MC Perkins Cove

A Long Weekend in the Old Pueblo: Tucson Arizona Gets Hip

When I was a kid we moved to Tucson Arizona where my father, who had always hated snow, had gotten a professorship at The University of Arizona.  He was thrilled with the climate and as a kid, this southwestern community, surrounded by the “green desert” and mountains was a fantastic place to grow up.  My friends and I built endless forts in the desert, learned to horseback ride and spent summers on friends ranches. My parents seemed to love it too. They had great jobs, a beautiful home that always seemed to be full of their guests eating my moms plentiful food.  My dad started working with the Indian tribes in the region and we as a family began to embrace their culture. Of course there were some down sides to the town, “Life” magazine had featured it on its cover and called it the ugliest city in America and there started to be talk of the increasing drug trade across the nearby border.  But despite this, it was a pretty pleasant place to live. And then, after five years, my father got a new job in Carmel California and we moved.  

I never returned to The Old Pueblo until last January; and I’m sad to say that was a longer stretch of time than I’d care to admit!  But in my absence, Tucson, unlike many places around the world, that seem to get worse as time goes on, has become better than it was when I was a kid.  The hideous neon signs that lined the boulevards and “Life Magazine” had bewailed, were fantastically gone! The imported palm trees and the grass they spray painted in the medians of these said boulevards were gone too; replaced by native plantings.  The downtown, that was a derelict place where only bums and junkies hung out years ago, is now hip and happening, chock-o-block with new museums, shops, coffee places, boutique hotels and hot new restaurants. And happily there were things left unchanged: unlike its bigger brother Phoenix, Tucson still only has one freeway, on one side of town, giving it a quieter residential feel.

When you visit Tucson you don’t  get the pretentious “wanna be” vibe that one encounters in Scottsdale (that’s another travel story).  What you do get is a laid back relaxing feeling where most people just genuinely seem to be having fun.  The climate of Tucson during the winter is beautiful with sunny days in the mid seventies and crisp cool nights.  As The Old Pueblo has sprawled far and wide across its natural valley, it is definitely not a walking city, with the possible exception the old downtown and perhaps the University.  Many of the places you’ll want to visit are a drive, so a car is pretty much essential. The airport is near the downtown and happily traffic is never too bad. There is plenty to do and see here, so we recommend that you spend at least four days in Tucson.  Of course if you feel like spending more time in the region there is plenty more to see in the surrounding area.

WHERE TO STAY

THE ARIZONA INN

Rarely have we enjoyed a hotel as much as this place.  What made it exceptional began at the front desk after a long day’s drive complete with our autos transmission locking up.  Although it was late, when we arrived, we were graciously told that the main dining room was open until 11:00 and the bar, would remain open and serving a full menu after that.  Moreover, we were informed that in the morning breakfast would be served all day! Okay, we are not early risers and we like to work out in the morning, so this schedule was indicative of the real luxury and leisure we would experience at this charming establishment.

Inside the Arizona Inn

Inside the Arizona Inn

Opened in 1930 and family run since then, this meticulously maintained property is  set in the center of Tucson. Lovely casitas are sprinkled about the lush gardens where guests can enjoy the tennis courts, a drink on the veranda or a dip in the large pool. The fitness center is one of the few disappointments here as it is adequate, but barely.  Our casita was huge and comfortably furnished with original furniture created by the owners. The feel is old fashioned but everything including the ipad for ordering and exploring is up to date. Each morning a complimentary “New York Times” was delivered to our room.  Although there is a coffee machine in each room, coffee is also served in the gorgeous library/great room where a crackling fire seems to always be burning. In the afternoon a complimentary high tea is served there as well.  

 

We enjoyed live music in the beautiful domed bar the first night as well as delicious tasting dinner in the elegant dining room on our first night.  Service is excellent, drinks are swiftly delivered and the food obviously draws the locals for special occasion dinners as well. Only one note of caution, if you are looking for the hip young hangout, this ain’t it!  But there are plenty of other places to experience that scene in this up and coming city and then retreat to the comfort of a gracious old style establishment.

Outside the Arizona Inn

Outside the Arizona Inn

THE LODGE ON THE DESERT 

in the same part of town, and a ten minute drive to the U of A and downtown The Lodge on the Desert is another hotel with great character.  This hotel originally built in 1931 is another Tucson landmark. Set in five acres of beautiful grounds and dotted with casita style rooms The lodge has mingled charm with well maintained up to date services 

There is a classy on site restaurant called Cielos with both indoor dining overlooking the patio where one can also dine alfresco by the fireplace.  The food is contemporary and has a focus on local southwestern ingredients. There is a new and up to date fitness center which is a pleasure to see.  

There are a variety of room choices from those in the original hotel to more modern, but still charming options added in 2009.  Many rooms include kiva fireplaces,original furnishings and beamed ceilings. Included in all tariffs is a full breakfast.

HOTEL CONGRESS

Beware, if you decide to stay at this landmark hotel in downtown Tucson be prepared to party and have a great time.  Do not be prepared to sleep well. A disclaimer at the top of the hotel’s official website makes this abundantly clear.  There are “quieter” rooms that can be requested and they do have earplugs on request. If painting the town red is on your agenda, we can’t think of a better place to stay. 

Originally opened in 1919, the hotel played host to among other notables and notorious, John Dillenger who was finally apprehended on location here in 1934.  The hotel practically burst with character. The Tiger Taproom is quintessential old style bar presided over by Tiger, head bartender since 1959. The lobby oozes with character featuring all the original furnishings, switchboard and carefully restored decorative painting.  There is a huge patio where bands play nightly and one can sip their cocktails under the stars and excellent food is provided by the famous Cup Cafe. The hotel showcases the hip club congress and there are nightly and weekly music options here. And of course the Congress hotel, puts you within walking distance of many of the cities best restaurants and bars, as well as cultural joints and shops.

You don’t get elegance in the rooms here, but you do get well maintained character and up to date features such as air conditioning.  The hotel also offers packages that include breakfast at The Cup Cafe, VIP passes Toni house events and clubs, swag, etc.

The Congress Hotel

The Congress Hotel

AC HOTEL

If you are looking for a clean and modern place without the funky vibe that is still in the thick of the entertainment, we recommend checking out or for that matter checking in to the AC hotel.  The first hotel built in downtown in forty years, it has all the amenities you’d expect from Marriotts hipper new line of hotels.  

There is a rooftop bar and pool which is a fun place to get away from the scene during the day and a modern fitness center.  The rooms are clean with an anywhere feel to them, but very comfy. 

WHERE TO EAT

THE ARIZONA INN

Well some may say don’t eat where you sleep, but having created three hotel restaurants ourselves, we can safely say this old adage isn't so!  And it’s especially not “so” at the Arizona Inn. Start your evening with a classic cocktail in the bar where you’ll enjoy live music and attentive service, then move into the beautiful dining room with its old southwestern beamed ceilings and corner fireplace.  Old fashioned dining still exists here with flowing white linen, a well selected wine list and a well conceived ala carte and pre fix menu. We opted for the Chef’s menu and were impressed. And the best part about it...no long drive home!

Arizona Inn Restaurant

Arizona Inn Restaurant

CAFE POCA COSA

The creation of Chef/Owner Susana Davila, Poca Cosa  is a sleek urban restaurant in downtown. The food is an amalgam of many regions of Mexico rather than the food of the local Sonoran area.  Actually we think it’s fair to say that the food is even more accurately described as a unique creation of the Chef. The menu is presented on a chalkboard and to some may seem very limited.  Main dishes (which is all one can order) arrive with a bountiful salad on the plate and perhaps some fruit as well. The drinks are good and the scene is “see and be seen”. Service on our first visit was warm and professional and on our second rushed and inept, but the food and atmosphere were great both times!

CUP CAFE

This jumping cafe at the Congress Hotel is a favorite of locals and visitors alike.  For us it was a perfect place to enjoy a leisurely lunch on the patio. The menu is eclectic, shall we say, and the food is clean, fresh and abundant.  For us the Mission Street tacos, the fish tacos and the southwest salad are the sort of dishes one wants for lunch and comes to Tucson expecting. You won’t be disappointed.


ELVIRAS

Elvira’s in Tucson is the offshoot of the Nogales Mexico original founded in the 1920’s.  Set in a restored downtown building the decor of this place is very stylish. Hand blown glass creating a vast mod chandelier hangs from the ceiling and the slinky booths contrast nicely with the rough exposed brick.  There is a huge selection of tequila and the “craft” cocktails are really good. The menu pushes hard to be unique and achieves it even if all the dishes are not perfection. Our service was warm and friendly. Bottom line this is probably a great place to start the evening with a snack and a cocktail.

Elviras Restaurant

Elviras Restaurant

CHARO STEAK

This new industrial chic steak house is busy, big and fun.  The family that created Tucson’s beloved Mexican restaurant El Charo, first opened in the 1920s have now brought their take on a Sonoran steakhouse to The Old Pueblo. Although for some reason our reservation was not on the book, the hostesses handled the issue well and got us a great table within a short period of time.  

The menu is far from the traditional “American” mainstream steakhouse.  We particularly enjoyed the Tabla del Charro which is a selection of small bites, the guacamole prepared tableside and the Tres Carnes Chimichangas, mini deep fried flutes of slowly braised meat in either green or red sauce.  The charred romaine wedge sprinkled with Chicaharon was also tasty. The steaks were well prepared if oddly enough not the stars of the show, being eclipsed by the plethora of delicious side dishes such as charred corn with crema, perfect frijoles and “Sonoran” slaw.  The service here is friendly and efficient.

Charo Steak

Charo Steak

WHAT TO SEE

There is a lot to see and do in The Old Pueblo.  First of all, for those who have never been to the Southwest, the topography will be an eye opener.  This is not the desert of North Africa, of stone and sand, this is the Sonoran “green desert”, a unique area stretching through much of southern Arizona.  If you grew up watching the cartoon “The Roadrunner” then you are already partially familiar with this landscape. This is the land of the giant saguaro cactus, mesquite trees and palo verdes.  It is also the land of high mountain ranges, and so as you drive from the desert floor, a place of cactus, you will eventually come to a pine forest and if it’s winter you can even ski!

Contrary to our east coast Western civilization focused outlook of American history, this part of the country has some of the oldest settlements in North America. Here there are structures built by the Anasazi and Hohokum cultures that date back over a millennium and remains of the Clovis culture are dated to 13,000 years ago!  The Spanish arrived in the Southwest in the early 1500s, almost two centuries before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth and their impact is still very palpable. So for those interested in history there is plenty to see here as well.

Tucson is hopping!  The downtown is being completely re-made with new museums, galleries, shops, bars and restaurants; why there’s even a brand new trolley to transport one around.  And don’t miss the murals downtown, there are some pretty impressive works.


