Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The World's Nicest Hotel has a Baby

Every year since 2006 we have argued that the best skiing in Europe can be found in the Dolomites. The posts can be found here and here’s a summary of why we have never felt the need to go anywhere else:

·      One ski pass = 1,200 kilometers of trails, 510 lifts across 12 valleys encompassing 3 regions of Italy. That’s the equivalent of skiing from New York to Chicago in an area so special it has been declared a World Heritage Site
·      Dramatic scenery and delightful villages that offer the very best of Austrian and Italian traditions and culture
·      An almost infinite number of mountain huts and restaurants with exceptionally wonderful food and drink at attractive prices

And now there’s another reason: The Berghotel Ladinia. This small, charming 3-star hotel has been recently taken over by the Costa family who own and run the fabulous Hotel La Perla next door. (Our recent post about La Perla can be found here).

 Ladinia was always a great little hotel with its perfect ski-on, ski-off position and chalet coziness but now with the Costa’s imprimatur, it has been taken to a whole new level of specialness. It’s bijou but everything reflects the family’s passion for quality - from the d├ęcor, to the staff, to the food and drink. For the price, you will not find better value. And if you wish, for an additional charge, you can use the spa facilities at Hotel La Perla that my ski buddies describe as lovely and very restorative.

So another year and No Crowds skiing advice holds firm. If you want to impress someone, go to Zermatt but if you want to ski more, eat better and spend less, head for Corvara where the world’s nicest hotel and its new berghotel baby await you.

Photo Credit: Gary Ransom

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Costa Rica's Playa Santa Teresa - Lake Wobegon with waves

Great news.  No Crowds reporters Gary and Lorraine are back. This time in a magical spot in Costa Rica.

Off on Costa Rica's western coast - a hair-raising light aircraft flight and/or hair-raising car and ferry journey from the capital - sits Malpais, home to Santa Teresa beach. Because of its remoteness, it appears that time is indeed standing still, sometime in the 90's. If Lake Wobegon had an awesome point break, this would be it.

In Malpais, everyone has abs that are above average. Everyone has exactly your doctor's recommended body fat percentage - no more, no less. Every woman looks good in less than the average yardage of fabric required for a pocket hanky, and every guy wears only cool board shorts that don't expose his knee. Light tanning is universal, but melanoma is unknown. Everyone is bilingual, if not tri. The main street looks for all the world like a Victoria's Secret/Abercrombie & Fitch runway show, all day, every day.

The ocean is consistently at the same temperature that I keep my pool - refreshingly cool, yet not too cold. Every wave from the mighty Pacific is better than the last, yet none are big enough to hurt you too badly if you're a beginning surfer. Horses canter on the beach at sunset every day. Every restaurant, and I mean every restaurant, has romantic tables in the sand, and gorgeous flipflop-shod servers, who are of course, better than average.

Economists will puzzle for years over the strange economy. Well stocked grocery stores offer all manner of food and alcohol (spectacular sauvignon blancs from Chile, great local beer and dark rum, etc), but the food especially is very expensive. On the other hand, eating great food at a local soda (mom and pop restaurant with outdoor tables) will set you back an average of $10 per person, including wine and beer. Even higher end restaurants are very well priced, and there are dozens. Oh, and order at least one mojito while you are there - for 6 bucks, you will be transported.

And the funny thing is, there are lots of people, but no crowds. Even at sunset (which is a truly religious experience), the beach is only sparsely populated. The longest line we waited in consisted of three people in a grocery store. Every restaurant seems to be perpetually 50% to 80% full, so there is always a buzz from happy diners, but they always - always - have a table for you, regardless of the size of your party.

If you go, a few things to remember.

1. Eat the fish. Red snapper, tuna, and mahi bear no resemblance to the previously frozen, processed and shipped stuff we eat elsewhere. The supply chain runs from the local dock 2 miles away directly to every restaurant in town, and you can taste it in every bite. Sushi and ceviche places abound, and they're safe.

2. Rent an SUV with 4wd. Nothing else can handle the roads that you encounter in the last 10 km to Malpais. You could get a taxi from the local airstrip, but it's very helpful to have a car in town.

3. There are many options for accommodations, from high end resorts to surfer shacks. Research carefully, since price does not always reflect quality. Air conditioning is widely available, but believe it or not, you may not need it. It's comfortable in the shade in the daytime, even with temps in the 90's F, and everything cools down at night.

4. Remember you're in a tropical country. Costa Rica is well developed and cleanliness standards are high - we ate ceviche, salads and raw fruit with abandon, and didn't suffer, but others did. Ask your doctor for a Cipro prescription before you leave, and if you need it, it will cut the duration of a case of "la Tourista" from a few days to a few hours.

