American Splendor: New England’s Fall Foliage Trail

Now that the summer heat has given way to cooler temperatures, we can all enjoy the great outdoors without sweltering. Fall is the perfect time to spend an afternoon at the cider mill, go pumpkin picking for Halloween or hike up mountains. It’s closing in on peak foliage time in the Northeastern United States, arguably the best place to see the changing leaf colors. Continue reading

Spain’s Other Coast

Europe has always been a popular destination for American travelers in the summertime. While flights to France, Italy and the United Kingdom can be pricey this time of year, Spain tends to be a bit cheaper. But instead of heading to the overcrowded beaches of tony Marbella or touristy Barcelona, take a detour to the northwest Basque coast. Here are my top-three reasons to visit San Sebastian this summer.

You Gotta Have Art
Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa (Guggenheim.org)

San Sebastian is home to a thriving art and cultural scene, showcasing the region’s unique history—the Basques are an ancient culture and vehemently independent. Throughout the summer, the city hosts music and cultural festivals galore. The 54th Heinekin “Jazzaldia,” the city’s jazz festival, happens the last week of July and is the longest running festival of its kind in Europe. Classical music concerts are held throughout August at the Musika Hamabostaldia. Film lovers flock to the region in September for the world-renowned San Sebastian Film Festival. Basque culture is celebrated during Basque Week in early September. If you love art, head to one of the city’s many museums, but don’t forget to take a side trip to nearby Bilbao, home to the Guggenheim museum.

Dinner is Served
Arzak (Trip Advisor)

Most of us who have tried Spanish cuisine stateside have encountered regional fare from Sevilla and Madrid. Basque cuisine is entirely different. Fish and meat are grilled over large coals, and hearty stews and bean dishes are extremely popular. The area is home to a large proliferation of Michelin–starred restaurants—second only to Paris—including Arzak, Akelarre and Mugartiz. For less chichi dining, opt for a cider house, which can be found throughout the region.

The Great Outdoors
Surfers at Zurriola Beach (San Sebastian Tourism)

While most visitors to Spain don’t do anything more strenuous than climb a cobblestone street to visit a historic site, for more adventurous travelers, San Sebastian offers a wealth of great outdoor opportunities. You can hike to the top of Monte Urgull or one of the other peaks or bike the surrounding hills. Surfers head to Zurriola, Fuenterrabia and Hendaia beaches for their great waves and relative breathing room.

Beyond Pebble Beach

If you’re heading to the Monterey Peninsula to play golf (or watch the pros play), why not stick around after it’s over? Monterey County has a plethora of pleasures to offer from world-renowned golf courses to interesting restaurants to craggy terrain. Continue reading

Coasts With the Most

Instead of the Usual Seaside Hotpots, Hit These Four Northeast Beach Towns For Tranquil Summer Days

Looking to avoid the summer beach crowds this summer and settle down for a more tranquil summer experience. Here are our top picks for fun yet serene coastal destinations, all in the Northeast. Continue reading

Still The Standard

 Ocean Drive Style with a European Flare

The Art Deco hotels on Ocean Drive may garner more attention, but across the Venetian Causeway, on residential Belle Isle, lies one of Miami’s best hotels.

Continue reading

Hotel Colorado

A century ago, hotels were built to rival European estates, with hundreds of rooms, sweeping manicured lawns and spectacular vistas. Few of these grand estates remain. While tourists still flock to the Grand Hotel in Mackinac Island, Michigan; The Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina; The Breakers in Florida and The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, it’s The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colorado, that is the queen of the grande dames, and with good reason. Continue reading

A Breed Apart

Americans go horse mad during the first week of May every year. The Kentucky Derby turns casual race fans into serious race fans. Maybe it’s the pomp and circumstance surrounding the race at Churchill Downs or maybe it’s the chance to win big money. But it probably has more to do with the majesty of the thoroughbreds racing around the mile-long track. Continue reading

Ticket to Ride

Before the advent of the automobile, most travelers traversed the countryside via rail. Whether Stateside or overseas, tourists and locals ate in opulent dining cars, reclined in wood-paneled lounges and slept in lavish staterooms with all the comforts of home—if your home was a palatial estate. While cars have made rail travel almost obsolete in the United States, trains are still a great way to get around overseas. Continue reading

