Saturday, September 3, 2016

Casa Kimberly offers Old Hollywood glamour in Puerto Vallarta

Puerto Vallarta was a small Mexican fishing village until it became a Hollywood backdrop. When John Huston filmed The Night of the Iguana here in the sixties, big name stars such as Ava Gardner, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor came to stay, and the little village became a major tourist destination. Even now, despite the growth and the proliferation of holiday condos, PV retains the romance of the village it once was. In the heart of the old town, in the Zona Romantica, a visitor can find cobblestone streets, outdoor taco stands and busy local markets. And now there’s a new hotel that is an homage to passion and glamour: Casa Kimberly, an intimate nine-suite hotel built on the ruins of the house that Richard Burton bought as a birthday gift for Elizabeth Taylor.

Casa Kimberly, built atop the ruins of a house Richard Burton bought for Elizabeth Taylor, is a cross between old Hollywood glamour and sturdy Mexican comfort.
Casa Kimberly is snugged into the side of the mountain in the Zona Romantica, overlooking Our Lady of Guadeloupe Church and steps away from its sister property, the Hacienda San Angel. Guests can nip over to the San Angel for breakfast or a swim if they like. The hotel is a short walk from the beaches and the Malecon, where locals and visitors do their evening paseo. Nearby markets offer good shopping for local artisanal products, such as silver and turquoise jewellery and Mata Ortiz pottery.

The hotel's interior is stunning, with marble staircases and blue-and-white tiles.
Behind an anonymous exterior, the hotel is visually stunning, combining traditional Mexican design with antique oriental carpets and crystal chandeliers, a cross between old Hollywood glamour and sturdy Mexican comfort. There are marble staircases, blue-and-white tiles, and white carved statues of saints and putti in niches, and everywhere, echoes of Liz and Dick. I woke one morning to find a Hollywood star on the floor of my bedroom: Not the tipsy ghost of Richard Burton, but a sunny outline cast by the star-shaped window above the shower. An appropriate wake-up symbol as I was staying in the Velvet Suite, named after Liz’s role in National Velvet, where French doors open to a sun-washed terrace with views of the Sierre Madres, the terracotta roofs of the city and the blue water of Banderas Bay.

The Velvet Suite, named after Elizabeth Taylor's role in National Velvet, features French doors that open to a terrace with views of the Sierre Madres.
The largest and most opulent room is the Liz Taylor suite, occupying approximately the same space where Liz’s bedroom would have been. There’s a large sitting room/dressing room, with a heart-shaped tub like the one that Liz ordered – there was a breakdown in her communication and the tub is an anatomically correct heart shape, kind of Frida Khalo-like.

The Richard Burton suite.
In all the suites, white plaster walls, honey-coloured marble floors and gauzy drapes means there is little need to use the air conditioning. And the bridge that Burton built to discretely connect Liz’s casa to his – they were both married to other people at the time – is still there. It connects the main part of the hotel to the Richard Burton suite, two smaller suites, and the hotel pool.

The best time to eat at the hotel's Iguana Restaurant is at 6:30 p.m., when the sun is setting.
There’s a staggering choice of excellent places to eat in Puerto Vallarta, but it would be a shame to miss the hotel’s Iguana Restaurant. (Hint: Book a sunset table for 6:30 p.m.) I had a lobster taco that may have been one of the best things I have ever eaten in Mexico, a beet-and-tomato gazpacho with green-apple julienne, slow-simmered pork shank and, to finish, a silky chocolate mousse zinged with chilli. The wine list leans toward Mexican wines, which can be a gamble, but there are some good Chilean and Californian choices. There is also a tequila bar where guests can explore the intricacies of the country’s most famous tipple.

The bridge Richard Burton built to connect to Elizabeth Taylor’s casa now links the main hotel to the pool.
A selection of locally made chocolates by the bedside was both delicious and culturally appropriate, as chocolate has been popular in Mexico since the Aztecs.
I would have loved an espresso maker in the room. I’m an early riser, and ended up on the terrace at sunrise watching the light hit the roofs of the city. A good coffee would have been perfect.
Casa Kimberly, Calle Zaragoza 445, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, 9 suites from $589, includes breakfast.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

La Cité du Vin, Bordeaux, France, Opens Its Doors To the Wine Lovers of the World

It's Official! 

