Florence’s Best Tour Guide Shares Her Favorite Spots

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Florence's Best Tour Guide Shares Her Favorite Spots

April 16, 2019

“What I love most about Florence is that it was the birthplace of the Renaissance, the time period from the 14th to 17th centuries that was the crucible of modern European culture,” says Silvia Ponticelli, 49, and a charming and impressively erudite Florence native who holds a degree in art history and attended an interpreter’s school before deciding to become a professional tour guide 16 years ago. “I like to share my passions with people,” says Ponticelli, who speaks four languages (Italian, French—her mother is French—English and German) and has a wonderful sense of humor. “A city like Florence, which has over 61 different museums and so many other extraordinary things to see and do can be a bit overwhelming. So I’m here to help craft perfect days or weeks in the city in such a way as to avoid the malady that befell the great French writer Stendhal.”

Stendhal, the pen name of 19th century French writer Marie-Henri Beyle, author of the famous novel The Red and the Black gave his name to the mild psychosomatic illness, Stendhal’s Syndrome, he experienced while visiting Florence in 1817. As he explains in another one of his books Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio, following a visit to the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, where Michelangelo and Galileo are buried and the walls are covered with frescoes by Giotto, “I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty… I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations… Everything spoke so vividly to my soul.”

In plainer words, poor, old Stendhal was just plain floored by the aesthetic richness of Florence, a reaction Ponticelli says she’s witnessed many times. “This is why I advise people that it’s better to enjoy a smaller number of special, carefully chosen experiences than to think that you see everything during a single visit to the city. I’ve lived here all of my life and I’m still discovering new things!” she says. Here is a selection of her Florence favorites.

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Favorite Work of Art

The Michelangelo Crucifix in the Basilica di Santo Spirito“The year 1492 was very important in Florence, because Lorenzo the Magnificent, the great statesman and patron of the arts, died. This meant Michelangelo lost his patron, which is why he moved to the Basilica di Santo Spirito, where he did anatomical studies on corpses brought to the church for funerals. The knowledge of the human body he gained is powerfully expressed by the remarkably lifelike wooden crucifix he produced while he was living at the church,” says Ponticelli. 

Tip for Museum Visits

“Few people know that both the Uffizi Museum and the Accademia Gallery can be visited outside of their normal opening hours. These special hours are announced as ‘news’ on the websites of the respective museums,” advises Ponticelli. 

Hidden Places

“I like to create itineraries that include a mixture of venues. So after mu- seums and churches, I’ll take people for a walk to the Giardino Bardini, a beautiful Italian garden that just recently opened to the public. There’s a spectacular view over the city from this garden, too.” 

Favorite Artisans

Lastrucci: Mosaics made with semi-precious stones“This is a typical Florentine handicraft,” says Ponticelli. “The mosaics are made today in the same way that they were when they were chosen by Grand Duke Cosimo I to decorate the Medici chapels. These mosaics are meant to last forever. They work by commission, and what I most enjoy about visiting the studio is to see the way they work. There are only two or three apprentices in the studio, so this is a craft that may disappear one day.” By appointment only.

Ippogrifo: Hand-made etchings. “Etching was the first way of printing beautiful images,” explains Ponticelli. “At Ippogrifo, you see the whole process of creating an etching. First, a copper plate is coated with protective wax, then the artwork is drawn in the wax. Next the plate is immersed in acid, which consumes the exposed copper to create the etching plate. It’s an absolutely fascinating process.”

Galleria Romanelli: Bronze sculpture and statues. “This studio produces statues by using the traditional lost wax technique. You can see the whole process in their atelier, where they work with molten metal. It’s very dramatic.” 

Paolo Penko: Jeweler. “Paolo Penko is a craftsman who is often inspired by the art of the Renaissance in his jewelry designs. He is a master goldsmith known for working in white and yellow gold together, which is part of the great jewelry making tradition of Florence.”

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Places for Lunch

Panini at Ino A. They’re only open for lunch, and they make the best panini in town. Try the Pecorino with pistachios, tapenade with anchovies or Tuscan salami with gorgonzola. Convenient location, too, between the Uffizi and the Ponte Vecchio. 

Il Magazzino. This easygoing place in the hip Oltrano neighborhood does great wine and cheese boards with Tuscan-style bruschetta, fresh pastas and great vegetable dishes. 

Top Phone Apps You Need for Your Next Trip

The Top Phone Apps You Need for Your Next Trip

April 11, 2019

Embrace your seasonal wanderlust—and be sure to embrace your smartphone, too. Whether you’re looking for great local dishes or want to create your own panoramic photos, your device packs a punch when you load it with these incredible apps.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, panoramic photos speak volumes. Microsoft’s Photosynth app is perfectly poised to create them. Photosynth uses your Apple device’s camera (or photos stored in its memory) to stitch together multiple photos into one panoramic shot that can then be shared on Facebook and Twitter. The app’s interface makes it easy to keep track of your progress, composing the panoramic photo before your eyes and giving you the ability to make adjustments as you go. It’s a winning companion for cataloguing your adventures—every angle of them.

The Foodspotting mobile app puts the communal spirit back into your dining experience. Once you download the app, you can snap pictures of your favorite dishes in any restaurant in any city and share your thoughts. Then, users (yourself included) can search for specific dishes, take a peek at how they look and who recommends them, and find the nearest restaurant that serves the dish. Looking for the perfect paella in Madrid? Maybe the best burger in Chicago? Foodspotting is a fun and intuitive way to find good food fast—with a little help from your virtuals.

