Sunday, December 21, 2014

Christmas Markets in the US - First Stop, Bryant Park, New York City

Christmas markets are the rage throughout Europe, a tradition that brings people together to eat, drink gluhwein (hot spiced wine), and shop for local trinkets from now through the end of the year.  After returning from visiting these markets in five cities, I was eager to check out the ones in the United States.

Starting with New York City, my favorite is the Winter Village at Bryant Park. It may not be as large as the one by Columbus Circle or the one at Union Square but it gets my vote for its variety of attractions.  When you’re tired of shopping, there are many eating outlets, a convenient restroom, and there’s an ice skating rink that’s FREE. (Take that, Rockefeller Center!). 

Another plus: pretty much every form of transportation is nearby, from myriad subway lines to the bus down Fifth Avenue, and easy access to the trains from Grand Central Terminal. Among my favorite shopping booths, there are the unusual ones like “Don’t Chew” for all forms of melt-in-your-mouth chocolates, things made out of coins, and Brazilian home décor. You’ll also outfit yourself to the nines with everything warm with flannel pajamas, scarves, gloves, and hats galore.  I also love the fact that Sabon has a branch here so I can do some quick shopping without having to find a storefront, and that you can stare up at the Christmas tree with a backdrop of the skyscrapers on Sixth Avenue. 

Food choices are pretty varied with Waffles and Dinges for those craving a sweet fix, or grilled cheese, arepas, and 'wichcraft sandwiches to keep you satisfied.  Although I didn’t find the alcoholic gluhwein that’s ubiquitous at European Christmas markets, there was a Bavarian stand with Sigmund’s Pretzels and another that sold a non-alcoholic version of hot wine and hot apple cider.  

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Shake It Up in Harlem with Some Free Jazz and Cheap Eats

Harlem is the spot for dining and jazz.  The Lenox Lounge may be changing, the Red Rooster and Ginny’s Supper Club are a bit sceney, and Minton’s is a pricy evening, but there’s another spot that conveys the real spirit of Harlem’s jazz tradition at a fraction of the cost.

American Legion Post 398, Harlem
American Legion Post 398 on 248 West 132nd Street was organized in 1922 by Colonel Charles Young with a mission to honor and serve veterans, their families and their community. With 200 hundred members today, it still actively attends to its mission of service. “The Post,” as it's known, is run by its members as perhaps the most authentic jazz/blues bar in Harlem, with live jazz on Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday and a DJ on Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday.

You'll “hear” your way to the brownstone with the music. Head downstairs, ignore the sign that says “Only Members and their Guests Allowed,” and enter this special place. There’s no cover charge, but you must sign the guest book.

Sunday night is the best night for live jazz. You might hear the amazing sounds of the Harlem Groove Band, including a tenor sax that will blow your mind and an electric guitarist who really smokes. Surprising guests may be top musicians from Europe or local singers, all great – and loud, of course.

It’s cash only, and the drinks are cheap and strong.  Airline mini bottles served neat, beer or mini wine bottles are the way to go. It’s also a soul food joint. $10 gets you a meal cooked up in the kitchen in the back. I recommend the “fish fry” if it’s available: a big piece of whiting plated with a couple of sides like greens and mac & cheese. There’s a feeling of community in these tight quarters. Old timers from the neighborhood and actual veterans mingle with “new friends” who have made the trek from Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan to hear the jam. Everyone’s there for the same reason, to have a good time, together.

Definitely meet Commander Eddie Randy Dupree, the host and spirit of the place; the veterans who keep the place humming; and Karen the bartender. You’re so close to the band that you’ll be able to chat them up as well.