Cap Juluca: Peaceful Luxury On Anguilla

If you think you’ve seen one Caribbean island you’ve seen them all, think again. Although popular spots like St. Johns and Antigua are beautiful, the tourist hordes have made finding a peaceful stretch of beach nigh on impossible. For blue skies, quieter beaches and hospitable locals, head to Anguilla. Continue reading

Paradise Found

As the seaplane descends from the clouds high above the sun-dappled cerulean water, I gaze transfixed at the island’s virgin white sand. Dolphins happily race each other as a nearby yacht traverses miles of serene blue ocean. Continue reading

Rooms With a View

Hotels built around their natural environment are nothing new. The Explora Hotel Salto Chico in Patagonia is situated on the banks of a waterfall in the Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. The Tsala Treetop Lodge in Plettenberg Bay, South Africa, allows guests to live out their childhood fantasy of sleeping in a tree house—albeit a luxurious one. And in the United States, you have the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, California, built on the craggy cliffs of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Continue reading

Raine’s Law

The “Mad Men” craze sparked the return of a number of retro trends. Bartenders are finally pouring proper cocktails and women’s sheaths and pencil skirts are returning to store shelves. But no homage to the good old days is complete without the speakeasy and New York City has one of the country’s chicest versions. Continue reading

Trends With Benefits

 

Frequent air travel became the norm for Americans in the early 1980s, but hotels didn’t provide much for regular customers. If you were lucky, you’d get a fruit basket on arrival or a complimentary breakfast in the morning. My how things have changed. In an effort to increase travel and attract repeat customers, hotels and other hospitality entities have begun rewarding frequent guests. While this is not a new concept—credit card companies such as American Express have rewarded traveling customers for years—the types of benefits have become more glamorous. Some hotel chains offer free rooms and upgrades, while others give airline points and hotel amenities.

 

With the new year comes new expense account restrictions and business travelers, more so than any other frequent traveler, need to optimize their travel. If you’re anything like George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air, you’ll be racking up points in no time regardless of your employer’s new rules thanks to top-tier rewards programs. Here are our picks for the best hotel loyalty programs. All are free to join.

 

Starwood Preferred Guest

 

Starwood Hotels and Resorts has some of the most glamorous properties in the world so its award program attracts business and leisure travelers. Starwood operates the luxury St. Regis brand as well as W and Sheraton; more than 940 hotels around the world. The Starwood Preferred Guest program offers three tiers of membership from basic (Preferred Guest) to the more rewarding Gold Preferred and Platinum Preferred levels. The basic membership awards guests with two points for every dollar spent and points can be used for free nights, flights, room upgrades, goods and even charity. Business travelers can easily reach Platinum level status, getting more bang for their buck as well as amenities and upgrades. How else can you stay at the Sheraton Boston for business and the St. Regis Bora Bora for pleasure?

 

Starwood’s W brand hotels continue to pop up in prime locations with recent openings in Austin, Barcelona, Boston, New York (downtown), Taipei, and Vieques Island (Puerto Rico).

 

 

Intercontinental Priority Club

 

Intercontinental Hotel Group, which owns and operates more than 4,500 hotels around the world including the Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza chains, has arguably the largest loyalty program in the industry with 52 million members. Intercontinental Priority Club members earn points for hotel stays, airline miles, car rentals, dining out and gift certificates. The highest level of membership—Platinum Elite— offers guests free room upgrades and 50 percent bonuses on base points. Just this month, the hotel company introduced a bonus points program that awards members with up to 30,000 additional points if they stay in a group hotel between Feb. 1 and April 30, 2011. For every three nights a guest stays in any of the hotels, he or she receives 3,000 bonus points. Points don’t expire and blackout dates don’t apply.

 

Hilton HHonors

 

Hilton Worldwide has some of the most popular accommodations for business travelers and the Hilton HHonors loyalty program lets these same travelers quickly earn points and miles. Hilton operates more than 3,600 hotels around the world, many in popular urban centers such as Los Angeles and New York. Stay at a Hilton or Doubletree and redeem the points for a getaway at the luxurious Conrad Hilton Maldives. Members can earn points with stays or by using the Hilton HHonors Visa.

