Marais place to stay near the Place de Vosges

Looking for a good place to stay in the Marais? Check out the Jardins du Marais hotel. Within a short stroll from the lovely Place de Vosges and all the merriment of the Marais, the helpful staff will help you have a great visit to Paris.

Paris hotels can be a bit, well, tricky. A favorite can quickly become a has-been and even a favorite can be too small, too old, or too “European” for some tastes. (Especially American ones.)

Louis XIII in the Place de Vosges
Louis points the way to a good hotel in the Marais

So, while I have a few other standbys for Paris jaunts of all shapes and sizes (and budgets), there’s a nice place in the Marais very near the perfection that is the Place de Vosges, appropriately called The Jardins du Marais.

As is so important in the strollable City of Light, there’s the hotel’s amazing location. While I have a personal connection to the more sedate 7th, the Marais is a center of many things cultural (the fascinating Carnavalet Museum, the newly refurbed and oh-so-popular Picasso Museum) and definitely some great nights out.

With a groovy lobby area and cool courtyard for convening with fellow travellers, the rooms at the Jardin du Marais are unusually spacious for Parisian hotels. (The room I stayed in even had a mini-kitchen.)

And beyond that, there was the welcome. The staff were beyond helpful. From check-in to baggage dude, everyone went out of their way to give you a hand. In great English and multiple languages too, should you not be proficient when you parlez Francais.

I snagged a deal on Orbitz when I stayed, but the hotel also has special offers when you book direct.

Here’s the info if you want to go:
The Jardins du Marais
74, rue Amelot
75011 Paris France
 http://www.lesjardinsdumarais.com/

Hotel Empress Zoe

Hagia Sofia, Istanbul Turkey
The Hagia Sofia, Near the Hotel Empress Zoe

The word’s out about Zoe. A few weeks ago, a friend and I just tried to book into the Hotel Empress Zoe— one of my favorite hotels anywhere on the planet– and it was already sold out for September. Last time I visited, I made a reservation only a week before I arrived.

Because the scarcity is a sign of the hotel’s excellence and an indicator of Istanbul’s growing popularity as a destination,  it just means you have to plan ahead. Further ahead than you may like at certain times of year, but the Hotel Empress Zoe is definitely worth it: wonderfully friendly and helpful staff, a great central location, and unique touches that always remind you that you’re in enchanting Istanbul. 

Situated in the Sultanhamet, staying at the Empress Zoe puts you within walking distance of the iconic and astounding Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, and Topkapi Palace, among several other essential Istanbul sites. You’ll be well-fuelled for sightseeing with the excellent coffee and delicious breakfast buffet, which you can eat in the hotel’s lovely garden.

Before or after seeing the sights, you can recline on a a comfortable daybed that’s covered in Turkish textiles. (Many of the hotel’s rooms and suites have daybeds and other unique extras, like marble hamam style bathrooms.) The daybed in my room was perfect for reading the works of Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Prize-winning author who weaves so much of Istanbul and Turkey into his transformative writing.

Sometimes, you’re sad when a great gem of a hotel gets popular. But other times, you think, well, they deserve the success. The folks who own and run the Hotel Empress Zoe definitely deserve every success. So if you’re fixing to go to Turkey, plan ahead so that you can stay at one of the most welcoming and unique places I’ve ever stayed in my travels.

The Hotel Empress Zoe’s Web Site: http://www.emzoe.com/
More About Orhan Pamuk: http://www.orhanpamuk.net/

Do You Corfu?

Fortress, Corfu Town
Stunning Views in Corfu Town

Before we begin, we would like to wish Prince Philip (aka the Queen of England’s hubby), a very happy birthday. Prince Philip was born on Corfu on the date of this entry’s publication a whopping 4 score and a decade ago. If you believe the newspapers, Prince Philip would probably welcome my greeting by saying something inappropriate to me, but you get to do what you want when you’re 90 and were once, according to lore, smuggled from your island home in a fruit basket as a wee tot.

