Tag Archives: Urban Insider

Road Trip Through Israel

14 May

The Israeli countryside just outside Nazareth.
(Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

For a first-time visitor such as I, discovering Israel’s countryside was equally as important as exploring its big cities, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The political and religious events that have occurred in this fabled land have reverberated around the world for thousands of years.

Deciding against the group-tour-bus approach allows you to map out a customized route based on what you really want to see. For me, it was a mix of ancient sites and pilgrimage spots (along with a good dose of delicious Israeli food along the way). Israel is easily manageable by car and parking at the major attractions is generally painless.

Watching the sun set in Akko. (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

Watching the sun set in Akko. (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

I only had three days, so I decided to concentrate on northern Israel. Based on my experience, I would recommend staying one night in Akko (Acre), and one or two nights in the Sea of Galilee area or in Rosh Pina. Check out my full itinerary — from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — below if you’d like to follow in my footsteps.

Here we go!

Day One: From Tel Aviv, drive to Caesarea National Park to see what remains of the town built by Herod the Great (there’s a nice exhibit mapping its history) and check out the great beaches. The restored Roman amphitheater is an impressive site that hosts concerts today. (If you’re a golfer, be sure to check out the Caesarea Golf Club, considered to be the best course in Israel.)

Drive north from Caesarea to Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city, where you have to stop at the Baha’i Shrine and Gardens, a beautiful terraced landscaped built as a memorial to the founders of the Baha’i religion. From here, you can look across the bay to Akko, your stop for the night.

Day Two: Akko was a strategic city during the Crusades and boasts some of the best intact ruins from that era. But the real star was dinner at Uri Buri near the water. Keep an eye out for the legendary owner himself. But don’t let his long white beard intimidate you; he’s like an ebullient teddy bear who cooks dreamy seafood. As he presented my meal, he winked and said: “Salmon without wasabi is like a kiss without a mustache.” By the end of the night, I had tears rolling down my face from laughing so hard. While each dish is better than the next, the restaurant’s ambiance is homey and inviting. There is no “celebrity wall,” Uri Buri told me, though many have visited.

Ronen is known by locals as

Ronen is known by locals as “the Yemenite Pizza Man.” (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

The best place to stay in Akko is the Efendi Hotel, of which Uri Buri is part owner. The boutique property opened after a meticulous 8-year restoration process under the watchful eye of the Israel Antiquities Authority. In addition to 12 gorgeous rooms on three levels, the Efendi’s rooftop offers the best sunset-viewing spot in town.

Day Three: After a restful night in Akko, spend the morning in Safed, the highest city in Israel. Safed is now known for its quaint art galleries and shops, but is the birthplace of Kabbalah, and remains a center for the religion (of course, Madonna has visited). If you get lost, just ask for where the “Art Gallery Street” (Alkabetz). Wander to number 18 and have Ronen make you lunch. The “pizzas” are essentially grilled pancakes served with herbs, vegetables, and cheese, but you’ll soon understand why tourists and locals alike love them.

From Safed, you can drive to a number of Christian religious sites. My favorite, for its authenticity, was Capernaum, a small town on the Sea of Galilee where Jesus taught in the local synagogue (it’s also the hometown of four apostles — Peter, James, Andrew, and John). Today, the sea provides half of Israel’s drinking water, but when you dip your feet into the water it’s easy to imagine what it must have been like thousands of years ago.

Ruins at Capernaum on the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee. (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

Ruins at Capernaum on the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee. (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

Nearby is Tabgha where, according to biblical tradition, Jesus fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. The view from the Mount of Beatitudes, the site where Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount, is appropriately peaceful. And while the city of Nazareth is chaotic, it’s worth visiting if only to see the Basilica of Annunciation, built over the grotto where Mary was supposedly told she was carrying the son of God.

I’m not sure that the high cost justifies a stay at the famous Mizpe Hayamim in Rosh Pina, but I loved their organic farm (the property had the whole farm-to-table thing going on in the 1960s long before it was a global trend) and the stunning views. Instead, I would consider booking at one of the hundreds of zimmers (B&Bs) in the region. A friend recommended the invaluable This is Galilee as a resource.

So, what would I do differently next time?

I would carve out more time so I could explore the south, and the Israeli sides of the Dead Sea and the Red Sea (I’ve been to the Jordan side of both). I want to see places like Masada, the Qumran Caves, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, and the Negev Desert. I’d also book a guide who could provide more context at the religious sites, as I did when I was in Jerusalem.

Let me know what I missed in the north, or what I should see in the rest of Israel when I plan my next visit!

Road Trip Through Israel

How to Survive Traveling With Your Mom

12 May

Moms don't always make the easiest traveling companions. Check out these tips for how to survive one-on-one travel.  (Photograph by Luis Marden, National Geographic)

I recently spent a week in Europe with my mother. I survived, and dare I say, thrived. We met each other at Schiphol airport at 6 a.m., took a train to Brussels, and spent a week exploring Belgium and Amsterdam. That’s a long time to spend with anyone, whether it’s your mom, your boyfriend, or your best mate.

It might be the best thing in the world for some people to spend 24 hours a day with their mom. For me, it’s a different, sometimes taxing relationship, and takes a lot of patience. Before, our little spats would have completely destroyed a trip. Now I’m smarter and realize that I can’t blame the other person for their actions; I can only take responsibility for how I react. When I get home, I can vent and recall ridiculous situations. But if I don’t remain calm and relaxed while I’m traveling, it’s no fun for anyone.

A memorable trip that I still smile about was when I spent a week in Maui with my little sister. We alternated between beach days and active days, like driving the Road to Hana and biking down Haleakala. Sure, she likes to sleep in and stay up later than I do, but we were an instant travel match. Now, I’d go anywhere with her.

Whether you’re traveling with your mom or someone else, here are my tips for success on one-on-one trips:

Know your “No-Fly List”: When friends would say “Let’s plan a trip together!,” I used to respond with “Sure!” Now I only say it if I mean it. I won’t name names, but there are certain people I’d never want to spend extended periods of time with — especially on the road. A two-hour dinner in New York is one thing, but navigating a foreign country together? I recently had a friend I’d never traveled with join me in Argentina and Brazil. It could have been disastrous, but knowing her personality, I had a feeling we’d be okay. The risk paid off: Our trip was amazing, and I got to know her much better.