The World's First Wine Playground 

Opens to the Public 

June 1, 

in Bordeaux, France




La Cité du Vin is a brilliant new facility, opened officially by French President Hollande on May 31, and opened to the public on June 1. It is a museum, a wine bar, a wine-rich restaurant, a multi-sensory wine experience, and a totally immersive journey into the culture and history of wine, from Man's first sip of fermented liquid to the latest trends in winemaking, from all areas of the globe. It's ambitious in reach and completely and delightfully entertaining. whether you are a wine connoiseur or an infrequent sipper.

Situated on the left side of the Garonne River, in the Bacalan district of Bordeaux, this architecturally dramatic building is more than a shrine to wine. It is designed to be an immersive journey, an entertaining 'degustation' of wine history and its place in our culture. There are twenty two different modules, all interactive and controlled by hand held devices that give the visitor the ability to activate the many layers of sound, sight and even smell that each module can present.

 Open headsets, with output available in eight different languages, allow attention to the presentation, as well as permitting the wearer to still hear ambient conversation.
When I toured the facility, the workers were in countdown mode, almost done but finishing the last jobs to prepare for the French president's visit and the grand opening. And while all the details were not completely finished, it was obvious that this museum would not be a solemn or solely academic place of meditation on wine. Rather it is a living and energetic exploration, with opportunities to engage, to experiment, to taste and enjoy and, in the best way possible, to learn.

The restaurant on the seventh floor is a soothing and calm place to dine, with a rotating array of wine choices, and with one of the best views of the city of Bordeaux.

 The Belvedere, on the top floor, will be the place where visitors can choose a glass, from twenty different wines, that is included in their ticket price, and enjoy the wine while drinking in the 360 degree view of the city, the river  and the surrounding area.

There is also a wine bar and more casual eating area on the main floor, as well as a 60,000 bottle wine store and a centre where visitors can plan and book a tour of wine country. The terraces outside lead down to the river, and boats will take visitors on tours of wine chateaus that are close to the river.
The state of the art tasting rooms can be booked by groups, or individuals can join scheduled group tastings in one of the three tasting rooms. A library and reading room, the Thomas Jefferson Auditorium and an exhibition gallery are also part of the experience and will present wine culture from many angles.
If you love wine, are interested in the history of wine in world culture, or if you just enjoy a an entertaining culinary experience, La Cité du Vin is your kind of venue.

Entrance fees for La Cite du Vin are 20 euros pp, and include the hand helds and headsets, as well as one glass of wine in the Belvedere. Tickets can be booked in advance online.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Walk Through The Gardens With Royalty In Brussels, starting April 24.

The Royal Greenhouses at Laeken:

A Regal Spring Tonic in Brussels

Frank Lloyd Wright had a clear concept of how visitors should enter the spaces he had designed. He liked to keep the entrance hall low and dark and confined so that when you stepped out into the main room, the high ceiling space would come as a powerful perceptual shock, an enlargement that would cause the observer to stop and truly absorb the new space.
This has only tangentially to do with the travel experience I am going to tell you about, but it illustrates the way I came to it, and how it came to me.
I entered Brussels through a Frank Lloyd Wright hallway.
Arriving on the Eurostar after midnight, I walked through dark streets in a chilly rain. My hotel was a mere four blocks from the station, and I have an aversion to taxis - something about sitting in the back of a car being driven by a stranger has always creeped me out. So I was one of the only people on the rain slicked narrow street that led to the small square and my hotel, The Dominican. The lobby was dimly lit, the staff spoke in hushed tones and just on the periphery of sound was the somnolent chanting of monks. I was too preoccupied to take note.
The next morning I fussed about catching the right bus, changing to the correct line, and getting off at the designated stop. I shouldn't have worried. The driver remembered my fractured French request to notify me when to get off and most of the passengers were going to the same place. I grabbed my  camera, hugged my notebook to my chest and hurried after the crowd, intensely aware that my time was limited.
I stopped at the gilded gates to the Royal Gardens and that was the FLW moment. The surrounding neighbourhood fell away, and the rest of the crowd continued on through the gates, but I was halted in my tracks.