Fortunately, you do not need to get to and from Corfu in such dire modes of transport. While the rusty little ferry that brings you to Corfu from Igoumenitsa is certainly not confidence-inspiring, the ferries aren’t near as cramped as a fruit basket would be. Of course, with all the budget airlines now, you can also fly to Corfu very  easily and avoid the rust bucket ferries, but getting to an iconic Greek isle by boat– even rusty ones with engines that make ominous grinding sounds– is all part of the adventure.

Though many flock to Corfu for relaxing villa holidays on the island’s somewhat less populated shores, staying in cosmopolitan Corfu Town for a few days provides a nice mix of seaside relaxation with the pleasant bustle of an island town. (It’s a particularly good idea to stay in Corfu Town if you visit during the off-season; the rest of the island can get a little too mellow when it’s not the height of tourist time.) 

As befitting a place on UNESCO’s world heritage list, Corfu’s old town has an interesting mix of architecture that comes from being a point of interest for the numerous empires that perpetually harrassed it (the Venetians, the Turks, and the British, to name a few).  To look back even further into the island’s more mythical past, the Archeological Museum of Corfu offers an impressive collection of artifacts from around the island, and is worth the hour or two it takes to visit. (I particularly liked a very nice reconstructed temple frieze of Medusa, the original femme fatale.) NB: Keep in mind that many Greek establishments regularly keep slightly irregular hours; with the troubles in Greece at present, staffing at even large museums has been a problem. As the museum’s not too far from the town center, it  might be a good idea to visit and see when opening times are. (No matter what’s going on, a lot of museums all over Greece seem to shut after 2ish or 3ish).

For a nice, easy walk from the town center, head out to Villa Mon Repos. The Villa is Prince Philip’s birthplace and is encircled by lovely parkland open to the public. Level footpaths take you around a good assortment of moss-covered ruins that are nestled in a pleasantly shady forest. And the shade is prized; even in the winter months, Corfu can be very hot.

Corfu Town Harbor
Lovely Harbor, Corfu Town

Back in town after our rambles in nature and along the Ionian sea, my husband and I really enjoyed staying at the Hotel Cavalieri. The hotel has a great location right in the town center, next to a slew of cafes and bars that stay open well into dawn. The hotel’s roof bar offers stunning views, making the roof deck popular with locals when it’s open in season. Our neat, clean room also had a lovely view of the sea.  

In addition to lovely vistas, Corfu Town also offers a more meat-tastic highlight– the perfect gyro. In an admittedly obsessive quest to taste the best gyro in Greece, my husband and I found one of the strongest contenders in Corfu Town. We ate the gyro of our dreams (enrobed in some kind of delicious, tangy brown sauce) at the “O Ninoe” taverna at least once a day. The other homestyle Greek food served there was also compelling and drew a fairly large local following, but our hearts were stuck on the gyro.

Of course, there’s lots of seafood to choose from in Corfu as well, which can be enjoyed at numerous seaside restaurants. However, our taste for calamari quickly tapered off after seeing numerous locals catching octopi on our walks. Was it the severed chicken foot used as bait? Was it the sick wet thwacking sound as the fisherman brained the octopus on seaside rocks? One never knows with such sudden culinary aversions. Suffice it to say that this spectacle focused our minds even more on the meaty delights of O Ninoe and all the pleasures that can be found away from the seaside in Corfu’s lovely, well-preserved old town.

Coordinates —

Design Hotel in Paris’ 15th

Sublim Eiffel

If you’re looking to stay in a place with good rates and some design flair, without a lot of the usual scenesters and tourist sprawl that accompanies those things, check out the Hotel Sublim Eiffel in Paris’ very residential 15th arrondissement. Should you stay out well past your bedtime as often happens in Paris, the rooms are wonderfully dark and quiet for some good do-do action. (NB: “Do-do” is French for “sleep” and is not related to the American “doo-doo,” which does, admittedly, happen in hotel rooms, but let’s not discuss that here.) 

On my recommendation, some friends of mine recently stayed at the Sublim. They also loved it, attesting to the hotel’s excellence and value. Of course, immediately after that, the hotel appeared in a major newspaper’s write-up of “hidden gems” among Paris hotels. Hopefully, this won’t ruin the vibe or the value.

