Category Archives: travel tips

Conde Nast Traveller 2018 Destinations

UK edition of Conde Nast Traveller picks their go to list for 2018…

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Where to go next in 2018

New Year and all the new travel possibilities…

Every year there is a buzz about new ‘in’ places to go. Unfortunately by the time they are on the radar they are already ‘discovered’ by hoards of tourists. So this year on my wish list of destinations I’ve picked places often passed over to go somewhere else more popular. Yet all these places are exciting in their own right and will definitely entice travelers in the near future for they are gorgeous destinations with loads to offer. Get there first…

 

BolognaMany times one goes through Bologna by train on the way to Venice or Rome, yet Bologna offers as much history, charm, and most importantly food! as its more famous neighbours. Medieval streets and historical sights in a town almost free of tourists and crushing crowds. Want to taste the real Italy, this is it, from its locals only atmosphere to some of the best food in the world. They don’t call this region of Italy the “Belly of Italy” for nothing, some of the best produce comes from this region along with a legacy of top notch producers keeping the Slow Food movement alive and well. A must see destination for foodies and historians alike.

AmsterdamIs having a moment, a very trendy moment. And wait too long to go and you will get there when it has already become the hipster destination in every Instagram post. It already has the coffee houses. But Amsterdam possesses romance and magic, canals and delightful architecture that win everyone over with its easy appeal. 

Boston – The first proper North American city, Boston is as American as it comes. From Paul Revere, the Freedom Trail, and the Boston Tea Party, the birth of a nation began here. And it is fun and easy to access in this handsome city.  Often passed over for the Big Apple, Boston while smaller, can boast of its own culinary place with choice restaurants and first class cuisine, much of it local seafood. Some great museums makes Boston a cultural city as well, and the continual variety of events means there is lots to do no matter what you fancy.

Antwerp – Yes Brugges is a gem, but Antwerp too is a jewel of its own. While Brugges has  charisma, Antwerp has elegance and sophistication. Astonishing architecture, the city shows off gilded details of its past while incorporating new and exciting design forward modernity. Definitely a destination for designers.

Milos – The allure of the beauty of Mykonos but on a smaller, less traveled, less partied island of Milos is near heaven on earth for those looking for a quieter Greek holiday. Breathtaking views, all turquoise and white, picturesque stone streets covered with cascading branches and vines is the place of dreams.

Puebla – Two hours outside of the massive Mexico City is a much smaller colonial city of Puebla. The historic center is the essence of Mexico and visions of what most people conjure up when they think of this country. Known for its majolica tiles Puebla is stunningly pretty and a region of over 365 churches, one for every day of the year, most covered in these decorated tiles. Streets are brilliantly colourful from the painted houses to the balloon sellers walking along bustling in clouds of shiny bubbles. It is Mexico like you want it to be.

Sorrento –  Most people forgo Sorrento for the more celebrated destinations such as Positano and Ravello. And you are missing out. Granted Sorrento is a bit more town than village, but it has real charm and character. Also this is where the Italians go when they want to spend time on the Amalfi Coast. So, if its good enough for them…

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September getaway…

Once the tourist crowds have left September becomes Summer’s last hurrah!

If you’re like me, you are itching to go away again somewhere by mid August. But that is the busiest time of year for so many European destinations and the last thing you want is to be body checking your way through a sea of people. So if you can hold on just a while longer… long enough for families to return, kids go back to school and high season prices to go down, a September getaway might just be the prefect tonic to get you through the colder months ahead. Here are some suggestions to get you started…

Madrid – A sophisticated metropolitan city with sunshine and more importantly tapas bars! The appealing historic center and the open spaces makes it a great combination of culture both indoors and out. Whether it be taking in a museum or taking in the sun at the Plaza Mayor with a glass of sangria, Madrid makes for a warm cultivated break.

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Seville – A two hour train ride from Madrid takes you to the quintessential Spanish city of Sevilla. Decorative tiles, romantic architecture and colourful streets capture the true spirit of Spain alongside its breathtaking cathedral and Plaza de España. Have drinks and tapas at El Rinconcillo before taking in a flamenco show.

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Ostuni, Puglia – Sea breezes touch this white washed hill town. Puglia is where Italy meets Greece sharing that same blue Aegean sea. And not far from this sea, surrounded by olive trees is the White City of Ostuni, an almost fairy tale like town with charming small cafes and mystical winding streets. It is quiet, laid back yet stylish. The boutique hotel Relais La Sommitá offers a chic stay with a wonderful fine dining restaurant Cielo that makes it easy to sit back over a glass of wine and look out to the sea in the distance.

