Macao/Macau – History, New Glitz, Sky Cranes and a Look Forward

The facade of St. Paul Cathedral, built by the Portuguese between 1582 and 1602 is a very popular tourist destination in Macao.

The facade of St. Paul Cathedral, built by the Portuguese between 1582 and 1602, is a very popular tourist destination in Macao.

In the opening scenes of the 1952 movie, “Macao,” starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell, the announcer describes Macao as “the Monte Carlo of the Orient.” If that movie were to be re-made today, we would likely hear, “the Las Vegas of the Orient.”

Las Vegas has come to Macao, with plans to stay. Didn't like the 15 hour flights to the U.S. Mainland? We'll bring Las Vegas to you!

Las Vegas has come to Macao, with plans to stay. Didn’t like the 15 hour flights to the U.S. Mainland? We’ll bring Las Vegas to you!

The "new" Macao, called the Cotai Central District is a luxury hotel, shopping and casino district and construction continues apace.

The “new” Macao, called the Cotai Central District is a luxury hotel, shopping and casino district and construction continues apace.

On the reclaimed land of Macao’s Cotai Central district, a new gaming paradise is glittering-up the region and gaming enthusiasts from all over Asia (many with their families), are showing up for vacations and testing their luck at lavish casinos. The  Venetian, The Sands, The Galaxy, MGM Grand, Wynn are all there with more to come. And, yes, there will be an Eiffel Tower in Macao by 2016 in the new Parisian resort. Fact: In 2012 the gambling revenues of Macao exceeded the total gaming revenues of the State of Nevada.

We will come back to all this new-ness later;  but first, a little history and a little geography.

Macao (or Macau) is comprised of both a peninsula and an island on the south side of the vast Pearl River Delta. Hong Kong, to the northeast on the other side of the Pearl River, is a one-hour trip by fast ferry and arguably a world-apart.

How close is Mainland China to Macao? You're looking at it, across the river.

How close is Mainland China to Macao? You’re looking at it, across the river.

While evidence shows human presence dating back over 4,000 years, early Portuguese traders arrived in the early 1500’s and Macao’s long and fascinating history is rife with clashes between the Chinese and the Portuguese. Things became stable in 1582, with an annual “lease” signed.

The agreement also established the Portuguese administration of Macao, which lasted until 1999, when it became, like Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Area (S.A.R.) of the People’s Republic of China.

Portuguese influence lives on today, with many families having mixed cultures in their histories. Macanese cuisine reflects this culture as well. Gambling (politely called “gaming”) became legal in the 1800’s to help the local economy. Gambling is illegal in Mainland China and resonates favorably in the cultural makeup of many Asians, as they themselves happily acknowledge. If you build it, they will come. They did, and they did.

Casinos have been a part of Macao since the 1800's when gambling became legal.

Casinos have been a part of Macao since the 1800’s when gambling became legal.

A few words about getting there: Our EVA Air flight from LAX to Taipei was interesting for some comfortable reasons. What EVA has done is to create what they are calling Elite Class premium economy. They have managed to create unique comfort with a chair that reclines as though in a socket. This accomplishes two things: It allows you to get the feeling of more recline – with the use of the foot rests – and does not cramp the passenger behind you as much as a regular recline. We thought it was clever and reasonably comfortable (as much as a 12-hour flight can be called reasonably comfortable). The crew on the clean B-777 aircraft worked very hard to demonstrate an appreciation of our business and was clearly trying to deliver the best onboard product they could. The plane was full (one of two departures from LAX-TPE within 20 minutes of each other) so the Elite Class really helped. An easy EVA Air connection to Macao followed uneventfully…the best kind of flight. The Taipei Airport is modern, clean and traveler-friendly, as is the newish Macao airport.

So, we wondered, what are they doing in Macao’s Cotai Strip to attract families, other than the lavish, elegant casinos? For one thing, resorts like the Sheraton Macao Hotel are innovating with a connection with Dreamworks. Take in the “Shrekfast” – a lavish buffet which surrounds a stage full of bigger-than-life characters such as Shrek, Puss in Boots, the cast of Madagascar, with Alex the lion, penguins, and many more.

Macao-236

The Sheraton Macao’s tie-in with Dreamworks is a huge hit with families who come to Macao from all over Asia.

Macao-228

The lavish buffets at the Dreamworks shows feature cuisine stations for just about every ethnic palate.

Whether or not you know these characters already, they become even more lovable when surrounded by a lavish buffet of fresh and exotic fruits (dragonfruit!), juices, breads, pastries, dim sum, Macanese dishes, omelettes made to order, bacon and sausage, excellent coffee and tea – pretty everything you might want for breakfast or brunch, and then some.

Dragonfruit. Fabulous.

Dragonfruit. Fabulous.

We watched tables full of youngsters dazzled as the characters came to their tables and posed for photos with them. Further, the Sheraton Macao has themed some rooms, with bunk beds and other fun amenities for kids, all with a tie-in to the Dreamworks animated characters.

Macao-55

The Dreamworks tie-in carries over to many of the on-request theme rooms at Sheraton Macao.

Macao-52

We thought the standard rooms were well-done, with high-ceilings and comfortable beds and baths.

The Sheraton has nearly 4,000 guest rooms and suites and frequently is 100% booked, so some trip-planning is important. There will soon be a fast rail line from the heart of Guangzhou to Macau which will greatly increase accessibility from major parts of Mainland China. Convention and event business is growing as well and The Sheraton Macao has vast, beautifully appointed ballrooms that can handle meetings and events on a large scale.

As we have always suggested to our readers, become a Starwood Preferred Guest and be eligible for benefits and upgrades such as access to the lounge for breakfast or cocktails. SPG membership is free and the benefits are a real value. The roomy Starwood Club Lounge at the Sheraton Macao is a major enhancement to the resort experience here, and includes an elaborate breakfast buffet, a bar, indoor and outdoor seating, and orchids everywhere. The staff at this property is simply wonderful.

Macao-266

Poolside dining at the Sheraton Macao offers a daily variety of multi-ethnic dishes, reflecting the international palates of the guests.

Macao-263

The Sheraton’s restaurants are excellent and include Bene (Italian), Xin (hot pot and seafood) and Feast (international). Pool-side dining in the semi-tropical air of Macao is offered from the Sheraton’s healthful menus.

Don't forget a Tai Chi class!

Don’t forget a Tai Chi class!

A key fact to remember is that The Sheraton Macao is linked to the other elegant resort casinos by covered walkways, taking you through multistoried shopping areas with all the top global names represented. You could arrive in your bathing suit with a credit card and emerge from these halls of retail in a gorgeous suit or dress, with an elegant new watch, necklace, camera and a spectacular shoes, carrying the rest in a new handbag or roll-aboard.

The shopping opportunities in the well-connected buildings really is endless.

The shopping opportunities in the well-connected buildings really is endless.

Be sure to get tickets for “The House of Dancing Water” in the adjoining City of Dreams. This aquatic/acrobatic love story extravaganza will leave you breathless. A treat for all ages.  Hint:  Wait ’til you see the contortionist!

Macao-123

Be sure to make time to visit “old Macao” and see some of the Portuguese-Chinese influence that has made this a unique destination experience.

Macao-100 Macao-97 Macao-88

And what about seeing the sights? Macao has them. From the ruins of St. Paul Cathedral (built 1582-1602) to the A-Ma Buddhist Temple (1488) and all the wonderful vibrant streets and parks in-between, Old Macao has a rich experience waiting for the visitor. The old Red Market is a real chance to see the local Macanese shopping for fresh fish, poultry, beef and pork and vegetables. Chinese cooking culture demands freshness so be prepared to see chickens looking on as their freshly-butchered brethren leave, under the arms of home and restaurant chefs. There are two fresh fish deliveries per day so a great deal of slapping and flapping can be witnessed at the Red Market, too.

Macao-527

The old Red Market is a great stop. The place bustles with 2 fresh fish deliveries a day, plus the regular meat, poultry and vegetable stalls.

Macao-520 Macao-547 Macao-511

We also enjoyed two museums that share the same address. The first is the Macao Grand Prix Museum, which celebrates the annual world-famous race through the streets of Macao. The race marked its 60th year in 2013. The museum is full of classic race cars of various vintages and excellent dioramas of pit crews and drivers at work. Outstanding historical racing photographs line the walls and videos show some heroic highlights of the race.

Macao-304 Macao-305

Its neighbor, the Macao Wine Museum, is a surprise and a delight. The museum goes on and on, with real wine-making equipment from another age on fascinating display. Mannequins in vintage regional dress of Portugal line some of the hallways. Because of the continued relationship with Portugal, and her influence on Macao culture, the museum’s tasting room offers dozens of varieties of Portuguese wine to visitors. These two museums are world-class in how they present their subjects. It is clear that a great deal of time and money went into these two attractions.

Macao-287

The A-Ma Buddhist Temple in Macao dates from 1488 and is a peaceful and interesting stop on any tour of old Macao.

Macao-278 Macao-275 Macao-292

Macau is small, unique and diverse. It could be thought of as “China for beginners.”  Macao is not the huge, overwhelmingly vast mainland, and yes, it has westernized aspects. That can be a good thing, especially for first timers. You can stay in contemporary luxury in Cotai Central while also having easy access to the culture and history of old Macao. It is a delightful and friendly destination with something for every traveler’s taste.

Links

Sheraton Macao

EVA Air

Macao Tourism Office  (Caution, slow and sometimes impossible to load)

U.S. Department of State Travel Info – Macau

 

 

 

3 Fun Stops in Europe: Barcelona, The Languedoc and Amsterdam

Barcelona had been calling us back ever since we had a short visit there a couple of years ago.

Spanish hams grace this Barcelona shop.

Spanish hams grace this Barcelona shop.

The remarkable works of architect Antoni Gaudi are all over Barcelona.

