Saturday, January 14, 2012
An elegant, bearded man swaddled in pure white robes, wearing a kefiyeh headdress encircled with a black rope band and surrounded by four large, no-nonsense bodyguards walks through the Four Seasons Cairo lobby. When my waiter brings me tea, I ask him who that very important looking man is and he explains it’s a sheik from Saudi Arabia. “You’ll see lots of them here. This is, after all, The Four Seasons,” he says with a proud smile.
Yes, that says it all. Whether in Boston, Washington or Cairo, Egypt, this hotel chain with its demanding high standards frequently hosts celebs, heads of state, and occasionally a lucky travel writer like me.
Known to locals as Umm al-Dunya, “Mother of the World,” Cairo is a city of 18 Million which swells to over 20 Million daily counting the workforce. I swear I can see many of those millions right below my hotel window, a virtual feast for the eyes: streets teeming with people, a cacophony of bleating car horns, tall pastel-colored apartment buildings, their balconies alive with clothes flapping in the breeze. Tiny, shadowed alleyways almost obscure men sitting around tables eating, smoking, visiting. A colorful profusion of veggies, fruit, nuts, flowers, perfumes and handicrafts are displayed in front of the shops as hawkers implore you to taste, smell, buy or at least join them for a glass of tea. Oh yes, I am, indeed, in Cairo, Egypt and anticipating the exotic adventure that’s about to unfold.
After resting for a few hours, our group was driven to The Citadel, an open-air amphitheatre on high where exhibitions, artistic events and concerts are held. The view from there gives onto the entire city below and as the lights of all Cairo came up, it was magic. We dined on spicy, traditional Egyptian fare while musicians played tunes on ancient instruments, singers sang with seductive, mournful voices and whirling dervishes in long white gallabiyas twirled trance-like for what seemed like hours. They never get dizzy, I’m told, because their dance is divinely inspired. After my long flight and feeling somewhat dizzy myself from the mesmerizing performance, I was glad to return to my hotel and prepare for a big day ahead.
A visit to the Egyptian Museum began with what was one of the highlights of the trip: a lecture by the one and only Dr. Zahi Hawas, the world’s foremost Egyptologist and the head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. Dr. Hawas discussed some of the museum’s 2,500 artifacts culled over 5,000 years. The treasures of the museum were heart-stopping and it is said that to see the entire collection it would take 9 full months, every day, from 9 to 5. The Tutankhamen exhibit was my favorite, with the 18k gold mask of Tut, his chariots, sarcophagus, and including golden jewelry enclosed in his tomb for over 3,500 years. I longed to have the time to just gaze into each and every splendid vitrine and simply let the heady atmosphere envelop me. Sadly, t’was not to be as the plan was to spend the evening at the Sofitel Hotel. Boarding a wooden felucca docked at the foot of our hotel, we had a 10 minute sail across the Nile to the hotel’s Buddha Bar where we sampled Egyptian hors d’oeuvres and inventive cocktails. With lights glistening on this mythical river, good company and great drinks, it was, in all, a fine Cairo evening.
The next day we crossed over one of the 11 bridges from Cairo to the section called Giza on our way to the Pyramids and Sphinx. Though the three Great Pyramids are the most famous monuments, the site has actually been a Necropolis since the beginning of Pharaonic Egypt. Shortly after we arrived, a sand storm kicked up turning the sky from blue to milky white, the wind whipping sand particles into every possible crevice of our bodies. It made picture-taking difficult, as did the hoards of tourists. But, intrepid travelers that we were, we got our shots and bragging rights about enduring a sandstorm at the Pyramids and living to tell it!
That evening, dinner was at the Robayat El Khayam, the historic restaurant of the Mena House Oberoi Hotel. Lavish, over-the-top, a true Hollywood set, this is not to be-missed. An ethnic-inspired show of dancers and singers was a fun accompaniment to our meal.
After checking out of our hotel, we took an hour-long flight to Luxor where we boarded a Nile cruise ship for a four-night trip to Aswan. The first stop on our cruise was the Temple of Karnak. Although badly ruined, no site in Egypt is more impressive. It is the largest temple complex ever built by man; in fact it’s a city of temples built over 2000 years for the Theben triad of Amon, Mut and Khonsu. The Great Temple at the heart of Karnak is so big, at 54,000 square feet and 134 columns, it is the largest room of any religious building in the world and its grandeur is incomparable.
The Temple of Luxor is in the renowned city of Thebes, the city of a hundred gates, close to the Nile and parallel with the riverbank. Inside, one is in the midst of a multitude of columns which seem to rise to the sky, bearing intricate designs and painted in reds, blues and greens, colors that today are as vivid as when they were first painted. Two statues - huge, strong and handsome guards - stand on either side of the entrance to this Temple. Since it has been in almost continuous use as a place of worship right up to the present day, one can conclude that these guards have done their job exceedingly well.
