Category: Abroad

Iceland

Iceland

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By Alexandria Ott

Located at Latitude 67 north, Iceland and its recent rise in tourism is befitting: With majestically milky hot springs, blistering and bright volcanoes, landscapes that resemble landing on the moon, unusual scapes for scuba diving and lava fields inhibited by Santa and his elves, this Nordic island has quickly become a top destination for American travelers. In fact, at any given time, more American tourists inhabit Iceland than Icelandic residents. With a surge in travel deals from the US to Iceland, journeying to this ancient land has become a must-do for travel connoisseurs and peace seekers.
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HEAD TO THE NORTH
With a quick flight from Reykjavik to the town of Akureyri, Northern Iceland gives visitors a picturesque look into the nation’s most treasured natural wonders. More familiar is South Iceland’s Diamond Circle, but what many don’t know is that the North also boasts a tour that will take you to Lake Myvatn, the Godafoss waterfalls, the geothermal area called Namaskard, the Jokulsargljufur canyon and much more.

Godafoss (Goðafoss), which translates to “the Waterfall of the Gods,” is a historical monument and stunning sight near ring-road 1. It is named as such from the ancient Viking story about Thorgeir Ljosvetningagodi (Þorgeir ljósvetningagoði), an ex-Pagan Chief who converted to Christianity in AD 1000 by throwing pagan idols of Nordic gods into this waterfall as a proclamation of the new faith.

Lake Myvatn is one of northern Iceland’s most beloved stops. The lake’s birdlife is plentiful with fourteen different duck species (the most gathered in any place in the world) and a Bird Museum worth checking out. Myvatn’s Nature Bath is located just east of Reykjahlid, where guests can enjoy a warm dip in the relaxing natural waters. As the fourth largest lake in Iceland, the Myvatn region also offers visitors many hiking routes, if you’re looking for some cardio after your spa-like experience. The Yule Lads, figures from Icelandic folklore who are commonly identified as the Icelandic version of Santa Claus, also live in the Myvatn area at Dimmuborgir. “Watch out for the little elves,” say the locals.

Namafjall mountain (also known as ‘Namaskard’ or ‘Hverir’) is a geothermal area that looks as celestial as it is serene. With boiling and bubbling mud pools, this high-temperature area is often referred to as “Hell’s Kitchen” for the steam that rises from it and the strong sulfur odor caused by hydrogen sulfide. Take a walk on the Icelandic moon.

Jökulsárgljúfur canyon is home to the roaring and spectacular Dettifoss waterfall. Visitors can travel along the canyon and see the famous Hljodaklettar or “Echoing” Cliffs, named for their exceptional acoustics. Dettifoss is Europe’s most powerful waterfall and is situated in the glacial river, Jökulsá á Fjöllum, which is the second longest river in Iceland. The river originates in Vatnajökull glacier, Europe’s largest glacier.
In the springtime, you can also see cliffs of the Tjornes peninsula and will be met by majestic puffins that nest in the area. While there, drive through the village of Husavik, which is the whale watching capital of Iceland, before heading back to Akureyri.
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WHAT TO WEAR
“If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” Pack for all seasons and occasions when visiting Iceland, where the weather is often windy and unpredictable. Each day will bring multiple changes in temperature, so preparing for anything is the best way to stay warm and comfortable for your Nordic adventures. A beautiful day can rapidly turn into a windstorm so pack layers that will allow you to go from t-shirt weather to winter weather in the turn of a moment.

SNORKEL THE SILFRA
When you think of the most ideal places to snorkel in the world, your imagination might fill with images of tropical waters in Hawaii or Indonesia. What many may not know when planning a trip to Iceland is that it’s waters are some of the most clear in the world and offer a rare opportunity to swim between continental plates. Scuba divers and snorkelers are attracted to this freshwater beauty for many reasons but most its geological significance: The Silfra is located between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates.
Offering exceptional visibility, there are three main dive sites: Silfra Hall, Silfra Cathedral, and the Silfra Lagoon. If you’re a newbie or first time snorkeler, this is a great place because the area is shallow upon entry. The “Ice” in Iceland certainly applies to the water temperature, which ranges between 36–39 °F but can be relieved with a dry suit. The lava rocks are constantly filtering the water so it is truly some of the clearest water in the world. It’s so clean that you can drink it while you are snorkeling. You will view underwater majesty for as far as the eye can see while staying more hydrated than you have ever been.
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DO AS THE LOCALS DO
Four-Wheeling to Freedom: Ditching the tour groups can have its advantages. Trekking through Iceland’s highlands and mountain roads through Jeep Excursions can be the best way to break away. The best places to rent a four-wheeler and take off include:

Glymur waterfall (one hour north of Reykjavik): This amazing waterfall, which is the second largest in Iceland, empties into a giant canyon and with such a short hike, the reward is well worth the time.

Seljavallalaug is Iceland’s oldest geothermal swimming pool, which sits at the base of the infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcano. Located in southern Iceland, this outdoor pool is one of the oldest swimming pools in Iceland (built in 1923) and gives you yet another excuse to relax in tranquil waters.

Landmannalaugar (meaning “the people’s pools”) is a steaming volcanic landscape in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve in the Highlands of Iceland. It is at the edge of Laugahraun lava field, which was formed in an eruption that dates back to 1477. With colorful mountains in the backdrop and cute shops in town, this is a great spot to break away and explore with your travel partner.

Relaxing in the isolated countryside is another way to live like a native. Chic cottages on Airbnb start at $53/night and can range from mossy spots that border lava fields to naturally heated hot tubs overlooking volcanoes. When renting in rural areas, you can also have access to fresh, local food including lamb or seafood and produce like strawberries, tomatoes and cucumbers. Dining in may be a better option for the pocket book as Iceland’s restaurant culture is infamously expensive.

If you are a music lover, then Iceland is a great place to follow major international acts like Foo Fighters, who are headlining this year’s Secret Solace. In addition to being home of major musicians such as Sigur Ros, Of Monsters and Men and Bjork, Iceland has a breadth of festivals to check out, depending on the time of year you are visiting.

Launched in 1999 in an airplane hangar in Reykjavík, Iceland Airwaves is the most well-known. The festival, which takes place in November each year, showcases the Icelandic rock/pop/electro music scene along with numerous international acts. Hard rock festival, Eistnaflug, has taken place annually since 2005. An indoor festival situated in a quaint little town on the Eastern coast of Iceland called Neskaupstaður, the lineup consists of 30-40 bands from Iceland and around the world. Dark Music Days is another festival that locals love, consisting of contemporary and new music and takes place at Harpa in downtown Reykjavík during the darkest period of the Icelandic winter. The festival was founded in 1980 by the Iceland Composers’ Society as a platform for Icelandic composers to present their work. Today, the festival is a platform for getting to know new music with an emphasis on Icelandic composers and performers.

Reykjavík Blues Festival opens with “Blues Day” in the city center every year and it usually takes place in March or April. It includes live blues in different downtown venues and highlights include surprise performances in the downtown city center. Blues clubs in the area also liven up and serve as the official after hour venues. The annual Reykjavik Jazz Festival is an increasingly prestigious event on the international jazz scene. The festival hosts performances in a variety of styles, from contemporary jazz and the avant-garde to Latin jazz, gospel and big bands. It features many acclaimed international Jazz players as well as Iceland’s leading Jazz musicians against a stunning backdrop of colorful mountains in the inspiring coastal town.

Finally, Secret Solstice is back in it’s fourth year, bringing “72 hours straight of never-ending daylight”, incredible live acts, and some of the most unique parties nestled in Iceland’s otherworldly landscapes. The 2017 lineup includes headliners Foo Fighters, The Prodigy, Richard Ashcroft, Pharoahe Monch, Foreign Beggars, Dubfire, and Kerri Chandler. With side events that utilize the beautiful and natural terrain, visitors of this festival can expect events such as performances in the Raufarholshellir lava tunnel system outside Reykjavík. Formed over 5,000 years ago during a volcanic eruption, the Raufarhollshellir cave system is a magnificent phenomenon of nature, which instills a sense of wonder in all who journey within it. And for the first time ever, guests can be part of this ultra-special concert, in this natural space.

WHEN TO GO
Visiting Iceland in winter can impede your adventures with a sliver of sunlight each day, but this is also when some of the best deals can be found. Tourism is most popular in the summer months where the month of June can see 24/7 arctic daylight. If you are looking to miss the high-traffic months of July and August, where the weather is best and most predictable, try booking your trip in the early fall months. This will allow you to enjoy all that Iceland has to offer before the snowy season arrives and even gives you the best chance to catch the enchanting Northern Lights.

Brussels

Brussels

Grand-PLace

Brussels
Equal parts tough and adorable, Belgian comic book icon Tintin and his faithful hound Snowy, brought the sophistication, style, and exuberance of Brussels with them on their adventures—and focused the world’s attention on this cosmopolitan city. That’s just fine with locals, who are proud to show off why their city of a million people is not only the capital of Belgium, but also the entire European Union. That means immersing oneself in the some of the world’s best beer, chocolate, waffles, and fries—served “in German portions, but with French finesse,” as the Belgian saying goes—all the while discovering gorgeous Art Nouveau architecture, vintage markets, puppet shows, pop-up parties, and comic book art.
French and Flemish may be on the tips of local tongues, but Brussels is a true polyglot, making it hard to find a person who doesn’t speak English. Commuting into the city is just as easy as communicating, with six hourly trains running from the airport to Brussels Central Station, and taking just 18 minutes. From there, a vast network of subways, trams, and buses weave through the tightly-knit neighborhoods. In many cases, your foot-power will be enough, starting with the city’s most famous icon, the Grand Place, just five minutes walking time from the station. Like most of Brussels’ primary sights, hotels, and restaurants, the Grand Palace is found in the City Center, or in easy striking distance in the surrounding neighborhoods of Ixelles, Saint-Gilles, Anderlecht, Laekan, and Saint-Josse-ten-Noode. Tap into the pure spirit of Brussels at these ten sites:

Palais Royal
Théâtre Royal de Toone
The actors who take the stage at this theatre may be wooden in composition but not in expression, thanks to nearly two hundred years of history, starting in 1830, when Antoine (Toone) Genty founded this marionette theater. With more than 1,300 hand-carved figures in the inventory (each with its own tailored costume), there’s a huge cast of characters to draw from for spoofed-up classics, like Romeo & Juliet, Cyrano de Bergerac, and The Three Musketeers. The stage itself is nestled under angled eaves upstairs, but don’t leave without seeing the charming downstairs café and bar filled with vintage puppets, posters and an impressive menu of Belgian beer.