The remarkable works of architect Antoni Gaudi are all over Barcelona.

Gaudi masterpieces in Barcelona.

Gaudi masterpieces in Barcelona are found in just about every neighborhood.

This time we rented an apartment through VRBO in the Grácia neighborhood and settled-in for 10 days of exploration. Grácia, by the way, is in a great central location, vibrant and away from most of the tourist hubbub. Our hosts, Joan and his wife Elisabeth could not have been more helpful, with lists of recommended restaurants and a local viewpoint of places to visit.

A typical square in Barcelona's Grácia neighborhood.

A typical square in Barcelona’s Grácia neighborhood.

One of Barcelona's finest.

One of Barcelona’s finest.

Friendly folks in Barcelona's Grácia neighborhood.

Friendly folks in Barcelona’s Grácia neighborhood.

Roll-up doors, not buildings seem to rule the graffiti artists.

Roll-up doors, not buildings, seem to rule the graffiti artists’ choice of canvases.

The narrow and vibrant streets of Barcelona's Gracia neighborhood.

The narrow and vibrant streets of Barcelona’s Gracia neighborhood.

Additionally, the Barcelona Tourism office in the Passatge de la Concepció is great source for maps and brochures and the staff is very cordial. There are other satellite tourism offices around the city and they have well-marked signage. Look into buying The Barcelona Card, which has multiple benefits like public transportation and many discounts. This is a new trend with many cities, as we will discuss later in the Amsterdam portion of the journey.

Public bicycles abound in Barcelona.

Public bicycles abound in Barcelona.

Public art is everywhere in Barcelona.

Public art is everywhere in Barcelona.

On our previous visit we found the Bus Turístic to be a great value. For the price of a 24-hour ticket, you can ride around, getting on and off all day and get a great feel for the layout of Barcelona and how you want to plan your daily outings. It is a genuine good deal and their map is a good one, too. Most stops are staffed and tickets can be purchased quickly. Barcelona’s clean, efficient subway and bus system are also excellent ways to get around after a good overview, and you can purchase multiple-ride tickets that save time at the fare machines. Note: Be sure to bring a credit card with a chip in it. The U.S. has been a slow adopter of these, but they are slowly being issued at last. Ask your credit card company for one if you don’t have one. It will make your transactions easier all over Europe.

One of a many inviting establishments in Barcelona.

One of a many inviting establishments in Barcelona.

So, you have your maps, your Metro tickets and a good sense of Barcelona’s layout. Let’s talk about some adventure options. Remember, most of these places have websites so do a little research on times, locations and transportation before you venture out. It will help. Also take some time to review some of Barcelona’s history and that of Catalunya. This will lead to a greater understanding of how the city’s shape evolved, fortifications giving way to neighborhoods and the politics and rivalries within Spain herself that live on today.

Huge, multi-storied flea market, rumored to be the largest in Europe.

Huge, multi-storied flea market, rumored to be the largest in Europe.

Catching up on the news in Barcelona's morning sun.

Catching up on the news in Barcelona’s morning sun.

Tapas everywhere!

Tapas everywhere!

Because some of Barcelona’s key sites can be close together, plan a day such that you are not ping-ponging from one side of town to the other. A good example is an early visit to the Picasso Museum on Carrer de Moncada, followed by a stroll down to the nearby 14th-century Basilica of Santa Maria Del Mar.  The Picasso Museum is remarkable for its breadth of coverage of the artist’s life. We were moved by his early work as a portrait artist, a trade of the time, before his better-known avant-garde work inspired by his move to Paris.

The Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar sits near the harbor area.

The Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar sits near the harbor area.

The Basilica of Santa Maria Del Mar can best be enjoyed sitting quietly in a nave or a pew and contemplating the soaring stone arches and intricate sun-lit stained glass windows. 

So now that your morning has been filled with art and antiquity, what about lunch and a siesta?  While it might seem touristy, we’ve found the outdoor restaurants right around the Basilica of Santa Maria Del Mar to be perfectly decent and fairly priced. Of these we liked the Santa Maria del Mar Cafe. Great octopus!

It would be only fair, of course, to mention one of our favorite lunch spots, however, a bus/subway/taxi ride back to Grácia. And we mention taxi ride here because you’ve been walking and taking in alot.  Taxis in Barcelona are very reasonable, regulated and safe. Take the Metro or bus to the station Grácia and walk, or tell the taxi driver to take you to La Pubilla restaurant on the Plaça de La Libertat, next to the large market. We recommend making a reservation the day before, but we’ve stumbled in without one and were accommodated at the bar by the door. The food is fresh, indicative of the Catalan cuisine and the place is filled with happy locals having long lunches. In fact, one fellow diner asked us where we were from and wondered aloud how we knew about the restaurant (it was on our hosts’ recommended list). We dined there twice and each time the menu was different and each meal was superb. Plan on savoring your meal and having a lovely siesta.

One of the daily specials at La Pubilla in the Grácia neighborhood.

One of the daily specials at La Pubilla in the Grácia neighborhood.

More tasty treats at La Publilla in Barcelona's Grácia neighborhood.

More tasty treats at La Publilla in Barcelona’s Grácia neighborhood.

Pasta and very fresh mussels at La Publla

Pasta and very fresh mussels at La Publla

As you know, people in Spain eat their evening meal quite late compared to American schedules. We think that’s why they built the rooftop bar at the Casa Fuster, so we could ease into the contemplation of dinner with a pair of finely made dry martinis and a spectacular view of Barcelona. A gem of a hotel designed by Catalan architect Lluís Dominic i Montaner (more on him later), we promise that this splurge on a couple of cocktails will be a delight. Time your visit for “the magic hour” when the sun gets low and, while there doesn’t seem to be a dress code, one feels more comfortable in “going out to dinner” attire.  That “travel sport coat” and chic “black jacket” can work wonders.

Exterior of Casa Fuster Hotel in Barcelona.

Exterior of Casa Fuster Hotel in Barcelona.

Martinis at Casa Fuster's rooftop bar, with views over Barcelona.

Martinis at Casa Fuster’s rooftop bar, with views over Barcelona.

Not far from Casa Fuster is the Plaça de la Vila de Grácia with its elegant clock tower, still ringing after all these years. On Carrer de Sant Doménec, one block from the Plaça, is Cafe Godot, which we found to be dependable and very friendly, with a good wine list (the wines of Catalunya are delicious – look for the Priorat label on the bottle). We dined there on several evenings during our visit and can easily recommend it.

Clocktower in Plaça de Vila Grácia. Nearby is Cafe Godot.

Clocktower in Plaça de Vila Grácia. Nearby is Cafe Godot.

Another choice, with an authentic Catalan menu is Envalira, in the Plaça del Sol, also in the Grácia neighborhood. Their Paella is delicious. Barcelona seems to us a well-planned city, especially considering its complicated history, and, like many European cities, open space and parks are given priorities.

This lovely building houses Envalira restaurant. Delicious Paella.

This lovely building houses Envalira restaurant. Delicious Paella.

Park Guell, designed by Antoni Gaudi is the famed architect’s idea of a whimsical place for people to stroll with clever winding paths and the expected Gaudi grace notes of color and tile.

The granddaddy of Barcelona parks is Parc de Collserola, which, at nearly 20,000 acres, sits like a mantle along the tops of the hills surrounding the city. Sometimes referred to as “the lungs of Barcelona” its abundant green forests support habitats for an enormous number of species of plants and animals. It is easily accessible by the Metro lines. Hikers will love this park.

For another day’s worth of sights and sites, try this plan. Start early at the Palau de la Música Catalana. This historic hall of music really speaks for the heart and soul of Barcelona. Designed by the aforementioned architect Montaner, the art nouveau theme pervades the entire building and the magnificent stained glass dome is breathtaking. Try to attend a performance in the main hall as its acoustics are praised by performers from all over the world. Guided tours provide some insight into how the Palau got built. Quite a story.

Palau de la Música de Catalana.

Palau de la Música de Catalana.

Palau de la Música de Catalana.

Palau de la Música de Catalana.

Palau de la Música de Catalana.

Organist rehearsing in the Palau de la Música de Catalana.

And, sticking with Montaner, next try to visit the Hospital de Sant Pau, recently opened to the public and another one of Barcelona’s World Heritage sites. It was built between 1901 and 1930 and wandering the gardens and among the modernist buildings is an experience.

Hospital de Sant Pau, by the architect Montaner.

Hospital de Sant Pau, by the architect Montaner.

Hospital de Sant Pau, a World Heritage site.

Hospital de Sant Pau, a World Heritage site.

From the front gates of the Hospital de Sant Pau you can look down the Avenida de Gaudi and see the towers of La Sagrada Famila, Antoni Gaudi’s famous unfinished church. Begun in the 1880’s, it “might” be completed, we’re told, by 2026. We’ll see, or maybe our grandchildren will. Nonetheless, even if you don’t want to brave the lines, be sure to at least walk completely around the church to appreciate the magnitude of it. Inside, of course, is amazing and the entrance lines do move right along and are well-managed by staff.

La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's famous church, still under construction in Barcelona.

La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s
famous church, still under construction in Barcelona.

La Sagrada Familia church.

La Sagrada Familia church.

Finally, we enjoyed the great, free, evening show of the Magic Mountain of Montjuïc, dating from 1929, which goes on nightly in the fountains in front of the National Museum of Art of Catalunya. It is a colorful, lovely show with music, light and water. 

So…adios, Barcelona and bonjour France!

On the sleek new TGV line from Barcelona to Beziers (which continues on to Paris)

On the sleek new TGV line from Barcelona to Beziers (which continues on to Paris)

Thanks to some superb work on the part of Rail Europe, we obtained reservations on the new TGV line from Barcelona over to Beziers, cutting the travel time in half, to about 2 hours. You can still take the “local” train which goes via a more coastal route but we wanted to experience the new line and Rail Europe’s reservations system is great, withour seats right where they said they would be.