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Taormina – A perfect late summer escape with the temperatures still quite warm, the seacoast and a charming town to walk in. For cooling off, excellent granita can be found at Bam Bar or an aperitivo on the piazza. Enticing restaurants and choice local wines make it a substantial getaway for foodies, while a selection of refined hotels make it easy to keep everything within walking distance.

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Rome – is always a good idea but in late September when the Italians have resigned themselves that beach days are over and normal life continues there is a relaxed hum of people getting about their business just not too quickly yet. Yes there are still tourists but a few less so the line for gelato at Giolitti is not as long if you want an afternoon treat. The weather still allows for a lazy afternoon prosecco in the gardens of the Hotel de Russie while autumn fashion fills the shops in anticipation. A bit of both worlds and changing seasons.

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The delightful surprise that is Palermo

Get ready Palermo is about to have its moment…

 

Long passed over as a tourist destination, this dusty capital city is about to regain its grand status. Palermo is a stage, an opera stage. Decorative buildings, noisy and a bit parched, but stately just the same. Centuries of influences from countries all over the Mediterranean make Palermo a cosmopolitan blend of many cultures. A city dense with stunning attractions,  yet scuffed by years of mafia fears which have driven tourists away. But that is all about to change as Palermo has taken steps to clean up its city and its image in hopes to attract visitors once again to this dynamic historical destination.

Getting ready for my first trip to Palermo I didn’t know quite what to expect. I had both excitement and apprehension as my travel date approached. While I had been to Sicily before, I had never been to Palermo and it felt a bit overwhelming given its unfortunate mafia history, and I was a woman traveling alone in a very old world and traditional part of Italy. I would come to find quite rapidly that this was not something to be overly concerned about, the city is vibrant and quite modern. More importantly I was about to discover just how inviting a city it was.

From the start the city was quite welcoming, pleasant and much prettier than I expected. The grandeur of the city, and the Palermitani are very proud of it. Sicilians can be a bit reserved before you get to know them, and here in Palermo it is no different yet people were helpful and eager to show off their hometown. Taking photographs can be met with a bit of apprehension but if you ask first the people are usually very willing and jovial. It is important that you are always polite when traveling but here especially where old customs remain part of daily life. Always say hello or “buongiorno” when entering a shop as these places are usually family run and it is considered an extension of their homes. All that said, travel freely and explore. Palermo is full of expressive winding streets and a soft dilapidated patina. The everyday feels very much like any small village in Sicily just with more people. The bread gets made and delivered, people linger over coffee and walk together in the piazzas.  Prepared to be wowed and won over…

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The travel basics, a general overview:

Hotels: It was difficult to find a hotel I really liked. Unlike most major cities the luxury travel market is sadly lacking in such a choice destination. Many major hotel brands have yet to settle on properties here and the hotel selections are are limited. I chose to stay at the Grand Hotel des Palmes because of its central location and for its historical prestige. It was quite shabby and in need of a serious refurbishment but did capture the essence of a bygone era. (Read my review here Sicily:The tale of two Grand Hotels) But generally speaking this was probably the best I was going to find and it would behoove the city to entice reputable hotel businesses to open new properties in the city.

Taxis: The other tricky situation to maneuver is the taxi situation. There are taxis available but not always where you need them to be. What you mainly find are car services which while safe overall are really interested in giving you a tour of the city or taking you on an excursion to Monreale, the must see church about half an hour out of town. Trying to get them to just take you from point A to point B comes with a discussion (and pressure) of them trying to set up a bigger job with you. Thankfully from my hotel I was able to walk to a great deal, but I did find at the end of a long day of walking the need to jump in a cab and go back to the hotel which is when I was stuck having to take one of these cars. And these cars were the same ‘private car’ the hotel reserved for me on the day I wanted to go to Monreale. And while the driver was charming and got me to my destination I found him insisting on ‘just stopping for a moment’ to show me this or that, never mind that I had made it clear that all I wanted was to go to Monreale and back. I had to finally put my foot down or this would have gone on all day. Alternatively, public buses offer good service and can be fairly reliable.