The following day we toured the Valley of the Kings with its best-preserved hieroglyphs and home to at least sixty-two New Kingdom pharaohs and ranking officials. There is an Egyptian belief that “to speak the name of the dead is to make him live again.” Thus, all the kings’ tombs are inscribed with names and titles, along with images and statues – so that they will live again. A sweet and comforting thought. That evening back on our cruise ship, I pulled a chair up to the rail and literally watched Egypt float by before my eyes, a spectacular end to the day.
A quick breakfast on board, and we’re off to the Aswan airport to fly to Abu Simbel. The two temples at Abu Simbel are among the most magnificent monuments in the world. Even more extraordinary was their removal and reconstruction to keep them from being lost forever under the waters of Lake Nasser when the Aswan High Dam was completed in the late 1960’s. Gazing up at the four gargantuan Pharaohs carved into the mountain, and knowing that heaven and earth were moved to save it, was a touching and poignant experience.
“The Nile does not change. Indeed, I don’t know of another place in which everything changes as much and yet nothing is ever changed. You feel quite at home.” ( Henry Adams, 1898). Eternal Egypt - exciting, enriching - an experience whose memories will last forever.
If You Go:
Four Seasons Hotel Wings Tours & Nile Cruises
Sofitel Cairo Egypt Airlines
Oberoi Hotel Egyptian Tourist Authority
Photos courtesy of Sloane Travel Photography
Saturday, January 7, 2012
When you think of Jerusalem, opera is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. Yet, maybe this connection is not as far- fetched as it seems. In this city three thousand years ago King David built his palace. It’s said that he hung a harp (lyre) above his bed and when midnight arrived and the north wind blew upon the instrument, its strings vibrated and music would ring forth. Have no doubt, here the sounds of music live on and I attended their yearly International Opera Festival which the city celebrated this past June.
On our drive from the airport to the city, our view was of earth-colored fields dotted with low shrubs. Then, in the distance, we glimpsed the City of David - Jerusalem. We peered intently out of our van’s windows at a skyline filled with spires piercing the sky - minarets, churches, mosques and temples that, until now, we’d only seen in photographs.
Jerusalem is the largest city in the country – a city holy to three religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, this is an exhilarating meeting of ancient and modern - where one retraces the steps of pilgrims who have journeyed here for thousands of years, where you find ancient and biblical contrasting with modern, hip, of the moment – and, somehow, creating a harmonious balance. In short, it is a city unique in the world. That evening we enjoyed a special treat. Our guide brought us up to Mt. Scopus for an iconic, panoramic view of the Old City at twilight. The singular Jerusalem light was golden and pink and, inevitably, the City of David began to weave its special spell – a hard-to-define “something” that turns everything into a truly memorable experience.
The next day was an official holiday, Jerusalem Day, which celebrates the reunification of Jerusalem; 44 years ago there was barbed wire dividing this city and today it is reunited. There was a feeling of exuberance, joy and abandon in the air as we made our way to the Western Wall, a remnant of the holy temple and the most sacred structure of the Jewish people. There we found serene reverence, the space divided with men on one side, women on the other, all in prayer. As I was about to make my way to the wall to insert into a crevice a tiny piece of paper bearing my personal prayer, the quiet was pierced by loud, raucous singing. Coming down the hill to the wall, a dozen youths, arms intertwined, belting out the words to the Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem. The young men found a chair and soon it was hoisted high with a pretty teenage girl holding on for dear life as she was twirled around, the group dancing and singing
Evenu Shalom Aleichem. Celebration time was now!
Spanning the first twelve days in June, this happy mood continued as some of Jerusalem’s most storied venues came alive with music. Imagine attending a gala operatic concert by the glorious voices of the Arena di Verona opera company in a settling that was spellbinding – the Sultan’s Pools. This ancient site is in the valley of Hinnom beneath the west side of Mt. Zion, and was part of the water supply of Jerusalem during the Roman period. What an enchanting way to kick off our first concert! The evening was warm with soft breezes keeping things comfortable. Colored lights played on ancient columns bordering the pool creating an otherworldly atmosphere as an orchestra of 100 led by Giuliano Carella performed famous opera favorites from
Il Trovatore, La Traviata, Rigoletto and more. To hear a bit of the concert: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZkJ8A20etM&feature=player_embedded
During our Jerusalem visit we attended several other concerts. The next day we visited the Tower of David Museum. This complex is located at the Old City’s Jaffa Gate; it spans the centuries and its very stones are part of this city’s living history. The 500-year-old walls are part of the Turkish citadel and its name comes from a tower so massive that early Jerusalemites ascribed it to their great King David although the builder was actually the much-maligned King Herod. The concert room was intimate, the chairs set up just a few feet from the performers, two sopranos and a mezzo soprano. These three young artists had voices that were strong and soaring. They performed Opera Sancta, highlighting such composers as Bellini, Mascagni, Puccini and Donizetti. After the concert, we had the chance to meet and mingle with the singers and take photos, making this experience even more memorable.