In front of me perfectly groomed lawns unrolled downhill, bordered by flowering trees. Under an immense blue sky, the glass cupolas of the greenhouses winked in the sun. Smells of damp earth, cut grass and camellias saturated the air. The transition from cramped and tight and dark, to large and open and light forced me to be totally present.
"Look,smell, touch, take this all in," a voice told me, " Be fully present in this moment." Maybe it was FLW, the engineer of such experiences whispering in my ear, or maybe it was Alphonse Balat, the architect who designed the greenhouses.

So perhaps the connection to FLW isn't so far off after all. The Royal Greenhouses of Laeken, in the north section of Brussels, which I was about to experience, were designed by the architect Balat, the mentor of Victor Horta, the Belgian architect who is considered the father of European Art Nouveau design.
The greenhouses were commissioned by Leopold 11- evidence that even bad men can do good things- in 1873 and were to be "palaces of glass." The eleven structures that Balat created are to this day the finest example of glass and iron architecture in the world. And these are not your garden variety greenhouses- the cupola of the Winter Garden greenhouse soars high enough to allow a jungle of fully grown palm trees to exist comfortably beneath its glass curves.  There are colonnaded walkways, shaded arcades, graceful staircases, sculptural figures and miles of flower-filled glass rooms.

Picture a mass of jungle ferns, densely packed and toned in more shades of green than one can count, walls of camellias so perfect that only their scent reveals their reality, ceilings hung with fuchsia, glass-ceilinged rooms lined from floor to ceiling with geraniums, cyclamen and lilies.

One surprise is the perfectly preserved studio where the Belgian Queen Elisabeth painted , with her easel, painting supplies, and a carefully placed chair next to a window with views of the exterior gardens.

These garden houses are royal delights, usually reserved only for the pleasure of Belgian royalty, but for about three weeks a year, the public is permitted to tour the fabulous flower- filled rooms. It's a sensual experience that is well worth a special trip, all the more precious because the window for experiencing it is open for such a short time.

A walk through the Laeken greenhouses is a garden experience that feeds something in the soul, and is particularly welcome after the winter most Canadians have just endured. Do this if you possibly can.
It's the real Spring tonic.

If You Go:

The Royal Greenhouses of Laeken are open to the public this year from April 24 To May 14. Admission is $3.40 CAD (€2.50). I would advise visiting early. I began my tour just as the gates opened at 9:30 in the morning, and the crowds were still light. By midday the place was very busy. Also consider a night visit, when the greenhouses are lighted and there's a whole different feel to the gardens. Tours are self guided, although there are some French language guided tours. There's no restaurant, but some small food outlets and a very limited gift shop. This is not a commercialized attraction, but rather a valuable but short-lived chance to see these fabulous greenhouses and gardens at their best. Directions of how to get to the Royal Greenhouses can be found on the website: Closed Mondays.

Where To Stay

The Dominican
Rue Léopold / Leopoldstraat 9
1000 Brussels, Belgium
This elegantly understated hotel, located in a former monastery, is a short walk from the main train station and within easy reach of buses that will take you anywhere you want to go in the city, including out to the Greenhouses. Rooms from $190 CAD ( €140)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Abu Dhabi – The Pearl Of The World


            The desert has always been the perfect backdrop for romance-  think Lawrence of Arabia, The English Patient, all the way back to Valentino’s 1921 movie, The Sheik, in which “a charming Arabian sheik becomes infatuated with an adventurous, modern-thinking Englishwoman and abducts her to his home in the Saharan desert”. 
So it is not surprising that Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte should run away to Abu Dhabi and the deserts of the United Arab Emirates when their New York lives threaten to become mundane, in 2010’s Sex in The City 2.  Its nickname is ‘the pearl of the world’.
While Dubai is the emirate that you hear most about, it is Abu Dhabi, with its more subdued profile, which became the nominative setting for the adventures of the Sex and the City girls. The capital of the emirate, also called Abu Dhabi, has wide boulevards, larger than life architecture and immense wealth.  And right on the doorstep of the city is the immensity of the desert. Perfect backdrop for a blockbuster movie. 