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BELvue Museum and Coudenberg Castle
After fire engulfed the castle of Coudenberg in 1731, the 700-year-old residence of central Brussels soon disappeared from existence altogether, buried from view under the Place Royale and surrounding neighborhoods. It wasn’t until the 1980s that serious excavation commenced, and today, several parts of the ancient castle are open to the public, including stairs, passages, cellars, a chapel, warehouse, and the former Rue Isabelle. Flesh out the history above the ruins at the BELvue Museum, where two floors of striking exhibitions present the history of Belgium in a bright, modern way, with many interactive elements, including cartoons, making it fun even for those who generally hate museums.
Cantillon Brewery
Enjoy a sip of Brussels’ revered lambics, gueuze, and kriek beers, especially those concocted at this legendary brewery, the last of its kind in in the city. Opened in 1900, it is truly Old School, utilizing the original 19th-century equipment to produce the world’s original style of beer. Guided tours run every 30 minutes, taking visitors through the production floor, where antique belt-driven machines continue today, milling, mashing, boiling, and cooling the brew. Inhale deeply in the aging room, as the fruity, woody aroma of beer brewing in chestnut wine casks perfumes the air. Abundant spider webs don’t prosper from neglect, but rather are encouraged to keep the brewery naturally bug-free. The Brewery’s admission fee includes one glass of Cantillon’s coveted stock, but few visitors stop at just one glass.
Belgian Chocolate Workshop at Zaabär
Although you can’t actually dive into a vat of Belgian chocolate, it’s still possible to get up close and personal with it at this chocolate factory in the center of Brussels. Every Saturday afternoon (plus Wednesdays during school holidays), one-hour workshops facilitated by the chocolate maker instruct up to 30 guests in the fine art of making truffles, bars, and traditional “mendicants,” named after the four mendicant or monastic orders. There is plenty to taste, too, and your delicious creations are yours to take home…if you make it that far. Be sure to snap your selfies before slipping off your compulsory hairnet, apron, and gloves.

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Les Apéros Urbaines
When the mercury rises high enough on the thermostat, Brussels’ denizens love to get outside and celebrate the warm weather together, and some have converted this rite into an art. One citizen’s attempt to get a few friends together for drinks transformed into Les Apéros Urbaines, a festival of large scale “apéros” on Friday nights throughout the spring and summer. Enormously popular, each event attracts hundreds of locals to chat, drink, dance, and meet friends old and new. The pop-up parties travel throughout the city, and are found in parks, squares, rooftops, and forests during the season—always with the doctrine of “Simplicity, Happiness, Originality, Friendliness.”

Belgian Comic Strip Center
Belgium claims more comic strip artists per square kilometer than any other country, and the evidence is overwhelming — if not in your childhood memories of Tintin and the Smurfs, then in Brussels’ numerous venues for comic book art. The most important is the Belgian Comic Strip Center, where the rich history and production of the “ninth art” pack several floors of permanent and temporary exhibitions. The Grand Poohbah of comics and creator of Tintin, Hergé (aka Georges Remi) are featured in a dedicated area. The Center’s Art Nouveau home, a former textile warehouse built by Victor Horta, is a work of art itself, and the iron-and-glass ceiling bathes the contents in defused light. Outside the center, enjoy more of Belgium’s comic culture along the “Comic Book Route:” a path through the city marked by dozens of large-scale, comic-style murals painted on buildings.
Brussels Vintage Market
Fashionistas visiting Brussels should aim for the first Sunday of each month when the vaunted vintage clothing market opens its doors to nearly 2500 shoppers in need of retail therapy. The remedy is in ample supply, with 40 or more second-hand vendors, and more than 20 designers, filling the charming space in Halles Saint-Géry, a neo-Renaissance brick-and-wrought-iron former meat market. A central obelisk is the point from which all distances in Belgium are measured. Shopping for vintage clothes, furniture, tableware, and accessories, however, is only part of the fun. Meeting friends, snacking on delicious cakes, and possibly shaking your hips to the live music provide the rest — all with a retro flavor.
Royal Greenhouses of Laeken
Brussels’ passion for flowers culminates every two years, when one million artistically arranged begonias fill the Grand-Place with a “Flower Carpet,” stretching 250 feet. Equally coveted by budding botanists and stop-and-smell-the-flowers guests, is the annual opening of the sumptuous greenhouses on the grounds of the royal palace in Laeken, which lasts only three weeks every spring. Established in 1895 by King Léopold, the complex of art nouveau pavilions, cupolas, and arcades is capped by the massive, domed “Winter Garden,” filled with rare and valuable plants, many belonging to King Leopold II’s original collection. The gathering of camellias (over 100 species) is especially prized, as the largest and oldest of its kind in a greenhouse. Afterwards, head to Hallerbos Forest, located 10 miles southwest of Brussels. Here, an astonishing carpet of bluebells covers the forest floor every spring, as if from Arthurian fantasy.

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Horta Museum
The “father of art nouveau”—Victor Horta—lived and worked in Brussels, endowing the city with many of its most beautiful buildings, including his private home and studio. Inside the tall and slender house are many exquisite examples of the style, including tile mosaics, stained glass, wrought iron fixtures, a spiral staircase, and furniture designed by Horta himself. Horta believed material and design should harmonize like a beautiful piece of music, and no one doubts he achieved harmony here. UNESCO called it a work of “human creative genius.”
Bois de la Cambre
On the eve of Waterloo, three miles to the south, British soldiers played a cricket match on the grounds of this park before marching to hand Napoleon his final defeat. The playing field, La Pelouse des Anglais, now makes up but one part of this 300-acre park at the edge of the Sonian Forest. One of Brussels’ favorite escapes, the Bois de la Cambre offers tons of green space, playgrounds, walking and bike paths, a theater, roller-skating rink, row boats, and even its own island, home to one of Brussels’ swankiest restaurants, Chalet Robinson, reachable by ferry only. Make your visit even sweeter – enjoy a Belgian waffle from one of the numerous food trucks.

Getting there – nonstop service from Dulles International Airport (IAD) to Brussels Airport (BRU) is available on Brussels Airlines (5 times per week) and United Airlines (daily).

Trip of a Lifetime

Trip of a Lifetime

Female Lion Hunting

For an American, a trip to Africa is a trip of a lifetime. A journey to the Motherland, the cradle of humanity — you can’t help but feel an intense connection to the land in Africa. It is many miles to get to Africa and quite foreign to an American once you get there. If you can, you’ll want to enlist the help of safari professionals, Micato Safaris. Micato Safaris are legendary; consistently winning top tour awards. This stellar organization was founded by Nairobi-based couple, Jane and Felix Pinto. Felix worked in the government which afforded him the opportunity to start a tour company. What started as one mini-cab has grown into one of the most luxurious travel experiences on earth. Everything is taken care of to the nth degree. You don’t have to worry about being attacked by wildlife, having a food allergy or not having enough fun. The folks at Micato do it all. I was fortunate enough to experience one of their bespoke journeys through Kenya and I’m thrilled to share it here with you. I went solo, but it’s a perfect getaway for romance, family bonding or just life experience.

Before the trip, we were sent a duffle bag and our safari documents. When you go on safari, you ride on puddle jumper planes with strict weight restrictions. Micato sends their guests a duffle bag as well as a packing list that is extraordinarily helpful. They tell you exactly how many pairs of socks to pack, remind you to pack spf and offer a suggested reading list. They even include darling luggage tags.

We started in Los Angeles where I was met by Micato’s Jessica Brida, who automatically got me upgraded on the flight to London. It was a full flight on Virgin Atlantic from LAX to Heathrow so the switch up to Premium Economy (Virgin Atlantic Airways’ version of business class) was greatly appreciated. Premium Economy is set up in the two, three, two configuration and I got the middle of the middle but it was surprisingly comfortable. There were tons of movies to select from and a decent meal
with drinks was served. I watched Inception on that flight, which is kind of a bad choice if you’re scared of flying! Ah, well.

Sure enough, three movies later and a little bit of sleep I landed at Heathrow. It’s always such a treat to be in London, even if I didn’t get to leave the airport. I enjoyed access to the Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Lounge in Terminal 3. I had eight hours to kill and I spent it well. This is not hard to do at the lounge — easily one of the best airport lounges on earth. They had fantastic service from the happy and helpful staff, incredible selections of food from vegetarian Indian fare to burgers to upscale entrees, complimentary spa services, showers, spa amenities, library, TV, pool, video games, kids area, and numerous nooks and crannies where you can spread out with your clan.

The time went by quickly and before you know it was time to board the flight to Nairobi. This time I (surprise!) got fully upgraded to the Upper Class; a very special treat as I had not slept much for a full day. I immediately fell asleep in the flat beds and woke up to my dinner in front of me. I was parched and everyone else was sleeping and the cabin was dark. I went to the galley where I found a much-appreciated bottle of water and fruit to munch on while I did yoga stretches. Post-stretching and well hydrated, I checked out the navigation systems and learned that we were over the continent of Africa. It was the coolest thing in the world. We had a bit more flying to do but you certainly get the most incredible service when you sit in Virgin’s Upper Class, so the trip was a breeze and soon we were at the airport in Nairobi.

