Saturday, March 17, 2007

Nostalgic Rides

The Giant Dipper, a classic roller coaster in Sand Diego's Belmont Park, always delivers a great thrill, without the bone-crunching lurches and jerks of other similar coasters, less well-maintained. A local conservancy cares for this classic wood ride, which clatters and flexes happily, revealing views of the surrounding area from all the high points. No visit to San Diego is complete without a trip to this endorphin-producer from the golden age.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Car Service from Hell in London

Unsuspecting travelers are warned away from Keen Quality Car Service of London, who rip you off and do not value repeat business enough to reconcile a valid complaint.

Last November I booked a car to take me from the Battersea area to Waterloo Station. A black cab would have been approx £7 (around $14), but I chose to have a reliable vehicle and no waiting, prepared to spend double that amount for the convenience. Car arrived and driver took the long way across the north side of the Thames (on a Sunday morning), subjected me to an anti-American diatribe, and then insisted on a fare of £35. When I protested that a car to Luton Airport cost that much he said “OK, £30.” Scheduling was tight, I needed to get to my train. I paid the guy unwillingly, and as he left he said, “Give my regards to Bush.”

I complained directly several times to a number of people at Keen, and three months later a belligerent letter from Keen arrived refusing my claim, and standing by the conduct of the driver, who of course denied everything. This is not a car service to do business with, and clearly people who cannot fathom that the $30 overcharge is hardly the issue. It’s the driver’s conduct, the service aspect, the slow response, and a cheap price that could have been paid to exchange graciousness for loyalty. In this case, Keen has lost my confidence and friendship and I advise all my readers to avoid patronizing this company.

Great Small Inns of Andalucia

These reviews appeared in June 0f 2005, describing some superior, authentic lodging choices in Southern Spain. I still have wonderful memories of the roof terrace at Horno de Oro in Granada, and the true hospitality shown by the Lopez-Medina family. Consult the Inns of Spain web site for current pricing and availability.

All the following hotels can be booked directly through

La Cazalla

Tajo del Abanico

Apartado de Correos 160

29400 Ronda (Andalucia) Spain

34 952 114 175

Seclusion, quiet, isolation, beauty, comfort. If you are prepared to endure a 10-minute ride on a steep unpaved road into a pristine canyon only a stone’s throw from the center of Ronda, then La Cazalla may be the retreat for you. “The road is a handicap,” the owner says, but she is wrong. The road is a symbolic barrier between you and the everyday. For an oasis so near to the rich history of this legendary Spanish city, the discreet 5-room inn created by Maria Ruiz is the closest the intrepid traveler will come to 5-star ecotourism: no television, no phones, no children, surrounded by unspoiled landscape. Prepare to be gratified by natural delights, among them -in season- hawks who nest in the crevasses of sheer limestone walls, a profusion of wildflowers and native vegetation, and incomparable silence, broken only by the interruption of water burbling from fountains, waterfall and creek, in counterpoise to the call of birds, who flock to the sanctuary of a place where no hunting is permitted. The residence itself is constructed over the shell of a small house dating back to Roman times, but Maria has added two levels of gracious Andalucian comfort built into unfinished stone, preserving the natural contours of the gentle hillside. Each room has a view, modern-but-simple appointments in the traditional style, and a splendid bathroom featuring artisan-quality mosaic work rendered in the signature añil blue. A broad stone terrace overlooks an elegant pool area. Do not go in search of overbearing luxury. La Cazalla is a low-key retreat, best used as a staging base for day trips to the old city, or nature walks which the canyon easily provides. Maria’s son, Rodrigo, acts as chef, serving a breakfast of local fare in imaginative presentations. Dinner is charged separately, by special arrangement, but well worth the indulgence. Guests bring stacks of books to La Cazalla, and spend leisurely hours catching up on reading by poolside. Here you create your own activity, here you control your own pace. The absolute privacy and intimacy of La Cazalla offers travelers the very thing that Maria Ruiz sought: spiritual retirement. Rodrigo repeated the Spanish expression, “La vida son dos dias.” This would be the ideal place to spend your own two days. Highly recommended.