That evening we were off to a performance of “A Meeting with Cleopatra” at the Austrian Hospice located in the Old City directly across from the Via Dolorosa. This interesting venue was officially opened in 1863 and served as the residence of the Austrian Consul as well as a protective refuge for Catholics and Ashkenazi Jews. In 1987, after years as a lively pilgrim operation, the building was completely renovated and was officially reopened in March, 1988. The room where the concert was held was just off the Hospice garden, and on this warm evening its floor to ceiling windows were flung open to catch the occasional breeze. Just as the music was about to start, the room was filled with the mournful sounds of a muezzin singing the Adhan – the Islamic call to prayer. This was Jerusalem after all and there was a minaret very nearby. Rather than close the windows we chose to wait till the muezzin had finished since his call to prayer was a beautiful and exotic concert of its very own. The music in our concert was arias and duets from three Cleopatra operas by Handel, Mattheson and Hasse. A baroque trio directed by Eithan Schmeisser accompanied two powerful and affecting voices: Hila Baggio, soprano and Shira Raz, mezzo soprano. When the concert ended, we climbed many flights of stairs to the roof and enjoyed perhaps the very best view of the Old City, a heart-stopping sight and not to be missed.
Before we departed for home, our group attended an opera in a setting unrivaled anywhere in the world. Nearly 140 years after it premiered at the Cairo Opera House in 1871, Verdi’s renowned opera Aida was performed in the shadow of Masada in the Judean desert! Our journey through Arad to the lowest place on earth was dramatic as our van maneuvered winding roads on the banks of the Dead Sea towards Masada. The striking landscape of the desert was dun-colored and desolate with barren hills, caves, mountain-high dunes, deep shadows, Bedouin villages and even a kibbutz.
Masada was the last bastion of Jewish freedom fighters that battled the Romans. It is a symbol of humanity’s continuous struggle for freedom from oppression and as of 2001 it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. No opera house could possibly compete with the simple beauty of this great outdoors and starry night sky. Masada, as the backdrop for the opera, was pure magic. As the first strains of music began with Daniel Oren wielding the baton for the Israeli Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion and with the Israeli Opera Chorus and hundreds of dancers and singers from around the world, this grandiose opera was returned to its ancient roots. The production was over-the-top glorious and - good news - opera will happen again next year: Carmen at Masada will take place June 7-10, 2012. Imagine the color, flash and sheer excitement of “Carmen” presented at one of the world’s most dramatic venues! Think I’ll make my reservation right now. You can, too, at www.carmen-at-masada.com.
Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, “Jerusalem of Gold,” is a beloved Israeli song. In it one sings “The mountain air is clear as wine and….is carried… with the sound of bells.” In the chorus the words are “Behold, I am a violin for all your songs.” From the ancient strains of David’s lyre up to today’s popular folk song, music rings forth. Sounds of music in Jerusalem? Of course!
Last year – 2011 – was designated The Year of Alabama Music. To Quote Berthold Auerbach: “Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” In light of this state’s 2011 tornado tragedies, though it seems somewhat incongruous, this year may be the very best time for Alabama to immerse itself in its rich musical heritage and allow it to wash away the sad memories of the upheaval it recently went through. Today, in famed music halls, nightclubs, and jam sessions, Alabama’s musical legacy continues in song and celebration - from Tuscumbia to Tuscaloosa and all around the state.
Greats of Yesteryear – and Today
I visited Alabama for its special celebration just one week before the tornados hit. Our group took a Cook’s tour of some of the major music sites including Muscle Shoals, Florence, Birmingham, and Montgomery, where diversity as well as African-American contributions to American music and culture are celebrated. Our first stop was the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia. Long a dream of the Muscle Shoals Music Association, the Hall of Fame opened in 1990. Inside, portraits cover the walls of all who have been inducted here, from Dinah Washington, W.C. Handy, Hank Williams and Sam Phillips to name just a few. Mightily impressed by this assemblage of musical greats, it resoundingly brought home the important role Alabama has played in our musical heritage.
Among the Hall’s fun memorabilia is the tour bus for the group ALABAMA; we clambered aboard and got a true feeling for their life on the road. Then we were given copies of the words to “Sweet Home Alabama” and ushered into a recording studio. To the actual Lynrd Skynrd music, we shamelessly belted out this wonderful song. I don’t know if we should have been grateful or horrified, but we were each given a DVD of our efforts.
