Archive | January, 2012

Gems of The Adriatic

29 Jan

It’s been a years since my return from the Dalmatian Coast–and still, even now, I continually reminisce about our time there. And who can blame me–if you’ve been, I’m sure you can certainly relate. And if you haven’t, you needn’t waste any more time –plot out your itinerary—and head out to the Adriatic coast.

Sure, throngs of vacationers who’ve ventured out to the Italy, France or Spain’s Mediterranean coasts boast about such popular beauties as the Amalfi Coast and, the Greek and Balearic Islands, for instance-all stunners in their own right—but I would certainly argue that the Dalmatian Coast has certainly earned its place in the realm of the aforementioned destinations as well.

Croatia is no doubt the most popular–and has actually become a pretty trendy spot for those seeking an alternative to Italy, for instance. Dubrovnik, a major hub along the coastline-in southern Dalmatia, is impressive and boasts an expansive wall – which is in fact reminiscent of the Great Wall – and has a circumference of  1+ miles.

To get the best views of the city and the rich, deep aqua of the Adriatic, right after your meal of the day’s catch (as you can imagine, seafood is big in these parts—and, oh is it delicious)–or after indulging in one or several of the irresistible gelato flavors at the ubiquitous stands that you cannot miss, ascend to the top of the walls and take a leisurely stroll around it–walking off your newly deposited calories. Take your camera along for the trek as it’s indeed quite picturesque–priceless. And then, right before sunset, grab a sit and a beverage at Cafe Buza, a couple cafés alongside Dubrovnik’s old town walls, right on the sea’s edge, and watch the sun go down – you’ll be taken by the immaculate view—and perhaps Frank Sinatra serenading in the background.

For me though, the region’s true gem is further down south—the town of Budva, in the neighboring country of Montenegro. It’s not terribly straightforward to get to–you typically have to drive and meander through two-lane streets, connect to car ferry (Budva has no major airport that I know of), and deal with a motorway that can sometimes come to a snail’s crawl due to heavy traffic.

But as you approach Budva, whatever you had to endure in your travels to get there—you would agree that it’d been well worth it. As you enter the city, Budva’s rolling expansive hills (truly some of the most impressive I’ve seen) greet you—and it’ll be all you can do to focus on the wheel.  Though the city’s been through challenges due to its turbulent history, today, it’s a vibrant town of just over a mere 15K residents, so you truly feel secluded in your own little oasis when you’re there. Plus, it’s said to have one of the best climates of the Mediterranean (over 2.7K sun hours a year), so visiting off-peak is still quite pleasurable and the many beaches still warm enough to swim in.

When you aren’t about, strolling through the old town and taking in the sights there, venture out to nearby Sveti Stefan (or St. Stephen)– a former  island now connected to the mainland and transformed into a luxurious resort. Hey, you might even glimpse a celebrity or two. Many have been said to vacation there—including sexy siren of the silver screen, Sophia Lauren.  Neighboring Kotor is also worth a visit, for variety. But trust me, you’d be yearning (as we were) to get back to the serenity of Budva.

Seafood, not surprisingly, is a big staple in the cuisine of the region. You can often get this with scrumptious sides likerisotto (get the one with the squid’s ink), boiled and delicately seasoned potatoes, and seasonal greens. If seafood isn’t your thing, fear not, due to its rich and diverse heritage—and having once been under Italy’s rule, you can find some tasty pizza and pasta choices—as an alternative.

Hotel Astoria is brilliant choice for where you spend your time while in Budva. First of all, it’s conveniently located within the walls of the old town (at time of our visit the only one to boast this location), it has a roof deck with stunning views of the city, and the staff could not be any friendly. If you’re fortunate enough to be attended to by the cheery young lady (her name now escapes me) at the front desk, you’re in for a treat. She’s very helpful and jovial and will keep you laughing your entire stay—plus she’s pretty fluent in English—as is the case for most of the staff.