Lezignan-Le-Cebe is a small village but beautifully situated in vineyards.

Lézignan-La-Cebe is a small village but beautifully situated in vineyards.

Vineyards near Lezignan-Le-Cebe in the Languedoc region of Southern France.

Vineyards near Lézignan-La-Cebe in the Languedoc region of Southern France.

Our friends Jean-Pierre and Meredith picked us up at Beziers, in the heart of the Languedoc wine region and hosted us for several days in their small village of Lézignan-La-Cebe. This is an area of southern France where you can go to a different market in a different town every day. Where you can go for 10 minutes on a Plane treelined road to a “certain” butcher or small farm and get just the right cut of pork or a chicken, knowing just how it was raised. And that wonderful woman in Pézanas, just up the road, who buys her fish right off the boat in Séte in the dark hours before dawn, and the croissants at the adjacent bakery and across the street at the coffee store where a complimentary cup is always offered. And, of course, the organic fava beans and other produce lovingly tendered for sale nearby in the town of Gignac. You get the picture.

Fresh strawberries in the village Gignac.

Fresh strawberries in the village Gignac.

Varieties of just about everything are found in the daily markets in the villages of the Languedoc.

Varieties of just about everything are found in the daily markets in the villages of the Languedoc.

On the way to market.

On the way to market.

Every time we go to southern France, we want to live there. Jean-Pierre, a native of Bordeaux, is an knowledgable, and suitably perfectionist, chef whose love of traditional French cooking is a great benefit to his friends. His epic cookbook, “Still Cooking After All These Years” occupies a very honored place in our kitchen and he’s even made it available to the world, for free, on a blog (link below)  of the same name . Going to market with him is an educational experience and fun. 

Shopping with Jean-Pierre is an adventure. Be sure to click the link to his cookbook at the bottom of this post. Great reading!

Shopping with Jean-Pierre is an adventure and an education. Be sure to click the link to his cookbook at the bottom of this post. Great reading and he generously shares his recipes and cooking philosophies with the world.

Our hosts took us to Séte, where commercial fishing vessels come and go from the blue Mediterranean and where the famous annual Water Jousting has been celebrated since the mid-1600’s. From there we moved along the vast beach to Agde, noting the huge oyster beds in the lagoon between the cities and the breeze off the Med making the day a delight. 

A relaxed pace in Sete, but the town really comes alive during the water jousting tournaments each summer.

A relaxed pace in Sete, but the town really comes alive during the water jousting tournaments each summer.

Beautiful, serene Sete, near Beziers in Southern France.

Beautiful, serene Sete, near Beziers in Southern France.

The wonderful long beach at Agde.

The wonderful long beach at Agde.

Wineries and wine cooperatives abound in the Languedoc. There are so many intricacies to French history and the economic relationships between the regions, departments and the central government that it makes a fascinating study. Just the origins of the wine cooperatives is worth looking into. When you are here, stop at some wineries and taste. The wine is good and the vintners are charismatic.

Here are some snapshots of things you might see in and around the small towns of the Languedoc:

LLC2014-147

Inside a lovely home in Lézignan-La-Cebe.

LLC2014-225 LLC2014-214 LLC2014-188 LLC2014-183

Two towns in the region we especially liked were tiny Mouréze, with its unique rock formations and hardy hiking trails up to excellent viewpoints. This is a quiet village and very picturesque. We also enjoyed visiting nearby Salasc, a charming small town, minutes from Mouréze, that makes you dream of a life in the beautiful hills there. 

Hiking trails and interesting rock formations around the village of Moureze

Hiking trails and interesting rock formations around the
village of Mouréze

And so to our land-rocket trip to Amsterdam. 

Again praising the work of Rail Europe, our TGV seats from Béziers to Paris were just as advertised and the train clean and comfortable. There are slower trains across Europe, but if you want to get to Paris from southern France in a little over 3 hours, outrunning, we noticed, several small aircraft, then the TGV is your rocket ride. TGV, as most of you know, stands for Train á Grande Vitesse and generally cruises around 200 mph between cities.

Zoom. Into Paris’ Gare de Lyon, taxi to Gare du Nord for our Thalys high-speed train to Amsterdam.  Fields of flowers race by in Flanders and we stop for a moment in Brussels, no time for chocolate, and off again for Amsterdam. We’ll return to Paris another time. We always do. 

Bicycles, canals, and flowers are signatures of Amsterdam.

Bicycles, canals, and flowers are signatures of Amsterdam.

Ah. The canals in Amsterdam. Couples, hand-in-hand, kissing as they cross on a canal bridge. An easy tradition to love. Holland is a charming country full of gracious, direct and humorous people. Most speak English, sometimes better than we do. We adore them.

We arranged our Amsterdam stay, as we did in Barcelona, through VRBO, and found ourselves in a one-floor-up apartment owned by our host André, in the newly fashionable Oud-West neighborhood, easily accessed by tram from Central Station.

Settling-in and taking a breather from our marathon train ride from southern France, we set forth the next day to obtain iAmsterdam cards from the Tourist Office across the street from Central Station. This office has all the brochures and maps you can imagine and the staff is multi-lingual, friendly and informed. The 72-hour iAmsterdam card really worked for us during our stay. It provides you with unlimited bus and tram travel and mostly free or meaningfully discounted entrance to most museums, and there are plenty of those. 

The Rijksmuseum and reflecting pool in Amsterdam.

The Rijksmuseum and reflecting pool in Amsterdam.

Our first museum was the Van Gogh Museum in the broad, clean Museumplein, also home to the newly-renovated Rijksmuseum (the National Museum of the Netherlands) and the Stedelijk Museum, which houses a large collection of modern art and design. Don’t miss “The Beanery” in the Stedelijk. In the Van Gogh Museum you will find other artists’ work on exhibit and an extensive collection by Van Gogh, of course. The Rijksmuseum houses a very good range of Dutch masters including Rembrandt’s famous “Nightwatch.” The scale of some of these paintings is tremendous, like many of those in The Louvre in Paris. Have a seat, wait until the crowds thin for a moment and regard the magnificent detail and expressions in these true works of art. Lunch in the Stedelijk’s great restaurant is recommended. We noticed locals having business lunches there as well as our fellow museum-goers.  Rembrandt House on Jodenbreestraat near Nieumarkt is also a great visit and free with the iAmsterdam card.

Bikes, bikes, bikes. Mind the bikes in Amsterdam.

Bikes, bikes, bikes. Mind the bikes in Amsterdam.

According to recent figures there are about 811,000 people in Amsterdam and 881,000 bicycles. In other words, “mind the bikes” should be on the tip of your minds when walking on the sidewalk. There are bike lanes separating pedestrian traffic from auto traffic. This means you cross a bike lane before you cross a street. Both directions. Bikes rule in Amsterdam and give it much of its character as do the canals. As in other cities, bikers texting and talking while riding in not uncommon. Mind the bikes!

Bikes rule in Amsterdam.

Bikes rule in Amsterdam.

The delightful Egyptian patroness with Moroccan oranges in our Amsterdam neighborhood.

The delightful Egyptian patroness with Moroccan oranges in our Amsterdam Oud-West neighborhood.

As always in Europe, cafes and restaurants can occupy much of one’s time. Amsterdam is no exception. The stoner “coffee shops” are still around and “head shops” can still be found, but not like in decades past. In fact, the Dutch government has recently discouraged that component of tourism. But cafes and restaurants not offering zee hemp are ubiquitous. We love Café de Jaren on Nieuwe Doelenstraat, with its unique location at a busy canal intersection. Grab a table outside and watch the parade of boats back and forth. The food is good and the staff is very friendly.

Canal side at Cafe de Jaren, Amsterdam.

Canal side at Cafe de Jaron, Amsterdam.

The small but worth-the-wait-make-reservations Foodism, on Nassaukade, is simply remarkable for what they can put out in a small kitchen. While it was the hot pick during our visit, it is not overrated. The Bosnian staff knows what they are doing and, for exceptional food with good portions, prices are reasonable, including their wine list. And two dependable and reasonable neighborhood restaurants, De Italiaan and Café Toussaint, adjacent to each other on Bosboom Toussaintstraat have our recommendation. Good locals’ hangouts and very friendly. 

A neighborhood corner bar in Amsterdam.

A neighborhood corner bar in Amsterdam.

The Anne Frank House is a pilgrimage for many. It is a touchstone for events in modern history which shape our world today. Anne Frank’s story, based on her Diary, is a story of hope and belief that goodness will prevail. For countless reasons, a visit to the house is time well-spent. Some improvements in accessibility have been made since our last visit many years ago but the house remains essentially as Anne Frank experienced it, with the nearby church bells she wrote about still audible in her family’s hiding place. Advance tickets are recommended. 

Canal boat living in Amsterdam has been the dream of many.

Canal boat living in Amsterdam has been the dream of many.

Your iAmsterdam card also gives you free boat tours on either the Blue Boat Company (departing near Museumplein) or the Holland International Canal Cruises (departing near Central Station). These tours, in boats with glass tops, give you a great sense of Amsterdam’s canals and how the Dutch figured out how to manage the sea and build a city. The boat skippers are an interesting bunch, too, dealing with amateur boaters in the canals as well as informing their passengers of sights passing by.

So that’s our report for this post….Bon Voyage!! !

