Tuesday, November 9, 2010


Land of Attractions Both Ancient and Modern
by Barbara Barton Sloane

Design should never say “Look at me.” It should always say, “Look at this.” And so it does. In 2012, Helsinki, Finland has been chosen to be the World Design Capital and true to the quote, Helsinki - indeed all of Finland - never says “Look at me,” but in its quiet restraint, dignity and joie de vivre, one is compelled to look at it all, savoring the country’s stark beauty, the artistic, cutting-edge design visible everywhere, and most especially the people of this land who make you feel most welcome.

Helsinki Highlights
This stylish, relaxed city is a dream destination for walkers as most of the important sights are conveniently situated in the city’s center. There are eighty intriguing museums here, enough to keep you busy for your entire stay and then some. One appealing feature of Helsinki’s location is that there are ferry connections to Estonia, Sweden and St. Petersburg, Russia. Visitors often plan a one or two day excursion, using Helsinki as home base.

The Design District is Helsinki’s arts and crafts-oriented neighborhood. The area is home to a wide range of designer shops, interior decorating studios, antique dealers and jewelry boutiques. While here, I visited some of the artists’ workshops and saw beauty being created right before my eyes. At a silver shop, I looked on as the designer made a lacy, filigree pendant and added the finishing touches to a heavy silver ring set with a fine piece of jade.

Market Square is lively and bustling with vendors selling everything from all kinds of berries to produce to clothing and silver jewelry. I had a pleasant morning sitting at a cafe, drinking coffee brewed strong and steaming, complimented by some fresh Finnish cloudberries, and allowing myself to be caressed by sea breezes right beyond my table.

Because you won’t have time to see all eighty of Helsinki’s museums in a single visit, may I suggest one that you must not miss: the Ateneum Museum houses the largest art collection in the country displaying Finnish art from the 1750s to the 1960s and Western art from the late 19th century to the 1950s. It also contains the very first Van Gough ever placed in a museum and it is here where you’ll view a most haunting painting titled “The Wounded Angel” by Hugo Simberg. This allegory depicts two boys transporting a blond child-angel. The lead boy trudges along dutifully, the boy in the rear gazes sullenly out at the viewer. At the time this was painted, there were many charity institutions in the very park where this procession is said to take place. The sweet, white-clothed angel, eyes bandaged, her wings drooping forlornly, gives off an air of resignation as she is carried to the Blind Girl’s School. “The Wounded Angel” was voted Finland’s national painting, and you’ll remember it long after leaving The Ateneum.

One memorable evening, I had the pleasure of attending a Jean Sebelius concert by the Tapiola Sinfonietta held at Helsinki University Hall, the very room where Sebelius began his career in 1899. Conducted by the renowned Leif Segerstam, rotund, dynamic and compelling, he lent an air of excitement to the entire concert. Segerstam is irrepressible and joyous so it was quite fun to glide along on his flourishing baton as he conducted the glorious Symphony #1 in E minor.

Porvoo Pleasures
A convenient hour’s drive east from Helsinki, Porvoo is Finland’s second oldest town, history-rich, with ancient red, wooden storehouses that line the river and testify to the city heyday as a major port for merchant ships plying the world’s oceans. High on a hill sits Porvoo’s most recognizable landmark – the Luthern Cathedral, which has dominated the town since the early 1400s. We strolled through Old Town, built on a dense labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets and alleyways and lined with colorful cottages, galleries and boutiques.

It is there that we explored the Porvoo Museum with exhibits on the town’s history, including artifacts and art. Recently opened is a fine exhibit on Porvoo’s prehistoric times and the Middle Ages. Holm House, a part of the museum, was built in 1763 and offers an opportunity to see how a wealthy merchant family lived at the end of the 18th century. Porvoo is known for its sweets so naturally we wouldn’t leave without answering the call of our sweet tooth. Locals told us to visit The Little Chocolate Factory on Church Square. True to its name, the shop was so tiny we were barely able to fit through the door. But let that deter us? I think not. We were rewarded with rich and sumptuous chocolates, a treat I’d squeeze through this door for again in a heartbeat!

Tooling Around Turku Town
This place has played a very vital role in Finnish history, being the oldest city in the country and the first capital of Finland. Founded in 1229, Turku is situated in the southwest region, the oldest inhabited area dating back 8,500 years. Fast forward to modern times: this coming year Turku will be the European Capital of Culture, together with Tallinn in Estonia.

Turku today, with its pristine countryside and nearby fabulous archipelago, provides lush and imposing sights to behold. The area is famous for its manor houses where historical figures lived and reigned, surrounded by lovely parks and gardens. We climbed up Unikankare Hill to Turku Cathedral, the heart of the Lutheran Church in Finland and the country’s national shrine, completed at the end of the 13th century. How fortunate were we that, as we stood gazing at the intricate carvings in the ceiling, the cathedral’s famed 81-stop organ, built by the Finnish organ-building company extraordinaire Veiko Virtanen, began playing. Surrounded by so much imposing beauty and the soft, musing tones of this special organ, it seemed an authentic moment drawn from medieval times - and it was magical.