Schedule alone time: My boyfriend knows I need what we call my “putz” time every day. I need time to roam around, check food and lifestyle blogs, flip through an US Weekly, or look at the photos I took that day. It doesn’t matter whether I’m at home or on the road, this time is vital. I especially love having an hour between the day’s activities and my plans for the evening.

Don’t judge — and don’t force: Just because I want to spend as much time as I can exploring doesn’t mean that I should expect my mom to do so as well. We followed a schedule of planned activity in the morning, then, after lunch, my mom would return to the hotel to relax while I would go wander around. Another example: I don’t like interacting with people in the early morning (Let me enjoy my International Herald Tribune, cappuccino, and smoked salmon in peace!), while my mom likes to chit chat. If you and your travel partner can agree to adopt a strategy of no judgment and no coercion, you’ll be well on your way to bliss.

Avoid touchy subjects: The time to argue over hot-button issues is never when you’re together, alone, overseas. I made this mistake during one lunch in Amsterdam and tried to project a response I desperately wanted my mom to have, fully knowing it would never happen. Yet I tried and it turned into the most awkward, get-me-off-this-island lunch. Why ruin a good time abroad when you can argue at home?

Practice patience: Breathe. Wait a few seconds before responding. Breathe again. When I feel my patience wearing thin, I look down at my rings, twist them around, and then respond.

Be up front about your travel priorities: Everyone has their own idea of what they want to experience and see while they’re exploring a new place. And when you’re traveling with someone else (especially just one other person), it’s important to have these conversations long before the departure date so you’re on the same page. But, keep in mind that as nothing ever goes exactly as planned when you’re traveling, it’s equally important to make adjustments along the way to ensure both of you feel like you’ve gotten what you came for.

Check in: I tend to be the planner (a position I love to be in) when it comes to trips. But now I try to check in with my travel partner du jour throughout the process. My questions range from: “Does this still sound good?” and “Do you still feel like sushi?” to “It’s okay if you want to skip another cathedral, I’m not feeling it either.” With any hope, the other person will return the favor by communicating with you, too.

Laugh: After traveling through Wallonia together, my mom and I had to return our car and make it to the station in time for our train. This led to a comically difficult turn of events — one of those days where it feels like nothing is going right. Turns out most gas stations are closed Sundays, and the only one we found that was open had a line two hours long and a busted credit card machine. The cost of returning the tank empty was astronomically high, so we had to make it work. We missed our train. But we laughed through it — and got on the next one.

How to Survive Traveling With Your Mom

The Power of Train Travel

9 May

Thalys's most popular high-speed route runs between Paris and Brussels. (Photograph courtesy Rail Europe)

I blame luggage for all my troubles on trains — whether I’m whizzing down to Washington, D.C. or wending my way through Wallonia. I try to avoid clunking other passengers in the head with my elbow as I navigate tight aisles and haul my wheeled carry on over my head, but it’s not easy.

Despite these challenges, traveling by train is by far my favorite mode of transport — especially when I’m in Europe.

Trains are more civilized there, and more convenient. The extensive network of interconnected tracks makes it a breeze to zip around the continent (a notable exception for me has been in Italy, where departure times seems to be merely a suggestion).

On a recent trip to Europe, I boarded a Thalys train in Amsterdam to discover a vibe that was refined and polished, and fellow passengers who were courteous and quiet. As I opened my laptop to take advantage of the free WiFi, a full breakfast was served to me in my Comfort 1 seat. When I arrived relaxed and calm in Brussels two hours later, I didn’t want the journey to end.

Antwerp Train Station

A train prepares to take off for Amsterdam from the station in Antwerp. (Photograph by Vincent Brassinne, Flickr)

Though there are plenty of low-cost flights available in Europe (which can be good choices for longer distances), why deal with airport security and extra luggage fees if you don’t have to? And you can learn so much about a place on a train by watching the landscape change — from the snow-capped mountains in Switzerland to the hills and rivers of Austria.

A Eurail pass is almost a rite of passage for American college students of some means. It was certainly the golden ticket that ignited my abiding love for travel. My friends and I would sit there poring over maps, making tough decisions like whether to stay longer in Cinque Terre or move on to Paris.

Eurail passes are sold by Rail Europe, so I connected with the company’s CEO, Frederic Langlois, to learn more about the vast patchwork of train companies they collaborate with, and the tantalizing products they offer.

Here’s what you should know:

Europe is shrinking: Langlois says the high-speed rail network is expanding, which means you’ll be able to get where you want to go even faster. The focus for them is improving connections to major cities with Brussels as a hub (right now, you can zip to the UK, Netherlands, Germany, and France from the Belgian capital).

Pick the right pass: A lot has changed since I left college ten years ago. Certain passes allow for unlimited travel to 24 countries like France, Spain, and Ireland. From this network, choose a Continuous Pass (available for 15 or 21 days, or one, two, or three months), a Flexipass (10 or 15 days of travel within a two-month span), or a Select Pass (choose up to 15 days of travel within two months in three, four, or five bordering countries). Note: France is no longer part of the Select Pass, but can be added on.

Or stick to one or two countries: You can also buy two-country or single country passes. Want to focus on eating pasta and exploring the “Boot” top to bottom? The Eurail Italy pass is for you. They also offer a France, German, and Swiss Rail pass. Bonus tip: The Swiss Rail Pass includes free entry to more than 400 museums in Switzerland.

Make use of mobile: Like many people these days, I access nearly all of my travel information on my smartphone. Eurostar, Thalys, TGV (France), RENFE (Spain), ICE (Germany), and Italo (Italy) already offer e-ticketing, and the trend toward mobile means there will be even more options to come.

Good news for WiFi: WiFi is such a huge factor for travelers today and will continue to be a hot button issue until it’s free and fast everywhere. According to Rail Europe, it’s becoming available on more and more European trains, like Thalys and Italo, and will continue to expand in the coming years.

In good company: The number of people who choose to travel by train is on the upswing. According to Langlois, trains now have 75 percent market share (versus airlines) on connections that are fewer than three hours. When that drops to two-hours connections, rail is the clear winner with up to 95 percent of the market share. And rail travelers will only win as companies continue to focus on making trains even more comfortable and efficient.