 

HHonors is unique in that you aren’t the only person who benefits from the program. You can transfer points to a family member or friend who is also a member. If you’re feeling even more charitable, points can be given to philanthropic organizations. JetBlue TrueBlue members earn more TrueBlue points for staying at a Hilton hotel and anyone who uses Energy Plus as his/her electricity provider earns bonus points as well. Stay at a Hilton hotel from now until March 31, 2011, and earn up to quadruple points for your stay. Points can be redeemed for stays, cruises, car rentals and golf lessons.

 

Hyatt Gold Passport

 

Hyatt Hotels Gold Passport is one of the top-tier loyalty programs because you can get points fast. With three membership levels—Gold, Platinum and Diamond—the Passport program allows guests to earn rewards quicker than other loyalty programs. Guests earn five points for every dollar spent and redeem them for upgrades, free rooms and airline miles. Members get discounts on car rentals through Avis and Sixt. With higher levels of membership, guests can receive point bonuses or food and beverage amenities such as free meals and Starbuck gift cards.

 

 

Shandana A. Durrani 

The New Miami

South Beach has long been synonymous with Miami cool. And while the restaurants and Art Deco hotels on Ocean Drive entice visitors and locals alike, Miami is more than just the SoBe scene. Downtown Miami is thriving, with new residences and bars opening regularly, and further up the beach from the Delano and the like, lies another hotspot. Continue reading

Homestead for the Holidays

 

When city life – or in many cases, just day-to-day life – becomes too much, and you and your family are searching for a dynamic destination to spend your holidays, look no further than The Homestead. This historical hotel not only provides all the comforts and amenities of a posh resort but has also been recognized as one of “The World’s Best Hotels For Families.” Located in Hot Springs, Va. among the towering Allegheny Mountains, the fall and winter months here provide breathtaking surroundings. Numerous activities, fantastic dining and luxurious rooms abound in this beautiful setting.

When not lounging in your elegant quarters, you’ll have the option of spending your time relaxing in a world-class spa, or venturing out to take advantage of amazing activities for “kids” of all ages. Athletic pursuits such as skeet shooting, horseback riding, archery, fly fishing and hiking are offered year-around, and the cold weather brings even more fun: skiing on a designated 45 acres, skating on the beautiful outdoor rink, and exhilarating snow tubing and snowmobile adventures on snowy banks are all available “just outside your door.”

As hard as it may be to accept that the holiday season is already upon us, The Homestead has packages that take away the typical stressors, providing all the comforts of home in their exquisite surroundings and through their exemplary staff. The Thanksgiving Package provides for amazing meals, afternoon tea, a plethora of outdoor activities and indoor spa and fitness options. Or, if you are looking for a place to spend Christmas or other December holidays, the hotel presents festive decorations, gourmet meals and special themed events (e.g. a holiday lights hayride and horse drawn carriage rides). Regardless of how much, or how little, you care to do while staying here, you can be promised a relaxing family getaway.

 

 

Las Vegas Opera

 

[This article was originally published in March 2010]

 

When gangster Bugsy Siegel opened the Flamingo in 1946, it was the first large-scale casino-hotel project on a quiet stretch of Nevada desert. Today, Las Vegas is anything but quiet, with massive casino-hotels stationed like giant soldiers on the world-famous Strip. While the cost of building the Flamingo skyrocketed to $6 million—an exorbitant amount of money at the time, especially considering war-time rationing—Siegel couldn’t have envisioned that another casino-hotel complex would one day eclipse the Flamingo in size and cost: The new CityCenter, Las Vegas could easily contain six of Siegel’s original Flamingos in its environs.

 

The 18-million-square-foot CityCenter boasts five hotels and residences as well as shopping and dining outlets and public spaces. Las Vegas has seen large-scale casino-hotels before, many with great dining and shopping options, but nothing of this magnitude. While CityCenter houses several different lodging choices, including the first Mandarin Oriental in the city, it’s the 61-story, 4,004-room ARIA Resort & Casino that has been generating the most buzz. But is it worth the praise?