The airport was small and easy to maneuver through. I had to have US$50 cash to purchase my visa. The lights went out as I was waiting in line, which was a funny diversion and supposedly happens once in a while. The team at Micato met me at the door and I proceeded to be whisked into town by my safari guide, George Omuya. George was awesome. He was handsome, funny, and knew everything about anything. I immediately felt safe and could tell I was with someone who really knew his stuff. We drove through Nairobi and it was a bit like driving through Mexico City in that there was a stench of pollution and lots of people walking.
Traffic was terrible but our knowledgeable driver knew the back roads and got us to our destination in record time.

Fairmont The Norfolk

I was taken to the Fairmont The Norfolk, a historical hotel that is typically the starting point for Micato’s safaris in Kenya. The landmark hotel has been around since 1904 and has hosted such dignitaries as Winston Churchill and Bill Clinton. Recently renovated and taken over by the Fairmont Group, the hotel has top-notch rooms, excellent dining, all-you-could-need for business and a truly incredible spa. You must ask for Susan if you have time for a massage, I wanted to bring her back to the States because she was such a gifted healer. The restaurants include a jazzy joint called Tatu, which is easily one of the best restaurants in town. They also serve afternoon tea in The Tea Room and have a fun bar area for lunch, cocktails or light noshing.

After a day of acclimating and the incredible massage from Susan, I started the real adventure. My days would start with breakfast on the famous Lord Delamere Terrace where there was a vast array of breakfast options and Kenyan coffee and tea. Kenya is famous for its coffee, which was quite strong. Don’t make the mistake of  drinking it after dinner unless you are going for an epic night out. After breakfast, George gathered me up and took me on my first adventure.

My first stop was to go to The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. I was fortunate enough to visit with the Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick, the widow of David and the savior of hundreds of orphaned elephants and other wildlife. Baby elephants in Kenya and surrounding countries lose their mothers to a variety of conditions such as drought, poaching and accidents. The other elephants are unable to care for the orphan so without help they would suffer and die. The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust houses, feeds and develops a group of baby elephants and allows visitors to see the elephants being fed and having a romp around their pen. The elephants are the cutest things
on earth; they are playful and can be a bit ornery. Elephants have a lot in common with humans in that they form tight bonds with their caretakers and with each other. It’s true that elephants never forget and remember and recognize their keepers for life.

Baby elephants and their keeper at The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick is a remarkable woman who has led thetrust from nearly its inception. She’s quite stoic, English, refined and peaceful. She’s been working with elephants for 50 years; her husband was the first warden of Tsavo National Park starting in 1948 where they lived and worked until 1976 when he was transferred to Nairobi. David died 6 months after taking the new position and the government said that she could build her cottage in Nairobi National Park and continue her work with orphaned animals.

When orphaned elephants are found by park rangers, they are flown in to the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage on chartered planes, as they are usually too weak to make it by car. The orphanage has to replace what the elephants would have in the wild — which includes a highly specialized milk formula that mimics elephants’ mothers’ milk, and“family”. In the nursery, the keepers become the elephants’ family — they are there 24 hours and work on a rotating cycle.

The reasons why the calves are losing their moms are human related. Many lose their moms to poaching, which has gotten bad recently. Ivory poaching has been escalating recently, especially with the arrival of Chinese road construction workers. They provide a readymarket for the ivory; its price has gone up radically since the Chinese arrived. Other elephants fall into wells, which are dug in sand rivers to provide water for cattle. The parched elephants run over to drink it and the walls cave in, trapping the elephants in the hole. Other elephants are victim of Masai tribesmen attacks. They are found with spears embedded and ax wounds inflicted by Masai tribesmen seeking revenge for lost cattle.

I traveled to and from excursions in luxurious Range Rovers. My next adventure was to a spectacular place called Giraffe Manor. Built in the style of an old Scottish hunting lodge, it’s home to several Rothschild giraffes who come right up to the lodge, poke their heads through the windows and expect to be fed. It’s an amazingly surreal experience to be in a beautiful and historic home surrounded by timeless art and have a giraffe next to you. There are rooms for rent at the Manor and you are welcome to stay there overnight. I had a delicious lunch on the back patio consisting of grilled goat cheese salad and red snapper kebabs served in traditional Kenyan style, with shredded cabbage rice and chili. The Manor is located just eight miles outside of Nairobi’s city center, so easy to reach even though it feels like you are miles and miles away into the country. The establishment was started to help save the Rothschild giraffe and has been successful in doing so.

Giraffe Manor

The final outing on my first day in Nairobi was to visit the home of Karen Blixen. Karen was made famous in the movie, Out of Africa. Meryl Streep won an Academy Award for playing her opposite Robert Redford, who played Karen’s boyfriend, Denys Finch-Hatton. Karen was an interesting woman with an interesting life. She wrote Out of Africa based on her time in that home. She had recently divorced her arranged-marriage husband and struck out on her own to try and make it in the coffee business. Unfortunately, her crops failed and she lost her great love in a plane crash, which sent her into a tailspin of depression. She smoked and suffered from anorexia, but was a prolific writer. Her house is simple and a trip back in time. It was interesting and educational to view the antique furniture and understand how
they lived back then.

At the end of this busy day, I retreated back to Fairmont The Norfolk for a quick break and then back out for a very special dinner at the home of Felix and Jane Pinto, founders of Micato Safaris. Felix and Jane are two of the most warm and welcoming people on earth. They are local Kenyans of Indian descent. Jane is incredibly social and loves to chat. Felix is a bit more reserved in a serious businessman sort of way, but they both have grace by the buckets and it’s no wonder why they excel in the hospitality business. Dinner consisted of a mix of African and Indian food and included a delightful array of sauces and spices. I enjoyed a live performance from a men’s a capella group.

The next day was going to be exciting as I was headed to the slums of Nairobi to check out AmericaShare, the philanthropic arm of Micato Safaris. AmericaShare was started over twenty years ago when a child carrying a note asking for $15 for a school uniform approached a Micato employee from New York. The employee was moved to tears, and knew that something needed to be done to help children living in the slums of Nairobi. She convinced Micato to form AmericaShare and started a school sponsorship program so that Micato’s safari guests could be invited to sponsor children for the duration of their education.

Prior to arriving at the Mukuro slums, I stopped by a large grocery store to stock up on gifts for the kids. It was so fun to pick out art supplies and snacks that I was told would be much appreciated by the children. After I got the goods, I headed into the slums. The slums were quite disturbing to the this American’s eye. There were no proper roads, just pathways with very muddy ground. The building structures were in dire condition but the people had a life in their eyes and surprisingly, many seemed just as happy as you or I. It’s hard to understand that level of poverty even if you are used to the homeless guy on the corner. These people aren’t poor because of drugs or mental disease, they were born into destitution and into a culture where you don’t get educated and travel the world. The only way out of the slums is an education and AmericaShare is an organization that helps  these kids with a future.

Mukuro Slums in Nairobi

I arrived at the AmericaShare compound in the middle of the Mukuru slum and it was an oasis in the middle of chaos. It is set in a gated area with several structures used for community centers and libraries, a playing field and a basketball court. There were lots of kids already playing ball. I was thrilled to tour the facility. My first stop was at a reusable sanitary pad project. One of the problems girls face is not being able to afford sanitary pads and so they’ll stay home from school in shame during menstruation. Unfortunately, staying home along during the day also increases the risk of rape. By providing reusable sanitary napkins and hygiene kits, Micato helps these girls keep up on their education and keeps them in the safety of school.

I then stopped by the library where boys from the slums were reading and I checked out the computer lab, where boys were playing video games that teach responsibility and ethics. The video games, designed as part of an innovative program called the Partnership for an HIV-Free Generation, are designed to put the kids into virtual environments where they make ethical decisions and are educated on HIV prevention. This project is in conjunction with Microsoft and Nike.

The school children of AmericaShare

My last stop on the tour was to an actual pre-school classroom supported by Micato’s AmericaShare. The children greeted me and sang me a song. These kids were something else; they were so sweet and happy. The Micato safari directors and I passed out snacks and bonded with the children who were simply just precious. After the classrooms, I played ball in the yard with the kids and then returned back through the slums. It was nice to know that in the midst of such poverty was a heart of hope.

That afternoon I did more soul stirring with a visit to a wonderful art gallery and jewelry designer. The art gallery is the studio of Carol Lees, who represents the top visual artists of East Africa. The studio is set in a lovely part of town near many embassy offices. It’s built into a tree house and features bold and stirring art of modern African life with subjects including political commentary.

I then visited the studio of Gemini Desai, one of Kenya’s top jewelers. Gemini works with marginalized women who are single mothers and teaches them her craft. The collection of work available at her store is a mix of beads and stones crafted into wearable art. Ancient beads, worn by Samburu warriors who were lion hunters or the “Chevron” bead which came from the Venetians in the 1500’s with the patterns on the side are stunning and special jewelry. It’s a great stop to stock up on gifts for the women in your life with price points that span from very expensive to incredibly reasonable.

The following day I was off on the next segment of my adventure, which would take me out of the urban setting of Nairobi to the southern border of Kenya and the north of Tanzania. This was the equivalent of going out into the middle of nowhere. It was instantly peaceful, one of those places where your blood pressure drops  considerably and the silence is eerie yet fills an unknown longing. The trip to this magical land does require a flight in a puddle jumper so prepare yourself. The landing strip will occasionally have to be cleared of wildlife, but that’s a big part of the reason to explore Shompole.

Shompole is a remarkable resort that has hosted the likes of Brad Pitt and Bono The architecture is really cool; it is built into the side of a mountain ridge and made to fit into the natural environment. This is eco tourism but they did not scrimp on luxury. My suite was large – around 1000 square feet, with a dipping pool, sitting area, large bathroom, dressing area and huge bed. There were no walls, only a panoramic view of Great Rift Valley below. There were patio areas and birds flying in and out. The roof was thatch and the temperature in November was hot. The dipping pool at the foot of my living room was my first test and it was very refreshing. The décor of the place was minimalist naturalist. Wooden furniture from the local trees taken out by the river during rainy season was used for art and functional furniture. The walls were white stone.