THE DESERT MUSEUM

I know, I know, you don’t want to go inside to some musty old museum and look at some dioramas of cactus.  But this is NOT that. First off, it’s all outside with acres and acres (98 to be specific) of space to walk and see one of the most beautifully curated assemblies of desert animals and habitat.  This museum is really a fusion of botanical garden, zoo, art gallery, natural history museum and even an aquarium. There are 242 animal species here, and believe me, if you lived in the dessert all your life you probably wouldn’t encounter many of these rare animals.  Plan to spend at least one full morning or afternoon here. You won’t regret a minute of it!

San Xavier

San Xavier

SAN XAVIER DEL BAC

This magnificent structure rises incongruously from a barren area of land in the Tohono O’odham Indian reservation just ten miles from Tucson.  Originally founded by the Jesuit Father Kino in 1692 and destroyed in an Apache raid in 1770, the present structure was finished in 1797. After Spanish born priests were banned by the Mexican government in 1828, the basilica was eventually left vacant and despite the O’odham people’s valiant efforts to save it, it began to decay badly.  Thankfully, after the site of San Xavier became part of the U.S. the Santa Fe Diocese added the mission to its jurisdiction and the structure was gradually restored. What one sees today is a wild amalgam of baroque with Moorish and native elements, that is considered by many aficionados to be the best example anywhere of Spanish colonial architecture.  A visit here takes only an hour or so it’s easy to combine it with other adventures. And be sure to check out the wares of the O’odham people who set up small stalls in front of the church.

San Xavier: “The White Dove of the Desert”

San Xavier: “The White Dove of the Desert”

MT. LEMMON

From the city of Tucson and it’s beautiful desert cactus to the 9,159 summit of this peak and its towering pine trees is only an hour drive; and boy is it a fun one!  As one starts ones ascent the foothills are literally covered with spectacular saguaros that slowly turn to shapparel covered rock formations which gradually transition to a huge pine forest.  Mt. Lemmon, named after the naturalist and her husband who first summited it when the Apaches had not yet surrendered, is a stunning introduction to the “islands” of coniferous forests that crisscross the Southwest.  At the summit, stop for a bite to eat at the Iron Door which opened early in the last century. Take a seat by the giant cozy stone fireplace or on the deck if it’s sunny. The foods not amazing but the service is prompt and the atmosphere is great.  Many cyclists brave the ascent from the valley floor and refuel here and of course there is terrific hiking. Oh, and the skiing can be good too!

On the way to the top of Mt. Lemmon

On the way to the top of Mt. Lemmon

SABINO CANYON

When I was a kid living in Tucson, this was one of our favorite places for a picnic and a hike.  Nestled in a steep gorge with a year round stream (which is a big deal in these parts) at the base of the Catalina range the scenery here is intimate and peaceful.  The water cascades and pools in deep stone outcrops sheltered by towering cottonwoods. And happily, since 1978 automobiles have not been allowed into the canyon. Shuttle busses are available regularly however, so pack a picnic and enjoy yet another unique art of the desert ecosystem.


DOWNTOWN TUCSON

As a kid living in Tucson we rarely entered downtown.  Like most American cities in the sixties and seventies it’s downtown had been left to bums and junkies.  Of course there were the obligatory office towers and convention center, but other than that there was no reason to go there.  Happily this has changed and the Old Pueblo’s core is experiencing a renaissance. Happily too there is still a bit of seediness, one might say just enough to maintain character.  It’s also newly accessible with smooth new trollies that can whisk you to all six districts of downtown. And if getting on and off a trolley isn’t your thing, don’t worry, this is one of the few parts of the city you can actually walk.  HOTEL CONGRESS, seems to anchor the downtown Bohemian night life with its two indoor bars, lounge and outdoor patio with nightly live music. CASA FILM BAR is a unique Tucson institution that regularly hosts film inspired theme nights like Bollywood Night and Twin Peaks Night.  SCOTT & CO. has a Prohibition style vibe, a cozy atmosphere and well made drinks. It is accessible via a secret back hallway of the 47 Restaurant. As the oldest continually serving bar in Tucson, THE BUFFET is a great dive bar. It’s cheap, cash only, the locals are colorful so it’s definitely worth a stop.  If “dive” isn’t your thing and “trendy” is, check out DOWNTOWN BAR. The specialty cocktails are creative and the food to go with it is good too. For the happy go lucky and gay, the consensus seems to be that IBT’S DANCE CLUB is the best venue. With three different rooms, two dance floor spaces an outdoor patio and DJs that spin up to the minute tunes you can’t go wrong here.

Beyond nightlife downtown Tucson has a lot more to offer. First off we enjoyed just walking about in this neck of the woods.  There is lots of fun architecture ranging from old adobes from the founding of the city, to deco motels in various levels of repair and renovation and even some interesting churches and office buildings of variety of styles and vintages.  Scattered about in this amalgam is some really fun wall art too. One of the highlights for us was a visit to MOCA or The Museum of Contemporary Art, which was opened in 1997. This beautiful open space is a venue for amazing contemporary art installations that are well presented, international and a lot of fun to see!

A Long-Short Weekend in Asheville

The long and the short of it is, you can’t have a “long” weekend in Asheville North Carolina, your time will always be too short, no matter how long you stay because there is just too much to do.  Now that’s a problem that we should have more often! Asheville, nestled in the Blue Ridge mountains, a little over 2000 feet in elevation, has a fairly enviable mild four season climate. The population of the city has increased dramatically to over 90,000 in the last couple of years, but it still has the feeling of a manageable small city.  It has few of the big city drawbacks and a lot of the big city pluses. Those pluses include a great culinary scene, the hottest boutique breweries in the south, an amazing and thriving arts culture and some very pretty architecture...Oh, and by the way the Biltmore Estate is pretty mind boggling too!

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GETTING THERE

Asheville does have an airport and if you’re like our friends that joined us for the weekend, and have a private jet, then you can fly right there.  For mere mortals like ourselves, flying to Charlotte and renting a car is probably the best way to get to this mountain town if your time is short. The drive from Charlotte is quite pleasant as the scenery just keeps getting more spectacular as you get closer to your destination.  Obviously, if you have more time, this is a great road trip stop as well.


PLACES TO STAY

FOUNDRY HOTEL

This place is part of the Curio Collection by Hilton; in other words you get a hip boutique hotel under the umbrella of Hilton.  The rooms are comfortable and well appointed and the feel is all that is new and hip in Asheville.

THE WINDSOR HOTEL

This cool boutique property may not have all the bells and whistles (such as an on site gym and spa) but the rooms are huge, well appointed and feature kitchens that make one feel like they are staying at a friends nice apartment.  Located two miles from the Biltmore estate, this is a great property.

THE CAMBRIA HOTEL

This downtown high rise property has mod rooms featuring mod furnishings and rustic brick walls.  There is a better than average fitness center on site and a really nice spacious terrace open to all guests.  Since downtown Asheville is a great place to be, this is a good choice.

INN ON BILTMORE ESTATES

Set on the spectacular Biltmore Estate grounds, this Hotel has all the potential to be a grand dame.  Unfortunately it suffers from having a somewhat generic feel to it both in the rooms and in the common areas. This being said, the setting is amazingly beautiful and peaceful.  And while you may not be blown away by hip design, the hotel has a very comfortable feel. Here, they do have all the bells and whistles as well, including a spa and fitness center, and then of course the estate is at your doorstep for riding, hiking and walking.

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THE GRAND BOHEMIAN

During our recent spring trip to this fair city, we stayed at the Grand Bohemian.  This Marriott property is set at the entrance of the Biltmore Estate in The Biltmore Village, which was constructed for George Vanderbilt to house his workers.  The hotel is about a ten minute drive from downtown. The outstanding thing about this property is the people, from the valets, who were happy to assist us with the hotel car, to the hostess in the bar who remembered our drinks the second night, to the very helpful concierge, the staff was outstanding. The decor is something of a cross between hunting lodge meets “Game of Thrones” but seems to work in a quirky way.  Unfortunately the hotel is built right up to the edge of an entire block which is at one of the busiest intersections in the city. And due to the style of the architecture, most rooms have tiny windows. A gracious valet showed us three dreary rooms and one with a larger floor plan and bigger windows. We chose this room, only to realize that the traffic woke us very early each morning as our room overlooked what looked like an L.A. freeway.  Because of this, I can’t say we can recommend this place.

WHERE TO EAT

THE WELL BREAD BAKERY

Set in the charming Biltmore Village, this place, as you can tell by the name is not a destination restaurant.  What it is, is one of those great places to get a quick and delicious afternoon snack and a pretty good coffee after touring the Biltmore Estate.   There’s a pleasant patio and the staff is really friendly and happy to give you advice on night life etc.

CUCINA 24

This pleasant understated restaurant is a great place to start a culinary weekend in the city.  Set on a pleasant small street in the heart of downtown, the decor is understated and soothing. There is a slick little bar and an open kitchen with a beautiful wood burning pizza oven.  The menu is a tad confusing as it is on two sides of one page causing the guest to flip back and forth, but our well trained server guided us patiently through the more cutting edge seasonal menu and the more traditional page as well.  The wine list is fun and well chosen and again, our server was conversant with it and happy to suggest good pairings.  

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CURATE

Don’t pronounce the name of this place “cure rate”; it’s pronounced “Cure Raw Tay” darling! Otherwise they may not let you in.  This eatery, created by James Beard nominated Chef, Katie Button, is Asheville’s hottest restaurant. The atmosphere, with its open kitchen where one can eat at the counter is fun and the feeling is lively once your party gets past the arrogant hipster dudes on the door.  The food is good and well prepared. The suckling pig is especially delicious and of course it’s hard to go wrong with Iberico ham slices. The Spanish wine list is well chosen and interesting. Moreover our friendly and very competent waiter was well versed in its nuances. If you’ve spent much time in Spain you won’t be blown away by the food, but it will no doubt conjure up some good memories and if Spanish food is new to you, this is a pleasant introduction.

RHUBARB

Trendy and busy, this restaurant set in the epicenter of downtown serves downright delicious food.  It is obvious from just a cursory look at the menu, that Chef-Owner John Fleer is focused on the seasons.  As our dinner unfolded, we found that the food was just plain delicious. We especially enjoyed the ramps presented in a “bag”, the perfectly cooked quail and the trout which our friendly waitress deboned expertly at the table.  The atmosphere is energetic with a large open kitchen and peeling plaster walls. The cocktails are creative and the wine list well chosen. What more could you ask for?

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Corner Kitchen

Set in the pleasant Biltmore Village area, this well run restaurant makes one feel comfortable and at home the minute you walk in.  There is nothing fancy about the menu; just think of it as well prepared southern comfort food. There is a patio for al fresco dining and a window lined dining room in side.  Our waiter was friendly, well informed and the kitchen delivered excellent food swiftly. For us this is the perfect lunch place in Asheville.

THE BULL AND THE BEGGAR

Set in the rustic River Arts District, otherwise known as RAD, this shabby chic bi-level restaurant is a favorite among locals.  The venue may be rustic, but the American fare is well executed. The vibe is young arty (oddly enough) and vibrant. Start your dinner with some freshly shucked oysters and move into the abundant charcuterie platter.  The service is warm and convivial. In short, this restaurant is just another good reason to visit Asheville.