The Power of Train Travel

Cheers to High Wine in Amsterdam

7 Apr

High Wine at The Dylan's Michelin-starred restaurant, Vinkeles. (Photograph courtesy The Dylan Amsterdam)

As I was preparing for a recent trip to Amsterdam, I did my usual pre-trip rounds of asking for restaurant recommendations from friends and mining relevant articles and blogs for ideas. Surprisingly, the pickings came back very slim.

Aside from one consistent exception, there didn’t seem to be any sort of food revolution going on in the city. Emails from well-traveled friends were returned with phrases like “awful service” and “generic food.” I made reservations, but prepared myself for a few days of lackluster dining.

After eating my way through Amsterdam, I found these characterizations to be mostly untrue.

I discovered pioneers of new dining concepts at The Dylan hotel, set back from the street in the historic Canal House. This is where I enjoyed a new trend worth celebrating: High Wine.

The Dylan hotel's comfy lounge area.  (Photograph courtesy The Dylan Amsterdam)

The Dylan hotel’s comfy lounge area. (Photograph courtesy The Dylan Amsterdam)

As a long-time afternoon tea devotee, I was intrigued by the concept. This isn’t your average happy hour. High Wine is classy and delicious, with eats created by an award-winning chef rather than chicken wings and nachos. “We didn’t feel like high tea was a priority for our guests,” a staff member explained. “Our guests are less formal, but still extremely food-focused.”

Whereas afternoon tea doesn’t match the food to the tea, High Wine does. Snuggled up next to the fireplace in The Dylan’s cozy lounge, I sipped a creamy chardonnay and summery, light pinot noir, paired with smoked albacore tuna with asparagus and poached egg, and codfish in a roasted garlic sauce with lentils.

The hotel typically presents a selection of four different wines is paired with four amuse-bouche-style bites at 4:00 p.m. Executive Chef Dennis Kuipers serves up seasonal French flavors with a lighter, modern touch. The concept of High Wine has since spread, but it was born here in this enduring space.

The hotel sits on the site of the Netherlands’ first theater, built in 1613. In line with Amsterdam’s liberal ethos, women were allowed to perform throughout the 1700s until the curtains caught fire and the theater burned. It then became a Catholic alms house and, later, a bakery.

Today, the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Vinkeles, fills the space, and has retained the original 18th-century bricks and the ovens from the long-shuttered bakery.

The light and airy De Kas. (Photograph by Msiew, Flickr)

The light and airy De Kas. (Photograph by Msiew, Flickr)

While the building’s history stands in stark contrast to the restaurant’s contemporary persona, I found it fascinating that the wood floors remain from 1773, and that the lounge is where orphans played. Much of the furniture was handmade in Italy and the guest rooms are dark gray, black, and white with rich jewel-toned accents, antique mirrors and custom drinks cabinets with mother-of-pearl finishes.

Besides Vinkeles, the one restaurant everyone told me I had to visit was De Kas, which has shown Amsterdam the importance of starting with proper produce. It’s outside the city center, but an easy tram ride or 15-Euro cab ride.

Upon arrival, guests must cross a wooden bridge over a marsh, providing a hint of the enchanting evening to come.

De Kas is set in a circa 1926 greenhouse, which allows the room to fill with natural light at lunch and provides guests with a sense of dining under the stars in the evenings.

As you check your coat, you can admire rows of salad greens, vegetables, and herbs growing in the greenhouse, some of which will end up on your plate. The scent of just-picked lemon verbena is particularly intoxicating. As Chef Bas Wiegel, a young, charming, passionate food enthusiast tells me: “Respect starts in the ground and ends on the plate.”

There are smaller areas off the main dining room including a chef’s table in the kitchen, a business table, and cocktail space, lending the restaurant a communal air. This idea that there is a place for everyone extends to the staff, who eat dinner together every night in the restaurant. To be sure, De Kas is one of the don’t-you-dare-miss restaurants in Amsterdam.

Michelin-starred or not, Amsterdam’s restaurant scene is improving and moving beyond its cafe culture of bread and cheese. On a beautiful day, though, this is precisely the Amsterdam I want: an outdoor table, simple sandwich, and coffee at Cafe ‘t Smalle gazing at the canals and life going by.

Cheers to High Wine in Amsterdam 24 Kitchen , amsterdam , Annie Fitzsimmons , Cafe ‘t Smalle , De Kas , High Wine , holland , Marqt , netherlands , The Dylan hotel , Urban Insider , Vinkeles , wine

Finding the Beat of Brussels

29 Mar

Grand Place. (Photograph by Marianne Janssens, Flickr)

I marched into Parking Garage #58 with confidence, punched the 10 key to the highest floor, and zoomed up. When I exited, the lot was desolate, with some late winter snow and ice remaining. What a pleasant surprise to discover one of the best views in the city: St. Catherine’s Square, a melange of Art Nouveau, gleaming corporate buildings, and a few layered church spires in all their glory. And it was free.

There’s no way I would have found this spot on my own and I have my Brussels Greeter, Martine, to thank for it.

Watch the world go by at a cafe. (Photograph by Sofie Coreynen, Visitflanders/Flickr)

Watch the world go by at a cafe. (Photograph by Sofie Coreynen, Visitflanders/Flickr)

The greeter program is free and connects locals with people who want an insider look at a city. At times, the perceived symbols of a country can be written about so ad nauseam in travel literature that I find myself bored with them before I even arrive. Not so for tiny Belgium. That’s probably because most of the nation’s icons are edible: from the decadent waffles and sinful toppings I just had to sample to the moules frites I washed down with a crisp cold beer. And everyone knows about the chocolate.

But, I was grateful to Martine for that glimpse of another side of Brussels from lofty new heights.

Brussels is far from undiscovered, but it can feel underrated. It is an easily walkable city, with evenly spaced cobblestones, and the ambiance of a merging and blended Europe. But outside the bustling Grand Place, I was comfortable as a tourist, with room to roam. Streets like Rue Lebeau curve around; you feel embraced by the city but not smothered by it. Your independence is respected but if you wish to chat, the locals are most happy to oblige.