That evening, we returned to the Hall to see The Secret Sisters perform. The duo, Laura and Lydia Rogers, barely twenty-somethings, were discovered by T Bone Burnett. They charmed the audience with classics such as “Don’t Ya Love Me?” and “Why Baby Why?” with their effortless harmony. The music is of rural America, roots-filled and timeless. By the end of this amazing concert, we were all on our feet applauding the sisters who are slated to be the next big thing before you can utter the words ‘bless your heart.’
A visit to FAME Recording Studios was exciting, as we toured the very studio where such iconic music as Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” and the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” album was recorded. Founder Rick Hall regaled us with stories of Aretha Franklin, Duane Allman, The Osmonds, and Little Richard, all who recorded at FAME.
The last tour of the day was Ivy Green, Helen Keller’s birthplace. Her life is chronicled at this, her childhood home - a humble house that has been completely restored and which contains a vast collection of memorabilia from her extensive world travels. You can’t help but be moved by the photos of Helen with her teacher, Anne Sullivan, by her old typewriter, and by the famous pump where Helen broke through her world of silence when she understood the word “water.” The gardens are lovely and contain magnolias, live oaks, honeysuckle and English Ivy, for which the house is named. In these very gardens each summer, William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker is performed. This year was the 50th annual production held from June 3 through July 9.
Father of the Blues
Over the next few days, we made other important musical stops. On to Florence and the home of W.C. Handy. A cabin of hand-hewn logs, furnished just as it was in 1873, the year of Handy’s birth, is now a museum displaying the composer’s trumpet and the piano on which he wrote St. Louis Blues and Beale St. Blues. Each summer, a W.C. Handy Music Festival is held here (this year: July 23-31), including special church services, parades, lectures and jam sessions. This festival is the most popular and largest music event in the state.
The Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in Birmingham is an art deco museum honoring great jazz artists with ties to the state, including Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton and Erskine Hawkins. Here we met a most charming gentleman, Dr. Frank Adams, (himself a Hall of Fame inductee). Now in his 90s but embodying the verve and joie de vivre of someone decades younger, Dr. Adams entertained us with stories of the greats he’s performed with. He told of a lifelong crush he harbored on Ella Fitzgerald and though the lady wouldn’t give him the time of day, this never dampened his ardor.
Juke Joint Jumpin’The formal definition of a juke joint is a small roadside establishment in the southeastern United States where you can eat and drink and dance to music provided by a jukebox. There’s no jukebox at Gip’s Place, one of the last authentic surviving juke joints in the country, but there is live, authentic blues. In this tin-covered shack found in the backyard of one Henry Gipson, an eighty-nine year old cultural phenomenon, the joint is jumpin’ each and every Saturday night. “Mr. Gip” has run this juke joint where great blues musicians have gathered since the 50s. The ramshackle club is gaily lit with thousands of Christmas lights and Mardi Gras beads dangling from the ceiling. On stage, front and center, Gip himself, twanging out hard-driving blues on the guitar. During breaks, he found time to greet all of us personally, even bestowing cheek-kisses to all the ladies.
This Country Boy
Montgomery is the home of the great Hank Williams. We toured his museum and found it a most moving experience. One of the first things we saw upon entering was Williams’ baby-blue 1952 Cadillac on whose very backseat he died at the age of 29 (!)on his way to an Ohio gig. Hank Williams Jr. wrote a song called “This Country Boy Can Survive.” As I listened to the plaintive words, I couldn’t help but wish that his father – a sweet country boy - had survived much longer, and then the world would have had the benefit of more years of his incredible talent. The collection of Williams’ memorabilia is vast and complete – his rhinestone and spangle-decorated cowboy suits, his albums, his guitars and photographs. Our Hank Williams’ homage ended at his gravesite in Oakwood Cemetery. The grounds surrounding the grave are covered with Astroturf, four tons of concrete and a cowboy hat resting forlornly atop his grave.
For sure, Alabama had its seductive way with me. I left with a deep acquaintance with the talented musicians of yesterday as well as the very-much-alive musicians enhancing the music scene there today; and not least, I was warmed and charmed by the kindness I felt from Alabamians throughout the state.
The philosopher/poet Santiz wrote: “Music speaks what cannot be expressed, soothes the mind and gives it rest, heals the heart and makes it whole, flows from heaven to the soul.” Hearts are healing, and in Alabama, music lives on!
