Tuesday, December 27, 2011

WiTList: Top 11 Photos of 2011

Here are my favorite 11 photos from 2011, spreading from London to California, Canada to the Southwest. Of course, there's a story behind each, browse through the old blog posts to find a few. Happy New Year!

11. Angry Duck (or is it a Goose?)
This ornery waterfowl was not a fan of me walking through London's St. James Park. Thankfully 2 foot iron fence kept him from attacking.

10. Alcatraz Watchtower
The sun set just as we set foot on the infamous prison island in San Francisco bay. During our night tour the creeks and groans of the aged facility made it come alive. But this photo of the sun over the watchtower almost made it seem peaceful. 

9. My Dog Bond
 Taken along the rocky shores at Two Lights, Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Getting him to sit still was almost as impossible as keeping the seagulls away!

8. Yosemite Park Panoramic
Yosemite Falls in the foreground, Half Dome in the distance. The most amazing nature scenes in America spread out for miles and miles. 

7. St. Paul and the Millennium
Old and new collide as London's iconic dome rises from the end of the city's modern footbridge. My favorite part of this photo, other than the cool curves of the bridge wires and the dome, is that there is a blue sky during March in London!

6. Howling Coyotes
Tucked away down a side alley in Santa Fe's Old Town is a courtyard filled with traditional ceramic statues. The brightly colored souvenirs make fill the color spectrum from entrance to exit and reflect the New Mexican sun into a fractured rainbow. These three coyotes were my favorite, but with the vibrant colors in New Mexico, it was hard to take a bad photo.

5. Frontenac Cannon
The grand Frontenac Hotel in Quebec City, Canada sits like a sentinel atop a bluff overlooking the St. Lawrence River. To this day, canons line the outcropping, rolling in lines over the hills from the city's Citadel fortress, which lies a few hundred yards from this legendary hotel. History and old time glamour abound north of the border. 

4. Got Moose?
A chance encounter alongside a remote stretch of highway in Franconia Notch, New Hampshire led to my first ever moose sighting. Right around the corner from where the Old Man in the Mountain used to watch over the White Mountains, before his craggy face crumbled away. This big guy was larger than my SUV and put on a little show, strolling through the brush and brook before crashing back into the dense pines.

3. A Tasting
What's better than a multi-glass tasting at Mumm wineries in Napa, CA? Refilling those champagne flutes with another round just as the sun sets over the vineyard. A half dozen glasses of sparkling wine from one of the region's premier makers combined with the smell of fattening grapes and a clear summer dusk makes for a great photo, and an even better moment.

2. Golden Gate is Closer than it Appears
There were many great photos of the Golden Gate Bridge from our trip to San Francisco in June, 2011. But my favorite was a quick shot from the rental car window while driving across the iconic landmark. Sausalito behind us, San Fran up ahead.

1. New Mexican Mailboxes
At a random point along the Turquoise Trail, somewhere between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, you forget you're in 2011 as the ghost towns all blend into one ramshackle shanty. But then you hit the art communities and the vibrant colors of New Mexico blow away the beiges and broken wood piles. It's hard to imagine anyone out here gets much mail, so it's easy to see why they've turn them into pieces of art, such as these ones near the Cowgirl Red shop. This is my favorite picture of 2011 travel, just because of the colors, which will always remind me of random spots in the great American Southwest. 

Your Top Travel Photos of the Year:

Kelly Cheeseman - Beautiful photo of storybook village taken on the train ride from Oslo to Bergen, Norway

Sunday, December 18, 2011

WiTLists - Travel Mistletoe

I can't imagine mistletoe holds much lure, other than lore and legend anymore. A friendly peck on the cheek entering a holiday party, perhaps, but the days of getting caught under the infamous foliage has seemingly gone the way of Ebenezer Scrooge's frugality. But that does not mean spontaneous romance is dead, my friends. It exists not in a weed nailed to a doorjam, but rather in warm summer nights and brisk mountain breezes, fireworks and sunsets, dive pubs and tiki bars. Call me a hopeless romantic and I'll point to the secret and not so secret spots around the globe that make it a habit of igniting sparks. After all, during the holidays don't we all just want a little warmth?

