Tuesday, March 24, 2015

2015 James Beard Awards Nominees Announced

Just announced, here is the list of 2015 James Beard House Restaurant and Chef Award Nominees: 

Winners will be announced on May 4, 2015 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Ticket information: http://www.jamesbeard.org/awards/resources#tickets.
 
 
Best New Restaurant
 
Bâtard, NYC
Central Provisions, Portland, ME
Cosme, NYC
Parachute, Chicago
Petit Trois, Los Angeles
The Progress, San Francisco
Spoon and Stable, Minneapolis
 
 
Outstanding Baker
 

Joanne Chang, Flour Bakery + Cafe, Boston
Mark Furstenberg, Bread Furst, Washington, D.C.
Jim Lahey, Sullivan Street Bakery, NYC
Belinda Leong and Michel Suas, B. Patisserie, San Francisco
William Werner, Craftsman and Wolves, San Francisco
 
 
Outstanding Bar Program
 
Arnaud's French 75 Bar, New Orleans
Bar Agricole, San Francisco
Maison Premiere, Brooklyn, NY
Trick Dog, San Francisco
The Violet Hour, Chicago
 
 
Outstanding Chef
 
Michael Anthony, Gramercy Tavern, NYC
Sean Brock, Husk, Charleston, SC
Suzanne Goin, Lucques, Los Angeles
Donald Link, Herbsaint, New Orleans
Marc Vetri, Vetri, Philadelphia
 
 
Outstanding Pastry Chef
 
Dana Cree, Blackbird, Chicago
Maura Kilpatrick, Oleana, Cambridge, MA
Dahlia Narvaez, Osteria Mozza, Los Angeles
Ghaya Oliveira, Daniel, NYC
Christina Tosi, Momofuku, NYC
 
 
Outstanding Restaurant
 
Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Pocantico Hills, NY
Highlands Bar and Grill, Birmingham, AL
Momofuku Noodle Bar, NYC
Per Se, NYC
The Spotted Pig, NYC
 
 
Outstanding Restaurateur
 
JoAnn Clevenger, Upperline, New Orleans
Donnie Madia, One Off Hospitality Group, Chicago (Blackbird, Avec, The Publican, and others)   
Michael Mina, Mina Group, San Francisco (Michael Mina, RN74, Bourbon Steak, and others)
Cindy Pawlcyn, Napa, CA (Mustards Grill, Cindy's Back Street Kitchen, and Cindy's Waterfront at the Monterey Bay Aquarium)
Stephen Starr, Starr Restaurants, Philadelphia (The Dandelion, Talula's Garden, Serpico, and others)   
 
 
Outstanding Service
 
The Barn at Blackberry Farm, Walland, TN
Marea, NYC
Quince, San Francisco
Restaurant August, New Orleans
Topolobampo, Chicago
 
 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Macarons, Ravioli, Oysters and James Beard: Food Events You Should Know About

Did you miss Pancake Day? Margarita Day? Decaffeinated Coffee Day? Lately I’ve been bombarded with news of special food days. It reminds me of those made-up Hallmark holidays, the ones used to sell cards, like Grandparents’ Day, Remember Your Teacher Day, and such nonsense. Well, now it seems to be all about food. Here are a few that you might want to note.

March 20 – A sweet one for sure, it’s Macaron Day. Note that the spelling is the French version, so that you won’t be expecting any of those Passover gems. This is the day that a slew of French bakeries and restaurants in the city give away free macarons a la Parisienne.  Places to check out in NYC for your freebie include Macaron Parlour, Sugar and Plumm, Epicerie Boulud and, of course, Francois Payard who modeled this event on Paris’s Jour du Macaron which falls on the first day of spring.  The full NYC list is here and tell them you’re there for Macaron Day.  This event happily has a charity component to it, as a portion of the day’s proceeds are donated to City Harvest.

Also celebrating the first day of spring (but I honestly don’t get the connection), is Ravioli Day. Various Italian restaurants around the country are sprucing up their ravioli offerings, highlighting the new and different among the tried and true red-sauce versions. For example, Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse in Manhattan has whipped up a lemon ricotta ravioli that sounds more like dessert to me than pasta, along with a prosciutto ravioli that’s served as part of a special tasting menu just for the day. If you happen to be in Los Angeles, STK LA is offering half off its famous lobster ravioli if you order an entrée as well.

March 22 – Another charity event is the Seventh Annual Sunday Supper Event at Chelsea Market in Manhattan.  Hosted by Jamestown and the James Beard Foundation, this is a benefit to raise money for not-for-profit organizations including the James Beard Foundation focusing on culinary education, Wellness in the School, and other charitable initiatives of the Jamestown Foundation. The seated dinner is a multi-course event, prepared by 20 well-known chefs and served family-style to 300 people in the middle of the market’s block-long concourse. Cocktails begin at 5pm, with dinner at 6:15. 



