Cuzco’s Top Luxury Hotel

March 24, 2010 at 7:53 am | Posted in history, lodging, Peru, South America, travel and health | 1 Comment
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by David Paul Appell

Peru, cuzco, monasterio hotel, luxury hotel cuzcoPicture it: the atmospheric onetime capital of the Inca Empire, high in the Andes of Peru. I’d stepped off the plane from Lima fully aware of soroche, aka altitude sickness, and its unpleasantries. After accepting the standard paper cupful of coca tea — meant to help acclimate me to suddenly transferring from sea level to 11,000 feet (3,350 m) — my friend and I spent what little was left of that afternoon strolling around Cuzco’s colonial core, admiring Baroque churches, grand gold and silver altars, and Cyclopean Incan walls. Then we went to dinner on the central square, the Plaza de Armas.

We were so tempted by the menu we proceeded to do precisely what we knew we should not do: overeat. Already feeling a mite unsteady as we paid and left, by the time we embarked upon the two-block walk uphill to our hotel, we were both gasping for breath, our heads were pounding, and believe it or not, it was a struggle to even walk upright.

cuzco, inca wallSo thank Inti, the Inca sun god, we had the best digs in town to coddle us as we lay stunned in bed that night and, as I recall, a good part of the next day. In Cuzco there’s probably no hotel quite as grandioso and histórico as the 126-room Hotel Monasterio. Built as Franciscan monastery San Antonio Abad in 1592, just 60 years after Francisco Pizarro’s marauders had barged in and sacked the Inca capital, it was converted into luxe lodgings in 1995, now owned by über-upscale Orient Express.

As you might expect, it ain’t cheap; nightly rates are mostly north of US$400.* And though for that you don’t even get the usual high-end perks like pool, spa, and workout room, there’s no question the rooms are hardly monastic anymore, and for that my friend and I were especially grateful. Fortunately we managed to get through our misery without having to resort to a snort from the oxygen tank kept on hand for guests in soroche distress.

Now, you may wonder: Is this place worth the price tag? Well, to bunk in such a palatial setting in such a special city, a splurge might well be in order, at least for one night. Just to be in one of these guest rooms, a lesson in mixing Spanish Colonial-style antiques (like our huge wooden armoire) with modern amenities is an eye-opener. But even if you don’t stay there, it’s well worth a visit to ogle the magnificent courtyard and painting-adorned Baroque chapel, or to spring for a meal, including local specialties like alpaca and cuy (a relative of the guinea pig) in the Monasterio’s fine-dining restaurant. Just be smarter than we were and do keep the stuffing of the face to a minimum on your first night — and you can’t say I didn’t warn you.

*at press time, about £267 / €296 / CA$408 / AU$437 / ZAR2,939

photos: Hotel Monasterio, iStockphoto
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Sleep With A Real New York City Character

March 15, 2010 at 8:02 am | Posted in lodging, New York State, United States | 4 Comments
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by Ed Wetschler

Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols was no rocket scientist, yet even he understood that Manhattan’s historic Chelsea Hotel was both a damn good New York hotel deal and a major hangout for artists, famous eccentrics, musicians, writers, and other celebrities. The musician’s appreciation of this most excellent combination was rather abruptly interrupted in 1978, when his girlfriend was stabbed to death—with Sid’s knife. But not even that scandal could stop the Chelsea Hotel, for this grand old landmark continues to welcome artsy guests. Moreover, the Chelsea is just as welcoming to those of us who don’t play in rock bands or make art for a living.

Hotel Chelsea, Manhattan, New York CityThe building itself is a 12-story, red-faced edifice on a fairly unremarkable thoroughfare, West 23rd Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues. Erected in 1883-34, the Chelsea was not only the first building in New York City to achieve landmark status, but the tallest structure in Manhattan until 1899. Its façade is punctuated by a grid of balconies and fire escapes with curlicue grillwork, more New Orleans Ornate than New York Functional.

Artsiness & ¡Olé!

“We have about 250 rooms,” says concierge Brandon Rivard, “half of which are transient rooms”–that is, traditional hotel rooms. The other half are for guests on extended stays and more or less permanent residents. Long-term guests and residents have included Mark Twain, Arthur Miller, Arthur C. Clarke (he wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey here), Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Dylan Thomas, Jane Fonda, Jackson Pollack, Jasper Johns, Larry Rivers… you get the idea.