The Metro stop SEVRES-LECOURBE is right in front of the hotel making it easy to get around Paris. However, the hotel is also an easy walk from the Eiffel Tower, the wonderful market at Motte-Picquet, rue Cler,  Invalides, and the Musee Rodin.

Address: 94 Blvd. Garibaldi (15eme)
URL: http://www.sublimeiffel.com/

A Great Reef, but No Snorkeling

Rainbow Vista from the Best of the Westerns
Rainbow Vista from the Best of the Westerns

Though there is no snorkeling in Utah’s Capitol Reef, it is one of the best places for an introduction to the geology lesson that the Great American West provides from the Western edge of Colorado to the chasm of the Grand Canyon. Along with impressive insights into the natural forces that made the 100-mile long monocline known as the Waterpocket Fold, Capitol Reef National Park also provides a glimpse into the people who have left more temporary traces on the area’s landscape, including the First Nations, pioneer settlers, the likes of Butch Cassidy, and the modern ranchers whose cattle are the most dominant life-form in the area.

One of the best and most “western” hotels in the Best Western chain, The Capitol Reef Resort, can be found right at the gate of Capitol Reef National Park. A great base camp for park exploration, the hotel even has a hot tub where you can contemplate how the changing light alters canyon hues while soaking hike-weary bones.

To wash down the trail dust and fuel up for back country exploration, a bar/restaurant across the street from the hotel, The Rim Rock Patio/Spaghetti Western Cafe offers some of Utah’s finest beers and a very satisfying pizza. The outdoor dining area has some of the nicest dart set-ups I’ve seen in any bar, and, if you’re able to extend your arms after a full day’s hike, it’s a fun way to spend the evening. The night we visited, the very kind-hearted woman proprietor showed us where we were on her groovy, vintage topographical wall map on which decades of rubbing fingers from all over the world had lovingly erased our location.  

Before and/or after getting beered, hot-tubbed, and generally satiated, you will, of course, want to visit the main attraction, Capitol Reef National Park. You could spend one or several days hiking, biking, and off-roading in this geologic marvel.

One of the best ways to get oriented to the park is the self-guided drive. A map of the self-guided drive stops (along with fabulous fun facts) are available at the park’s visitor center for a nominal fee. At the end of the self-guided drive’s car-based route, a 4-mile round-trip hike takes you through Capitol Reef Gorge, where you can see some of the park’s odd sandstone formations up close, along with the signposts of people who came before.  

The most visible of the earliest human traces in the park are amazing

Fremont Petroglyph on Capitol Reef Gorge Trail
Fremont Petroglyph on Capitol Reef Gorge Trail

petroglyphs, left by the Fremont people, some of the area’s earliest inhabitants. On the Capitol Reef Gorge hike, you can get right up close to a few of these rock carvings, and ponder whether they were made for religious and/or informational purposes. It’s hard not to ge excited when standing inches away from something carved by human hands thousands of years before. Elsewhere in the park, on a large canyon wall, giant Fremont petroglyphs are visible from hundreds of feet away. Gigantic shaman, bighorn sheep, and other animals carved into the red rocks leap off the rocks.

After the First Nations, pioneers traversed the area to head Westward, and on the Capitol Reef Gorge hike, you can also see their names lining the walls, some dating back from the 1840s and 1850s. Butch Cassidy didn’t sign any rock walls, but he allegedly hid out in the area. (Butch Cassidy connections are touted a lot in this particular neck of the woods.)

Later in the 1800s, Mormon settlers recognized that the valley’s ample water supply would be good for farming, particularly fruit trees. Orchards of apples and other fruit trees planted by these intrepid settlers still line Capitol Reef’s valley.

Apple Tree in Capitol Reef
Apple Tree in Capitol Reef

The National Park Service still maintains these fruit trees, and, when the trees are bearing fruit, you can eat an apple, pear, or other fruit for free when you’re in the orchard. If you’d like to take any fruit with you, bags and picking equipment are available, along with a box to leave payment.