March 31 – The end of the month means it’s National Oyster on the Half Shell Day. Oh no! Did I miss Cooked Oyster Day? Regardless, restaurants like STK LA are upgrading you from a half-dozen of these pearls to a full dozen, gratis. That’s not bad at all.  And if you speak the magic words, “STK Loves Oysters,” you’ll get a side of Chef Robert Liberato’s “one night only mignonette.”  It's also a good excuse to check out New York's the Grand Central Oyster Bar

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Happy Birthday Bach! Free Classical Music Concerts around the World in Subways and Public Spaces on March 21


Here's a way to dive into the world of classical music -- free! Celebrate the birthday of one of the most famous composers with the Bach in the Subways program on March 21. This wonderful gift to straphangers was created by cellist Dale Henderson to celebrate German composer Johann Sebastian Bach on his birthday and is presented free in subways and public spaces around the world. So, get out on March 21 and enjoy some beautiful music from the world’s great master.

Dale, himself, will be playing in New York City at Columbus Circle (59th Street subway station) from 12am (when the program kicks off) until 1am.

A sample of other performances include:

Adrienne Adiesheh (violin) - Bach Marathan -10am
Union Station, Location C by Vignes Street, Los Angeles

Birthday Party for J.S. Bach with the Dante Trio (trumpet, saxophone, piano) – 10am-1pm
Domplatz 10, Munster, Germany

Joao Ramos Marta (flute) – 10am-8pm
Avenida 24 de Julho 5, Lisbon, Portugal

For the full schedule with 1000s of performers in dozens in countries, visit http://bachinthesubways.com .

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Cuba in New York City: Dance Festival at City Center, February 18 - March 7

I am obsessed with Cuba. I've visited twice in the past two years, and each time has opened my eyes to a completely different slice of the country. The high-energy music and dance scene, the magnificent (and crumbling) architecture, the smiling people, and those fabulous 50s cars have given me images that I can't forget. I was thrilled when I heard that Ballet Rakatan was finally bringing their amazing dance troupe to the US. Just like the easing of travel restrictions from the US to Cuba, there appears to be an easing of cultural exchanges with the US. as well. This troupe, which has been touring throughout the world (but not the US.) is finally coming to New York City. I can't think of a better way to get prepped for another visit to Havana Vieja.

Havana Rakatan, the hot, sexy Cuban dance show from acclaimed Havana-based Ballet Rakatan will be making its U.S. debut at City Center, 135 West 55th Street, in Manhattan, February 18 – 22. And you don't need to sign up for a people-to-people program to see it.


Havana Rakatan is the first presentation of City Center’s A Bailar: Dance at the Center Latin dance festival which runs from February 18 – March 7. The Festival continues with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s m¡longa,a dance presentation focused on the sultry world of Buenos Aires tango. The final performance is Voces, Suite Flamenca,a new work from flamenco superstar Sara Baras.

Back to Cuba for the moment. I really encourage you to get your tickets before they’re sold out.

Havana Rakatan is a dazzling mix of salsa, mambo, jazz, bolero, son, cha cha cha and rumba, accompanied by the eight-piece Cuban son band Turquino, which will perform live onstage. The show presents a dazzling slice of Havana culture that charts the evolution of Cuban music and dance over the country’s 500-year history, from the West African rhythms brought by slaves beginning in the mid-16th century, to the jazz, mambo and bolero of the 1940s, the rumba and cha cha of the 1970s, and the salsa and son of modern-day Havana.

As I heard in both Havana and Trinidad last week, it’s son that brings it all to an exciting finish, combining elements of Spanish guitar and song with African rhythms and percussion. This is the heart of modern Cuban music and dance. Ballet Rakatan is one of Cuba's most successful cultural exports. The company was founded by dancer-turned-choreographer Nilda Guerra in 2001 and has since toured throughout the world. Most of the dancers are graduates of the renowned Escuela Nacional de Arte de la Habana, one of Havana’s premier dance schools that offers contemporary dance training mixed with Cuban dance and Latin styles.

The performance schedule is:

Havana Rakatan, February 18-22: Wednesday, February 18 and Thursday, February 19 at 7:30 pm; Friday, February 20 at 8 pm; Saturday, February 21 at 2 and 8 pm; and Sunday, February 22 at 2 and 7 pm

m¡longa, February 26 – March 22: Thursday, February 26, Friday, February 27 and Saturday, February 28 at 8 pm; and Sunday, March 1, at 2 pm

Ballet Flamenco Sara Baras, March 4-7: Wednesday, March 4 and Thursday, March 5 at 7:30 pm; Friday, March 6 and Saturday, March 7 at 8 pm

For tickets, www.nycitycenter.org

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Valentine's Day Packages for Procrastinators


Valentine’s Day procrastinators can still book some pretty cool "50 Shades of Grey"-themed, foodie aphrodisiac, and over-the-top indulgences for their sweeties.