The lobby features 19th-century molding, comfy brown easy chairs, and a big marble fireplace, but what really gets your attention are the large paintings—all from artists who loved and/or still love the Chelsea. Look around: There’s a Sandro Chia, a Larry Rivers, a Roy Carruthers — and the hotel seems to have gotten some of their best stuff, too. Hanging from the ceiling is a pink, pleasantly plump, papier-mâché lady who smiles down from a trapeze. Turn left at the front desk, and you see more sculptures hanging from the ceiling, not to mention two bona fide, old-fashioned telephone booths. Exactly what Clark Kent needed.

But would straight-arrow Clark be comfortable here? After all, Leonard Cohen described the Chelsea quite accurately when he wrote, “I love hotels to which, at four a.m., you can bring along a midget, a bear and four ladies, drag them to your room, and no one cares about it at all.”

No matter; Superman’s mild alter-ego would be happy at the Chelsea, even if the hotel is better known for its not-so-mild egos. Stacy Smith, an upstate New Yorker on a brief visit to the city, admits, “We had appointments while we were here, so I never noticed that there were famous people and artists staying in the hotel.”

You’re not alone, Ms. Smith: Many of us are clueless about the names on the cover of People Magazine. Besides, there’s no bar in the hotel lobby where a rock star might hang out long enough to be recognized. There is, however, a très hip club in the basement, the Star Lounge Chelsea. And just west of the hotel entrance sits El Quijote restaurant, a 75-year-old and unapologetically old-style establishment that’s almost a Chelsea Hotel canteen. Maybe most guests back away from the $40 lobster, but they do like El Quijote’s long, deep bar after an afternoon cruising the local galleries.

Rooms With That Lived-In Feeling

The quarters upstairs show their age, but in a good way. Surprisingly large, many rooms boast cheerful floor-to-ceiling windows, ten- (or more) foot ceilings, rococo moldings, and in some rooms, fireplace mantels. The furniture’s a mix of old and new, but the rates are decidedly old-school; some weeks, you can get a double in this historic showplace for as little as $139 a night. One twist: Whereas most Manhattan hotels cost more on weekdays than on weekends, the Chelsea’s rates zag in the other direction.

Downstairs in the lobby, a visitor finds some of the guests buzzing about the Law & Order shoot that just wrapped up at the Chelsea. Bellman and do-it-all guy Pete Padilla, who’s worked at the hotel for 15 years, takes it in stride. “Things are very fluid in this place,” he explains cryptically.

One of the permanent residents walks in with her little dog, this being a fairly pet-friendly hotel. “Maggie, baby!” exclaims Padilla, getting down on his knees. The pooch jumps up on her friend and licks him, managing to plant a smacker on Padilla’s mouth. The kissee is not unhappy about that. Why shouldn’t a dog—or a human—act a little outré? This is, after all, the Chelsea Hotel.

Colombia’s Cartagena de Indias Tarts It Up Yet Keeps It Real

March 8, 2010 at 2:58 pm | Posted in Caribbean/Bahamas/Bermuda, Colombia, history, lodging, South America | Leave a comment
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by David Paul Appell

When it comes to birthday parties in Latin America — these days at least — nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

Yet here they were, a pretty young Colombian señorita and maybe a hundred or so of her family and friends, happily celebrating her quince (“Sweet 15”) in the walled garden of Cartagena de India‘s Palacio de la Inquisición, now a history museum, where once upon a time, hapless wretches were gleefully tortured by so-called Christians. Off to one side, yellow and white balloons tethered to a wooden gallows bobbed gaily in the sultry breeze.

This bemusing snippet of surrealism brought home for me what truly sets this walled Spanish colonial gem of a city — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — apart from others of its ilk, such as Puerto Rico’s Old San Juan, Panama City’s old town, or the most splendid of all, Old Havana. Cartagena’s 16th-century ciudad amurallada (walled city) achieves by far the most felicitous balance of the bunch: a largely restored, amenity-laden living museum that’s truly living. By day I saw thousands of locals going about their daily lives — entrepreneurs selling cell-phone calls and recharges; vendors hawking coconuts, grapes, and more; office workers scurrying hither and thither. Rarely did I notice obvious tourists outside the occasional backpacker and of course in a few key spots like outdoor-café-thick Plaza Santo Domingo. At night, there was still plenty of street life until late into the night, which feels, incidentally, just about as safe as daytime; whatever you’ve heard about Colombia, in recent years the country has made great strides safety-wise, and especially in Cartagena.