Previously, LUXE city guides developed a reputation as smart, savvy and no-holds-barred books that offered only the crème de la crème of regional dining, attractions and nightspots. Now, that same approach has gone mobile. The travel guide producer’s mobile city guides cover some of the globe’s hottest destinations, including New York, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Venice and London. Each mobile city guide app delivers key information and expert recommendations (with LUXE’s trademark snark) at the touch of your smartphone screen. For $5.99, the price is right to learn everything there is to know about your destination metropolis—and you’ll get free updates to each guide you buy for a year.

Never again worry about forgetting something when you pack. That’s something many would pay dearly for, but with the Packing Pro app, it’ll only cost you $2.99. Packing Pro lets you create completely customizable packing lists for multiple trips right on your smart device. Much more than a simple list, Packing Pro’s supercharged functionality will total the weight of each item, toggle between unpacked items and your entire list, all while sorting items into different categories. The app’s expert list assistant will even create lists for you based on how many people are going on your trip, their gender and the length of stay—automating all your packing needs and eliminating the headaches that accompany forgotten essentials.

This fun application puts the sense of wonder back into travel, whether it’s for work or pleasure. A smartphone-powered social network, Trover lets you snap pictures of new discoveries (be it a cool-looking restaurant or stunning wall graffiti), add a note and post it for other Trover users to see. Using the app’s search function, you can discover hidden gems around your current location, get directions and visit them on your own—while keeping an eye out for more to share on your way.

You may have every luxury and relaxation planned for your big trip, but what happens on the way? Loud airports, uncomfortable seats and innumerable distractions wear you out before you even arrive. The SleepStream 2 Pro app prevents that. The sleep and relaxation app plays atmospheric audio, relaxing natural sounds, hypnosis audio tracks and binaural beats to turn any situation into a soothing nap opportunity or meditation session. Not only will you sleep better and deeper with the app’s sounds in your ear, but you can also run custom sound combinations to aid focus, improve your mood or begin a meditation session. Become well rested, lower your blood pressure and enjoy a cheery mood, all on the trip out? Check-check-check.

The Ultimate Euro-Vacation: 6 Countries in 23 Days

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The Ultimate Euro-Vacation: 6 Countries in 23 Days

March 27, 2019

This past summer, I found myself in a sticky dilemma. Our middle daughter had just graduated from college and her travel plans with friends were not panning out. As her mother, I felt awful that none of her friends or her boyfriend could take time off from jobs, committed internships, or other travel to celebrate.

That’s where Inspirato’s California team stepped in and helped me plan an epic mother-daughter adventure, taking us through Europe, all while staying in beautiful hotels with bespoke planning and attention to detail. In retrospect, this was the best decision I made about the trip.

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We began with a four-day biking trip and excursion in the Netherlands followed by a train to Bruges, Belgium, for two nights in a 500-year-old hotel within walking distance of the town square. From Belgium, we flew to Zurich and stayed at the Park Hyatt in an incredible suite with amazing concierge staff that set us up with a day excursion to Lucerne. We loved eating fondue in the historic section of town, seated along the water from where we could watch the beautiful swans and busy tourists.

Next was a train to Geneva, where we stayed on the lake at La Réserve. From Lucerne we took a day-trip to Chamonix, France, and rode the Mont Blanc cable car up to an altitude of 12,600 feet for a stunning view from the top of Europe. There’s no other view like it in the world.

Next were Florence, Tuscany, and Rome, with many sights in between. We rented a car and drove along the Italian coast. We stopped in Siena and passed acres of sunflowers. Baha, our concierge at the Portrait Firenze in Florence, was fabulous with his suggestions for restaurants, places to shop, and the best gelato, along with securing museum tickets, train tickets, and arranging for our rental car. From Rome, we flew to Split, Croatia, and visited friends for a few days before traveling to our final destination, Paris.

Highlights for us were Italy’s food and art, architecture and sights in Croatia—especially Plitvice Lakes National Park—and Switzerland’s beautiful, scenic landscapes, especially viewed from the windows of our train. We also loved our cooking class in Florence and limo ride in Rome for a day of sightseeing.

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We had a blast and there was never a dull moment—it felt as if we were contestants in the Amazing Race TV show with the intensity of our itinerary. Back home, we were thrilled to learn that we inspired another mother-daughter duo to contact Inspirato for their own version of our trip. Now my younger daughter expects me to do the same when she graduates from college. I say, “Let’s go!”

The World’s Top Attractions and When to See Them​

The World's Top Attractions and When to See Them

March 26, 2019

Fine weather, seaside longings and family adventures are all excellent reasons to head out of town. But taking a trip can be extra special when the destination in mind is celebrating, too. Time your vacation to catch some of the world’s most unique festivals, events, attractions and celebrations.

Lore has it that Telluride earned its moniker from the irascible miners who claimed their mountain locale was, well, rough: “To hell you ride.” One hundred and fifty years later, it’s much easier to get here, either on scenic Highway 145 through the San Juan Mountains or flying in to North America’s highest commercial airport, the Telluride Regional Airport. Telluride has so many festivals, the town even celebrates the odd weekend when there isn’t one. The Telluride Film Festival, Jazz Celebration and Telluride Bluegrass Festival are all mainstays on the summer calendar, but there are many more from which to choose. At the beginning of the summer the Baloon Festival turns the sky into a Technicolor dreamscape, while Blues & Brews ushers in the changing aspens with music, food and suds in the autumn.