48 West 132nd Street, between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. (7th Ave.) and Frederick Douglass Blvd. (8th Ave.), 212-283-9701. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

A Day Trip to the Bronx

The Bronx, named after Jonas Bronck who settled there in 1639, is often overlooked as a destination for a day trip. Yet, it’s a pretty quick subway ride, with, perhaps an Uber connection if your feet get tired. And you can fill a day or two, easily, eating and exploring your way through the borough: the Bronx Restaurant Week, known as “Savor the Bronx” runs through November 14, with 25 restaurants participating. Lunch is only $16.41 and dinner is an amazing $20.14.

courtesy Julie Larsen Maher WCS
Not Just for Kids: The Bronx Zoo has something for everyone no matter the season. “Boo at the Zoo” was a big hit last month but you can watch the penguin feedings any time of the year or duck into the World of Reptiles to escape the cold and marvel at the gigantic pythons and the tiny dart frogs. And there’s much more. Upcoming events include an ice carving week in late December, with professional carvers creating sculptures of wildlife from the Amazon Rainforest. Also, the holiday carolers, a tradition at the zoo, will be returning. Other faves are JungleWorld, an Asian-themed warm-climate space where otters, gibbons and 800 other animals roam; Tiger Mountain and Madagascar! General admission tickets are $16, with reduced rates for children. Open daily from 10am-4:30pm. 2300 Southern Boulevard, 718-220-5100; 

Stop and Smell the Chrysanthemums: No trip to the Bronx is complete without a visit to The New York Botanical Gardens. Year-round exhibits and programs encompass more than 50 landscapes and gardens within the 250-acre space. With more than a million plants, the diverse collection draws large crowds for the upcoming Holiday Train Show and the Orchid Show in February. Fall walks in the forests and gardens are particularly invigorating. Tuesday through Sunday, 10am–6pm. Check the website for ticket pricing. Bronx River Parkway at Fordham Road, 718-817-8700;

Eat, Eat, Eat: Restaurants up and down the Bronx  offer their fare at great prices all year long, not just during “Savor the Bronx.” A surprise to both NYC residents and visitors alike, City Island is a 1½- mile strip of land that offers a variety of seafood restaurants in a boat-friendly residential area. If you close your eyes, you just might think you’ve arrived in a New England fishing village. Well, almost. Try Sammy’s Fish Box Lobster House, a fixture since 1966, with a menu as large as the portions. 41 City Island Avenue, City Island 718-885-0920; 

Mario's Arthur Avenue

Arthur Avenue is the real Italian neighborhood of New York City, a thriving hub of Italian food and culture. Distinctive from Manhattan’s Little Italy where Albanians and Chinese have largely taken over the formerly Italian residences and restaurants, this area is populated by generations of Italians with deep roots to the mother land. Arthur Avenue is considered more “authentic” throughout and the place where Italian restaurateurs and local families shop. Check out the many food stores and the indoor retail market building with vendors selling breads, pasta, gelato, sauces and fresh meats from Italy. Restaurants like Mario's are family-friendly and serve copious portions Many, like the ever-popular Dominick’s, have no menus – just ask for your favorite dish or let the server surprise you with the evening’s specialty. A definite go-to is Mike’s Deli where you can stock up on items to prepare at home or put together a meal to eat on the spot with cured meats, sweets, olive oil, bread and other Italian specialties. 2334 and 2344 Arthur Avenue,

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Fall in The Berkshires: Elegant, Serene and Colorful

Garden Gables Inn, credit: Meryl Pearlstein

Garden Gables Inn, credit: Meryl Pearlstein
I just returned from a quick trip to the Berkshires, to Lenox, Massachusetts with a stay at the peaceful Garden Gables Inn, dating from 1780. Classic New England and a great base for soaking in the colors of October’s finest foliage, the inn reminded me of my many summers and falls in this beautiful corner of Massachusetts and made me fall in love with bed and breakfasts all over again.

I welcome back guest blogger Judy Nayer who has just spent a month in the same area, making her home in the nearby town of Hillsdale.
The Inn at Green River
If you're looking for the perfect place to stay while exploring the upper Hudson Valley and the Berkshires, I suggest you visit The Inn at Green River in Hillsdale.  Just a 2 ½ hour drive from New York City and located in a scenic, pastoral setting 25 minutes from either Hudson or Great Barrington, the inn is one of only three Select Registry inns in the Hudson Valley.