Of course tourism has definitely made its mark; in just the past several years a veritable abundance of riches has sprung up in terms of restaurants (some of them elegant Nuevo Latino stars that could hold their own in New York, London, or Sydney), hotels, and shops (fortunately, the honky-tonk factor has so far been kept to a minimum on this front). The trend of the moment is the so-called “boutique” hotels occupying colonial-era townhouses of usually smallish size. Some, like the seven-room LM, are impeccably restored period pieces, while others have given their historic quarters contemporary twists. My own home base, the 24-room, two-month-old Anandá,  was obviously reaching for something of a Zen vibe, while others like Delirio (17 rooms) and the latest, Hotel Tcherassi (just seven, below right) have gone in the direction of white-toned minimalist-mod. Many have small pools, in courtyards or on rooftops, and high rates (most starting north — in some cases well north — of 400,000 pesos*), while several are more down-to-earth, such as the four-room Hotel Cochera de Hobo (also with a pool, albeit a teeny-weeny one, and starting at just US$80). There are also plenty of other options under US$100 a night, as well, by the way, and like Cochera de Hobo not all of them fetid hostels; personally, next time I plan to rent an apartment through a site like CartagenaApartments.com.

Oh, and about all those pools I mentioned? You might actually find them quite handy, because much of the year it’s effing sweltering down here.  You can break a sweat just by casually strolling a block, and after a visit to monumental San Felipe Fortress south of town I felt like I must be leaving a sluglike trail in my wake.

But hang in there, because the rewards are vast. Besides the aforementioned Palace of the Inquisition and San Felipe, you can explore a small but fascinating museum of gold and pre-Columbian culture; the Emerald Museum (emeralds being a big deal in Colombia, even if they’re mined in the interior, not on the coast); the offshore Rosario Islands with pristine beaches and fab seafood; the usual array of elaborate colonial churches; an interesting monastery south of town on a hill called La Popa; a onetime jail complex now occupied by tourist shops; and the colonial walls themselves.

But quite honestly, much of C-town’s allure is more than anything about just hanging out in this remarkable city.  Yes, the touts trying to pull you to the café tables in Plaza de Santo Domingo are un poquito annoying — but still, what a swell place to chill and watch the world stroll by the swelling buttocks of Fernando Botero’s Reclining Woman. Catch the sunset and a cerveza amid centuries-old cannons at the Café del Mar, perched atop the old city wall. Or have a street vendor hack you a cool natural drink out of a fresh coconut.

All this, plus some truly tasty dining at upscale spots like La Vitrola, Café San Pedro, and El Santísimo, mid-rangers like El Bistro, and a slew of budget-friendlies from contemporary Quiebra-Canto to many local holes in the wall (many of them surprisingly good), has me eagerly watching my airfare alerts for that magic SRS — Cartagena airport, through which I’m anxious to pass again ASAP.

*at press time, about US$212 / £140 / €155 / CA$218 / A$233 / ZAR1,566

photos: David Paul Appell, Hotel Tcherassi

Udaipur, Still To Die For

March 3, 2010 at 9:33 am | Posted in Asia, history, India, lodging | Leave a comment
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by Ed Wetschler

Udaipur, Rajasthan, IndiaEveryone who’s ever visited India’s Rajasthan — or even just seen photos of the magnificent palace complexes in Udaipur — may have one primary question these days: After last summer’s drought, just how low is Lake Pichola, from whose shores and whose waters the palaces rise? Last summer, people could drive and play cricket on the lake bed.

A second question, inevitably, is about affordable lodgings in Udaipur. Unfortunately, the historic Taj Lake Palace, which costs a minimum of 33,000 rupees* a night, isn’t exactly within everyone’s budget.

The first of Udaipur’s palaces was built by Maharana Udai Singh in 1559 when he founded the city, and his successors built more on the west shore. This went on for scores of generations, so you might expect the 11-palace complex on Pichola Lake to be an architectural mess, what with stylistic elements from Rajasthan, the Mughal Empire, China, and Europe — and from different centuries, no less.

Yet it works, and that’s putting it mildly. Elements like silver, marble, paintings, inlay surfaces, and the very intricacy of the wall and pillar carvings somehow pull it all together. Visitors gain entry through heroic gates, towers rise 100 feet (30 meters) over the 800-foot-long (244-meter) complex, and balconies evoke images of Mewar Dynasty rulers looking out over Pichola Lake — their lake. Just listening to the names of some of these palaces, which are linked, tells you what you’re in for: Krishna Vilas, Palace of Glass, Palace of Pearls.