12 BONES SMOKEHOUSE

Well, when in Rome...and all that!  President Obama loved this place so much he visited twice and it’s easy to see why.  The atmosphere is simple and rough just like we all like our barbecue joints. It’s obvious that they take their food seriously here.  Their motto “No nonsense barbecue made from scratch everyday” kind of sums it up! Need we say more?

PLACES FOR PRE DINNER COCKTAILS🍸

THE GROVE PARK INN

A first visit to Asheville would not be complete without a stop at the famed Grove Park Inn, and what better way to do this than with a cocktail in hand on the Inn’s gorgeous terrace overlooking downtown Asheville.  Opened in 1913 the inn was the creation and brainchild of E W Grove, who made his fortune peddling his “Grove’s Tasteless Tonic” which by 1910 had sold 1.5 million bottles and made Grove a vast fortune. Created in just eleven months the expansive lobby walled with massive boulders and two immense fireplaces is alone a wonder to behold.  The hotel has one of the largest collections of Arts and Crafts furniture in America, all of which was expressly created for the hotel. Sadly Omni Hotels acquired the property in 2013 and has done a splendid job of putting its robust generic stamp on this unique property. But if you look straight ahead from the terrace and enjoy your martini, the effects of the cheap looking new wings added, no doubt to maximize profits, are minimized.


THE INN ON BILTMORE ESTATES

Even if you’re not staying at this hotel, this is a great venue for an old fashioned civilized cocktail.  Off the lobby is a pleasant lounge where a pianist is frequently found tinkling the ivories or if you prefer, take your drink out on the terrace which overlooks the vast Biltmore Estate.  Even though the inn itself is a bit four star in feel and needs an update, it’s still a relaxing place to watch the sun go down and drink in the beautiful scenery.

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THE PILLAR ROOFTOP BAR

Okay, it’s on top of The Hilton Garden Inn, but it is a fun bar!  The bar perched on the sixth floor has a great view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  There is also an indoor section with huge windows, so even if you’re visiting in the winter this is a pleasant place to have that first cocktail 


THE MONTFORD ROOFTOP BAR

This is probably Asheville’s  favorite rooftop bar. On the eighth floor of (yes, you guessed it another hotel) The Hyatt Place.  The view of the distant mountains is fantastic and the seasonally changing cocktail menu isn’t bad either!  They even provide complimentary valet parking and sunglasses: now that’s pretty swanky!



THINGS TO SEE AND SHOPPING TOO

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BILTMORE ESTATE

For many, quite frankly, the reason to visit Asheville is not the cities great restaurants, art scene, burgeoning brewery scene etc. etc. but Biltmore Estate.  This incredible French chateau style edifice was commissioned by George Vanderbilt and was completed in 1895. It remains the largest home in America and is still one of the largest estates anywhere in the world, comprising over  

8,000 acres ( the original estate was an astonishing 100,000 acres).  Having just finished the book “The Last Castle”, about the estate, and the family that created it,  I was excited to see this home. I was not disappointed, in fact both the home itself, it’s magnificent gardens, created by Fredrick Law Olmstead,  and grounds meticulously maintained and framed by stupendous valleys and mountains, is pretty mind-blowing. You can purchase tickets online or your concierge can easily arrange to purchase them when you arrive at your hotel.  Happily the tickets will allow you to visit the estate for two days, which is great since there is so much to see!

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THE RIVER ARTS DISTRICT

I have to be honest, we thought that Asheville might have some arty things going on, maybe a smattering of good galleries but nothing too significant.  So, it was a real shock for us to drive into The River Arts District in this amazing little burg, and find not a few galleries, but a huge area with a large working artist community!  Spread over several miles of what were derelict warehouses along the railroad tracks is one of the more impressive artist communities in the country. You can almost feel the energy as artists have made an unusual commitment here to embrace the outer community of locals and visitors and involve everyone in the artistic process.  Here you not only get to see potters potting and glass blowers blowing but you can join in and learn how to do it yourself! If that’s not your thing, that’s fine too; the galleries of the artist’s products are there for all to view and purchase. Another refreshing thing about RAD is there is none of the pretentious attitude of most fine art galleries: one is given a friendly greeting everywhere and if you are interested in the artist’s work he or she is usually there and happy to talk to you.  

Scattered about the district are some great coffee shops, breweries and restaurants so you don’t need to leave the area to find sustenance.  In fact All Souls Pizza, White Duck Taco and the famous 12 Bones Smokehouse (visited by President Obama twice) are pretty terrific places to eat.  And, for evening dining, The Bull and the Beggar is one of Asheville’s hottest restaurants. All the galleries will provide you with maps of the RAD, which are quite helpful in deciding what to see.  The area is quite spread out and although you can walk it, at times having a car could be helpful especially since many of the sidewalks are still pretty neglected. We found that the spectacular graffiti art/murals scattered about the district were impressive and worth the drive alone.

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DOWNTOWN 

If you have ever been to downtown Charlotte N.C. and wondered where the retail outlets were and why it has such a grim corporate feel, you will be pleasantly surprised to find that Asheville’s downtown is the polar opposite.  Walking in this downtown is great fun. First of all, at every turn there are musicians, jugglers and mimes. Music spills from outdoor cafes and everyone seems to be having a good time. Here you will find no vacant stores and derelict buildings, instead the place is chock-o-block with galleries, unique shops, trendy restaurants and cafes.   It’s easy to spend a day just exploring in this downtown which should be an inspiration to city planners all over America.

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Carmel by the Sea

When my parents and I moved to Carmel I was already old enough, (13) to understand that I had moved to one of the most sublime places on earth.  Not of course just for the most obvious reasons, that it  was and is one of the most dramatic meetings of land and sea on earth, but also because of the people, artist, poets, photographers and writers who had lived there and continued to live there!  Even my hero, the creator of the comic strip “Peanuts” lived in Carmel for goodness sakes.

 

My father, a “Renaissance man” in his own right,  quickly delved into the milieu when he built our home himself from redwood cut in huge slabs from the Big Sur coast just south of town.  And our new neighborhood was peopled with “the amazing”;  around the corner lived the scholarly daughters of “Vinegar Joe Stillwell, the commander of the Eastern theater during much of World War II, further down lived Jean Arthur, early star of the silver screen.  But when I went to work in a bistro in town, I soon met Robin and Dana Jeffers, grandsons of Robinson Jeffers, one of America’s most reviled and famed epic poets.  He had built his stone Tor house a block away in the early part of the century, and soon I was attending parties in its tower and hanging out with the Jeffers boys.

 

In fact the Monterey Peninsula was in many ways a paradise for boys.  My best friend and I loved to sneak into the abandoned canneries of John Steinbeck’s Cannery row.  When the sardine fishery collapsed shortly after World War II, these factories had been left pretty much “as is” and were filled with abandoned labels, office junk and spookiness.  Monterey itself was still a bit of a seedy warren of crumbling adobes, Sicilian fishermen stalked the working wharf and Doc Ricket’s lab was still there to be explored.  Beyond this, there were endless miles of coastline to be seen and out in the valley and in the redwood filled gorges of Big Sur there were miles to be hiked. In Carmel itself there were cool mystical book stores,”secret” gardens and galleries filled with some bad art but many filled with the works of say Cole Weston and Ansel Adams.

 

A BIT OF CARMEL HISTORY

Well folks, I’m here to say it’s probably still a paradise for boys and just about anyone else for that matter!  And part of what makes it amazing is it’s history.  For westerners it all started in 1603 when Spanish explorer, Sebastian Vizcaino came to a beach and river and named it after the three Carmelite fathers traveling with him. It took two hundred years more for the Spanish, now led by Father Junipero Sera, to return and establish one of his nine California missions overlooking the beach.  Then almost another two centuries passed before two developers began to  transform this tiny settlement into what we now think of as Carmel.  They planted hundreds of Cypress trees and asked designers to build their homes in what would soon become an artist colony.

Carmel’s population got a boost with refugees from the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, including world famous authors like Jack London, George Sterling and Robinson Jeffers.  Soon other luminaries including Mary Austin, Lincoln Stephens, and Sinclair Lewis would join them.  And others, like Robert Lewis Stevenson and John Steinbeck, in taking inspiration from the landscape and writing about the region’s people, continually increased the greater areas fame.

Carmel was one of the first towns in America to enforce strict aesthetic codes. Drawn by this, designers like Hugh Comstock and other talented architects, created a “village” with its own unique quality.  Movie Stars also gravitated to this special place too, such as Doris Day, (who one may still see at her Cypress Lodge today), Kim Novak who loved are salsa when Mark and I cooked in town, and of course Clint Eastwood,who was famously Carmel’s mayor for two years and remains a resident to this day.

 

PLACES TO STAY

Carmel and the surrounding towns of the Monterey Peninsula boast a vast array of great places to stay.  Everything from super luxury hotels to quaint inns as well as lovely private homes are available.  Here are a few of our favorites.

 

Singing Tree

Our home one block from Carmel and Carmel River Beach, in one of the towns very best neighborhoods is available for rent.  With hand built redwood slab walls, cozy wood burning fireplace, chefs designed kitchen a great sun deck, two large private bedrooms and three full bathrooms, it is a great place for two to six people.

 

Cypress Inn

Owned by Doris Day, this lovely comfortable establishment is famously dog friendly.  The Spanish style inn was originally built in 1929 and has been nicely maintained and updated.  The great room is a pleasure to relax in, the bar is cozy and the central patio is a great place for lunch or brunch.  On top of this the location in the center of town can’t be beat!

 

L’Auberge Carmel

This Relais & Chateaux property set a new standard of service and luxury in the Carmel market when it opened a number of years ago. With  recently renovated rooms, complimentary breakfast and a charming courtyard, you will feel cosseted and coddled.  Aubergine, it’s on site restaurant serves excellent tasting menu style dinners and has the added advantage of a 2,500 bottle wine list.

 

The Lodge at Pebble Beach

Okay it’s in Pebble Beach and not Carmel, but it’s been part of the neighborhood since 1919 and is only a short drive from Carmel’s shops and restaurants.  The Lodge and its rooms newly renovated in a clean luxurious style overlook America’s most famous golf course.  I’m happy to say that Mark and I were married here and the ceremony was at the famed 18th hole.  Simply put, the staff here is exceptional, the view astounding and the accommodation top of the line.

 

Highlands Inn

Just south of town in the highlands is another of our favorite historic hotels opened in 1917 and now operated by Hyatt.  When I lived here as a kid it was a still a family run place with a fairly tattered red plush look.  I’m happy to say that the Hyatt group has done a great job of renovating the place.  It features 48 spacious newly renovated rooms and 11 suites.  The hotel also has essentially two dining venues, California Market and Pacific’s Edge.  Everything here has a spectacular view.  Even if you don’t stay here, you at least have to go for sunset cocktails!