That established this dramatic city is ripe to be explored with some truly stunning sights to see. Palermo is a stage of delights…

A quick view of the highlights: Start in the heart of Palermo, at the Quatro Canti which is like being in the center of a music box. Thus named because of the four street corners, each representing one of the four seasons and always one corner exposed to the sun. Not far from there is the striking Piazza della Pretoria, with a tiered renaissance fountain in the middle originally made for the city of Florence. While the pride of Palermo is their massive cathedral, the real jewel not to be missed is the Palatine Chapel, a jaw dropping beauty of mosaic work from the floors to the ceiling, this small chapel shines. The walk between the cathedral to the chapel takes you under a massive arch, the former old gate of the city and look at the two whimsical faces carved on the sides. And for die hard Godfather fans the famed opera house is right in the middle of the city. For something truly Sicilian, a visit to the Museo dei Pupi, is a museum dedicated to the craft of wooden puppets, a tradition in Palermo. If there is a puppet show on definitely stay and see it!

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The Markets: Like all great Italian towns, food markets are a must and in Sicily they are particularly spirited. Palermo’s oldest and most famous is the Vuceria, a popular street market selling anything from faux antiques, old photographs and of course fruit and veg. Street food and other food shops also abound. The Ballarò offers the best in produce and is a lot more of a true food market.  If you have time visit both.

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Monreale: If there is one place you must visit it is the glorious church of Monreale just outside of the city. A bus ride or a short cab ride takes you 25 minutes out of the city to the charming town, which is also worth a look, and the famed church. The church itself is breathtaking. Both inside and out the care and workmanship extends from the intricate designs, to the the mosaic floor and ceilings and the painted woodwork. It is perfection. After seeing the inside do not miss the cloisters and gardens.

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Cafes and Restaurants: While I didn’t spend a lot of time there, I did eat at the well regarded Osteria dei Vespri offering an innovative take on traditional Sicilian dishes and flavours. Wonderful place with attentive service and a cozy atmosphere. Antico Caffe Spinnato is Palermo’s Grand Caffe and is great anytime of day for a light bite, coffee, or aperitivo.

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Palermo is buzzing… It has been chosen as the Italian City of Culture for 2018 making it a center for Italian tourism. And equally if not more prestigious, the famed Sicilian fashion designers Dolce&Gabbana based in Milan have finally open a boutique in Palermo and to celebrate launched multiple fashion shows around the city of Palermo. Historical sites such as the Piazza della Pretoria and the Cattedrale were the red carpet runways for the latest collection, heralding that Palermo is open for business and an extremely fashionable destination.

A peak at the Dolce & Gabbana fashion show showcased around Palermo

Sicily: The tale of two Grand hotels

Sicily has many exceptional hotels but what about those Sicilian destinations with less selection to offer. Here’s a look at two. The tale of two old world hotels…

Grand Hotel et des Palmes, Palermo

Palermo is on the cusp of a Renaissance. It has been chosen as Italy’s Capital of Culture for 2018 and its popularity as a travel destination is growing. But what Palermo is missing is a solid selection of luxury accommodation. It is nearly non existent and it was very difficult to find a well recommended hotel in this capital city. So I settled on the historical Grand Hotel des Palmes because of its excellent location. Like many old European hotels, this clearly was once a sparkling hotel in the grand tradition. Sumptuous gilding, marble and mirrors but unfortunately a bit dusty and worn from wear. Much of it’s beauty ignored.

I wanted to like the hotel as it has it’s charm and some of the people that worked there were genuinely friendly with an ease to smile if albeit a bit lackadaisical. But unfortunately it wasn’t enough to cover the fading splendor, the rickety lift, the stained carpets and the peeling paint. This was especially apparent in my room which had scuff marks all over the walls, the chandelier was hanging a bit precariously, and the room was stuffy and dark. This was because the wooden window shutters so popular in Italy were almost all the way down. Upon further inspection the cord to lift it up and down was not working properly and so the only position it would stay in was nearly all the way down. Meaning, no view, no air circulation, and no natural light.  The bathroom was basic and here some creative touch ups were used to cover some of the blemishes like painting the toilet seat to make it look ‘new.’ The room was clean though just in need of  major remodeling.

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The same goes for the public spaces which were shabby and its such a shame as you can really see this hotel was a grande dame at one time. The lobby doubled as a bar area which is fine though there wasn’t a lot of seating when the aperitivo hour came round and there were a few rowdy coach tours staying and constantly lingering in the lobby. I don’t understand why they don’t use a neglected formal room down the corridor as for a hotel bar it would be quite a place. The bartenders doubled by working in the restaurant and so they weren’t always immediately available, or there was one to serve 30 people which meant drinks took forever. The nicest area was the restaurant/breakfast room which appears to have been a formal dining space at some point, with chandelier and lavish details which served up a daily breakfast buffet.