5. There are plenty of tourist activities (ziplines, trail riding to hidden waterfalls, cantering on the beach, etc), but be sure to leave yourself plenty of downtime to soak up the local vibe and walk/run the glorious beaches.

6. ...and finally, start working out now! Given how little you will be wearing, you will want to make sure you are above average when you arrive.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Back to Belize

In 2011, I wrote a post entitled “Can you handle 18 – From 13 to 88?" about a family reunion in Belize that was a huge success, so huge, we went back. Again, we numbered 18 and if you do the math, this time the age range was 15 to 90.

Once again we went straight back to the oldest jungle lodge resort in the country, Chaa Creek. Why, you might wonder would we not want to try somewhere new? The answer can be boiled down to one word – people – because that is the secret sauce of Chaa Creek that you can’t get anywhere else. Just like the Costa family and their staff in the previous post made the Hotel La Perla in Corvara the nicest hotel in the world, Mick and Lucy Fleming and their daughter and staff make Chaa Creek the nicest resort. Nothing is impossible or too much trouble. Nothing is refused or denied. Whatever can be done to make your holiday wonderful, the Flemings and their team will do it.

For this family reunion, the weather was a challenge. It rained a lot which meant some of the sites, roads and activities were either closed or the access was incredibly difficult. But such was the ‘can do’ and adventurous spirit of Chaa Creek that if we were game, they were game. We forded rivers (and got stuck) drove through impassable roads (and got stuck) and came back every night with wild stories to tell. There is nothing that brings a far-flung family together like an adventure and we had many. Aunt Mary braved the zipline through the forest canopy. We went deep into the Mayan caves. My mother (in her 80s) once again demonstrated her horseback-riding prowess. My father, in his 90s, was a great walker.

And through it all, the people of Chaa Creek pampered us, rescued us, fed us, mixed wickedly good drinks and made sure that our family had a wonderful, wonderful time. And in the end, that's what it's all about.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

No Crowds Bestows Top Award to World’s Nicest Hotel

Since when has No Crowds been dishing out travel awards? A consultant friend of mine told me to do it years ago, but I wasn’t inspired or ready. Now I am.
This readiness comes from a stay at the Hotel La Perla in Corvara, Italy this September with my mother and father, aged respectively 84 and 90.

We had gone to the Dolomites to hike.  That sentence is one of my favorite party tricks. “What, your parents are still hiking – in the mountains!?! ” Well, yes, in fact, they are - despite operations and arthritis and age-related ‘stuff’ large and small – yes, they are.

It was early last summer, when my father called to announce that a hiking trip to the Dolomites was on the cards.

“Great, Dad, who are you going with?”
“Your mother and I are going by ourselves. We thought we would go to the area where you and Alexa (my sister) like to ski. What do you think is the best hotel?”
“Well Dad, I would go to Hotel La Perla. It has an excellent reputation, a wonderful position in the village and a nice bar."
"OK, sounds good. If you like, why don’t you join us for a few days."
"I would love to."

By the time I arrived, my parents were La Perla cognoscenti. The Costa family who own and run the hotel perfectly understood the spirit of this American couple who loved being able to be there. The bartender made their favorite martinis perfectly. The food was lovely. Their Tyrolean-style room was comfortable and stylish with a great view. The hotel had found them an energetic and talented young man about the age of their grandchildren to serve as a mountain guide. Everyone from the front desk to the staff in the dining rooms valued the effort and importance of this trip to my parents. And as you can imagine, my parents loved being valued.

But it was when it was time to say goodbye to this alpine arcadia, that I realized how extraordinary La Perla is. As we emerged from the hotel for the last time, lining our way to the taxi was a guard of honor comprised of the staff and Costa family.  And then they burst into applause. Yes, you got that right, my parents were applauded out of the hotel. They were applauded for their attitude to life, for their hats (see picture above) and for all they had achieved during their stay. Once in the car, my mother turned to me and said, “I have been to most of the grand hotels in the world (if you know her, you know that statement is true). La Perla is the nicest.”

And that is why No Crowds is proud to bestow its first award to the Hotel La Perla in Corvara – the world’s nicest hotel.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

I Had a House in Rungsted ...

News Flash: Thomas Wolfe, Rudyard Kipling and Jane Austen make way for Karen Blixen. No Crowds has a new favorite literary destination.

We went to Copenhagen last weekend for a birthday party. On that score, I can report that anything you may have heard about dour Danes is absolute rubbish. They party hard there.

But my point is this. We were also able to sneak off for a morning and visit the Karen Blixen house and museum in nearby Rungsted,  And if you are ever in Copenhagen and you love literature, you should too.