This beautifully restored 1830 property combines the upscale elegance of a small country inn with the warmth and hospitality of the best of the bed & breakfasts. Each of the seven guestrooms is lovely and true to the website photos, and the breakfasts served in the sunroom and dining room are memorable. Among my favorites was the poached pear with goat cheese followed by very thin pear pancakes made from local artisanal flour. Also topping my list was the roasted plum with Greek yogurt and a local honey drizzle which preceded mini frittatas with tomato and spinach and a slice of polenta. Homemade scones, locally made jams and fresh fruit accompany each meal, leaving guests smiling and ready to begin their day. 

The mastermind of all of this is owner/innkeeper Deborah Bowen whose talent and commitment to excellence began 25 years ago when she opened her doors to guests after renovating and expanding this Hudson Valley gem. Deborah is passionate about her guests, and it shows.  From the moment you walk through the door she makes you feel as if you are at home. She helps you plan your days with suggestions for local outings and dinners (and maps how to get there), and always has a batch of homemade ginger molasses cookies and tea in the afternoons, perfect for relaxing in the living room, library, or outside in a hammock.  We all crave authenticity in our lives, and here it is evident in myriad details: watercolors painted by Deb’s grandfather, sterling silver napkin holders that were Deb’s grandmother’s, lampshades handcrafted by Deb, a book collection well curated over time—just to name a few. There is nothing staged here. Even after 25 years, Deb’s labor of love is as obvious and passionate as ever and generously shared.
The Inn at Green River
The setting is so lovely you may be tempted not to leave the inn at all, but there’s a lot to see and do. True to its name, Hillsdale is an area of rolling hills, with beautiful vistas at every turn, and Columbia County is blessed with more farmland than any other Hudson Valley county. The excellent farm-to-table restaurants have located here to take advantage of the relationships between chef and farmer in the state. Visit the farms, wineries, and bakeries throughout the region, and check out the local calendar for festivals and farmers’ markets. In this area, growing food while preserving the land is a passion. In Ghent, the Hawthorne Valley Farm is a biodynamic farm that spans 400 acres and includes a farm store and restaurant, and the Hudson-Chatham Winery is known for its award-winning wines. I really enjoyed the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, where you can see farmers make fresh cheese and yogurt. 
Olana, courtesy: Wikipedia
Nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy the many opportunities for hiking, biking, swimming, and skiing in the area, including the trail system at Taconic State Park. Take the mile-long hike to see a dramatic waterfall at Bash Bish Falls, and in the winter, enjoy cross-country and downhill skiing at the Catamount Ski Area. This area is also rich in cultural and historic attractions. Plan a visit around Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony, and don’t miss the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Hancock Shaker Village, and the Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox. A little further, in Williamstown, is the renowned and recently renovated Clark Museum. And not to be missed is Olana, just outside of Hudson, the home of Hudson River Valley school painter Frederick Church. A guided tour will take you through a mansion that looks like a Persian palace, and outside around the grounds you will see some the area’s most spectacular scenery with breathtaking views of the Catskill Mountains.

When you are hungry after all this touring there are a great many options. Closest to the Inn at Green River, and my favorite choice for dinner, is the Old Mill Inn, with delicious fare and terrific hospitality. Sit at a table in the bar section and you will feel like a local within minutes, or enjoy the elegant dining room. I loved the organic salmon with crispy horseradish crust, parsnip puree, and beet coulis on one occasion, and returned to splurge for a classic filet mignon on another. If possible, save room for one of the decadent desserts. Nearby, I had an excellent dinner at John Andrews: A Farmhouse Restaurant, which emphasizes local seasonal ingredients. For lunch, right in Hillsdale is the Crossroads Food Shop, with baked goods and grilled sandwiches. The town of Great Barrington has many dining options. My favorite was Bizen, an organic Japanese restaurant that competes very well with the best in New York. When you visit the city of Hudson, go to Baba Louie’s Organic Sourdough Pizza Company for lunch (also in Great Barrington), and don’t miss Mexico Radio for the best fish tacos this side of the border. Among a plethora of restaurants here, I recommend the Italian Ca ‘Mea and the French bistro Café Le Perche, and there are dozens more to try. Plan your time so you can explore the numerous galleries, antiques, and boutique shops of this city—it has been undergoing a major revival in the last few years.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Music Photo Exhibit Rocks in TriBeCa Gallery