The Cap Cana Beach Polo World Cup is a one-of-a-kind event, wherein colorfully clad polo players atop galloping steeds take to the white sands of Cap Cana for a rousing tournament of polo. A terrific photo opp, the Cap Cana tourney turns into a beach party like only the DR can throw.

Chicago and lakefront are synonymous, thanks to the annual Air & Water Show on North Avenue. Admission is free and the show is open to the public. Claim your seat early because the Windy City packs ’em in for this one. Best seats in the house will be on North Avenue Beach and Oak Street Beach. Or hop into the continent’s fastest elevators in the John Hancock Observatory building, climbing 1,000 feet in 39 seconds for 360-degree views of the city and the show. Bonus: A multimedia tour narrated by David Schwimmer is included. Each year the Air & Water Show introduces new surprises, such as Vince Vaughn’s 2011 parachute onto the beach. If crowds aren’t your thing, wander over to Navy Pier and the Chicago Children’s Museum, catch a 3D movie at IMAX or take in the sunset from the Ferris wheel.

Humpback whales begin their southern migration from Alaska to Hawaii each December. February to April is prime whale-watching season in Maui, as Lahaina celebrates their annual arrival with ocean-themed presentations, music, and dancing at the Lahaina Whale and Ocean Arts Festival.

Get teed up for the PGA Golf Championship, held on the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort. The Pete Dye-designed course has proven to be one of the toughest on the East Coast. This Low Country island, all 11.2 acres of it, is one of the most carefully preserved barrier islands in the world. Named for the Native American tribe that hunted and fished in the area in the 1600s, the island was granted to reputed pirate George Raynor in 1699. Only three owners later in 1974, the island was developed into a world-class private gated resort community with a year-round population of roughly 1,200 residents. Try biking around the island on 30 miles of paved bike paths and 10 miles of  beaches.

July is the height of Lavender Season in Provence, with two primary growing areas known as lavandicoles: the triangle between Sault, Banon and Sederon, and north of Nyons at the base of Mont Ventoux. Field upon field of purple dances in the summer sun, scenting the air with its pungent aroma. In the town of Coustellet, a small lavender museum with a collection of copper stills dating back to the 16th century tells the story of lavender production. By 1929, there were 47 lavender stills around Sault— considered the lavender capital of Provence—producing the best essential oils. The Sault Tourist Office offers guided tours of the three remaining lavender distilleries. Festivals and lavender tours abound. Make it a point to see the medieval villages of Gordes, Menerbes, Lacoste and Saignon, Roussillon, and Les Baux-de-Provence.

Adventures Abound on Kauai, Hawaii’s “Garden Isle”

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Adventures Abound on Kauai, Hawaii's "Garden Isle"

March 19, 2019

Yes, it rains about 15 days of every month on Kauai, the northernmost of the Hawaiian Islands. The entire island averages about 43 inches of rain annually, compared to 17 inches on Oahu.

Dubbed “The Garden Isle,” 97 percent of Kauai is covered by forests or mountains—rain-fed canopies so dense, and rain-eroded valleys that you can’t imagine anyone having ever lived in (although up to several thousand people did live in different valleys as recently as the early 20th century).

But all this rain has an upside: It’s responsible for the island’s distinctive landscape. The rain helped create the Waimea Canyon, the biggest gorge in the Pacific. The rain also feeds thousands of magnificent waterfalls, while light, misty sun-showers create some of the most spectacular rainbows on earth.

Today, the island’s 67,000 residents are clustered in small, laid-back towns on the coasts. Much of the 3 percent of the island that isn’t forest or mountains is beach. Kauai residents like to claim their island has more beaches than any other in the chain. Whether this is true or not, it’s not difficult to find a small beach you can have all to yourself. And unlike some of the more popular islands, Kauai’s beaches are made up of soft sand rather than lava, and easily accessed from the road that circumnavigates the island—the island’s only road that takes about 2.5 hours to travel by car.

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The 4,000-foot red cliffs and cavernous canyons of the island’s north and west coasts are too treacherous to build a road on, but they make ideal locations for filming adventure movies and shows set in remote locations or prehistoric times. More than 70 Hollywood movies and television shows have been filmed on Kauai, including classics such as Jurassic Park and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

While your own time on the island likely won’t include such harrowing adventures as these movies do, you’ll certainly find no shortage of fun excursions and breathtaking sights.

Kayak the Napali Coast

The Napali Coast is spectacular. On one side is a tangle of thick vegetation; on the other side are steep, sheer cliffs—napali means “many cliffs” in Hawaiian—that end in roiling ocean. National Geographic once described it as “the finest coastal hike in the world.” The hike, while unforgettable, is a multi-day affair that requires camping and securing a permit several months in advance.

In contrast, you can kayak the Napali Coast in just a day with much less planning, and without much ocean kayaking experience. If you’re comfortable in water and generally fit, you’ll be just fine, even if the trip is a somewhat daunting 17 miles long.

You’ll gear up at Ke’e Beach and set out onto the water with an expert guide. Along the way, you’ll likely pass sea turtles floating lazily near the water’s surface, and channel their energy as you bob up and down on the ocean’s gentle swells. Following the path of your guide will take you close enough to the shore’s soaring cliffs to wave to the hikers above, or out a couple hundred meters into the open ocean, where you can marvel at the island’s remarkable landscape from afar. You’ll stop for lunch on Milolii Beach, which is accessible only by boat, and where you might just stumble upon a Hawaiian monk seal. A few hours later, the trip wraps up at Polihale Beach State Park.