Where to Stay
Sokos Hotels Haikko Manor Sokos Hotels
www.sokoshotels.fi www.haikko.fi www.sokoshotels.fi

Where to Dine
Kosmos Restaurant Manor House Vaakahuone
www.ravintolakosmos.fi www.haikko.fi www.vaakahuone.fi
Salutorget Restaurant
Olo Restaurant

Things to Do
Suomenlinna UNESCO World Porvoo Museum Turku Cathedral
Heritage Sea Fortress www.porvoomuseum.fi www.turkucathedra.fi
www.suomenlinna.fi Lutheran Cathedral
Design Forum Finland www.porvoocathedral.fi
Ateneum Museum
Fiskars Village has ongoing exhibits, events and a Christmas Market; it is along the route to Turku, www.fiskarsvillage.fi
Royal Line Dinner Cruises, www.royalline.fi

Finnair Airlines
Wonderful food, gracious treatment – and they’re on time!
For General Information on Finland

Photos courtesy of Michael Sloane Photography

Monday, November 8, 2010


A Storybook Land Come to Life
by Barbara Barton Sloane

“A weekend of warmth in store for all.” So stated a local Welsh newspaper, the article promising spring sunshine and the hottest temperatures of the year so far. Arriving in Wales in early April when it can still be chilly and rainy, this was welcome news. I’m happy that the forecast was spot-on and the sun shone every warm, cloudless day of our visit.

We flew into Heathrow and on to Padding Station. Our train ride to Cardiff, Wales’ capital, took a mere 2 ½ hours. Having not slept a wink on my flight and feeling jet-lagged, (due only to my fear of flying; the American Airlines flight was smooth, relatively short and very sweet), it was lovely to sink into BritRail’s deeply cushioned velvet seats as a waiter proffered a welcoming cup of strong coffee and a sugar bun. Comforted, we let our thoughts drift dreamily to our destination – Wales – where we knew that the special pleasures of this wee, wonderful country awaited us.

Capital Culture
We checked into the Park Plaza Hotel, Cardiff, and in short order set off to explore the town – modern, cosmopolitan and with a calendar of events to rival any major European city. In the city’s center, Cardiff Castle was originally a Roman fort. We climbed to the top of the 12th century Norman Keep. Glad we did, as it offered astounding views of the entire city. At the National Museum, there are fascinating and evocative displays of Wales throughout history. We viewed 500 years of paintings, drawings, and sculpture, one of Europe’s finest art collections.

The next day we picked up our rental car and were off to the Celtic Manor Resort, Newport, in picture-perfect Usk Valley. This resort has been selected as the host course for this year’s Ryder Cup. At their health spa, we found a perfect place to shake off any remains of jet lag with a seductive massage.

The Pits
Abergavenny is the gateway to the incomparable Brecon Beacons National Park. There’s a World Heritage Site perched high on a lofty hill in Blaenavon overlooking the valley below. This area was once the heart of the industrial revolution and is full of historic interest. At The Big Pit National Coal Museum, one can have the consummate miner experience. Now here’s the catch: you absolutely cannot be claustrophobic (that leaves out yours truly). However, my companions were gamely fitted with lamps, helmets and heavy battery-packs and accompanied by an actual miner as they descended 300 feet into a labyrinth of shafts. Emerging, they regaled me with terrifying tales of streams of rust-colored water flowing down walls which added to the dank, dark atmosphere. However, they were supremely proud of going into the pit for this seriously authentic experience – and I was glad to.. er.. experience it vicariously.

Beauty in Stone
“You will find here something you never found in books.” Cistercian Father Bernard of Clauvaux wrote these words centuries ago, and the poet Wordsworth was moved to pen his famous ode “Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” for this edifice. Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote “Tears, Idle Tears” and it inspired more than one painting by JMW Turner. We’re talking about the sublime Tintern Abbey, situated on the banks of the River Wye. Graceful – lacy – delicate. Can one refer to a building made of stone by such words? At Tintern, Yes. It was built in 1131 as a religious house by Cistercian Monks and despite the shell of this structure being open to the skies, it remains the best-preserved medieval abbey in Wales. The chants of countless monks still echoed through the masonry as I strolled the corridors silently, respectfully, marveling at vast windows with delicate tracery and decorative details on the walls, doorways and soaring archways, all the while the Abbey captivating me with its haunting spell.

A Host of Golden Daffodils
Next day, a pastoral drive through the countryside to the town of Crickhowell called to mind a line from a Wordsworth’s poem: “When all at once I saw a crowd, a host of golden daffodils.” And so we did. We drove through narrow alleys of green hedgerows sprouting purple flowers and then: Quick! Stop the car! In the meadow, hundreds of sheep and their fluffy, white offspring. Spring is lambing time in Wales, and the ewes, with babes in tow, began to warily approach the fence, checking us out amid a cocaphony of loud, plaintive bleats. They stared intently at us and gave every indication that they would stand there passively gazing at us forever until we finally dragged ourselves away and climbed back into the car. Only then did they amble back to the field and begin grazing once more. Storybook country? Sure enough.

After a day spent at the Manor House Hotel regrouping, resting and reveling in the striking scenery of Beacons National Park, we drove to Aberporth near Cardigan, making a stop along the way at the Carreg Cennen Castle. The castle appears to spring out of legend and fairytale, astonishingly sited and seen for miles in all directions.

Wales Patron Saint
A highlight of our Welsh tour was visiting St. David’s, the smallest city in Britain, and its magnificent cathedral built in 1181 on the site of St. David’s sixth century monastery, the final resting place of its patron saint. We arrived on a bright Sunday morning just in time to hear Matins, a large choir raising celestial voices in song to the very rafters.

