Sunday, October 25, 2009

Whose woods these are, I think I know

Covered wooden bridges, bubbling streams, waterfalls, bike trails, the clip clop of horses, dogs dancing on the ends of their leashes, ducks and geese gliding in the river, autumn leaves crunching underfoot. All good reasons to abandon your regular routine and head for Forbidden Drive, the 5-mile scenic trail that meanders through the Wissahickon Woods in the northwest section of Philadelphia's Fairmount Park. Enjoy brunch, lunch or dinner at the historic Valley Green Inn.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Truth About Press Trips

Yes, we travel writers get FREE trips, stay in luxury hotels, dine on gourmet fare and swim in champagne without ever seeing the tab. But we do all this with a group of strangers whose charming (or alarming) company we are in from morning to night. If the group is congenial, as were the 25 journalists with whom I toured Prague and Southern Moravia, it's party time. Although I have a hunch that the reason we got along so well was that none of us spoke the other's language and they kept us very well lubricated.

The day this photo was taken, we were drinking champagne on an antique trolley in Prague. Once we were totally sloshed, they then put us on a boat in the Charles River and gave us enough Czech beer to launch a thousand frat houses.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Oooh La La Spa: Hotel Mizpe Hayamim

Who knew? Relais & Chateau, the luxury French hotel group, now includes Israel's Hotel/Spa Mizpe Hayamim (Meez-PAH Ha-YAH-meem). From the terrace of my spacious room, I had a beathtaking view of the Sea of Galilee and the rolling hills of Rosh-Pina.

A masseuse named Kineret, which is the Hebrew name for the Sea of Galilee, expertly kneaded my tense muscles into humus in a candle lit room nestled in the garden. Talk about being in Paradise! This is the migration route for hundreds of species of birds, so the air is always filled with their song. The healthy, gourmet cuisine comes from animals and produce raised on the hotel's organic farm. The spa menu includes Shiatsu, Reiki, Feldenkreis, Reflexology, Cranio-Sacral, Acupuncture & Thai Massage.

Monday, August 3, 2009

San Miguel: The Beat Goes On

If you're a fan of Frida Khalo or want to honor Jack Kerouac's last tequila, head on down to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Discovered by The Beat Generation in the 1950's, San Miguel remains a center of culture, cuisine and craftsmanship. I stayed at Casa Luna, an enchanting B&B filled with Mexican folk art, antiques, gardens, fountains and a rooftop terrace for sunning and knocking back fresh fruit margaritas.
By day, go to the Indian Market for regional crafts and roasted corn seasoned with chipolte and lime. Or take a weaving or a Spanish course at Instituto Allende. Every night, the entire town gathers in the park for strolling mariaches, ice cream and flirtation. Want to avoid Mexico City? Fly via Houston to Queretaro, Mexico, an historic colonial town 40 miles from San Miguel.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Read My Hips

I don't need a passport to satisfy my sweet tooth. The Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia where I live has no shortage of excellent pastry shops. My favorite is Bredenbeck's Bakery which has been in business for over 100 years. Their recipe for apple raisin tart was brought over from Germany by the original owner and passed down for generations. They make a killer pound cake, pretty petite fours and always offer FREE samples.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Armagnac: The Original Viagra

Most Americans have no idea what Armagnac is, let alone how to pronounce it correctly. (Arm-NYACK) I admit, I didn't know much about France's oldest brandy until I visited the region for which it is named. Armagnac, located in southwest France, is the historic Gasconne province that gave us D'Artagnan, The Three Muskateers and the brandy that is credited with curing impotence, memory loss and the plague. Well, that's what made it a hot seller in the Middle Ages.
These days, Armagnac's mystique is still going strong as a seductive after dinner drink and a tantalzing ingredient in southwestern French cuisine. Like French kisses? Try a bise francaise, prunes marinated in Armagnac, filled with foie gras. Or simply dab Armagnac behind your ears and see what happens. Photo courtesy of BNIA/Michel Carossio

Friday, July 24, 2009

Under Paris Skies

If I could live (and die) in a department store, it would be Galleries Lafayette in Paris. The terrace offers up a 360 view of City of Lights. Each of the stores three buildings are filled with tantalizing restaurants, cafes, patisseries and wine bars. Along with a beauty salon, a full service spa, contemporary and designer clothing, menswear and home furnishings. Show your U.S. Passport and receive a 12% tax refund and a free fashion show on Fridays.