Taking advantage of the long-awaited movie premiere of Fifty Shades of Grey on February 13 and Valentine’s Day on February 14, the new B Ocean Resort in Fort Lauderdale, FL is offering an indulgent Valentine’s Day package themed after the best-selling novel. Couples booking the “Fifty Shades of B Package” will receive items that appear in the 50 Shades story line including a grey silk tie, a bottle of Pouilly Fume wine, a decadent cheese and fruit platter, and a sensual love kit. In true Christian Grey fashion, couples looking notch things up can B Adventurous with the addition of a helicopter ride above the serene beaches of Fort Lauderdale. Throughout their stay couples can enjoy Mexican cuisine at B Ocean’s onsite restaurant, Dos Caminos, or make a splash at the legendary Wreck Bar and sip on signature cocktails. The package is available through March 1, starting at $339 per night with a 2-night minimum.


Are you one of the first to have seen 50 Shades of Grey? Then you might spark to this package that has a laser focus on timing as well. Hotel Monaco Philadelphia is offering a scandalous 70% off sale for a limited number of rooms from February 11-April 16 with a “Thrifty Shades of Grey” 72-hour sale. The sale ends at midnight on February 13. If you're late to the party and miss out on the deep discount, rooms will still be available at a 30% discount.

Also in celebration of Valentine's Day and the 50 Shades of Grey movie premiere, The Heathman Restaurant & Bar in Portland, OR has concocted a romantic night out on the town. Guests are invited to imbibe with the 50 Shades of Gin cocktail (handcuffs included), enjoy dinner for two (complete with menu items from the book and grey-tied servers), and top the night off with tickets to the film at a nearby theater.

A getaway to the nation’s capital is appealing at the Mandarin Oriental, Washington, DC. For the entire year, the hotel is offering the "Monumental Romance" package just in case couples procrastinate (beyond Saturday) or just can't get away in February. Starting at $455, you’ll get luxurious accommodations, chocolate-covered strawberries and champagne, breakfast for two in bed (or at the Muze restaurant, if you prefer), and a $100 credit at the spa. For further indulgence (and valid for the month of February), The Spa offers the Valentine Couples Retreat in a private suite with an 80-minute Oriental Essence Massage, Moroccan Oil Scalp Massage and chocolate-covered strawberries with champagne for an extra charge.

The Mandarin Oriental in Miami is long on romance as well. Couples looking to experience a luxurious Valentine's Day are invited to book the "Be My Valentine" package with accommodations in a deluxe room, full American breakfast at La Mar with mimosas, and a bottle of Piper-Heidsieck champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries upon arrival. Rates start at $739 for a one-night stay.

The Hotel Monaco in Portland’s "At Your Service" Valentine's Day Package reaches new levels. How’s this for an array of services? In the evening, your champagne butler will offer a sampling of local Oregon sparkling wines along with professional tasting notes; your oyster and caviar butler bring an arrangement of indulgent canapés to pair with your champagne, while your bath butler prepares for your late evening by selecting luxurious bath accoutrements for a perfectly drawn bath to set the mood. Next, it’s the pampering and grooming butler who makes you up and blows out your hair, and gives your better half a shave, neck trim and shoe shine. And, of course, there’s a destination butler, your own personal driver to take you anywhere your heart's desire for dinner (they’ll help plan that, too). The next day, the espresso butler will be on call to bring up your favorite pick-me-up beverage to finish all this. There’s breakfast for two and late checkout (of course).

Want to go over-the-top, but a little further South? Hard Rock Hotel San Diego's extravagant "We Found Love" package, wants to make sure you have everything necessary for a passionate night any time in February. The package includes luxurious suite accommodations, romantic turndown service with champagne and chocolates, a love song playlist expertly curated by the hotel’s VIBE Manager, and a $40 in-room breakfast bed credit. For those who really want to make a statement about their love for each other, the hotel offers a "PDA Add-On," where, for $1500, a personal Valentine's message will light up the side of the hotel using hi-tech projection software.

Foodies have a package all their own as well. Fisher Island Club Hotel & Resort, the private vacation destination in Miami Beach, presents the “Romancing the Palate” package, where couples can explore their love affair with food through the guidance of culinary genius Stephane Caporal, Fisher Island Club Hotel & Resort’s executive chef. The chef has created a program that will take guests on a romantic gastronomic journey filled with foodie experiences and personal attention. Offered until April 30, you’ll get a three-night-stay in the hotel’s romantic Vanderbilt North Cottage, Vintage Dom Perignon Champagne and caviar service for two upon arrival, a private cooking class for two with Executive Chef Stephane Caporal, an intimate dinner for two at Garwood Lounge, a personal chauffer during your entire stay, a personal butler at your service during entire stay to handle all wishes, monogrammed robes, European breakfast in bed, daily, and a couples massage at Spa Internazionale.