If DIY fruit picking’s not up your alley, or if you visit out of fruit-bearing season, you can always enjoy the valley’s fruits at the Gifford Homestead. Located in the old Mormon settlement in the valley, the historic home sells pies made from fruit grown in the area, along with other baked items and preserved goods– great for a pre or post-hike picnic.  (The pie made from apples grown in one of the orchards was particularly tasty after hiking the Capitol Reef Gorge trail.)

Though the apple trees and the settlement and the pioneer grafitti and the Fremont petroglyphs all seem to point to the permanence of man’s hand in the landscape, Capitol Reef leaves you with the feeling that we humans are newcomers and short-timers on the planet. The greater permanence of nature, as evidenced by Capitol Reef’s 100-mile long sandstone monocline, endless canyons of every color, harshly dry landscapes that suddenly swell with water– all formed over eons– dwarves our feeble human efforts to leave a mark. In short, we should enjoy the apples, and the apple pie, while we can.  

Do:
http://www.nps.gov/care/index.htm

Eat:
Rim Rock Patio/Spaghetti Western Cafe, Right across from Best Western

Stay:
Best Western Capitol Reef Resort, 2600 East Highway 24
http://www.bestwesternutah.com/torrey-hotels/ 

In the Land of Giants

Grant's Tree in Parts, Sequoia National Park
Grant's Tree in Parts, Sequoia National Park

When you hear words like “the largest living thing,” or “the widest,” you know you have to see them, though you’re also slightly afraid that the object(s) in question may not live up to the hype.

The sequoias at Sequoia National Park do not disappoint. The fact that they adjoin a valley, Kings Canyon, that rivals Yosemite (and may actually be superior due to lack of crowds), makes this location all the better. (Warning: if you’re driving from SF, you will most likely take Highway 198 to get to the park. On Highway 198, you will encounter a series of bad smells until you reach the town of Three Rivers. These smells include, but are not limited to: the massive stench of industrial stockyards, an overwhelming aroma of pressed garlic, an acrid sulfuric chemical odor,  and more oppressive odors emanating from super-sized stockyards. However, in spite of these perils, Sequoia & Kings Canyon are well worth the trip down the Road of Bad Smells.)

The Sequoia visitor center provides a lot of interesting background about the world’s largest trees, along with a good orientation to help you plan your visit.  Though there are several hikes to take through the various groves, you shouldn’t miss the two most notable walks: the Sherman and the Grant. The Sherman Tree walk takes you on a descent to the base of the world’s largest living thing by volume. The walk through the lovely grove around Grant’s Tree (the widest of the giant Sequoias) has some of the prettiest tree specimens and a lot of amazing sites, including an old, dead sequoia, “The Monarch,” you can walk through that was once a miner’s refuge and a bar.

When you’re peckish in Sequoia and in need of a food/wine stop, Wuksachi Lodge has a nice restaurant with a lovely mountainside view. (Thankfully, food has come a long way in our national parks since the days of foil-wrapped cheeseburgers.) The wine list has a good variety and is surprisingly reasonable given the relative remoteness of the location.

Don’t miss a good hike or two in Kings Canyon, even though it’s a bit off the beaten path. The majestic peaks frame a verdant valley with a babbling river running through it, culminating in lively falls rolling over large boulders. Camping spots seem a lot sweeter in Kings Canyon than in Sequoia, so if you’re up for a few nights in a tent,  do the Kings thing.

For nights with a roof over your head, a good base camp outside the park can be found in the town of Three Rivers. The affordable Comfort Inn has shuttles into the Park (shuttles are mandatory at certain times of year), along with a swimming pool and hot tub. 

Two great places to spend your post-hike evenings can also be found in Three Rivers. The Cider Mill Restaurant stays open later and has outdoor seating. Many of the selections are grilled by a nice guy tending the BBQ out front. The wood-grilled Carne Asada (along with several ice cold Tecates) was the dining highlight.

The River View Restaurant & Lounge has a nice perch above a perky river run, where you can sit outside and listen to the river race by. There’s often live music here, and if there’s not, the kind folks at the River View were playing some awesome live concert Grateful Dead tracks the night I visited. Even better, the beer was ice cold, and the onion rings were some of the best you’ll ever have.