Hotel Jardin de la Muralla

C/. Espiritu Santo, 13

29400 Ronda (Malaga) Spain

34 952 87 27 64

One of the most charming and entertaining aspects of Jardin de la Muralla is the eccentric Jose Maria Orozco, who personifies the archetypal Spanish innkeeper one might encounter in the pages of Cervantes. Sr. Orozco’s gregarious, outgoing manner and happy outlook add an air of informality and playfulness to this beautifully converted 15th century home situated at the southern end of Ronda’s old quarter. The inn is a perfect starting point for walks among narrow streets, visits to quirky museums and shady plazas, and an easy stroll to the precipitous path into the gorge for a dramatic view of the Puente Nuevo. The hotel itself boasts unparalleled vistas of old city walls and the cathedral, which the property adjoins. A wonderful terraced private garden overlooks an expanse of hills and countryside. Gazebos, fruit trees, a splendor of flowers, gently sloping lawns, pergolas and a private swimming pool mean exclusive access to a verdant refuge, restricted to the use of the inn’s guests, who will never number more than 12 people. Because the garden does not face a highway or street, the ambient sounds of birds and rustling leaves may be your only companions. The inn is furnished traditionally, with unique objects both antique and contemporary, in a typical and comfortable hacienda style. Bathrooms are modern, tiled, spacious. A parlor with a grand piano sits just off the entry courtyard. The breakfast room is serenaded by canaries chirping, emanating from the kitchen, where Jalal, the agreeable majordomo, busies himself brewing strong coffee and baking signature cookies in the Moroccan style. Indeed, the innkeeper so loves animals that he has set aside one room for those traveling with a dog. This would be an ideal hotel booking for a party of 8-10, since it combines the comforts of home with the privacy of a secure compound, insulated from the intrusions of other travelers. One of the inn’s neighbors has a propensity for playing loud, rock music during the daylight hours, a reminder that the vagaries of the modern world have even reached this medieval city. The best night’s sleep can be had in “The Suite”, a wide room above the garden which encourages dreams of fanciful time-travel to a bygone era.

Hotel San Gabriel

Marques de Moctezuma, 19

E-29400 Ronda

34 952 190 392

This establishment has a lived-in feel, as if it were here forever, even though the doors first opened to guests in 1989. During the era when the old quarter of Ronda had fallen into disrepair, the 1736 structure was gutted by fire. Restoration took 7 years to complete, a labor of love by the Arnal Perez family. Hotel San Gabriel is operated in an easy-going and professional style by most accommodating staff. The hotel’s motto describes the ethos precisely, “Su casa en Ronda.” This property is perfect for the experienced traveler, delivering comfort, authenticity and great value, beautifully situated. A private part of the building is still in use as a family dwelling; the 16 rooms available feature traditional charm, with modern appointments, including an elevator. Antiques mingle with family pictures, and there is a tiny DVD theatre whose 6 plush seats were rescued from a vintage cinema nearby. The hotel has created a delectable breakfast featuring local specialties, tailored to the preferences of their guests: 2 home-made fruit jams (They might be peach, plum, quince, apple, or pear according to the season), a pimento tomato puree, queso fresco, local bread and butter, fresh-squeezed orange juice and rich thick coffee. You can also try a beguiling local honey. Room 15 has a floorplan straight out of Carmen, with sleeping loft, sitting area and bath all on different levels, a luxurious skylit tub, and storybook views from each window. A descendent of Ordoñez resides in that very room one day a year, for the fiesta at the Plaza de Toros.

Horno de Oro

6 Calle Horno de Oro

Albaicin, Granada

34 958 223 236

Without question my most memorable and traditional experiences in Andalucia occurred during a stay at Horno de Oro, owned and operated by the Lopez-Medina family. Exceptional and extraordinary in every way, I took advantage of the comfort and shelter of their private home nestled on a side street in the Albaicín district, which has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The home boasts an incomparable vantage point for viewing the Alhambra, a breathtaking perspective from the canyon below, best enjoyed while basking on the rooftop terrace, watching the light as it constantly changes on the fortifications above. It is about the family as much as it is about the house, and the fine art of hospitality. These kind people love their city, which they know intimately. They know it so well that in their company one witnesses the spirit and tempo by which life is truly lived in Granada, with its intoxicating history, its architectural legacy, and the legends that echo over the centuries from the narrow streets. Horno de Oro’s outstanding accommodation gracefully combines the historic and present day, through details like an original cistern dating back to the Romans, re-creations of classic Moorish tile motifs and rescued architectural elements from forgotten nineteenth century buildings, counterposed with modern Spanish painting. There is no elevator, but a climb up the wide wood staircase in the vaulted entry court proves a worthy expedition. Two upper floors contain 6 rooms and suites resplendent with tasteful décor and luxurious baths. Those who seek quality beyond the conventional hotel will find within these walls a parallel universe where the imagination freely wanders. This is a hidden gem, and not for everyone. Be prepared to surrender your presumptions of the modern world, and open your heart to a more classical lifestyle, one which values the pleasures of conversation, the joy of the table, the celebration of beauty, all taken at a slower and more navigable pace. Here one can rediscover the most elemental and sensory essences of existence. A remarkable place to reflect, a welcome destination, in a fantasy setting.

Casa de Federico

Horno Marina 13

18001 Granada

34 958 208 534

A find, certainly authentic, and a great value. This would be an ideal choice for the youthful savvy traveler, brave enough to stray from hotel chains and into a successful concept lodging built as a tribute to Federico Garcia Lorca. Here the Lopez-Medina family has restored an historic building near Catedral and the Mercado Marroqui, next to the proposed site of the new Lorca Museum, walking distance from Albayzin and Alhambra. Great décor, small rooms but utterly comfortable. Classy baths, every one with a different marble artisan sink. New, modern elevator, Wi-Fi enabled. Some rooms whose walls could not be fully restored were reinforced with exposed steel beams, to which amazing artisanal details of welded metal furnishings have been added. The hotel has two desirable rooftop rooms (14-15), the best deal for the money imaginable. Think: your own comfy nest above the old city, where you can see classical Granada from a platform in the sky. And then tomorrow morning there is the Moroccan breakfast…