If you go:
Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa, Muscle Shoals Frank’s Italian, Tuscumbia
Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa, Birmingham Bottega Café, Birmingham
Renaissance Hotel and Spa, Montgomery Hot & Hot Fish Club, Birmingham
Dreamland BBQ, Montgomery
The Olive Room, Montgomery
Alabama Tourism Department
After ten long years of wavering and indecision, the powers that be have finally agreed on a master plan. The cavernous hole known as Ground Zero has a new group of skyscrapers transforming NYC’s downtown skyline. A brand-new, beautiful and livable urban area has surfaced with innovative and fresh restaurants, hotels and public spaces. Reflecting Absence, dedicated on September 11, 2011, is the contemplative memorial which marks the footprints of the old towers and the building of One World Trade Center is moving along at an encouraging pace and will reach its 1,776 apex 2012.
I had the opportunity to visit the 9/11 Memorial recently, reserving my free timed pass to visit ahead of time, due to ongoing construction on surrounding WTC projects (www.911memorial.org). Reflecting Absence occupies half of the 16 acres World Trade Center site and consists of two enormous pools set in the footprints of the Twin Towers. Thirty-foot waterfalls cascade down all sides and hundreds of white oak trees line the surrounding plaza. The names of the 2,983 victims of the attacks at the WTC site, at the Pentagon, and aboard Flight 93, as well as the WTC’s bombing on February 26, 1993, are inscribed into bronze panels surrounding the pools.
Unlike any other memorial in the world, the names of the victims are arranged by a concept that architect Michael Arad describes as “meaningful adjacencies” guided by where people were on 9/11, who they were with and by more than 1,200 requests made by victims’ next of kin for individual names to be next to one another. The Memorial is one of the most sustainable, green plazas ever built and serves as an eight-acre green roof on top of seven stories of below-grade spaces and a train station.
All but one of the trees on the site are swamp white oaks taken from areas impacted on 9/11. The one that is not, standing at a place I found incredibly moving, is a Callery pear tree that became known as the Survivor Tree. After sustaining extensive damage it somehow lived through the attacks and in October, 2001, the tree with lifeless limbs, snapped roots and blackened trunk, was discovered and freed from the wreckage at the WTC complex.
When I visited the Memorial, I was among hoards of visitors. As we filed onto the site, I feared that being able to truly connect and relate to this uniquely significant place would be difficult, if not impossible. I am glad to report that everyone there maintained a respectful silence, sitting on the surrounding benches lost in private thoughts or quietly hunting for names meaningful to them and once found, gently running their fingers over the engravings.
Now, a decade along, downtown NYC has not only recovered, it’s been reborn. With a nod to the past and an eye toward the future, the World Trade Center site lives once more.
A most auspicious meeting: here at Riviera Maya, sea and jungle come together in harmony and provide a place of inimitable beauty. The Yucatan peninsula and Riviera Maya have miles and miles of white sand, singular sunsets over azure waters and, to insure a dream vacation, there are upscale coastal resorts from Cancun toTulum and beyond.
Consider this happy fact: the Riviera Maya in Mexico, our closest southern neighbor, is a very safe haven for visiting tourists. The Mayan coast stretches along the Caribbean Sea from Puerto Morelas to Punta Allen and has 125 miles of coastline, cultural riches, 5-star hotels, as well as pristine beaches, abundant marine life, caves, cenotes, underground rivers and archaeological sites. Its Mesoamerican Reef System stretches from Quintana Roo all the way to Honduras, and is the most important barrier reef in the Northern Hemisphere.
A prime attraction when we visited was this region’s archeological history, including vestiges from various periods of the Mayan culture, one of the most remarkable civilizations in history. Our particular abode was the incomparable Dreams Tulum. An all-inclusive resort, it is unique and extraordinary in its service, beauty, amenities and fine gourmet dining, along with a staff dedicated to making your stay absolutely perfect. (They succeed royally). The morning after my arrival, I brought coffee out to my balcony and sat transfixed in the milky pre-dawn, a tiny sliver of moon still lingering in the sky. A soft, warm breeze rustled a huge palm tree so close I could reach out and grab its fronds as they swayed and bent before me like a graceful green dancer. The ocean murmured in the distance, birds began their morning chatter and though I knew that fun adventures awaited, yet it was hard to leave my post high in the treetops.
Zama: “Dawn”We set off to explore Tulum, the most beautiful archaeological site of the Riviera Maya whose construction began in the pre-classic period (1800bc-250 ad). Its name means “fortified wall” in Mayan and it is the only walled city along the coast built to defend itself against attacks. The city was still inhabited during the first year of the Spanish colonization, but abandoned at the end of the 16th century and discovered again in 1842. The Maya called Tulum Zama, “Dawn,” because of its geographic location facing the sea and the commanding views of the rising sun.