            It is a city that confounds categorization.  On one hand there are gleaming shopping centres, exclusive luxury hotels and expensive yachts anchored in the harbours.  This is a very wealthy city and it celebrates its abundance in daring architecture, like the Emirates Telecommunications Company (Etisalat) Building with its gigantic golf ball at the top or the pointy topped National Bank of Abu Dhabi building.  I saw cars parked casually in front of hotels that would make a car lover’s heart sing – and that you seldom see in the real world.  Shops team with gold jewellery, and perfumeries prepare personal blends of signature aromas for their customers.
            Abu Dhabi is also home to the seven star Emirates Palace Hotel, the most expensive hotel ever built.  It is a fairy tale hotel, with marble halls, gilded domes, and splashing fountains.  Suites open to balconies that look out on the Persian Gulf.  A private butler greets you with chilled champagne and hands over his card with his cell phone number, to be used “whenever there is a need.” Later in the evening, the bath has been drawn, with fresh rose petals sprinkled on the towels, and more petals beside the bed.  There are 114 domes, 1002 chandeliers, 13 restaurants, and a vending machine that dispenses gold. The ATM-style kiosk monitors the daily gold price and offers small bars up to 10 grams or coins with customized designs. It’s an experience tailor made for a Carrie Bradshaw.
            This is a hotel that is a destination in itself, outrageously luxurious, and imbued throughout with the romantic style of the Arabic world.

            But the ancient world lives on in Abu Dhabi.  There is much reverence for the Bedouin life style that existed in these parts up until oil became the driving force of the economy in the early sixties.  So you can see ancient dhows still plying the waterways.  In the souks, piles of dates, heaps of carpets, handicrafts and spices are offered in shops along narrow ally ways and at makeshift stalls and tables.  The Iranian Souk is one of the most authentic souks in Abu Dhabi, while the Al Meena Souk is the place to bargain for carpets. Go to the Madinat Zayed Gold Souk for good buys on jewellery.    In the fish market, local fishermen display their catch like artwork.
If you leave your window open, you’ll hear the muezzin echo through the city, calling its citizens to prayer, five times during the day.  In my hotel room, inside one of the drawers is a prayer rug and a compass.
There is a concerted effort to preserve the Arabic style in architecture, furnishings, and cuisine.  While almost any international cuisine is available, every corner has cafes and restaurants that offer the special foods of the Middle East.  A traditional meal will usually start with mezzeh, a selection of tasty appetizers, often including tabbouleh, hummus and falafel. Main courses include lamb infused with cardamom, saffron, turmeric and thyme, and the meal will end with desserts made from dates, pistachios, and honey, or muhalabiya, a milk pudding served with rose water and pistachios.   Before the meal, diners are welcomed with dates and small cups of ghawah, the fragrant and sweet Arabic coffee .And after the meal, there’s usually  a hookah or ‘shisha’ to help you relax.  This exotic water pipe bubbles smoke through water, and can be spiced up with flavours like lavender, vanilla, cherry, cinnamon, or orange.
The Anar Restaurant in the Emirates Palace Hotel does elegant Persian food, while the Abdel Wahab, near the Grand Mosque serves a simpler take on Emirati and Lebanese dishes.
While most restaurants, particularly those in the large hotels, serve alcohol, many will not serve alcoholic drinks before sundown during Ramadan, the month long Islamic holiday that requires fasting from sun-up to sun down.   This year Ramadan runs from early August to early September
            One of the surprising facts about Abu Dhabi is that less than 20 percent of the population are UAE.  The bulk of the population is made up of expatriates.  That means that the atmosphere of the city is more cosmopolitan and more liberal than one would expect in a predominantly Muslim country.  While it is good manners to respect the conservative mode of dress of the city, most forms of dress are seen on the streets with no problem.  Within hotels and resorts, there are no dress restrictions. 
One of the startling contrasts I witnesses was on the beach in front of the Rotana Hotel.  On a lounge chair, a woman relaxed in the shade, dressed in a black abaya that covered her completely from head to toe.  On the adjacent lounge, another woman sunned in a tiny bikini.  Neither one seemed to be bothered by the other.