 

Ventana Big Sur

About a half an hour south of Carmel, set in one of the world’s most beautiful and dramatic coastlines is this sensationally romantic hotel.  Opened in the mid 1970’s and designed in an unpretentious classic California style, Ventana is one of our favorite places in the world to unwind.  Walk through a path from your very private room, under the redwoods to the restaurant where our Chef and mentor Jeremiah Tower first presided over the kitchen and helped to bring a culinary revolution to America.  The rooms are spacious and comfortable with wood burning fireplaces and private terraces...and the view, the view!

 

Post Ranch Inn Big Sur

If it’s really time to get away and celebrate, or if money really is no big deal, then consider The Post Ranch.  You’ll be likely to spot movie stars and big Hollywood types here lolling about the pool and trying to remain anonymous.   This getaway,  a short distance from Ventana, is perched high above the sheer Big Sur Coastline.  There are 39 high design rooms and a lovely restaurant in the very private setting.  If you can’t afford the similarly sheer tariff, try it for lunch, but be sure to make a reservation; they won’t let you onto the property without one.

 

Bernardus Lodge and Spa

Out Carmel Valley road, and tucked in 28 acres of vineyard and rolling hills is Bernardus.  If you are looking for a  luxurious and comfortable place to stay with a quintessentially “California” style look no further.  The rooms and suites are newly renovated and set in a lovely landscape of pools lawn and gardens.  The talented and affable Chef Cal Stamenov, heads up the culinary venues here and you won’t be disappointed with his consistently delicious fare.  The wine list in the elegant Lucia restaurant is impressive, but why not just enjoy the great wine of Bernardus?!  Carmel Valley Village is a great mini town replete with great restaurants, wineries and good galleries.  Be sure to check out the Talbot outlet and The Georis Gallery.

 

WHERE TO EAT

 

La Balena

Owned and operated by our charming friends Chef Emanuel Bortolini  (who hails originally from Tuscany) and his lovely partner Anna, La Balena is easily one of the best restaurants in the region.  The patio area is romantic, the interior is pleasant and the wine list is great, but the knock out here is the food.  Be sure to try the octopus, the whole fish of the day and the traditionally braised veal shank; the homemade pasta isn't bad either!

 

il Grillo

The sister restaurant to La Balena, il Grillo is a itsy-bitsy place with a cute mini patio.  The feel is very “Carmel” and you will probably end up talking with most of the other guests in the place.  Carefully made homage pasta is the feature here and it has never disappointed.

 

Yeast of Eden

Brew pubs usually aren’t our “thing” but, Yeast of Eden is definitely a new twist on this theme.  Set in a cool trendy space in the rather generic Carmel Plaza, the restaurant brings a hip new vibe to Carmel. The featured beer is a sour style and while that may not be one’s “cup of tea” there is also a good bar and a decent wine list.  What makes the place really fun though, is the great pan Asian/international “street food” menu created by Chef Stephen Paulson an alum of Ba Bar and Elysian Fields in Seattle. 

 

La Bicyclette

The atmosphere is country French and the place is always packed with locals and visitors enjoying simple French/Mediterranean/Italian inspired food.  If you’re  looking for a simple place with relatively inexpensive food and pretty delicious pizza look no further than this joint

 

Mission Ranch

When I was a kid I worked brunch at this quintessential Carmel institution.  My first day was quite an eye opener, as the Chef, trying to light the stove, blew himself across the room and knocked himself unconscious.  After he departed for the hospital, our novice staff on its first day did over five hundred “covers!  To say the least it was an experience.  Later that year this run down and charming place was purchased by the legendary Clint Eastwood and nicely renovated.  The setting which is gorgeous with the dining room and patio looking out onto River Beach and Point Lobos and the charm of the piano bar, where all the old locals “hang”, are the principle reasons to come here.  Stick to the basics here as Paul Drake would, and order a dry martini and a steak; you won’t be disappointed.

 

Basil Seasonal Dining

Tucked away in a small arcade off of San Carlos, is this unpretentious restaurant.  There is a comfortable tiny indoor seating area and a pleasant patio.  basil proudly boast that it is the first certified green restaurant in Carmel and the food reflects this dedication in a happily small menu that is nicely executed.  Another plus for this place is that despite being small it does have a liquor license which is rare for a restaurant of this size in Carmel.

 

Poppy Hall

One of favorite new spots on the Peninsula is in the the formerly dry and bible thumping retreat town of Pacific Grove.  A quick drive over the hill from Carmel, Poppy Hall is worth the trip.  It has all the excitement of a new restaurant.  On our first visit there we were thrilled to see the Sous Chef showing off his recently foraged mushrooms to the neighbors.   That night they were on the menu in the form of a delicious chilled paillard.  The dining room is small but pleasantly designed.  There is no hard liquor here but the wine list is eclectic and creative.  Co-Chefs Philip Wojtowicz and Brendon Esons are creating some delicious food here.

 

Mi Intienda

If you want to step out of the “comfort zone”, take the drive to Seaside and visit this great Latino supermarket.  Sit at the bar/cafe at the back and enjoy some “real deal” Mexican food.  Everyone we’ve ever talked to here has been super nice and the price is super too!  Okay, it’s not where you want to go for a romantic classy dinner, but for a great quick and delicious lunch it can’t be beat! 

 

Nepenthe

Perched on the cliffs of Big Sur, about an hour south of Carmel, the restaurant Nepenthe is legendary.  My first visit to Nepenthe was when I was quite young for a Halloween party.  To say the least, it was an exciting one!  The hippie culture of Big Sur was still in full swing, and artist authors and others of perhaps far more dubious backgrounds had mobbed the place.  The costumes were amazing and the drugs must have been even better.  Designed by Rowen Maiden, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright and commissioned by the Fassett family, the building itself is worth the visit.  Nepenthe means “no sorrow”, and indeed when one is there all cares seem to wash away.  We recommend the Lolly’s Chicken, (named after the original owner) the three way salad and of course the Ambrosia burger:  It’s not haute cuisine, but the food’s pretty tasty all the same!

 

THINGS TO DO

It’s hard to conceive of not being able to amuse oneself in Carmel and in the surrounding Monterey Peninsula.  First off, there is the village of Carmel itself to explore.  With its hundreds of shops restaurants and galleries, but that is just the tip of the “iceberg”, because there are sites worth visiting all over the peninsula, and there is always a cool event taking place.

 

EVENTS

 

CARS

If you’re into cars, there is the Concourse d’ Elegance held each summer at the Lodge Pebble Beach and while that’s going on check out the vintage car races at Laguna Seca raceway.  Of course there are races year round at this famed track as well

 

MUSIC

If you love music, then you’ll be pretty happy on the Peninsula.  For over 80 years the Bach festival has been presented in Carmel during the month of July drawing top talent from around the world.  And then in late September there is the world famous Monterey Jazz Festival, which for 62 years has been drawing the very best talent from the Jazz world.

 

FOOD

in April the most prestigious food event, “The Pebble Beach Food and Wine” is held at, you guessed it, Pebble Beach, drawing the most famous and celebrated Chefs from the United States and abroad.  Mark and I are proud to say that we have participated in this event for years, and we guarantee you it’s a four day blast!

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PLACES TO VISIT

 

THE MONTEREY BAY AQUARIUM

When I moved to Carmel, Cannery row was just a street along the bay, fronted by abandoned canneries.  So, it was pretty amazing that in 1984, Julie Packard, a marine biologist and the daughter of the computer entrepreneur, created and opened The Monterey Bay Aquarium.  Unlike most aquariums, this one focuses on the amazing sea life of the surrounding bay.  It is well worth the trip just to see the jellyfish, even if aquariums aren’t your thing.

 

CANNERY ROW

When I was in college, and the bars had closed elsewhere in town, everyone would head to Calisa’s on Cannery Row.  There, after 2:00 in the morning you would find a room full of people huddled over “tea”!  You didn’t quite know what the “tea” was but it sure had alcohol in it!  Calisa’s is gone now, but if you’ve ever enjoyed the books of John Steinbeck, then a least a quick visit to Cannery Row that inspired the book, is in orderer.  It’s a bit honkytonk and touristy, but the people watching is fun and Doc Ricket’s lab is still there.

 

OLD MONTEREY

The original capital of Spanish and then Mexican California was Monterey.  In fact, when we stole California from the Mexicans “fair and square”, the California State Constitution was signed in Colton Hall.  The hall is a great place to start a walking tour of the old adobes of Monterey.  Each of these fascinating buildings is marked clearly by signs outside. And while you’re out and about, there are plenty of quaint shops and cafes to enjoy in the town as well.

 

PACIFIC GROVE

Nestled between Monterey and Pebble Beach is the nifty town of Pacific Grove.  Founded as a protestant religious retreat in the late 19th century it is filled with mini Victorian Cottages and some grand mansions.  Just walking on the back streets is fun here and the downtown has a updated “Americana” feel to it with cool stores cafes and restaurants.

 

PEBBLE BEACH

A drive on the famed 17 mile drive takes you through this private enclave of privilege (at a price).  The scenery is truly stunning and the astounding mansions will impress.  If there are golf fans in the group then a round of golf on one of The properties famed golf courses is probably in order; just don’t forget to bring the AMX Black Card!

 

CARMEL MISSION

Built in 1797, Carmel Mission is one of the best restored missions and certainly one of the prettiest.  The garden is charming and one can get a bit of a glimpse of what the mission system was all about in the New World.

 

POINT LOBOS

The dramatic landscape of this peninsula across the bay from Carmel, was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”.  When you visit, you’ll see why! The landscape, in all its variations, is some of the most beautiful on our planet, really.  This is a great place for a pleasant hike and a picnic.  

 

THE TOR HOUSE

One of the most interesting and special places in Carmel, the home that famed poet Robinson Jeffers built early in the last century is a fascinating place to visit.  It’s tall rock tower is reminiscent of an Irish castle, and it’s interior is filled with great memorabilia.  This place is mostly overlooked by the vast majority of tourists who visit Carmel, make sure you don’t.

 

CARMEL GALLERIES

Carmel was an artist colony from the beginning and Carmel is awash in galleries.  Sadly much of the art in these galleries today is pretty garish, but there are a few exceptions.  The Weston Gallery is certainly one of them.  Opened in 1975 it features the photography of some of the best including Ansel Adams, Yousuf Karsh, Cole Weston and many more.  The Carmel Art Association is the nation’s second oldest artist cooperative and a great place to start your exploration of Carmel galleries.   There they will be happy to advise you on some of the better galleries throughout town.

 

BIG SUR

A visit to Carmel really isn’t complete without a drive down the Big Sur Coast, which stretches about 90 miles from Carmel to Cambria and the famed Hearst Castle.  Obviously one doesn’t need to drive the entire 90 miles to get a sense of this magnificent coastline, which is without a doubt one of the most stunning on earth.  Don’t take our word for it, even writers like Henry Miller and Beat poet Jack Kerouac we’re both swept up by this places sheer beauty.  For us, a pleasant half hour drive down to Nepenthe or Post Ranch for lunch is a great way to spend a leisurely afternoon.  Another great alternative is packing a picnic and stopping at one of the many beaches or at Pfeiffer State Park for some real old fashioned relaxation!