Live and Laugharne
The site of Wales’ most famous poet, Dylan Thomas’ home, Laugharne (pronounced “Larn”), is where he spent his last four years. It was poignant as I entered the cottage and saw everything kept just as it was when he wrote some of his greatest works. There on his desk, a jumble of papers as though he might have just gotten up to get a cup of tea (or something stronger), photographs on the walls of his wife Caitlin and his daughter Aeronwy, a well-worn velvet sofa, and a small terrace from which we gazed out on the Taf Estuary, silent, gray and seeming to envelop his cottage with a somber, lonely feel. Nearby, both his and Caitlin’s graves rest in a peaceful church cemetery. Of course, we had to visit. After a long search around grassy, flower-strewn plots, we came upon his grave. A small, simple white cross, the plainest marker in the graveyard was his, resting back to back with Caitlin’s headstone. There, propped against the cross, a fitting tribute: A half-full bottle of Jack Daniels. He did not go gentle into that good night.

Second City
Swansea. A lively city with a rich, seafaring heritage, it is a cosmopolitan example of today’s modern Wales. At the National Waterfront Museum there’s cutting-edge interactive technology and exhibits that tell the story of Welsh industry and innovation over the last 300 years. We spent our last night in Wales at Morgan’s, Swansea’s only 5-star hotel located near the city center and the stunning Mumbles and Gower coastline.

Crossed the Pond, Had a Wales of a Time
“I carry Wales inside me. I never really left” – Tom Jones. I get it. I think I’ll always carry a bit of Wales inside me, too. It is, after all, a true fairytale land. Here you find tiny, thatched-roof, ice cream-colored cottages, green valleys, winding, narrow country lanes bordered by tall, stately hedgerows, streams glinting gold and babbling through deep pine forests, little white lambs with fleece as white as snow. And how about these adorable names: Mumbles, Pontypool, Peny Park, the Wolf’s Castle, Beggar’s Reach and Rat Trap Inns, not to mention the Fairyhill Hotel in Swansea! On my journey I was charmed by a sign on a pub offering a brew called “Tippy Tup”, (drunk, perhaps from a sippy cup?). Also a notice on the side of a church advising “God Answers Knee-Mail.” And just remember when you visit and see ferocious dragons depicted all over the buildings, do not fear. The dragon is the renowned national emblem of this fairytale land. Why am I not surprised?

If You Go:
Welsh Tourist Office American Airlines
www.visitwales.com www.aa.com
BritRail Park Plaza Cardiff
www.britrail.com www.parkplaza.com
The Celtic Manor Resort Manor House Hotel
www.celtic-manor.com www.manorhotel.co.uk
The Penrallt Hotel The Grove Hotel
www.thepenrallt.co.uk www.thegrove-narberth.co.uk


News and Views of the Big Lychee
by Barbara Barton Sloane

Hong Kong means fragrant harbor, and the narrow body of water which separates Hong Kong Island from the Kowloon Peninsula is known as Victoria Harbor – one of the deepest natural maritime ports in the world. This harbor is Hong Kong’s most famous tourist attractions and ranks as the best skyline in the world. Four of the 15 tallest skyscrapers in the world are here.

In 1983, Hong Kong was reclassified from a British crown colony to a dependent territory. In 1984, the two countries signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration, agreeing to transfer sovereignty to the People’s Republic of China, which transfer occurred at midnight on July 1, 1997.

Today Hong Kong is a cultural gem, a living museum that encompasses 5,000 years of history. Along every street, down every lane, you’re sure to find the true flavors of the city, from world-class hotels, restaurants and shopping to traditional old markets exploding with brilliant colors and unique goods that, at times, border on the outrageous and strange. Looking to buy a pet bird or snake, anyone? On a recent visit, I tried to explore as many facets of this gem as possible.

Retail Therapy? Yes!I heard the siren call of Harbour City. Naturally, I had to answer it! With 2 million square feet, this is the largest shopping mall in Hong Kong with over 700 shops, including Gucci. Pucci, et al, and more than 50 food and beverage outlets, 2 cinemas, 3 hotels and the Gallery by the Harbour, the only art gallery of its kind.

Spiritual FoodOne of the finest and oldest traditional-style temples, Man Mo, built in 1848 during the early years of British rule, is a stunning architectural structure which aptly reflects its historical roots. During the 1900s, it’s said that the locals came here to solve disputes. Today, though no longer used for this purpose, believers come for a number of other reasons. Upon entering the temple, I found the air thick with aromatic smoke and was told to look up at the ceiling. My guide explained that the huge bell-shaped coils of incense hanging from the ceiling are burned by devotees in hopes of attracting the attention of the gods and that the incense is food for the spirits that have gone before. Asked if I wanted to know what my future held, my response was a quick “of course!” I was led to one of the bamboo cylinders found throughout the temple and told to shake out a fortune stick. The stick was then translated for me: “You will meet a tall, dark, handsome stranger...” Just kidding, nothing quite that exciting but all good, just the same.

A Peek at the PeakThis is one of Hong Kong’s most popular attractions as it offers two thrills in one. First, getting to The Peak was an unforgettable trip via the Peak Tram which has been in operation since 1888. There’s nothing in the world quite like it. Pulled by steel cables, it climbs 1,224 feet on an incline so steep that the buildings we passed looked like they were leaning at a 45 degree angle. Then, reaching the top and peering down - vertigo aside - we were awe-struck by the postcard-perfect views over the entire city, the harbor and the mountains beyond.

