Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Music City Mayhem

Destinations Travel Magazine
May, 2013 Issue
By Michael Hartigan

Thousands upon thousands of bands have passed through Nashville, Tennessee. It is, after all, Music City, U.S.A. But fortunately for those of us with little to no musical talent, a group devoid of crooners and pickers can still rock this town upside down.

Spend a weekend in Nashville and you will assuredly bump into every type of getaway group there is: bachelor parties, bachelorette parties, girls’ weekends, guys’ weekends, couples on vacation, parents getting away from their kids or kids getting away from their parents. All are looking for relaxing getaways, raucous revelry or a healthy mix of both. Nashville will oblige because in music, and in travel, going solo can be fun, but nothing beats an upbeat collaboration. Nashville, like any good concert, is better together.

The crowds gravitate toward several specific areas in Nashville, such as the nostalgic and fun Country Music Hall of Fame or the trendy and vibrant neighborhood near Vanderbilt University. But like New York City, the rhythm of Nashville beats loudest on Broadway. Broadway, the city’s main drag, stretches for several blocks from the riverfront up past the arena, lined with bars and saloons, each with a live band cranking out originals and covers morning, noon and night. Most days begin and end right here, although typically not at the exact same place.

Regardless of what time your group arrives in Tennessee, it would do well to start right here on Broadway. Pick a place, any place. Choose one based on the buzzing neon signs, or by the clientele listing in and out or better yet, by the sweet sounds tinkling out from the open doors and open windows.

You will know the famous and infamous Tootsies by the purple lilac hue glowing around its windows, door and fa├žade. Inside is a jam-packed party, with a tiny stage tucked right inside the front door, so small that from the back of the bar it looks like the singer is balancing on peoples’ shoulders. But with such great music and such a great vibe, Tootsies is the ultimate down-home dive bar.

Up Broadway is Legends, a rustic country saloon with quality afternoon acts on the stage, perfect for getting the evening started early or to continue the night before. Make sure to take turns throwing tips in the jar at the band’s feet; you’ll usually get a request.

Over at The Stage, rumor is the Saturday night show here is when the best up-and-comers perform. Even if you aren’t witnessing the next platinum-selling superstar, this classic honky-tonk boasts a large stage to support a large band. And a large band means a rowdy, rocking show.

Country music lovers will of course be in their glory along Broadway and all over Nashville. Unlike your typical dive bar cover band, the musicians in this town are all quality, no matter which establishment you patronize. It is easy to fall into conversation with your travel companions about the obvious devotion that most every one of these artists has to their music, not to mention their extraordinary amount of talent.

The all-inclusive hospitality that oozes from every corner of this city encourages all ears to embrace the honky-tonk spirit. You don’t have to be a country music fan to let loose and thoroughly enjoy Music City. Each watering hole along Broadway is tailor-made for sing-alongs and should-by-shoulder swaying. One thing is certain, no matter your taste in music, when the band starts playing Garth Brooks’ Friends in Low Places, you’re going to want a beer in your hand and your pals close by.

If dancing and drinking aren’t on the agenda, or if your bleary-eyed bunch needs to recuperate from too much of either, Nashville’s Gaylord Opryland Resort is a harmonious retreat. Situated on the city’s outskirts next to the famous Grand Ole Opry concert hall, the Gaylord Opryland is a destination in itself. Here more than 2,800 luxurious guest rooms spread across a sprawling complex that buzzes like a city within a city. There are hints of Las Vegas or Disney World style resorts, in terms of grandeur, hospitality and flare. But the southern charm is distinctly Nashville. Each section boasts atriums filled with vegetation, shopping, dining and entertainment, right outside the guest rooms. A river flows through one, while a skywalk takes you around the treetops in another.

Nashville is not all bars and spas. At the Country Music Hall of Fame the massive wall of gold records and rare Elvis memorabilia pale in comparison to the almost spiritual experience of walking around the circular induction hall. Back up on Broadway, Jack’s BBQ, one of the best in town, pumps out sweet aromas that makes the entire city smell like succulent smoked meat. The benefit of eating at Jack’s en masse: sharing. Lay out a few platters and let the group go to town on tender pulled pork and smoky sweet ribs, perfectly cooked with the right amount of zip.

This city certainly knows a thing or two about collaboration, on stage, in the studio, and especially when it comes to showing your group a good time. No matter where you go here, Nashville will have your band playing well into the night and begging for an encore.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Disney for Big Kids

Every five-year-old dreams of visiting Mickey’s house. But what happens when mom and dad get a yearning to escape reality? The destination doesn’t have to differ.