Here the beautiful House of Chultun was a dwelling of an influential person; it has a two columned portico at the entrance and an inner sanctum with a small altar. At another site, a fortified wall used as defense, outlined the three sides of the town, west, north and south (the sea was to the east). The Temple of the Wind is outstanding with its many frescoes, altars, a ceremonial center and a dance platform. In the distance was Nohoch Mul (large hill) whose pyramid is the tallest in the Yucatan measuring 138 feet. The staircases leading to the various temples looked daunting, but it was well worth the trek. El Castillo (Temple of the Sea) is the most significant building in Tulum. It is a single-structured building containing an altar and overlooking the sea - a spectacular spot that made a powerful impression on the invaders in the 16th century.
Immersion, both Cultural and Aquatic
“Where the Sky Begins” – what a lovely meaning for the Mayan words Sian Ka’an, a 1.3 million acre Biosphere Reserve and, as of 1986, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our van took us to a specified meeting place where Pastor, our Mayan guide, directed us to this magical jungle reserve populated by jaguar, spider and howler monkeys, deer, tapirs, green and loggerhead sea turtles and much more including 900 species of flora and rare birds such as the great blue heron, the brown booby, toucans, egrets and aquatic birds. Crocodiles too. However, Pastor assured me that if I wanted to jump into a fresh water lagoon it would be ok –“No crocs in that water.”
The day was sweltering hot, the water looked cool and inviting so, throwing caution and good sense to the wind, I actually believed him. I’m glad I did. This is just about the most fun thing you can possibly do at Sian Ka’an because you immerse yourself both figuratively in a Mayan tradition of floating the lagoon and literally, you’re in the water, sitting atop your life vest, as instructed by Pastor: “Best way to really relax,”, placidly allowing the slow current to carry you through the narrow waterway with sky high mangroves on one side and tall reeds towering above on the other. Checking out the silly smiles of utter delight that plastered our faces as the float began, Pastor said, with pride: “Welcome to my office.” The man clearly loves his work. All too soon, a half hour later, our watery journey ended and we reluctantly climbed out of the lagoon - cool, calm, and very happy.
White Wedding Day
The Riviera Maya is a dream place to celebrate a wedding or honeymoon. At Dreams Tulum, the property hosts 450 weddings a year so you know you’ll be in fine and experienced hands. While there, I watched a wedding take place on the beach. As the bride walked a white carpet spread on the sand, a warm breeze caught her gauzy lace veil. Twirling it high in the air, it seemed to come alive, creating a very happy prospect for this celebration.
Fairmont Mayakoba, an ecologically chic resort on Riviera Maya, is one very romantic property. They have on-site wedding planners and many packages to choose from as well as creating personalized ceremonies. Fairmont Mayakoba offers an authentic Mayan wedding celebrated by a Xaman. Couples take a lanchita (boat) navigated by a Tatich-ha (captain) through canals accompanied by local music. The Xaman blesses the couple in his native language and a translator assists. For honeymooners, it’s one-stop shopping as their Platinum Concierge will help make all your arrangements.
The Tides Riviera Maya offers a luxe Riviera Maya Honeymoon Package for five days and four nights in an elegant villa with a private pool. This includes round-trip transfers to and from the Cancun International Airport, daily breakfast, fresh flowers upon arrival, a couple’s massage, a private, candle-lit dinner including Moet Chandon. Weddings, honeymoons, the turquoise Caribbean…..kind of makes you want to take the leap, si?
When you need a break from all that amour, (it can happen), get yourself to Playa del Carmen, a dynamic little nearby town known for its cosmopolitan nature: lots of artists, painters, musicians and dancers. It’s a multi-cultural community with some great shopping on La Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue). The place is vibrant and spirited and the dining is world-class.
Upcoming Riviera Maya events:
Sea Turtle Festival - October
Riviera Maya Jazz Festival – November
Day of the Dead – November
Cancun Riviera Maya International Film Festival – November
Carnival – February, 2012
The word castle usually conjures up an image of a stately pile rising to the heavens with grand banquet halls and room after room of lovely tapestries and furniture. However, one might also have an image of dripping stone walls, locked inner rooms and secret dungeons, footsteps creaking on staircases and fingers tapping at casements. You can almost hear shrieking, groaning and the clanking of chains and feel swirling mists and sudden winds. Maybe there’s even a raving lunatic lurking about.
Happily, on a recent trip to Germany to explore some of its countless castles – no lunatics. The experience was a grand and glorious one with nary a madman in sight. Our tour focused on East Germany where one can find a wealth of princely castles and parks, all of which have long been unreachable because of the Iron Curtain. Today, many are renovated and restored to their former glory.