For another foodie idea, Vietnam’s secluded Six Senses Ninh Van Bay has come up with a playful concept with His and Her menus for Valentine’s Dinner at The Bay. For those couples that love to share by tasting one another’s dishes, this is a feast that offers the best of both worlds. The five-course menus include oyster shooters, tuna tartar, seared scallop, seared sea bass and glazed beef fillet in tamarind sauce. Deserts are even more sinful with hazelnut dacquoise and vanilla mousse. A wine pairing is also offered for the ultimate dining experience.

Feeling a bit more spiritual? Mii amo Spa in Sedona, AZ is the perfect destination to relax and unwind with their “Week of Love.” Beginning today, couples can deepen their spiritual connection with the enlightening three-day, “Conscious Love Retreat.” Hosted by Master Intuitive, Cathleen Miller, couples are invited to discover the eternal rewards of honest communication and how these skills can be used to create a life filled with self-awareness, gratitude and love. You’ll also explore the Power of Touch with a special expert-led workshop to discover the different physical and mental benefits of the human touch. Included in couples’ personalized all-inclusive Journey™ packages, couples can unwind with two daily spa treatments. For an intimate spa experience, Mii amo offers a Shared Treatment menu, where couples can relax with soothing treatments including the Dosha Balancing Wrap, Sedona Clay Wrap or the Anasazi Ubtan. Three-night, all-inclusive rates begin at $2,520 per person based on double occupancy and includes three daily meals at Mii amo Café and two daily spa treatments per person.

At the Hotel Palomar Chicago, the "Yoga For Lover"s package lets you declare your union (that’s what yoga means, after all) with two yoga sessions at the hotel led by local yoga studio, Zen Yoga Garage.  You'll first practice Zen's Partner Yoga and Thai Yoga Massage, followed by wine hour (naturally!), before you set out for the rest of the evening. Wake up the next day with Zen's Morning Recovery Yoga and Silent Partner Mediation, and mimosas, before check out. Available on Valentine’s Day weekend, this package is offered starting at $344 per night.

Diamonds are always a girl’s best friend and Cape May knows that. In fact, Cape May, NJ is also known for their own special diamonds, found locally on Sunset Beach. The Virginia Hotel offers a distinctive "Valentine’s Day" package, Victorian-style. You’ll get deluxe accommodations along with a Cape May welcome with a silver tray adorned with chilled Champagne, chocolate truffles and a pair of Cape May diamond earrings, delivered to your room. To make sure you’re not hungry, the package includes a $110 voucher for dinner for two in the Ebbitt Room plus continental breakfast for two. Free parking and late checkout are part of the package as well. Rates start at $345 per night.


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Yoga, Ski and Culinary Weekend in Vermont: March 12-15

How rare is it when you find that one program that combines your passions all in one glorious weekend? Amy Leydon, yoga teacher extraordinare from Boston, has put together a ski, yoga, and culinary weekend March 12-15 at Good Commons in Plymouth, Vermont. For those of you who know me, I'm a committed yogini, who loves to travel and eat, and has spent quite a lot of time in Vermont, working with hotels, enjoying family retreats, and visiting my son at the University of Vermont.  Does this package have my name on it or what?  Although I'm not a skiier, the retreat is close to Killington and Okemo where cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, and other winter activities (like shopping in Woodstock!) and spas (again, Woodstock!) are offered.

Amy schedules a number of retreats over the course of the year, with the next one a warm-weather locale, Martha's Vineyard in June.  I haven't met Amy yet, but her acclaim as "Best Yoga Teacher in Boston" by Boston Magazine tells me that the six classes I'll experience this weekend will all be fabulous.  And I hear that she plays great music, too. I wonder if there's a piano in the house.

For more information, http://amyleydonyoga.com/yoga-ski-and-culinary-weekend-2015/

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

My Three New Manhattan Restaurant Loves

Tired of the same-old, same-old? These three innovative NYC restaurants will keep you coming back. Two are new, one isn't; all are fabulous. All three are downtown, one in NoHo, one in the East Village, and the other near the Flatiron District. Grab a taxi or an Uber and enjoy a wonderful meal thanks to three great chefs.

Gato – Bobby Flay has gone international again!  New York City has missed this super chef whose well-loved Latin restaurants Mesa Grill and Bolo have been absent for many years.  The original master of BBQ and Spanish cuisine, Bobby has created a menu of small plates as well as larger entrees, all designed for sharing. In a room as beautiful and inviting as they come, Flay’s cooking stands out against the Rockwell Group’s gorgeous design. With tile floors, suspended metal lighting, and warm woods, Gato’s central bar area and dining spaces are inviting. Even the bread brought out at the beginning is exceptional – be sure to try the olive bread. 