The Room at Shompole

The staff at Shompole was exactly what you would expect from a five-star resort. The group of developers partnered with the local tribe to build Shompole; they lease the land from the tribe and employ tribes people at the hotel. Tourism is a coveted career among tribal kids. In addition to being extremely gracious and hospitable, the
staff at Shompole were fun and joined me for dinner and lent out books. Myself and the other guests would all eat around a family style table. We were served veggies from Shompole’s organic garden and various meats and fishes. We even had lasagna one night, which was definitely a treat. The best, coolest part of Shompole is the animals. Every morning and evening I would go out on safari and test my luck spotting animals.

Pink Flamingos on Lake Natron

The first evening I went south right up towards the Tanzania border at the base of Lake Natron, which is a saltwater lake. On the drive out I saw local people who were kind enough to pose for pictures and come up to say hi. Many were carrying goats or stacks of wood and the adults were wearing traditional tribal attire. The kids were amazed at my white skin, wanted to touch it and thought that we were angels — they were pretty freaked out, and we were equally fascinated at this culture living out in the middle of nowhere.

I spotted zebras, deer, wildebeest, tree monkeys, exotic birds, and a lone bull. The lighting and the clouds were magical and finally I got to my evening destination at the edge of the lake surrounded by pink flamingos. It was pretty terrific and the only thing that made it better was the staff from Shompole who had set up sundowners. There was a full bar and passed appetizers as I chilled out and took it all in. After my safari, I returned back to the resort for a delicious dinner and then called it a night.

Sleeping at Shompole was a little bit frightening. Your bed is zipped up into a tent but there are definitely critters all around and you can hear lions growling. I was afraid to get out of my tent until it was fully daylight so try to travel with a sleeping partner, as you’ll be scared if you have to sleep alone.

The next day was spent going on a walking safari tour in the morning. I was woken up very early (6AM) by the gentle sound of my butler saying “karibu” and bringing tea. I left early to set out on my tour. I was guided by a couple of guys from the local tribe who were as nice and as authentic as you can be. We went for about and hour and a half walking up the riverbed and the guides introduced us to the local flora and fauna and even taught us how to make a fire in the bush from sticks. We saw a family of baboons who were friendly enough and then as we were walking along the riverbed, we came upon a fully set table in the middle where I was treated to breakfast from the staff at Shompole. It was so surreal to be sitting in the middle of a dried out riverbed in Africa, eating custom-cooked eggs and sipping on mimosas, but such is life on a Micato safari.

Later that day, on my afternoon safari, I spotted my first pride of lions. They are the king of the jungle for a reason. There was a group of five hungry, young-ish female lions. They were a bit bony in the hips so we figured they hadn’t eaten in a few days. They were moseying about and eventually wandered off.

The Shompole Locals Performing

On this particular evening I had the good fortune of being entertained by the local tribe and had the chance to purchase some of their jewelry and artwork. The women of the tribe had set up a market and laid out their beaded jewelry. After shopping I was served drinks and then treated to a dance and singing performance by the male tribe members. The performers were outfitted in their traditional tribal attire and their songs and dances included high-pitched shouts and lots of jumping up and down. Some of the performers wore headdresses made with feathers and various animal parts.

After a couple of sleepless nights in Shompole, I was excited to have a change of temperature even though I was sad to leave this unique property. I took my last mini-game ride on my way to the landing strip to be picked up and taken to Mount Kenya. On the way to the landing strip we spotted another pride of lions and various zebras.

My next stop was Mount Kenya, which was about an hour away in the trusty puddle jumper. Once I arrived at Mount Kenya, I was greeted by Micato Safari drivers and taken to the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club. The Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club is a magical destination located right on the equator and at the base of Mount Kenya. The property has a fantastic history. Previous owners include Englishman Percy “Bongo” Smith, who died in a drunken brawl. Ownership then went to a wealthy American, Rhoda Lewisohn, who built a luxurious home for her French lover turned husband, Gabriel Prud’Homme. The property eventually fell into the hands of film star William Holden, Texas oil millionaire Ray Ryan and Swiss financier Carl Hirschmann. They turned it into the Mount Kenya Safari Club in 1959 and hosted the likes of Sir Winston Churchill, Bing Crosby, Ava Gardner, Lord Mountbatten, members of the Saudi Arabian royal family and more. Eventually ownership went to the Arabs and it is now managed by the Fairmont Hotel Group.

The hotel is luxurious and elegant and the best room is Rhoda and Gabriel’s old room above the main area right on the equator. It’s got views of the enchanting gardens and the peak of Mount Kenya. The gardens are very special and include a hedge maze, tennis courts and swimming pool. On the other side of the property you’ll find the equator garden and the William Holden Foundation Animal Orphanage. The orphanage is a delight to visit and hosts a great deal of animals including zebroids (half zebra and half horse), bongo (a type of endangered antelope), cheetahs, a variety of monkeys, Grey Crowned Cranes, wild cats, a friendly bull, a porcupine, leopards, and a 100 year- old turtle.

Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary

Another wildlife excursion I was able to experience during my stay in Mount Kenya was a visit to the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary. The chimpanzee is the closest animal relative to humans and these sweet creatures have been rescued from places like Rwanda where, sadly, there is a market for poaching chimps and gorillas for the  bushmeat trade. This practice is closely linked to the logging industry as the loggers are not provided any other means of nutrition. It’s a sad state of affairs and once the primates are rescued and brought to the sanctuary, they are free to live out their lives in peace. A visit to Sweetwaters provides an excellent opportunity to stare into the eyes of these great apes and see all of their human mannerisms.

While staying at the Mt. Kenya Safari Club I was able to enjoy a number of activities including a bush dinner and a bush breakfast. The bush dinner was set along the river and included entertainment from the locals similar to, but a lot smaller than, the show in Shompole. They danced and sang and encouraged me to join in, which I did. It was very fun, and a once in a lifetime experience to dance at the foot of a river with local Kenyans. The bush breakfast was presented after a rigorous horseback ride through the forest at the base of Mt. Kenya. Other tour guests and I mounted the horses at about 7:30AM and rode for about an hour and a half though the gorgeous terrain. Then we came upon a grassy open space and low and behold, there was a fully set table and chef station ready to prepare our breakfast. It was such a treat to eat outside on this clear, warm and sunny day.

After all of these wonderful adventures, you would think that my experience on this Micato safari would be coming to an end when, in fact, the best was still to come. Our next and final destination in Kenya was my favorite stop. Again, I was fortunate to stay at a Fairmont property, the Fairmont Mara Safari Club. This was my favorite resort of the trip. I knew we would be staying in tents, but these were some seriously luxurious tents. I think it was the service that won me over at this destination. Everything was perfect!

One of the things I liked best about this property was the way every guest experience was so carefully thought out. The tents were perfectly designed with a comfy bed in the center of the room, a small seating and dressing area and then the bathroom towards the back half of the tent. Each tent also had it’s own patio with an outdoor
sitting area. The bathroom had modern amenities including a dressing table and hair dryer. The entire tent had beautifully rich colors with dark wood accents. At the end of the night, after your room had been turned down, the nets around your bed were zipped down and a flashlight and bottle of water were placed inside the bed. There were also lights with pull on switches directly above your bed so you could turn on the lights in the middle of the night without the fear of having to get out of your tent. You could still hear critters in the night and the comforting sounds of the hippos coming from the river.

Entrance to the tent at Fairmont Mara Safari Club

The main thing to do when you stay at the Fairmont Mara Safari Club with Micato Safaris is to go on safari, and get to know the animals. The resort is located on the  Masai Mara National Reserve and is surrounded on three sides by the Mara River — home to a great number of hippos. Surprisingly, these sweet, rotund, vegetarians are the most feared and biggest killer to humans among all of the animals in Kenya. They spend their days lounging and sleeping in the river and then in the evening they leave the river and head out to the fields where they enjoy their daily meal of grass. The reason they are so feared and dangerous is because they will crush you if you get in the path between the river and their food. No other animal (not counting humans) can kill a grown hippo but their calves are at risk from crocodiles and lions. However, the skin of mature hippos is too thick for the crocs and lions to sink their teeth into.

As I slept in my luxury tents along the river, I would hear the hippos grunting about after their feeding time. For whatever reason, I found the hippos to be my favorite animals in Africa. Perhaps it’s because they keep to themselves and seem to have an idyllic lifestyle — who wouldn’t want to lounge in the water all day, be safe from lions and crocodiles and be feared by humans?

However, those delightful hippos were not the only animals I was treated to on the Masai Mara National Reserve. I was fortunate enough to see “The Big Five”. “The Big Five” is a classification of animals that are most coveted to be seen on safari. The name has gruesome beginnings from when hunting was allowed and the most prestigious kills were classified as “The Big Five”. They include elephants, lions, rhinoceros, buffalo and the elusive leopard. It was pretty easy to spot the first four animals but the hardest to find, and therefore most exciting to see, was the leopard. I was thrilled to experience a leopard sighting on the Masai Mara. It was on an evening safari and up in a tree sat a beautiful leopard noshing on a goat, which was stolen from a local Masai tribe. It was pretty gruesome to see the dead goat with its lifeless body slung casually over a branch but the leopard was magnificent. They are easily the most beautiful animal on safari with their spotted coat and bright blue eyes. Her mannerisms reminded me of a common house cat with a detached attitude to all of the attention she was getting as she went about cleaning her paws.

There was some concern for the life of this animal as it is common for the local tribe to take retribution by killing the leopard for stealing their goat. The government has a program in place to pay the locals for their goat in an attempt to spare the life of the leopard — a huge tourist draw — but as with most government intentions, there is a lot of red tape involved for the tribe to be reimbursed. As it is with human nature, they would prefer the instant gratification of just killing the leopard.