I'm headed to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame later this month, but I can get my fix now at a new exhibit of photography by Mick Rock at SUMO gallery in New York City. Titled EXPOSED, the exhibit does just that: it exposes the often haunting and legendary images taken by the British photographer of famous rock musicians. (Don’t you just love the fact that Rock shoots rock? BTW, Rock now resides in Staten Island.)
David Bowie
Photo by: Mick Rock
At the two-floor exhibit in TriBeCa, which runs through October 19, you’ll see photos of Syd Barrett, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Queen, Blondie, Mick Jagger and other seventies icons.  These are the photos that earned Rock his place in the music photography hall of fame.  But there’s more.  On the second floor, his PhotoArt covers the years following the Rocky Horror Picture Show, Studio 54 and CBGB years with interpretations of photos of Bob Marley, Freddie Mercury and Paul McCartney as well. There are also images of current musicians including Snoop Dogg, Lady Gaga and Pharrell Williams.
Rock in Roll Mick Rock
Photo by: Mick Rock
You’ll recognize some of the photos from record covers. Others will have you reminiscing about the music scene over the years.  All in all, you’ll see why Mick Rock is called one of the most iconic photographers of our time, “the man who shot the seventies.”  All photos and art pieces are for sale.
The gallery is in the heart of TriBeCa, open 11am-7pm, Tuesday through Sunday. (Subway stops: 1 train to Franklin Street; A or C trains to Canal Street)
SUMO, 37 Walker Street, New York, 917-450-5634,

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

NYC's Fall Culinary Calendar is Buzzing -- September - October Mega-Events

As much as I like to write about dining in other cities, New York City still tops my list in both restaurants and food events. Take a look at four of my favorites coming up in the next two months: three food benefits and a beer festival. 

Village Voice Brooklyn Pour 
Brooklyn Pour Craft Beer Festival, September 27; Here’s a festival you don’t want to miss if you love beer. At the Village Voice’s fourth annual curated Brooklyn Pour craft beer tasting event, you’ll sample more than 100 craft beers from New York and beyond. Seasonal, micro and reserve brews will be featured. To make the event even more enjoyable, there will be live music, a food court, and your own tasting souvenir glass. Doors open at 2pm, but you can come any time until 6pm. Tickets are priced from $55-$85. Location: Skylight One Hanson, One Hanson Place, Fort Greene, Brooklyn.

Gohan Society Aki Matsuri, October 9; At this delicious evening, The Gohan Society invites all to sample exciting Japanese-inspired dishes as part of their mission to foster an understanding and appreciation of Japan’s culinary heritage in the U.S.  You’ll enjoy cuisine from twelve of New York’s finest restaurants: All’onda, Blue Ribbon, Boulud Sud, Gramercy Tavern, Hakata Tonton, Jean Georges, Morimoto, Nobu, Park Avenue Autumn, Ramen Co. By Keizo Shimamoto, Red Rooster Harlem, and The Sea Grill. The annual fundraiser also includes a silent auction with many culinary items. 6:30pm – 9:30pm. Location: Brooklyn Brewery, 79 N 11 Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Meatopia, Food Network New York City Wine and Food Festival
Food Network New York City Wine and Food Festival, October 16-19; The four-day food extravaganza invites you to select from a broad range of events hosted by some of the country’s greatest chefs, food writers, editors, winemakers and food personalities. Programs range from dinners and tastings to seminars, panels, and master cooking classes. Presented by Food & Wine magazine, this is the only event that brings together legendary culinary icons from around the world and America’s favorite television chefs. Proceeds benefit the community-based, hunger relief programs of Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign and Food Bank for New York City. Locations vary.

Meatopia, October 19; Included this year as part of the New York City Wine and Food Festival, Meatopia is the world’s pre-eminent meat happening.  Starring the country’s greatest meat chefs, the Carnivore’s Ball will be held from 4pm-7pm on the last day of the festival. Location: Esurance Rooftop at Pier 92, 52nd Street and West Side Highway, Manhattan.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Where to Eat in the Hamptons Now that the Hordes Have Left

I like to roam all over the Hamptons and with the plethora of farms, vineyards, and water there, you have a wide range of choices with a wide range of prices. Now that it’s past Labor Day, you have a better chance to score a table at these favorites.