            This is a city of beaches.  Abu Dhabi is actually a T-shaped island, connected by bridges to other islands and to the mainland.  There are over 400 kilometres of coastline.  The Corniche, the elegant walking path in the centre of the city, is a favourite place for walking, jogging or biking, and is lined with cafes and shops.  A white sand beach stretches for 2 kilometres along its length, and there are landscaped parks and picnic grounds.
            Day trips from the city into the desert give visitors the chance to experience the nomadic life of the Bedouins.  You can visit the large camel market at Al Ain, where white robed locals barter for the best camels, and you can see every size, from babies to full grown, of this ancient ‘ship of the desert’.  You can ride a camel through the dunes, sleep in a Bedouin tent and dine under the stars in an encampment. A popular activity is dune bashing, or wadi bashing, where practised drivers take you on hair-raising races through the desert, sliding down the sides of one dune and skidding up the next.  You can even surf the sand dunes, or play golf on sand links, with a portable circle of grass that you tee off from.
            If you tire of the sand, Al Ain, 150 kilometres from Abu Dhabi, is the ‘garden city of the Gulf’, an oasis in the sand and the home of the Royal family.  It is a much more rural city, with a National Museum, the Hili Archaeological Park and surprisingly, an Olympic sized ice skating rink.  me of the best scuba diving in the world is to be found in the clear waters of the Persian Gulf.
            This is one of the safest and most cosmopolitan cities in the UAE, and I felt very
comfortable here.  Most people speak English and there is a casual acceptance of western ways, while the life style and history of the desert region has been both preserved and celebrated. 
            Abu Dhabi is the perfect city to begin an exploration of the Middle East.

Travel Information
 The United Arab Emirates is a federation of seven Arab emirates, with Abu Dhabi being the largest, and the capital.  It also has the largest oil reserves.

Canadians do not require a visa to visit Abu Dhabi.
Etihad Airways has three direct flights a week from Toronto to Abu Dhabi.
Where to Stay:
General Information:

© Barbara Ramsay Orr

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Hague: The Widow of Indonesia

The Dutch Royal City

 The Hague is often called The Widow of Indonesia as many of the 
plantation owners and employees of the Dutch East India Company 
came from here and returned to here.  The exotic flavours they brought back 
show up in almost evey corner of this elegant Dutch city.

Morning sun streams in through large windows, bouncing off white linen and silver, and making the red velvet chairs glow. In one corner, men in conservative business suits and crisp white shirts sit drinking their morning coffee and consulting their iPhones. 
It’s eight am on Monday morning in the Hotel des Indes, the favoured headquarters for lawyers, politicians and diplomats who conduct business in The Hague.  And since this is the Royal City, home of the World Court and the Dutch parliament, there is much serious business to be done.
There’s a problem, though.
Step outside the revolving brass doors of Hotel des Indes, and you face the seductive charms of the Lange Voorhout.  A corridor of green linden trees, a famous bi-weekly outdoor antique market, little secret gardens, and casual sidewalk cafes make thinking about business difficult.
Welcome to the vibrant dichotomy that is The Hague, a city that has been labelled the greenest city in Northern Europe as well as the world centre for peace and justice.   Its decisions affect the whole world, and its Indonesian rijstaffel is world famous.
Somehow these competing elements manage to strike a balance – the serious business of world issues and governance finds a comfortable fit with the not so serious business of enjoying the simpler pleasures of life – dining, shopping, lounging in the sun and people watching, in this, one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities.

First you have the unexpected juxtaposition of buildings in the old city.  The elegant town houses and embassies that line the Lange Voorhout as it parades up to the 13th century Binnenhof, the buildings that house the Dutch parliament, could be illustrations in a textbook of classical architecture. 
But raise your eyes above the Binnenhof and you’ll see the modern skyline, where tall skyscrapers are multiplying.  It doesn’t feel like a disconnect, however.  There are traditional canal house design elements suggested in several shapes.  In typical Dutch fashion, the locals have given each building a nickname – the pristine white city hall designed by Richard Meier is called “The Candy Box”, the green domed one is labelled “The Citron Press” and  Michael Graves’ Castalia, the new Ministry of Health building, is deemed “The Tits of Den Haag”  because of its two distinctive pointed towers.
But there are more layers to the architectural landscape of the city. The Hague is the Art Nouveau capital of the Netherlands. Remember to look up often as you walk through the streets of Den Haag to see the architectural details that have been preserved above shops and cafes.