Divine B&Bs in the Holy Land

The best and most affordable way to see the littlest big country in the Middle East is to stay at a B&B. I found a furnished two bedroom apt with a view of the Old City in the quaint Yamin Moshe neighborhood of Jerusalem for less than half what I would pay for a single room at any hotel.
Just remember, Israeli B&Bs range from a spare bedroom with shared bath in someone's apartment to a private apartment with vacant owners. Go to

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Sweet Memories

I cannot pass a bakery window without falling in love. Especially in France where the art of the local patisserie often surpasses the offerings of the Louvre. This photo was taken in Nancy, France in Alsace Lorraine.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Flying High

Flying back east out of LAX on the Red Eye, I noticed frost bite on my fingers and asked the flight attendant for a blanket. He blinked and said crisply, "That'll be seven dollars." WHAT?

I know everyone, including Ruth Madoff, is tightening their belt but this struck me as excessive. "Okay, then. How about turning down the air-conditioning so that my teeth stop chattering?" He smirked and went back to hawking stale sandwiches for - uh - seven dollars. They were not moving well but he sold out of vodka before seat 14D.

Somewhere over "the fruited plain" a jittery line formed to the one working toilet in the back of the plane. There seemed to be some kind of rucus at the front of the line. I heard cursing and loud voices but couldn't figure it out until I was next in line and the haughty attendant said, "That'll be seven dollars please."

"For what?" Why for using the john! "But, but, you have to let passengers pee!" I cried. "Actually, ma'm, according to the FAA, we don't," he sneered. "It's up to each airline to decide. Now will that be cash or credit?" In a hushed voice he added, "I can get you into the First Class toilet for fifty bucks."

I staggered back to my seat, determined to hold "it" in for another three and half hours. I took an Ambien and tried to sleep but it wasn't easy. The passenger next to me was getting a lap dance. It's amazing what seven dollars will buy at 50,000 feet.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Art Nouveau-to-Go

The world's greatest museum of Art Nouveau isn't the Musee des Beaux Arts in Nancy, France. It's the city of Nancy itself.

Here is where the originators of the Art Nouveau Movement decided that functional design - furniture, lamps, houses - should incorporate the sensual qualities of Nature. Each street, each fountain and lampost is a work of art.

Located an hour and a half east of Paris via the TGV high speed train, Nancy is a great escape from the crowds, back to a more romantic time. Daum crystal is made here. Baccarat and Limoge are nearby. Oh, come on. What's more romantic than shopping???

Cinema MacMahon: Play It Again, Sam

Woody Allen loves Paris. Probably because it loves him back. Cinema Mac Mahon in the 17th arr. always seems to be showing a retrospective of his films. But there's another reason to go there. Opened in 1938, Cinema Mac Mahon is one of the last single-screen movie theaters left in Paris. Its Art Deco facade is an architectural gem. Located in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe, Cinema Mac Mahon should be on every film lovers tour of the City of Lights.

Hotel Canto das Aguas: Lencois, Brazil

It's a six hour drive from Salvador to the sleepy town of Lencois in the heart of the Chapada Diamantina - one of Brazil's most popular eco-tourism destinations. While my traveling companions crawled through caves, rappeled waterfalls and climbed mountains, I discovered my Inner Paris Hilton at Hotel Canto das Aguas.