My Picks

5. Hillside in Switzerland’s Lauterbrunen Valley
Nobody ever said cowbells are sexy. But echo them across a jade valley while a young couple rests from their hike on a grassy hillside, and you’ve created yourself the stuff of fairy tales. There’s something very Sound of Music about lounging in the grasses of the Alps’ foothills. Whether you’re twirling or not, the scenery immediately removes you from reality and all at once romance and anything else you can dream up is a very real possibility.

After experiencing the Top of Europe (the Jungfrau), not much else can compare to the exhilaration. But hiking back down through the Lauterbrunen Valley, with stops in some of the hillside villages picking up lunch supplies from local vendors, is a close second.

Our honeymoon to that point had been filled with adventure. We sat on a random patch of grass, fumbled through our backpacks for some chocolate and cheese and leaned back to the contour of the land. A train chugged by below, hauling another group of wide-eyed travelers up to the frozen peak. For us, though, the sun settled in next to a warm breeze and all at once the peace of nature ensnared us. For so many moments, the only sound was the cowbells clanging on the opposite side of the valley. My wife held my hand for more minutes than I can remember then kissed my cheek and pulled me to my feet. The hike wasn’t nearly close to being finished. There was a lot of valley left to descend. It is the Alps. And anywhere you stop is going to give you an unforgettable moment.

4. Juliet's Balcony, Verona, Italy

If Shakespeare says it’s romantic, it’s romantic. As someone who spent a lot of money and a lot of time delving into the finer points of Billy’s life works, I can tell you that this particular play ranks dead last on my list of favorites. But there’s something to the locale, a tourist-crowded alley spilling into a tight courtyard, that makes this spot worth a peak and a peck.
The walls leading into the courtyard are carved and covered with love notes, mostly to the eponymous maiden, immediately bringing out the romantic in even the sternest fellow. In the far corner a statue of Juliet stares demurely at the passers by, the majority of them copping a feel of her breast (good luck, they say – I say some perverted statue maker needed a good excuse). The petite thing rests underneath the famous balcony and should you so desire, and although I would urge against it many a sock-in-sandal tourist would not, you can recite a few poorly remembered lines up to the stone outcrop.
But it’s not until you actually climb through the home and get to the balcony that the scene becomes more surreal. We were in Verona off-season (mid-September) and the crowd thinned hastily. We were left alone on the famous balcony, a few stragglers below pacing unhurried over the cobblestones. Some famous lines of the Bard floated on an easy breeze, stealing away the tourist-trap tenor and leaving behind a still moment of not love but rather blind devotion – the ability to see in something, someone what no other sees and to cherish it. It seems like a highly Shakespearean ideal, and one Juliet’s balcony will gladly oblige. 

3. Cinque Terre, Italy – from your balcony looking onto the ocean
Italy’s five lands have had a rough go of it these past few months. Floods and mudslides devastated these quaint seaside villages, leaving dirt and debris piled waist high in the typically uncluttered piazzas. But the villages built for pirate refuge will be rebuilt and emerge more vibrant and resilient than ever. Its people have an immense affection for the towns and when visiting, you’re instantly immersed in emotions you’ve very rarely felt. The sun glows out over the sea like one of the freakishly large lemons swaying in a nearby garden. And the stars at night are outnumbered only by the infinite anchovies schooling away from the midnight fishermen. If only they could cast their nets to the sky.

If you’re lucky enough to be in Cinque Terre, you’re lucky enough. Period. So climb to your balcony – your room, which is probably an apartment-style abode up innumerable stairs – will have one. Step out and breath in; hold onto the railing or the clothesline or someone’s hand and peer out across the terraced green hillside and the terraced rainbow of homes that stagger down to the harbor.

2. Frog Pond Ice Skating, Boston Common
Somewhere on this list I had to give some love to the biggest little lover’s town in the Northeast. Boston may be known for its history and rabid sports scene, but those minutemen (revolutionary and sideline at Gillette Stadium) go home to someone. Family and affection abound from Causeway to the Common, which is where you’ll find Frog Pond and little slice of winter heaven. This dreary season aside, when Boston Common is sunk in a sea of white powder, the skating rink at Frog Pond shimmers like a frozen oasis. Underneath glittering lights strung through the trees glide couples old and young, coordinated and not, while children weave in and out of their legs like the yarn in a mitten. If you take the time to absorb the atmosphere, you’ll forget about the New England chill. With someone special in tow, Boston in wintertime will provide plenty of ways to stay warm.