Palaces, Parks and Pleasures
Our first stop was Potsdam, the capital of Brandenburg, a place with stunning parks and magnificent palaces. In fact, this city contains seventeen palaces and palatial buildings, defining the features of this city which encompass both the baroque as well as the Modern. In 1990, Potsdam enjoyed the distinction of having Sanssouci Palace and the Babelsberg and Alexandrowka districts designated UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Shortly after arriving, we wasted no time in walking to the large and very grand Sanssouci Park which encompasses more than 800 acres of topiary and 3,000 fruit trees, lending dappled shade over stately winding paths. Frederick the Great made Sanssouci Palace his summer home and was instrumental in creating the remarkable gardens. The New Palace, the largest 18th century structure in this park, contains no less than 200 palatial rooms of which 60 can be viewed - among them Grotto Hall, the Marble Gallery and the guest apartments.
Potsdam is not a big city so traveling by bike or on foot is an ideal way to explore. Explore I did. Meandering along the newly restored canals and then strolling through Old Market Square, I came upon the most dominant building here, The Church of Saint Nicholas. Reconstruction of the church started in 1830, but this has been holy ground for a lot longer than that. For the last 700 years, the only constant about this church has been change, but on my visit, I’m happy to report it was finally finished! My walk took me ultimately to the Russian village of Alexandrowka where I found a treasure trove of appealing shops, pretty small cafes, and ancient wooden houses. After dinner, I couldn’t resist another visit to Sanssouci Park in early evening, always an enchanted time. My twilight tour did not disappoint. The scene I experienced earlier in bright sunlight - one fairytale castle standing next to the other, strong trees with character flanked by an enchanted lakes – all was now bathed in a serene purple and mauve glow.
The next day we visited Cecilienhof Palace, another UNESCO Heritage site and the residence of Crown Prince William of Prussia and his wife Cecilie. It was here, in the summer of 1945, that the Potsdam Conference was held by the allied victorious powers of the Second World War: the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union. It was spine-tingling to walk through rooms that were the site of so much significant history, and knowing that they were furnished to match the taste of the participants, Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, Joseph Stalin and Harry S. Truman. In the Great Hall, front and center, was an impressive round table where they all met and where Churchill and Truman issued the Potsdam Declaration defining the terms for Japanese surrender. Today, Cecilienhof is a museum as well as a hotel. In May, 2007, the palace was used for the G8 foreign ministers summit.
Potsdam, a lively center of culture and learning, in summer, 2012, Potsdam will welcome the International Festival for Dance and Performance in May, their Classical Music Festival in June, Potsdam Night of the Palaces in August and the Bach Festival in September.
Digs Fit For A Duke – And For Dreaming
Our palatial adventures next took us to Mecklenburg and the monumental, dream-like fairytale Castle Schwerin, known as the “Nueschwanstein of the North.” It is the town’s most famous landmark surrounded by glittering golden spires and perched on a most outstanding site, smack in the middle an island in Lake Schwerin. For centuries the castle was home to the grand dukes of Mecklenburg and it currently serves as the seat of the state parliament. The Castle was built from 1845-57 in the neo-renaissance style and, architecturally, is one of the most important buildings in Europe. Castle Schwerin is what one images a castle should look like, at once monumental yet delicate – and quite the fitting home for royalty.
In this same region, we had a late afternoon visit to Castle Wedendorf, former home of Prince von Buelow and von Bernstorff. It nestles in a dreamlike l7 acre wooded location overlooking the Lake Wedendorf and is one of the most beautiful Classicist palaces in the country. Today, as Schloss Wedendorf, this beautiful castle is a 4-star hotel, comfortable and offering luxury amenities.
Gateway to the World
Our final stop and Germany’s second-largest city – Hamburg. It was this city’s port that earned it the reputation of being Germany’s “gateway to the world.” Home to three state theatres, forty private theatres and as many museums, a world-class concert hall, and a vibrant art scene, Hamburg is a multi-faceted metropolis. It is also a virtual Greenland. Tree-lined streets, parks and gardens abound, so many that it was named the European Green Capital for 2011.
In the heart of the city lies Alster Lake, a paradise for yachtsmen and paddlers, but also for me. Because the lake is surrounded with picturesque paths, I trekked through some of the prettiest, greenest areas, including the region called Winterhude with waterways lined with centuries-old trees, Baroque villas and lanes thronged with people seemingly just relaxing and enjoying life. That appears to be a key pastime here for residents and visitors alike, and this visitor quickly adapted to the mood.
Spring and summer usher in some lovely events: In the first half of May, there’s the Hamburg Port Festival, five days of celebrating the anniversary of the 800-year-old harbor. The Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival takes place mid-May, commemorating the first commercial links between Hamburg and Japan. Festivities include the election of a Cherry Blossom Queen and fireworks on the shoreline of Alster Lake. The Fleetinsel Festival is held every July over ten days along the historic waterways between the Elbe River and the Alster Lake in the city center, including artistic, cultural and culinary happenings.