Why? Because the house, gardens and grounds are just the way you thought they would be after reading Karen Blixen’s books, only way, way better. It’s easy to imagine Blixen, home from Africa, broke, devastated from the death of Denys Finch Hatton, riddled with mercury poisoning to treat the syphilis she got from her former husband yet determined to become the celebrated writer she in fact became. It’s easy to imagine her staring out over the sea with the soft mellow light of Scandinavia dreaming of the bright sun of the African bush. It’s all there: Africa, Denmark, an artist’s sense of order and arrangement. There are also some excellent exhibits of her life and work and paintings of people you know so well from her writing.  On the lovely Saturday morning that we were there,  we had the place almost to ourselves.

Rungsted is 25 kilometers north of Copenhagen and 10 kilometers south of Hamlet’s Elsinore. Opening hours and directions on how to get there by car or public transport can be found here.

Photo courtesy of the Karen Blixen Museum

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Look Homeward Lightning Bugs

This summer the lightning bugs returned to the farm after a long absence and we were so happy to welcome them home.  We returned too, to the summer places and attractions of our youth.

We returned to historic Tryon Palace in New Bern, North Carolina. We haven’t been there in 20 years when we took our children. We used to go there with our grandparents. But that’s not the reason you should go. This is.

If you’re keen on America’s colonial history, love historic restorations and hate crowds, you could skip Colonial Williamsburg (very crowded) and have a super experience in New Bern. There is a new splendid History Center with interactive exhibits that could convince any recalcitrant child that museums are the coolest thing on this planet.  The Governor's Palace and surrounding gardens and historic houses kept us fascinated and entertained for hours. We had a excellent lunch on the terrace of the History Center overlooking the mighty river Neuse. Oh, and before we forget: George Washington not only slept there, he danced there too.

We also went to Asheville, North Carolina. We haven’t been there in 50 years (not kidding) and were blown away by the culture, nature and ‘joie de vivre’ on offer in this southern mountain city.

If you go, don’t miss the drum circle that takes place downtown every Friday night. Hippies, hiphop grannies, kids, dogs - you name it, they’ll beat it. And try to get in a hike in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park  - think the ‘Last of the Mohicans’ with Daniel Day Lewis that was filmed there. We love the story of the park’s creation. In 1926, although Congress authorized its establishment , there was no federally owned land there. Philanthropists such as John D Rockefeller, and ordinary citizens of North Carolina and Tennessee - and I love this, the travel writer Horace Kephart and photographer George Masa, - campaigned tirelessly to create what is now a 500,000 acre achingly-beautiful preserve.

Also, don’t miss a visit to the homeplace and memorial of Thomas Wolfe, giant of American literature and author of Look Homeward Angel and You Can’t Go Home Again. The experience is so outstanding that it makes you want to run home and read Wolfe’s very, very long books all over again.

Finally, don’t do what we did and miss the Biltmore Estate, George Vanderbilt’s 250-room chateau built in 1895 that at 178,296 square feet, remains America’s largest privately owned house.  Bill Gates’s shack at 66,000 square feet pales in comparison. Alas, we didn’t have the time.

And so our summer of re-visitation came to an end. Last night as we walked up the driveway for the last time, our way was lit by a thousand little flickering lighthouses, lit by the flies we call bugs that are really beetles and I thought of Thomas Wolfe who ended one of the best passages in Look Homeward Angel with the line, “This is a moment."

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

All This From Poop

William Gibbs made his dibs
 Selling the turds of foreign birds”

I just love visiting country houses in England where you can step out of the pages of Evelyn Waugh or Jane Austen and into the lives- and stuff – of others. Most houses have a great story.  Tyntesfield, a Victorian Gothic revival estate 8 miles from the centre of Bristol may be one of the best stories of all.

Because the spectacular house, the extensive gardens and parkland and the room after room of stuff that was owned by William Gibbs (1790-1875), the richest commoner in the country, all came from bird shit. Guano to be exact, the poop from seabirds that has been harvested from islands off the coast of Peru since the time of the Aztecs.

At Tyntesfield, I learned that guano is great stuff. It’s got lots of phosphorus and nitrogen and doesn’t stink like manure. But I also learned that guano can buy you the most amazing things from a seriously great chapel (Gibbs was very religious) to a 43 bedroom house and 2,000 acres of countryside not to mention the fabulous clutter that was so fashionable at the time: the porcelain, the books, the Moose head, a walk in safe in the kitchen for the silver, a wooden sink for the glassware. It’s extraordinary what they packed in there.

And it is extraordinary that it still exists, saved in 2002 by a massive fund raising effort that prevented the sale of the house, contents and land after the death of Lord Wraxall, a reclusive bachelor, in 2001.

So all in all, it’s a place with lots of great stories – built from the proceeds of poop and saved for all of us by a national concern for conservation and the generosity of the British people. If you are ever heading southbound on the M5 near Bristol, be sure to stop and see it.

The food in the on-site restaurant is not bad either.

For visitor information for Tynsfield, click here http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/tyntesfield/