 

ARIA is different from other hotels in Vegas. It doesn’t follow an artificial theme and the expansive lobby and casino floor is flooded with natural light as opposed to artificial fluorescent bulbs that can make your head ache after a few hours of gambling. Non-smokers will appreciate the hotel’s use of smell technology: vents emit a vanilla aroma so that even the casino floor, at which smoking is permitted, feels almost smoke free. The environmental and sustainability factors of the hotel—reflective rooftops, on-duty bicycle valets, personal in-room heating/cooling and lighting controls and farm-to-table restaurants—while not always visible to the human eye, give peace of mind, especially when one considers how much waste casino-hotels generate daily. CityCenter is the first hotel complex, retail district or residential development in Las Vegas to receive the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Gold certification and is the first new construction project of its size in the world to receive environmental certification of any kind.

 

The hotel’s modern and large rooms are decorated in earth tones and dark wood and feature keyless entries and blackout switches by the beds so that guests can retire for the night with one simple switch—a blessing when one considers the plethora of flashing neon signs along the Strip.

 

Aria Las Vegas Room

 

ARIA is also a culinary heavyweight with an array of fine dining choices, including Sage restaurant, which is currently in the running for the James Beard Foundation’s Best New Restaurant award. Thomas Keller recently dined there.

 

Sage at Aria Las Vegas

 

But the hotel lacks character. During the real-estate boom of the 1990s, Las Vegas saw an influx of themed hotels. While ARIA didn’t have to be kitschy like, say, the Excalibur or Paris, it would have been nice to include just a hint of cheese; this is Las Vegas after all. The Wynn, for example, does this subtly through its poolside cabana bar, which makes one feel as if he or she is on the French Riviera. The Palms Casino & Resort and Hard Rock Hotel & Casino also have a certain edge that clearly lends itself to bachelor and celeb parties. While it’s clear that ARIA never intended to go that route, as a result it seems to lack the “It” factor: It’s great that an eco-friendly resort of its size exists in such a decadent city, but it’s not a place at which you’d want to party. And that can be a problem in a town like Vegas.

 

Rural Americans may be a little put off by the modern feel and steeliness of ARIA. It’s a bit too chic and cold for the Strip and the usual out-of-towners that visit Vegas in droves hoping to strike it rich. Visitors arriving at the hotel entrance might be perplexed by the site of “Big Edge,” an outdoor sculpture by Nancy Rubins, which showcases reclaimed kayaks of various colors. While an interesting concept, it just seems a little random for Vegas. Most hotels in the city have wonderful views of the Strip or mountains. But at ARIA, you’re more likely to see a random parking lot or roof than a mountain sunset. For a hotel that has such an eco-friendly vibe, the views are too urban and unattractive.

 

In Vegas, much of the off-table action centers around the pool. ARIA’s are not very inviting; the space-age look makes them feel sterile, as if you’re visiting a movie producer’s home in the Hollywood Hills. It doesn’t get you in the mood to have a few drinks, do a little people watching and yes, party, which, quite honestly, is the reason most people visit Vegas.

 

CityCenter and ARIA were ambitious projects in a city known for short-lived gains and lost dreams. Whether they succeed and make a profit in an ever-changing, hard-luck world remains to be seen.

 

 

 

 

 

Phoenix Rising

 

New Orleans Has Risen From the Ashes of Hurricane Katrina Stronger and Better Than Ever

 

I stand inside the darkened confines of Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, wondering if the spirit of the dead—and dread—pirate lives on. It’s not hard to imagine the black-haired brigand serving up a mug of ill-gotten gains while threatening to blow off your head in the same breath. Some would shudder at the thought but I embrace it. This is New Orleans after all, a place long synonymous with vice and restless spirits.

 

Many consider New York to be America’s most vibrant city. While few can dispute the Big Apple’s unique energy, New Orleans is in many ways America’s cultural mecca. With a confluence of European, African and Caribbean flavors, New Orleans has a multi-dimensional appeal. Jazz, that most quintessential of American art forms, was invented here. Tennessee Williams penned and set “A Streetcar Named Desire” here. Avery Island, just miles from the center of the city, is the birthplace of Tabasco. Now, five years after Hurricane Katrina devastated many parts of the city, New Orleans has risen again, like the proverbial Phoenix.

 

New Orleans’ residents are resilient. They’ve survived numerous fires, floods and other disasters. Battered but not broken, many locals remained after Katrina hit, refusing to abandon their beloved city. While the 9th Ward is still an illustration of third world–style devastation—driving through the area is a solemn and heartbreaking occasion, especially when one considers the preposterous government response to the disaster—other neighborhoods fared much better.