Clare Boothe Luce once said “A man’s home may seem to be his castle on the outside; inside, it is more often his nursery.” On my spectacular German castle journey, I spied no nurseries. Nothing but outstanding, glorious buildings on the outside and within, at the very heart, utterly amazing!
To Know If You Go:
Steigenberger Hotel Sanssouci, Potsdam Zum Fliegenden Hollander, Potsdam
Radisson Blu Resort, Fleesensee Seehof Rheinsberg, Rheinsberg
Hotel Speicher am Ziegelsee, Schwerin Weinrestaurant Uhle
Schlossgut Gross Schwansee, Schwansee
Nippon Hotel, Hamburg LaFayette, Hamburg
“Our truest life is when we are in our dreams, awake,” –Henry David Thoreau
I was awake yet was, most definitely, in a dream – the SeaDream Yacht to be precise. Cruising along the Amalfi Coast of Italy, heading toward ports I’d only fantasized about, it was a pinch-myself moment. Yes, this was true life. Let the dreaming begin!
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the SeaDream Yacht Club, whose motto is “It’s yachting, not cruising.” That it is. It’s a family owned company, conceived by Norwegian entrepreneur Atle Brynestad with a maximum of 112 guests on board and catered to by an award-winning crew of 95, insuring that you will be “Splendidly Spoiled” and receive the most incomparable service at sea, bar none. In fact, Conde Nast Traveler magazine recently ranked SeaDream number one in the category of small ships with a higher score than any other cruise ship regardless of category.
Cruising is my favorite mode of travel, and in that I’m not alone; even the esteemed Sir Francis Drake said “It isn’t that life ashore is distasteful, but life at sea is better.” Think about it: cruising lets you share a front porch with a billionaire, your view the very same beautiful sea, blue sky and if you’re lucky, cavorting porpoises and the occasional leaping whale. The boarding process always puts happy, fluttering butterflies inside me, and being greeted before mounting the gangplank by a handsome crew member proffering a celebratory glass of champagne set exactly the right tone. It just got better from there when, upon boarding, we stepped into an already-in-progress festive cocktail party hosted by the Captain.
Every stateroom has a large window with an ocean view and the color scheme echoes that scene with navy, white and beige. My bathroom was taupe-colored marble, and my bed was dressed in white Belgian linen. There was champagne cooling in a silver bucket, a comfy sofa and a large flat screen TV. Heaven.
On board, the SeaDream offers a host of amenities and fun activities. Yoga is offered daily, there’s a well-equipped fitness center, and a Thai-themed spa, the only one of its kind at sea. From the moment you rise, your dining is going to be a fine gourmet experience. I looked forward each morning to dining al fresco on the pretty upper deck, and evenings, as I entered the dining room, I was asked if I wished to be alone or if I felt a bit sociable. I usually chose the latter and had the opportunity to meet my attractive and appealing neighbors. After dinner, we typically sauntered up to the Top of the Yacht Bar where we were serenaded with our favorites by a piano or guitar. When in port, one can choose from a choice of custom-designed land adventures. If one stays on board, this vessel offers experiences unique to cruising: the yacht is able to lower a water sports platform which allows guests to enjoy swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, windsurfing and jet skiing!
Another distinctive feature of this yacht is their luxurious on-deck Balinese Dream Beds. Each afternoon, this is where I could be found. I’d raise the bed for an unobstructed view and simply relax, watching the world go by, a favorite libation close at hand. At night, one has the option of sleeping under the stars on one of these beds made up with a fluffy down comforter and pillows. “Fly me to the moon and let me play among the stars….” Voila: your own private star-studded playground, an oasis of perfect tranquility and an experience like nothing before.
In true yachting fashion, our SeaDream cruise took us to delighful, intimate yachting harbors where sometimes large cruise ships cannot go. We visited Positano, with its Flavio Gioia Square and the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption housing a Byzantine black Madonna with Child. Another port was the mythical island of Sardinia. In Corsica, its rugged mountains and lakes of glass offered breathtaking photo opps. From Amalfi’s harbor, a car took us up narrow, twisting and winding, white-knuckle roads to Ravello, one of the most famous spots on the Amalfi Coast and home in the past to Greta Garbo, Gore Vidal and D.H. Lawrence. Romantic Sorrento offered a high-point lookout where we could spy the ruins of Pompeii. Finally, one day we heard a crew member shout: “Here comes Capri!” Now I ask you, can there ever be a happier, more thrill-producing call?
John Steinbeck once said “The Amalfi Coast bites deep. It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.” One can say the very same of the SeaDream Yacht. Aboard, the experience is not quite real but once you’ve debarked, its siren call of style, quality and casual perfection beckons you back – again and again.
If You Go: