Friday, February 26, 2016

Discovering the Exclusive Side of Italy

Excerpted from 
By Cynthia Dial

Imagine touring the Vatican’s private hallways with a seminarian and by happenstance meeting the Pope, attending a private party for Il Ballo del Doge, the Venetian masquerade ball during Carnival, or watching Siena’s famous Palio horse race from the balcony of a princess’s private apartment. Do you see a pattern here?

Amalfi Coast
This is luxury at its VIP peak – the type of exclusivity I specifically sought on a recent visit to Italy.
“I know Italy like my pockets,” said Giorgio Dell’Artino, owner of Dream Italy. “We are probably the smallest tour operator in the country, but my services are never a combination of two numbers.”

Like a matchmaker, Dell’Artino has made a career of pairing his country’s guests with their dreams. High-profile examples include Bob Dole’s tour of World War II sites, Rick Steves’ research visit and comedian Jeff Foxworthy and his wife’s hot air balloon ride over Tuscany before landing in a sunflower-blanketed field for a picnic.

Traveling north from Rome to Tuscany you can see the countryside change from the bustle of one of Europe’s primary capital cities to the leisure of a rural region – rolling hills, precision-perfect cypresses, rows of ancient olive trees and lines of productive grapevines.

In the area known for Brunello di Montalcino wines we bypass Castello Banfi (one of Italy’s biggest wine producers) in route to a small, family-owned, top-quality operation – Poggi Rabino. Here it’s not uncommon to encounter the owner, Edward Corsi, and his mother-in-law and family nonna, Roberta Marzocchi Salvadori, to talk wines over a tasting of their vinos.

Nonna Rogerta Marzocchi Salvadori
Frantoio Franci, a family-run olive farm in Montenero, is renowned as Italy’s most awarded olive oil producer (more than 300 awards) since its 1996 debut on the commercial market. Upon opening a bottle, owner Giorgio Franci affectionately remarked, “You can smell Tuscany.” Beyond learning the art of olive oil tasting (note: slurping involved), our treat was meeting founder, 86-year-old Fernando Franci, who shared that his biggest regret was not learning English.

Fernando Franci
Lunch at Il Grappolo Blu, a typical trattoria, best showcased the region. Found off a tiny walkway in the town of Montalcino, it seemed a secret, though not to Dell’Artino, a friend of the owner, Luciano.
Siena, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is built on three hills. Undisturbed by World War II, it’s a treasure, whose bi-annual tradition, the Palio (a bareback horse race three times around Piazza del Campo), represents the region’s hottest ticket for the city’s locals and its guests.

However, it is underground Siena – known by many but experienced by few – that most captures my attention. Closed to the public, I’m privileged to be escorted into the town’s library and enter through an obscure locked metal gate to descend beneath the city into its ancient aqueduct system and underground passageways. My sole regret: lack of time to follow the path to its end where you ascend from a manhole-like cover, popping up into the central square. 

“Buongiorno, are you ready for your tour of Tuscany,” greeted Dell’Artino before opening the door of a fire-red Ferrari (one of the 18 luxury-car fleet, including Maseratis, Lamborghinis, McLarens and one of the world’s few Bugattis, available to Dream Italy). As president of Fai-Confcommercio, the biggest union of limousine drivers in Italy, he has access to more than 1,300 drivers throughout the country.

Tuscan tour by Ferrari
As we zipped along Via Chiantigiana, the motor route between Siena and Florence, we dissected the region’s Chianti Classico wine zone, detoured to the tiny town of Vertine (an intact, walled Etruscan village dating back to the 10th century) and stopped in Panzano in Chianti, home of famed celebrity butcher, Dario Cecchini, who serves up freshly-carved beef as classical music plays and patrons sample cured meats and red wine. 

Dario Cecchini
From wending through the countryside to soaring above it, the day concluded in a hot air balloon ride over Siena. High above the Tuscan countryside, we observed the city at sunset, heard dogs barking and tracked a spooked wild boar running beneath us. To borrow from the local language, it was magnifico

 Hot air balloon ride over Siena
Once again on the road, our course was a day’s journey south to Matera, a city known by few but treasured by all who pass this way. So remote is this destination – no airport, no train and no freeway (simply a secondary road) – it is not a place you happen upon. However, its upcoming recognition as the European City of Culture in 2019 ensures future international acknowledgement, making my discovery perfectly timed.