1. Key West Lighthouse, Key West Florida
By default, the Key West Lighthouse had to be number 1 on the list of most romantic spots around the globe. Here's why:

Key West has long been a destination of creativity and romance. The island is peppered with hotspots and hideaways and won our hearts on our first visit. We had climbed the lighthouse for the panoramic view and we loved walking the pier at sunset. To pop the question, I combined them both. 

The Key West Historical Society, proprietor of the Key West Lighthouse, was more than happy to oblige my request to reserve the lighthouse at sunset during trip. Only four marriage proposals had ever been done at the lighthouse – none at sunset. All four had said yes. So I was going to be the first at something - either the first to propose during after hours during one of those legendary crimson Key sunsets, or the first to get shot down. 

The Society helped me set the secret plan in motion: Bob the lighthouse keeper would be sweeping in the driveway fifteen minutes before sunset. We set up a secret code word so he’d know it was me when Danielle and I approached. With everything in place, seemingly fool proof, I got nervous. Danielle and I had never had the best of luck when it came to significant relationship events. On our first date, the power went out. On our first vacation together, the theme park rides broke down. The beautiful disaster that was our relationship became somewhat of an inside joke. For this particular trip, we set up our vacation with my cousin and his girlfriend – Key West for a few days and then a drive up to Disney World. It seemed perfect. Danielle was totally unaware. 

The disaster almost came at the airport. My cousin was carrying the ring for me. He was pulled aside by TSA, who started rifling through his bag. Turns out the dope had packed a too-large bottle of Scope. He never came across the ring - safe. 

I planned to propose the day we arrived. But as we arrived, so too did Tropical Storm Fay. The forecast was for near-hurricane conditions. The weathermen didn’t have a precise time for when the storm would hit the Keys – they just knew it would, and it would be powerful. I was resolved to follow through with my perfect proposal. And Tropical Storm Fay was kind. The day was gorgeous – sunny and warm. That evening we walked past the lighthouse. Bob was waiting, sweeping. He told us the lighthouse was closed but he’d let us take a walk up while he finished cleaning. At the top of the lighthouse, as the whole island sunk into a deep red sunset, I knelt and asked her to marry me. 

At 6am the next morning we fled the Keys, Fay biting at our heels. And I was the first person to propose after hours atop the Lighthouse during one of those legendary crimson Key West sunsets.

Your Picks:

Monday, December 12, 2011

My Favorite Drink

(this post was written after a conversation about Ernest Hemingway, the best drinks around the globe and my grandfather, an avid traveler in his day)

¾ oz sweet vermouth
2 ½ oz bourbon whiskey
1 dash bitters
1 maraschino cherry
1 twist orange peel

The soul of any fine quality spirit lingers in the drinker’s initial reaction. With bourbon, that moment the bottle opens and the vapors meet the world for the first time since being locked away in an aged wood barrel, should take you somewhere. For just an instant, you’re transported to a porch in Tennessee one hundred years ago, rocking to the hum of crickets serenading a setting sun.

Or perhaps your mind conjures something more personal; an image of an old man in a high-back chair, his face stone and stoic, his body lean and strong but aged like those wood barrels. His slender fingers curled precariously around a crystal glass that sweats condensation with the sip he takes to end every sentence – a tangible exclamation point signifying his story’s familial, historical or simply nostalgic importance.

And then the vision is gone and you’re staring at a lowball glass on the bar top in front of you, fogging from the ice cubes wedged together in its shallow center.

You smell the whiskey again, letting the aromas tickle your nose hairs to the brink of burning, and you pour yourself a gentleman’s portion. In a roughly three to one ratio, you slowly add vermouth to the whiskey. The bourbon shouldn’t lose any body or color and once you slip the bitters in, watch the droplets disappear into the deep chestnut concoction. Notice the two or three ice cubes dislodge from the bottom of your whiskey glass and breach the surface, bobbing like frantic buoys in a restless brine. You were sure to use no more than three cubes, or else the drink would be watered down. Anything less than two cubes simply and indefinitely solidifies your manhood and stamps your ticket into the Hemingway-Wayne-Sinatra-Eastwood Steal Balls Hall of Fame. You do have a jar of maraschino cherries unopened in the refrigerator. Tradition calls for the garnish but you aren’t sure.