Hike the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail

Set off from Shipwrecks Beach on the flat, 4-mile, out-and-back Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail to Punahoa Point. The trail, along the last stretch of undeveloped coastline on Kauai’s southern shore, passes 350,000-year-old sand dunes, cultural and geological sites, sturdy Kiawe and Ironwood trees, hillsides blanketed in colorful ilima flowers, limestone pinnacles, rocky inlets, tide pools, and the cliff that actors Anne Heche and Harrison Ford famously jumped from in the 1998 movie Six Days, Seven Nights. Jumping from this cliff, Makawehi Point, isn’t just a movie stunt: Brave Hawaiians and tourists do it too, timing their leaps with the waves. You can decide for yourself whether to take the plunge or simply peer over its sheer edge.

Past Makawehi, groupings of fragile-looking limestone and sandstone pinnacles rise from the ocean. According to the trail guide, in the 1970s paleontologists from the Smithsonian Institution discovered bones from two extinct species of birds in these formations.

From this ruggedness, the hike takes a jarring, quarter-mile detour onto the Poipu Bay Golf Course, a temporary workaround due to landslides. While the landscape couldn’t be more manicured and civilized, families of nene, an endangered, non-migratory species of goose indigenous to Hawaii and whose population was once as low as 30, seem not to care. They wander the greens like they own them.

Back on the trail, you’ll pass a heiau, a sacred site where fish were offered to Keoniloa, the god of the sea, to ensure a good catch. And gazing out from the trail to the water, you’re likely to see humpback whales, Hawaiian monk seals, and green sea turtles, along with other wildlife. The trek concludes at Punahoa Point, the apex of the oldest sand-dune system in the region.

Tube the Irrigation Canals of Lihue Plantation

Along Kauai’s East Side, also known as the Coconut Coast for the groves of coconut palms that grow there, you’ll find a truly one-of-a-kind experience: tubing down old irrigation ditches on a former sugarcane plantation.

Built deep in Kauai’s lush interior, Lihue Plantation is crisscrossed by a network of canals, tunnels, and flumes that were hand-dug all the way back in 1870. For more than a century, these ditches delivered water to irrigate the plantation’s sugar crops. But after sugarcane was taken out of production in 2000, they sat vacant, collecting rainwater for a few years before Kauai Backcountry Adventures bought the entire property with something uniquely fun in mind.

Today, tourists plunk down into inner tubes and traverse the gently rolling waterways on exclusive tubing tours. Starting near the top of Mount Waialeale, tubers descend through some of the most remote land on Kauai, passing through thick rainforest and sliding down small waterfalls.

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The water is decidedly more brisk than that lapping up against your favorite beach, as it comes down from Mount Waialeale, Kauai’s second-tallest mountain. But it’s not so brisk that tubers need to wear anything more than their bathing suits. Except, of course, the helmet and headlamp (provided by your hosts), which come in handy as you wind through old irrigation tunnels, which can be up to a mile long.

Ride in a Helicopter above Waimea Canyon

After kayaking, hiking, and tubing—not to mention likely bouts of swimming, snorkeling, and possibly surfing in between—you might be ready to sit back and let someone else take the reins. A helicopter tour provides just such an opportunity, though with no less excitement.

On its west side, Kauai’s tropical rainforest gives way to dryer, more desert-like conditions at Waimea Canyon, once dubbed “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific” by Mark Twain. More than 10 miles long and 3,600 feet deep, Waimea Canyon offers visitors a chance to peer at the topography of the island’s interior, marked by deep valley gorges and crested buttes. Rainbows frequently arch over the canyon, which was carved by the Waimea River long ago. The word “Waimea” is Hawaiian for “reddish water,” referencing the canyon’s red soil.

The only way to truly appreciate the unique complexity of this landscape is with a bird’s-eye view from high above. Tours depart from Lihue Airport on hourlong jaunts. As you take in the untamed land below, you’ll feel as if you’ve gone back to prehistoric times, especially as many helicopters chopper over Manawaiopuna Falls, a 400-foot-tall cascade, made popular by its appearance in the original Jurassic Park in 1993.

Dine at Tidepools

After all these adventures, you earned some time for a refreshing cocktail and a delicious meal. In general, Kauai is not a fancy place. That’s one reason the island’s devotees love it so much. The dining, like most things, tends to be low key—fish tacos, plate lunches (two scoops of white rice, macaroni salad, and a meat—often Spam—might not seem exciting but is the quintessential Hawaiian meal), fresh fruit bowls and smoothies, and shave ice. Often, the best of these places to eat are tucked away in strip malls. But if during a stay filled to the brim with rugged, outdoor adventures, you’re looking for something more formal, head to Tidepools.

Made up of a cluster of open-air hale pili (thatched-roof bungalows) that seem to float like massive lily pads atop koi lagoons within the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa, Tidepools is very much “Hollywood Hawaiian.” Flickering tiki torches and dark koa wood create a retro ’60s vibe that wouldn’t look out of place in a mid-century travel brochure. This ambiance pairs perfectly with signature (and slightly over-the-top) cocktails such as the Tai Chi, made with Captain Morgan’s spiced and Malibu coconut spiced rum, along with pineapple and orange juices, and the Lava Flow, which consists of light rum, coconut crème, pineapple juice, strawberry, and ice cream all blended together. You might be lucky enough to be seated at Table #42, which the staff says is the best in the house because of its secluded location in a separate hale, but really, there’s no bad table in the house.