Walk away from the Binnenhof and find the Denneweg, then turn right along Jagerstraat and left onto Smidwater.  Here you’ll find #26, a faithful example of Art Nouveau architecture that is privately owned and in the process of being restored to its former glory.  The mail slot is a very cool stylized cat.
In contrast, just across the canal is #16 Nieuwe Uitleg, where the exotic dancer and suspected spy Mata Hari lived.
The Bijenkorf Department Store in the Grote Markt area is a fine example of The Amsterdam School of architecture. 
Radiating out from this sedate city heart are streets that bend and twist, opening onto ‘pleins’, or squares, offering seductive shopping and cafes that lure you to linger for a coffee and a stroopwaffel, the thin waffle cookie with a thick syrup in the middle that the Dutch make so well.  
The shopping is good. Along Hoogestraat you’ll find Ogen, Eduard Pelger, Dunklemens (famous for its croquettes), all up market Dutch shops.  If remarkable undergarments interest you, be sure to visit Marlies Dekkers’ shop on the Denneweg to pick up a unique and provocative ‘little nothing’. Amble by the interesting shops in the grand glass roofed Passage, or swan around in the cafes and sops in the new Haagshe Bluf (The Hague Boast!).
The Nooreinde is acknowledged to be the most fashionable shopping street. The Maison de Bonneterie is an upscale department store that is frequented by Queen Beatrix.  Pauw, Purdey and Hoogeweegen Rouwers are rumoured to be favourite shops of the young Dutch royals.  Gallery Arte Fortunata features artist Bas Meeuws whose photographs of floral still life, epoxy-sealed on metal, are an homage to the golden age masterpieces of Bosschart and  van Aelst.
And further along, on the Paleis promenade, cheek by jowl with the shops and galleries, is the Paleis Noordeinde, Queen Beatrix’s working palace.  It is not open to the public, but you can walk through the restful palace gardens on the opposite side. 
Farther out from the centre in the well treed neighbourhoods that are home to many ambassadors, there’s the imposing bulk of the Peace Palace, home of the International Court of Justice.

If it wasn’t already difficult to concentrate on work in this lively metropolis, there is the added allure of the beach. A fifteen minute tram ride brings you to a whole new face of The Hague.  The beach culture at Scheveningen lures city dwellers out to swim in the North Sea, walk the miles of white beaches and gentle dunes or to lounge in the sun on plump sofas with a glass of cold beer in one of the many clubs along the boardwalk.  The candy-confection Kurhaus Hotel sits like a Victorian lady in the middle of the boardwalk busyness.  There are evening fireworks shows over the pier all summer.


Another compelling distraction is the museums of The Hague, the city’s real treasures.  The Mauritshaus, labelled the most beautiful museum in the world by the New York Times, is hands down my favourite museum.  The building has just re-opened after extensive renovations.  It is a small museum, but its collection, displayed in high ceilinged rooms painted in jewelbox colours, is spectacular. It contains some of the most famous works from the old Dutch Masters, including Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and View of Delft, Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp  and Carel Fabritius’ Goldfinch