Light FantasticEvery night at 8pm, the city puts on what the Guinness Book of World Records calls the largest and most spectacular light and multimedia show. The Symphony of Lights is choreographed perfectly to music, and plays on some 40 mile-high skyscrapers on both sides of Victoria Harbour. The facades of the buildings are decked out in lights that, at the flick of a switch, glow in a myriad of colors and totally depict Hong Kong’s dynamic pulse. We saw this show from a boat bobbing in the harbor. Another terrific vantage point: the Avenue of the Stars where, in addition to the light show, one can wander among plaques, hand prints and statues honoring celebrities from the silver screen.

One evening we headed to Lan Kwai Fong, the city’s most famous bar and club district. Several years ago this was an unremarkable neighborhood but today it’s emerged as the most popular entertainment area on the Island. We found a happening scene of young movers and shakers, Chinese and foreign, spilling out of doorways and looking like they were in a fashion shoot, the gals in stilettos and minis, the metrosexual guys in tailored suits. My friends and I squeezed into a tiny, closet-space bar and sat on one another’s laps on a small sofa while drinking creamy, brightly colored drinks that contained we know not what. But who cares - they were good!

A Gourmet ParadiseThanks to its diverse mix of cultures, Hong Kong has developed a much-deserved reputation as one of the world’s top dining cities. Excellent Chinese restaurants are ubiquitous throughout the city but many other cultures and tastes are equally well-represented.

Long renowned as one of Hong Kong’s favorite dining rooms with an exciting adaptation of traditional grill specialties, the Mandarin Grill at The Mandarin Oriental Hotel offers progressive gastronomy from the talented Executive Chef Uwe Opocensky. The room is flooded with natural light and spacious seating makes it a haven for Hong Kong power lunches and some of its boldest business deals.

Since its opening in 2003, Spoon by Alain Ducasse at the InterContinental Hotel is one of Hong Kong’s and Asia’s most sought-after dining experiences. This restaurant features contemporary French cuisine inspired by one of the world’s most celebrated chefs. M. Ducasse says “my inspiration comes from observing how people are living and then invent the food that corresponds.” His cuisine comes directly from this philosophy that a restaurant should reflect society and its perpetual evolution. In this, Spoon succeeds admirably.

Lung King Heen at the Four Seasons Hotel commands spectacular harbor views from its 4th floor location serving contemporary Cantonese cuisine at its best. The only Chinese restaurant in the world with 3 Michelin stars, it is hushed, exclusive and headed by the only Chinese chef to ever receive this prestigious accolade, Executive Chef Chan Yan Tak. Suggestion: try the Australian winter black truffles – a rare and very special delicacy.

Lobster Bar & Grill at the Island Shangri-La Hotel pairs the perfect social ambience with an impressive and tantalizing range of appetizers, main courses and desserts. You’ll find a vibrant social scene and a bar that features live music six nights a week. True to its name, there are some innovative and appealing lobster dishes to sample including a lobster tartar and lobster bisque appetizer. Indulge in a dessert of caramel and manjari chocolate chantilly topped with Tahitian vanilla ice cream. A happy ending.

Top Deck, situated on the top level of the renowned Jumbo Floating Restaurant, opened in 2005 as a restaurant and entertainment venue offering an experience that encapsulates Hong Kong lifestyle – casual, fun and internationally appealing. The restaurant focuses on sushi and oyster bars and fresh seafood as well as Thai, Indian, Japanese and Italian dishes.

Rest in the Best
You’ll forgive me if I delve into a bit more detail than usual but it’s a fact: Hong Kong’s five-star hotels are really more like 50-star, in a class by themselves, with the most exceptional service, design, comfort and over-the-top luxury.

The InterContinental Hong Kong is prized for its spectacular views and is also home to Asia’s most spectacular suite – Presidential, of course. It boasts the best location and best views in Hong Kong. With 5 bedrooms, and at 7,000 sq. feet, it is the largest Presidential Suite in Hong Kong. The cost is $87,000 per night but before you cross it off your agenda, let me ease your mind. You see, that cost is in Hong Kong dollars. In US dollars it’s a mere $11,183. Now that’s better, isn’t it? But perhaps it’s best to leave the Presidential Suite to presidents, yes? For we mere mortals, a stay in a lovely room at this deluxe property is, indeed, affordable and something you should definitely consider.

The Mira Hong Kong embodies an intriguing, eclectic ambience. The Mira Club allows for private check-in, check-out and is an inviting room to have an evening cocktail while gazing at the stunning view from floor to ceiling windows. Rooms are meticulously styled by famed lifestyle guru Colin Cowie. The Mira’s restaurant serves fresh “a la minute” Japanese specialties. The restaurant’s name is Yamm. I prefer to remember it as Yumm!

Harbour Plaza North Point. Calling all shopaholics. Listen up: This property is conveniently located just five minutes from Cityplaza, one of the most all-encompassing shopping malls in the world. There’s even a complimentary shuttle bus service to many tourist locations that are on your “must do” list. The Harbour Club floors offer complimentary breakfast, pressing service, complimentary drinks from the mini bar and other neat services delivered by a highly caring and professional staff. Their restaurant, Hoi Yat Heen serves Cantonese cuisine in a trendy and colorful atmosphere.

Hotel Lan Kwai Fong is located in the happening heart of the same-named district. Since its opening it has garnered many awards, including Best Business Hotel Design, Best Boutique Hotel and Best Boutique Hotel in Asia Pacific by Business Traveler magazine. Its Azure Restaurant Slash Bar is acclaimed as “one of Hong Kong’s best restaurants” by Hong Kong Tatler.