Besides, your grandfather said the cherries are unnecessary and he’s waiting for his drink.

The Manhattan, he once told you is the drinking man’s drink; the king of cocktails, some say.

You’ve learned from your Papa, and the Rat Pack, that the drink is straightforward and strong, yet refined with an air of old school bravado, reminiscent of a time when bravado was real and respected among men.

Those same men are the drink’s patrons and have been so since the days when their now crackled whiskey faces were baby-soft and devoid of the wrinkles and the scars etched into place by war, children and change. Before they sat brooding on a dank sailor’s barstool in Key West or peacocked in a smoky London pool hall.

Like the men who enjoy it, the Manhattan hides an intellectual complexity and a quiet honor among its simple ingredients.

You’ve mixed the ingredients so you give the glass a little shake and notice the liquid remain a steady color and muffle the clink of the cubes.

The shake releases more vapors and you think of your Papa who is at that moment sitting upstairs in a high-back chair, waiting patiently for the one thing he has ever asked of you. You know he won’t complain if it’s made incorrectly, he never has before.

He’d get up to make it himself if his knee wasn’t acting up again. Or if he felt he could leave his wife’s side. Other than you from whom he ordered his drink, she is the one person among the dozens of frolicking holiday partygoers that has his full attention. You know he’d probably rather be sitting on the couch watching the football game with his grandchildren or in the basement playfully knocking down their egos with every billiard ball he knocked in. But he would never let his wife sit alone in a room full of people, not without him there to point out the children she can’t see very well anymore or to retrieve her the hors d’oeuvres she has a hard time getting up for. No he wouldn’t leave her side, he never has before.

And so you check to make sure you’ve made his drink as perfectly as you could. He deserves the perfect drink. You used the best whiskey. You think you put in just the right amount of vermouth. You made sure to include a manly number of ice cubes.

You wonder if you should taste it but then you realize it would do no good. You’ve never been able to finish a glass of the stuff.

You tried once, with your cousins. One night you all went to a nice restaurant, just the grandchildren. On a whim your oldest cousin decided to try Papa’s drink. Why not? It must be good; he drinks them all the time. Amidst pleas to the contrary from your significant others, you, your two oldest cousins and one younger ordered up four Manhattans – an homage to the man who over the years silently taught you the meaning of honor and family.

You all raised your glasses, toasted to the old man. With an urbane sense of accomplishment, you drank. It was like a scene from a liquid lunch in the boardroom of a 1950s advertising firm. Except for the reaction.

The squints. The puckers. The burning. The whiskey face deflowering. That was unexpected.

You all put your glasses down. Not a word, just a few twitches. A simultaneous thought strung from one cousin to the next: how does Papa drink this?

You summoned your inner Captain Tony and coupled with every ounce of machismo and a desire to avoid family ridicule, you dove back in.

The drink wasn’t as cruel the second time around. The whiskey was overpowering, with a sweet molasses backdrop and an almost smoky alcohol finish. The vermouth and bitters were foreign to you, adding a bite that you just couldn’t place on the flavor spectrum.

By the third sip your mouth had numbed to it or perhaps the ice had melted just enough to somewhat nullify the harsh impact. You thought the cherry garnish would be a welcome respite but then it popped in your mouth and released a shot of pure, soaked-in bourbon.

Your wife at the table found your face comical. You had maybe one more sip until you noticed your cousins slide their own unfinished glasses away. You conceded as well. The Manhattan won round one and in one night you learn that it takes a strong man to indulge a strong drink. Only after years of drinks, years of experience, years of happiness and pain, success and failure, love and death, will you be ready you for an unflinching moment of peace with lady bourbon.