The Escher Museum, housed in a former palace on the Lange Voorhout, the Museum Het Paleis, displays the convoluted works of the famous Dutch Graphic artist.
The Gemeentemuseum (Municipal Museum) specializes in classical modern art, Van Gogh, Kandinsky, Monet, Sisley, Degas, Bacon and a large collection of Mondrians. The building was designed by Hendrik Berlage, a Dutch architect who pioneered modern archtiecure.
A visit to Panorama Mesdag, the oldest 19th-century panorama in the world that's still in its original site, is like a journey to the past.  It is a cylindrical painting from 1881, created by Hendrik Willem Mesdag of The Hague School.  It shows a vista of the sea and the dunes at Scheveningen.
These are all special museums, beguiling to any art lover, and they add a cultured edge to the city.
There’s plenty of inducements to linger over dinner. You can dine here very well.  The Hague is often called The Widow of Indonesia as many of the plantation owners and employees of the Dutch East India Company came from here and returned to here.
Garoeda is one of many Indonesian restaurants specializing in the Rijstaffel, or Rice Table, a dizzying collection of dishes served on a bed of rice.
“The rijstaffel is more Dutch than Indonesian in style,” says my guide Remco. “We don’t like to waste anything, so the ladies who ran households on plantations wouldn’t throw out the leftovers.  Instead they had them served in a collection, with rice, at the end of the week.”  Now it’s a culinary tour de force of Indonesian specialties, but it was originally the result of Dutch parsimony. 
Reflecting the multicultural nature of its people, The Hague has many international restaurants.  Wox is a new Japanese fusion restaurant near the Hojviver, the pond that surrounds the parliament.  You can watch Dutch parliamentarians coming and going from its windows.
Saur is one of the best fish restaurants in the city, while Taste is a wine bar with an outdoor patio that looks out to the hojviver and the Mauritsthaus. T’Ogenblik is a sweet café that was recently voted the restaurant with the best service in the Netherlands.
Cafes like It’s Raining Fishes and Pulchri have hidden garden patios for a quiet meal and there are quaint prooflocals like Djuiden on …  to enjoy a chilled jenever, the Dutch style gin, at the end of an evening.
Be sure to stop at the Pizza Hut at the Noordeinde 140, not for the pizza but to look at the interior.  The building dates from 1707, and the ceiling decoration and fireplace are original. 
And when work get too oppressive, locals can slip away to sit in one of the 100 or so hidden hofjes, enclosed garden residences originally built as almshouses to house the elderly poor, but now lovely secluded garden apartments.
It may be difficult to stay focused on work in The Hague, but it is very easy to enjoy the pleasures of this worldly city. 

Getting There: Air Transat, Air Canada, fly regularly to Schiphol Airport.  Catch the train out of the airport and you will be in The Hague in about forty minutes.  There are frequent trains each hour.
Getting Around:  This is an easily walkable city but there is also a convenient network of trams that will take you all through the city and out to the Dunes.
Where to Stay
Hotel Des Indes
Lange Voorhout 54-56

Monday, September 8, 2014

Ireland, Green and Grand

Castles, Gardens and Rugged Coastline – Ireland’s Awesome Beauty

I have become a believer in the ‘luck of the Irish’. On a recent tour of the southwest of that green island, I lost a twenty euro bill, and found it stuck inside my touring map. A random choice of pubs for lunch in Glengarriff resulted in the best seafood chowder I have ever enjoyed, and, against all odds, I snapped a photo of an Irish castle that will forever be my tangible memory of Ireland.
I had been trying to get a good photograph of historic Dromoland Castle but every time I reached for my camera, the sun disappeared and it would begin to rain.  Not rain exactly, more like a light mist, what the Irish call ‘soft’ weather.
So I had little hope as I headed out in the fog to tour the grounds. An hour later, returning to the castle via a curving path that wound around the famous golf course on the property, I emerged from the trees at the exact moment that the sky cleared and the sun lit up the castle. The light lasted only long enough for me to take a few pictures, before the clouds descended again.  I felt I had been in the right place at the right moment – Irish luck.
Even in the mist, Dromoland Castle Hotel is dramatic.
This five star property is a short 12 k from Shannon Airport and the perfect place to unwind after a long flight.  It’s also an ideal starting point for a driving tour of the southwest of Ireland.
Driving the Irish roads is less intimidating than it used to be – many roads have been widened, and there are modern multi-lane highways that can get you where you want to go quickly and easily. 
But in Ireland, getting there is not the point, and the Ireland you want to experience won’t be found along the freeways. You need to take the winding roads that lead you along the coastline, through the mountains, and into the villages where pubs lure you into stopping for a pint or two and lush gardens seduce you into long walks.
On a drive along the Irish coast this Spring, from Shannon to Cork City, I followed the quieter roads.  With minimal planning and some Irish luck, these roads took me to seaside towns that each possessed a character and a story.
Knightstown, on Valentia Island, partway along the Ring of Kerry, is a tidy little village that borders the harbour.  This is a summer holiday place, with water sports, fishing and boating.  It is best known as the place where the Transatlantic Cable was completed.