Walt Disney World may just be the happiest place on earth for kids of all ages; even those who don’t really expect to act childish. The collection of famous theme parks and resorts that put Orlando, Florida on the map (and every child’s wish list) specializes in removing its visitors, young and old, from the trappings of everyday life. This means deftly balancing equal parts kiddie rides and a full-on indulgence for adults.

If you step back from the princesses and space rangers, a different Disney comes into focus. This is the Disney that understands twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings grew up hooked on classic Disney flicks and hold a special place in their nostalgia bank for Simba, Belle and Buzz.

So being the genius corporation that it is, Disney devised a way to make it all right for adults to visit their theme park (simultaneously creating short-term and life-long customers). All they had to do was weave in some adults-only attractions, sprinkle on some magic pixie dust and poof - big kids come pouring in.

It may not be apparent at first, but Disney World truly is a destination for anyone without children. Foodies can take advantage of some top-notch eating. Relaxation-seekers can indulge in some serious pampering at various spas. For those looking for thrills, Disney has created some surprisingly exciting rides.

If you visit at the right time (I’d suggest May or September, before school ends or after it begins and not during the school vacation or summer swamp-sweat season) and you use your time wisely (take advantage of early park openings, late park closings and snatch up Fast Pass line cutting stubs like they’re being auctioned on eBay) you will avoid lines and frustration.

But the real treats are the ones that aren’t on the billboards and brochures. They’re known, of course, everything here is. However, you won’t see every family of five skipping off to partake. Golf, for example, is one way to escape the castles and pirate ships, unless of course you’re mini-golfing.

But if I’m giving the Mouse my money, here are my five favorite big kid experiences at Walt Disney World. 

  1. EPCOT around the world
How can you grab a margarita in Mexico, sake in Japan, wine in Italy and a frozen cocktail in France all in one night? Walk briskly. EPCOT was built as the community of tomorrow, but while we’re all waiting for the future why not have a drink?

The trick is to start early. This day can go long and get rough, especially if the swamp weather arrives. You’ll know it has if the small of your back starts sweating.

Pick a country, say France since it is easily accessible and right over the bridge from the back entrance. Locate its alcohol dispensary, typically a cart, kiosk, bar or pub, and begin the journey.

France has an orange creamsicle flavored frozen drink that is both refreshing and buzz inducing. It also sells wine from street carts.

Stroll your way around to other countries like Italy, which has a wine bar that specializes in the delicious, highbrow Banfi wine collection. Japan recently opened a new sake bar and almost every adult in Mexico is carrying an oversized frozen margarita. The German beer garden is a rollicking, raucous good time, complete with oompa brass band, long tables and hefty steins of lip-smacking German beer.

Many of these days end in the UK, at the pub. Amongst tired dads who just “ran to the bathroom,” you’ll be clinking your glasses, singing folksongs and prepping to tackle another day in the happiest place on earth.

  1. Rides after dark
If you aren’t lined up on Main Street or around the EPCOT lake just before dark, consider yourself luckier than Aladdin when he found the Genie’s lamp. Why? Because Disney parades are the best thing to happen to adults at Disney World since they started selling alcohol in souvenir cups. No, not because of the twinkling lights and dancing movie characters, but because of the vacuum-like effect the parades have on ride lines.

Of course, this is not a fool-proof tip, but it proves true in many instances and is worth a shot regardless of what time of year you’re visiting. When the parades rev up in a Disney park, head for the big kid rides.

And if the sun has gone down already, well all the better. You haven’t seen Disney until you’ve seen it at twilight from the top of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror; or teetering at the pinnacle of Splash Mountain about to plunge into darkness; or screaming around corners of Thunder Mountain while shadows creep over the track. When the masses get distracted and the sun goes down, Disney takes on an even more surreal atmosphere than normal, if that’s possible. Even Space Mountain, which is always inside in the dark, gets eerier at night. And don’t worry, nobody will judge you, that’s what the rides are there for. Unless you’re wearing Mickey ears – in that case, give them to a kid watching the Tinkerbell parade and head for a rollercoaster. 

  1. California Grill & Fireworks
Dining can be hit or miss in Disney World, with generally more hits than misses. I follow a general rule: eat at hotel restaurants over parks, unless absolutely necessary. EPCOT countries aren’t bad, but even there you must choose wisely. Germany and Mexico offer tasty, authentic fare, but China isn’t so lucky.

But perhaps the best dining experience in Disney World is one geared toward mom and dad, not Junior.

After a long day at the Magic Kingdom, take a short walk next door to the Contemporary Resort. Perched atop is the California Grill, a contemporary (obviously) restaurant serving modern takes on west coast dishes, inspired by wine country and everything else that region has to offer. From sushi to steaks, California Grill is a high quality meal in a fantasy setting, with panoramic views all around of Magic Kingdom and the sprawling Disney property. It’s like eating your way through the ride Soarin’.