Alcoba del Rey

Becquer, 9

41002 Sevilla, Spain

34 954 915 675

I count myself extremely lucky to have stayed at this converted Mujudar sultan’s palace during the first month it was open. One can get a feel for the direction a hotel is headed especially in its earliest days. Alcoba del Rey has a lot going for it, first and foremost the level of refinement and comfort it already demonstrates. You step into a dream of the Maghreb, with expanses of cool tile floors and rough mortar walls, mosaic details. A wide fragment of an antique cast plaster geometric relief loomed over my bed, faithfully restored. Every detail from furniture to tapestries to simple coathooks hails from Morocco. There is something languorous, sultry, and spare about the luxurious bathrooms with their double hammered metal sinks, blue-tiled bathtubs and Hermès orange-scented amenities. That is dangerous, nearly decadent. When I sat down for breakfast in the dining room, I found myself so comfortable I did not want to leave. It may have been the menu which began with café con leche served in a lovely ceramic cup, followed by fresh squeezed orange juice, accompanied by bread, olive oil, paté, orange marmalade, and butter flavored with lomo (a Sevillian specialty). It may have been the low-cushioned couches, the room painted in cool blues and whites with dark wood accents, the trickle of a fountain, or lilting flute music coming from a hidden corner. Yet all of Sevilla lay only outside the door, ready to be explored, and that was the dilemma, to stay or go. The hotel sits at the north end of the old city, literally next to the old Roman walls. I’d very much like to check in again on in this marvelous property, where every room has a story connected to a famous historical figure from the days of the Moors. The hotel doesn’t need to market itself so heavily; even with its small growing pains, the property stands beautifully on its own. Stay at this enchanting secret hideaway while you can, before the world discovers.

La Casa del Maestro

Almudena 5

41003 Sevilla, Spain

34 954 50 00 07

For those who seek to channel the ghost of a renowned guitarissta, La Casa del Maestro is decidedly the place. The owners have elegantly filled this historic residence of flamenco Niño Ricardo with fascinating memorabilia from his career, grouped around a skylit courtyard, with interior balconies overlooking a traditional entryway. Only 6 rooms. A small adjoining ground-floor space has high speed internet 24/7. Very comfortable lodgings with terrycloth robes, quality amenities, plus a beautiful bath to complete the package. The Casa’s location is optimal for walking the old city, which can be easily done after a typical Andalusian breakfast, included. A very attentive staff looked after every request with an easy familiarity. This house is a great introduction to the golden age of flamenco, and a marvelous command post for experiencing the city center. One small warning: light sleepers may experience a noise problem; the inn sits on a narrow street, and city life can carry through windows which are not soundproofed; additionally, footsteps and conversations travel well in the interior areas. An inside-facing room helps, but a pair of earplugs is a small concession to make for such a rich and amiable welcome at such an attractive price.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Appetizing News From Normandy

An insider tip for savvy culinary travelers, seeking privileged info on a superior luxury property in Normandy. This month Chateau d’Audrieu/Relais & Chateaux, situated in the Calvados country, begins a one-year relaunch, starting with a first-class upgrade to the property, and introducing special programs tailored for the extreme gustatory experience, all happening in a truly idyllic setting.

The €800,000 roof and façade restoration now under way at the historic chateau signals the commitment to a renewed vision. As a protected structure, any renovations must adhere to strict, authentic guidelines. The integrity of the property’s heritage will be preserved, and the ability to step back into the world of a 18th century chateau is assured. Deer still stroll across the fields, and owls hoot at night. The chateau’s rooms and suites –all individually different- provide comfort in the classical style, in blissful seclusion less than an hour and a half from important regional attractions, including Paris. Suite 43 with its black marble fireplace and ornate parquet floor could be the most romantic room in Normandy.

Perhaps the most significant fact is that the renovation will not intrude on the guest experience. The grounds remain quiet and deserted. The nearby woods allow meditative meandering. Soon the expansive flower gardens come into bloom, and you need drive only ten minutes away to stock in a few bottles of fine Calvados directly from the producers, a unique joy. In warmer months private sunbathing by the pool is a possibility.

No visit to d’Audrieu is complete without a visit to the chateau’s astounding restaurant, an absolute necessity. Chef Cyril Haberland has earned his Michelin star with highly refined treatments, rendered with ingredients he hand-picks daily from local vendors. A recent odyssey one morning included stops at the oyster farm, later a butcher in Bayeux, and one of the last authentic ‘biscuitiers’ making signature gallettes of the region. Haberland’s star is on the ascent, so now would be a good time to sample his table.

The hotel is set to announce new golf offers, musical programs, a weekend prix fixe menu, local art and history tours, an Omaha Beach package and custom promotions for events. This property is ideally suited for small retreat-type meetings, since the hotel sleeps only 50. That is part of its attractiveness, that one will never get lost among impersonal service or the teeming masses that throng to nearby places like Mont St. Michel. Think of this as an opportunity to de-stress and decompress in a pocket of history, where the food is authentic, time moves slowly and the people are still gracious and good.

Chateau d'Audrieu
14250 Audrieu (Calvados)
+33 02 31 80 21 52