Papa has been enjoying those moments for a long time. The ancient bottles of booze behind his basement bar can back that up. He explained them all to you once when you were younger: the bourbon, the anisette, the Frangelico, the imported limoncello, the unlabeled bottle he took back from Europe; the heavy glass tumblers and crystal scotch bottles up on the high shelf you couldn’t reach.

Many of them are very old, maybe dating back to his time in the war that he’s never been able to talk about. You’ve only heard bits and pieces from his days as a medic in the European theater, the horrors of D-Day and what he saw too gruesome for a modern day twenty-something to hear. Undoubtedly some bottles are from Florida, gifts perhaps from long passed friends or neighbors from their winter home in Hallandale. He hasn’t been down there in recent memory, the trip too cumbersome and the doctors too far away.
A few might be leftover from the exotic trips he took with his wife to South America and across the Atlantic. Is that where you get your sense of adventure?

They are all souvenirs turned heirlooms, each mostly empty but filled with memories, friends and places known to you only through his stories.

You are back to the task at hand, still questioning whether or not you made the drink correctly. You refrain from tasting the Manhattan before bringing it upstairs to Papa. You decide it’s ready. You’re gambling on your abilities and the expert’s benevolence.

You weave your way through the crowd, focusing on keeping every drop in the glass. Papa sees you and nods. You approach the patriarch’s high-backed chair offering him the king of cocktails.

He wraps his fingers around the glass. Before he looks at you, he stares momentarily down into the chestnut liquid. There are years of emotion in an instant. You imagine the silent picture moving behind his eyes: serving his country, the birth of his children, that beach in Mexico, those mountains in Italy, the love for his wife.

“Thank you,” he says before tasting it. You hesitate, questioning your decision to not include the cherries.

Then he takes a sip and looks back at you. In his eyes there is no regret, no anger, no scorn – there never has been. There is power. There is pride. There is love.

“Good job,” he says, and takes a sip to punctuate the sentence.

He and the drink are one in the same: stoic, strong and timeless. They are remnants of another time; a time founded in honor and undisputed duty. A time universally revered and yet, in many ways, wholly unattainable ever again. He takes another sip and you hope that one day, like Papa, you can savor the taste without flinching.

As he swirls it in his hand, you realize the Manhattan is your favorite drink; and that you’ve never even finished a glass.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

WiTList - If You Could Stay Anywhere, Where Would You Stay?

There are hotels and then there are hotels. Maybe you stay at one on your honeymoon or you walk through one on vacation (but you're staying at the Best Western). Maybe you just stumbled upon it online while setting up your next trip but almost choked on your mouse when you saw the cost per night. However you know about it, there is a resort/hotel out there that you'd visit if money were no object. Here are some of my dream spots. Let me know some of yours.

My Picks:

5. Ashford Castle, Co. Mayo, Ireland
A castle by the water in the majestic Irish countryside. Historic and archaeological spots scattered nearby. Guestrooms in this 5-star resort are individually designed, as unique as snowflakes, dripping with the luxury and comforts required for no one less than royalty. And they have falconry. Yup, falconry. In the shadows of the ancient castle, you can learn how to launch a bird of prey, an entertaining predator, from your arm. Falconry at a castle. What else do you need?

4. Over-water huts at Intercontinental Bora Bora Resort, Bora Bora French Polynesia
Imagine waking up to the soft sound of water lapping against the side of a paddle as your breakfast is delivered to your over-water hut by outrigger canoe. As you sit to eat your breakfast, you look around at the crystal blue surrounding you on all sides; the sky melting into the azure waters of a quiet lagoon. The rooms, luxurious and opulent, wade offshore in a horseshoe, proudly beckoning to travelers seeking the ultimate in relaxation and indulgence. You want a privately catered dinner on the sand of a secluded reef? Just follow the ukulele player. Any resort only accessible by boat fits into the “relaxing” category.

3. Castello Banfi, Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
The 7,000 acre Banfi vineyard estate has won countless awards, earned millions and revolutionized the Italian wine industry. At its center at one end of a ridge opposite the proprietor’s Tuscan villa, soars Castello Poggio alle Mura, or Castello Banfi. The castle’s 8th century charm and whimsy remain after intelligent renovation transformed it into a 14-room hotel of the most luxurious sort.