Bar Bites, Gato

A menu of bar “bites” is designed for ordering on a plank of threes – choose from bites like artichoke heart with sea urchin and quail egg, or chorizo crepinette with apricot mostarda and pickled Brussels sprouts, and the tangy piquillo filled with raw tuna, with a drizzle of saffron sauce. The appetizers are equally satisfying.  Many Spanish restaurants offer octopus dishes, but no one prepares it like Bobby Flay. The roasted octopus is crunchy and a tad sweet, covered with a tangerine vinaigrette and bacon sauce that is an absolute standout. Main courses like the red prawns beautifully presented with Meyer lemon and garlic are similarly delicious. 324 Lafayette Street, 212.334.6400.  
 
Octopus, Gato
Cosme – There’s a reason that Enrique Olvera has the number 20 restaurant in the world, Pujol from Mexico City. His Mexican cooking is way beyond that found in the more typical taco restaurants in other cities including New York. While New York City has strong contenders in the more upscale category, like Alex Stupak’s triad of Empellons (Cocina, Taqueria, and Parlor), Olvera’s menu mixes up tastes that elevate Mexican to a fine dining experience.  Most ingredients are sourced locally, although some arrive from their original homes, including octopus swimming in briny water from Spain.  Dishes are unusual from appetizers to dessert. For the adventurous, try the uni tostada with avocado, bone marrow salsa and cucumber; and the thinly sliced vinegary scallop aguachile appetizers, and the two-person duck carnitas with white onions and radishes as a main course.  Small plates are shareable as well, so plan so you have room the one-of-a-kind husk merengue with corn mousse and a chaser of the house’s special Mezcal.  The room is warm and sexy at the same time, a wonderful refuge from the cold outdoors. 35 East 21st St., 212.913.9659.


Degustation
Degustation – Not a newcomer like Gato and Cosme, Degustation is the most elevated of Jack Lamb’s restaurant group.  With 16 seats set around a U-shaped counter and open kitchen, Degustation shows off Nicholas Licata’s mastery of precision preparation and Iberian, French and American cuisine.  While you can order off the a la carte menu, it’s the $80 tasting menu that really shows off Licata’s talents.  Let him decide what to share with you, whether it’s his scrumptious Hawaiian blue prawn paella, or the wild boar ribs with romesco. Or perhaps a serving of the irreverent Brussel sprouts dolled up with Funyuns and cashews.  A sophisticated wine list explained by knowledgeable servers matches well.  Cozy and small, Degustation will leave you feeling warm and satisfied.  239 East 5th St., 212.979.1012. 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Teen Travel: Great Trips to LA, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, Mississippi, Las Vegas

Once your kids move past the compliant pre-teen ages, it becomes more challenging to find ways to engage them without hearing that they’d prefer to “chill” with their friends, play Xbox, or spend endless hours on Facebook or texting on their phone. These teen-tried trips will hopefully motivate you to convince your teens that there’s a world out there with lots of interesting things, and that it’s really worthwhile to give up some personal time to be with your parents (ugh!), doing something that your parents (ugh! again) have suggested.

My sons, Elias and Evan, now well past the teen years, have become world travelers with definite tastes and preferences. We’d like to think it’s in part because of all the travel they did when they were younger. Here are some of their favorite travel destinations in the USA. 

A Trip to CaliThat’s what my kids call going to California. For them, California is another country. Los Angeles is the country of the Lakers and the beach; San Francisco is cable cars and the Golden Gate Bridge. Anything in between is just pretty and filled with expensive cars. But it's all Cali.
St. Regis, San Francisco

Two hotels of the Fairmont Hotel group make for great stays, the Fairmont Miramar in Santa Monica (close to LA) and the Fairmont San Francisco on Nob Hill. Both are great with kids, as well as with adults, and both have wonderful locations.  A bit easier on the legs is the beautiful St. Regis in San Francisco, sitting closer to the water. 

In Santa Monica, you’re right across from the beach and within a reasonable drive of pretty much everywhere you need to go in LA (although you’ll spend lots and lots of time in your car here – there’s no subway to help you out). While you might crave some of LA’s finer cuisine, the kids will love the kitschy In-N-Out Burger or Fatburger drive-ins. For a dose of fun history, include a visit to the La Brea Tar Pits (with interesting indoor and outdoor exhibits about the animals and fossils stuck in the tar here).
Santa Monica

Heading back to the beach, the Santa Monica Pier and its rides are favorites, as is watching people rollerblade and play basketball in Venice. If you can, take a ride up Pacific Coast Highway towards Malibu to see the sunset.

If your kids give you a lot of grief about the enormously steep hills in San Francisco, they’ll love the cable cars that climb and descend with people hanging off the sides. The city has put into service a number of cars from cities in the US and Europe, and you might find yourself staring at real ads in Italian instead of English. 