A quick visit to Bangkok

Okay, it’s a long way to Thailand and its capital Bangkok from the continent of North America.  Is it worth it if your time is limited? In our book definitely yes! Even if you don’t have a ton of days, with good planning, you can have a blast in The City of Angels in a week.  And if you have another week or so you can easily add a visit to the beach and say the ruins of Angkor in Cambodia or the city of Chiang Mai in the north of the country.


GETTING THERE

Think of it this way, the region is a lot like New England...once you get there, everything is very close together.  And unlike New England, South East Asia is linked by a plethora of low cost carriers. Now, unless you’re a college student or on a strict budget, we recommend springing for business class tickets.  Yes, the difference in price is substantial on any carrier but if you spend the trip in misery and the first three days of a twelve day trip upside down in jet lag Hell, why bother taking the trip? We always ask what is your time and health worth?   Remember, door to door from the east coast to Asia is probably going to take about thirty two hours in transport and waiting. You will cross four time zones and spend at least sixteen hours in actual flight time. Also if you are in frequent flyer programs you can look into free tickets or the potential of upgrades.  Remember you can contact the various members of an alliance as different members, other than your primary carrier, often have different deals. in the end, do you really want to be crammed in coach? Yes, we did it time and again when we were kids and it wasn’t even pretty then!

Just about all the major carriers fly to Bangkok.  From the east coast of the U.S. it’s just about the same to fly through Europe as it is to fly west over Alaska and Siberia.  Sometimes it’s fun to break your trip, in say Hamburg flying via the Star Alliance member Lufthansa. Explore the city for the few days and then take your second leg to Bangkok which is a direct nine hour flight.  The only problem with flights from Europe to Bangkok is they normally arrive in the morning, and then you have the challenge of staying up all day to avoid terrible jet lag. There is also the issue that some rapacious hotels that will charge you for a room for the previous night if you want to move in in the morning.  Flights on say United, to Bangkok going the other way typically go through Tokyo where you will have a layover but will not need to go through customs. Flights from Tokyo normally arrive in Bangkok around midnight, which isn’t too bad as the traffic will be light and you’ll be able to be ensconced in a comfortable bed before 2:00 am.  Of course you can also break the flight in Tokyo as well and explore another of Asia’s most vibrant cities.


STAYING IN BANGKOK

Yes, Bangkok is a daunting city, but there are many, many things about it that make it well worth the visit.  First off, the hotel scene is one of the best in the world hands down. There is so much competition that even the most famous and luxurious places are very reasonable compared to other major metropolitan destinations and the service level in most of these places is impressive.  Any quick look at the usual booking engines like Booking.com, Expedia, etc. will reveal that just about every major chain has a stake in the city, but here our a few of our favorites.


The Sukhothai

Set in the embassy district this low rise smaller hotel in the land of high rises, is surrounded by six acres of restful quiet gardens which are truly an oasis in this crazy city.  The rooms are spacious, well kept but slightly dated. For example it’s a bit difficult to find a plug in the room to charge your cell phone. But this being said, the hotel is obviously undergoing a thorough renovation and the huge state of the art gym, a blessing for fitness fanatics and the newly renovated pool area are fantastic.  Breakfast is impressive and the bar, though sleepy, is one of the best places in the city to get an actual, properly made cocktail rapidly.


The Oriental

This is the most famous joint in town, set along the Chao Phraya  river it really is one of the jewels of the Orient. Kings, queens, authors and movie stars have all stayed here and happily on a number of occasions so have we.  This place never rests on its laurels. The flowers alone in the spectacular lobby, where the Thai glitterati are to be constantly observed, will blow you away. The service level is some of the best in the region and with butlers on every floor, your room will be beautifully refreshed every time you step out.  Deluxe rooms are not vast, but are elegantly appointed and up to date. Lunch and breakfast are served outside alongside the river and it is a pleasure to watch the activity of the river as well as the beautifully clad and efficient staff move about the crowd. The fitness center is a quick (and fun) boat ride across the river and it’s staff will happily give you a vigorous work out if you are up to it.  Just don’t leave anything lying about: my cool new sandals disappeared in minutes from the locker room when I stupidly left them unattended! Now, if you’re looking for a fast young crowd to hang out with, this is not the place! The clientele tends to be fairly stuffy wealthy Europeans and Americans. But, if your’re feeling like a trip to an age of almost forgotten elegance, pack your new suit and tie and the cool Italian shoes and dine with the rich folk at the hotel’s and the cities best French restaurant Le Normandie.

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The So

Now, if you are looking for hip, head directly to the So.  Prices over the last few years at this trendy place overlooking Lumpini park have gone up and up, but if you want to party with the pretty people this is the place.  We recommend staying on the club floor, as it actually, will add a lot of comfort and value to your visit. The club itself has a great balcony area overlooking the city where you can enjoy a complimentary glass of Champagne or a pretty decent cocktail served by a charming and gorgeous staff.  The food in the club is the best in the building so don’t bother with the other food venues. The standard rooms here are a bit cramped, so we’d suggest opting for their So club studio rooms. But, conversely the suites, though huge are divided awkwardly and unless you plan on throwing a party are hardly worth it.  The pool is set spectacularly located overlooking Lumpini park. Be forewarned or get excited depending how you look at it, they hold a Las Vegas style pool party most Saturdays and the area is wall to wall fashionista wannabes, beautiful people and drunk hipsters. The fitness area joins the pool and though small is adequately equipped.  


The Banyan Tree

Literally next door to the Sukhothai, The Banyan Tree is one of the strangest buildings in this land of odd high rises.  When viewed from outside, the building looks like it’s ten feet wide and one hundred stories tall. But then this is Bangkok, and kooky is in!  When booking a room here be sure to book on a high floor as lower floors not unlike high rises in New York, can look on the back of another building rather than at the spectacular view you had expected.  The rooms here are all large, in fact most are small suites and are very reasonably priced! The decor is comfortable and luxurious but some rooms are a bit faded if well kept. Unlike the So, the club floor is not worth it as it is large and frequently overcrowded.  The pool is pleasantly located on about the twentieth story above the city and is a great place to cool down after a day out sightseeing. The gym is fairly large and adequately fitted out. The highlight of this hotel is the rooftop bar, Vertigo , which affords panoramic views of the city.  Even if you’re not staying at the Banyan Tree, be sure to grab a sunset beverage at the bar. A few words of caution though, it can get crowded and drinks can take a long time to get. Do not waste your time and money eating there as the food is poor,radically expensive and there are tons of places within walking distance that are far better!


The Metropolitan

At the next door Metropolitan hotel is the Michelin starred Nam, which the former Chef and cookbook author, David Thompson, put on the world culinary map.  He has left the restaurant now but the tradition of phenomenal cooking is continued by Pim Techamuanvivit. On our three visits there under Thompson's reign, the food was always interesting.  Be sure to book months in advance as being a guest at the hotel does not in any way guarantee you a seat at Nam. We found though, on one occasion, that the customer count was not quite in keeping with the hype, and we were easily able to walk in without reservations even after we were told they were fully committed!  Now, about the hotel! If you are slinky and frequent uber cool places in Brooklyn and black is is your favorite color, then this is the place for you. The thuggish doormen set the tone at this ode to sixties modern edifice, making you feel as if your’re entering a $1,000.00 dollar a bottle nightclub in Miami, rather than a hotel.  The rooms are clean and minimalist modern and the actual bar is equally cold and dark. The pool though beautiful is frequently in the shadows. In general our feeling about this place is that it’s trying too hard and just “too cool for school”. But then, the rates are lower and lower for a hip hotel in a great location.

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The Shangri La,

Balanced somewhere between the ultra hip of the So and Metropolitan and the old world snobbery of the Oriental, is the Shangri La, is just a sweaty walk down the winding allies along the river from the Oriental.  This large, stylish hotel is a great place to locate on a first visit to the city, as its setting is pleasant and one can easily walk to the Sky Train (more on this later), which gives a visitor speedy access to much of the city.  On our first visit to Bangkok we stayed at the Shangri La and one of my favorite memories is sipping gin and tonics, at the hotel’s riverside bar watching the boats go by while listening to a terrific Filipino band. The fitness center here is large, well equipped and happily not in the basement; in fact it also has a stunning view of the river.  The neighborhood surrounding the hotel was pretty much a wasteland decade or so ago, but happily this has begun to change with fun coffee shops and trendy boutiques popping up all over.

EATING IN BANGKOK

One of the best reasons to go to this part of the world is the food and Bangkok is one of the jewels in the crown of the region.  It is fair to say however, that “restaurant culture” as we know it in the west is a fairly recent phenomenon here. Up until twenty years or so ago, fine dining restaurants, as we think of them, did not really exist outside of hotel’s in the capital. Of course there were cafes, noodle houses and the ubiquitous street food, but free standing trendy restaurants no. Happily this has changed with young Chefs and restaurateurs opening new places on every corner.  


STREET FOOD

Okay, everyone talks about the street food of Bangkok, even the government, which made a short lived bid to shut it down ar at least sanitize it recently.  Happily people quickly rejected the government’s foolishness, and the haphazard way of serving food in glorious randomness continues. So here is the good advice about eating on the streets a Bangkok: plunge in and try it, but remember to only eat things that you see being cooked; ie. boiled, fried or grilled in front of you.  Also look for places that are busy, and are “turning” the food rapidly. Take a look at the “look” of the stall too, is it neat and tidy the glass washed, the herbs and vegetables fresh?

The markets of Chinatown are a great place to sample a variety of street food, especially rice dumplings, but every neighborhood has a plethora of stalls. Check out the Pad Thai and roast pork in Soi (alley) 38 of of Sukhumvit Road   Another local favorite is KOR MARKET on Kamphaeng Road for its curries and spicy sausage. Don’t be squeamish! You are going to sit on little plastic stools and you will breath in car exhaust, it will be hot and there will be odd smells and food you can’t quite identify, but I guarantee you’ll have a fun, exhilarating experience for almost no money.  


FOOD COURTS

A great alternative to street food,  that is not quite as sexy and might not sound quite as adventurous when you get home, are food courts at the many major shopping malls dotted about the city.  Yes, you read correctly, shopping mall food courts! They’re not what we think of at home. The food courts in the malls of Bangkok have some of the best food in the city, served in blissful air conditioning.  Don’t take our word for it, when you’re there, look around and see all the Thai people enjoying a vast variety of not only Thai food from all parts of the country, but also cooking from throughout Asia. And, although you may not wish to shop for Zegna and Gucci items in the City of Angels, you will find the people watching at the food courts is some of the best anywhere!