Harbour Grand Hotel is a tranquil sanctuary in this bustling city. They offer some attractive packages: the Grand Weekend Escape, including spa treatments, a deluxe Harbour View room and a choice of dining in any of the hotel’s five restaurants. The seductively-named Grand Romance package includes a 4-course dinner at the acclaimed Le 188 Restaurant and Lounge, massages a deux by the harbor and round-trip airport transfer.

And finally there’s the incomparable Island Shangri-La. I was instructed to check in on the 56th Floor. Anticipating this somewhat unusual procedure, I gasped as I stepped into The Horizon Club, the Shangri-La’s cloud-high reception area. The atmosphere was dream-like with breathtaking views of Victoria Harbor and stunning staff in traditional Chinese dress softly floating by, welcoming with warm smiles and offering assistance. I was inspired seeing the world’s largest Chinese silk painting, ‘The Great Motherland of China,” that spans 16 stories in the hotel’s atrium. This award-winning hotel is located in the heart of the city’s Central District. My room had a wonderful view of the city and skyline and a pillowed bed that beckoned after my long (very long) flight from JFK. This spectacular property houses its own fleet of limousines, including a Rolls Royce Phantom! So when did my beguiling Shangri-La dream-state end? Not until the very moment of departure.

Let there be no doubt, Hong Kong is a world-class city at the crossroads of a new Asia, embracing the past, the future, the traditional and the avant-garde, thereby creating a rich tapestry of one-of-a-kind, memorable experiences. With its myriad diversity of offerings, the Big Lychee is beginning to look and feel an awful lot like the Big Apple. And that, in the words of a famous lifestyle guru, is a good thing.


A Tale of Two (Mexican) Cities by Barbara Barton Sloane

Emerging from a cool plunge in the deep blue sea of Bandaras Bay, I settle back in our little motorboat which gently rocks side to side as it glides towards densely forested cliffs and an intensely blue grotto. The sun is high overhead, its warmth lulling me into a dream-like state of sheer bliss. Bobbing in the bay, I revel in the fact that I’m incommunicado, far away from shore, unavailable, unreachable and suspended in an azure dream.

Bandaras Bay, on the west coast of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, is considered one of the most beautiful bays in the world, framed by the majestic Sierra Madre mountain range and with 40 miles of pristine coastline. This city, while being home to a popular tourist destination (thank you Richard Burton), a plethora of cultural festivals and a thriving art scene, accomplishes the seeming impossible – it retains the character and traditions of the small fishing village it once was.

I came here last November to attend this town’s gourmet festival, and their 16th Annual Puerto Vallarta International Gourmet Food Festival takes place again this year from November 11 to the 21st. It’s an eleven day whirlwind of cocktail and after-parties, cheese, wine and tequila tastings, cooking classes, concerts, conferences, chefs’ gala dinners and ends with awards ceremonies for the Chef’s Hall of Fame. The festival is the brainchild of Thierry Blouet, chef of the city’s renowned restaurant Café des Artistes, Heinz Reize of Hotel Krystal and Silvan Muller of Nestle. As the culinary scene here is superior to almost anywhere else in Mexico, their thought was to promote this city’s vibrant restaurants on a world stage and to enrich the profile of its gastronomic scene locally and abroad. Today, the festival attracts some of the top names in global gastronomy, as well as some of the world’s most promising rising stars.

Besides eating, there’s much to keep one busy in Puerto Vallarta. During my visit I did some deep sea fishing (no luck but thank goodness for Dramamine!), rode a lovely Palomino named Daisy along the beach, and had the opportunity to do some whale watching. Actually, I prefer to call it whale searching as I saw nary a one. I did see a blow spout far out in the distance. Does that count? We strolled through Vallarta’s colorful, historic downtown where we found the famous icons - The Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the famed Malecon Boardwalk. This walk is lined with sculptures by well-known local and international artists, a veritable open-air gallery. One of my favorite artworks was by an artist from Jalisco – Rafael Zamarripa, a sculpture of a boy riding a seahorse. It is much loved by locals and has become the symbol of Puerto Vallarta. Our walk ended at Los Arcos, a beautiful open-air amphitheatre overlooking the sea that hosts dance, music, theatre, and folkloric presentations.

Shall we do a little cooking right now? Let’s pair together this glorious destination by the sea with salt water, sugar sand, island spice and Mariachi music. Pepper with the world’s finest chefs, preheat to 85 degrees and what do you have? The perfect recipe for a vacation. You’ll leave with some wonderful and very tasty memories.

However, if a Mariachi band is not your idea of the perfect music to sway to, then check out this year’s Riviera Maya Jazz Festival!

Riviera Maya, located in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico, extends 81 miles along the breathtaking Yucatan Peninsula coastline from Puerto Morelos to Punta Allen. It is minutes away from a host of tropical natural wonders, an emerald green jungle, the incomparable turquoise sea, countless lost cities of the ancient Mayan civilization and a unique system of underwater caves and caverns considered sacred in the Mayan culture.

On my visit I stayed at Secrets Maroma Beach, an adults-only resort with an extra measure of romance and sensuality in a luxury setting. The property offers a program called Unlimited Luxury and everything is included from 24-hour concierge and room service, multiple gourmet restaurants and lounges serving premium drinks. It’s located on 500 stunning acres on one of the most pristine beaches in Mexico. While there, I think I tried out every one of their 12 pools, my fave being a huge shimmering infinity pool overlooking the ocean.

