash through every puddle. Today it’s dry, so the trip will be very dusty. Either way, I’m going to get dirty, and that explains why I’m now in a huge pair of camouflage pants, a shabby t-shirt, and eye protection. Okaaaay.
The Mud Bug adventure covers 22 miles winding through thick vegetation and rugged terrain. We bump, we grind, we feel as though our cute 2-seater Mud Bug is gonna fall apart, but finally we reach a secluded waterfall and swimming hole. We have bathing suits on underneath all the mud clothing, so we plunge in. It’s a refreshing reward but there’s still the drive back to think about! When we get back to the tour office it is a pleasure to shed our scruffy clothes. The shower later is a truly cleansing experience.
The Napali Sunset Sail is a peaceful way to end the day. Our 65 foot power catamaran takes us on a breathtaking tour of the Napali coastline. We enjoy a dinner buffet and mai tais, wine and soft drinks. A nice touch: we stop before pulling back into port to watch a spectacular sunset while sipping
Horseback Riding at Princeville Ranch is an activity you don’t want to miss. Our leader, Robin Cooke, was professional and jovial. She made sure that everyone stayed together and that we didn’t startle the wild boars in the brush and cause our horses to spook. She cautioned a seasoned rider in the lead not to trot or gallop as horses tend to “follow the leader” and all of us would then be off on a wild trot. Thank you Robin! This being only my second time on a horse, galloping was not what I had in mind today.
A nice, slow walk suited me just fine. The sights were amazing. Cliffs, boulders, mountains, all reminiscent of the Jurassic Park movies where, on this island, each of those 3 films was made.
On Princeville Ranch, I also did the memorable Waterfall Hike. We were a group of 4 plus Tom Meyers, our guide, who was incredibly knowledgeable about the tropical plants and foliage we saw, as well as history of the Ranch. Our hike took us to the spectacular five-tiered Kalihiwai Falls and then – a lagoon – where we glided around in big black inner tubes. Surprise! When we climbed out of the tubes, Tom had set a table with a pretty cloth for a lunch of veggie roll-ups, chips and soda.
100% Downhill, 100% Fun
This was one of my favorite activities. Run by Outfitters Kauai, with the claim that “our business is going downhill!” this is truly the bike ride from heaven. The entire 12 miles is downhill! A van took us to the top of the mountain at 5:00 a.m., making a stop en route for donuts and coffee. By the time we reached our destination, about a 45 minute ride, we were all bright eyed and ready to start our ride. And what a ride it was, with speeds sometimes reaching 40 mph. We stopped several times to view the ocean and the mammoth green/gray canyons surrounding us. Our trip was further enlivened by our van driver, Ka Pono, who then played “sweep”, following our group of 13 as we coasted along. He regaled us with jokes, stories of his Samoan ancestors, and his experience holding the title of 4-time state champion bull rider. All downhill, all fun. Wheeeeee….
For The More Courageous
You’ll find it all here in Kauai. There’s the Mountain Tubing Adventure, where you float down historic waterways, open channels, flumes and tunnels ( www.kauaibackcountry.com); Princeville Ranch Adventures offers a Zipline that actually combines 8 ziplines, the longest of which is 750 feet (www.kauaiadventure.com); and for a birds-eye view of the Garden Island there’s Island Helicopters (www.islandhelicopters.com).
The ResortQuest Kauai Beach Hotel at Makaiwa on the Coconut Coast is a pretty, oceanfront property that just completed a $30 million dollar
renovation. An added feature: they have an award-winning luau with traditional Hawaiian food, beef teriyaki, poi, haupia (cocoanut pudding) and much more. Performances include Hawaiian hula, Tahitian dances, and exciting Samoan fire-knife dances
Everyone gets their own condo at Castle Kiahuna Plantation with a fully-stocked kitchen, dining room, living room, patio – and just beyond that, a beautiful white beach and the calm, turquoise ocean. If you’re needing some R&R after all that physical activity, here’s the place to do it.
The Princeville Resort is located on Kauai’s North Shore and is in Conde Nast Traveler’s Gold List of ‘world’s best places to stay.’ My room had a terrace so naturally I raced out to check the view. There, before me, majestic mountain peaks piercing a robin’s egg blue sky, dotted with tiny cotton puff clouds. In the distance, a tiny white sailboat seems to have been placed there just to make this scene picture-perfect. And crashing below me, the green-blue sea . Princeville Resort calls itself “a sanctuary for the senses.” I agree. Smell, sight, touch, sound and taste are aroused to capture “ike ika wahi”, which translates to “Hawaii’s sense of place.” This property is famous for its unforgettable wedding packages - in effect, a wedding ceremony set in paradise. There’s the Luxury Wedding, the Princeville Wedding, and Eternal Love. Very romantic.