Also located on the Masai Mara National Reserve is a rhino sanctuary. The rhinos have a huge risk of poaching as their horns — which are made of keratin — and are sold on the black market. There are some cultures (yes, we are looking at you again, China!) that grind up the horns and use them for aphrodisiacs and other, rather mystic, potions. The horns are sold on the black market for a measly $2700. The folks guarding the rhinos are paid about $150/month — to give you some perspective. The rhinos I visited had 24/7 guards that spend their days and nights protecting the animals. I was told that there were armed guards posted up on the hill who keep an eye on the rhinos. There were also armed guards down where I was, which was only a few yards away from the herd of rhinos.

I showed up to see a father and son rhino sparring with their much-coveted horns. It seemed like a mix between a face off and a father/son lesson but the guard told us that the two would, most likely, need to be separated, and the son taken off to a different sanctuary. These animals were enormous and a bit frightening as they were very close to me. I was told that they don’t see well but that I needed to be very quiet to avoid being charged. Yet another once in a lifetime experience, thanks to the good folks at Micato Safaris.

Firing up the hot air balloon

My final day at the Fairmont Mara Safari Club started extremely early due to another incredibly exciting opportunity. I wasn’t sure if the weather was going to  cooperate but it did, and I wasoff on a hot air balloon excursion. I left the hotel while it was still dark; we caught a hippo and calf in our headlights as they were heading back to the river. We got to the take-off field, entered the basket — which was lying sideways — and started to fill up the balloon. Soon enough, we were airborne and enjoying the sunrise and the vast terrain of the Masai Mara National Reserve. Sightseeing by hot air balloon is really cool because you get a unique view of the terrain and the animals. We even flew over a local tribal village. The elephants did not enjoy having us fly over them and threw a bit of a fit. After a thrilling hour or so of flight we landed in a field, were picked up by Micato Range Rovers and driven to another spectacular champagne bush breakfast.

Later that day, after a much needed nap, I ventured out to meet the local tribe. This group lives close to the hotel and they greeted me with a traditional welcome dance and then let me meander about their homes. I got to know the chief who was very sweet and told me all about living in the tribe. The men are welcome to take more than one wife but he said that he only had one wife and that they were happy and in love. The tribe’s biggest concerns are having enough food and water, educating the kids and trying to prevent malaria. I spoke with one young man who was about 18 and he said that they had to travel for about a day to be able to use the Internet. Upon our return to the hotel, I suggested to sales and marketing executive, Sean Walwyn, that perhaps the Fairmont Hotel Group could help these kids with some books and  Internet access. They were huge fans of the United States and were particularly proud of President Obama’s Kenyan roots.

And with that our safari adventure was coming to a close. It was such an incredible experience and the staff at Micato Safaris and the Fairmont Hotels were spot on perfect. While it might be something you have to save for several years to enjoy, it really is a must do. A visit to the motherland, meeting the locals — from the remote tribes to the Nairobi slums to the gracious Pintos, seeing the animals, learning the culture, everything about Africa is wonderful.

Micato safaris:  www.micato.com; 1-800-MiCATo-1
Americashare:  www.americashare.org
Fairmont Hotels & Resorts:  www.fairmont.com
Virgin Atlantic Airways:  www.virgin-atlantic.com

Own a Piece of Paradise: Sugar Beach, St. Lucia

Own a Piece of Paradise: Sugar Beach, St. Lucia

I had the chance to recently visit the Jalousie Plantation in St. Lucia, which is located on the South West coast of St. Lucia between the twin peaks of the stunningly gorgeous Val des Pitons on the Caribbean Sea. This already-amazing 130-acre resort is currently undergoing a major redevelopment project to the tune of $100 million to become Sugar Beach and will be comprised of 64 luxury hotel villas and 42 private residences.  In fact, The Residences at Sugar Beach was named  Best International Property at the prestigious International Property Awards in London at the end of November of this year. When completed, there will also be two white sand beaches, three new restaurants, four bars, a scuba centre, and a unique rainforest walkway and spa. The owner Roger Myers’s goal is to transform this hotel into one of the best and most luxurious resort developments in the world, and he is intimately involved in every detail of the project to ensure that this happens. It is obvious that this is more than just an investment to Myers, it is his own personal passion project and he is working hard to make sure his dream becomes a reality. There is no doubt that Sugar Beach will be a resort second-to-none that embodies the essence of barefoot luxury. More than just a vacation spot, it also presents the perfect opportunity for those looking to buy the ultimate dream home with all of the amenities and comforts of resort living since 42 residences are currently on sale. The much-anticipated exclusive residences at Sugar Beach offer buyers the unique opportunity to own their own home within the grounds of the luxurious Sugar Beach Resort, which is truly one of the most beautiful and relaxing places in the world. The Sugar Beach Resort will be managed by The Tides, part of Los Angeles-based Viceroy Hotel Group, an elite brand with resorts in the world’s most desirable locations. The Tides will augment the Sugar Beach offering as its first Caribbean resort. Sister properties include The Tides Riviera Maya in Playa Xcalacoco on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, The Tides Zihuatanejo in Playa la Ropa on the Mexican Riviera, and The Tides South Beach in Miami.

World-renowned Caribbean architect Lane Pettigrew is creating designs that incorporate a West Indian aesthetic combined with a luxurious reinterpretation of the classic French colonial style for each of the residences. He will be working with buyers to custom-design each home, and buyers will have the choice of between two to six bedrooms. Additionally, each of the residences will have its own over-sized swimming pool set in a private garden with a meticulously created natural stone deck and five of them will open out to a secluded white sand shore. They will also boast spacious living and dining rooms, French windows, hardwood floors, bathrooms with six-foot cast iron claw foot bathtubs, custom-made kitchens, and spacious terraces and balconies, and will all have air conditioning, satellite or cable television and wireless Internet in each room. In 2009 the World Bank placed St. Lucia in the top 30 countries to invest in, and Sugar Beach presents the perfect opportunity to do this. The Residences Sugar Beach are currently being sold for $2.4 million to $9 million dollars, and are worth every penny since the lucky buyers will literally get to own a little piece of paradise. And who can put a price tag on that?

For more information on purchasing one of these exclusive residences visit: www.residencessugarbeach.com or http://www.residencessugarbeach.com or call +1 (758) 285 4181

Beautiful and Historic – The Millennium Biltmore Hotel

Beautiful and Historic – The Millennium Biltmore Hotel

The Millennium Biltmore Hotel has played a very special part in the glamorous past of Los Angeles.  It’s a glorious establishment with a diverse collection of historical art collections and architectural details. Located in the heart of downtown, it’s the perfect place to stay for the sophisticated art lover or those who just want to enjoy the art of Los Angeles.

History at the Biltmore
The property celebrates our city’s past because it is the location where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (The Oscars) was officially founded during an organizational banquet in the Crystal Ballroom in May 1927.  The Academy had just been awarded its non-profit status, and held its membership-recruiting banquet where 230 guests joined the organization at a cost of $100 each.  Eight Oscar ceremonies were held in the Biltmore between the Academy’s early years of 1931 -1942.   The Biltmore Theater was in operation from 1924 – 1967 where stars such as Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Lucille Ball and Mae West performed.   From politics to pop culture, the Biltmore has hosted The Beatles in 1964, and it was the location of John F. Kennedy’s acceptance speech for the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee during the 1960 Democratic National Convention.

Art at the Biltmore
Designed by Schultze and Weaver of New York, the Biltmore opened to the public in 1923.  The hotel features Spanish-Italian Renaissance interiors, hand-painted ceilings and other original details. There are several sculptures and murals throughout the Main Galleria and Crystal Ballroom ceilings.  The murals often depict angels as a tribute to the city.  The hotel’s original lobby faced Olive Street across from Pershing Square, which is now a dining area, the Rendezvous Court.  Here one can enjoy a proper afternoon tea seated beneath the beautiful Moorish carved wood ceiling and breathtaking sculpted bronze stairwell.  The frescoed mural ceilings in the main Galleria and the Crystal Ballroom were hand painted in 1922 by Italian artist Giovanni Smeraldi.  Smeraldi was famous for his work at the Vatican and the White House.  The hotel fitness center is very special and was decorated in keeping with a historic nautical theme.  The area features hand-laid Italian mosaic tile, teakwood deck chairs and brass trimming, which all evoke the spirit of the original Queen Mary.

Today at the Biltmore
These days the Biltmore is the perfect place to stay when you are working a convention downtown, planning a special event or just want to treat yourself to a special weekend.  The rooms are incredibly comfortable with all the expected amenities of a top-notch hotel, including luxurious beds, stately décor and flat-screen TVs with satellite television.  Not that you’ll want to spend much time in your room, as you’ll want to explore the hotel. Be sure to visit the Gallery Bar and ask Greg to make you an Almond Manhattan cocktail while he tells you stories about tending bar at the Biltmore – as he has done for the past twenty-plus years.

Millennium Biltmore Hotel Los Angeles
506 South Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90071
(213) 624 1011
www.millenniumhotels.com

Exploring Chile & Argentina

Exploring Chile & Argentina

My trip started one late afternoon at LAX airport where security lines are notoriously long, and the process of checking-in can be very arduous. Not a good start for the trip of a lifetime. However, with Premium Business service from LAN Airlines my expectation of a travel headache immediately vanished.

I met welcoming agents in a special Premium Business Class designated area who seamlessly checked me, in and quickly ushered me to their plush fi rst class lounge. I instantly surmised that LAN was a very diff erent type of airline, and that it would be a perfect means of transportation to Chile and Argentina.

Upon boarding the plane I encountered the warmth of the fl ight attendants, a clear indication that I was in perfect hands for the following 11 hours of the fi rst leg of travel LAN’s service exceeded my expectations, with its self-contained Pods, full size beds and soft linens. Being a taller passenger and accustomed to feeling confi ned in most business and fi rst class seating, I was pleasantly surprised to fi nd that the accommodations were extremely comfortable and spacious. My amazement did not stop there. The cuisine and wine selection was absolutely top notch. LAN’s Master Sommelier, Héctor Vergara, is known for his ability to identify the fi nest wines, which is why LAN’s wine list has been recognized as one of the fi ve best lists worldwide. I was delighted with each wine that I sampled, and impressed with how they perfectly complemented each stage of my meal.