Be sure to go to the Presidio to see the Golden Gate Bridge, but also find someone who can show you
Lombard Street, San Francisco
how to drive underneath the bridge – my kids thought it was amazingly cool (so did I). And the kids’ hands-down favorite? Crooked Lombard Street, still one of the “wonders of the world,” according to the teen set. They also appreciated some of the architecture in the city, particularly the “Painted Ladies” houses with their creatively mixed palette of Victorian confection.

Elvis Watches over Tupelo
Mississippi: Going Down to the Crossroads
The Gulf CoastDo you have kids who love music (or movies)? A trip through the Mississippi Delta may be just the ticket. Even if they haven’t heard too much of Elvis Presley’s music or the blues, they’ll come to understand how both influenced the rock ‘n roll world on this trip. Tupelo is where Elvis -- a product of the blues --  was born. It’s hard not to get caught up in the infectiousness of Elvis here.      When you visit the Tupelo Hardware Company, where Elvis bought his first guitar, and you see Elvis pictures all over; when you eat a crispy, fried hamburger at Johnnie’s Drive In and sit on Elvis’s bench, again with photos of “The King” everywhere; when you go to Elvis’s birthplace and marvel that he grew up in a two-room house – that’s when you start to “get it”: this town is a shrine. If you’re lucky, you’ll see singing Elvis impersonators, too. Combined with a trip to Memphis to visit Graceland (be sure to sit in Elvis's booth at the Arcade Restaurant and take the fabulous musical Mojo tour with Backbeat Tours), or a path that traces the Mississippi Blues Trail with stops in Clarksdale and Greenwood (from the movie "The Help"), you can create a musical and film-oriented vacation that’s a rich cultural immersion.
Shack Up Inn
Rock and Blues Museum, Clarksdale
Abe's BBQ, Clarksdale
If your kids like the outdoors, Tupelo’s Natchez Trace Parkway is a wonderful place to hike, throw a football, and visit the nearby Buffalo Farm. There you’ll see the world’s only albino buffalo and other animals like zebras and lions. Plus you’ll be entertained by an authentic Native American guide who seems to be a veritable giraffe “whisperer.” For the car fan, the Tupelo Automobile Museum has a knockout collection of Dusenbergs, Corvettes, Packards, and a car originally purchased by Elvis himself. The collection is so big that the displays change frequently. For adventurous eaters, Mississippi has its intrigue: there are fried green tomatoes, fried peach pie, cheese grits, biscuits and gravy, and some of the best waffles we’ve ever tasted. And, of course, BBQ is a way of life.

The quirky Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale is a distinctive lodging experience for all and a glimpse into the life of a sharecropper. Or choose the family-friendly Quality Inn in Tupelo with its indoor swimming pool and convenient breakfast buffet. 

If the beach beckons, finish your trip with a stay at the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino in Biloxi. Although the kids won't be able to enjoy the fast-moving night scene, they'll love the miles and miles of warm, white-sand oceanfront and its easy biking path.
Beach and Beau Rivage Resort, Biloxi
American History Brought to Life
Philadelphia is rich in both tradition and intriguing activities. Particularly inviting as kids learn more about the signing of the Declaration of Independence and other Patriotic events, Philadelphia’s
Independence Hall
Liberty Bell Center and Independence Mall offer a walking introduction to American history. When my kids got tired (or were lazy, as teens sometimes are), we hired a horse and carriage to take us around Philadelphia’s cobbled Center City before heading North to the city’s beautifully zoned museum area. Here the wonderful, enlightening Franklin Institute and its rocket, airplanes and other scientific paraphernalia provided hours of educational amusement for everyone.

Our favorite splurge hotel, The Ritz-Carlton, continues the city’s historical orientation with accommodations in the former Girard Trust Building on Broad Street.
Ritz-Carlton, Philadelphia
If the kids are curious about university life, the Sheraton University City at the University of Pennsylvania is right on campus and convenient to some of the city’s iconic cheesesteak and hoagie shops.
More history waits in Boston, home of the Boston Tea Party and the Freedom Trail, a walking tour that links many of the important landmarks in revolutionary history. Add to that the Museum of Science and the Hayden Planetarium with its IMAX dome theater, and you have a city that entertains kids 365 days a year. During the warmer months, Boston’s offbeat Duck Tours (now copied in other cities) got everybody laughing as the World War II amphibious vehicle, sometimes painted to look like a Red Sox advertisement, cruises along the Charles River after meandering through the city’s narrow streets.
Massachusetts State House