Chef Kevin Horan, who came to Tidepools after stints in Las Vegas at Restaurant Guy Savoy and Mandarin Oriental, presents a contemporary Hawaiian menu. He uses traditional ingredients like opah, a fish with a rich, creamy taste, macadamia nuts, fresh-caught seafood, and beef, but does not necessarily prepare them traditionally. Adventurous palates will enjoy the opah topped with papaya-habanero sauce or caught-that-morning macadamia nut-crusted mahi mahi topped with a roasted banana-macadamia nut sauce and papaya-avocado relish. Foie gras isn’t a traditional Hawaiian food, but Horan brings an island influence to the dish by pairing it with macadamia-nut mousse and strawberry-papaya jam. The fresh greens are grown on-site in the resort’s 4,000-square-foot hydroponic garden, which is open to resort guests for tours twice a week.

Sitting here, cocktail in hand, watching the colors of the sunset streak across the sky behind the gently swaying palms makes for a fitting end to a day exploring this natural-born island paradise.

The Dream Skiing Destination with 8,000+ Acres to Explore

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The Dream Skiing Destination with 8,000+ Acres to Explore

February 26, 2019

North America’s biggest ski area has more than 8,000 acres of terrain that’ll take days to ski. The stats attributed to Whistler Blackcomb boggle of the mind. To wit: an average snowfall of more than 38 feet, a top-to-bottom vertical descent of a mile (on Blackcomb), 2,200 acres of expert terrain alone, 7-mile-long ski runs, year-round skiing on groomed glaciers, and a gondola between the two mountains that carries skiers and boarders 1,427 feet above the valley floor (by comparison, the Empire State Building tops out at 1,454 feet). For skiers and boarders in North America, Whistler is as close to a sure thing as can be found on the continent.

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Superlatives aside, what makes Whistler truly special is its village, a compact, pedestrian-friendly town that handles the influx of winter and summer visitors with charm, elegance, and a good deal of mountain-people authenticity that draws thrill-seekers from around the world.

One could argue that its international vibe, outdoors-minded population—helped, no doubt, by hosting 2010 Winter Olympic alpine events—makes Whistler the closest Canada and the U.S. have to Chamonix, the legendary capital of adventure sports located in the French Alps.

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Both amateur and experienced skiers can appreciate the grandness and variety Whistler has to offer. In addition to skiing and snowboarding, visitors can enjoy snowshoeing, tobogganing, and several other winter activities. Domestic and international travelers alike can seek adventure, relaxation or a combination of both in this versatile mountain town.

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But perhaps Whistler Blackcomb’s most appealing attribute is access: The ski area is little more than a two-hour drive north from the international airport in Vancouver, British Columbia. Rarely does going this big come so easily. With only a flight and a short drive slowing guests down, it’s a wonder this little-known destination hasn’t quickly climbed the ranks in popularity.

Experience New York City Like a Local

Experience New York City Like a Local

February 7, 2019

Excited for the long weekend ahead, we woke up early on our first morning at the Dominick and ordered room service. It was the best way to savor our suite’s Hudson River view before a busy day in Brooklyn. Since it was warm outside, we decided to meander through Soho toward the Canal Street station, where we’d pick up the Q train. As we walked, the streets thrummed with life: Against a cacophony of traffic noise, bike messengers whizzed by and shoppers jockeyed for space on the crowded sidewalk. Once we were on the subway, we couldn’t help getting giddy when the train came above ground onto the Manhattan Bridge and we caught a glimpse of the skyline. 

Ascending the station stairs in Park Slope, where most buildings don’t exceed five stories, we were struck by how much more light and air there seemed to be. We felt our pulses slow as we crossed Flatbush Avenue to Prospect Heights and walked along a quiet, tree-lined block to James, a small New American restaurant. The chef, Bryan Calvert, is an alum of the Manhattan foodie temple Bouley, but here his cooking is sublimely straightforward. 

Our lunch of black kale salad, truffle fries, and burgers topped with speck fortified us for our next stop: Prospect Park, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, about a decade after they completed Central Park. We could see immediately why the pair called this less-touted oasis their masterpiece. The grassy, gently undulating Long Meadow is expansive but also feels completely sheltered from the busy streets beyond the park’s borders. A walk through the ravine area, with its 100-foot gorge that connects a waterfall, pools, and the lake, makes you feel like you’ve left Brooklyn for the mountains upstate. And with its thick tree canopy, the park is also home to the only remaining natural forest in Brooklyn. We spent the next few hours exploring and left through the gates at Ninth Street, which leads to the center of Park Slope. It was only 5:30, but we were trying to get a table at Talde, the cultishly popular Park Slope restaurant run by former Top Chef contestant Dale Talde. Most nights, he can be found in the open kitchen (look for his baseball cap) turning out flavorful Pan-Asian dishes like oyster-and-bacon pad thai, Korean fried chicken, and pretzel pork-and-chive dumplings. After sampling, we realized that we would have happily waited longer for food this good. 

After dinner, we called a car service for the short drive to the Old American Can Factory, a restored complex in the adjoining Gowanus neighborhood. The factory is one of the venues for Rooftop Films, an outdoor summer festival that showcases groundbreaking new movies. Looking out over the neat rows of Brooklyn brownstones and the twinkling lights of Manhattan in the distance, it seemed fitting that we began our day with one striking panorama, and were ending it with another.