The museums in Brussels are worth a week alone and, being an admirer of René Magritte (I have a copy of “La Clairvoyance” in my apartment back in New York), the Magritte Museum quickly became one of my favorites. His modus operandi – a jumble of text, photos, and objects that don’t seem to belong together — left me pleasantly puzzled and mildly amused. (For instance, why is Magritte’s painting of a blue sky with perfect, fluffy white clouds called “The Curse”?!)

The bookshop at the Belgian Comic Strip Center. (Photograph by Johan Martens, Visitflanders/ Flickr)

The bookshop at the Belgian Comic Strip Center. (Photograph by Johan Martens, Visitflanders/ Flickr)

At the Royal Museums of Fine Arts, which encompass ancient and modern art in one location, I was floored by the enormous Rubens room, and could almost feel the pulse of the peasants milling about in the Bruegels. On another side of town, don’t miss the Belgian Comic Strip Center, worth a stop to pay to Tintin and The Smurfs.

Locals are definitely bon vivants — people who live well and have refined taste. The Grand Sablon area hits a sophisticated note as a center for chocolate and home decor, ranging from kitschy to gilded and elegant. Surrounding the Sablon are streets worth savoring like Rue Ernest Allard and Rue des Minimes. I ducked into Claire Fontaine, a tiny gourmet shop, for spices and takeaway sandwiches. Top dining choices in the area are Restaurant JB, LOLA, and Aux Vieux Saint Martin, all teeming with locals.

Closer to the Grand Place is Galeries Royales St Hubert, a vibrant 19th-century shopping stroll that set the standard for similar arcades in London, Milan, and St. Petersburg. Here, you’ll find shops like Ganterie Italienne selling buttery leather gloves in a space where nothing has changed for decades, from the wood floors to the antique register. Nearby is La Taverne du Passage, an old-school choice for dinner, with big bowls of mussels and great wine.

Other shopping streets in Brussels include Boulevard de Waterloo, which is more like Fifth Avenue in New York, and Avenue Louise, strewn with international chains like Zara and Longchamp. But the most delightful neighborhoods to while away a day are near St. Catherine, where an old fish market has been replaced by delicious seafood restaurants. Ramble around the Dansaert, chock-full of unique, trendy shops and excellent eateries.

The Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert. (Photograph by James Stringer, Flickr)

The Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert. (Photograph by James Stringer, Flickr)

After all that walking, you’ll crave a good night’s sleep. There’s a huge range of accommodations, and rates are especially good on weekends due to all the business travelers departing en masse. I loved staying at The Dominican Hotel a former abbey that pays homage to its history by piping Gregorian chant into the elevators. The soaring public spaces and relaxing outdoor garden practically force guests to unwind while the thoroughly modern lounge pulsates with a diverse mix of people each night.

Or, for a completely different vibe, there is always Hotel Welcome, where each of the 17 rooms has an international theme like Silk Road or Egypt, and the gregarious owner, Michael, couldn’t be more friendly.

In places like New York, London, and Paris, locals (I’m guilty, too) feel the need to shout from the rooftops about how great their city is, perhaps to justify sky-high rents and expensive dining. You’ll find a refreshing change of pace in Brussels. They instinctively know they are fortunate enough to live the “good life” daily in a city that feels more like an inviting village than an anonymous urban expanse. Everything is close by and not too congested, rents are decent compared to other capitals, and there’s a decidedly peaceful vibe that works its way into your stride.

The only complaints I heard from locals revolved around traffic and lack of parking — and that, in my estimate, is about as good as you can get.

Finding the Beat of Brussels Annie Fitzsimmons , Art Nouveau , Aux Vieux Saint Martin , beer , Belgian Comic Strip Center , belgium , brussels , Brussels Greeters , chocolate , Claire Fontaine , Dansaert , frites , Galeries Royales St Hubert , Grand Place , Grand Sablon , Hotel Welcome , La Taverne du Passage , LOLA , Magritte Museum , Parking Garage #58 , Rene Magritte , Restaurant JB , Royal Museums of Fine Arts , Saint Catherine , The Dominican , Urban Insider , waffles

Asian-Inspired Chocolate in Brussels

23 Mar

Chocolatiers at work at Laurent Gerbaud in Brussels (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

When we travel, we can become someone else, and in Brussels, I fancied myself a chocolate designer. I’d open a small corner shop just off the Grand Place, where it’s less chaotic and I could create beautiful pieces of art that also happen to be delicious. It would be more of a chocolate salon, a place where marble counters and elaborate displays showcase impossible-to-resist treats.

Of course, I have zero talent in chocolate design, but daydreaming about my boutique comes easily in Brussels, where there are more than 500 chocolatiers — the equivalent of about one for every 2,000 people.

And the Belgians actually eat the stuff, at one of the highest rates in the world for pounds consumed each year. When flying home, visitors can stock up (or replenish what they already devoured), as the city’s airport sells more chocolate than any other in the world.

A look inside the Neuhaus Chocolate shop in Brussels (Photograph by Marianne Janssens, Flickr)

A look inside the Neuhaus Chocolate shop in Brussels (Photograph by Marianne Janssens, Flickr)

While doing some proper background research on the Brussels chocolate scene, I found myself drawn to the houses of Marcolini, Galler, and Neuhaus. Wittamer, owned and operated by the same family since 1910, has a rich history in the Grand Sablon and a cheery second-floor cafe — the perfect place to duck in from the cold.

But I discovered very different flavors at Laurent Gerbaud, who owns a a sleek shop away from the tourist’s epicenter of chocolate, the Grand Sablon. There is no marble or gilded anything here; it’s more like a Zen chocolate zone with a coffee counter. And there’s a reason for that: Gerbaud has been making a name for himself by creating confections inspired by extended stays in Asia for more than three years now. (Just look at his signature — the Chinese symbol for chocolate, embossed with “LG,” his initials.)

At his shop, you’ll discover chocolate-coated fruit and truffles with flavors like Japanese citrus, black pepper, sweet chili, and ginger, alongside more traditional squares festooned with pecans and dried cranberries.

I found myself completely satisfied with a bite or two of Gerbaud’s chocolate, when three packs of peanut M&Ms can somehow feel inadequate. “My tastes really changed thanks to China, as there were no sugar or sweets then,” says Gerbaud, who is preparing for a month of chocolate-related travel in London and Asia. “Back in Belgium, there was too much fat, sugar, and alcohol.”

Stripes of candied orange peel are coated in dark chocolate at Laurent Gerbaud. (Photograph courtesy Laurent Gerbaud)

Stripes of candied orange peel are coated in dark chocolate at Laurent Gerbaud. (Photograph courtesy Laurent Gerbaud)

While the health benefits of chocolate can be overdramatized, you won’t find any added sugar, butter, or alcohol in Gerbaud’s creations. He explains that with a 75 percent cacao bar, you already have 25 percent sugar, which is plenty. “Fifteen years ago, you could only find 55 percent cacao, and now tastes have shifted to darker blends,” he says.

Selecting just the right cocoa beans for aroma and taste is crucial to the process, something Gerbaud likens to selecting the right grapes for wine. His exclusive dark chocolate is made from beans from Madagascar and Ecuador and produced in Italy.

Gerbaud has to laugh at chocolatiers who present new collections of chocolate each season as though they’re fashion designers, believing instead that fantastic new products take time and inspiration. When I ask him how he decides on new flavors, he says: “I always think, do I want a second one or not? I work on product, not the next or new thing that the press wants. I do only what I like.”

You won’t find in Gerbaud’s shop is flowers mixed with chocolate (he says “lavender and rose are too much like toilet water”), but you will always find milk chocolate with pistachio (“the symbol of addiction”).

The best selection to take home with you? A small mixed bag of treats called “A little bit of everything.” But savor it slowly, or you may be the one frantically buying up chocolate before your flight home.

Asian-Inspired Chocolate in Brussels Annie Fitzsimmons , belgium , brussels , chocolate , chocolatier , Galler , House of Wittamer , Laurent Gerbaud , Marcolini , Neuhaus , Urban Insider , Wittamer

The Tastiest Healthy Restaurants in L.A.

10 Mar

Grab a table at M Cafe de Chaya. (Photograph courtesy M Cafe)

When I’m in L.A., the epicenter of healthy eating, I crave heaping plates of chopped salads and veggies, fresh sushi, and soups. They are prepared in such a satisfying, wholly delicious way that my cravings for New York pizza and bagels disappear. Sure, my absolute favorite salad in L.A., the Chinese chicken salad at Joan’s on Third, isn’t exactly healthy with its handfuls of wontons and rice sticks. Still, when it comes to nourishing your body with good eats, the City of Angels is a sure bet.

In L.A., you’re never the odd man out if you have very specific eating preferences or needs. The number of people diagnosed with celiac disease (gluten intolerance) have skyrocketed, as has the number of people who keep to raw, vegan, macrobiotic, organic, paleo, and other diets.

Whether your idea of healthy is sweet potato fries with a turkey burger, or a raw kale salad with avocado and chia seeds, you’ll find something worth writing home about at any of these restaurants in L.A.:

This Zen-like space on Abbot Kinney in Venice serves some of the best sashimi, brown-rice sushi and steamed vegetables with oil-free sauces. Desserts are all dairy, sugar, and gluten-free — like a creamy chocolate mousse with almond and granola and rice ice cream.

The Tuna Niçoise salad at Tender Greens. (Photograph courtesy Tender Greens)

The Tuna Niçoise salad at Tender Greens. (Photograph courtesy Tender Greens)

Wolfgang Puck at Hotel Bel-Air
If I could start every day on the patio at this beautiful, storied hotel eating the egg-white frittata with asparagus, sun-dried tomatoes, shallots, and goat cheese, I think I would. Expect the highest quality, best-tasting ingredients in everything they offer — most of which are sourced from local farms.

Tender Greens
Their menu of “Big Salads,” soups, and grilled meats is big on flavor (think Thai shrimp and chipotle BBQ chicken), but also on conscience. Most of the produce comes from nearby Scarborough Farms, meat is raised humanely, and when possible, everything is organic. Right now they have five locations in L.A. — in Culver City, Santa Monica, Pasadena, Hollywood, and West Hollywood — with two more due this year.

M Café de Chaya
The food here is “contemporary macrobiotic.” You won’t find refined sugar, red meat, poultry, eggs, or dairy on the menu, but even the most passionate carnivores will love the California Club with tempeh “bacon” or the (seitan) BBQ sandwich.

Café Vida
While you’ll find classic comfort food like blueberry pancakes and roast turkey sandwiches at this adorable eatery, the pancakes are made from organic brown rice and sandwiches come on five-grain bread. Salads are hearty, like warm steak and Brazilian chicken. Fresh-squeezed vegetable juices and smoothies round out the menu. And their three locations — in Pacific Palisades, Culver City and El Segundo — make it convenient to eat well.

This menu, served poolside at the Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles, is one of my favorites in all of L.A. Broken down by sections, there are “Indulgent” and “Comfort” options, but the “Antioxidant” and “Energy Booster” selections are as delicious as they are good for you. Try their “Young Hollywood” salad, seared California swordfish, or veggie soy protein burger.

Café Gratitude provides an all-over feel-good experience. (Photograph by Yo! Venice!, Flickr)

Café Gratitude provides an all-over feel-good experience. (Photograph by Yo! Venice!, Flickr)

Café Gratitude
You’ll feel good just walking in the door here thanks to the kind, bubbly staff, but you’ll feel even better knowing that all their food offerings are 100 percent organic and vegan. Try the live cashew crepe with fresh fruit, or live kelp noodles with almond thai dressing at either of their locations in Larchmont or Venice.

Family owned and operated, this small joint in West Hollywood focuses on veggie-based dishes and proteins like turkey, tofu, and beef. The salmon salad — with arugula, corn, lentils, carrots, and parmesan — sticks out as a must-try meal, especially at lunchtime.

Veggie Grill
For a quick meal, this all-vegetarian chain (they have 10 locations across L.A.) delivers tasty, filling eats. The protein sources include “chickin’,” tempeh, and veggie-steak. You can get any of the delicious burgers (like portobello or crispy “crab”) on a wheat bun or on a bed of steamed kale.

Don’t forget about juice bars! 