Noah’s, Greenport – Noah Schwartz has brought his farm-to-table expertise from his days in Sonoma County.  Here, adding sea-to-table expertise to his repertoire, and a sophisticated knowledge of wine pairings, he brings the North Fork’s best and freshest to the table in this airy waterfront restaurant.  If you’re visiting from the Southern part of the island, you can take a ferry from Sag Harbor to Shelter Island, and a second ferry to Greenport.  You’ll feel like you’ve taken a vacation for the day. Be sure to try whatever crudo is on the menu, any shellfish (as fresh as you’ll ever have it), the BBQ duck on polenta, and filet mignon sliders. Try some local wines like Coffee Pot, which can be ordered in 3 ounce or 6 ounce pours.

Fresh Hampton, Bridgehampton – It’s so wonderful that someone finally came up with a menu that lets you graze through a menu of the freshest of the fresh.  The name of this restaurant, helmed by Chef Todd Jacobs, tells you what to expect: everything fresh, local, and seasonal. Most of the ingredients come from the restaurant’s own garden, supplemented by produce from neighboring farms in Sag Harbor.  You can try a small portion of skate, steak, or chicken, or arrange a full medley of veggie dishes and skip the proteins entirely. All are delicious. The vibe is casual and buzzy. No reservations mean a democratic, but sometimes lengthy wait for seats.  It’s worth it.

Bay Kitchen Bar, East Hampton – You couldn’t ask for a more picturesque setting than at this open-air restaurant, seemingly set at the end of the world.  All seats have an oceanview of Three Mile Harbor from the blue-and-white dining room and bar. Come early for sunset and join the group at the bar and then move to a table for a seafood feast. Recommended are the dishes featuring local catch, like the super-fresh ceviches and crudo. Try the tastings of each. The lobster roll simply dressed with mayo on a roll is a worthy exception – only Maine lobster should ever be in a lobster roll anyhow.  Cocktails are well thought out. Served perfectly chilled in a metal cup filled to the brim with ice, the blackberry julep adds a Long Island twist to this Southern fave with macerated blackberries, a touch of mint, and agave. Desserts are scrumptious – if you can only order one, try the strawberry shortcake made Hamptons-style with strawberry rhubarb compote.

The Lobster Roll, Baiting Hollow -- And while on he subject of lobster rolls, I suggest you head North to The Lobster Roll in Baiting Hollow for the finest the area can offer.  The slightly more refined twin of Lunch in Amagansett, the restaurant doesn’t take reservations but it’s worth the wait. Begin your meal with creamy lobster bisque, add a palate cleanser of cole slaw, and finish with the piece de resistance, a lobster roll filled with fresh lobster and crunchy celery bits. A nice selection of North Fork wines is offered which you can also enjoy at the tasting room next door. Finish with a slice of strawberry rhubarb pie - there’s even a sugarless version. Pure heaven.

Delmonico’s, Southampton -- For a meat fix that perfectly accompanies a starter of raw Montauk oysters and Peconic little necks, the sister restaurants to Manhattan’s downtown legend is the place to go.  Easy to reach from the Southampton train station, the restaurant sits in a tasteful house surrounded by lush gardens. Enjoy a trio of oysters drizzled with a tart mignonette sauce to start. Go for steakhouse perfection with a Caesar salad, the signature Delmonico steak, served sliced with grilled onions and a side of creamed spinach. The Southampton sibling adds a few special Long Island touches like seared scallops with corn pudding. The wine list is extensive so ask the sommelier for the best pairing.  Dessert is a no-brainer: the dish created by the restaurant, Baked Alaska.

Wolffer Estate and Wine Stand, Sagaponack -- Sometimes all you want is a great bottle of wine and a picnic. If that’s your mood, on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, Wollfers’ Estates in Sagaponack transforms the evening into a night in Tuscany… or maybe Provence. Music, wine, cheese and charcuterie all in the vineyards.  Come casual or barefoot. Bring a blanket and enjoy a gorgeous sunset along with Wolffers’ crisp Summer in a Bottle rose.