RESTAURANT DINING

The restaurant scene in Bangkok is dynamic and ever expanding.  It’s important to bare in mind however, when booking a table here, that Bangkok is a huge metropolis and that “great little place” that you read about in a travel magazine might just be an hour away in a taxi from where you are staying.  It’s good to plan strategically for the evening. If you want to start at a sky bar, then have dinner and then do a bar crawl after, it’s good to stick to the same general area. We’ve messed up in the past and spent much of the evening sitting in traffic hoping that “the latest, hottest, bee’s knees place” is worth three hours of pain!

So here are some of our favorite places in town.  Remember though, that this is a ever changing market so take a look at the “Thai Tattler” when you get to town and ask about as to what the latest and greatest is at the moment!

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Nam

Nam is Michelin starred and considered by many to be one of the best restaurants in the world.  Now that David Thompson, the former Chef and founder of the restaurant has left after eight years, the jury is still out on whether Pim Techanuanvivit can fill his shoes.  The restaurant has a pleasant if slightly unexciting dining room set in the aggressively mod Metropolitan hotel. Service tends to be friendly, correct and well informed. Booking a table is usually a pain in the neck, so if you want to go plan ahead.

Khao Sa-Ard

This folks is a real locals place.  If it were Paris in 1890, Khao Sa-Ard would be a bistro in the wrong part of town.  The restaurant is set in a working class neighborhood and if you’re not Thai, you’ll probably be the only Farang (foreigner) there. Don’t let this or the giant T.V. playing “the game” or the stares from the other diners deter you.  This place has been serving up some mighty fine family style Thai food since 1983. The founder has passed away now, but his son who might just take your order is omnipresent. Not only will the taste of the food thrill you, but it will undoubtedly be cheaper than a round of drinks at your hotel bar.

Namsaah Bottling Trust

Everything that you won’t find at the above mentioned neighborhood joint,you will find at this stylish bar and self proclaimed “gastro pub”. Something about this description doesn’t quite fit in our minds, as the place, set in an elegant turn of the century villa on a quiet soi (alley) near Silom, has food that is as sophisticated as many more formal places.  There is a small patio set in a garden and a cozy bar on the first level. One feels as if you’ve entered the home of a fashionista or perhaps just a very cool bordello. Chef Ian Kittichai heads the kitchen and the super creative drinks are the brainchild of his nightlife guru partners Justin Dunne and Federico Meyer. Be sure to sample the one that is made with pea blossoms, as it is as pretty as it is tasty.

Le Du

Another favorite of ours almost next door to the bottling trust, is Le Du. Contrary to the sound of the name, it’s not a French restaurant, (Le Du means “Seasons in Thai) but an Elegant and upscale temple to refined Thai cuisine.  The decor is simple and comfortable with an open kitchen and low ceilings. This is a place to go and relax for a romantic evening away from the cacophony of the surrounding neighborhood. Chef owner Ton is an alum of some of our go to places in the U.S. including 11 Madison and the Modern.  His skill and background are apparent in the four course tasting menu as well as in the ala carte. Despite the refinement and soothing setting the price compared to similar establishments elsewhere is very reasonable.

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Bo Lan

Now this place is definitely on the culinary map, and smack dab in the epicenter of the expat ghetto of Sukhumvit.  In fact it’s being so well received that the Chef owners moved it from its original diminutive setting, down a rather notorious and racy soi (alley) to its present enlarged setting on soi 53 in 2014.  Happily, little of the intimate quality of the original setting was lost, and it still has the feel of a traditional Thai garden home. Now a days, however, one needs to book ahead, and this is no quick bite place; the highly recommended six course menu will take you on a leisurely stroll through some refined and fun Thai cuisine.

La Table De Tee

Okay, it happens to even the most stalwart of serious eaters; occasionally one wants a break from the cuisine of the region and perhaps a bit of an escape.  In this case, while in Bangkok, La Table De Tee is just the ticket. Set in an easy to find soi (alley) of Saledang road, it’s French cuisine won’t blow you away perhaps, but the cozy contemporary setting and the well prepared food is a  nice antidote to the heat, both picante and calor! The wine list is very limited, so stop at one of the numerous wine shops in the nearby mall (adjacent to the Saledang Sky Train BTS station) and pick up a bottle of good wine: they will be happy to serve it to you for a small corkage fee.

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Soul Food

For many years now Soul Food, located in Thanglor (one of the cities high end areas) and a short walk from the BTS Sky Train station, has been one of our favorites.  The food is consistently delicious, brilliantly seasoned Thai food served in an unpretentious place that makes one feel like they’re in Soho, (only the foods better!).  Scandalous as it may seem, the place is owned by an affable American former food writer named Jarrett Wrisley. But most folks are compelled with us to agree, that the food here is top notch and the clever cocktails match the quality of the delicious dishes.  If you go in a larger group, We recommend booking ahead as it isn’t a huge place, and trying as many things on the menu as you can!


80/20

Making a big splash recently in the formerly gritty now trendy area of Talad Noi is Chef Napol Jantraget.  His very reasonably priced food has been getting raves from locals and visitors alike. Pair this place with a visit to OUTLAW CREATIVE CUISINE and sample their charcuterie before dinner at 80/20.



EXPLORING THE CITY

It’s notorious for being confusing, it’s true; but with a little bit of prior planning and orientation, Bangkok can be navigable.  Bangkok is not laid out on a grid and it’s buildings are typically covered with a myriad of signs. In addition sidewalks are a rare commodity, and where they exist they are normally covered with street vendors , cars, motorcycles etc.  land here, is sold in long strips so much of what you may be seeking will be found in long allies called sois that are even more jumbled and confusing!

With the advent of the sky train and underground, however, it’s far easier to move about than years ago, and there is the added bonus that its cleaner with fewer cars and fewer pollutant spewing tuk tuks (motorcycles pulling a bench seat for hire).  We recommend buying an actual old fashioned map of the city before going as it will give you a good idea of how the city is laid out. The typical tourist map passed out by hotels here, as everywhere, are designed (perhaps not intentionally) to confuse a visitor.  



TAXIS

Taxis are ubiquitous and colorful coming in a wide variety of eye popping colors.  Just like any city some drivers are great and honest, but there are always those that see the foreigner as a “mark” or may be high as a kite.  Taxis all have meters and insist politely, that they use it unless you decide on a flat rate ahead. From the airport, the driver may ask you if you want to take surface roads or toll roads.  Toll roads are faster but you will have to pay the toll in addition to the metered fare unless you have negotiated a flat rate ahead of time, about B400 to downtown. If it’s rush hour this can be a deal.  Traffic can be horrendous and stoplights are endless, so plan accordingly and channel that inner monk spirit...if you can! Be aware that many cabbies don’t speak much English so plan ahead and have your concierge or a helpful friend write your destinations out in Thai.  Yes, you can tip although locals typically don’t.


TUK TUKS

Don’t.  Once plentiful and common these noise and pollution spewing items are dwindling in number quickly.  We’ve found that most are on the lookout, especially near popular tourist areas, for greenies. The amount they demand will most likely be sky high and the ride fairly uncomfortable.



MOTORCYCLES

The first time we went to Bangkok we couldn’t understand why there were frequently gangs of tough looking dudes hanging out by motorcycles on every other corner dressed in a colorful vest of pink or yellow or green.  A few enquiries, enlightened us, and it turns out, this is one of the most fun and not to mention convenient ways to make short hops around the city: that is if you’re a little brave! On one occasion when the traffic was at a standstill in our neighborhood and cabs impossible to get even if you wanted one, Mark and I took two motorcycles to dinner.  Our guys may have driven down sidewalks and inches from huge trucks but they got us to our destination intact and on time; and I think it was the most fun we’ve ever had getting from point a to point b!


THE SKY TRAIN

One of the most enjoyable and pleasant ways to get around this crazy city is the BTS SkyTrain.  These very modern and very air conditioned trains will whisk you around the city. Many if not all of the popular places for visitors are easily accessed by the Sky Train.  Because the train is elevated it’s also a great way to see and get acquainted with this confusing metropolis. Buying tickets and figuring out stations and transfers is simple even for folks like ourselves who seldom use rapid transit.  Most importantly, when the roads are at a standstill the SkyTrain will take you near to your destination in comfort. Six more lines are planned throughout the city, which will make getting around even easier in the near future.



BOATS

There are regular commuter boats that ply the Chao Phraya River that have the livery of a crispy cream doughnut!  Ask your concierge where to get on and off these boats. You can also hire a long tail boat to take you to destinations along the river.  Just be forewarned that they are noisy and you may get sprayed by the foul water of the river. This being said, a boat ride is a fun way to see another aspect of the city and is sometimes the best way to get to more out of the way destinations such as the Museum of Royal barges.

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SIGHTS

A quick Google search of Bangkok attractions immediately make one realize that there is a lot to see in this burg!  Below are just a few of our personal favorites. Sightseeing and shopping in this city can be daunting as it’s always HOT and humid.  Moreover this is no small town and getting around unless you plan well, can find one wasting hours just getting to one place. If you’re going to one part of the city plan to cluster your visits.  For example if you want to go to the Chatuchack Weekend Market, take the SkyTrain and on your way back to the center of town stop at Siam Paragon and the Jim Thompson House, which are all on the same line.  

In the last few years, with the rise of Chinese tourism around the world, Bangkok’s more famous attractions have become inundated.  Because of this we recommend going to places like the Grand Palace early in the morning and on weekdays. And an aside, while visiting places such as temples and palaces it is important to remember that the Thai people respect a certain level of decorum.  So dress in light clothing but leave the shorts and tank tops for the beach. Yes, I know you’ll see plenty of hairy armpits around the city, but if one takes a second look you’ll see that most Thai people wear appropriate clothing.


THE GRAND PALACE

Built in 1782 when the City of the Angels was established, and the seat of government until 1925, The Grand Palace is a must see for the first time visitor to the city.  The stunning conglomeration of temples, audience halls and private residences is simply amazing. Much of the traditional Thai architecture is spectacular and the later edifices some which incorporated a wild hodge podge of western elements, are in themselves a fascinating comment of the changes that came to this ancient land in the 19th and 20th centuries.   Be sure to see the Wat Phra Kaew, also in the palace grounds which houses the sacred Emerald Buddha.


VIMANMEK MANSION-DUSIT PALACE

Built in 1900 at the behest of King Rama V, this neo Victorian structure is constructed entirely of teak wood.  In fact it is the largest teak wood structure anywhere. But what makes this a must see is the romantic atmosphere that helps one see the personal changes and “modernization” of the monarchy and hence Thai society at this crucial time.  


NATIONAL MUSEUM OF ROYAL BARGES

Tucked away on a klong (canal) off the Chao Phraya River, this seldom visited spot is one our favorite places.  The Royal barges are taken out only for special occasions of state and are simply amazing. Getting to the museum is half the fun.  Have your concierge assist you in arranging transportation by boat and your visit to the museum will open a window on this rarely seen part of the city.