Beverly Hills Juice was way ahead of the juicing craze, and has been cold-pressing juices since 1975. Any of their vegetable, coconut, ginger, or fruit juices can be turned into a “Banana Manna” shake, made with bananas and either almond, cacao, or sunflower. It’s worth the price of a ticket to L.A. in my opinion. Pressed Juicery has several locations serving raw, cold-pressed juice, too, including my favorites — Greens 1, 2, 3, and 4. And, next door to the nourishing Kreation Kafe in Santa Monic, you’ll find Kreation Juice, with three levels of cleanse or solo juices for a quick boost.

The Tastiest Healthy Restaurants in L.A. Annie Fitzsimmons , Beverly Hills Hotel , Beverly Hills Juice , Cabana , Cafe Gratitude , Cafe Vida , healthy eating , healthy food , Healthy Travel , Hedley’s , Joan’s on Third , juicing , Kreation Juice , los angeles , M Cafe de Chaya , Polo Lounge , Pressed Juicery , Shima , Tender Greens , Urban Insider , Veggie Grill , Wolfgang Puck at Hotel Bel-Air

How to Pack for Weekend Trips

6 Mar

Don't you dare check that bag on a weekend away! (Photograph by Highways Agency, Flickr)

Packing for a weekend away isn’t an exact science. I’m not going to tell you “bring two dresses and a pair of jeans.” So much depends on where you’re going, the weather, and your personal style. But I do have some tips I can offer to help you pack for success.

If I’m traveling, I’m usually working, so I have to bring my laptop. Once you know what you’ll actually need, you can start thinking about things you want to bring. Bottom line: Pack what makes you feel your best and what won’t hold you back from adventure.

Here are seven things to think about while you’re packing for your next weekend trip:

1. Keep calm and carry-on. If you remember your passport, credit cards, and medications you might need when you’re running around before a flight, you’re halfway to golden. Most everything else can be purchased later if left behind. But don’t you dare check a bag on a weekend getaway! Even if you’re not flying, you don’t want to be weighed down. That said, quality luggage is one of the most important investments a traveler can make. Luxury hotel inspector Tiffany Dowd and Erik Wilkinson, a director of sales for Eton of Sweden, both swear by Tumi. The Quintessential Tote is Dowd’s favorite because it’s “stylish and durable,” while Wilkinson prefers the International Carry-On, a bag he reports holds a surprisingly large amount of clothes. Dowd’s also a fan of the brand’s luggage recovery program which identifies your bag with a unique registration number.

2. Don’t underestimate the power of a plastic bag. I put everything from chargers to jewelry in plastic baggies. I also always keep a plastic bag filled with essential toiletries — like contact solution, lotion, and toothpaste — at the ready en route. Bigger plastic bags double as laundry hampers on short trips, but for those of you who want to class it up a bit, Wilkinson recommends trying Flight 001 Spacepaks. “You fold everything in on one side of the bag on your outbound journey and then your dirty clothes go on the other side on your return,” he said.

3. Accessories are your best friend. On a weekend trip, neutral color palates — tans, blacks, whites, grays — can maximize your options while keeping your carry-on, well, carry-able. Then, all you need is a fabulous selection of accessories to brighten and vary your look. “Great accessories are my secret,” Dowd said. “You can add a pop of color to a simple black dress with some vibrant Prada pumps, then change up your look by adding a long Chanel necklace and some high-heeled boots the next night.” I also love adding to my collection when I’m away: Picking up a scarf from a London shop or a bracelet from a market in Dubai remind me of my travels long after I’ve returned home.

4. Wear the same outfit on both flights. Picking out your “plane uniform” is important business, and can help you conserve valuable carry-on space. For instance, always wear your heaviest items, like winter coats and big boots, on the plane. Travelers often end up in quite a different clime when they disembark at their destination, and planes themselves can be chilly, so layering your clothing is always a good way to go.

5. To thine own self be true. Identify and embrace your must-haves. Confession: I own way too many black dresses — but they’re just so easy when traveling, and I don’t care how often someone sees me in one. So when I know I’ve packed a few of them, I feel at ease. And, since I have yet to come to terms with my Medusa-esque head of curls, I always bring a flat iron along with me. Wilkinson, on the other hand, subscribes to something he calls “the blazer effect.” “If there’s a better table to be had at the restaurant, I get it wearing the blazer,” he said. Same with hotel upgrades. “My wife and I laugh about it now because it happens so often.”

6. Be prepared. Part of my power-packing strategy for weekend trips is invisible to the eye. When you only have a few days, you want to spend them wisely, so I do a lot of research about my destination ahead of time. I save tweets, articles, quotes, friends’ advice, and more in documents and spreadsheets, then use SugarSync to link my laptop to my phone so it’s all at my fingertips. Even if you’re a see-where-the-day-takes-you traveler, it always helps to have some idea of what you want to do, especially when it comes to securing reservations at that fabulous new restaurant or tickets to that gonna-sell-out show.

7. Keep it light. This rule is both literal and figurative. In addition to not weighing myself down with checked luggage, I make a habit of leaving books behind on short getaways. Instead, I bring my iPad and buy magazines at the airport for take-off and landing. Dowd, who gave the best advice of all —  “Leave any stress you may have behind!” – reminded me that weekend getaways are about enjoying life and getting some rest. Amen, sister.

How to Pack for Weekend Trips Annie Fitzsimmons , Erik Wilkinson , Eton of Sweden , Flight 001 , Long Weekends , packing , packing techniques , Packing Tips , Sugarsync , Tiffany Dowd , Tumi , Urban Insider , weekend travel , weekend trips

Off-the-Beaten-Path Romance

8 Feb

The idyllic ECO Gourmet Café in Singapore. (Photograph courtesy ECO Gourmet Café)

I have to laugh when I see things like “rented” swans, petal-strewn hotel beds, and string-quartet serenades. While truly fine hotels will go to great lengths to help you plan memorable romantic experiences (they might even secure those swans for you if you insist), I’m more interested in simple, authentic alternatives.

That’s why I asked 10 concierges in some of my favorite cities what they would recommend to the most discerning of guests for a night of off-the-beaten-path romance — whether it’s Valentine’s Day, a wedding proposal, or simply a much-needed date night.