Cold beers. Big trees. Bigger canyons. Fewer crowds. Sequoia/Kings Canyon are definitely worth a visit.   

Do:
National Park Info, http://www.nps.gov/seki/index.htm

Eat:
Cider Mill, 40311 Sierra Dr. (Highway 198)
River View Restaurant & Lounge, 42323 Sierra Dr. (Highway 198)

Sleep:
Comfort Inn, 40820 Sierra Dr. (Highway 198), http://www.comfortinn.com/hotel-three_rivers-california-CAA26

Coastside Weekend – Ano Nuevo & Half Moon Bay

Yellow Flowers in Pescadero
Yellow Wildflowers in Pescadero

In addition to the myriad delights of the city itself, one of the best things about San Francisco is the ability to get away from it all fairly quickly. In just over 25 minutes, you can find yourself in the Marin Headlands, in the middle of the Bay, or, if you head south down the coast, to the charming enclave of Half Moon Bay. On weekends when everyone in San Francisco seems to be heading up to Marin for a daytrip, cruising south is a great way to get out of town while fighting less traffic and crowds. The towns of Half Moon Bay and Pescadero help you instantly forget city stress, and get the cool, chill vibe of the coastside lands.

Day One – Elephant Seals & Pocket-Sized Pescadero
Starting out from San Francisco on a Saturday morning relatively early in the a.m., head south on the Great Highway and keep following signs for Highway One. The drive’s a beautiful one, particularly once you get to the open stretches of coastal road that dramatically hover above the coast past Pacifica. The coastline’s dramatic, the water’s blue, and there are scads of lovely little beaches if you want to get out for a leg stretch, or just to marvel at the great waters of the Pacific.  

Your destination this morning is Ano Nuevo, a California state natural reserve. Ano Nuevo is a beautiful landscape, representing coastal dune vegetation and the NoCal coast as it was before modernity began to forever change these habitats.

Though Ano Nuevo is a beautiful place for a nature hike anytime of year, the best times to visit coincide with the presence of the elephant seals. Ano Nuevo is an important spot for elephant seals, where they haul out to recreate, reproduce, and rest. And they do need some rest; Ano Nuevo is also a popular haunt of Great White sharks, who feed on the abundant elephant seals here. Marine scientists have deemed the sharks of Ano Nuevo a significant population for understanding the mysterious Great Whites’ behaviors overall. Before you go, be sure to check out any permit requirements. Because Ano Nuevo is so important for the elephant seal population, there are times of year when visitation of the beaches is restricted: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=523

After 2 or 3 hours at Ano Nuevo, the sea air and the hiking should have amply whetted your appetite, preparing you

Duarte's Tavern, Pescadero
Yum. Duarte’s Tavern.

 for one of the best meals you’ll ever eat at Duarte’s Tavern in Pescadero. (Also affectionately known as “Doo-arts” by some SF locals.) To get to Duartes from Ano Nuevo,  just need to head north on Highway One, and after about 30 minutes, turn right when the sign for Pescadero appears. The restaurant’s one of the only things in the sweet, pocket-sized town of Pescadero, so you can’t miss it. Give your name at the front of Duarte’s for a table, and then, go wait in the wood-paneled, wonderfully old-school bar. Sample a local beer, Anchor Steam, or try one of their refreshing bloody marys.

Once you get your table, prepare to be delighted. This James Beard award-winning restaurant serves some of the freshest seafood around, along with the best of local ingredients in general. Start with a cup of “half and half” soup, a combo of their cream of artichoke (made from chokes growing down the road) and chile soups. For your main course, the cioppino (the Italian fisherman’s stew) never disappoints, nor does the abalone sandwich. Whatever you order, be sure to save room for pie; pies served at Duarte’s are nothing short of fantastic, particularly the ollalieberry. For more detailed directions or some other info, check Duarte’s out online at: http://www.duartestavern.com/

After lunch, you’ll need to walk off whatever you gorged on at Duarte’s. You should check out the shops on Pescadero’s main street, which showcase crafts made by local artists, and also, foods featuring local ingredients. Stop in Arcangeli Grocery/Norm’s Market (http://www.normsmarket.com/store/) to pick up some wonderful breads and foccacias, cheeses (especially the local, delicious, Harley Farms goat cheese), more pies, and local treats like pickled garlic, artichoke spreads, and more.  (Be sure to stock up on items that will keep until tomorrow to enjoy at a picnic.)