The service was decent, polite, rooms were clean, but not exceptional. Faux antique wooden details and brass. There was no evening turn down service, and the room’s heating/air conditioning did nothing for the temperature of the room. The concierge desk was friendly but here too it could have been better. Their restaurant recommendations were restaurants aimed at tourists and fairly predictable choices. And when I asked for a nice place close by for a cocktail I was sent to an area of tourist restaurants instead of the more elegant pedestrian street with cafes and bars, literally around the corner from the hotel which I discovered on my own a day later. And while not the hotel’s fault, it was quite noisy one evening with a car or store alarm going off all night long. It was hard to sleep and it was still going in the morning. Needless to say it wasn’t a comfortable stay.

Would I stay here again, perhaps as the location is very central. But I hope by the time Palermo becomes the Capital of Culture the hotel gets a make over as it would really shine, and the city adds exciting new hotels to signal that Palermo is open for visitors.

Grand Hotel et des Palmes via Roma 398 90139 Palermo – Italy

Grand Hotel Ortigia, Syracuse

The neighbourhood of Ortigia, in Syracuse is a lovely little peninsula separate from the city and full of charm and history. Baroque streets filled with cute cafes and a palatial central piazza as smooth as an ice rink make it not only a wonderful historical town to linger in but also a central point to go and visit near by towns in the Noto Valley.

But here too it was hard to find a great hotel selection. A couple of boutique hotels were already booked months in advance and not much else to choose from except the larger, tried and true Grand Hotel Ortigia overlooking the marina and with a great location. From the outside it does look like many European hotels with its continental facade, but inside the decor is… well a bit of a mess. They describe it as “Liberty” style in reference to the British arts and crafts movement of the late 19th Century but really it looked like a bit of an old Gothic house meets a bit of hippy psychedelic.

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My room was very simple though almost dorm like. Very clean and comfortable, light pale green and light wood, and while not the most stylish place I’ve been to, it had some nice touches you don’t get in many hotels. For one since most people only stop through here for a day or two and really don’t unpack they have conveniently put up wall hooks above the area where the suitcase rack is placed so that you can conveniently hang things right there over your bag. They also put up a plastic back splash to protect the wall from the scuffing that comes from people’s suitcase, something the Grand Hotel des Palmes might want to consider. Also I loved the rare to find electrical outlet right over the bedside table to allow for easy night time phone charging. But the real surprises were in the bathroom. While small and only with a tiny shower I had to really squeeze into, the shower head was not only a rainfall shower but it also had a series of shower heads down the wall like a mini spa. And for a real treat they had cult brand Culti bath products which they replenished very generously. I have to say I was very impressed.

The public spaces included a restaurant/breakfast room which also doubled as a bar on the top floor offering splendid views over the water and parts of the city. The decor fails to impress, something a coach tour would have lunch in, but the views go a long way. The problem is, here again I encountered a tour group and they all convened in this limited public space to have a bit of a party and it meant noise and lack of seating for the rest of the hotel guests. And on a rainy day when no one wants to be out on the terrace there is even less room. Other than that, it was a pleasant area and offered a nice breakfast buffet in the mornings.

Everyone I encountered working at the hotel was friendly and helpful. My room was always made up before my return, there was a turn down service in the evening complete with a Sicilian almond biscotti on the bedside table. The concierge team at the front desk was knowledgeable and available to help set anything up from local restaurants to day trip excursions.

Would I stay here again, yes. I can’t say it was the coziest or prettiest place I have been to, but I felt looked after and cared about.

Grand Hotel Ortigia Viale Mazzini 12 – 96100 Siracusa

The Grand Hotel des Palmes would do well to learn a thing or two from the Grand Hotel Ortigia. While both are aging hotels, the Grand Hotel Ortigia went the extra mile with staff effort, room comfort and extra details. But as both cities grow in popularity as tourist destination the cities would do well to not only get more accommodation options in town but for these hotels reviewed here to do some serious updating with fresh design. Because with the history and location, both hotels have the potential to be attractive places to stay.

Italian Summer: Where to go

For fun in the sun Italy has it all…

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When it comes to summer destinations Italy offers the whole package. Whether it be time by the beach, culture in the city, or a foodie trip of the best gelato not only can it all be done in Italy, you could do all of that in one trip. The hard part is trying to decide where in Italy so here are a few suggestions.