WAT ARUN

Also on the other side of the river from the Grand Palace, but further south in the Thonburi district is the impressive Wat Arun.  The temple complex is the oldest wat (temple) in Bangkok. The central stupa is clad entirely in gold and surrounded by a beautiful array of out buildings made more compelling because of its placement along the river.  


CHATUCHACK WEEKEND MARKET

As the name implies, this humongous market is only open on the weekends.  So if you’re lucky enough to be in town over the weekend be sure to go. You won’t be alone, over 200,000 people visit each day!  But then, there are over 8000 stalls to visit spread out over many many acres of land. Here you’ll find everything from antiques to modern art to boutiques displaying handmade clothes and specialty soaps.  Oh and there are plenty of food stalls and cafes too!

SIAM PARAGON-CENTRAL WORLD

In this city of mega malls this one is the best.  So if you’re still up for shopping after the market, stop here and stock up on Gucci and Armani!  There is more to it though than foreign designer labels though; many Thai designers and brands are

represented here and the prices, relative to home, are pretty amazing.  People watching here is also fun, as this is where the Thai upper and upper middle class shops.  There are elegant matrons and young guys and girls in trendy clothes doing what kids do around the world in malls: flirt and strut their stuff!  This is also a great place to catch a quick meal in one the several and extensive food courts.


THE JIM THOMPSON HOUSE

Down a pleasant residential soi (alley) near Siam Paragon, is the Jim Thompson House.  This charming collection of traditional teakwood houses was created by the mysterious Bon Vivant-designer- CIA agent Thompson.  The beautiful enclave that he created to be his home in 1959, gives the visitor a very special insight into the elegant lifestyle of this famed expatriate.  The collection of Asian art is impressive and the tasteful melding of the modern and the antique to create this home, is a pleasure to see. Don’t skip the clothing museum which explains how Thompson help to revive the traditional Thai craftsmanship and showcases many gowns and dresses in his silk.  The shop is fun too! If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed by Bangkok, this is a good place to have a peaceful lunch overlooking the homes gardens and lily ponds. The food is serviceable but the beer is cold! Be forewarned though, this destination is definitely on the tourist trail and seems a bit overwhelmed at times

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M.R. KUKRIT’S HERITAGE HOME

For an antidote to the hordes of people at the Thompson House, head to the almost forgotten Kukrit home.  Near Lumpini Park and an easy walk from the BTS Sky Train Chongnansi Station, this home is well worth a visit.  Kukrit was briefly a Prime Minister in the early sixties, highly educated, an art collector and a member of Thailand’s elite.  His home, not unlike Thompson’s, is a collection of traditional Thai structures, elegantly modernized set in a lovely garden complete with a discreet swimming pool and boat like outdoor bar!  This is an intimate window into a learned man’s life and into a forgotten era and lifestyle.

LUMPINI PARK

After all the mad urban crush of Bangkok, peaceful Lumpini park surrounded by the cities most expensive Real Estate, is a welcome respite.  Here you’ll find on early mornings the locals practicing Tai Chi and athletes jogging. Frequently there are also colorful fairs setup here to promote Thai culture.  After a walk in the park, stroll across the street and enjoy a cool beverage in the Dusit Thani Hotel which, when built in the early sixties, was the city's tallest structure.  Dwarfed today by the surrounding high rises, it is also a window into the rapidly modernizing Thai world of the 1960s.

BANG RAK AND TALAD NOI

In the last few years, the districts of Bang Rak and Talad NOI, have emerged as some hippest areas of the city.  Much of what makes up these districts is still pretty grubby with lots of chop shops and auto repair places. But the low rents have lured a new crop of chefs, designers, artists and musicians and they in turn have created a new crop of cool places to visit.  THAILAND CREATIVE & DESIGN CENTER which opened in the former Grand Post Office building has a gallery and multi level design library. SPEEDY GRANDMA, is partially a gallery and frequently turns into a party pad.


NIGHT LIFE

Obviously Bangkok is famous and notorious for its nightlife.  Being out on the town in this city is well worth the plunge. If you’re a bit squeamish about going out for your first time and don't know the city well, have your hotel arrange a car and driver for you.  Your driver will wait for you at every venue and assist you in finding some of the out of the way bars and nightclubs that maybe hard to find.


SKY BARS

We recommend starting a night out with sunset drinks at one of Bangkok's many sky bars.  Three of our favorites are: VERTIGO on top of the Banyan Tree Hotel which gives you a spectacular view from the center of the city, SKY BAR AT LUBEA STATE TOWER, a catastrophe of architecture that overlooks the river and was featured in a vodka ad for years and PARK SOCIETY at the So Hotel which overlooks Lumpini Park.   These Sky bars really give you a great sense of the vibrancy of this sprawling metropolis. Prices also tend to be sky high and service numbingly slow in these establishments but the view will still make up for that!


BARS

MAGGIE CHOOS

This cool 1930s style bar opened in 2013 and continues to bring in the crowds.  The entrance is behind thick curtains and you first have to walk through a noodle joint to get there.  Don’t miss the private booths that are set in the old East India company’s bank vaults


THE IRON FAIRIES

Despite its name this is not a gay biker bar, rather it’s the epitome of young and hip in trendy Thang Lor area of the city.  The atmosphere is rustic and sexy.


THE BAMBOO BAR

Some things just get better with age and the Bamboo Bar at the Mandarin Oriental is one of them.  Remodeled in 2015 the classy colonial vibe is great and so is the jazz. This is a great place to end the night in style.


VESPER

Located on Convent road just a short walk from the BTS Sala Daeng station,  this quiet sophisticated bar is a classy place to start an evening sipping James Bond’s favorite martini


NIGHT CLUBS

ROUTE 66

The huge club is popular with the young and well dressed college students and “Tupies’.  There isn’t much of a dance floor but if you go with a group and buy a bottle you’ll enjoy a real Thai style experience of clubbing.

ONYX

Ranked by “DJ Magazine as one of the best clubs in the world, this is an immense place with room for over 2000 people.  The dance floor is huge and the LED screen is pretty cool too. There are lots of dressed up locals here and it’s just a great scene.


GAY NIGHTLIFE

Bangkok’s gay nightlife centers around the Silom District, with most bars in two tiny sois (allies), Silom soi 2 and 4

TELEPHONE PUB

Start...or finish the evening at this long time favorite.  The bar spills out into the alley and is a great place to watch all the wild and wonderful walk, strut and glide by.


THE BALCONY

Another old favorite along soi 4, this is a casual and pleasant place for an inexpensive cocktail or beer.  Check out their cabaret nights which are pretty cute.

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DJ STATION

This place is still the best gay dance bar in town.  Set on three levels that overlook the dance floor the place is always crowded and always fun with a great mix of foreigners and local folks


FORK AND CORK

This place, which was formerly known as Sphinx, and is a great place to get serviceable Thai food in a very comfortable atmosphere on soi 4.  It’s definitely a good place to relax before plunging into the club scene


GAY NIGHTS AT MAINSTREAM BARS

Many of Bangkok’s hippest clubs have “gay nights”.  Top of this list are MAGGIE CHOO’S on Sunday’s and CE LA VI on thursdays.

OUTLAW NIGHTLIFE

To check out some of Bangkok’s hottest new venues, head to Soi Nana in the south of Chinatown.  The bars are all pretty gritty and have an edge...but isn’t that part of the fun?! Some of the top places are,TEENS OF THAILAND, TEP BAR , PROJECT 189,and 23 BAR & GALLERY.  Also, in “The Creative District” check out SOUL BAR AND SPEEDY GRANDMOTHER.

THOUGHTS AND ADVICE ON A NIGHT OUT IN BANGKOK

On a side note about drinking in Thailand in general, despite The menu choices, and despite the new crop of trendy hipster bars, the actual concept of “cocktails” remains a bit of a challenge.  If you want a typical American strength drink we’d recommend asking for a double. Your server might be shocked, but you’ll get a real drink. Martinis also present a special problem, with the request for a “dry” martini frequently leading to more “Dry Vermouth” being added.  We suggest asking for Gin or Vodka on the rocks. You will often see Thai people with a bottle of Johnny Walker Black and mixers on a side table. You will also frequently notice that a group of guys ostensibly out to”party” will nurse said Scotch for hours and then return it to the bar where it is kept under their  name for the next visit. Many locals also order their beer with ice in it. As it’s always blasting hot in Bangkok, try it this way, you may like it and anyway, “when in Rome”.....

You don’t need to be afraid to go out in Bangkok.  It is a safe city by and large. This being said as with any city and perhaps because it’s even more confusing in physical layout than many, it is important to keep your wits about you. Use your common sense and stay with your group of friends.  

Abu Dhabi NOT Dubai

Standing in the Louvre Abu Dhabi, I looked down and got a shock.  Placed in the glittering white floor of the first exhibition hall set in silver were the names of places throughout the world in all different forms of writing.  The shock for me was to see that the obscure fjord Hardanger in Norway where my ancestors lived for literally a thousand years, was placed directly next to the characters for Beijing where I lived and studied for a year.  Okay, it was weird, but it brought home to me, like a lightning bolt the very mission statement of this incredible museum.

Abu Dhabi is an island city set just below the strategic Straits of Hormuz, has been for two millennium at the crossroads of the world.  The Louvre Abu Dhabi, far from being a slavish reproduction of its Paris sister, is actually a fascinating paean to the intertwined nature of our world society.  This museum’s spectacular architecture is just the outside wrapping of what is delivered to you as a tour de force journey from Neolithic times to modern, shining a beacon on how our cultures have continually influenced, changed and interacted with each other.  One feels as if one is walking through a brilliantly told story of world history through art. And it is is a story that begins with a floor that made it feel deeply personal to me.

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And that’s just the beginning of what makes Abu Dhabi a fascinating place to visit.  First off, let’s get one thing clear: many of us in the West are a bit confused about Dubai vis a vis Abu Dhabi.  They are NOT the same place, although they are each one of the seven members of the United Arab Emerites (U.A.E.) and Dubai, though the richest emirate (and that’s really saying something), is not the capital of this federation, Abu Dhabi is.  Abu Dhabi is NOT “the one with the palm tree island and the world’s largest indoor skiing hall, though it does have its share of monumental environmental debacles and fabulously garish building projects! It’s Emir, an absolute monarch, as are all the leaders of the UAE, is traditionally the leader of this hugely rich federation.

Now that we’ve gotten the facts down we can focus on what makes this an amazing place to visit.   Well, first off, any visitor will realize where our gas money has gone for the last sixty years and it’s not in a small part to these tiny countries!  Abu Dhabi is a city of glitz and glamour, elegant avenues and sleek skyscrapers. Visiting this city is a bit like going to that fabulous French restaurant and really throwing caution to the wind, ordering everything from foie gras to the Gran Mariner soufflé….did I forget the cheese course?