The setting is distinctive. Its ancient town called Sassi di Matera (stones of Matera) is known for its cave dwellings, caves in which its populace once lived in poverty. Now the place to be, Sassi showcases layer upon layer of history within its layer upon layer of caves (many modernized current residences and many converted into one-of-a-kind lodging). 

“Be prepared to be impressed,” I’m forewarned as I open the door to Room 1004 of L’hotel in Pietra. Though I expected Matera’s lodging to be less than traditional, I did not foresee such luxury within a converted 12th century Benedictine church built into and over the caves. Designed to emanate the spirit of the town, the suite is multi-levels – showcasing a cave-ensconced bathroom (a partial Plexiglas floor partition reveals a long ago cave dwelling) and its upper bedroom level opens to a window-fronted sitting area featuring the sounds and scenery of Matera.

View from Room 1004 of  L'hotel in Pietra
To best appreciate the town’s many facets, stroll it. Pass through the alleyway that is featured in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Wander into Piazza del Sedile, site of the Conservatory of Music, where melodies of practicing students waft from gaping windows. Be one of the first to step inside Matera Cathedral. Closed 11 years for renovation, the church opens to the public in March. 

As all good things must come to an end, what better route to return to Rome from Matera’s southern Italy location than the Amalfi Coast. Multi-colored terraced towns on one side, the Mediterranean far below on the other, you’ll share the narrow, winding road with buses, bicyclists, motor scooters, even pedestrians. Best illustrated by our dialogue – “See that island? It’s Capri,” and “Do you want to stop for gelato?” – its offerings are like no other. 

Driving through such cliff-perched towns as Amalfi, Positano and Sorrento, my just-passing-through trip served only to whet my appetite for everything Italiano. “You must come back to Sorrento for a cooking class. It’s in the garden of a private villa,” tempted Dell’Artino. “It is the only one not in the kitchen of a professional school, so it is very special – especially its views of Capri.” 

All too soon, road signage bade me farewell. “Arrivederci, Goodbye,” I read as we veered from the coastal road back to reality. 

Photos by Cynthia Dial

#travel #giorgiodreamitaly #traveltips #luxurytravel #travelingcynthia

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Travel Quote of the Day

“A tourist is someone who drives thousands of miles so he can be photographed standing in front of his car.” Emile Ganest
Photo by Giorgio Dell'Artino
#travel #TravelTuesday #travelquote #travelingcynthia

Monday, February 22, 2016

Hotel Allegro - Chicago - 90th Anniversary

The historic Route 66 is turning 90 this year and so is Chicago’s Hotel Allegro, a Kimpton boutique property. In honor of the building’s 90th Anniversary and the 90th Anniversary of America’s Highway (which originated in Chicago), Bar Allegro is celebrating with its Route 66 tribute cocktail, Kerouac’s Journey. The cocktail is a boozy version of an apple pie and dedicated to Jack Kerouac who loved the road and his liquor!

Here’s the recipe:

Kerouac’s Journey

1 oz Laird’s Apple Brandy
1 oz Sailor Jerry’s
½ oz Bols Apricot Brandy
½ oz Demi syrup
Top with Ginger Beer

First rim ½ of a rocks glass with a sugar and cinnamon. Shake all ingredients except ginger beer and strain into rocks glass over fresh ice. Top with Ginger Beer.


#travel #traveltips #travelingcynthia #chicago #chicagohotel #hotelallegro #route66 #cheers

Friday, February 19, 2016

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

From First Class to First Nations, This is Vancouver's Hotel Scene

By Cynthia Dial for

Vancouver is known for variety, from its stunning setting – a hillside-perched downtown that overlooks an active harbor with a mountain backdrop – to its array of adventures. Thus, to say this city has everything is less an opinion; it is simply fact. However, Vancouver’s “everything” category also includes its selection of hotels, a fact uniquely underscored for me on a recent visit when my overnight discoveries ranged from first class to First Nations.

It is not coincidence that Wedgewood Hotel & Spa’s “W” logo is reminiscent of Chanel’s interlocking C’s. Both exclusive and both classy, each insignia represents the best. As Vancouver’s only member of the Relais & Chateaux collection, this family-owned jewel is the realization of a dream – the dream of the late Eleni Skalbania. Greek born, the hotelier’s legendary taste was exquisite; and her daughter, Elpie Marinakis Jackson, who is at the helm of today's operation, shares the same commitment to perfection.