This isn't the kind of luxury boutique hotel you'd expect to find in a town so small you can walk up and down every street in 15 minutes. Built over a waterfall, you can hear the "singing" waters from just about every room. I tried out the Amazonian hammock on my private patio, hoping to entertain one of the Spider Monkeys that swing down from the trees at dawn and twilight.

While I struck out with the monkeys, I scored BIG with a Tree House Massage. I've had my share of massages with recorded sounds of waterfalls and birds but this was the real deal. While a masseuse dressed in white like an Indian Yogi worked on my trapezius muscles, I breathed in the scent of jasmine, mint and honeysuckle and listened to the calls of 150 species of tropical birds. You can have your extreme sports in Lencois and your extreme indulgence too.

Convento do Carmo: Get Thee to a Nunnery

Running off to a convent was never an option. First, I'm Jewish. Secondly, I don't deal well with authority, even from above. But when I walked into Hotel Convento do Carmo in Salvador, Brazil, I thought, "Oh, my God! I could get used to this!"

The former cloister, now a 5-star hotel is located in the historic Pelhourino section. Outside, the streets seeth with African drums, art galleries, cafes and shops. Inside, in an air of hushed elegance, guests lounge around the courtyard pool and sip high octane cocktails at the bar like characters out of a Bogart/Becall film.

Rooms are HUGE, beautifully decorated and offer charming views of candy colored houses or the bucolic courtyard. If you must seek absolution - there's a spa, free Internet and a tantalizing breakfast buffet. (Their coconut cake is so moist it is positively sinful!)

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Salvador, Bahia, Brazil

Salvador was the former port of entry for Brazil’s slaves. As a result, 80% of the city’s population is of African ancestry. I could hear it in the music, taste it in the palm oil seasoned food and see it in the colorful costumes of the Bahianas, women street vendors who sell acarej√©, deep-fried bean cakes.

But perhaps the most exotic African influence is in the religion which twins Yoruban deities with Catholic saints. In New Orleans and Haiti, they call it called Voo Doo. In Salvador, it’s Candombl√©.

“We go to church in the morning and Candombl√© at night,” said my guide who took me to a church to see the Festival of Saint Lazarus. Inside, a mass was in progress to a conga drum beat. Outside, on the church steps, Bahiana priestesses in starched white eyelet costumes were cleansing people’s spirits with popcorn.

Yes, popcorn. I couldn’t resist. An ancient woman greeted me with “Ah-shay, ah-shay,” the Yoruban word for “blessings.” She grabbed my arms and shook them violently, as if shaking out the Devil. Then she tossed popcorn over my head and recited incantations. She finished by dabbing a white powder on my chest and back. “That closes your spirit and protects you,” explained my guide. That night, I put the ritual’s protective powers to the test.

Brazilian friends had warned me about street crime in the Pelourinho, the historic colonial district where I was staying. But when I heard the rolling thunder of African drums, I followed the beat down a dark, cobblestone alley that opened to a huge square, packed with hundreds of people. They were dancing under a full moon to a free, outdoor concert featuring Olodum, Salvador’s most famous band and the originator of samba-reggae, a unique Afro-Caribbean sound not find anywhere else in Brazil.

The singer’s voice floated like silk over bass drums so low they sounded as if they were coming from the earth’s core, backed by cow bells, whistles and the berimbau, a single-stringed percussion instrument made from a gourd. The aroma of charcoal-cooked beef mingled with the unmistakable scent of marijuana.

I was the only American tourist in a huge sea of Afro-Brazilians, but at no time did I feel out of place or in any danger. I like to think I was protected by the “Ah-shay” of the Bahiana priestess. But maybe it was because they had never seen anyone do the Mummer’s Strut * to a samba-reggae beat.

(* The Mummer’s Strut is a street dance, sort of a Cake Walk, performed by inebriated Philadelphia String Bands and equally drunk citizens on New Years Day.)

This article previously appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 24, 2009.