All That JazzThe Riviera Maya Jazz Festival takes place this year from November 25 through November 28 and hosts some of the best national and international jazz artists. It’s held on Mamita’s Beach and great news: It’s all free!! The festival has an international following and by its musical quality, is one of the top 10 jazz festivals in the world. When I attended the festival, I found it lived up to its reputation. Here we were, sitting on an extraordinary beach, swaying to music by some of the world’s most important jazz musicians and, in the background, the calming sounds of the sea. The icing on the cake – sharing all of this with one very cool crowd. There were 10,000 people attending the concerts on Mamita’s Beach each evening and I reveled in the warmth and camaraderie of this group of like-minded jazz aficionados. Even when the concert ended and thousands left the beach, it was done in a calm, peaceful way. Good vibes.

Some of the well-known jazz musicians appearing at the festival this year
include Aguamala, a group that got its start right nearby in Playa del Carmen in 2004. They play a fine mix of influences, a base of jazz with touches of funk and rock, giving Aguamala its innovative sound. Eugenia Leon makes an appearance this year. As she performs all over the world, Leon continues to enrich her repertoire including tango, bolero, Latin American music and the classics of the ranchero song. Al DiMeola, one of the great representatives of jazz fusion, will light a fire with both his electric and acoustic guitar rhythms. He says of his music: “What I’m doing now is just completely satisfying, like a phenomenal meal and a great glass of vintage wine.” Something tells me this whole festival, start to finish, will be - using Al’s words - “completely satisfying!”

It’s Not All JazzYou must not depart before you’ve done some of the fun activities that this destination offers. There’s swimming by the only archaeological site located by the sea in Tulum. You can snorkel in the largest natural aquarium in the world at Xel-Ha, you can explore the mystery of the Mayan caves in Aktun Chen and – for those that like to shop (of which you are legion), you can stroll along La Quinta Avenida in Playa del Carmen and enjoy the wide variety of shops, restaurants and bars.

If you attend either or both of these wonderful November festivals in Mexico, here’s my promise: you will eat, you will sway, and you will love Mexico!



Where Northern Europe meets the Southern Caribbean
by Barbara Barton Sloane

“Blanch your plantains!” our instructor commands in a no-foolin’-around voice. Blanch? “What does blanch mean?” I furtively whisper to Julia, my partner in this off-the-wall adventure. You see, we were cooking for our supper in Angelica’s Kitchen where our group of intrepid travelers has come for a lesson in traditional cuisine. Having already had a rather lengthy lesson in the art of knife-handling, and inhaling the ambrosial aromas wafting forth from boiling cauldrons, we looked forward to an evening that would end in a memory-making meal or – at the very least- an edible one.

We are visiting Curacao, an island rich in history. Settled by natives of South America, in 1499 the Spanish arrived and, in 1634, the Dutch defeated them to stake their claim to the island. It is the largest and most populous of the three ABC islands of the Lesser Antilles: Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. It is under 3 hours flight time from Miami and a mere 35 miles north of Venezuela.

Bon Bini!What makes Curacao unique and special among the Caribbean islands? Naturally there’s the transparent turquoise sea, the soft white sand, the ubiquitous palm trees swaying in the breeze. So, the difference? In a word: Authenticity. And, accomplishing the seeming impossible, Curacao still feels undiscovered, almost like an exclusive hideaway that only you were smart enough to find. It has a heritage both European and African. Spanish, Dutch, British, African and Jewish settlers have each added their own distinct flavor and today more than 50 nationalities are represented here. On my visit I heard a profusion of languages and islanders frequently greeted us with a lusty Bon Bin! which means welcome in Papiamentu, the local language.

We took a tour of Willemstad, Curacao’s capital city and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Row upon row of candy-colored houses – pink, green, yellow, turquoise - gave the town a pretty, fairytale look. The homes featured pitched gables, shady verandas, jalousie windows and many were covered with cascading bougainvillea, a flowering plant that’s considered good luck. In fact, on New Year’s Eve, people use the flowers to make a fragrant water to wash down their houses, thus insuring a fortuitous new year.

Orange is the new….well, OrangeAt least on this day. The people of Curacao wear many bright colors but on April 30 of each year, it’s orange or nothing. The bright hue is the national color of The Netherlands and this date marks the Queen’s birthday, so Celebration Time is On! The atmosphere was festive as we danced in the street to the rhythms of calypso, meringue, tango, reggae and salsa. Although I found myself with not a stitch of orange clothing, I joined the thousands of revelers and made do with a bright, exotic orange flower stuck behind my ear. It worked.

Taking the PlungeAfter the swinging, hectic celebration of Queen’s Day, I awoke to the sound of the ocean softly beckoning outside my window. It was a call I had to answer, opting for a day of lazing on sparkling white sand of the iconic Avila Hotel and trying out my new snorkel gear. The water was warm as a bath and of a blue so luminous it defied description, making the view below a colorful romp with the myriad fishes that swim near the shore. Snorkeling is right up my particular alley – not scary, yet allowing me to feel I’m doing something really adventurous. However, for those of you who want to delve deeper, you should know that Curacao is a scuba diving paradise, among the best in the world with 165 dive locations, and a chance to view endangered coral reefs and ancient ship wrecks.

Avila is a luxury beachfront resort that recently celebrated its 60th anniversary and the new Santai Spa and Wellness Club. It imparts a sense of timeless elegance, a bygone age, albeit in a modern package. There are 80 boutique-style rooms situated in restored 18th and 19th century Dutch Colonial buildings connected by a series of stone courtyards graced with brilliant bougainvillea, palms and pools. That evening, we dined at Belle Terrace, Avila’s seaside restaurant. On the menu was Manduka Ku Salada Di Chayote, which sounded exotic and somewhat daunting until I was told that it’s a popular local dish of ground beef and cheese. Harmless enough so I went for it. Glad I did. Pan Bolo Ku Sous Di Ron followed. Again, I needed translation and learned it means- simply - bread pudding with rum sauce. It was – simply – delicious! We dined with ocean breezes stirring tiki torch lights and white caps slapping softly against the shore as a trio, playing traditional island songs, serenaded us. We gazed into a sky studded with a zillion winking stars, and dominating this heavenly scene, a huge, luminescent silver globe. Can that really be the moon? Yes, it was.