If you still feel like a little more nature as you leave Pescadero, on the way back out of Pescadero at Highway One, there’s a wetlands for bird watching and a beach with some tide pools. If you go to this beach, be careful: the surf is treachorous here, and the rocks very jagged. Make sure you know which way the tide’s running so you are more certain to keep sure footing. (Particularly if you’re one of the lucky passengers who got to have more than one Anchor at Duarte’s.)

Smoking bus at Camerons Pub
Double-decker bus at Camerons Pub

Once you’ve enjoyed all of Pescadero’s delights, you’re heading back to Half Moon Bay, and after the intersection with 92, you will see Camerons (http://www.cameronsinn.com/) on the left of Highway One. You should definitely stop for a pint, and, if you’re hungry even after Duarte’s, some decent pub grub. (Camerons also has a little shop with British goods, should you need a Cadbury Flake fix.) You won’t be able to miss it, as the pub is surrounded by double-decker buses from England. (You can even smoke in one of them, if you’re one who still indulges in tobacco products.)

After a quick pit stop at Camerons, continue north on Highway One, until you get to the Beach House on the north side of Half Moon Bay, where you’re staying for the night (http://www.beach-house.com/half-moon-bay-hotels.html) Rooms are spacious, and can sleep 4 if you’re trying to save a penny or two, as they have living areas with pull-out beds. Enjoying a bottle of wine on your patio while the sun sets from your perch right on the coast is a very nice way to end a busy day. You can also soak your troubles away in the hot tub or the small pool.

If you feel a bit more peppy in the evening hours, walk on the coastal path a short distance to Sam’s Chowder House, conveniently located just next door. Sam’s has good seafood staples, and really nice ambiance outdoors, where you can sit on a deck above the sea next to communal fire bowls and enjoy a cocktail or several. Sam’s also has music on weekends, and you can see the schedule here: http://www.samschowderhouse.com/ 

NB: Though there are many fine places to go in Half Moon Bay for drinks and/or dining, particularly in the charming downtown that’s inland from the coast, Sam’s is the best evening pit stop when staying at the Beach House, as you can walk back to your bed rather than driving after imbibing. If you actually have a designated driver with you, your evening options are a bit more open, though Sam’s is a very worthy place to spend an evening regardless of its proximity to the Beach house.   

Day 2 – Beach Walk & Bocce
In the morning, be sure to make the most of your coastal location, and have a great walk on the shore and/or coastal path from the Beach House, after enjoying the complimentary continental breakfast. Have a soak in the hot tub, and enjoy yourself until check-out.

Before you leave your hotel, pack up your picnic lunch that you assembled yesterday. You’ll head south a bit on Highway One to 92, and turn left, going to La Nebbia Winery.  (The entire trip will take you about 15 minutes.) On 92, you’ll pass by a lot of the garden/farm supply places that Half Moon Bay is known for, and see a lot of pumpkins if you’re here in the autumn before Halloween. (Half Moon Bay is the pumpkin capital of NoCal, and has a festival to prove it.)

La Nebbia gets surplus juice from a lot of different wineries in Sonoma/Napa/Santa Cruz and bottles it, meaning you get some wines that normally cost $40 for more like $10 when you buy them at La Nebbia. The folks who work here are always really informative about what’s being poured and very fun and friendly. The property has picnic tables and a great bocce court, so have your picnic, raise a glass or two, and enjoy some bocce for the afternoon. La Nebbia also has many events, so see what’s on before you go: http://www.lanebbiawinery.com/

Depending on the weather (fog or lots o’ fog in the summer), after La Nebbia, cruise home on Skyline or take Highway One back. For either route, signs of city life will appear quicker than you think, shaking you out of the cool, laidback coastside ambiance. You’ll be so restored you won’t believe you’ve been gone from the city for only 24 hours.