The Amalfi Coast: Endless blue sea for as far as the eye can see, cascading bougainvillea, and sunny lemons make anywhere along the Amalfi Coast a dream destination.  Some of the best luxury hotels can be found here offering rooms with views and some of the friendliest service anywhere. And while beach life might be a bit rocky, with pebbles instead of sand, the water is calm and refreshing. Not to mention Italian town life on the sea offers a relaxed atmosphere and welcoming casual dining so it is easy to enjoy the day seaside, swim, have a meal of fish caught that morning all while sipping a chilled glass of vino. Positano and Capri are the glamour spots while Amalfi town offers a bit of Italian life and the breath taking views from high in Ravello’s nest cannot be missed. Take time to explore the smaller towns such as Praiano, Atrani, and dotted villages along the coast. The Amalfi Coast never disappoints.

Florence and Tuscany: Italy at its most elegant can be found at its heart in Tuscany. The history of art and culture is evident from its towns and cities to its rolling country hills. While hot in the summer and with extensive crowds, Florence and neighbouring Siena and San Gimignano are worth braving the crowds even in the middle of the heat. Enjoy the cafes, take shelter in the shade of the churches filled with breathtaking works of art and rest your feet over some wine tasting. For a complete escape, villa rentals are a wonderful relaxing way to live like an Italian if only for a few days. Long lunches at vineyard eateries are a fabulous option in the summer as you hop between picturesque hill towns and villages.

Sicily: Being an island most destinations in Sicily are not too far from the seaside. Quaint seaside towns remain laid back, such is life in Southern Italy. While there are many places to choose from, Taormina is the most popular having been a stylish resort for centuries. The town has lots of restaurant and cafe options while the seaside has water activities and a charming little island called Isola Bella. Farther afield on Sicily’s southern coast there are pristine beaches and blue waters. But for a real summer beach holiday head for one of Sicily’s jewel like Aeolian islands or the unspoiled Pantelleria.

Puglia: This is where Italy meets Greece. Both share the deep blue Adriadic Sea and taking the ferry between Puglia’s Brindisi to Greece’s Corfu island is quite common during the summer months. But Puglia is very special. Quiet. Peaceful. Green of the olive trees contrasting with the blue sea and the white washed buildings of Puglia’s sleepy little hill towns and fishing villages. The Valle d’Itria has polished small towns with choice cafes and restaurants. Ostuni, especially has much to offer. Not too much is built up along the sea coast so you can see it from miles away, it glistens in the sun. While beaches are busy in the summer there is still a feeling of this being an Italy without all the crowds. A perfect place to get away and live slow.

Quick Tips: 5 Hotels in Venice

Heading to Venice for Carnival? Here are some hotels to consider…

The Bauers Luxurious with glorious views upon the Grand Canal, the Bauer boasts large public spaces and rooms. The room decor is quite grand in that classic Venetian elegance with lush brocade upholstery, Murano glass and choice antique pieces. Importantly the service is exceptional, friendly and accessible while the concierges are some of the best in Venice with an encyclopedia of knowledge on all things Serenissima right down to the Vaporetto timetables. Two bars, an in house restaurant, and in good weather, an outdoor terrace on the Grand Canal itself, this really is Venice at is best.

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Hotel Londra Palace With sweeping views over the iconic church San Giorgio, this boutique hotel sits on Riva degli Schiavoni in the choice area between Saint Mark’s Square and the friendly Castello neighbourhood. The rooms lean towards the modern with a paired down take on the usual opulent Venetian decor, this polished hotel is comfortable and fresh.

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Hotel Concordia Right on the Piazza San Marco and looking over the Basilica, this more affordable hotel packs a lot into small spaces. While not as grand as a luxury hotel, the hotel is still charming with rooms in 18th century inspired style, not to mention has an excellent location in the center of Venice. A great all-rounder.

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Hotel Colombina For something a bit romantic this bijoux hotel on a side canal not far from St. Mark’s Square is delightful, intimate yet still close to all the action. Rooms are decorated in a stream lined 18th century style with Murano glass accents throughout. Gondolas pass by on the canal below.

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Ca’ Pisani Hotel The original boutique hotel in Venice, this incredibly stylish small hotel makes up in design what it doesn’t have in views of the canal only a short walk away. Located in the very artistic and charming neighbourhood of the Dorsoduro dotted with artisan workshops and galleries, the hotel also has the distinguished location behind the Academia and a short walk to the Guggenheim Museum. This is an ideal area for those artistically inclined and the hotel is a decor enthusiast’s dream.

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