So, if you’re looking for something different, exciting and relaxing, consider Montenegro on your next trip across the Atlantic. You’d be happy you did

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Seductive Siam via Cathay

22 Jan

Original Post Date: April 2010

Indeed it was a matter of time before I made my jaunt to the Far East. Asia, from what I’d read and seen, has always been fascinating to me. I knew eventually (being the travel enthusiast and one with a healthy serving of curiosity) I’d make my way over to the continent that’s arguably becoming a force to be reckoned with and on the superhighway to shaping our collective futures. Timing of course is everything and 2010 just seemed like the year.

Hong Kong was first up on my journey—sort of my gateway city to Thailand. Cathay Pacific runs a direct route from New York-JFK and takes about 16 straight hours to make it across on their retrofitted stretch 777-300ER (ER for extended range). Transfers into town are pretty easy and convenient – just about 25 mins via the Airport Express train to Central (the terminus in the center of Hong Kong) or via shuttle service offered by most hotel chains (kiosks easily spotted in the main arrivals hall.) From Central, there are easy connections to Hong Kong’s subway system, the MTR.

As with any major metropolis, accommodations are plentiful here and run the gamut from budget to ultra luxury. Most of the usual suspects, in terms of luxury chains (Mandarin Oriental, InterContinetal, The Peninsula, W) all line the harbor on both sides of bay. World famed The Peninsula Hong Kong (the original, built in 1928) on the Kowloon side is a must see—even if you’re not staying there. Drop by for afternoon tea or dinner and/or cocktails at one of the hotel’s trendy spots, Felix (the view of Hong Kong Island is worth it), or check out Sky Lounge at the Sheraton Hotel and Towers on close by Nathan Rd—views of Victoria Harbor are also spectacular here as well. For a less pricey, decent alternative, check out Eaton Hotel–part of the Langham group of hotels further afield in Kowloon on Nathan Rd. (see my TripAdvisor Review), or something trendy yet not overly pricey, spanking new (as at the time of this writing) Mira Hong Kong* which is part of the Preferred Hotels Group, also in Kowloon.

When in Hong Kong, in addition to taking in the popular sights—Bank of China, HSBC Headquarters, The Peak, Big Buddha, sampling local Chinese fare and if you’re lucky, catching a street Opera performance, meandering through very exciting street market stalls is recommended. One such place not to miss is Temple St Night Market in Kowloon. The shops go on — and on. And the merchandise pretty varied. Plus for the adventurous foodies, you can find some of the best local cuisine served by the restaurants that dot the market here.

Next up: Thailand—were most of my time would be spent—as planned. The flight from Hong Kong to Bangkok, Thailand’s current capital and its financial and cultural hub, is just a tad over 2.5 hrs or so, so not a terribly long journey. Having the big tourist draw it does, Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi (pronounced Si-wa-na-phoom) airport is serviced by most carriers in the region, including very popular low-cost carriers, Air Asia and Bangkok Airways. Thai Airways (for United Mileage Plus or Star Alliance members) or Cathay Pacific (AAdvantage or One World members) also have comparable and wider flight selections to Bangkok from Hong Kong as well. Suvarnabhumi airport is approximately 45 minutes outside the center of Bangkok by taxi and costs approximately 550 Thai Bath (roughly $18)**. At the time of this blog entry, there’s no train service connecting the city and the airport yet though I understand they’ve begun to lay the initial groundwork to extend rail lines out to the airport, so this could very well change in the near future. Taxis are metered but some unscrupulous drivers may want to talk you into a flat rate off the meter. If it’s over the amount listed above, you may be wise to bargain down or opt for another driver. (Update: the Suvarnabhumi Airport – Bangkok Rail Link is now open.)