You can take the ferry from Knightstown to the Skellig Islands, with Skellig Michael the most captivating. Rocky and forbidding, this jagged island was home at one time to a group of ascetic monks who craved the isolation and austerity that the islands promised, for their spiritual health. The remains of their monastery, abandoned in the 12th century, are a compelling and sobering vision of the monastic life that would once have been lived here, but the climb up rocky steps can be challenging, and the trip out to the islands can only be made in good weather.  The island is a Unesco World Heritage site.  
After an island adventure, The Moorings in Portmagee is the place to warm up by the fire.  You can spend the night in a room with a harbour view, enjoy great seafood and maybe spend a few hours in the Bridge Bar with a glass or two of Guiness,listening to the locals make music. You could even join in, if you know a song or can carry a tune.

Waterville is a small town further along the coast that boasts one of the best golf courses in the country, - Tiger Woods comes here to golf and fish, silent film star Charlie Chaplin lived here for years, Barrack Obama has visited and Richard Nixon hid out in Waterville House after his disgrace.
“Seventeen U.S. presidents have roots in Ireland,” my Irish friend, Byron, tells me.
Kenmare is a serene town comprised of quiet streets lined with colourful shops and cottages.  There is a stone circle and a haunting fairy tree, under which unbaptised babies were traditionally buried in the past.  Visitors still leave little tokens tied to the trees for luck, and to appease the fairies.
“Be careful to speak quietly when you are near the tree – the fairies don’t like to be disturbed, and they are notoriously dangerous when they aren’t happy,” Byron warns me.
In the centre of town is the Park Hotel Kenmare, whose grounds are a gardener’s delight, with green sloping lawns leading down to the bay and paths lined with rhododendron and azalea.
For an inland diversion, head out from Kenmare through Moll’s Gap to Killarney National Park, where you can boat along the lakes and hike the McGillycuddy’s Reeks, or take a jaunting car through the Gap of Dunloe.

East along the coast from Kenmare is Baltimore, where the town’s castle is worth a tour, to hear the story of Barbary pirates who raided the village in 1631. If you take the local ferry out to Sherkin Island , you can tour the ruins of a Franciscan abbey, walk the island or visit one of the two pubs.
In Bantry Bay, in the sheltered harbour of Glengarriff, you’ll find Garinish Island which is home to a subtropical garden property.  The gardens were designed by Harold Peto and are lushly beautiful in every season.  When I visited in Spring, the rhodos and azaleas were in full bloom.
A few miles from the coast, in the country near Skibbereen, is Liss Ard, another hotel gem with famous gardens. This estate, a remarkable mash-up of classic country house design and contemporary aesthetics, is known for its extensive gardens that occupy 150 acres around the hotel. The centrepiece of the gardens is James Turrell’s Sky Garden Crater, a green experience that is both memorable and almost surreal. If you descend the crater and lie on your back on the stone plinth in the centre, your view of the sky and the grassy bowl of the crater’s sides is otherworldly, especially at dawn or dusk.

I stopped in Kinsale to visit the wine museum in Desmond Castle and to sample the seafood and then headed for Shannagarry and Ballymaloe House.
This lovely property near the end of my drive is a quiet retreat, a country manor that feels like home - or how home would feel if mommy were Lady Ballymaloe. 

Each room in the hotel is different and unpretentiously comfortable.  I’m in the Flower Room, with a view of the walled garden. The big draw at Ballymaloe is the dining room, reknown for its cuisine and for its dedication to local products and producers.  The hotel is run by Allen family.  Just down the road is the Ballymaloe Cookery School, run by more Allens, cookbook author and chef Darina and her daughter Rachel. You can take cooking classes, walk in the extensive grounds, enjoy peaceful hikes to the coastal cliffs or plan a visit to the Jameson Distillery for a whisky tasting.
For a change of pace, spend a day or two in Cork, a bustling and prosperous city with its well known English Farmers Market.  The Hayfield Manor Hotel is a serene pocket of gardens and sophistication in the middle of the city, situated next to the university where guests are welcome to walk through the quadrangle and enjoy the campus. 

Blarney Castle and the Titanic Museum are nearby.
And with a bit of Irish luck, you will come back again.

If You Go
While you could depend on Irish luck to help you find your way, the Irish Tourist Board has excellent maps and driving routes, complete with not-to-be-missed highlights, dining suggestions and available accommodation choices. Visit for more information.