Today we opted for a slower pace and started the day with brunch at The Dutch, where reservations are encouraged because pretty much every New Yorker has become obsessed with Andrew Carmellini and his modern take on American regional food. The toughest part was deciding what to order from the Southern-inflected menu: We settled on cornmeal flapjacks and scrambled eggs with smoked sable, but couldn’t resist adding a curry sugar doughnut and honey-butter biscuits. (Can you ever have too much at brunch?)

We left delightfully sated and glad that we’d planned to spend the rest of the afternoon on foot exploring shops and galleries in SoHo and the Lower East Side. We were overwhelmed (in a good way) by Intermix, a boutique clearinghouse with wares from nearly 200 American and European designers, and A Second Chance, a discriminating consignment shop known for stocking fashionista finds like Hermes bags, Chanel dresses, and Prada shoes for well-below-retail prices.

Overcome by shoppers’ exhaustion, we refueled with thick Aztec hot chocolate at the MarieBelle chocolate shop’s Cacao Bar before continuing east toward the Bowery. Once the city’s skid row, and later home to tattoo parlors, dive bars, and the infamous punk club CBGB, this thoroughfare has seen rapid gentrification in the last decade as luxury condos sprung up and the opening of the New Museum drew gallery owners to the area. Though the Sperone Westwater gallery’s graphite drawings and twisted bronze sculptures were intriguing, we were most fascinated by the room-size elevator that blends with the rest of the exhibition space—until it starts moving between floors. 

We returned to the hotel to relax before taking a taxi to Pier 11, just south of South Street Seaport, to board a ferry to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Taking a subway would have been just as easy, but we wanted to get out on the water and see the Manhattan skyline, the Brooklyn Bridge and the sun setting behind the Statue of Liberty. We disembarked at Williamsburg’s North Sixth pier and walked to Zenkichi, a sexy Japanese brasserie with booths so cozy and private each one comes with a buzzer to get the staff’s attention. Since we were feeling adventurous and didn’t want to think too hard, we ordered the chef’s omakase (tasting menu), which features the day’s freshest sashimi with an assortment of dishes like yellowtail with pickled cherry leaves and grilled Berkshire pork. 

The hostess called a car service to take us back to SoHo, and we asked the driver to drop us at Pegu Club, a dimly lit second-floor bar with Asian-style decor and a speakeasy feel. (The downstairs door is unmarked except for the bar’s green lion crest.) This is not a place to order wine or beer, as the mixologists—don’t call them bartenders—have elevated cocktail-concocting to an art form. We each tried the Whiskey Smash, a potent blend of rye, whiskey, simple syrup and the freshest lemon juice and mint we’ve ever tasted. Our drinks, like everything else that day, more than lived up to the hype.

We started our final day with a subway ride up to the Flatiron District, named for the area’s famously triangular turn-of-the-century building. But it was Mario Batali’s Eataly, currently the world’s largest Italian food and wine emporium, that lured us there. Tourists mob the food halls during the weekend, so we were headed straight up to Birreria, the rooftop brewery. It’s a casual spot, with bright red chairs, simple wooden tables, and a retractable glass roof that makes it feel like a greenhouse. 

The restaurant’s three house-made ales are brewed in a small room just steps from the main dining area. The creamy, full-bodied beers paired beautifully with the housemade sausages, cured meats, and artisanal Italian cheeses. We could have easily spent another hour enjoying the view of the Met Life Tower, one of the city’s early Renaissance-Revival skyscrapers. But we’d planned another outer-borough excursion to the Noguchi Museum in Queens. (We opted to book the Noguchi’s Sunday shuttle bus service from the Upper East Side.) 

The museum showcases the sculptures, furniture, and public works models of Japanese artist Isamu Noguchi, who collaborated with dancer Martha Graham and designer Charles Eames, among others. (If the Akari Light Sculptures look familiar, it’s because they’ve been widely copied by retailers like Ikea.) We loved the intimate feel of the cleverly designed museum, which is housed in a converted industrial complex that has a sculpture garden in the middle featuring Noguchi’s large-scale pieces.

We headed back to the Upper East Side, hailed a cab, and zoomed down to The Modern, the French-American restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art. We settled in at the bar room, a clubby space that serves small plates of updated Alsatian fare like buckwheat spaetzle with yellowfin tuna. The museum was hosting one of its free summer concerts in the sculpture garden that night, featuring musicians from Lincoln Center. As a breeze rustled across the reflecting pond and birds chirped quietly, we waited alongside locals for the music to begin, all of us smug in our knowledge that on a warm summer night in the city, there was no lovelier place to be.

A St. Barts Honeymoon Is Perfect to Recharge and Grow Closer

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A St. Barts Honeymoon Is Perfect to Recharge and Grow Closer

February 6, 2019

I was working on writing and recording my new album at the same time my now wife Linda and I were planning our wedding in California and, as anyone who’s planned a wedding knows, it quickly becomes overwhelming. And then we remembered that we had to plan our honeymoon as well. It was the last thing we had time to think about. But I looked at her and said, “Let me do it.”

That’s where Inspirato came in. I got in touch with Jill, my Personal Vacation Advisor, and she and I narrowed down the list of destinations that would involve a beach in paradise at a resort where we didn’t have to go anywhere if we didn’t want to and, to minimize jet lag, didn’t require more than a day of travel. I ended up picking St. Barts and Inspirato’s villa within the Le Sereno Hotel.