Trivial but Interesting Facts
Look but Don’t Touch
One day I took a walk down to water’s edge. Just a few feet from me, a fat, gray Monk Seal struggling mightily to flip himself up on the moss covered rocks. After several tries, he succeeded and immediately closed his eyes to bask in the morning sun. The Hawaiian Monk Seal is among the most endangered creatures on earth. Often referred to as “living fossils,” the Monk Seal has remained relatively unchanged for over 15 million years. There are less than 30 of these seals on Kauai, and state and federal laws prohibit touching or harassing them in any way.
It’s a curious but wonderful thing: Kauai is relatively insect-free. Yes, whether in dense jungle foliage or hiking over arid plains, no bugs. Another interesting fact: No snakes! I’m not sure why, but I sure am glad!
Spam-a lot – Hawaiian Soul Food
Hawaiians have a Spam fixation. On this island you can find Spam enchiladas, Spam frittatas, Spam Reuben sandwiches. There’s even a festival dedicated to this mystery meat-in-a-can. Spam worked its way into the hearts–and arteries–of Hawaiians during WWII when fresh meat was scarce. As it needs no refrigeration, islanders stock up on this proletarian pork product and find it comes in handy during hurricanes, tsunamis or other natural disasters. Spam jam, anyone?
The Meaning of ALOHA
A stands for AKAHAI, meaning kindness
L stands for LOKAHI, meaning unity
O stands for OLU’OLU meaning agreeable
H stands for HA’AHA’A, meaning humility
A stands for AHONUI, meaning patience.
Hawaiians believe that it starts with each one of us. It starts in the heart.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
The Best Little City in Europe
by Barbara Barton Sloane
This depends, of course, on your particular taste. If you’re looking for great theatre, head to London. Fabulous designer fashions, choose Milan or Paris. However, if you want to visit a city that is pure magic then you have to go to Prague! One of the most beautiful cities in Europe, thanks to its location and to more than a thousand years of glorious architectural tradition, it has a rich artistic, musical and literary history. The citizens of Prague are rightly proud of their city’s history, recently awarded the title World Heritage Site. But Prague, by no means, lives on its illustrious past alone. It’s a modern metropolis. Here the past and the present merge in a unique and very special symbiosis.
Tourists, Tourists Everywhere
If you stand in the Old Square surrounded by what seems like every single tourist in Europe, you realize that Prague is a prime tourist destination. But don’t let this discourage you from visiting. The very fact that visitors from all over the world come here makes Prague a vital, exciting and very cosmopolitan city with great energy and style.
Czech Airlines – Strange but True
I recently decided to discover for myself why Prague is called “the little Paris of the East”. I found a city alive with music and culture, breath-taking views, café-lined squares, and a multitude of fabulous museums. But more about that later. I’m getting ahead of myself. First, you’ve got to get to Prague, and the Czech Republic’s national airline is a wise choice, being the only carrier with non-stop daily flights from JFK to Prague. Now, here’s the strange thing about Czech Airlines: they get you there on time. No, let me amend that: they get you there ahead of time. My flight landed forty minutes ahead of schedule and on the return trip, we landed a full hour before our scheduled arrival. In light of the many problems airlines are fraught with today, this “ahead of time” business is strange. And kind of
wonderful! Coupled with fine service, friendliness, and professionalism, it all adds up to a very pleasant and comfortable trip.
A Neighborhood Inspired by Wine
When deciding where to stay – and there are, indeed, countless superb hotels to choose from – I offer this: In the quiet residential neighborhood of Vinohrady, which means vineyard, I found a distinctive Belle Epoque five-star hotel, Le Palais. It is a mere 15 minute walk from Wenceslas Square, the heart of town, and yet light years removed from the crush of tourists. The hotel offers guests all the amenities of a deluxe property. One evening after a day of serious sight-seeing, I checked out Le Palais’ well-appointed health club. Tired as I was, I couldn’t resist trying out all that shiny, impressive exercise equipment, and after that: heaven. I visited their really steamy steam room. In the process hopefully I lost a few of the pounds I put on with my spectacular lunch at The Intercontinental’s Zlata Praha restaurant with a view that just won’t quit! Then a hot, hot, hot sauna where I was able to really unwind. Finally, the piece de resistance and something unique to this hotel: an aroma shower. Don’t ask; you’ve just got to experience it for yourself, but suffice it to say, it’s a great way to end your day.