During colonial times, a good part of the merchant class that moved to Curacao was comprised of Sephardic Jews looking for religious freedom. Our tour included a visit to The Jewish Cultural Museum which housed a fascinating display of objects illustrating the customs and traditions of these early settlers and the history of a community going back hundreds of years. The museum is a part of the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere - Mikve Israel Emanuel - a wondrous building to behold.

Our stay at the Kura Hulanda Hotel was special. Our rooms were furnished with hand-carved mahogany and teak furniture and was surrounded by attractive bluestone walkways, boutiques, restaurants and sculpture gardens, all done in 18th and 19th century Dutch colonial style. There are two spectacular pools, including a grotto surrounded by natural rock formations and fed by a calming waterfall. On its site is the Kura Hulanda Museum, a beautifully-curated, anthropological gem that focuses on the predominant cultures of Curacao, exhibiting the trans-Atlantic slave trade in its totality. There is a vast collection of artifacts from Continental Africa, the largest of its kind in the Caribbean. We found one of the more remarkable pieces in the museum’s garden - a standing woman sculpture, one side of her face beautiful and beguiling, and the other side displaying the continent of Africa.

Fun for the Whole FamilyIf you’d like to venture into a cavern, take a tour of Hoto Caves. They are open daily except Monday. Guided tours will take the family through the stalactite and stalagmite-filled rooms, several of which include pools and waterfalls.

Nature lovers? At Cristoffel National Park, this wildlife preserve includes the island’s highest point and 20 miles of trails that wind through local flora and fauna. The preserve is home to iguanas, donkeys, small deer, rabbits and many bird species.

A definite winner with the kids, the Sea Aquarium is one of the Caribbean’s finest marine exhibits. There are local fish, coral and sponges but it is the outdoor tanks with sharks, sea turtles and stingrays that really captivate. Want to swim with the fishes? At the Curacao Dolphin Academy, you can swim, snorkel and even dive with these special creatures.

Pull your head up out of that sugary white sand and take the family to the Curacao Ostrich Farm with a population of over 600 birds, one of the biggest farms outside of Africa. Kids (of all ages) are fascinated to view how ostriches live and breed.

As our Curacao travels came to an end, I’m happy to report that at Angelica’s Kitchen I did learn to blanch and, in fact, all of my cooking buddies did a great job with their assigned dishes. Cooking together, messing up, laughing a lot, making new friends, and ultimately turning out a darn good meal is an experience I’d highly recommend. Leaving Angelica’s we felt sated, convivial, and very Bon-Bini-ed - a memorable Curacao experience!

Avila Hotel (from $140/night) Hotel Kura Hulanda (from $135/night)
www.avilahotel.com www.kurahulanda.com

Moon Restaurant (dinners $15-$45) Jaanchie’s (dinners $14-20)
www.mooncuracao.com www.jaanchies__restaurant- westpunt_curacao

To Do:
Angelica’s Kitchen ($105 per person) Jewish Historical Cultural Museum
www.angelicas-kitchen.com www.snoa.com

American Airlines has 5 daily flights to
Curacao via Miami from as low as $154.00


by Barbara Barton Sloane

Berlin has had a more wrenching history than most cities on earth. No European city in recent times has changed as much, in the process transforming itself from a divided geopolitical anomaly into a modern mainstream capital and undergoing a major overhaul at every level. Old landmarks have been renovated, new ones acquired and others wiped out altogether, including what was once the most famous Berlin landmark of them all, the Wall. It was a divided city during the Cold War when Soviet and American tanks faced off at Checkpoint Charlie and, finally, the biggest historical moment of all – in 1989 the Berlin Wall fell. Out of such chaos has grown a city that’s adaptable in the extreme. Its waves of immigrants, expats and creatives ensure that tolerance is its greatest value.

Is there anything left of the Wall?, the first question many visitors ask. The answer is not much. A short section has been preserved and is in pristine condition. However, there is a stretch of the Wall called the East Side Gallery, the longest surviving section and the world’s largest open-air gallery, showing the work of 118 artists from 21 countries. I stood gazing up at the artwork, some touching and evocative, some irreverent and some very much of the moment. No trip to Berlin would be complete without coming and paying homage to this most iconic site.

I flew to Germany on Air Berlin, the country’s second largest airline. Preparing myself to arrive and immediately need a long, restful snooze, I was glad to find that this wasn’t the case and I hit the ground running. Why? With one of the newest fleets of any airline, my flight was superior in all ways. From the moment I boarded, I felt I was in good hands and would be well cared for. (I was). The food was inventive and quite good, the seats cozy, and the thick, plush comforter that I snuggled under was icing on the cake. No jet lag for me.