But I didn’t tell my wife. It was my surprise. At our wedding reception, instead of numbering the eight tables, I named them after potential honeymoon destinations; all of them places where Inspirato has properties. Mexico, Hawaii and the Caribbean were all represented. It kept everyone, and especially Linda, guessing all night. At the end of the night I revealed we were going to St. Barts, and we left the next day.

After finishing my album and all the effort that went into our wedding, I wanted a place to sit and relax and not have to do anything for a week, and that’s what we got. We flew from Miami to the airport on St. Martin, getting there at night and boarding a ferry for the short trip to St. Barts under the stars. It was such an incredible way to arrive.

Inspirato’s villa was perfect. We had a private pool and deck and private couple’s massages on our patio.

Jean-Paul, our beautiful French chef, made us wonderful meals each day in our villa’s kitchen. The days he prepared freshly caught lobster and sea bass stand out. And his desserts were outrageous—he made a banana and mango tart that was delicious.

Each morning, we woke up to our valet Laurent making us fresh smoothies for breakfast that were incredible.

Linda and I sunbathed by the pool and on the beach and explored Anse de Grand Cul de Sac bay on sea kayaks, but for the most part we were content to stay in our beautiful house. Someone at Inspirato knew that I loved jigsaw puzzles and there were several waiting for me when we arrived. I happily spent time each day working on them.

At night we sat under the incredible canopy of stars enjoying the warm tropical breeze and the perfect setting.

If I needed anything, I just called Jill at Inspirato and it was taken care of. Due to the language differences—neither one of us speak French—I called Jill in the middle of the night to ask for fresh mangoes in the morning and it was done. She was constantly in touch making sure everything was taken care of. And it was. Both Linda and I live very large lives and even with assistants it can be hard to get stuff done. There’s no way we would’ve been able to do what we did without Inspirato.

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I’d never been to the Caribbean before this trip and it was beyond what I’d expected. After a couple of days I started to get the whole Jimmy Buffett/Margaritaville thing. There’s such a nice pace to life down there. I even started thinking of how I could do a mini-tour and play every island in the Caribbean.

St. Barts has a serene vibe to it unlike the party and festive atmosphere I think you’d see elsewhere in the Caribbean. The people have a deep respect for the specialness of the place, and I could tell that they thoroughly enjoy it. The combination of French and Caribbean cultures works so well. The island is ideal for any adult looking for tranquility. I doubt we’d ever bring our children there, but for a honeymoon where nothing is all you want to do—well, I’m missing it already.

The Most Scenic Place to Fly-Fish in Southwestern France

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The Most Scenic Place to Fly-Fish in Southwestern France

January 30, 2019

They come for the wine. And for the foie gras, the confit, the scenery, the chateaus and the black truffles. But increasingly, visitors to the hilly, castle-packed department of Dordogne also come to fly-fish its namesake river and its many tributaries.

The Dordogne River, France’s fifth longest, flows west for more than 300 miles from near the hot-springs spa town of Le Mont-Dore through many gorges, valleys, and villages until reaching the Gironde Estuary just north of Bordeaux, in southwestern wine country. It’s a wide, fast river, especially in its upper reaches near the towns of Argentat and Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, where it’s more reminiscent of western U.S. fly-fishing destinations such as Montana’s Madison than of France’s northern rivers, like the slow-moving Andelle of Normandy. As the English angling writer Charles Rangeley-Wilson wrote of France’s northern chalkstreams: “These are rivers that Eisenhower, Hemingway and Ritz fished.”

And of course they flow through French countryside, French villages, past cafés and restaurants and, in the case of the one where I’m sitting right now, the grounds of a private manor where you can stay on the top floor with views to the silent woods all around, and be absurdly well fed, wined, and watered.

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A trip to the Dordogne Valley offers equal or better opportunities to be well fed and well wined; there’ll just be fewer Brits around when it happens. Not that the Dordogne is tourist free. It’s far too beautiful for that, and also too close to Burgundy’s wine country. Still, like most of France, the farther you get from Paris, the less touristy it becomes.

If you like to combine fly-fishing and food, then France is a logical choice. But for hardcore destination anglers, the country may sound like little more than a vacation trade-off—a way to appease the spouse’s desire for luxury and a good pinot, while still providing the angler an opportunity to “wet a line while you’re there.” But don’t be mistaken; France has a strong tradition of fly-fishing and fly-fishermen. I witnessed both firsthand as guide to the world’s most decorated competitive fly-fisher—France’s three-time World Champion Pascal Cognard—in the 17th World Fly-Fishing Championships, held in 1997 in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Cognard and his comrades have excelled in world competitions ever since, in part because they simply have a lot of exceptional home water in which to practice, including the Dordogne.

The mainstem Dordogne is big water, and if it were in the U.S., it would undoubtedly be fished from a driftboat. But in France, it is most often accessed by wading, walking the banks or by renting a canoe. “Most fishermen on the Dordogne chest-wade and do ‘the heron,’” says Nick de Toldi, owner of Gourmetfly, a French field-sports tourism company, referring to an angler who stands in the water and waits motionless, like a heron. “The strong current prevents you from covering big distances while wading. No one floats here in boats like in America, but some guide friends of mine have done it while visiting Montana and came back impressed by the technique. They spoke many times of adapting it here, but it remained a mere project.”