WEB LINKS

Rail Europe

Barcelona Tourism

Palau de la Musica Catalna

Picasso Museum

Hotel Fuster

Jean Pierre Escudier’s Cookbook

Amsterdam Tourism

Apartment in Amsterdam

Cafe de Jaren – Amsterdam

Anne Frank House

Dubai – An Evolving Hub of Luxury, Commerce and Sports in Middle Eastern Culture

 

The Dubai Desert between the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Morning light on the desert between the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Gliding silently above the Dubai desert on a dawn hot air balloon flight, one’s thoughts can easily drift into contemplation of the centuries of Bedouin tribal movements between the coastal fishing and trading areas to the desert oases where they farmed dates and vegetables. The sudden appearance below of a group of Emirati falconers out for a morning hunt with their treasured birds is a reminder that this is an old culture with strong traditions.

Emiratis out for a morning hunt with their prized falcons.

Emiratis out for a morning hunt with their prized falcons.

Remember, too, that until Emirates oil started pumping into the world marketplace after World War II, very little in the way of modern buildings existed here. The fact that the balloon’s basket is shared today by visitors from England, Italy, Germany, Canada and the U.S. reveals another story: Dubai is a now a robust and popular commercial and tourism destination.

Construction and modernization continues apace in Dubai.

Construction and modernization continues apace in Dubai. This is a view of the Dubai Yacht Harbor area from Palm Island, one of the world’s largest man-made islands.

The 16-hour non-stop flight from LAX’s Bradley International Terminal on Emirates Airlines follows an extraordinary route over Greenland, Central Russia and then down through an airway over the Arabian Gulf with Iran to the east and Iraq to the west. The seat-back video screen shows exotic names of cities along the flight path and the 3-camera view of the flight is fun, especially during a night landing. The remarkable double-decked A380 Airbus is clean and comfortable, even in economy, and the flight is well-staffed with an international crew.  If you just won the lottery you can also book a private apartment in first class.

The flight plan of the LAX-Dubai Emirates Airlines flight is nothing less than fascinating for a traveler and the seatback screen keeps you updated.

The flight plan of the LAX-Dubai Emirates Airlines flight is nothing less than fascinating for a traveler and the seatback screen keeps you updated. Yes, that’s St. Petersburg and Moscow you just flew over and, yes, that’s Iran off the port side.

There is a multi-story waterfall to greet you at Dubai International Airport. Customs and Immigration was polite, swift and welcoming; staffed equally by male and female officers.

The Dubai International Airport is vast and amazing. It includes a dramatic waterfall.

The Dubai International Airport is vast and amazing. It includes a dramatic waterfall.

The flight reader board at Dubai International Airport gives you an idea of Dubai as a hub.

The flight reader board at Dubai International Airport gives you an idea of Dubai as a hub.

The first stop on this trip was the grand opening of Four Seasons Dubai, right on the Gulf, and very much up to Four Seasons standards. As expected, the rooms are luxurious, with views of the water and grounds and have an understated flavor of Dubai and the Middle East about them.

All the rooms at Four Seasons Dubai have dramatic views of the Arabian Gulf.

All the rooms at Four Seasons Dubai have dramatic views of the Arabian Gulf.

The Arabesque theme extends throughout the resort in an elegant way, from the lattice work and the window shapes in the lobby up to the chic rooftop Mercury Lounge and its dazzling night views of the futuristic Dubai skyline. The company’s designers, supervised by VP-Design Dana Kalczak, have a way of swirling the local culture around their properties and Four Seasons Dubai is no exception. With a nod to British times, Hendrick’s Bar, off the lobby, is a club atmosphere and an elegant one. A comfortable, well-appointed place for a martini or gin and tonic at cocktail hour.

The stately Hendricks Bar off Four Seasons Dubai's lobby is a leathery throwback to a British Club.

The stately Hendricks Bar off Four Seasons Dubai’s lobby is an elegant throwback to a British Club. A good place for gin.

The Arabesque themes carry through Four Seasons Dubai and enhance the character of one's stay.

The Arabesque themes carry through Four Seasons Dubai and enhance the character of one’s stay.

Cleverly incorporated views abound at Four Seasons Dubai.

Cleverly incorporated views abound at Four Seasons Dubai.

The Mercury Lounge at Four Seasons Dubai is a great place to relax and contemplate the remarkable transition of Dubai from a Bedouin village to an ultra modern international tourism and commercial hub.

The Mercury Lounge at Four Seasons Dubai is a great place to relax and contemplate the remarkable transition of Dubai from a Bedouin village to an ultra modern international tourism and commercial hub. The Burj Kalifa is the tall building in the distance.

We also had some clever seafood dishes at Sea Fu, including a seemingly minutes-fresh Alaskan Cod. Here’s to jet cargo service. Chef de Cuisine Pierre Barusta is a talented innovator and waves a French and Asian wand across a wide range of meal choices in a modern, intimate setting.

The well-executed international theme at Suq, the more casual of the in-house dining choices at Four Seasons Dubai, is great for morning meet-ups and fun to play in for meal choices. Giving the range of palates of guests, there are stations for just about everything. You can fill your plate with South Asian food on one trip to the serving area and return for a reliable omelet cooked to order. Overseen by Executive Chef Gilles Arzur, both Suq and Sea Fu also have beckoning patios if al fresco dining in the warm Dubai air calls to you.

Confessions of a hearty breakfast fan: The buffet at Suq is addictive.

Confessions of a hearty breakfast fan: The buffet at Suq is addictive.

Finally, regarding Four Seasons Dubai, it is truly impressive how the international staff conveys honest hospitality and charm while not seeming overly obsequious, all the while remembering guests’ names almost magically. When I mentioned this to Four Seasons Regional VP and General Manager Simon Casson he described his thorough hiring process and how he can see if an acumen for customer service is “in there” with his applicants.

In Dubai's old Gold Souk, all that glitters is, in fact, gold. Selling phony gold here is a very big no, no.

In Dubai’s old Gold Souk, all that glitters, in fact, is gold. Selling phony gold here is not tolerated.

Everyone hears about The Dubai Mail but not everyone visits the old Souk area which includes The Gold Souk (no fake gold here), The Spice Souk and the smaller Flower Market. Located along historic Dubai Creek, which divides the Deira and Bur Dubai sections of the city, these souks are crammed with dazzling gold shops whose intricate wares gleam from the show windows. Spices from Iran, India and other exotic sources are displayed in barrels and bins, filling the air with tangy aromas.

The fascinating and aromatic Spice Souk in old Dubai is a reminder of centuries of trade, even among regional rivals.

The fascinating and aromatic Spice Souk in old Dubai is a reminder of centuries of trade, even among regional rivals.

Ride an abra, water taxi, across Dubai Creek and see small trading vessels from around the Arabian Gulf.

Ride an abra, water taxi, across Dubai Creek and see small trading vessels from around the Arabian Gulf.

A ride in an abra, the traditional water taxi, across wide Dubai Creek gives you a sense of the early trading atmosphere of the area. Even with new container facilities in the larger port area, smaller vessels still ply these waters bringing goods to the souks and other local businesses and can be seen nested together along the quay. This view, along Dubai Creek, with mosque minarets and wind towers on the skyline, along with the haunting call to prayers, captures the imagination. In this older part of Dubai, there is also a Coffee Museum (remember, coffee originated in this part of the world), the Dubai Museum and the Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Center for Cultural Understanding, which is very much worth scheduling a visit.

The Coffee Museum in old Dubai is a fascinating look at the history of coffee in the Bedouin culture.

The Coffee Museum in old Dubai is a fascinating look at the history of coffee in the Bedouin culture.

The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding lives up to its name in old Dubai.

The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding lives up to its name in old Dubai.

One of the docents at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Understanding enlightened us about Emerati life, education and social mores; even about dating from a young woman's point of view.

One of the docents at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Understanding enlightened us about Emirati life, education and social mores; even about dating from a young woman’s point of view.

Dubai is a melting pot of cultures with workers from myriad origins: the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Africa, Europe and elsewhere. All the new high-rise and infrastructure construction has drawn many people with little or no work in their home countries. Additionally, the new hospitals, colleges, hotels and sports facilities have drawn expat professionals from all over the world.

People from all over the world have come to Dubai to find work and opportunity, including these bakers from the Philippines.

People from all over the world have come to Dubai to find work and opportunity, including these bakers from the Philippines.

This is Captain Helen, from Ethiopia. She drives an abra launch at the Madinat Jumeirah hotel. Helen is an example of people from around the world who have come to Dubai to work.

This is Captain Helen, from Ethiopia. She drives an abra launch at the Madinat Jumeirah hotel. Helen is an example of people from around the world who have come to Dubai to work.

The man most responsible for Dubai’s smart vision and impressive growth is His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. He is a very hands-on and involved ruler and can sometimes be seen driving his own vehicle through Dubai traffic without ceremony. Accompanying Dubai’s astonishing architecture and development, Sheikh Mohammed has also encouraged sustainability and stewardship of natural resources, including seawater desalination, solar power and even a sea turtle rehabilitation facility. His extended family’s leadership and his close ties to other Emirati leaders, including Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Kalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, is positioning the UAE to a future less dependent on oil.

The Burj Kalifa, almost pinch-yourself unbelievable in its soaring height.

The Burj Kalifa, almost pinch-yourself unbelievable in its soaring height.

The modern architecture that now comprises the Dubai skyline is stunning. The Burj Kalifa, at 163 floors, is currently the tallest man-made structure in the world. The observation deck is on the 122nd floor and provides a dazzling view of Dubai, the famous man-made islands offshore in the Arabian Gulf and the desert to the west.

Views from the Burj Kalifa's 122nd floor Observation Deck make it possible to see the man-made islands in the Arabian Gulf.

Views from the Burj Kalifa’s 122nd floor Observation Deck make it possible to see the man-made islands in the Arabian Gulf.

Visitors to the Burj Kalifa's 122nd floor Observation Deck.

Visitors to the Burj Kalifa’s 122nd floor Observation Deck.

Combining a visit to the Burj Kalifa with a trip to the Dubai Mall can be a full day, especially staying for dramatic lighted fountains in the evening. The Dubai mall contains a ski slope, an aquarium and about 1,200 shops.