I quickly fell into a deep slumber of contentment, only to wake the following morning by a fl ight attendant greeting me with hot towels and of course, yet another delicious meal, breakfast. As much as I enjoyed my time in the air, I was elated to be back on terra fi rma, and to start my journey through Chile and Argentina.

SANTIAGO The start of my urban exploration began in Santiago, which is often referred to as ”the Manhattan” of Chile. With an early morning arrival time, I sailed through customs, and was soon off and running to the Hotel Fundador, conveniently located within the heart of the historic section of the city, also known as the Paris-London district. The hotel was recently restored on a minimalist- Andean theme and was close to many museums, the fi nancial district, as well as local boutiques and restaurants.

Santiago is a sprawling city similar to Los Angeles, but with the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. The city has population of 5,600,000 million residents; which is 1/3 of the total population of Chile. The Country is 80% Catholic, with more than 50 churches located in Santiago alone. The architecture hints at the great architectural treasures of both Central and Eastern Europe, but with a clear Chilean identity. As I wandered through the streets, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Europe with its inviting outdoor cafes and robust culture.

My fi rst day was spent touring the city with a private guide.

Admittedly it’s a luxury, but all the same it’s a must when visiting a city as culturally rich as Santiago for just one day. There is so much to explore, so much beauty to witness and not nearly enough time to familiarize one with all the hidden gems. I instantly felt transported back to another time. I was indeed on the path to becoming an explorer.

After spending a mere 24 hours in the Santiago, I was off to a mystical place called Patagonia.

The second day of my journey would whisk me away to the Remota Resort located within the heart of Patagonia. For the next four days I was part of a beautiful natural setting that I had previously only witnessed form afar in photographs and in television documentaries.

All vegetables served on premise are grown on location, in a green h ouse tended by the hotel.

After a wonderful lunch consisting of fresh fish caught in the waters just a few meters from the hotel, I was ready to resume my exploration via a horseback in the Sierra Dorortea Mountains with my guide Chechiul and Gaucho Adaw Paredes. We saddled up and headed off into the mountains with the rain bouncing off our coats, and the wind in our face. There were just two old souls who knew the magic a nd one in search of it.

As we made our way up the side of the steep mountain, a valley appeared, complete with cows and wild horses. Gaucho Adaw led us through the valley and up to the plateau, where I had my first glimpse of snow-covered Andes Mountains in the distance. For miles and miles there was nothing aside from endless rolling hills. Not a person, nor a building in sight. With a natural wall on our left and a forest to our right, we made our way towards the cliff to admire the natural b eauty of this spectacular view.

This is just one of the many local trips that Remota provides for its guests. The hotel is allinclusive, and offers a vast list of bespoke excursions. There are never more then 10 people in a group and lunch or tea is always served with each outing.

After the excursion, I was ready to relax and enjoy the peaceful surroundings of the resort. Remota looks and feels like it has been in Patagonia since Captain Juan Lanmilleros of Portugal first explored this mystical land 1559. I was delighted to meet fellow explorers and to share stories. Each person who I talked with inspired me, and made me e ven more enthusiastic to start day two of my Patagonian adventure.

Early the next morning I awoke from a deep sleep to a ringing alarm clock reminding me: “It is time! …Time to continue to seek out the P atagonian magic.” Would the Lake Sofia region of Patagonia offer new experiences? I w ould soon to find out.

I was greeted in the lobby by my guide, Christian, and we soon d eparted from the hotel for the Lake Sofia region.

As our van started down the unpaved road, the storm clouds started to roll in, and the rain began to fall furiously from the sky onto our vehicle. Being an explorer in training I would not let a little rain get in the way of my adventure. At the end of the road, we got out, and started our hike on an unmarked trail to study some of the important archaeological sites in the Southern Chile. We were also fortunate to spy many eagles and condors in the middle of lagoons that were filled with extensive flora and fauna, all scenes that had been previously witnessed by the likes of Darwin and Magellan. It was one of the most compelling experiences that I had ever witnessed. Just as I had hoped, there was magic everywhere, and I felt that I was living out e very bit the part of a modern day explorer.

After a long day of exploration, it was back to Remota to float in its tranquil pool that is fed by the adjacent waters of the lake. It is profoundly peaceful, and I felt more at rest than I had in years. As I stared out onto the lake, glaciers and distant mountains, I lost track of time. In short, it was a perfect closing to an awe-inspiring day.

On the morning of my third day at Remota, I awoke and prepared for my trip to Torres del Paine National Park. I had expected a day of light hiking and picture taking, but I would soon find out that I would be far more than a mere visitor to the park. This day I would be t ransfigured from an explorer in training into a full-fledged explorer.

The air at the park had an eerie silence to it, and we were shrouded in a light foggy mist, enhancing that now familiar magical feeling. Two rainbows appeared on the horizon, and the intensity of the experience grew ever stronger as a third rainbow appeared over the mountain peaks. Suddenly a condor flew out of the sky, seemingly from nowhere, and circled us. Majestic and mysterious, I wondered to myself if the condor knew something important, and was trying to impart a message to us. Was this is a sign that there might be danger on the horizon? Just then clouds became dense, and covered the p eaks of Torres del Paine.

I had been told that the four-hour trek to the summit could be demanding at times due to the unpredictable Patagonian weather.

My guide Christian offered me two options. The first was to take the marked trail, or the second, an u nmarked route.

Of course, I opted to take the “road less traveled”. As the elevation increased, the terrain dramatically changed from valleys to rivers, and from forest to steep, mountainous r ock. The temperature cooled, and a light rain began to fall. Christian started to construct stone markers so that we c ould be able to find out path back.
We trudged though the riverbed and then began to climb the rock at an angle, so as not to loose our footing.

It became colder and colder. My legs became increasingly weary, and rain p elted me in the face. I began to function on autopilot. “Just go forward, keep moving forward,” I said to myself. Christian turned to me and inquired if I wished to rest. As I looked forward and saw even darker clouds on the horizon, I knew that the condor from earlier that morning had indeed been trying to impart a message to us. I now knew that the message was that I c ould not stop.

I replied to Christian: “I did not come t o Patagonia to quit!” A hailstorm ensued and pelted my body as if I someone was throwing stones at me. My legs began to go numb, and I began to lose my footing on loose rock. I had become worried that perhaps I had exceeded my capacity, and was no match for Patagonia. But I would not stop. I couldn’t. I began to rely more and more on my walking stick, as I hunched down, nearly crawling to hide my face from the hail and furious winds. At times I took shelter behind a large rock, yet such respite could only last a few minutes, as we had to m ove forward our own safety.

It seemed like days before we would reach the summit. As we reached the top, the clouds parted, winds died down and a rainbow appeared. I found another sign of magic, or at least a semblance of it. Mother Nature seemed to want to challenge me, only to reward me later for good faith and perseverance. Yet we were still not able to see the three towers o f the Torres del Paine.

As we sat down to catch our breath, Christian surprised me with a celebratory cup of warm chicken soup and then it was time to start our d escent.

When we finally made it back to the base, the skies became blue, and slowly, the clouds dissipated and revealed the three towers of Torres d el Paine.

At that moment I knew that I finally found the magic. Magic is nature, the l and, and the people of Patagonia.

After a celebratory beer and picnic, we returned to the van and set off for Remota. I was on cloud nine. I gazed out the window at the beauty of Patagonia, relieved to have survived this most arduous hike, and grateful for the opportunity to become an e xplorer in such a place.

Just then, I caught a glimpse a flock of pink flamingos. Not exactly an every-day occurrence. I asked the driver to stop for a moment, so that I could capture them on film. I left the van, and quickly walked out across what appeared to be a salt flat. As I inched forward to get closer to capture their beauty, I noticed that my left foot began to sink. To compensate I exerted pressure on my right foot, but then that foot too b egan to sink.

I felt trapped and began to sink further. I turned to Christian to tell him and he chuckled, not quite grasping the severity of the situation.

As he moved towards me, he too began to sink. QUICKSAND! Slowly the quicksand swallowed my boots, t hen my ankles… then my knees.

Then our driver and a fellow explorer came to assist us by creating a form of human chain. As we were carefully lifted from the quicksand, we were finally able to crawl towards an a djacent plot of safety.

We headed back to Remota exhausted, but joyful from one of the most challenging and rewarding days

o f my life.

I woke up on my final day at Remota, and was fortunate to have breakfast with the famed architect German del Sol. I shared my experiences with him, most notably the previous day, and all of its excitement. With a twinkle in his eye he told me that what I had experienced was the magic of Patagonia. He experienced and became familiar with the magic during a five-year trek throughout Patagonia. The magic that he discovered is reflected in all of his work, most notably Remota: “the r emote magical place.” C APE HORN- USHUAIA The final leg of my adventure would take me towards Cape Horn, often referred to as the “End of the Earth.” My expedition cruise aboard the M/V Via Australis would start in Punta Arenas, Chile, and end in Ushuaia, A rgentina.

When I arrived at the port I noted a large sign stating “Gateway to Antarctica”. The mere notion that I would be in close proximity to Antarctica reminded me that my adventure had not yet concluded.

Instead, it marked the start of w onderful, new chapter.

After a cocktail reception and introductory meeting with Captain Hipolito Morales G., I shared a special dinner with eleven other explorers f rom around the globe.

At dawn we sailed for Admiralty Fjord, first arriving at Ainsworth Bay, where Marinelli Glacier is located. Our first excursion would begin with zodiac transport to adjacent dry land, where we could explore the Magellanic Forrest, and observe e lephant seals.

All the while, our guide educated us regarding all the extraordinary history of Tierra del Fuego. At the end of our expedition, we were treated to a glass of Johnny Walker Red Label over glacier ice, before returning to the ship to depart for Tucker Island. Three hours later, we were fortunate enough to spot colonies of Magellanic Penguins, as pectacular close to a unique day.