Kids will love the goldfish in their room at Boston’s boutique Nine Zero, a Kimpton hotel, and the
Nine Zero
Nine Zero bedroom
fireplace at the XV Beacon. From both, it's a quick walk to the Massachusetts State House (great stairs and gold dome), Faneuil Hotel, and the Boston Commons, more kid favorites. If you have baseball fans in your family, book a room overlooking Fenway Park at the Commonwealth Hotel in Kenmore Square. On game days, you’ll swear that you can hear the crowds sing “Sweet Caroline” when Big Papi (David Ortiz) gets up to bat. The hotel is seconds away from stands hawking Fenway franks (a must with relish and mustard) and the Kenmore Square T-stop (the subway).
XV Beacon room
XV Beacon
Now That We’ve Outgrown Disney
Teens never seem to tire of Las Vegas, no matter how many times you visit. Las Vegas has a skyline that invites both kids and adults alike to play. With fountains that dance to music, indoor “skies” that change according to the weather, and a scaled-down replica of New York City with an outdoor roller coaster that dips among the buildings, Las Vegas is arguably a playground limited only by your imagination. For nighttime activity, Cirque du Soleil offers kid-priced tickets to Mystère and O, two shows that my kids absolutely adored.

Valley of Fire
In happy juxtaposition with Las Vegas’s man-made attractions lie the wonders of the desert, the product of billions of years of nature. Hiking through Red Rock Canyon or rock scrambling in the Valley of Fire provide a panorama of color to perfectly complement the colors of the city’s neon-infused architecture. Nearby Hoover Dam was also a mind-boggler for the kids and an easy day trip from the city.

Of all the hotels that we’ve visited here, the kids’ two favorites are the MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay. Both have great swimming pools and lazy rivers, and Mandalay Bay even has a beach and wave pool. Both also have a long variety of restaurants, and the endless walks through the casino to the guestrooms gave the kids some real glimpses into what grown-up life could be. Mon Ami Gabi at Paris Las Vegas was a great place to savor French cuisine while watching the steady stream of people cruise the Strip. We also liked P.F. Chang’s China Bistro at Planet Hollywood when we wanted to get away from the hotel scene.
The Strip, Las Vegas
             

Monday, December 22, 2014

European Christmas Markets: Festivity and Tradition


In my last article, I told you about one fabulous Christmas market in the US. In this one, I’ll highlight some of the Christmas markets that impressed me most during my recent visit to Europe.

In Paris, the Christmas market along the Champs-Elysee on the Right Bank stretches almost the full length of the boulevard on each side. It’s a bit of a challenge to explore all of the side-by-side booths, but it’s definitely worth it. In addition to food vendors hawking beer tastings, oysters, hot wine, and sausages, you’ll find a bungee jump, a skating rink, and great arts and crafts as you walk towards the iconic Arc de Triomphe or the puzzling Ferris wheel, both strikingly lit at night.  









Looking for a place to stay that won’t break the bank? Leave the Right Bank and explore the lively Left Bank filled with its many restaurants, shopping, and nightlife. The cozy and charming Hotel le Senat at the corner of the Luxembourg Gardens is a great choice. Its breakfast room and lobby are intimate, and you can get a room with a balcony that overlooks the roofs of the city. Caring service by staff members, an uber-comfortable bed, and thoughtful touches like an honor bar and late-morning breakfast set-up in the lobby complete the experience. C’est vraiment magnifique. Another choice if you prefer a boutique, designer-ish feel is the Hotel Madison  on Boulevard Saint Germain des Pres. More expensive and with more attitude, the hotel offers a winning location across from the church, just steps from literary landmarks like Café Deux Magots and Café de Flor.

In Vienna, you have a choice of small to large Christmas markets around the city center and off the Ringstrasse. Across from Stephansplatz and near the Austrian National Library, you’ll find two charming markets, each filled with booths of beautiful snow globes (they originated in Austria) and other crafts, as well as Glühwein (spiced red wine), mini donuts, and other goodies. The best, however, is the market by the Rathaus (City Hall), which extends for rows and rows with booths and booths and booths of treats. Here you can try a palatschinke (a rolled up pancake) to go with your Glühwein (you pay a deposit and you can keep the ceramic mug), the perfect snack combo to enjoy as you stroll along with the crowds.






Where to stay? The best, in my opinion, is the Hotel Imperial on the Ringstrasse. In a great location to experience Vienna's sites, the hotel is five-star when it comes to service, accommodations (gorgeous, gorgeous rooms), and dining and beverage. You’ll pay for the privilege of staying here, but it’s worth every euro. And if you’re a music fan, you’ll love that the hotel sits right next to the Wiener Musikverein where the Vienna Philharmonic play. Also appealing is that the Haus der Musik, an interactive museum explaining music from classical to contemporary, is only a five-minute walk.
 