The Aquarium in the Dubai Mall.

The Aquarium in the Dubai Mall.

On the coast, along Jumeirah Beach stands the iconic Burj Al Arab, with its one of a kind sail-like architecture, heliport and restaurant appurtenances. Viewed from any direction, one just wants to stare at this unique 5-star hotel, built on an artificial island.

The architecturally unique Burj Al Arab stands, sail-like on its own island.

The architecturally unique Burj Al Arab stands, sail-like on its own island.

Further southwest, the causeway to Palm Island Jumeirah takes off and winds around this island made of sand and protected by rocks hauled from the mountain areas near Oman. From the air, Palm Island looks just like its name (and can be seen from space). This is one of the world’s largest man-made islands with sprawling villas and resorts. The vistas towards the shore from Palm Island’s wide promenades are equally impressive with new buildings surrounding the Dubai yacht harbor springing up weekly it seems.

Some of the new construction in the Dubai Yacht Harbor area.

Some of the new construction in the Dubai Yacht Harbor area.

We were lucky to be introduced to the staff of Venue & Concept, a boutique tour company with experienced and personable multi-lingual guides. On one of the tours, Jorge Fonseca, Managing Partner of V&C, arranged a visit to the magnificent Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, just an hour from Dubai.

The remarkable

The remarkable Sheikh Zayad Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi is a highly recommended visit.

Docents at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque are courteous and informative.

Docents at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque are courteous and informative.

AbuDhabi-104

The scale and oppulence of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi is amazing.

AbuDhabi-111

A night view of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.

The scale of the mosque is awesome. Inside, it is at once opulent, intricate and holy. Adhering to tradition, women must be covered and near the entrance abayas are provided at no charge. Guides take groups of visitors though the mosque and describe construction details, history and rituals of worship. As well as the Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi will soon have a branch of The Louvre and a Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum.

Abu Dhabi, Dubai's neighbor and fellow UAE member is engaged in its own building boom.

Abu Dhabi, Dubai’s neighbor and fellow UAE member is engaged in its own building boom.

Our second hotel stay was at the Madinat Jumeirah resort, on the beach of the same name. This is a huge resort which shares the property with the equally luxurious Mina A’Salam hotel, all connected by a clever set of canals circulate with fresh seawater and are served by a flotilla of abras (water taxis) captained by hotel staff, both male and female. Convenient quays, with radio-equipped attendants mean that guests never have to wait too long for a boat. This is a fun way to get around the vast resorts and a very romantic and evocative ride at night. Also, there is no shortage of “buggies” (6-seater golf carts) if travel by the many paths is preferred. Both abras and buggies are electric-powered.

dubai2014-278

The beach at the Madinat Jumeirah resort also includes a view of the Burj Al Arab.

dubai2014-276

Abra launches move guests along the lagoons of the Madinat Jumeirah resort. These lagoons are refreshed all during the day by sea water from the Arabian Gulf.

Excellent restaurants abound between the two hotels and the beach isconvenient and well-staffed with attendants. We stayed in one of the Dar Al Masyaf Villas at the Madinat. Each villa has about 10 large rooms on two floors surrounding a large courtyard, plus a wonderful butler service, which includes a delightful happy hour in the evening in the common main salon or the patio. The butler is more like a concierge and can arrange just about anything from his/her desk in each villa’s reception area. Each villa also has a refreshing large pool, monitored by a lifeguard, and surrounded by comfortable lounge chairs. The Dar Al Masyaf concept is particularly good for groups and families.

Some of the art on the grounds of the Madinat Jumeirah resort

Some of the art on the grounds of the Madinat Jumeirah resort

Magnificent Arabian horse sculpture at the grand entrance to the Madinat Jumeirah resort depict the Emirati's deep love for horses.

Magnificent Arabian horse sculpture at the grand entrance to the Madinat Jumeirah resort depict the Emirati’s deep love for horses.

I like to call this a "Dubai Pontiac."

I like to call this a “Dubai Pontiac.” Parked in front of the Madinat Jumeirah resort.

It was from the Madinat that we embarked on more adventures, including a posh visit to the world-class Meydan Racetrack on the outskirts of the main city. Horse breeding, racing and other equestrian endeavors have deep roots in Arabian culture and here at Meydan is the modern manifestation of this great sport. No expense has been spared to create arguably one of the finest horse racing facilities in the world. If you visit, try to dine at “Silks” in the Clubhouse. 

The vast and elegant Meydan Race Track, one of the world's finest horse racing venues.

The vast and elegant Meydan Race Track, one of the world’s finest horse racing venues.

Another outing took us to the grandstands of the “Dubai Rugby Sevens,” competition, part of an international tour that brings men’s and women’s country teams such as South Africa, Fiji, Australia, Great Britain, U.S. and Europeans into fast-paced time-sensitive matches of great importance in the world of rugby. It is fun to watch, easy to understand with a brief study, and yet another example of Dubai’s committed effort to become a sports tourism destination.

Rugby Sevens international tournament at Dubai's rugby stadium.

Rugby Sevens international tournament at Dubai’s rugby stadium.

For the dawn hot air balloon ride in the desert, we were picked up by the uniformed folks from Balloon Adventures at 0400 and driven in their comfortable van out to our desert launch site. After a safety briefing by our German pilot, the ground crew filled the giant balloon with hot air and we climbed into the basket for launch. We slowly lifted from the desert floor and ascended in the morning air to about 4,000 feet, just as the sun was beginning to rise over the mountains to the east. Let’s just say that a hush fell over most of us as we regarded the vast desert bathed in morning light; so much history in the endless dunes, stretching west to Saudi Arabia and beyond. The flight lasted more than an hour as we drifted along, pushed by the gentle morning breeze, the odd fox or gazelle suddenly spooked by our big balloon

Filling the balloon with hot air in the pre-dawn.

Filling the balloon with hot air in the pre-dawn.

A desert hot air ballon voyage can be dreamy.

A desert hot air balloon voyage in Dubai can be dreamy.

Dubai is trying to get it right for the future of her people. Her rulers know that the end of oil is right around the corner. Re-invention is the key and in a place where the sun shines almost every day the construction of world class attractions continues apace.

The UAE has tremendous national pride.

The UAE has tremendous national pride.

A solid, sustainable infrastructure is in place for this growing destination as well as a firm commitment to the safety and security of Dubai’s citizens and visitors. Dubai won the right to host The World Expo 2020 and, based on the progress being made, it promises to be a big success.

When you go:

Dubai Tourism

Emirates Airlines

Four Seasons Dubai

Madinat Jumeirah

 Venue and Concept Tour Guides

Balloon Adventures Emirates

 Sheikh Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding

Toronto Today – Art, Food, and Canadian Hospitality

The art starts at Toronto’s modern, light-filled Pearson International Airport with a delightful sculpture of a baggage cart loaded nearly to the ceiling greeting arriving passengers in baggage claim. It is a harbinger of that unique Canadian sense of humor and hospitality.

Baggage sculpture in claim area of Toronto International Airport

Baggage sculpture in claim area of Toronto International Airport

Welcome to today’s Toronto.

The central Toronto skyline is much-changed in the last 10 years. While the CN Tower still dominates, new dramatic skyscrapers have sprouted in the downtown core and condo towers are going up apace.  There is a bustling of construction including a renewed Union Station, new shops and galleries in the rehabbed Distillery and Warehouse Districts, street upgrading and more.

The CN (Canadian National Railroad) Tower casts a big shadow over central Toronto and offers wonderful views.

The CN (Canadian National Railroad) Tower casts a big shadow over central Toronto and offers wonderful views.

Places to see on a four-day visit might include a visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) with its Henry Moore sculpture collection and dramatic remodel by world famous Toronto-born architect Frank Gehry. Recent exhibitions include Alex Colville’s engaging paintings and works by Michelangelo. Also In the AGO’s collection of over 80,000 works are European masterpieces and a very strong Canadian collection.

Art Gallery of Toronto with Henry Moore sculpture.

Art Gallery of Toronto with Henry Moore sculpture.

Part of architect Frank Gehry's masterful work in the Art Gallery of Toronto.

Part of architect Frank Gehry’s masterful work in the Art Gallery of Toronto.

Street art abounds in Toronto and many of the artworks are sanctioned by the city. On our visit we met street artist Aurora painting a large mural. She told us that taggers leave work by other artists alone as a sign of respect. Random public art on telephone polls and other places will surprise and delight. A great place to see this is on a stroll through the Kensington Market area, which is a delightful walk through bargain-filled Chinatown from the AGO.

Street Artist Aurora works on her piece in the thriving Kensington Market area of Toronto.

Street Artist Aurora works on her piece in the thriving Kensington Market area of Toronto.

Art galleries and unique shops in the West Queen West Art + Design district are plentiful and can easily absorb a full day. We found a walking tour led by Betty Ann Jordan to be practical and timesaving. We were able to learn about the history of the area and the support given these dedicated Districts by the city of Toronto. We were able to visit places like Artscape Young Place, a re-purposed public school building, now an art hub making studio and gallery spaces available to a wide range of individuals and groups. While open to the public, this venue might be off the beaten path and the walking tour made finding it easy.

Betty Ann Jordan leads great art walks in Toronto. Links to her site at the end of the post

Betty Ann Jordan leads great art walks in Toronto. Links to her site at the end of the post

Artscape Young Place, a former school, has been re-purposed as studio and gallery spaces.

Artscape Young Place, a former school, has been re-purposed as studio and gallery spaces.

We also visited chic boutiques like Gravity Pope (best shoes in Canada) and BYOB (unique bar and hospitality wares) and galleries like Angell Gallery, the Edward Day gallery and Craft Ontario, all emblematic of the West Queen West District.