The Mewar family still controls all this, in part through a number of trusts. It has also encouraged the establishment of craft shops and a must-see museum within the complex, not to mention a bank and even a post office. Obviously, much of this is open to the public.

But the question remains: How romantic can the Udaipur palace complex be right now if views of it from the lake — or views of the lake from the palaces — show mud flats?

Right now Pichola Lake is, at best, half full. Yet this shouldn’t be a deal-breaker; the buildings themselves are unaffected by the drought, and when you visit, you spend a lot of time admiring the walls and artwork, not just the setting. Moreover, winter is the dry season, so there was never much chance that the lake would refill in early 2010. Most probably, this spring will bring some much-needed rain to Udaipur.

Even so, where to stay without spending money like a rajah? Udai Kothi occupies a white, multi-story, confection in a quiet spot just a few minutes outside the Old City. The amenities are modern (swimming pool, health club, spa, etc), but the décor conveys the romance of history. Rooms here start at just 5,000 rupees.

Meanwhile, Jigat Niwas, dating back to the early 1600s, is right in the palace complex, yet you can book a lovely room here for just 1,550 rupees. That said, I’d recommend upgrading if you can to a 2,550-rupee “Heritage Room,” with views of Pichola Lake — especially once that water level starts to come up again.

*at press time, about US$722 / £478 / €528 / CA$743 / AU$797 / NZ$1,043 / R5,418

Basking in Palm Springs Sunshine — and History

March 1, 2010 at 11:40 am | Posted in California, culture and museums, festivals/celebrations, gay/lesbian travel, golf, history, lodging, resorts | Leave a comment
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by Emma Krasov

Twin Palms Frank Sinatra house Palm Springs CaliforniaCalifornia’s eternally sun-drenched desert resort is of course famous for a number of things, among them for being “the playground of the movie stars,” for its golf, its eponymous hot springs, its scorching summers, and its gay/lesbian resorts (even the current mayor plays on that particular team). All of which help make Palm Springs a tourism magnet —  its 48,000 population doubles in winter, while in July and August locals — mostly transplants from colder climes – have their oasis to themselves.

What I find particularly fetching is Palm Springs’ wealth of a special type of Americana – its distinctive mid-20th-century modern architecture. If that sort of thing floats your boat, you can explore it all with Robert Imber (below right), whose Palm Springs Modern Tours runs daily two-hour minivan tours (US$75* per person).

Robert Imber, Palm Springs Modern ToursIt all started, Robert explained to me, in the 1930s, when Hollywood contracts wouldn’t allow actors and actresses to venture farther than 200 miles (322 km) from Los Angeles. So a quaint, sun-drenched desert village with a serene mountain backdrop quickly evolved into a glam getaway for the likes of Gloria Swanson, Cary Grant, Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis, and Janet Leigh.

You can get really up close and personal with the glamour epoch by staying at one of the first modern properties, the Movie Colony Hotel (below right; rooms from $99), with its clean lines and simple/practical layout (Jim Morrison famously jumped from his balcony into the swimming pool). The 16-room property was designed in 1935 by Swiss-born Albert Frey, whose lifelong mission was to reshape the face of the desert (today’s PS visitors center is in a futuristic onetime gas station designed by Frey, complete with hyperbolic paraboloid roof). Or how about the recently renovated, Spanish-Colonial-Revival Colony Palms Hotel (from $149), with its dense orange trees and azaleas, decadent poolside terrace bar, Moroccan-style spa, and décor of antique furniture, oriental rugs, and retro-style B/W photography?

Movie Colony Hotel, Palm Springs, CaliforniaYou can also stay or just stop by for a soak or a spin of the wheel at the Spa Resort Casino (from $184), built in 1963, its entrance and bathhouse by legendary architects Donald Wexler and Richard Harrison. The hot springs after which the town was named percolate directly into luxurious blue-tiled bathtubs, and its trademark “Taking of the Waters” treatment (from $40) is equally beloved of locals and visitors alike. Or rent Twin Palms, Sinatra’s old digs (top right), for just $2,600 a night.

On our group tour with Robert, he regaled us with accounts of how in the 1940s-50s John Lautner, a pioneer of “real architecture” (so called because of the use of new affordable materials) became enamored of concrete; how John Porter Clark strived to align the design of houses with that of automobiles; and how developers George and Robert Alexander left a legacy of 2,500 single-family homes whose designer Bill Krisel cleverly manipulated identical square floor plans to create diverse dwellings within the same style. If you can make it here in early December, more desert modern architecture is on display in an annual Walking Tour of the Inns, free to the public, and more popular every year. It usually starts at the Palm Springs Art Museum (home to quite the collection, including Moore, Remington, Tamayo, and Frankenthaler).