Anything truly goes in Bangkok – believe everything you’ve heard. It’s no wonder this city, in fact, nation, is such a tourist draw. The city has some of the most energetic neighborhoods of anywhere in the region and having ‘fun’ here (however interpreted), is the name of the game. Plus, Thais are just such mild-mannered and humble people that having an otherwise unsatisfying time is hardly heard of. It may be important to note here that if you’re one who gets easily aggravated by the weather (the summer months are very hot and humid and rainy season, wet, as I understand it), plan your journey carefully avoiding these periods of extremes. Also, out and about, if you’d rather be ‘left alone’; this may not be the city for you. Thais, in addition to their open, welcoming, friendly nature, are also not afraid to approach you, if you can benefit from their services.

Downtown Bangkok pulsates with activity 24/7. Some of the notable neighborhoods here are Silom, Sukhumvit and Siam Square. In Silom for instance, you can find one of the city’s most popular night markets, Patpong. Lining the area are all sorts of eateries, massage parlors, and visually (or otherwise) stimulating bars and clubs – remember, anything goes here. Also down the road, on Surawong, on the opposite side is ‘boys town’. Chicagoans or those perhaps familiar with the neighborhood in the Windy City might be able to surmise what this is all about. Though, you’ll notice that the Chicago version is certainly a lot tamer.

It is true that you can get full body massages in Thailand at a fraction of the cost you’d pay back home—so certainly take advantage of it. Thai massage of (usually deep strokes with no oil) is of course very popular but most massage parlors offer other types that you may be more familiar with. In Bangkok for instance, massage parlors are just as ubiquitous as say Starbucks, for instance, so finding locations and willing masseurs/masseuses wouldn’t be a problem. I do recommend perhaps asking your hotel concierge for suggestions, so that you don’t find yourself in an awkward position with an overly aggressive masseur/masseuse. Some of these parlors can sometimes be fronts for prostitution.

In Bangkok, accommodation is plentiful and very affordable for everyone’s price range. From simple hostel-like B&Bs to high-end luxury establishments, there’s something for all. Le Meridien (see my TripAdvisor Review) is an excellent choice. It’s centrally located (in Silom) and offers first class 5-star service. Other notable ones are Mandarin Oriental and Aspen Suites (for range and variety).

If time permits, it’s a good idea to chart northern Thailand on your itinerary. Chiang Mai has become pretty popular lately and nearby Sukhothai (the kingdom’s first capital) has a lot to see as well. If you’re a little short on time, Ayutthaya in the Central Plains is a must. It’s a short trip from Bangkok and certainly worth it. Ayutthaya was Thailand’s second capital following Sukhothai, of course, before being sacked by the Burmese in the 1700s. Top agenda items while in Ayutthaya should include Wat Mahathat and Bang Pa-In Palace. The former is a temple ruin dating back to the 1300s that’s been declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco. Don’t miss the Buddha head lodged in a tree trunk. The latter used to be summer palace of the King Prasat Thong in the 1600s. Don’t miss the immaculately kept lawns and shrubbery in the shape of elephants. Also check out the Chinese mansion.

Thailand is known the world over for its stunning beaches and Koh Phuket on the Andaman Sea is an extremely popular destination for this reason. The area has come a long way from the Tsunami devastation of 2004 and with best efforts, rebounded from the destruction and unfortunate loss. While you’re in Thailand, you may as well check it out—even if you’re not a beach sorta person. Patong is by far the most popular of the beaches in Phuket but can get pretty crowded and loud. If you want something less boisterous, nearby Surin is good option (just about 10 mins via taxi or Tuk Tuk). As usual there’s a variety of accommodation options here and finding suitable lodging is pretty easy. Twin Palms (luxury), Manathai and Courtyard by Marriot (mid-range) are all good choices in Surin Beach.

Having visited, I can see why this nation is at the top of most people’s lists of places they’d like to see. It’s everything you’ve dreamed of and more—I can attest to this as it was a little sad to leave. The comforting feeling is that it’ll always be there. For those of you on the brink—do it, you’ll be glad you did.