I checked into the A&O Mitte Hotel, budget-priced but with all the amenities necessary for a comfortable stay. The lobby was pretty and modern and my room had everything I needed, a reading light above the bed, fresh white bed linens, an ample desk, windows that opened wide to cool breezes, an internet café and it included a TV! Annette Kuhner at the A&O Mitte was most helpful and efficient and made my stay particularly pleasant. Livening up the place: Robert, the handsome on-site Karaoke-man. He showed patience and forbearance as I struggled (and embarrassed myself) belting out “Rocky Mountain High.” (Note to self: don’t try that again!). My breakfast the next morning offered delectable rolls, a selection of cold cuts, cheese, juice and good, strong coffee. Oh, and berliners! (That’s the German word for Danish pastry). Shall we now, finally, put to rest memories of the gaffe President Kennedy made when he visited this city and proclaimed “Ich Bin Ein Berliner?” Oh well, the crowd loved him anyway - loved him so much, in fact, that they’ve built, in his honor, the fascinating Kennedy Museum, a collection containing an impressive mix of personal items, historical documents and private and political photos which provide an insight into the continuing fascination of this family.

Much To Do About…Everything!I only had three days in Berlin but I tried to see as many of the not-to-be-missed sights as I could. The Brandenburg Gate is Berlin’s signature icon and once marked the turbulent division of East and West Berlin. It now stands at the head of a pedestrian plaza just blocks from the German Parliament. This Neo-Classical structure, located in former East Berlin, stood watch over a divided city until the Wall came down. The Gate is reached by walking down one of Berlin’s most famous streets, Unter den Linden, a grand boulevard lined with 18th century buildings restored after WWII.

From here various new landmarks catch the eye: the postmodern towers of Potsdamer Platz, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and Norman Foster’s revamped Reichstag complete with a visitable glass cupola. A walk to the top is a must. What makes a visit to these landmarks vastly important is that they all lie along the line of the former Wall and, in one way or another, are intended to heal that wound of history and stitch the city back together. Other post-Wall additions to the landscape include the Judisches Museum in the hip Kreuzberg neighborhood – housed in a remarkable building by Daniel Libeskind, a whole slew of new embassies, and a huge new Berlin Haupbahnhof, Europe’s largest railway station.

Berlin has more art galleries than any other city in Europe and is a hot spot for rising artists. Museum Island is a UNESCO World Heritage site, Europe’s largest connected museum area. There are five museums in this complex: The Old National Gallery with ancient Greek and Roman artifacts, The Bode Museum containing a vast collection of sculptures, The Neues Museum with Egyptian works of art including the renowned sculpture of one of the most famous women in the world: Nefertiti, The Altes Museum, built by this city’s greatest architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel and The Pergamon Museum replete with Babylonian antiquities. Add to all of this culture the fact that Berlin’s nightlife is akin to a religious rite and dining here offers a sumptuous smorgasbord of choices, what you’ve got is a new, scintillating, international city that begs to be discovered.

Berlin is beautiful, bustling, and brimming with things to see and do. It also happens to be just under an hour by fast train – DB Bahn - to another city that the New York Times has designated Number 10 in its list of “31 Places to go in 2010” – Leipzig!

A train from Berlin to Leipzig takes under an hour on the Fast Train and one has the thrill of arriving in its Central Station or Haupbahnhof which underwent modernization in the mid-90s, making it one of the most modern railway stations anywhere. It contains a three-storey shopping mall built in 1997 and houses about 140 stores and restaurants open almost around the clock.

A Place of LimesBack in the 7th-9th centuries, a group of Slavic settlers who venerated the lime tree founded Leipzig which means “Place of Limes.” I can’t promise you’ll see many lime trees there today but you can count on being surrounded by innumerable green parks filled with stately trees, lush plantings and placid ponds filled with ducks and swans. We rode bikes through a park just across the street from our hotel and found it a very pleasant way to feel truly a part of the action.

Music, Music, MusicWith musical roots that go back to the 13th century, in this city you feel the power of music everywhere – in the streets and squares, in concert halls and in the many authentic places where famous composers and musicians lived and worked. Among the many great names: Johann Sebastian Bach, Felix Mendelssohn, Clara and Robert Schumann, Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler. A few other stunning bits of musicalia: the St. Thomas Boys Choir has a proud tradition of almost 800 years and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra is the oldest symphony orchestra in the world!

Happy Birthday Herr BachThe Bach Museum, renovated over the past two years, reopened this March for Bach’s 325th birthday. At St. Thomas Church, Bach became the choirmaster and remained in this position for 27 creative years until his death. During this time, he wrote outstanding music such as the Christmas Oratorio and St. Matthew Passion as well as the Art of Fugue, Mass in B minor, many cantatas, and countless musical gems far too numerous to name.

One of my fondest experiences in Leipzig was attending an open-air picnic/concert put on by the Gawandhaus Orchestra. The sun was setting, turning the sky pink and gold as we spread blankets on the grass, the better to meet and chat with one’s supine neighbors and share a glass of bubbly. The concert opened with the rousing “Kaiser Waltz” by Johann Strauss, loud and lilting. We had to restrain ourselves from jumping up and whirling around on the grass but one adorable child named Yara, a schones madchen aus Leipzig (pretty little Leipzig girl) did just that. She hopped and danced around our blanket like a tiny, blond woodland sprite, a perfect accessory to the lilting Strauss waltz!

That evening seemed to sum up in one happy bundle my entire travel experience…exciting, inviting, and above all, welcoming. To quote Gerd Harry Lybke, owner of the Eige + Art, one of the most influential galleries in Germany, “Leipzig is a town of students, musicians and artists. It has a history of welcoming strangers. In the middle of nowhere, between Frankfurt and Prague, Leipzig was the marketplace where travelers met.” He added, “The second time you come to Leipzig, you are considered one of us.”