Budapest offers a chance to experience a lovely Christmas market indoors, out of the cold. At the five-star Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace, the hotel's first-ever Christmas market lasts through December 30 and includes cheery red-and-white striped booths filled with the likes of local porcelain and crystal, Hungarian chimney cakes and more. Set in the lobby of the palace hotel, the market welcomes you at the door with a holiday drink cart that doles out hot mulled wine, apple cider, chocolate, coffee and tea. If you’re still hungry after your shopping, you can walk to the end of the hall and enjoy the hotel’s acclaimed afternoon tea, done with panache on china made expressly for the Gresham Palace. Or, plan ahead, and reserve at the elegant Gresham Restaurant which offers modern takes on Hungarian and international cuisine. 





Photos courtesy of Four Seasons Gresham Palace


And, of course you need a place to stash all of your purchases. This one is a simple choice: the elegant Four Seasons Gresham Palace. In addition to offering some of the most beautiful accommodations in Budapest, along with top-rated service and dining, the Four Seasons is located in the best location in the city, just across from the lovely Chain Bridge connecting Buda (and its castle district) and Pest (where the hotel is located). You’ll also be near the pedestrian walking area of shops and wine bars, which leads to the massive Central Market Hall and the waterfront. (Don't miss taking a night cruise on the Legenda to see the dramatic cityscape lit up along the Danube River.) From the hotel, it’s a short walk to the Jewish Quarter, the fascinating ruin bars, and Andrassy Avenue, the city’s monumental shopping boulevard. A short taxi ride away, the famous New York Café in the stunning Boscolo Budapest Hotel is a wonderful choice for a meal any time of the day, or for live piano music to accompany a pastry and coffee.

The Old Town in Prague is home to an elaborate Christmas market that attracts visitors from both sides of the Charles Bridge. In Old Town Square near the astronomical clock at City Hall and the ironic Hard Rock Café, you’ll see booth after enticing booth filled with Bohemian crystal, scarves and gloves, and other trinkets. Stop a moment and indulge in one of the Czech Republic’s traditional trzednik, a churro-like creation that will warm you against the wind coming off the river. It goes especially well with a cup of Glühwein. Or, grab a traditional pilsner to help you soak up the lively holiday spirit. The Christmas market here and the one in Wenceslas Square are both open through January 1, 2015. You can get detailed information and concert schedules from Czech Tourism, www.czechtourism.com





Photos courtesy of Czech Tourism

The Mandarin Oriental in the historic Mala Strana quarter (lesser town) of Prague is the perfect place to escape the crowds and regroup. The atmospheric setting of this five-star hotel, built in a former Dominican monastery, is quiet and pampering, with each room a different configuration. Food and drink are superb, as is the service. The Mandarin Spa, built in a former Renaissance chapel, defines luxury. From the hotel, you can stroll to the constantly repainted John Lennon peace wall which attracts hippies and rock ‘n rollers of all ages. Also nearby in Kampa Park is the eerie babies monument, a sort of aliens-meet-Jeff Koons sculpture installation set by the river. If this kind of art doesn’t strike your fancy, you can walk up historic Nerudova Street, with its creative house markers, to the Prague Castle and enjoy some of the city’s most amazing views. For a fabulous meal, take a five-minute walk from the Mandarin to the charming boutique Aria Hotel, where every floor is themed to a different type of music. Coda Restaurant, just off the lobby, offers two indulgent tasting menus: one a Czech version and the other a more eclectic selection of five-star cuisine from talented chef David Sasek.

Berlin, not surprisingly, is filled with Christmas markets, a serious tradition throughout Germany. Two, in particular, are worth noting. Close to the S-Bahn, the U-Bahn and the designer shopping area of Mitte, the smallish one that evolves from the Hackescher market is a great place to get your feet wet when it comes to navigating a Christmas market. It’s personal, manageable, and not overrun with people. Ready for more? You can walk to the larger Christmas market at Gendarmenmarkt. Here, your first stop can be a food break where you’ll feast on currywurst, strudel, and Glühwein, all in a covered tent. You’ll also get a ceramic mug to take home (your deposit covers that). Since the market is set right in front of the Konzerthaus, there’s lively music on-stage to keep your mood festive while you walk among the booths. Enjoy the crystal, holiday clothing, and merriment as you dance your way to the tunes of a traditional band.   






You could stay at one of the city’s more lavish hotels like the Alden Kempinski or the Ritz-Carlton near the Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz, or revel in being in the East Berlin area of Mitte at the trendy, well-located Amano Hotel. On weekends, the hotel turns into one massive DJ party, with the buzzing bar often overflowing into the hotel’s lobby. It’s sort of a W hotel, Berlin style. Berlin’s well-connected mass transportation system is easy to access from the Amano, with stations ten minutes away at most. But you just might want to stay where you are, as Mitte is the city’s buzzing center for dining, restaurants, sleek cafes and unusual tributes like the Ramones and John F. Kennedy museums.

Merry Christmas!

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