BYOB, a great hospitality emporium in West Queen West Art+Design district.

BYOB, a great hospitality emporium in West Queen West Art+Design district.

Within a few blocks of each other downtown are the CN Tower, with spectacular views of the Toronto vicinity, the new Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, the Air Canada Center (Toronto Maple Leafs and Raptors basketball team), the Toronto Railway Museum, the elegantly-sited Hockey Hall of Fame, the Toronto Convention Center and the TIFF Bell Lightbox (home of the Toronto International Film Festival). All of these attractions seem to have been designed in a worldclass fashion, befitting a historic center of finance, culture and commerce.

Home of the renowned Toronto International Film Festival with a ubiquitous Toronto trolley car.

Home of the renowned Toronto International Film Festival with a ubiquitous Toronto trolley car.

Two historical standouts that we enjoyed visiting were the St. Lawrence Market in Old Town Toronto and the site of Toronto’s St. Lawrence Hall (built in 1850). There are over 120 vendors selling everything from fish and meats to baked goods and kitchen supplies. There is also a wonderful exhibit room on the third floor which rotates historically relevant exhibitions during the year. Bruce Bell, Toronto historian, writer and speaker, conducts walking tours of the Old Town area for groups and individuals and does a great job rounding out the historical perspective of the Market and Old Town Toronto. Don’t miss the North Market, across the street, site of a Saturday Farmers Market dating back to 1803 and a bustling scene with southern Ontario farmers bringing their goods to town. Bruce showed us the site of Toronto’s original town well and the place where offenders were placed in blocks by the harsh authorities in the early days of the city.

Bruce Bell leads wonderful tours through the Old Town and historic St. Lawrence Market. Link to his site at the end of the post.

Bruce Bell leads wonderful tours through the Old Town and historic St. Lawrence Market. Link to his site at the end of the post.

Another highly-recommended stop is the newly-rehabbed Distillery District. Dominated by the huge Gooderham &Worts, Ltd. sign. This visionary re-purposing of Victorian industrial structures, a national historic site, is clearly a success with its preservation and the modernization. Starting as a grist mill in 1831 and through the storied distillery history until reopened in 2003 as the Distillery Historic District, this is a great place to spend a day and get a great meal. Which leads us to our next section: Food!

Because we only report on places we’ve experienced, let’s start with our first dinner in town at Luckee Restaurant, downtown at 328 Wellington St. West. Famed Chef Susur Lee calls it “Nouvelle Chinoise” and what it seems to us is a great new take on traditional Asian regional cooking incorporated into splendid menu items such as Long Xia Gow (lobster and asparagus dumplings), a jumbo shrimp plate with exquisite tastes and a blood orange and lemon curd tart for dessert. The menu is designed for sharing and the staff, like server Martin Bathke and manager Tiffany Knight, will guide you with informed suggestions. The decor is chic modern with an open kitchen. It is clearly a gathering place for urban-cool diners and families, too.

The chic interior of Luckee Restaurant attracts a cosmopolitan mix of patrons and feeds them very, very well.

The chic interior of Luckee Restaurant attracts a cosmopolitan mix of patrons and feeds them very, very well.

We took breakfast almost every morning at our hotel, Le Germain Maple Leaf Square, not just because it was included with the room, but because it is served, buffet style, in 2 large second floor great-rooms with big windows capturing alot of sky and the downtown buildings. There is abundant staff bringing you your favorite coffee drinks and juices and efficiently refilling the wide-range of breakfast offerings. This room was really well thought-out for the business and tourist clientele the hotel attracts and doubles as a business center 24/7 and accessed by room key-activated elevator. Located at 75 Bremner Blvd, just steps from Maple Leaf Center. Highly recommended.

Part of the dramatic lobby of the Hotel Le Germain Maple Leaf Square .

Part of the dramatic lobby of the Hotel Le Germain Maple Leaf Square .

We had a lunch at Drake One Fifty, close to Le Germain at 150 York Street, and the food was excellent with a great brussel sprouts dish, sautéed mushroom skillet, a delicious kale salad and a hefty, aged beef burger with hand-cut fries. A business lunch environment, judging by our fellow patrons, but not in the least stuffy.

The second dinner we had was a Mildred’s Temple Kitchen, a restaurant with an interesting Toronto history and located in the re-emerging and hip west end Liberty Warehouse District.  Noted cookbook author Chef Donna Dooher and her partner Kevin Gallagher bring decades of experience and innovation to their farm-to-table menu. We had a red wine poached pear salad with pomegranate vinaigrette with arugula frisee and blue cheese and an excellent mushroom skillet that included grape tomatoes and kale with a black garlic vinaigrette topped with grated Pecorino. O, should we mention the knockout, house-made Profiteroles? We tried the Eephus Oatmeal Stout from Toronto’s Left Field Brewing at Mildred’s and it was a star. Fun place and hugely popular on weekends for brunch.

Sushi anyone? Ki Restaurant offers a broad menu that includes a large sushi selection and other fare, as you’ll see. What’s more, you’ll find a Sake Sommelier in the person of Michael Tremblay (certified by the Sake Education Council in Tokyo) who can guide you through a tasty tutorial on Sake basics. We tried the unagi (eel) nigiri, roasted cauliflower with sesame and shiso gremolata, seared fresh scallops with shiitake, oyster and honey mushrooms with shiso furakaki and miso-kasu sauce plus the excellent strip loin with ginger sauce. Shiso, by the way, is a Japanese green. Think basil meets anise. This was all served by Eric Cash and colleagues who guided us through the choices with tempting descriptions from the menu. Ki is located in central downtown at 181 Bay St. and is a vibrant after-work cocktails scene.

The very modern and popular Ki Restaurant even has a Sake Sommelier.

The very modern and popular Ki Restaurant even has a Sake Sommelier.

Cluny Bistro and Boulangerie. Home of the tempting Absinth Fountain.

Cluny Bistro and Boulangerie. Home of the tempting Absinthe Fountain.

Our last dinner in Toronto was in the aforementioned Distillery District at Cluny Bistro and Boulangerie at 35 Tank House Lane. No cars are allowed in this lovely walking area so reaching Cluny is a delightful stroll over cobblestones amidst historic, rehabbed industrial buildings. And a trip well worth it (and only minutes from downtown by cab – we liked Diamond Cab). Chef Paul Benallick oversees the kitchen and dining area beyond the stylish bar and retail boulangerie. The space is cleverly broken-up into unique seating areas which allows for banquettes and tables. There is an intimate oyster bar as well where a group could have some serious fun. We started with delicious martinis recommended by ace server Crysta Boytchuk. Our drinks were accompanied by a clever amuse of Kingfish ceviche and followed by a crisp dinosaur kale and queen kale salad, one of the best French Onion soups we’ve had and a remarkable gnocchi with escargot dish that we would fly back to Toronto for.  We moved on to the Drunken Tuna (seared ahi, red pepper pesto, pureed potatoes and a sherry vinaigrette) and the steak frites plate with a 6 oz. filet mignon served with lemon and garlic aoli.

The Absinthe Fountain at Cluny Bistro.

The Absinthe Fountain at Cluny Bistro.

But wait, there’s more: The Absinthe Fountain. Here’s how it works. You see it across the room at another table; a large glass samovar filled with ice water and you want it at your table. In our case it appeared by the hands of gracious floor manager Andrew Thisby. You are served a glass of clear Absinthe with your choice of a house made sugar cube. The ice water from the samovar is dripped through the sugar cube into the Absinthe. A great way to end a meal.

Adieu beautiful, exciting Toronto. We’ll be back. There is so much more to see.

When you go:

Tourism Toronto

Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO)

Art Walking Tours with Betty Ann Jordan

Bruce Bell’s Walking Tours of Old Town and St. Lawrence Market 

The Distillery District

Luckee Restaurant

Drake One Fifty Restaurant

Mildred’s Temple Kitchen

Ki Restaurant

Cluny Bistro and Boulangerie

Hotel Le Germain Maple Leaf Square

PURA VIDA! Costa Rica’s Dreamy Peninsula Papagayo

Dinner on the beach at Four Seasons Costa Rica on the Peninsula Papagayo

Dinner on the beach at Four Seasons Costa Rica on the Peninsula Papagayo

“Costa Rica!” That’s what Christopher Columbus called it in 1502 when he showed up, still looking for gold in the New World, on Costa Rica’s east coast. Greeted by maidens bedecked in gold, cleverly sent out by the local chiefs to greet him, “Rich Coast” somehow came to Columbus’ mind and the name stuck.

Oscar Aguilar is a great example of the pride "Ticos" have in their country.

Oscar Aguilar is a great example of the pride “Ticos” have in their country.

“Ticos” (Costa Ricans) love their country, and so they should. This flower of democracy amid the banana republics of Central America has no army and no navy. Their “Guardia Civil” receives less funding than their schools and their roads. The right to vote is treasured and public education throughcollege is free, as is universal health care to citizens and permanent residents. Their National Parks are legendary and eco-tourism basically started here. Everyone speaks English from passable to articulate and Costa Rica’s literacy rate is over 90 percent. Of particular interest: Costa Rican presidents can serve unlimited, non-consecutive 4-year terms.

Costa Rica is divided into provinces and this trip takes us to a beauty:  Guanacaste, on the northwest coast, just south of Nicaragua. It is here, on the breathtaking Peninsula Papagayo that Four Seasons Costa Rica coexists in the natural habitat and, equally important, with the local residents.

The Arnold Palmer Signature golf course at Four Seasons is in a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary.

The Arnold Palmer Signature golf course at Four Seasons is in a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary.

Most guests fly into nearby Liberia’s Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport, on one of the many daily flights from the U.S. Schedules can be seasonal but service is regular. The terminal is new and clean, Immigration officers polite and welcoming and Four Seasons folks outside the arrivals door are all set up for you.