Immediately upon entering the Wedgewood you feel as if you’ve walked into a lovely, treasured home. My arrival on Sunday evening – a downtime for many properties – was a happening at the Wedgewood. Patrons of its award-winning Bacchus Restaurant & Lounge are comprised of approximately 50% travelers, 50% locals (always the premier compliment from the community). With live entertainment featured nightly, I’m told it may be the city’s only hotel to offer this perk. On this night the featured pianist/vocalist is playing Sinatra. To quote a Sinatra tune, Cheek to Cheek, “Heaven, I’m in heaven” best surmises my reaction.

A large painting of the eatery’s namesake, Bacchus, the Roman God of Wine, overlooks the Old World-style restaurant and lounge. Beneath light fixtures imported from Venice and artwork from everywhere, it is defined by burgundy velvet, overstuffed seating, classic high back chairs and is surrounded by the richness of dark wood.

Known for British Columbian fare is its BC Tasting Menu, which does not disappoint. Its specialties range from the Dungeness crab and Nova Scotia lobster bisque appetizer to the BC steelhead salmon with Alaskan scallops entrée, though I’m told the menu’s most popular addiction is its truffle frites. For a finale, a glass of Remy Martin Louis XIII cognac is available for $184. Its memory-lasting perk, however, is that it’s the kind of place where the staff seems to anticipate guests’ needs before they know they have them.  

Among its 83 luxury rooms and suites are four penthouse suites (each with a different color scheme and décor). All rooms feature walk-out balconies and each is complemented by the Wedgewood’s spa – recently recognized as Vancouver’s “Best Day Spa.” 

Situated diagonally from the city’s latest retail lure, Nordstrom, mere blocks from Lululemon’s flagship store and within minutes of the city’s renowned shopping stroll along Robson Street, the Wedgewood’s location additionally appeals to guests who enjoy a healthy dose of aisle action.

It is a hardy walk from Wedgewood’s posh district to Skwachays Lodge, located in an area best described as one in the midst of gentrification. Situated at the crossroads of Gastown, Chinatown and Railtown, it is a short distance from Gastown and less than a block from the gates of Chinatown (including Dr. Sun Yat Sen Classical Chinese Garden, a pristine urban retreat).

Housed within a centuries-old Victorian façade, these accommodations are a component of an unusual concept – a small 18-guestroom hotel, Aboriginal Gallery and residence for 24 Aboriginal artists, all in one.

This is an authentic first-person opportunity to delve into Canada’s First Nations experience. Each guest room is designed to replicate a unique element of the culture – with its own name and its own theme. My room, the Forest Spirits Suite, decorated in an in-the-woods setting, is anchored by a full-wall canvas featuring a brightly-colored family painting of side-by-side powwow dancers. Additional genuine touches are a traditional smudge room (for spiritual cleansing), a roof-top sweat lodge and a 40-feet high totem pole (extending skyward from a street-facing balcony, it has become a Vancouver landmark). So, if you’re into ‘firsts,’ Skwachays is Canada’s first Aboriginal arts and culture hotel.

It is surprisingly surrounded by an assortment of incomparable eateries. My favorite is Chambar, a Belgian brasserie best known for its mussels and native brew, which is anchored by a massive, classic dark-wooden bar. Acme is a back-in-the-day diner whose centerpiece is a meandering food counter, but its freshly-made fare covers a wide range – from wild boar, turkey and bacon cassoulet to banana cream pie. 

And though it is not nearby, Salmon n’ Bannock is the city’s only First Nations restaurant. Acknowledging the traditional territories of the Coast Salish Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil Waututh First Nations, it is best known for its Feast Menu – a lavish spread for an entire table of six or more.

Photos by Cynthia Dial
Rounding out the First Nations theme is the Bill Reid Gallery, a small museum showcasing the work of its acclaimed Haida namesake (the nation’s noted broadcaster, writer, poet, spokesman and artisan), who created over 1,500 works in the course of his career. Its centerpiece is its two-story Celebration Pole and its current exhibit, Gwaii Haanas: Land Sea People – featuring work from the land of his people (his mother was Haida) – runs until March 27, 2016.   

So, whether you seek to be exfoliated or educated, you will not be disappointed in Vancouver.