The following day, the Captain navigated the ship through the Beagle Channel en route to Pia Bay.

Once back upon the zodiac, we traveled over small ice formations peppering the waterway, as our group admired ice falling from Pia Glacier. It was every bit as beautiful as I had expected.

Later at dinner the guests seated at our table recounted their experiences compiled during the past few days’ e xpeditions.

Suddenly we were interrupted by the Captain, who informed us that we would soon be experiencing extremely rough seas as we made our way into open water towards Cape Horn. Before we headed off to bed that evening, the mood on the ship was that of excitement, but uncertainty. Would the weather cooperate? Would be able to make l and?

I awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of the mighty ocean rocking the ship to and fro as we m ade our way into open water.

It is at this point that the Atlantic meets the Pacific and combines with the chill of the Antarctic Sea. More ships have gone down trying to tack the island of Cape Horn than at any

other location in the world.

Somehow I managed to fall asleep without being thrown from my bed, and I awoke off the Coast of Cape Horn. As I looked out my window, I still felt like I was dreaming. I couldn’t believe that I finally made it to the e nd of the world!

Our group assembled early in the morning, and we boarded the zodiac for start the last leg of our adventure.

Once we landed at Cape Horn, we climbed a steep flight of wooden steps that would lead us to the monument of Cape Horn. Legend has it that the monument is the reincarnation of sailors who lost their lives in this dangerous and desolate region. The ground is covered with peat, and still contains hidden landmines from the Beagle Conflict of 1977-1979. It thus remains mandatory that everyone walks here along a w ooden boardwalk.

In addition to the monument, we visited other important landmarks, such as the lighthouse and the chapel known as Stella Maris or “Star of the Sea”, which is also dedicated to those who have lost their lives in the region.

At every turn I was reminded of the tenuous balance between beauty and d anger that typify life at Cape Horn.

The final leg my journey was spent in Ushuaia, the capital of the Argentine province of Tierra del Fuego. My stay was limited to a few hours of local sightseeing. With such a limited time I thought back over all the events and experiences that had brought me here to “the southernmost city of the w orld.” I reflected back to my conversation with Mr. del Sol during my stay at Remota. He said “…travel is a special occasion to be children again. More curious about what happens in the world outside than about what h appens inside oneself.” Only a handful people will ever be afforded the opportunity to experience the magic of Patagonia and Cape Horn. Those who do will be handsomely rewarded beyond their wildest dreams. If you have ever desired to be an explorer yourself, and explore beyond yourself, this certainly is the trip for you.

How To Get There: LAN Airlines (lan.com / 866.435.9526) flies direct to Santiago from LAX. Visit LAN.com for the latest rates on the South America Air Pass for Coach and P remium Business

Where To Stay: Hotel Fundador (Paseo Serrano 34, Santiago, Chile; (56-2) 3871200; Fundador.cl/en) Suite rates starting at U S $163 a night.

Remota Resort (Ruta 9 Norte, km. 1. 5, Huerto 279 / Puerto Natales, Patagonia, Chile; 866.431.0519; RemotaHotel.com). Rates start from US$ 1,980 per person based on double occupancy for a 4-night stay. The resort is all-inclusive including the d aily excursions.

Where To Cruise: Cruseros Australis (Australis.com / (56-2) 442 31 15) offers a luxury option to cruise Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. Rates start at US $2,510 per person for a four night all-inclusive c ruise.

What To Pack: Dr. T’s Supergoop organic water resistant SPF 30 sunscreen (Barney’s $29.50 for travel approved 3 pack or S upergoop.com) Ray Ban Aviator Sunglasses rb3026 ($129 / SunglassHut.com) The North Face Dhaulagiri GTX boots ($160 / TheNorthFace.com) The North Face Denali Jacket ($165 – $185 / TheNorthFace.com) with the Serac Jacket ($399) The North Face Venture Side Zip Pant ($89 / TheNorthFace.com)

Beijing

Beijing

Envisioning a trip to China conjures thoughts of interminable layovers, inconvenience, and painful restlessness after 15 hours in a steel tube. Luckily, Air China, and a handful of other airlines offer direct flights from LAX to Beijing, as well as other China destinations. Grateful for modern pharmaceutical technology, we slept a good portion of the trip. Falling asleep late at night in Los Angeles and waking up three hours from one of the oldest cultures on the earth was exciting and wiped the anticipated negatives out of our equation.

7,000 years of recorded history and civilization makes China a neverending paradise for explorers of every bent. History buffs, outdoor adventurers, artists, naturalists, politicos and foodies will all be enchanted. China is home to over 55 different ethnic minorities, each with distinct food, clothing, traditions and language. Their land mass is only two hundred thousand square miles more than the United States. There are less than 80 people per square mile in the U.S. and more than 520 people per square mile in China. At 1.2 billion, their population is more than 4 times that of the U.S. In 1989 during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, nearly 300 million people throughout China actively participated over the course of fifty days. Try to imagine the entire population of the U.S. simultaneously participating in a political movement.

Chinese know gigantic. Disembarking at the newly famous Terminal 3 at Beijing Capital International Airport is akin to landing in a scene from Kubrick’s A Space Odyssey. It is an immense 14 million square foot glass and steel edifice containing 64 restaurants and 84 shops. London Heathrow would easily fit inside this one titanic terminal. We pre-arranged a driver who spoke solid English to transport us to our hotel and we highly recommend this course of action. Everything about landing in Beijing is overwhelming. The last thing you’ll want after a 14-hour flight is to discuss directions with a taxi driver whose first language is Mandarin. Visit their website to pre-arrange your ground transpiration. You can negotiate the price a bit, but if you’re from a large city like Los Angeles, New York, London or Chicago, you will be pleasantly surprised at the pricing for all your car travel. Hiring a driver for your trip to the Great Wall or any other destination is well worth the cash. Don’t miss the Great Wall. It’s staggering.

Many of the teens and 20-somethings speak some English. It is now taught in most schools from an early age. However, most of the country speaks English as well as we speak Mandarin. You can’t show a taxi driver a map in English and point — pointless! Most of our taxi rides were preceded by two conversations. The first between us and our hotel staff to obtain our destination written in Chinese characters (don’t leave your hotel without your notebook and pen). The second chat was between our concierge and the taxi driver. Always have whatever restaurant, bar or hotel number with you. Often, it is easier to dial your phone and hand it to the taxi driver, so he can get directions. Beijing is so behemoth, just having an address is not enough.

Bring an unlocked GSM (AT&T, T-Mobile) cell phone and buy a SIM card from China Mobile or China Unicom. Similarly priced, but China Mobile is said to have better coverage outside the big cities. Initially, the activation process stymied us, but the young concierge in our hotel had us live in a matter of seconds. Having a Beijing phone number makes your trip infinitely easier and less expensive. Catching a phone number with two “8”s and no “4”s was like hitting the jackpot! The number 8 is very lucky in Chinese, whereas the word for “4” sounds like the word for “death” and is considered bad luck. Each new Chinese friend was elated by our numerical fortune. They take this stuff seriously.

The Fushe Courtyard Hotel is created in the traditional Chinese siheyuan family style. Famous Chinese, political officials and families prefer this style of home. Everything about Fushe was special, including the name, the food, bar, ancient style and the people. Sheng Wu, one of the owners, was gracious enough to invite us in to take a gander despite it still being under construction. It was breathtaking while also being a “home on the road” (translation of Fushe). Our next visit we will make it our resting place as it is also near Beijing’s center.

Thankfully, we found Hotel Kapok, a newly renovated boutique hotel just a short walk from the walls of the Forbidden City whose modern décor is reminiscent of the Viceroy or Mondrian. The service was exemplary. There were near brawls between staff members to help us! What a refreshing experience. The only institution we visited that reminded us of home was the Chinese post office. Being a disgruntled postal worker must be universal.

Enveloped in hutongs (traditional Chinese villages), teahouses, rickshaws, dumpling and noodle shops, Hotel Kapok is ideal for those wishing to get immersed in Chinese culture. It is walking distance to Tiananmen Square, Mao’s Tomb, Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City and more. Many hotels have a booking agent who speaks English to book your inter-China adventures and evening excursions to dinner, the Chinese Opera or Acrobat shows.

Our ultra-modern room was complemented by a state of the art workout facility with sauna, free internet, air conditioning, and daily treats of orange and apple juice, tea and bottled water. Did we mention the staff was beyond eager to help us? Despite the staff’s broken English, our weak “Ni hao ma?” (Hi, how are you?), showcased the humble helpers as future Shakespeareans. Tip: the Chinese of all ages love the Lakers! Kobe is the only person in Beijing whose picture is bigger than Mao’s. We brought a bag full of Lakers caps as gifts and handed them out to our fabulous hotel staff and other friends we made throughout our trip.

Only one real surprise — our bed. Upon first sitting down we wondered if they had forgotten the mattress. “This is just a box spring, isn’t it? It’s a new hotel, maybe they haven’t unwrapped the mattresses yet?” We called downstairs to find out if they had a bed mishap, but discovered our slab was actually a luxury Chinese bed. Hard as a rock! At first we were concerned. By the third night we were sleeping soundly and rising refreshed! Upon returning home we asked Dr. Bates — our picture of health chiropractor — what he thought of our ultra stiff sleeping surface: “I often sleep on the floor or on my extra, extra firm mattress.” We bought the firmest mattress in the store upon our return. Our backs have never felt better!

Prices for room service, hotel dining and bar drinks were similar to Los Angeles. Worth every penny was the breakfast buffet — a prismatic presentation of hot and cold traditional fare. Our favorite was “jian bing” or Chinese pancakes made with batter, eggs, plum sauce, spicy sauce and other tasty ingredients like chives, shallots, cilantro and crunchy cabbage. Kin to a French crêpe, except that half of the ingredients used in China are unavailable beyond its borders. We would often ask, “What is that vegetable, or spice? How do you translate it into English?” Commonly, the response was, “No English translation for that. This is special Chinese vegetable.” Sadly, we are getting bamboozled on Chinese food served in the States. It’s not even close to the seasoning sophistication we encountered in Beijing.