Race Lane, East Hampton -- Race Lane in East Hampton welcomes you into its casual environment, a combination of tables, a bar, and even a sunken fireplace area for drinks and appetizers. Seafood preparations are glorious. Grilled branzino exemplifies the best of the Hamptons, served with a side of rich lobster mac ‘n cheese.  Scallop crudo, drizzled with yuzu, is refreshing and delicious in its simplicity, as are the Montauk pearl oysters served with a blood orange granita.

Sen, Sag Harbor -- Sen in Sag Harbor takes no reservations but you can spend your wait time watching the nightly passeggiata or walking the small town yourself. Friendly service, masterfully prepared sushi and Japanese selections are the attraction. Start with a plate of lightly salted, blistered shishito peppers, grown locally, a more interesting opener than the usual edamame. Follow this by a miso-glazed cod, also locally caught, and a selection of creative maki. If soft-shelled crab is on the menu, try it in any roll offered. A lovely selection of sakes is offered including a cold, unpasteurized Masumi.

Pierre’s, Bridgehampton -- Pierre’s in Bridgehampton is a casual but refined French bistro with a lively, in-the-know feel. The menu gives carnivores and non-seafood eaters something to cheer about, too, with duck, pastas, and a cheesy Alsatian tarte flambé. Try to meet charming host Pierre Weber if you can. Be sure to look around the room, as this is a favorite haunt by both “out there” and undercover celebs.

Bell and Anchor, Sag Harbor -- I know I’m sounding a bit redundant when it comes to seafood recommendations, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Bell and Anchor, sister restaurant to Sag Harbor’s wonderful Beacon and Southampton’s Red Bar. The nautical dining room is the setting for a lively evening of seafood dining. Clams, lobster, calamari, pretty much every kind of seafood is on the menu and it’s all delicious.

Crow’s Nest, Montauk -- Another restaurant with a no-reservations policy, Crow’s Nest actually makes your waiting time a desirable experience. You can sit by the beachside bar and watch the sunset while eating oysters on the half, washed down with a specialty cocktail like a watermelon cooler or a gin concoction aptly named the Summer Rental. If it’s chilly, there’s a fire pit to cozy around. The dining room has lovely views of the harbor and a small, handwritten menu of dishes ranging from pasta with sea urchin and chilies, to locally caught striped bass and Montauk fluke crudo. The busy restaurant manages to keep a very cheerful tone with a rustic, yet polished feel.  To avoid the wait, arrive by 7:15, especially on a weekend when everyone seems to want to be in Montauk.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Weekend in Peru: Lima, Cusco and Machu Picchu

With the weather a sweltering 90 degrees in most of the US, I’m longing for another trip to Peru to visit its cooler climes.  But it’s not just for the weather.  A visit to Machu Picchu, Cusco and Lima offers a wonderful foodie and adventure getaway even for a long weekend, thanks to new service provided on JetBlue from Fort Lauderdale to Lima.
JW Marriott Lima
I chose to visit this “bucket list” area for four days, starting my trip in the Miraflores district of Lima. A great stopover en route to Machu Picchu, Lima is one of the upcoming foodie destinations in South America with chefs like Virgilio Martinez and Gaston Acurio and restaurants that are consistently named among the best in the world.

Fruit ceviche at Central
I stayed at the contemporary JW Marriott Hotel Lima, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The hotel was near one of the finest restaurants in Peru, the Central Restaurante. With its airy design and open kitchen, the restaurant defined cutting-edge gastronomy and orientation. Chef Virgilio Martinez, as charming as he is passionate about the biodiversity of foods in Peru, made a point of explaining his philosophy of integrating foods along a vertical plane: specifically including products from the varying altitudes of the country. The menu that evening included ingredients from the sea (seaweed calamari on coral), the coast (native corn), the Andes (tuber chamomile), and the Amazon (spicy roots).  Gorgeous plating of charred purple corn-scented octopus, served with lentils, botija olives, sprouts and tree tomato; fruit ceviche; and beef short rib that had been soaked for 24 hours in water left me wanting more.