 

Most first-time visitors to New Orleans venture only so far as the historic French Quarter. While the Veux Carré, as it was called during its heyday, is undoubtedly picturesque, with lattice wrought iron balconies and quaint European-styled homes, it would be a travesty to think that’s all New Orleans had to offer. Still, it’s a good starting point from which to explore the city. Stay one night in the French Quarter. Hotel options run from haunted manses such as the antebellum-style Le Pavilion on Canal Street and the ivy-covered Provincial Hotel on lovely Chartres to modern chains such as the exclusive Ritz Carlton Club, Maison Orleans and the 41-story Marriott. Each is unique—Le Pavilion is caught in a time warp, with silent hallways reminiscent of the hotel in The Shining; guests at the Provincial often feel as if they are staying at a friend’s historic mansion; rooms at the Maison Orleans resemble a luxe Parisian apartment and have the largest sunken tubs of any hotel in the city, and the Marriott affords amazing views of the city and the Mississippi River. If partying on Bourbon Street is a must, have a pint at Lafitte’s. America’s oldest bar, it’s at the edge of the Quarter but sans the neon signs and frat boys found further down the famous road.

 

Exploring the city is a must. From Canal Street, take the street car down St. Charles Avenue, or better yet walk, to the Garden District. The narrow streets of the French Quarter give way to wider, tree-lined boulevards replete with antebellum homes, coffee shops, trendy boutiques and po’ boy havens. You won’t find kitschy mask shops or bars hawking frozen hurricanes. It’s quieter than the Quarter but nonetheless just as pretty. Large hotels are replaced with smaller guest houses and beds and breakfasts. Relax at Sully Mansion Bed & Breakfast. It’s quaint and quiet, a welcome change from the hustle and bustle of the Quarter.

 

On the other side of the Quarter lies the Faubourg Marigny. Many of the city’s lower middle class inhabitants lived in the area’s charming bungalows. But Hurricane Katrina changed that. Houses were damaged and insurance prices skyrocketed, forcing these same inhabitants to abandon once affordable homes. The area has since become gentrified, with upwardly mobile young artists and professionals taking residence. Still, visitors will enjoy the bars and restaurants on trendy Freeman Street, which on New Years Eve was surprisingly devoid of the high entrance fees, pushy crowds and exorbitant drink prices found elsewhere. Try The Spotted Cat Music Club, DBA or Maison for music and local brews. Take a moment to stop and listen to the young street performers who hone their jazz skills on the curb. Where else can you encounter Grammy-caliber musicians for free?

 

Mardi Gras is just a month away, so now is the time to book a trip if you haven’t already. While the French Quarter embraces the sinful aspects of the  Lenten celebration, that’s not true for all of New Orleans. Depending upon the neighborhood, people of all ages can enjoy Mardi Gras. The Garden District hosts events for the entire family. And the Faubourg Marigny and Algiers, a growing suburb on the other side of the Mississippi, encourage a more traditional, toned down version of carnival. I told you it was multi-dimensional.

 

Shandana A. Durrani

 

HOTELS

 

Hotel Provincial

1024 Rue Chartres

New Orleans, L.A. 70116

504/581-4995

 

Le Pavillion Hotel

833 Poydras Street

New Orleans, L.A. 70112

504/581-3111

 

New Orleans Marriott

555 Canal Street

New Orleans, L.A. 70130

504/581-1000

 

The Ritz Carlton Club, Maison Orleans

Ritz Carlton New Orleans

921 Canal Street

New Orleans, L.A. 70112

504/524-1331

 

Sully Mansion Bed & Breafast

2631 Prytania Street

New Orleans, L.A. 70130

504/891-0457

 

BARS

 

DBA

618 Frenchman Street

New Orleans, L.A. 70116

504/942-3731

 

Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop

941 Bourbon Street

New Orleans, L.A. 70116

504/593-9761

 

The Maison

508 Frenchman Street

New Orleans, L.A. 70116

504/289-5648

 

The Spotted Cat Music Club

623 Frenchman Street

New Orleans, L.A. 70116

206/337-3273