Staying in Vinohrady I experienced a true Prague neighborhood. Moms pushing babies in prams, lovers walking hand in hand down tree-shaded lanes, and everyone, it seems, walking their dog. Several evenings, before returning to my hotel, I stopped off at one of the many sidewalk cafes and never once saw another tourist! After a busy day, it’s nice to be able to retreat into the quiet and calm of Vinohrady and Le Palais. After my soothing bout with steam room and sauna, I was ready to call it a day.. I curled up under silky sheets and a down comforter. However, if you’re one of the many sleep-challenged among us, you’ll be delighted to know that you have both room service and a cozy bar and library open 24 hours a day!!
Now, let’s go discover!
The Other Five Towns
Prague is a virtual jewel, barely damaged by World War II. Settled by the Celts in 500 BC, it is made up of five towns: The Old Town, the Jewish Quarter, the Little Quarter, the New Town and Hradcany, the village around Prague Castle on the hill above the Little Quarter.
When one sees photos of the city of Prague, invariably in the background there’s Prague Castle. It seems to dominate every image of the city. So visiting the castle was numero uno on my list of things to do. It’s a long trek up the hill to this site, but oh so worth it. Originally the castle was the seat of Czech nobility and royalty. It is a monumental complex consisting of a palace, church, monastery and garden, all built in different styles. There’s a new boutique hotel, the Crown Plaza up on the hill, some small sidewalk cafes and several fine restaurants. On the day I visited Crown Plaza, it was hosting the Czech soccer team. In addition to experiencing the elegance of this property, the buff and cute team members provided a cool distraction.
A Most Excellent View
I had a once in a lifetime dining experience: dinner at Allegro, the restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel. I was given the choice of dining inside or on the terrace, overlooking the Charles Bridge and the Vltava River. Not a hard choice. It was a balmy spring evening, the setting sun cast a golden glow over the city, and I could barely tear myself away from the view to scan the menu. Luckily I did and had one of the most memorable dinners ever. For starters, a delightful lobster timbale with asparagus and black truffle dressing, followed by asparagus lasagna with taleggio cheese fondue, (asparagus is in season right now) and for dessert, strawberry-lemon cheese cake. The creator of this heaven-sent repast: Chef Vito Molica. Long may he reign over this kitchen!
In case you’re wondering, yes I did from time to time leave the table to stand at the terrace’s rail and gaze at the beautiful Charles Bridge. It spans the Vltava River and joins Prague’s Old Town (Stare Mesto) with the Little or Lesser Quarter (Mala Strana). Take a stroll across it. You’ll enjoy the sandstone sculptures, black with age, that adorn both sides. This is the oldest of Prague’s bridges, built in 1357 by Charles IV. It was from this very bridge that St. John Nepomuk was thrown to his watery death in the 14th century by order of King Wenceslas IV for refusing to divulge what the queen had told him in confession. The legend claims that as John drowned, five stars appeared on the water, and these five stars have become the symbol of the town’s patron saint.
Everything Old Is New Again
The roots of the Jewish Town reach down to the Middle-Ages, and happily the original network of streets is preserved. In addition to the Old–New
Synagogue (from the 13th Century), the Jewish Town Hall and most of the legendary Jewish Cemetery have been preserved. The cemetery was founded in 1478, and the area was quite limited. Thus, for lack of space, the graves had to be made in several layers – there are areas with up to twelve layers and more than 100,000 souls are buried here. The Old-New Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in Europe still in use. It was completed in 1270 and has endured much – from fires to pogroms.
Walking through Prague is like walking through a textbook of European architecture dating back from the 10th Century to….The Dancing House!
Gazing up at this building (Tancici dum in Czech), I feel a touch of vertigo. It is wavy, round in some places, flat in others, and undulating all over. The Dancing House is the work of renowned architect Fank Gehry and it is a joyous piece of architecture. Kind of makes you feel like dancing!
The Old Town Square (Staromestske namesti) is the central meeting point for all of Prague’s tourists. Young, old and everything in between, you’ll see it all here. I stand in the center of the square and slowly turn around, admiring all the glorious, historic buildings that circle it. The façade of the St. Nicholas Church dominates the square, a great example of both Gothic
and Rococo styles. The buildings’ facades are pastel, ice cream colored.
Sidewalk cafes are everywhere. Gelato anyone?
Near the Old Town Square, if you see a maze of people standing together, staring up at a tower, you’ll know you’ve found the medieval Astronomical Clock which dates from 1410. In the 17th Century, moving statues were added as well as figures of the Apostles. The figures are set in motion on the hour, each figure representing the four things which are despised. Starting with death, represented by a skeleton, then vanity, a figure holding a mirror, there are two more figures which are just too politically incorrect to even mention. You can think back over history and use your imagination. Anyway, though viewing the Astronomical Clock may not be your cup of tea, watching these four little figures do their thing each hour is very popular in Prague. I prefer people-watching myself and as I enjoy my pistachio gelato at one of the square’s cafes, I have a ring-side seat.