I was met in the terminal by Four Seasons representative, Eddy, who escorted us to their van, piloted by Esteban. All the guests in the van checked in on a provided iPad via SKYPE on the way to the hotel, so no front desk rigamarole was necessary. Nice.

Getting away from it all is one reason to visit Costa Rica.

Getting away from it all is one reason to visit Costa Rica.

After a 30-minute drive along sugar cane fields, pasture and out along the ridge of the Peninsula Papagayo, I was greeted at the hotel entrance by the charming Pascal Forotti, General Manager and his colleague, Yerilyn, who presented us with a small glass of “Juego de Bienvenido” (“Welcome Juice”), a tasty mixture of orange juice, cilantro and ginger.

The casual elegance of Four Seasons Costa Rica lobby.

The casual elegance of Four Seasons Costa Rica lobby.

Poolside at one of the haciendas available.

Poolside at one of the haciendas available.

Every hotel room has a gorgeous, screened lanai.

Every hotel room has a gorgeous, screened lanai.

To behold the entire Four Seasons Peninsula Papagayo, I would suggest giving yourself over to the experience of The Spa, the Trail of Giants Tour along the Arnold Palmer Signature Golf Course (set in a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary) and the water sports available. The latter includes kayaking, paddle-boarding and boat rides on the beautiful Bahía de Culebra.

Seclusion and privacy make for a restful stay.

Seclusion and privacy make for a restful stay.

Serious surfers can head over to numerous, seasonally good, surfing spots, including nearby Playa Tamarindo.  Four Seasons partners with Tropicsurf, staffed on-site with experienced guides and instructors. Tropicsurf can easily arrange customized surfing experiences, with local, licensed boat skippers.

The Surf Shack run by the Tropicsurf pros.

The Surf Shack run by the Tropicsurf pros.

Costa Rican wildlife is abundant and, seasonally, you’ll see tribes of monkeys, iguanas and amazing avifauna (birds). In fact, nearly 900 bird species have been identified in Costa Rica – more than in the United States and Canada combined!

Lots of iguanas.

Lots of iguanas.

Magnificent birdlife in great quantities.

Magnificent birdlife in great quantities.

The resort wants you to relax. They want you to come back. Hence the activities that there’s no shortage of. For example, here is the schedule for Mondays through October 31: Guided Kayaking Tour, Spa Exercise Class, Bay Cruise Tour, Spa Boot Camp, Guided Morning Hike, Coco Water Taxi, Cardio Tennis, Spinning, Beach Volleyball, Cooking Class, Dance Class “Latin Rhythms,” Explore Scuba Diving, Guided Snorkel Tour, Artisan Market and a Guided Nature Hike.

One of my favorite activities is Quiet Poolside Sitting. And then along comes staff member Oscar Aguilar as “El Pipero,” the guy who lops off the top of a coconut with a machete, pops in a straw and hands you a delicious fresh container of coconut water with a smile.  !Pura Vida!

Hot and cold Hydrotherapy pools at The Spa, with screened jungle views, offered free of charge to registered guests.

Hot and cold Hydrotherapy pools at The Spa, with jungle views, offered free of charge to registered guests.

A word about the Spa and its facilities at the resort. I chose the Rainforest Aromatherapy Massage with one of the 15 professionally-licensed staff. It was a very relaxing experience, with a choice of ambient music and scented massage oils. The hydrotherapy pools, hot and cold, and gender segregated, are part of the Spa facilities. They are open, free of charge, to all registered guests, as are the dry and wet saunas. The menu of Spa services is extensive and catalogued nicely in the brochures provided in each room.

Children. They are more than welcome, as demonstrated by both the Kid’s Club or the Camp Papagayo Program (these for the age 4-12 group) and the Tuanis Teen Center (12 years and up). These supervised activities and locations give kids a great place to bond and be engaged and are a credit to the thinking of the resort. It is one of the reasons families return to Four Seasons.

Tico's Lounge is a great gathering place for guests.

Tico’s Lounge is a great gathering place for guests.

Cocktail making classes are fun and sociable at Tico's Lounge

Cocktail making classes are fun and sociable at Tico’s Lounge

Food. Yum. Drink. Yum Yum. Because of its central location right below the stairs from the main lobby, Tico’s Lounge is a natural place for guests to congregate for lunch, cocktail hour and beyond. They’ve got a zesty drink here called the Guajito, made with Cacique (“chief of the tribe”) rum, mint, Midori and lemon juice. Wow, where did that first one go? Like that.

The local brews are wonderful, too, with rich ales and pilsners. Tico’s features a mixology class and I found that to be fun and a good way to meet your fellow guests. A couple I met at the class was on a journey to play the most beautiful golf courses around the world. They picked a good stop. Adjacent to Tico’s is Papagayo Restaurant with a great breakfast service.

If you want to dine a little more formally, Di Mare Restaurant, located near Tico’s, is an elegant, Italian-influenced establishment with some creative platings of local, fresh seafood. Loved the sea bass. Another equally elegant restaurant is Caracol, located at the dramatic Ronald Zürcher-designed Golf Clubhouse. At Caracol I had a remarkable comparison offering of local and imported grilled beef, prefaced by a poke-like Ahi dish, and a delicious salad with greens locally-sourced, many right from the restaurant’s nearby herb garden which is worth a look.

Dinner in Caracol's herb garden.

Dinner in Caracol’s herb garden.

Early one night during my stay, some Four Seasons staff gathered children on the beach and launched paper lanterns, taken aloft by small flames into the dark sky. The staff explained that the local tribes used this custom to send off the souls of tribal members who had passed away. We all made wishes as the lantern kites were launched and the sky filled with ethereal bright objects as they drifted off in the night breeze.

An old Guanacaste custom is re-enacted at the beach.

An old Guanacaste custom is re-enacted at the beach.

Another highlight of this trip was Chocolate Making Class, conducted by Henrik Bodholdt who owns the nearby Beach Chocolate Factory.

Henry Bodholdt, Chocolate Maker, offers great hands-on chocolate-making classes.

Henry Bodholdt, Chocolate Maker, offers great hands-on chocolate-making classes.

A native of Denmark, Bodholdt came to Costa Rica over a decade ago and fell in love with the cocoa industry and its end product. Starting with roasting the sustainably-farmed organic cocoa beans, he took the class through the history, shelling, sifting, grinding and mixing process to produce our own chocolate. Mr. Bodholdt gives classes regularly at Four Seasons. It is very educational (and you get to eat your own handmade chocolate).

Two of several pools and beaches you can walk to easily at Four Seasons.

Two of several pools and beaches you can walk to easily at Four Seasons.

Be prepared to experience what returning guests have found:  Four Seasons Peninsula Papagayo doesn’t fit into any traditional resort niche.  Sure, there is the usual attention to detail that comes with a world-class destination (such as a staff member asking a perspiring guest, “Would you like a cold towel”); but beyond this is the destination itself. The feeling of inclusion in the culture and the environment of this treasure of a country, even during a short stay, is palpable. The “Ticos” really love that you are visiting their country and want to let you know it. ¡Pura Vida!

Links:

Four Seasons Peninsula Papagayo http://www.fourseasons.com/costarica/

Playa Tamarindo: http://www.tamarindo.com/

Tropicsurf: http://www.tropicsurf.net/

Costa Rica Surfing Spots: http://www.coastalspanish.com/surfing.htm

The Beach Chocolate Factory: http://www.beachchocolatefactory.com

Desert, Ocean and Luxury at the Tip of Baja, California

Sunrise at Cabo San Lucas

Sunrise at Cabo San Lucas

When you go to “Cabo”, the first phrase in Spanish you should know, after “Gracias” and “Por Favor” are, “¿Es Usted Choyero?” This is a great conversation starter as it means “Are you Baja born?” “Choyero” derives its name from the beautiful and ubiquitous Cholla cactus of the Baja Peninsula. Choyeros are very proud of their State of Baja, the youngest state in the Mexican federation. Before becoming the Free and Sovereign State of Baja California in 1953, it was a wild, sparsely populated territory ruled by the powers in Mexico City.

Our AirTran flight from the very traveler-friendly Orange County Airport took us over enough of Baja to convince anyone it is still very sparsely populated. Most of Baja is still a wild expanse of desert, mountains, washes and tiny clumps of ranch houses and small towns beautifully sandwiched between a blue Pacific Ocean and an equally “azul” Mar de Cortez. It is easy to shake one’s head and wonder why this gorgeous 27,000 square miles has not been developed more. But, then, it wouldn’t be such a treasure of a place. A good exercise is to open a Baja roadmap and see what that 1000 miles between the U.S. border and Cabo San Lucas looks like. You can draw your own conclusions.

Los Arcos, Lands End, Cabo San Lucas

Los Arcos, Lands End, Cabo San Lucas

But let’s get to the luxury part before our thoughts get too parched. Most readers have a good sense of Cabo San Lucas’ location at the tip of Baja; but CSL is only half the story. San Jose Del Cabo, where most people arrive by air, is a wonderful old Mexican town that anchors the other end of the ocean road along Baja’s southern tip. The visitor accomodations that sit, beachfront, along this corridor are our next topic.

The Sheraton Hacienda Del Mar.

The Sheraton Hacienda Del Mar.

Our two most recent experiences included a pair of Starwood resorts, the Sheraton Hacienda Del Mar Golf and Spa Resort Los Cabos and the Westin Resort and Spa Los Cabos. Both sit on dramatic beaches (mind the color of the cautionary flags) and offer distinctly different styles of accomodations.

Colonial styles at the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar.

Colonial styles at the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar.