From Lima, the flight to Cusco on LAN was a snap, significantly shorter than the one from Fort Lauderdale to Lima, although not as luxe.  My hotel in an old market building was cool and trendy, with a gracious mix of thoughtful amenities and comfort.  Views over city rooftops were striking, and the location was an easy walk to the city’s outdoor markets, Cathedral, and even a Starbucks.  Further afoot and requiring a car, glorious views from the ancient Sacsayhuamam sanctuary and its pre-Incan Killke ruins showed off the entire valley with jaw-dropping angles.

Cusco, known as “the belly of the world,” has much to see in the way of history and mysticism.  Officially named a World Heritage site in 1983, Cusco was the historic capital of the Inca Empire from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries. The richness of this culture pervades the city, its religious icons and its ruins to this day.  

Cusco Cathedral
The food market, daily arts and crafts marketplace, and The Plaza de Armas offered a solid dose of history and culture. Each was filled with the colors and beauty of Peru, particularly the gold-filled Cusco Cathedral. El Museo del Pisco provided a different kind of history and more exploration motivation with tastings of Peru’s national drink, a brandy made in the coastal desert plains of the country. Sample pisco straight up, in cocktails, in a flight, and served with appropriate tapas in this multi-floor temple to the beverage.
El Museo del Pisco, Cusco

Two restaurants gave me the dining experiences I was looking for, a mix of tradition torqued forward through multicultural influences: the Mediterranean-oriented Cicciolina  and Peruvian-fusion Limo .
Alpaca skewers, Limo
McDonald's, Cusco
In the Plaza de Armas, I encountered, in amusing juxtaposition, KFCMcDonald’s and the fabulously creative Limo, all three enjoying wonderful views of the flower-filled plaza and each with a Peruvian style of its own.  Limo, a standout for ceviches, tiraditos, and various sushi fantasies, uses Peruvian ingredients highly prized by chefs around the world, such as pink salt, aji (chili pepper), and huacatay (black mint). You’ll also find Peruvian favorites like alpaca steak skewers that pair remarkably well with an aji seco, a chili-infused drink from Limo’s extensive Pisco menu, or chicha morada, a sweetish drink made from purple corn. A wall of windows let you watch the comings of goings of the city while you enjoyed your meal and drinks from the pisco bar.
Alpaca carpaccio, Cicciolina
Pisco coca, Limo
Scallops, Cicciolina
On the second floor of an old colonial house, Cicciolina presented an array of traditional Peruvian dishes tapas-style, including guinea pig (cuy), alpaca and ceviche. Cicciolina’s cuy is presented “causa style,” set atop a fine yellow potato mash with chilies and caramelized apple. Alpaca carpaccio is a gorgeous spread of thin slices with huacatay oil, goat cheese and cherry tomatoes. I also loved the Peruvian scallops barbecued and topped with crispy garlic and lime. Heartier Mediterranean fare was also composed creatively with vegetables and herbs from the Sacred Valley. It was easy to stay and savor in this friendly, art-filled restaurant, as colorful and creative as the galleries below.

Plaza de Armas

A fitting contrast to these finer dining venues, a restaurant frequented by locals satisfied a late-night craving for the Peruvian version of pizza.  Served on thick crust, dripping with cheese and other toppings, the pies at Marengo Pizzeria and the cheery servers fostered a fun evening of beer, pizza and camaraderie. I especially loved the giant meat-centric Marengo, topped with bacon, ham, and sausage.
El Mercado Tunqui

My base in Cusco, El Mercado Tunqui Hotel, is a member of Mountain Lodges of Peru, a group of hotels known for their location and fostering of trekking itineraries.  El Mercado is a short walk up a hill from the marketplace and Plaza de Armas, and is set in a building formerly used as the city’s old farmer’s market. With a beautiful open-air courtyard, quirky art installations throughout, and expansive windows that bring the views of the hills and greenery inside, the 32-room boutique hotel provided every comfort you could want: a cushy bed, a thoughtfully appointed bathroom, a tablet for your use, and a quiet respite from the outdoor activity.  The bar, for a traditional Pisco Sour or a Mate de Coca (to help acclimatize to the altitude), and the Taberna restaurant were also welcome spots when my feet gave out from climbing up and down the hills or touring the sites.