The Tuscan countryside heaves like a giant sleeping under a massive green patchwork quilt – and there are views of it from everywhere. The vineyards sprawl in every direction down from the castle hill and small ponds and forests dot the landscape.

But the castle itself is the temporary home to so few guests that it is impossible not to feel at least some of the communal camaraderie that the 8th century inhabitants must have felt – minus the plague, of course. Read more about Banfi here: http://whereverittakestravel.blogspot.com/2010/09/real-life-isnt-supposed-to-be-this-good.html

2. Explora, Rapa Nui, Easter Island
Five hours off the coast of Chile hide a tribe of shadowy figures; strong, mysterious and stone-face. Literally. Undoubtedly you’ve seen them, on the big screen, the small screen, a magazine or in a dream. But they’ve never been standing outside your window. At Explora, they are.

The famous Easter Island statues may be the impetus for most travelers’ trek to the secluded Pacific rock, but staying at Explora is itself worth the stay. The luxurious facility is built with rounded architecture, mimicking the curves of the island and emphasizing the already mystifying aura of Rapa Nui. It is a journey to reach Easter Island but the reward is a cultural and natural experience unlike anything else on earth.

1. Ice Hotel, Jukkasjarvi, Sweden

You know the place is swanky when the website asks, “Are you arriving by private plane?”

But cut it some slack; the transportation options are actually quite limited. Only one airline flies directly there and even then, only from London/Heathrow.

The only other realistic option is to arrive by dogsled.

Such is life – a seasonal, temporary one – atop the world at Sweden’s Ice Hotel.

This structure’s eponymous building material transports its lucky patrons to a world far beyond anything we encounter in our daily hullabaloo. It is the stuff of fantasy, myth and Nordic legend. Every icicle, every frozen chip, every huff of frigid air a reminder of why Man invented fire: for warmth of body but more importantly, for a place to gather around to tell stories about mystical places like the Ice Hotel.

The building is completely made of ice, including your room, the furniture, the art – you name it, it’ll freeze your tongue if you lick it. There are warm accommodations in wooden huts but what’s the point in that?  If I’m traveling 200 km above the Arctic Circle, I damn well better be sleeping on a sleigh bed made of ice underneath piles of real reindeer pelts and animal furs.

The Art Rooms, as they’re called, are each designed differently with a different them: Ice Fishing, Viking Days of Yore, Bedtime Story, even a 50s Car theme. The Ice Hotel is an enormous frozen sculpture, with each room, light sconce and barstool a work of art in itself.

But the masterpiece, if you hit it right, extends from the roof far up into the cold, clear Arctic sky. The shimmering green and purple waves of Aurora Borealis (the Northern Lights) haunt the outline of the snow palace. Some ancient winter deity crafted the whole scene to freeze your breath right before taking it away.

Ice Hotel is the ultimate in dream hotels because it’s only real to those who visit. You can’t take a part of it home and the Northern Lights don’t keep too well in a suitcase. So if you do ever make it to the tip top of the world, do me a favor when you’re flying home on your private jet, write a good story about it.

Your Picks:
Maureen GillespieI would LOVE to stay here: http://www.gornergrat-kulm.ch/en/kulmhotel-gornergrat/
I missed my flight to Switzerland in the summer of 2010 and I missed getting a chance to have dinner here and I'm still upset abou tit. Haha.
Mike, your blog is great!

Mark Lawhorne: @Maldenmark I prefer the remote and desolate island of Vieques. Just eight miles off the mainland of Puerto Rico, the "small Island" boasts miles of the best and most remote beaches to be found. It quiet, and unpretentious. There is not a lot to do, but that is something that is so welcome now a days. There is a new "W" resort which is beautiful and typical of gorgeous Caribbean resorts, if thats what your in to. I love the private guest houses that offer so much more of the island personality. Try Casa de Claire, http://www.casadeclaire.net/
By far my favorite retreat on the island.

(from Facebook)
~ Jaclyn Pare says: Hands down - Anastasis Apartments in Santorini Greece. Small boutique place but it was heaven on earth! http://tiny.cc/xmfli

~ BJ Killoy agrees with Pick #5: Ashford Castle is awesome. My dad and brother went falconing, falconed, falconeering?