Perhaps American driftboat manufacturers should look at expanding to southwest France. In the meantime, canoe rental operators along the Dordogne Valley provide a popular alternative. “A reader once asked me, if I were to bring a spry, 73-year-old grandmother to Europe, where would I go?” famed Europhile Rick Steves once wrote. “My response: I’d take her for a float down France’s Dordogne River in a canoe. I can’t think of a more relaxing way to enjoy great scenery while getting some exercise. And you can pop ashore whenever you like.”

Like Mr. Steves, fly-fishers have figured out that canoes are the tool of choice on the Dordogne. “Taking canoes is very common, because most companies allow you to rent upstream, drift down and get picked up by the canoe rental people to take you back to your car,” de Toldi says. “My brother has done it several times with a fly rod, but more to stop under cliffs of otherwise difficult access points than to fish as the boat drifts down.”

As the most famous waterway in the region, the main Dordogne can get crowded with canoes and kayaks in the summertime. Hitting one of its many smaller tributaries offers a more intimate angling experience, with clear, spring-fed runs surrounded with hatches of various mayflies and caddis. But that doesn’t mean they’re easy rivers to fish.

“You could compare the upper Dordogne to the Henry’s Fork [of the Snake River in Idaho],” says Cyril Kamir, founder and manager of the popular French online fly-fishing magazine, Le Mouching, who has fished the Dordogne region several times. “It’s a broad river, up to 120 feet wide, with many weeds and big trout. Due to the many little currents, you have to fish with very long leaders—16 feet is not unusual. The Dordogne always has a lot of fish, but they are difficult to catch, partly because there are a lot of water-level variations from the dams upstream. But it’s a good way to improve your fishing. I love it best in early and late season, when there are fewer people and lots of grayling and trout.”

According to Kamir, many French fly-fishers consider there to be two Dordognes. “No one fishes the lower Dordogne,” Kamir says. The anglers’ Dordogne is the upper or “Haute Dordogne,” near the charming, riverside towns of Argentat and Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne. This area includes the Vézère River, a 130-mile fly-fishing-friendly tributary of the Dordogne that is home to 25 prehistoric cave systems containing numerous cave paintings dating back nearly 20,000 years. Both the Vézère and the Dordogne are home to several medieval castles along their banks, and UNESCO recently named the entire region, all 15,000 square miles of it, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage site.

Within this area, you’ll find three of the Dordogne’s most famous tributaries—the Cère, the Maronne and the Doustre. The Cère flows 75 miles through the departments of Lot and Corrèze, entering the Dordogne on river left near the town of Bretenoux; the Morrone is a small stream with good mayfly hatches and big trout that could be mistaken for a river you might find in the Adirondacks of New York; and the Doustre is a small, sometimes technical river in a gorgeous setting. All three have dams, so anglers must be careful to keep a watchful eye on flows.

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Mayfly hatches on all Dordogne Valley rivers start with March browns in spring and generally end with the last caddis hatch in September. Browns, rainbows and grayling are the main species, though several area lakes also have pike and carp. As for techniques, most rivers are great for dry flies by mid- summer. In early season, streamers are effective, but many Dordogne locals consider streamer fishing to not be fly-fishing, so be prepared for that discussion if you are a diehard streamer fisherman. Sight nymphing is not easy in most places because of the weeds, but usually works fine with an indicator.

What better way to celebrate that symbiosis than with rod in hand and wine in belly, doing “the heron” along the Dordogne River?

History Lessons

There are two important UNESCO sites in the Dordogne region and both are worth a visit. The first is the Vézère Valley, which was designated a World Heritage Site in 1979 due to its vast collection of vivid, colorful cave paintings. The Lascaux Cave, near Montignac, is easily the most famous of the valley’s 147 sites, with numerous large-animal paintings that are thought to be more than 17,000 years old. An 18-year- old discovered Lascaux in 1940, but visiting the caves became so popular that they were closed to the public in 1963 and a replica containing the main sections of artwork (Lascaux II) was built less than 700 feet away.

The second UNESCO designation occurred in July of 2012, when the entire Dordogne River basin was designated a Biosphere Reserve, the largest such reserve in France. The designation came largely because of socio-economic aspects, the beautiful scenery, the balance between economic development and conservation, and the extensive plant and animal biodiversity found there, including its 39 different species of fish.

Fishing Guide

The rules for fishing in France are complicated and ever evolving, but no more so than in parts of the U.S. Each of the country’s 101 departments (roughly equivalent to counties in the U.S.) sets its own laws, so for the most up-to-date info, it is best to contact one of the major fly shops, such as La Maison de la Mouche, which has operated in Paris since 1934. No matter where you fish, you’ll need a license. A full-season license costs around 70 euros, and a weekly (sometimes called a “Holiday License”) costs around 40 euros. In 2007, many regions also started selling daily licenses, but those often didn’t allow fishing until after May, and you’ll sometimes need another license if you move to another region.

Trout season in France begins the third Sunday in March, and generally closes by the third Sunday in September, except in and around some of the mountain regions, which remain open through mid-October. After this, you can still fish for grayling or other “course fish” (carp, pike, bass, etc.— basically, anything other than trout or salmon). This late- season fishing is especially popular and productive in the Dordogne and parts of the Massif Central in south-central France.

Lastly, waters in France are divided into First Category (lakes or rivers dominated by trout and salmon, where only one rod is allowed), and Second Category, which are lakes and rivers dominated by anything else. Second Category waters allow up to four rods, and up to two hooks each.