*Now open

** At the time of this writing

Review: W Doha Hotel and Residences

17 Jan

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Amid glitzy skyscrapers that now form Doha’s impressive skyline, in the West Bay Diplomatic District, is where you’ll find W’s relatively new addition, W Doha Hotel and Residences. Being centrally located, it is within comfortable walking distance of most attractions in the area such as City Centre – Doha, The Gate (a recently opened luxury shopping center), and picturesque Al Corniche (footpath along Doha’s bay). Fittingly so, UK-based Designers of the mixed-use property, United Designers, spared no creative expression in ensuring that W’s vision was brought to life architecturally. It is a delight to behold – ultramodern and cleverly engineered.

Getting to the W is a breeze from Doha International Airport. It is approx. 15 mins by taxi and these can be found right outside Arrivals. There’s a W kiosk at the airport should you need assistance arranging transportation but grabbing a taxi should be fairly easy. It’ll run you around 50 QAR (roughly 15 USD).

From the moment you arrive, you’re made to feel very welcome. As is expected with this caliber of hotel, Bellhops immediately greet you and attend to your belongings while the charming host whisks you off to check-in. This all coordinated effortlessly with big smiles and tons of personality.

Rooms are very spacious; even the standard Spectacular room packs a punch. They’re designed in sort of a luxury boudoir like fashion, are pearl-shaped, have very comfy double beds (very adequate for two), a small sitting area, desk/workstation, electric kettle, Nespresso machine (…a collective sigh for you coffee lovers), iPod docking station, AM/FM radio and Samsung flat panel TVs with a mixture of area channels and your standard news stations: CNN, BBC, etc. Internet (Wi-Fi and wired) is also available at an extra charge but you can log on to the Free network in the W Living Room or most public areas.

Bathrooms are very roomy, too, with both showers (rain as well as self-controlled nozzles), and bathtubs, if you’d rather pamper yourself with a bubble. The standard Bliss toiletries are present as well as plentiful as are bathrobes and slippers.

You can literally spend days here–in the hotel–as it’s sort of a little community on its own. Located on the premises are 5 restaurants/lounges: 2 signature ones by Jean-Georges, Spice Market (New York, London, Atlanta), Market (Boston, Vancouver, Atlanta), W Cafe, Bliss Spa, Sweat (gym), Wet (pool), a ladies salon, CUT by Alexandre Zouari, and a whole host of other amenities.

With all the necessities and extras, plus the great service and prime location, look no further for accommodation while in Doha.

Hotel Review: Athens Gate Hotel

14 Jan

I simply loved this hotel. For starters you’d be hard pressed to find another, at the same value, in such a perfect location. The Temple of Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch sit right opposite; while the magnificent Acropolis is to the rear, a comfortable walking distance away.

On this particular visit, service was pretty fast and friendly, with welcome refreshments served while my details were being taken. I’d booked a standard, economy room, but was instantly upgraded the next level up–a gesture that was certainly very much appreciated. A bar exists in the lobby area as well as a couple computer stations for complimentary use, should you need to Facebook status update or send that all important tweet.

My room was pretty spacious and clean and, I found the in-room amenities adequate — bed comfortable, bathroom neat with all the necessities, and in-room safe handy. It also had a flat panel TV with local area channels and standard international news offerings. The honeymoon suite (which my friends happen to be staying in) had a terrace with clear unobstructed views of the Temple of Zeus and Acropolis to the side.

Breakfast came included with my reservation (which I believe is standard across the board) and was served at the roof-top restaurant with picturesque panaromic views of the city, with the Acropolis as a great backdrop. I like a good breakfast buffet and Athens Gate didn’t disappoint. The spread consisted of your standard continental offerings, with Greek specialties, in addition, and a hot buffet with omelets and the like.

For accommodation in Athens–at a great value–look no further than Athens Gate Hotel.

Note: Please stay tuned for an upcoming post, 72 Hours in Athens, my article on things to do and see in this energetic city.

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