The view from the Four Seasons Istanbul.  (Photograph by Scanna283, Flickr)

The view from the Four Seasons Istanbul. (Photograph by Scanna283, Flickr)

A Rose-Colored Walk in Buenos Aires
With more than 15,000 rose plants, the Paseo del Rosedal in the heart of Tres de Febrero Park is as good as it gets when it comes to simple romance. Marcela Capellino, assistant manager of guest services at Palacio Duhau-Park Hyatt, loves the Andalusian patio in the garden, which was donated by the city of Seville in 1929. “It’s a quiet secret place,” she said. “The peaceful sound of a water fountain, mixed with the singing birds and the smell of roses make this spot my favorite.”

A World Away from London
The Waterside Inn, about an hour’s drive from the West End of London, is a place where you can completely disconnect. On the banks of the River Thames, this restaurant, which offers 11 rooms and suites to stay in, played host to Prince Philip’s 90th birthday dinner. “The ceilings are low and the walls are covered with accounts of prestigious events, dinners, gatherings, and awards,” said Corrado Bogni, head concierge at The Connaught in London. But don’t let the celeb cred intimidate you: “The decor is just like how the venue opened over four decades ago, and the feel is cozy and familiar,” he said.

A Quiet Meal in Singapore
For a superb Mediterranean menu and a selection of exotic cocktails, the ECO Gourmet Cafe is a romantic pick for Kamisah Abdul Rahim, chief concierge at Raffles Hotel Singapore. “Sitting in the belly of Labrador Nature Reserve, ECO Gourmet Cafe is quiet, romantic, and away from the hustle and bustle of Singapore’s city life,” he said.

A Secret Beach in Cape Town
Dirk Jacobs, head concierge at Relais and Chateaux’s Ellerman House, suggests choosing Bakoven beach over Cape Town’s more popular surf-side locales like Signal Hill and Table Mountain. “No one really knows about this little beach, and it is always quiet with the most amazing views of the Atlantic Ocean,” he said. “It’s also secluded from the wind, and can make for a perfect picnic on the beach.”

A view of Fiesole from the Florentine hills. (Photograph by CasteFoto, Flickr)

A view of Fiesole from the Florentine hills. (Photograph by CasteFoto, Flickr)

A Full-Day Fantasy in Istanbul
It was difficult for Burak Aydin, concierge at the Four Seasons Istanbul, to choose from among his favorite romantic places, so he picked three. His recommendations include Anadolu Kavagi, “a charming little village on the northern end of the Bosphorus, with dazzling remnants of a Byzantine castle,” The Maidens Tower, “a fairy-tale like tower in between continents,” and watching the day draw to a close from the Pierre Loti hotel (“Some of the most prominent writers and poets have watched the sun set over the Golden Horn at Pierre Loti”).

A High-Altitude Escape in Florence
I can tell you from personal experience that Fiesole, perched atop a hill in Florence, boasts one of the most romantic views in the world. Ruggero Vannini, head concierge at Hotel Savoy, couldn’t agree more. According to Vannini, highlights there include “a beautifully kept Roman amphitheater surrounded by olive groves and cypress trees,” the Duomo di Fiesole, and San Francesco monastery. But, he says, if you like walking, take the steep, old Vecchia Fiesolana road down to Florence, where “the city is always at your feet with its cobblestones, secluded gardens, and flowered balconies.”

An Under-sung Park in Barcelona
The Hotel Majestic‘s concierge team, Mario Montero and María Sabates, recommend checking out the city’s oldest historical garden, Parque del Laberinto de Horta – a local favorite they say is unknown to most visitors. When you’re finished exploring the park, they suggest taking the Arrabassada scenic highway up to Mirabé restaurant. “There is a spectacular balcony from where you and your other half can enjoy a beautiful sunset with a cocktail or dinner with Barcelona at your feet,” they said.

Visit the Musée de la Vie Romantique in Paris.  (Photograph by Gabriella Alu', Flickr)

Visit the Musée de la Vie Romantique in Paris. (Photograph by Gabriella Alu’, Flickr)

A Cinematic Stroll in Paris
At the refined Le Bristol hotel in Paris, Head Concierge Assistant Sonia Papet is often in charge of arranging romantic days for guests. For a unique experience, she suggests taking a private Midnight in Paris walking tour ”to go where the actors and actresses were in the movie” or, if it’s the weekend, checking out Les Puces de Saint-Ouen flea market. Whatever you choose, they say, think about spending some time at the Place du Tertre in Montmartre, where you can visit the Musée de la Vie Romantique (Museum of Romantic Life).

A Scenic Sail in Mumbai
If you’re looking for a moment of quiet in this otherwise overwhelming city, Tushnamaiti Dastur, concierge at The Oberoi Mumbai, says the place to be is the Mumbai Harbor. Add some romance to the experience by taking a champagne cruise, where you can enjoy the silence and scenic beauty in a completely undisturbed setting. “You’re cut off almost completely from the chaos of the city and daily life,” she says.

A Romantic Respite in Beijing
The Aman Resort is located next to Beijing’s Summer Palace, with a “secret door” to the highly trafficked, once-royal park. The area near the palace’s main gates can get crowded, so Tim Weiland, the resort’s general manager, suggests exploring the serene Garden of Harmonious Interests. “From there,” he said, “you can take the little footpaths through Longevity Hill‘s forests and completely forget you’re surrounded by a multi-million-inhabitant city.” He also recommends visiting the temple of Four Great Regions, ”a lovely spot to take in the sweeping views after a leisurely climb up the hill.”

Off-the-Beaten-Path Romance Aman Resort Beijing , Anadolu Kavagi , Annie Fitzsimmons , Bakoven beach , Barcelona , Buenos Aires , Cape Town , ECO Gourmet Cafe , El Rosedal , Fiesole , florence , Four Seasons on the Bosphorus , Galata Bridge , Galata Tower , Hotel Majestic , Hotel Savoy , hotels , Istanbul , Le Bristol , London , luxury , Maidens Tower , Midnight in Paris , Oberoi Mumbai , Palacio Duhau , Paris , Parque del Laberinto de Horta , Pierre Loti , Raffles Hotel Singapore , Relais and Chateaux’s Ellerman House , Romance , Singapore , Summer Palace , The Connaught , Urban Insider , valentines day , Waterside Inn

Behind the Scenes in Central Park

6 Feb

A couple relaxes on one of Central Park's many, many benches. (Photograph by Liz Ranola, My Shot)

It has been said that Central Park was the first place in New York City where people from all walks of life could gather and relax together. This still rings true today, with the 843-acre park drawing 40 million visitors a year.