Food is celebrated and symbolic throughout China and part of a trilogy of good fortune. A common sight is the Chinese symbol for “good fortune.” The character ( . ) is comprised of three separate characters, or three sets of strokes. One is of a house, a square “rice field” representing food and what looks like a stick figure representing clothing. When those three basic needs are fulfilled, they consider themselves fortunate.

Among the panoply of cultural treats and unique customs, the Chinese do not form lines. No orderly queues are found waiting for the bus, an exhibit or food — just a Sino-swarm of jostling, confluence and contact — even in a relatively sparse group. It’s not being rude; it’s tradition. Chinese are accustomed to a world where space is sparse. Bumping into, leaning on and caroming off others is how it is. Initially, we found the space invasion culture a bit uncomfortable, but soon embraced the perfunctory response to human traffic.

Stop for “jiaozi,” (dumplings) at a traditional mom and pop food joint for lunch. Generally, no one speaks English there, but pointing usually works fine. The little dives dole delectable and inexpensive cuisine. A couple of beers, dumplings and noodles for two run about $5. Sit by the window and take in the swirling pedestrian masses dancing with rivers of bikes and cars. Shockingly, we didn’t witness a single accident. The symbiotic relationship between pedestrian, cyclist and auto is astounding. The balance and agility are wonderous! Watching a young man, his wife and child on one bicycle navigate the treacherous, traffic-soaked thoroughfares of Beijing appeared stunt-like to our American eyes.

A few blocks from out hotel and within steps of the famous Wangfujing Snack Street, is the modern Oriental Mall. No bargains here, but this Orange County-like shopping center is great for people-watching the younger generation. Fascinating is a visit to the Friendship Store or Silk Market. Try out your negotiating skills — you will be haggled to death. You may want to skip this bargain battle shopping trip if you are unnerved by people touching you or a consistent loud din of, “Helloooo lady, you want bag? Sir, buy your wife nice bag or jacket!” An exaggerated “helloooo” is the standard greeting to Americans. The Chinese think that our “hello” sounds funny and exaggerate for their own amusement. Two weeks of this is hysterical.

Beijing is beyond bustling, especially at meal time. On our list of Chinese culinary musts was Peking Duck. The Beijing DaDong Roast Duck Restaurant is renowned and extravagant, but well priced. Calling this version of Peking Duck a gourmet dinner would understate the privy journey our pallets took. The “Duck Doctors” (as we called them) are artists. The duck was sublime. The flavorful meat can be dipped, sugared, or placed inside tiny pancakes with a choice of more dips, spices and vegetables which you are expected to assemble with chopsticks. Each Chinese province has thousands of appetizers, meals and desserts — all part of the supersized China we experienced.

The 600 year old, 180 acre Forbidden City — the largest Emperor’s palace in the center of Beijing — contains 9,999 rooms and halls that took over 1 million laborers to build. The gigantic expanse of the “City,” contrasted with the minute attention to detail is unfathomable. Marvel at the walls, doors, furniture and decorations built with precious Chinese wood, “pinyin” and Beijing marble that took lifetimes to create. Never will so many “wows” leave your lips…until you cross the street and visit Jingshan Park.

When the 164 ft. Wide moat for the Forbidden City was dug, the excavated earth and rock was shaped into a hill nearby that, by legend, protects the palaces from evil spirits. It is the most remarkable view in a perfectly flat Beijing. In the event you have a clear day, hike up to the place where Chongzhen, the final Ming emperor, hung himself as the city was being attacked by rebels.

After hours of climbing and walking history, we stumbled upon a gem called The Emperor Hotel. Enjoy grandiose views of the Forbidden City and surrounding Beijing sky scrapers from its rooftop deck and lounge — a rarity in Beijing. Service, as usual, was perfect. The mojito — magnifique! The martini — not so good. Be warned that it was impossible to get a perfect martini in Beijing. We tried. We really tried. The preparation and presentation were spot-on. After a day of walking the hazy streets of Beijing, we were parched and grabbed that cold, wet martini glass for a sizable sip and nearly spewed it out.

The martini endeavor drew us back to the Kapok and the bartender with whom we had developed a chummy relationship. Determined, we walked him through a proper procedure for a martini. The “drop of vermouth” idea was absurd to him. He couldn’t do it and could not understand why we would want to short change ourselves with so little. After broken “Chinglish” coercion, we were able to take possession of the glass and shaker and demonstrate an American interpretation. We put 3 drops of vermouth in the glass, rolled it around to get full coverage and then inverted the glass to drain the excess vermouth. You would have thought we were Bill Murray by the way our faithful bartender chortled.

If rooftop bars don’t relax you, seek the Dragonfly Relaxation Retreat for meditative mellow moments. The name sums it up. The décor, ambiance and service are flawless. Hotel Kapok is only a few doors down, and we could maintain our rub-induced sedation and snag a nap at our Beijing abode before heading out to seize the night.

The Beijing Opera and body contortions of the Chinese Acrobats are vibrant, colorful, artistically creative and stunning. In retrospect, no surprise that China wrangled so many gold medals in gymnastics and diving — if one can balance forty people (literally) on one bicycle, it’s likely nailing a double flip with a half twist isn’t a far reach.

Part of the Beijing taste adventure is the romance of creating your own dipping sauce at every meal. Similar to sushi joints here, Beijing restaurants have bottles of soy sauce on the table. In escort are bottles of vinegar (a prominent flavor in many Chinese cuisines) and a spice like hot sauce or red-pepper flakes. Something to make your meal a little extra “la” (Chinese for spicy). It was as if we had fulfilled an ancient Chinese rite of passage and formed a bond with each chef and waiter when we asked for more “la” in our food. After a few days experimenting in pre-meal sauce mixology, we deftly doled out personal proportions of soy, vinegar and heat, maximizing the delight each dish brought to our taste buds.

We investigated local beverages to extinguish the food-induced fire in our mouths. Beer was always available; Tsing Tao was the most common, and cheap. The traditional Chinese spirits are yellow rice wine (huang jiu) and Baijiu, a clear liquor made from rice or barley. Huang jiu is served warm in a pitcher or bowl and known for its unique taste and amber color. Baijiu is Chinese moonshine and anywhere from 80 to 120 proof and comes in a green glass bottle in different sizes to fit different budgets. We tried to be open and appreciate these for what they were — and we certainly recommend that adventurous types try it once for the experience. Still we could only conjure “furniture polish” and “gasoline” as descriptors of the taste.

Another cultural discernment: sour and tart tastes are widely enjoyed in China. Apparently the part of the pallet that enjoys vinegar is more pronounced in the Chinese genome than in the West. From the French, vinegar means “sour wine” and, similar to the martini recipe, might be another translation taken too literally by the Chinese.

There are 2 prominent brands of Chinese grape wine: Dynasty and Great Wall. $8 for the entry-level and around $35 for the high-end. Expensive by Chinese standards — you get so used to paying $4 for a giant meal and $3 for a 30 minute taxi ride that anytime you have to shell out double digit dollars, it feels expensive. These wines, along with the famous little green bottle of whiskey are sold almost everywhere. The first bottle of Great Wall Red we picked up from the small merchant shop across the street from the hotel was drinkable, but it was a little “off.” Air-conditioning and refrigeration are luxuries and we chalked up the subtle but obvious sour taste to improper storage. We didn’t give up hope and purchased second and third bottles from another store and a restaurant which, sadly, yielded similar results. We concluded that all the bottles were somewhat cooked from a dearth of cool places to store and transport. A dinner conversation with one of our new friends shed a new light. Chinese produce wine in a similar fashion to the rest of the world with one intentional deviation.

Wine is left open to air before bottling so it will oxidize. They enjoy that sour, tart, vinegary taste in their wine. We would have appreciated that information four bottles earlier.

Despite the indigenous 5,000 year old tradition of sour wine, there are some wonderful wine bars in Beijing. La Cave tenders 150 different international vintages from $15 to $150 per bottle and offers a first-class wine experience. It’s suitable for an intimate evening or relaxing with friends, a refined oasis in a crowded, energetic city.

Pavillion is another great escape when needing to scratch your wine itch or simply a break from the Beijing bustle. A comprehensive wine list and expansive outside garden foster relaxation. It caters to upscale western travelers, is comfortable, spacious and delicious.

Just across the street was the largest bowling alley we had ever seen — 100 lanes! Not in the mood to bowl, but rather for a quiet night cap, we ventured downstairs to what we thought was an upscale restaurant decked out in entirely white décor. We approached the concierge for directions to the bar only to discover we were inside the largest, most profound karaoke experience we had ever encountered! The Chinese are beyond serious about karaoke. To see the practical applications of such committed singing, make your way to Houhai.

A few strides from Pavilion, near Workers Stadium sits the renowned Green Tea House which was a tour de creatif from the décor to the cuisine. Chic is an understatement. Gold fish in wine glasses. Shrimp on hot firey coals. A wine list sparing no expense. Chairs sporting 8 foot high backs. It was real life Alice in Wonderland. Bombastic blocks of cheese sit on expansive cutting boards at the bar. It is over-the-top in every way, yet somehow stays refined. We felt under-dressed in our urban explorer clothes, but were attended to swiftly and with grace.

The “looking good” export from the United States has not yet plagued Beijing. However you are dressed is fine for wherever you go. We found the absence of self-conscious demeanor a pleasant discovery, and as a result, it became a disposition hyper-magnified about our own culture. Their focus was on sharing: food, traditions, lore and their homes. They were fervent in catering to visitors and the preservation of their culture. There is a pervasive feeling of “we are all in this together.” In the end, we discovered Communism does have an upside.

– LISA FRANCE & DAVID JAMES