Before I return to my hotel, I take a walk through Wenceslas Square. Founded in the 14th century initially as a horse market, today it is home to elegant restaurants, cafes and shops selling the world-renowned Bohemian crystal.. So from humble roots selling horses, Wenceslas Square is now called Prague’s Champs Elysee.
Do You Believe in Magic?
Take a walk through this city’s winding streets at dusk. It’s not hard to believe you’ve stepped back in time and around the next corner you may just meet one of the famous from Prague’s past. Isn’t that Franz Kafka, sitting on a bench under the chestnut tree, deep in thought. Oh wait,
here’s Mozart out for a stroll with some musician friends. Past and present merging. But back to reality. It’s just my friends and I enjoying a typical Prague evening. And yes, it’s magic.
If You Go:
Czech Tourism, www.CzechTourism.com/USA, Tel: 212-288-0830
Czech Airlines, www.usa.czechairlines.com, Tel: 800-223-2365
Le Palais Hotel, www.palaishotel.cz, Tel: 420- 234 634 111
Four Seasons Hotel, www.fourseasons.com/prague, Tel:420-221 427 000
InterContinental Hotel, www.ichotelsgroup.com, Tel:420- 296 631 111
Mandarin Oriental Hotel, www.mandarinoriental.com, Tel: 420-233-088-888
Radisson Alcron Hotel, www.prague.radissonsas.com, Tel: 420-222-820-000
Crown Plaza Hotel, www.CrownPlaza.com, Tel: 800-315-2621
Wednesday, June 6, 2007
“IT TAKES A VILLA”
An Authentic Tuscan Experience
By Barbara Barton Sloane
Belpaese. Beautiful Country. Tuscany.
Haven’t we all, at one time or another, dreamed of staying in an Italian villa? Midway through our dream, however, reality sets in and the actual prospect of finding the perfect villa, arranging a stay, all seems daunting. Where to start?
A good starting place is by contacting Doorways Villa Vacations, based in Bryn Mawr PA. Kit Burns, the president of Doorways, is intimately acquainted with Italy and represents many of its villas, estates and homes. She and her staff match their clients to the property. They will work with you to choose the perfect location, the residence, and, if you wish, even create an itinerary personalized for your particular needs.
I recently had the chance to experience one of Kit’s Italian villas on the Buonvisi Estate near Lucca. The Buonvisi villa dates from 1505, and the owners, Joe and Gianna Dini, are gracious hosts who invite their guests to dinner where one samples foods typical of the region.
Driving up to Villa Buonvisi, high atop a Tuscan hillside, we wind through olive groves bursting with fragrant spring blossoms and vineyards just beginning to mature, gearing up for their September harvest. Finally, we reach our destination. Set back from great manicured lawns, the walk-way is lined with gigantic terra cotta planters, and before us lies Villa Buonvisi. It does not disappoint. In fact, it’s even more splendid than in the photos we’d seen. Fully restored to its original façade (as dictated by the Italian government), the villa is a lovely pink beige color, bearing a “Juliet” balcony and a fresco from the 16th Century over the doorway that the Dinis discovered when the façade was being restored.
Joe Dini, charming and affable, welcomed us with a glass of his fruity Chardonnay as we sat around the pool, trying to take in the vista, the gardens, the long grape arbor, and the mountains behind us. After a tour of the villa, we settled into our room. High, high ceilings, original, ancient tile floors, and a picture-perfect view - myriad church steeples, chestnut, olive and orange groves, iconic Tuscan cypress trees dotting the hills, and the town below, all under a Tuscan blue sky. Someone pinch me, quick!
The wonderful thing here is, whether you want to do nothing but chill out at the Villa or get active and explore the area, it’s your choice. Either way, it’s pretty darn wonderful. If you feel adventurous, try hiking the mountain behind the Villa. However, a word of caution: this hike is for the seriously hearty! One climbs through some really rough terrain, winding through fields of pink, yellow, white and scarlet wild flowers and dense vegetation. Guaranteed, you’re going to get a few scratches, and at some point, you’ll ask yourself: “Why did I start this?” But it’s too late to turn back, so you forge on. After almost two hours, you arrive tired but awfully proud of yourself, as you turn, look down, and see what you’ve accomplished. You’ve just climbed a mountain! Oh, and there’s a delicious reward at the end of your climb. Perched on the top of the mountain, a cozy country restaurant, Quatri Venti, where the owner herself serves you at a long communal table set under a grove of chestnut trees. Try the hearty Ribolita, a typical, thick Tuscan soup with vegetables, beans and bread and drizzled with olive oil - a delicious and unique primi piatti and a nice, midday reward for your morning’s efforts.