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Start with the Louvre.  As I’ve already waxed eloquently on this subject, I’ll just say if you see nothing else in this place see this museum; enough said.  Afterwords, jump into a cab. They are plentiful, cheap and blissfully air conditioned. The driver, who will most likely be a guest worker from India or Pakistan, will be a introduction to the dynamics of this opulent society.  Natives here certainly don’t drive cabs or for that matter do any menial work, foreigners do. A drive along the Corniche is in itself is a “site to visit” in this town. As one glides along this elegant boulevard which is lined with parks and flowers it is hard the square it with photos of the area a few decades ago, which show a desolate hardscrabble town set in a bleak dessert.  The beaches along the boulevard are immaculate and segregated into families, male and female and general. I guess it’s “take your pick”!

A visit to the Emerates Palace, a spectacularly over the top hotel along the Corniche, is another must here.  Just driving up to the Arabia meets Baroque meets Hollywood meets Las Vegas porte cochere is a kick. Here you will find a cavalcade of young local guys dashing about and alighting from there Lambos, Bentley’s and assorted other cars that cost more that most Americans homes.  And yes, they they are wearing Abaya and yes there is something about Arab guys that’s pretty romantic. A walk inside introces one to more gilt and marble than a Roman Emperor ever dreamed of. After passing through what seems like acres and acres of grand halls, that would make Cecil B. Demill a happy camper, we finally emerged at the back gardens where  we found the lovely Mezlai restaurant. This place is an oasis of old fashioned Arab style comfort and Emirati cuisine. A great selection of meze and delicious fruit drinks (yes there is no alcohol served here) was followed by perfectly prepared sautéed local fish. For desert though, we returned to the grand cafe of the hotel where one can have one of the”must do” Abu Dhabi things, which is of course a gold encrusted cappuccino for $25.00 dollars: with all this gold about why not drink it too!

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After treating oneself to one Emirati destination, cross the street to another, The Etihad Towers and take the elevator to the 74th floor observation deck 300. From here one has the most magnificent view of the entire metropolis.  Spread out below you is a amazing city created with the wealth a petroleum the engenuity of the few and the backs of guest workers! If one feels up to it descend to the street and take another cab to the dazzling Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.  It is an amazing place of glittering white marble that was built to rival all the other glittering grand mosques in the region. For one, it can be a good place to contemplate the role of religion and money in the region.

Of course there is much more to see and do in Abu Dhabi, the AD History Museum and Aquarium, Qasr Al Hosn Fort a World Heritage Site and the Mangrove National Park to name but a few.  But, the above sites gives one a tremendous, heady insight into an important world that most of us hardly know. So even if you only have a day in this amazing city, as we did, you can have quite the experience and help yourself to big helping of new insights into this influential and fascinating part of the world.

A weekend trip to Quebec

If you live in New England or Maine, as Mark and I do, one of the best possible getaway trips available is a jaunt to the historic city of Quebec.  Within a few hours you can be out of the U.S.and in a land that though familiar in all the best ways is also romantic and a touch exotic. The style is different, the language different, the look of the buildings, the things one discovers in shops and even the look of the people is different.  All this in a road trip, without getting near the hassles of the modern airport!

Okay, you can fly to Quebec, but for many of us, why bother?  If you live in the Boston or Portland area you can easily take the plane to Montreal and transfer to for a short hop to Quebec.  But even if you live near these flight hubs, you’ll still have to get there early, go through security etc, etc. for us it was a blast to jump in the car (preferably something fun to drive) and take interstate 93 through New Hampshire and Vermont.  This great smooth highway takes you to 91 which is also a pleasant freeway and it takes one right to Quebec City. The scenery on the way is gorgeous and the traffic is reasonably light. On our return to Maine we returned via Jackman on route 202, which is equally as pretty but I wouldn’t recommend it in a sports car.  The road is so jarring for the first 20 miles over the border, that you begin to wonder if our government has completely forgotten about our country’s roads!

Now, one other word of advise, you do need to bring your passport!  The Canadian border crossing was pretty easy, but our overly officious U.S. border control guard couldn’t figure us out and really put us through the third degree.  Why had we gone to Oman? Did we work in Syria? What were we doing in Jordan? She opened our trunks and went through all our luggage. It was almost comical except it took some time!  Nothing was slipping by this guard!

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Quebec is a terrific walking City with great shopping, great historical sites at every turn and of course there is great food galore.  There are plenty of little trips outside of the city if you want to get into the car out again, but for us there is plenty to do and see in two days here that we never needed to bother the valet.

On our arrival night we strolled down Rue St. Paul which is lined with charming galleries and antique shops to a hip new restaurant called Rioux Pettigrew.  The feel of the place is Soho meets the northland and the cuisine with twists featured fun interpretations of French Canadian fare. Our waitress who turned out to be from Normandy and was touring the world over a two year period with her girlfriend, instantly switched to English and guided us through the menu and wine list.  First night, and already we were on a roll.

We’ve visited Quebec a number times and by far our favorite place to stay is the Auberge St. Antoine.  Nestled along the waterfront in the lower city, this Relais au Chateau property is pretty close to perfect.  Although set in the oldest part of the city (and that’s pretty old!), its rooms are warm and modern complete with sumptuous bathrooms, private terraces and small fireplaces.  Ask for a room on a high floor with views of the Chateau Frontenac. There is a small well equipped gym (which is a bit dark and gloomy unfortunately and comes complete with a set of totally unnecessary birch trees, leaving one wondering why hotel designers are always trying to make their fitness centers look like nightclubs).  This aside however, the rest of the common areas are great. There is a pleasant and well stocked bar which is a nice place to start your night with some champagne and oysters and the dining room is quite pleasant as well. But what really makes this an amazing experience is the expert concierge staff that will go above and beyond to make your stay a really fun adventure.

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On our first day. We retraced our steps down Rue St. Paul, stopping at the farmer’s Market on the way to the trendy shopping street of St. Joseph est.  the great thing about the shopping on this street is you won’t encounter the usual retail stores that you find in the U.S. Most of the stores here are unique to the city with a few exceptions such as the Vancouver shoe designer Fluevog.  A real special treat on this avenue is Lucie Cote Cuisine which is a first rate kitchen store featuring handmade Japanese knives beautiful china and pottery and an array of other dining room and kitchen stuff that has a contemporary European style not often seen south of the border.  I won’t go into details as we got a bit of a bum steer with a recommendation for a new place that had all the problems of most new places. The one saving grace at lunch was the super friendly staff. In fact we only encountered the most friendly of people throughout our visit. The Québécois could definitely give some of our countrymen classes in manners.

After lunch we headed up the hill through the bohemian part of town on Rue St. Claire.  Everywhere in this area are colorfully painted homes, funkily decorated doorways and cool views.  The top of this street brings one to St. Jean street which is another fun, if slightly less refined shopping area.  If there is a gay area in town this seems to be it. The Hobbit restaurant appears to be a pleasant local and mixed cafe and further down the street Le Drague, the local big gay bar has decks opening onto an ancient church, park and boneyard.  One wonders if there is some spinning in graves when the drag shows go off!

We headed back through the ancient gates of the upper city and meandered about in its winding streets.  One feels like they are in an outdoor museum, as at every turn there is another amazing edifice from seventeenth century homes to Baroque banks and even deco skyscrapers!  We also encountered increasing large groups of Canadian school children out on field trips and Chinese tourists. This area isn’t quite ground zero for tourists but it’s pretty close!  We encountered the actual ground zero as we headed down the hill to the lower town. Here Rue Du Petit Champlain is to be found,with its shops bars and cafes overwhelmed by tourists from every nation on earth!  Actually it’s kind of fun, at least for a short while, to watch these throngs, and one certainly doesn’t need to worry about speaking French properly! Escaping from the “gulch” we headed back to our hotel. After a fun day, the deep,hot tub and a little champagne were perfect to cure for sore feet.

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Okay, I looked up the place where we had dinner that night and it sounded pretty weird.  In fact I skipped over it because the name, L’ Affair est Ketchup sounded like a burger place to me….But everyone we spoke to said it was the “bee’s knees” and one of the hottest tickets in town...small and bohemian with a young ardent Chef and staff.  Really? Okay, it sounded good to us! We Ubered over, and had a great great conversation with our Algerian driver. Quebec is definitely not a backwater anymore! Well L’ Affair estKetchup is not a burger place and it is bohemian complete with an itsy bitsy dining room chipped paint and a live hip local crowd having a blast.  The menu is listed on the black board and our charming super efficient waiter carefully explained all of it. Sweetbreads cooked to perfection I’m in! Terrine of foie gras sounds good to me, octopus, why not? Pan roasted cod in a delicate sauce, followed by, slowly braised pork crisped to order was amazing and we couldn’t refuse a cheese course followed by a perfect pound cake.  Guests here are free to choose their wine from the sideboard where it is displayed or the servers are happy to recommend wines by the glass to compliment every course. This is classic French food updated perfectly and served with skill. This is the sort of rare place where one feels like they are part of the cool kid set witnessing the beginning of a talented young chefs career!

On our last day we set out to explore another cool neighborhood of the city that centers around Avenue Cartier.  This trendy strip is demarcated with what appear to be giant lamp shades that arc over the road and are decorated by various artists mainly with humorous or provocative themes.  There are great housewares stores here as well as good food shops and gasp, even a Starbucks, but the real draw is the array of cafes, bars and restaurants that line the avenue. Many of these places have outdoor decks and are obviously good places to see and be seen.  But the jewel in the crown of gastronomy in this neighborhood is Bistro B. This warmly modern restaurant with its glistening open kitchen that most chefs would give their eye teeth for (whatever eye teeth are) turns out consistently delicious and creative food. We can vouch for this as on our last visit to Quebec we had dinner here and it was excellent and so was lunch five years later.   We recommend sitting at the kitchen. It’s fun to watch and the cooks are happy to suggest and prepare for you what’s best on the menu that day.

On our slow return to the old city from Cartier street, we strolled through the vast Parc des Champs-de-Bataille.  Here one begins to really get a sense of the strategic position that Quebec commands and why the British and the French both struggled to control it.  Scattered along the perimeter of this plain now tricked out with pretty flowers and sculpture are stout forts that remind one of this struggle. Half way along this sprawl we came to the hulking cement 1970s structure that looms over the city.  At the top of this desecration of the city, posing as a hotel, sits a revolving restaurant no less! And yes believe it or not loads of people had recommended the restaurant (if a bit sheepishly). So we had to check it out and yes the restaurant called Ciel looks gorgeous and the views are amazing.

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Heading further along through the park one reaches the battlements of the citadel.  We walked along this impressive fort until we reached the Promenade des Gouveneurs which is a very fancy name for a terrific boardwalk which runs along the sheer cliffs just below the citadel.  It is hard to even imagine how the English managed to climb these frightening cliffs in their attack on the city. Nowadays it’s a beautiful walk that brings one to the famed Chateau Frontenac Hotel.  This is a great place to have a drink. The Hotel is meticulously maintained and thronged with conference goers and Chinese tourists. We enjoyed our drinks and congratulated ourselves on staying at the Auberge St. Antoine.