The real treat, though, comes with a little planning. Time your reservation (and definitely make a reservation) with the Magic Kingdom fireworks. Whether from your table or from California Grill’s outside roof walk, the nightly extravaganza of colors will seem to be exploding just for you.

  1. Stroll along the Boardwalk
Disney’s Boardwalk Resort was designed to resemble the beach boardwalks of old, complete with all the entertaining possibilities. At night, a stroll by the rail may not evoke sea breeze or salty ocean air, but the carnival games with prize hawkers stir up some nostalgia. Food vendors pump tantalizing aromas along the boards and the lighthouse across the lagoon at the Yacht & Beach Club boat dock gives a New England flavor.

Lined with restaurants and shops, it is the perfect place to end an evening in a way that is very rare in Disney World – free. It doesn’t cost anything to stroll up and down the Boardwalk. Downtown Disney offers the same benefits, but the noise and bustle from unending shopping can make that just as exhausting as running around Magic Kingdom.

Boardwalk is a quieter, albeit less active, alternative. But not at all less exciting. Head into Jellyrolls, the dueling piano bar, and you’ll understand why. Two expert musicians battle it out onstage with crowd suggestions while you sit back and sip a well-deserver beer.

  1. Say Aloha 
The Polynesian is world-class by day, but shake your hips on over for an evening of fun and fantastic food. Bring your large group to the authentic luau or just up to the Ohana, the large restaurant that serves food family-style, freshly grilled on skewers just steps away on the massive open-flames.

The food itself is incredible, and how can you not enjoy yourself chowing down at a huge table and laughing with the personable wait staff. Pork tenderloin, steak tenderloin, shrimp skewers, noodles – everything is delicious and perfectly cooked.
But to wash it all down, just go with the Mai Thai. The drinks are served in cups the size of bowling balls, requiring two hands to hold and a steady footing to endure. A lot of alcohol gets packed into these behemoth beverages, but the tangy-sweet taste transports you from mimicked Hawaii to real Polynesia. Even if you aren’t wearing a Hawaiian shirt, you’ll feel like you are; even if you don’t know how to hula, you’ll try to.

All good Disney World experiences remove you from reality, especially the big kid ones. After all, that’s why us adults love visiting just as much as the tykes, even if we won’t admit it. Work doesn’t reach you here, neither does the headline news. The real world can wait because in the happiest place on earth, you’re always just a kid at heart.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Discover the beauty of off-season Florence

Published in the MetroWest Daily News
Sunday, April 7, 2013

It was sunset atop the Duomo cupola, and there was no mistaking that Florence is an Italian masterpiece.

The city spreads in every direction like burnt-orange brush strokes, the sun glinting off stone patchwork and terracotta rooftops. In the distance, the Tuscan hills rolled like slabs of marble en route to Michaelangelo’s workshop. And when a cool February wind whipped up the side of the dome, it carried with it a brisk reminder that Firenze is a timeless beauty at any time of year.

A typical stopover for tour groups young and old, Florence is Italy’s Renaissance city. From the famous masterpieces, to the goldsmiths along Ponte Vecchio, an ancient bridge spanning the Arno River, to the street musicians plucking away at violins, Florence is the hub of Italian art.

During high season, this cultural menagerie translates into hordes of gawking tourists, packed streets and exhausting lines. Most guidebooks suggest making reservations – not for restaurants but for museums.

But avoiding the chaos of summertime is both possible and worthwhile. You might have to bring a light jacket and gamble on the weather, but the payout is a jackpot – a more intimate Florence, where its treasures are more easily found and more efficiently won.

In general, traveling off-season (typically November through March) in Italy and much of Europe means that airline flights can be found at a bargain, compared to the skyrocketing summer fares. Cheaper lodgings tend to have more vacancies while the more pricey hotels drop their rates. For example, in March a premier room at the Four Seasons Firenze would cost more than 300 Euro (about $385 U.S.) less than in late July.

Battling the weather is merely a matter of layers and can be surprisingly more comfortable than midsummer’s sweltering heat, if you pack correctly. The winter Florentine days are crisp and when clear, the blue sky is a picturesque backdrop for the towering multicolored marble facade and red-ribbed roof of the Duomo, the medieval parapet tower jutting from the Palazzo Vecchio, the city's Romanesque town hall. But the weather plays only a small role in enjoying of Florence, as many of the city’s most striking possessions are found indoors.

During peak months, Florence’s two must-see museums, the Uffizi Gallery and the Academia where Michaelangelo’s David calls home, recommend securing admission in advance.