One day, plan to visit Lucca. In this small yet cosmopolitan walled Tuscan town, you’ll find wonderful trattorias, upscale clothing and jewelry boutiques, and music. Lots of music. Let’s not forget that this is the birthplace of Giacomo Puccini. The town offers hosts of concerts and operas, and in July, the famous Puccini festival takes pace in nearby Torre del Lago. About an hour from the villa, the Ligurian coastal jewels of Cinque Terre, five unique fishing villages, is known as Italy’s “flower-Rivera”. As you walk between the villages, you’ll have breathtaking views of the emerald blue Mediterranean Sea, vineyards, lemon trees and pine forests. Sit at an outdoor cafe overlooking the sea, and participate in one of my favorite pastimes: people-watching. A fun way to spend an afternoon.
And for museums and shopping (including many designer outlets), you’ll want to spend a day in Florence, only an hour away.
During your stay, check out the nearby ancient town of Pietrasanta, founded in 1255. One evening, we visited this pretty village and at twilight sat at a sidewalk café in the town square. Soon, we were joined for an appertif by the town’s mayor, Massimo Mallegni, a youngish, elegant man, who was delighted to explain Pietrasanta’s illustrious history. As light faded, before us lay the 14th Century Church of Sant’Agostino, in the background the Apuan Alps, and flanked on every sides, the famed marble quarries where Michaelangelo himself chose the perfect piece of marble to create
“The Pieta” and “David.”
Speaking of marble, in this region known as Versilia, visit the town of Carrera and you can arrange for a walking tour of Michaelangelo’s quarry and then visit the many sculpture studios in the area. Here also you’ll find Parco delle Alpi Apuane and Corchia’s Cavern, the most imposing underground cave in Italy, and one of the biggest in the world. Its amazing interior of stalagtites and stalagmites is bathed in artistic lighting and will leave you breathless.
Feeling a bit tired? Visit the Bagni di Pisa Spa, near Lucca in San Giuliano Terme, where you can luxuriate with their Silk Thermal Face Treatment or their Seaweed Body Wrap. Or simply walk from the villa to the bottom of the hill and refresh yourself with one of the many pastel colored gelati at the café La Perla. Finally, swim or laze by the Villa’s pool while Rufus, the resident German Shepard drops a tattered ball at your feet and with soulful eyes, asks you to play “fetch”. Be forewarned: once you throw that ball, he’ll drop it at your feet again, and again and again…
Now, the event you’ve been waiting for all day: Dinner! Visit a local restaurant and linger over a traditional Tuscan meal. Among the restaurants we tried: All’Olivo in Lucca, L’Antonio in Pietrasanta and Bimbotto in Vorno. And don’t rush this experience. Dinners in Italy are long, food is discussed, tasted, appreciated, and the wine flows. A perfect end to a perfect day.
As our departure from Villa Buonvisi draws near, I think back over the week – the warm hospitality of the Dinis, the unique and special
experiences each day brought, the tranquility of soft Tuscan evenings, playing “fetch” with Rufus, and the sheer delight of living like a Tuscan!
Sorry Marriott and Hyatt, you just can’t compare. Memories are made of this, and yes, it takes a Villa!
Kit Burns, President
900 County Line Road, Bryn Mawr PA
(610) 520 0806- (800) 261 4460
Corchia’s Cave – Tel: 39 0584 778405
Bagni di Pisa Spa – Largo P. Shelley, 18, San Giuliano Terme
Ristorante All’Olivo – Piazza S.Quirico, 1 - Tel: 0583 496264
L’Antonio – Piazzetta Crispi 11-12 - Tel: 0584 793384
Bimbotti – Via di Vorno, 177 – Tel: 0583 971193o
Good News for 2008
Joe & Gianna Dini have decided that, in addition to the two villas they presently rent on the estate, the Villa del Barbaro and the Villa Cardinale, they will rent, in 2008 for the first time, their home, the Villa Buonvisi. With air conditioning, large living spaces and ten bedrooms with ensuite bathrooms, this villa even comes with the use of their private beach cabana! Some of the Villa’s amenities are a billiard table, bocce court, home theatre and gym. Also, it is fully staffed with a cook, gardener and housekeeper. If you’re planning a vacation with family or several friends, look no further. Kit Burns of Doorways, Ltd. calls this experience a “golden dream”. In her capable hands, your Tuscan dream is about to come true!