Cusco is the jumping off point for a visit to Machu Picchu.  Unless you’re determined to hike the Inca Trail (an aruduous four-day  trek that requires a bit of planning), I strongly suggest taking one of the panoramic trains which parallels it.  With a glass ceiling, broad windows on both sides, food and beverage service, masked musicians, and even a fashion show of alpaca sweaters, shawls, and scarves, the train trip was both entertaining and beautiful. The Vistadome train ( leaves from Poroy, just 20 minutes from Cusco.

Arriving in Aguas Calientes, the destination city for visiting Machu Picchu, is an adventure itself.  The sheer number of daily visitors makes for a chaotic scene, as you transfer by way of the Indian Market to a shuttle bus that takes you to the entrance to Machu Picchu.  By the way, if you’re afraid of winding hilly roads, this may be the time to invest in a good eye mask for your ride in what is essentially an old school bus.

Although it’s possible to stay in a hotel in Aguas Calientes, I would recommend returning to Cusco to unwind in a quieter environment and enjoy an evening of great food and drink.(I didn’t have time on this visit, but I would have added two other restaurants to my foodie pilgrimages: MAP Cafe and Gaston Acurio’s Chicha.)

Meryl at Machu PIcchu
I had always wanted to visit Machu Picchu. I love the mystery of ruins and the cultures they conjure up. When I visited Rapa Nui (Easter Island) seven years ago, the island's 800 or more Moai grabbed my attention in a major way, particularly since no one could definitively explain why and how they were there, and what they represented. With Machu Picchu, we have more information to go on. Or at least more theories that make sense. The Incans built their astronomic-religious city high atop a peak in the Andes in the fifteenth century but vacated after the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s.  Discovered by American historian Hiram Bingham in 1911, most of the artifacts from Machu Picchu were seized and moved to Yale University for preservation and study. (They have since been returned to Peru.)  The most significant and tangible legacy of the Inca civilization, this “Lost City of the Incas” was named a World Heritage property in 1983, with reconstruction continuing in present times. The view of the Citadel is one of the most recognizable in the world.

The first thing you try to comprehend is why the engineers of Machu Picchu chose this location, so removed from anywhere else, and seemingly so protected on its perch in the mountains.  (At its highest point, Machu Picchu’s La Ciudadela sits more than 8000 feet above sea level.) Was there a mystical reason why the Incans chose the meeting point between the Peruvian Andes and the Amazon Basin? Were the risks so great that they needed to keep themselves well hidden, without accessibility to roads, water and other creature comforts? Or was Machu Picchu simply one of the many estates built at that time to escape the colder climes of higher-altitude Cusco?

Machu Picchu

As I walked among the temples and homes, and imagined the llamas and other animals that had lived with the residents, I marveled at the range of people climbing the broken and steep steps, from young children clinging to parents to seniors walking with canes, all from a multitude of countries.  There was electricity in the air that seemed borne out by the compass that spun in only one direction.  Another mystical omen? People swear by the special energy you can feel here. Touch the Sacred Rock and they say the energy will stay with you.

I could have spent three more days in Machu Picchu, easily, sitting and speculating about the type of life that had existed there.  The Incans had all been killed off.  The civilization had vanished with no one to inherit the treasures of this community, and only a moderate understanding of why.  In some ways, the mysteries of Machu Picchu were like the secrets of Rapa Nui, except that we know far more about the civilization of the Incas and their ways of life.  Would I go back?  Absolutely.  But next time I want to bring my hiking boots.

A few practical notes: a valid passport is required for entry into Peru.  It is wise to obtain altitude sickness medication in advance to prevent headaches and other maladies. Flat shoes or sneakers are a must, as the hills, especially in Cusco, can be daunting.  Be sure to turn off roaming on your cellular phone and use WiFi whenever possible – charges are especially high in the hills.  For more information, contact the Trade Commission of Peru, 310-496-7411,