Apply named because of its “old Mexico” ambience, the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar, on Tortuga Beach, gave us a cozy feel. We appreciated the use of tile, wrought iron, cobblestones and fountains incorporated into the overall concept. Some beautiful artwork and artifacts also enhance the feeling of a traditional Mexican establishment. One could imagine a honeymoon here and, yet, we saw families enjoying the amenities such as the “Kids Pool” and the “Kids Club,” candidly a relief for those of us who seek the quieter aspects of a resort. Clearly, the Sheraton folks have this figured out. We were impressed with the tranquility of this property from the moment we checked in.

Infinity pool at the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar.

Infinity pool at the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar.

Our first night’s meal was a splendid one at the resort’s 5-Diamond De Cortez Mesquite grill, with its lovely terrace by the ocean. With lower Baja’s dependably good weather, meals like this are dreamy. We experienced Executive Chef Manuel de Luca’s menu executed by Chef Salvador Campozano. We began with a creamy lobster bisque followed by a salad of pear, blue cheese, nuts and truffled honey. Before the main course, we tasted a delightful lamb ravioli served with morel mushroom foam and dill.

That’s right, mushroom foam. We chose, for our main course, the Seafood Skillet, in which a delightful menage of lobster tail, shrimp, scallops, mussels and sea bass soak flavorfully in a rum-hinted sauce, served in a fresh coconut. The wines we enjoyed most were reds and whites from Valle de Guadalupe, east of Ensenada in Northern Baja. A passion fruit mousse with fresh berries in a peppercorn crust provided the perfect palate relief after the richness of the main meal. These folks know what they are doing and you are on vacation. Go for it! They will even arrange for your large group to dine on the beach. In a world-class resort, usually all you have to do is ask, and many things can magically be arranged.

Artifacts at the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar emphasize the colonial feel of the resort.

Artifacts at the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar emphasize the colonial feel of the resort.

General Manager Renato Mendonca, with 30 years in the hotel business, and 5 years at the Sheraton Hacienda, recently oversaw an extensive renovation and the rooms show it. Our ocean-view room had its own terrace and we went to sleep that first night with the doors open to the sound of the dramatic surf. Delicious.

Of particular note at the Hacienda are the wonderful infinity pools and spas that are beachside, with the palapa bar happily nearby. Elbows up on the edge of the infinity pool, gazing out at the ocean, watching the waves break is a tonic. Time for reflection and a soul recharge. This is a good place to do it.

And, on a different scale and style, so is the Westin Los Cabos, our next destination.

Part of the dramatic setting at the Westin Los Cabos.

Part of the dramatic setting at the Westin Los Cabos.

The entrance road to the Westin Los Cabos, winding down from the main (now 4-lane) Los Cabos-San Jose Del Cabo highway, doesn’t quite prepare you for the dramatic plaza that adjoins the grand open-air lobby of this Javier Sordo Madaleno-designed resort.

The colors. As Westin Tour Sales Manager Edward Burgos says, ” The colors of the hotel are blue for the ocean, yellow for the sun and pink for the warmth of the Mexican culture. We couldn’t agree more. It is a stunning architectural achievement.

Soothing colors at the Westin Los Cabos.

Soothing colors at the Westin Los Cabos.

Every room has an ocean view and, like the Sheraton, the Westin is set on a remarkably dramatic beach and sleeping with the sound of waves each night adds value to your stay.

If you are not, by chance, a Starwood member, be sure to join as it is a huge benefit when you stay at a Starwood property such as the Sheraton Hacienda or the Westin Los Cabos. A good example of this is a the great buffet breakfasts at the Westin’s Royal Beach Club. Located in an oversized private suite with a long terrace overlooking the beach, it is an extra treat just for being a Starwood member.

Every room has an ocean view at the Westin Los Cabos.

Every room has an ocean view at the Westin Los Cabos.

During our Westin stay we observed a couple of lovely beach weddings and I asked Westin Event Specialist Juan Pablo Colmenero about their wedding business. He told me that they do about 52 weddings per year but never more than one wedding per day. Recently, he said, they had been hosting as many as 300 people in week-long international wedding celebrations.

We wished we had timed our visit to see one of these wonderful, colorful mixture of cultures on the tip of Baja, California. Mr. Colmenero said the Westin’s kitchen staff had been having a great time working with the East Indian chefs who had been added to the mix. Sounds like a great movie!

In addition to the large weddings, the Westin frequently has a full buy-out from corporate event planners, making the resort a great, private club for a large business gathering. Both the Sheraton Hacienda and the Westin offer complete golf packages with excellent courses and amenities.

The remarkable executive chef Manuel Peruyero oversees all of the food at the Westin. We dined at the La Playa Restaurant and tasted our first “Westin Margarita.” As Margarita aficionados, we agreed that there was a little something extra to them. Fish tacos. Gotta love them, and La Playa serves some great ones, typically made with fresh local sea bass. We also had a chance to enjoy one of the “dinners on the beach” that these hotels are renowned for. The buffet was comprised of nearly more choices than we could handle. Everything from grilled (a la parilla) meats and fish to delicious salsas, fresh guacamole and taco makings, all under the stars, with a lovely firepit nearby. The stunning views from the Westin’s Arrecifes Restaurant is also a must during your stay with its cocktail patio especially appealling. Service throughout the hotel and restaurants is a serious staff committment and a joy for guests.

Like the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar, the Westin Los Cabos can arrange a meal on the beach.

Like the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar, the Westin Los Cabos can arrange a meal on the beach.

The spa at The Westin Resort & Spa provides the pleasurable services you hope for in this soothing destination. Relaxing manicures, pedicures, massages, facials are available in calm, quiet, elegant surroundings. La Señora enjoyed an hour of classic Swedish full body massage in a clean, simple room with delicious aromas. The therapist was an experienced and excellent professional. Other restorative massage types are offered, including deep tissue, hot stone, reflexology and sports massage. After the massage she reluctantly floated off the massage table and downstairs to wake up with sauna, steam, and shower. Fresh, iced water is always handy, and white towels, robes and slippers are provided for comfort and harmony. The Westin is justifiably proud of this spa by the sea.

Importantly, both the Sheraton Hacienda and Westin Los Cabos are fully committed to sustainability and the community. The former sponsors and mentors a charity for parentless children and both hotels make sure extra food gets to both employees and members of the community in need.

So, you want to leave the property? What? Well, if you do, you are in for various wonderful treats. A walk around San Jose del Cabo’s historic district is a rich experience. Clean streets, colorful buildings and a great deal of art. This is an historic Mexican town, a port, and sister city to Cabo San Lucas at the other end of the corridor at the tip of Baja. San Jose del Cabo has some excellent restaurants and even some new places like Rock and Brews for the rock and roll crowd (they serve some good pizza, too).

Rock and Brews, San Jose Del Cabo.

Rock and Brews, San Jose Del Cabo.

Cabo San Lucas fishing fleet will take you deep sea fishing.

Cabo San Lucas fishing fleet will take you deep sea fishing.

At the other end of the sea road corridor there is Cabo San Lucas, with its huge charter fishing fleet, Lover’s Beach at Los Arcos (the arches at the very tip of Baja) and numerous bars and restaurants, including the legendary Squid Row and Giggling Marlin. Our favorite Cabo San Lucas restaurant has long been Mi Casa, serving some delicious authentic Mexican cuisine in a less raucous atmosphere than some of the party bars.

Fresh breads at the Penny Lane Cafe in Cabo San Lucas.

Fresh breads at the Penny Lane Cafe in Cabo San Lucas.

 

 

Rancher Lisa Whitt with fresh goat cheeses at the Penny Lane Cafe's weekly farmer's market.

Rancher Lisa Whitt with fresh goat cheeses at the Penny Lane Cafe’s twice-weekly farmer’s markets.

And here’s a special insider’s tip: Penny Lane Cafe on Camino del Colegio in Cabo San Lucas. Breakfast, lunch and dinner with the best locally sourced, organic ingredients. Twice a week owner Monica Diaz Rivera manages an adjacent organic food market with fresh breads, cheeses, vegetables and other wonderful local foods all sourced from local farms. It was here I met Lisa Whitt who, with her husband, produces a remarkable range of exquisite goat cheeses on their farm about 2 hours from Cabo San Lucas. Another tip: Try the take out pork from Los Michoacanos Carnitas.

For activities such as tours, boating trips, outback adventures etc., the folks at Terramar can arrange everything. Terramar’s website is worth a visit and the experience we had with them was professional and fun. Their staff all speak excellent English (and will help you with your Spanish).

Water tours are easily available from the Cabo San Lucas waterfront.

Water tours are easily available from the Cabo San Lucas waterfront.

And booking a whale-watching trip, in-season can be rewarding.

And booking a whale-watching trip, in-season can be rewarding.

Of, course, don't forget to learn about the grades of tequilas!

Of, course, don’t forget to learn about the grades of tequilas!

Finally, for those of you who are curious about renting a private home in the area (and there are some spectacular ones), Cabo Dreams Rentals impressed us with their offerings and Property Manager Cesar Claro seems to have some of the best places to show. Our favorite was Casa Miramar, which sits high in the exclusive Pedregal community, directly above the beautiful Playa Solmar stretching out to internationally famous Land’s End.

Beautiful Casa Miramar in Cabo San Lucas.   Many homes like this are available for vacation rental.

Beautiful Casa Miramar in Cabo San Lucas. Many homes like this are available for vacation rental.

Baja, California. Always a great idea for a getaway. ¡Buen Viaje!

 

Sheraton Hacienda del Mar: http:/www.sheraton.com/haciendadelmar

Westin Resort & Spa Los Cabos: http://www.westin.com/loscabos

Terramar: http://www.terramardestinations.com

Baja Outback: http://www.bajaoutback.com

Penny Lane Cafe: http://pennylanecafe.com

Cabo Dream Rentals: http://www.cabodreamsrentals.com

Mi Casa: http://www.micasarestaurant.com.mx

AirTran: http://www.airtran.com