I arrived in Florence mid-week in mid-February, checked into my charming, affordable hotel – Residenza Della Signora – and within moments was perusing the Renaissance masterpieces in the Uffizi. The line for walk-ins at the museum was shorter than the reservation line and I strolled right in. Without a crowd in this typically crowded U-shaped gallery, the great and lesser-known works alike were more accessible, intimate and enjoyable. Rather than be shuffled along from frame to frame, I was able to spend time indulging in the classical subjects, the technique, use of color, dimension and depth that all blossomed during the Italian Renaissance.

At the Academia, which I walked into the next morning, again without making a reservation, I was reminded of an August visit here some years back. Back then I was hustled along, hastily pushed through the main corridor leading up to Michaelangelo’s David. Now, without the gaping throngs, I lingered at the series of statues that line the hall leading up to David. Michaelangelo’s The Prisoners, as they are called, appear to be breaking free from the massive stone slabs, perhaps unfinished or intentional. The museum layout wisely leads visitors from the least to the most developed sculpture, demonstrating the evolution of the virtuoso artist, culminating in his great masterpiece, David.

But visiting Florence off-season also gives you unfettered access to the region’s other works of art: the food. I gorged on the benefits of off-season travel several times in Firenza, but none were more satisfying than the culinary ones.

All’Antico Vinaio is the number one rated restaurant in Florence, according to most popular travel websites, guidebooks and almost anyone who has ever eaten here. This tiny sandwich shop down a side alley does not look spectacular but everything inside is. The queue typically starts early and stretches out the door and down the cobbled sidewalk. I arrived on a sunny February afternoon to an empty storefront. I strolled past a friendly man sweeping the doorstep and was immediately hit by waves of exquisite aromas. On the counter sat a whole Prosciutto di Parma (cured ham), next to a steaming roast beef still bleeding from the slice cut for the previous customer. Next to that rested a massive porchetta (roast pork). In the deli case were rows upon rows of tapanades, spreads, olives, tomatoes (fresh and sun-dried), cheeses, meats and who knows what else.

I ordered a porchetta panini, which was sliced in front of me, with fresh mozzarella and olives. For the paltry fee of 5 Euro (about $6.40 U.S.), I received a sandwich bloated from heaving slices of roast pork, crispy skin and all.

Another Florentine gastronomic institution, Trattoria Mario, is an experience all its own. You wait, but in off-season you don’t wait as long. Then you sit, you introduce yourself to the strangers you squeeze in next to, you look up at the board with the ever-changing menu. You say, "si, vino (yes, wine)," and you sit back and soak in Italy swarming around you in all its chaotic culinary glory.

Trattoria Mario is a hole in the wall off a piazza, with hundreds of overwhelmingly positive reviews covering the windows and doors. The menu changes daily but everything they offer is something you’d be unable to find anywhere this side of an Italian grandmother's kitchen. I opted for a thick, velvet white bean soup with the word "mangia" (eat)) spelled out on top in dark green olive oil. It was an exquisitely un-busy dish, like most other dishes I saw exit the central galley kitchen. The buzzing chefs do not overdress their dishes, letting fresh ingredients shine.

Beef braccioli, served on Wednesdays, was pounded thin, breaded, pan fried, rolled and swimming in tomato sauce. The meat was so tender I never picked up a knife.

Back atop the Duomo cupola, I watched the setting sun bathe Florence in an orange halo. The last entry to climb the 463 steps to the cupola closes around 5 p.m., meaning most visitors throughout the year experience a beautiful but typically daytime view. But the winter sun sets earlier – just another perk of an off-season visit to Italy’s Renaissance city.


WHERE TO STAY: Residenza Della Signoria offers charming, elegant rooms furnished in classic Italian style, with beautiful exposed wood-beam ceilings. Staff is friendly, rates are affordable and it’s perfect location on one of the main thoroughfares is within walking distance to all major attractions. Residenza della Signoria is located at Via dei Tavolini 8-50122, Firenze, Italy. Telephone: +39 055-2645990; Email: info@residenzadellasignoria.com or visit www.residenzadellasignoria.com.

WHERE TO EAT: For incredible sandwiches and a cup of wine, try All’Antico Vinaio located at Via de Neri 65, Santa Croce, Firenze, Italy, 50123. For an authentic Italian dining experience, complete with communal seating and out-of-this-world dishes, visit Trattoria Mario located at Via Rosina 2R (near Piazza del Mercato Centrale), Firenze, Italy, 50123. Telephone +39 055–218550; Email: trattoriamario@libero.it or visit www.trattoria-mario.com. Neither place accepts credit cards so bring cash and a big appetite.

Read more: http://www.metrowestdailynews.com/lifestyle/x2082728731/Travel-Discover-the-beauty-of-off-season-Florence#ixzz2PvkMjf6J