#travel #travelpics #traveltips #travelingcynthia

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Mobile Mardi Gras

Mobile's Mardi Gras is about . . . kings and queens, beads and boats, food and fun. Let the good times roll! #mobilemardigras #travel #traveltips #travelingcynthia

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Tips for Packing - Or Not

Question: What does a Southern girl take to Mobile for a Mardi Gras ball? 
Answer: Everything.
#travel #traveltips #travelingcynthia #mobilemardigras

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Less Than 12 Hours in Calgary

By Cynthia Dial for

Question: Is less than 12 hours enough time to get a taste of any city? Typically, my answer is an unequivocal “no.” 

That said, my recent visit to Alberta’s Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks – home to Banff and Lake Louise – required an overnight in Calgary in order to make an early morning flight. How to make the most of so little time in such a diverse city became my challenge. Yet, this challenge was met by an itinerary that was adventurous, delicious and luxurious. So, yes, it is possible to experience a city in less than 12 hours.

Superlatives describe Calgary. With an average of 2,405 hours of annual sun, it is Canada’s sunniest major city. It’s been named the world’s cleanest city (2013). It is host of the country’s biggest rodeo, the Calgary Stampede (thus the city’s signature white cowboy hats). Fish Creek Park is Western Canada’s longest urban park and its Bow River is one of the world’s top trout fishing streams. 

1:30 p.m. – 3 p.m. As site of the first winter Olympics to be held in Canada, the selection of Calgary as the setting of 1988’s XV Winter Olympic Games and its most noted landmark, a soaring ski jump tower, captured both my attention and limited time. At 295 feet above ground, the tower is the Games’ most visible legacy and the starting point of WinSport Canada Olympic Park’s Monster Zipline. Reaching speeds up to 75 mph, it is North America’s fastest zipline.

A bit of background: I’ve ziplined several times, most recently at Utah Olympic Park on its Xtreme Zipline, so the experience is not a new one. However, when informed during pre-zip instructions that my release of a parachute would slow my speed, let’s just say I rethought my choice of adventures. Fast forward to post-zip and to my accompanying assortment of emotions: excitement, exhilaration and accomplishment.

4:00 p.m. Even its name, Hotel Arts, is appealing. As downtown’s designer boutique hotel, it was immediately upon check-in that I was introduced to a place more reminiscent of an art museum than an overnight inn. The lobby focal point, a life-sized painting of a horse, has captured such city-wide attention that it is the frequent backdrop of residents’ wedding photos. Locally-owned, its sister boutique property, the Kensington Riverside Inn, is noted as the city’s first Relais & Chateaux hotel.

Hotel Arts’ two restaurants are award winning – Raw Bar (Top 10 Best Restaurants) and Yellow Door Bistro (Best New Restaurant 2013, Best Brunch 2015). While Yellow Door’s fare has been described as “bistro-inspired cuisine with a reverence for classic ingredients but served up with a contemporary twist,” Raw Bar features Vietnamese cuisine with a modern flair. The Yellow Door has a whimsical, Alice in Wonderland-feel with delightful, typically yellow, surprises incorporated into its décor; whereas Raw Bar projects an atmosphere that is contemporary and cool. 

Such perks as its peppermint-scented Skoah bath amenities (so popular, the products are available for purchase), seasonal poolside yoga and the complimentary use of Brooklyn Cruiser Bikes for downtown exploration simply sweeten the package.

6:30 p.m. – 10:30 p.m. A girl’s got to eat, right? You’ll walk across a bridge from the bustle of the city to the solitude of Prince’s Island to reach the River Café. 

Photos by Cynthia Dial
A noted pioneer of the Calgary’s farm-to-table food scene, it sits on the shores of the Bow River with a backdrop of the skyline. Complete with a long wooden bar, fly fishing artifact décor and a roaring fieldstone fireplace, its cozy vibe evokes that of a Rocky Mountain fishing lodge. Noted as the only prairie-region restaurant to be named one of the 1001 Restaurants to Experience Before You Die, Chef Andrew Winfield is known for his commitment to seasonal Canadian products, showcased in such menu items as wood grilled Pacific octopus and Mountain Creek bison.

As all good things must come to an end, it seem much too soon that my airplane’s wheels leave the ground and I depart Alberta, but not without having been introduced to its gateway city. Goodbye, Calgary. Glad to have met you.

#travel #traveltips #TravelTuesday #travelpics #travelingcynthia