More than any other landmark, Central Park reflects the brilliance of New York. And, unlike tourist hotspots like Times Square, Central Park is a favorite among locals – an almost impossibly quiet pause amid the super-urban hoopla. Is there anything more enchanting than strolling along the elm-shaded Mall in the summer, or climbing Belvedere Castle for a view of the Great Lawn?

Before the Central Park opened, in 1857, the center of Manhattan life was downtown. The park would help drive people uptown with elevated railways and, eventually, upscale apartment buildings like The Dakota. In 1859, Calvert Vaux, an English architect who had never designed a park, and Frederick Law Olmsted, a journalist who had never designed anything at all, won a design contest to improve the park, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In the park’s early years, there were signs saying “no running, no strenuous activity at any time.” Today, the New York City marathon concludes in Central Park, and thousands of people get their daily runs and bike rides in — not to mention the 30 tennis courts, and Pilgrim Hill is a popular spot for sledding in the winter.

A couple weds in Bethesda Terrace, one of the most popular spots in the park. (Photograph by Jordi Martorell, Flickr)

A couple weds in Bethesda Terrace, one of the most popular spots in the park. (Photograph by Jordi Martorell, Flickr)

The Central Park Conservancy has been responsible for maintaining and preserving the park for decades, and has been credited with bringing it back to its former glory after a period of decay in the 1970s.

How do you keep the most famous park in the world beautiful and running smoothly? The conservancy’s president and CEO, Doug Blonsky, gave me the inside scoop on his labor of love:

Know Your Zones
According to Blonsky, the conservancy launched a pioneering “zone management” system in which the park’s 843 acres are divided into 49 zones. Each zone is managed by an expert gardener who makes sure the landscapes and resources in their zone are in tip-top shape. On its busiest day, upwards of 200,000 people pass through Central Park’s gates, “so we do everything to make sure the Park is ready: repair playgrounds and benches, pick up trash, rake leaves, mow lawns, clean water bodies, and so much more,” Blonsky said.

The Park’s Most Popular Spots
Blonsky said more than 75 percent of all visitors keep to the South End of Central Park (below 80th Street). Highlights there include Bethesda Terrace, the Great Lawn, Sheep Meadow, and Strawberry Fields – the living memorial to John Lennon.

Fans gather at Strawberry Fields to observe John Lennon Memorial Day in December of 2012.  (Photograph by Asterio Tecson, Flickr)

Fans gather at Strawberry Fields to observe John Lennon Memorial Day in December of 2012. (Photograph by Asterio Tecson, Flickr)

The “Secret Spot” in Central Park
In the North End of the park, you can escape from the city in a way you can’t anywhere else. The pools, stone arches, and dense woodlands there are beautiful. “You’d never know you’re in the middle of Manhattan,” Blonsky said.

Can’t-Miss Trees and Flowers
In the spring, Blonsky recommends visiting the Yoshino cherry trees along the east side of the Reservoir, and points out that some of the park’s original oaks can be found in the park’s North End (“They’re nearly 160 years old!”). He said that while visitors often overlook the woodlands on that end of the park, they’re a unique discovery, intended by the park’s original designers to be the “Manhattan Adirondacks.” Tip: Stop by the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center at 110th Street between Lenox Avenue and Fifth Avenue to get the most up-to-date information on the park and its programs.

A Park of Love
Central Park has provided a beautiful backdrop for countless weddings and proposals. “One of the most popular places for weddings is the gorgeous Conservatory Garden at 103rd Street and Fifth Avenue,” Blonsky said. “In 2012, 140 weddings took place there – and more than 200 couples took their official wedding photos there.”

Bring Your Binoculars
Central Park provides vital stopover grounds where birds can rest and feed during fall and spring migration seasons (approximately 230 different bird species can be found in the park throughout the year). “We introduce and maintain a diverse array of plants to supply food and shelter to animals, including birds,” Blonsky said. To help birders explore the park, the conservancy has developed Discovery Kit backpacks for visitors to borrow, free of charge. ”Each one contains binoculars, a guidebook, maps, and sketching materials,” Blonsky said. Pick yours up at Belvedere Castle or the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center.

A painter at work in Central Park. (Photograph by Asterio Tecson, Flickr)

A painter at work in Central Park. (Photograph by Asterio Tecson, Flickr)

A Park for All Seasons
Spring and summer bring the most visitors to the park. “To prepare for the crowds, we seed and mow the lawns and keep them closed for the winter so the grass will survive the coldest months,” Blonsky said. The work continue year-round: “All through the winter, we shovel and clear the 51 miles of paths throughout the park,” he said. “We rake the leaves that fall from the park’s more than 21,000 trees throughout autumn, and are continuously maintaining the Park’s 21 playgrounds and 9,000 benches.”

Keeping the Park Healthy
The conservancy doesn’t just manage Central Park; it’s also responsible for raising 85 percent of the $46 million it takes to keep it operating each year. “Our two biggest annual fundraisers are Autumn in Central Park, which takes place in November, and the Frederick Law Olmsted Awards Luncheon, which takes place in spring,” Blonsky said. “We also couldn’t do what we do without our 35,000 members.

Free to See
Since the park is so large, it’s a good idea to start with a free tour led by the fine folks at the Central Park Conservancy. “As Central Park experts, we love to share our knowledge of the park’s history, its landscapes, its design, and its flora with the public,” Blonsky said. He also recommended downloading the conservancy’s free app. “It helps you search for events, landscapes, and points of interest throughout Central Park,” he said.

Behind the Scenes in Central Park Annie Fitzsimmons , Belvedere Castle , Bethesda Terrace , Birding , Calvert Vaux , Central Park , Central Park Conservancy , Conservatory Garden , Frederick Law Olmsted , Great Lawn , new york city , new york city marathon , Pilgrim Hill , Reservoir , Sheep Meadow , Strawberry Fields , Urban Insider