I learned quite a bit both about the springs, and about the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians who first discovered them, on another eye-opening excursion: one of the walking tours of Indian Canyons (from $11). Ranger Rocky Toyama leads groups on itineraries that range from a 90-minute Andreas Canyon loop to multi-hour hikes. Ancient artifacts found here date back at least two millennia, providing glimpses into the life of a well-structured hunter-gatherer society.

Another great thing to do in Palm Springs – especially in the scorching summer – is to take a ride ($16-$23) on the Aerial Tramway, soaring over the cliffs of Chino Canyon 8,516 feet (2,595 meters) up, where heat turns into celestial coolness. Designated a historic civil engineering landmark, it was built using helicopters back in the early 60s.

I should mention, too, that Palm Springs abounds with good restaurants, cafés, and cozy coffee shops, many concentrated in its 10-block downtown. A popular breakfast choice, Pinocchio in the Desert, serves humongous omelets, plate-size pancakes with all the trimmings, and generous mimosas, while lunch is always good at Jake’s Ready to Eat, with delightfully fresh salads and lick-your-fingers sandwiches. Come dinnertime, Copley’s Restaurant chef-owner Andrew Manion Copley turns out amazing Hawaiian ahi tacos, sweet and tangy roasted pumpkin ravioli, and tasty main courses using organic and sustainable ingredients. Meanwhile, Mindy Reed’s Zini Café Med serves the scrumptious Italian/Mediterranean likes of pappardelle with braised rabbit and smoked paprika, and couscous with sweet-sour lamb; Mindy’s international wine list is fabulous, and her staff versed in the vino.

Finally, for a relatively tiny town in the desert, there’s a surprising wealth of events going on year round. Modernism Week just finished up, and upcomers include the Festival of Native Film & Culture (March 10-14); Palm Springs Wild West Fest (March 12-14); Crossroads Old World Renaissance Festival (March 19-21); Dinah Shore Week (March 31-April 4); Coachella Valley Music Festival (April 16-18); Stagecoach Country Music Festival (April 24-15); and Elvis Honeymoon Weekend (May 1-2).

You’ll find Palm Springs a tonic, worth a trip even from afar; because among other things, even if you’re not a movie star, here it’s not hard to feel like one.

*at press time, €56 / £50 / CA$78 / AU$83 / NZ$143 / R572

For Value and Local Flavor, Vacation Rentals Beat the Competition Flat

September 7, 2009 at 4:42 pm | Posted in consumer travel, lodging, vacation rentals, value in travel | 3 Comments
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by José Balido

Now, I truly do love good hotels. I love beautiful bed-and-breakfasts, intimate inns, ravishing resorts, and hip hostels. I love having a range of services (including housekeeping to clean up after me, God bless ’em), stylish décor, and amenities like really cool bars to hang out in.

But let’s face it: it’s not like there aren’t drawbacks. There’s usually not enough storage space (and when was the last time you saw an actual closeable drawer or cabinet in a hotel bathroom?). On the budget end, there’s never a kitchen and rarely even a mini-bar. When there is a minibar, it’s inevitably overpriced and often doesn’t let you store your own potables easily or sometimes even at all. And unless you’re seriously shelling out, in-room kitchenettes can often turn out to be exercises in frustration. All the above goes pretty much double, of course, if you’re traveling en famille.

Who wants to cook on vacation? Not every day, maybe, but it's a great way to save money.

Who wants to cook on vacation? Not every day, maybe, but it's a great way to save money.

I’ve found that if you’re not too hung up on the daily maid service, renting an apartment or house or villa can deliver a good deal more lodging for your money, and for families it can be an absolute godsend, with more room to spread out and to prepare meals or even just snacks. And even apart from the added value, I’ve usually found that these rentals put you right into the community in a way that more conventional by-the-night digs rarely do. It can provide real insight into how locals live — whether you’re talking about Paris, Sausalito, or Buenos Aires.

I remember, to cite but one colorful example, renting a flat in downtown Prague, on the fairytale-beautiful street known as Havelská (no relation to ex-prez Václav Havel). By day, the arcades and the street in front of our 600-year-old building hosted an outdoor green market as popular with locals as with tourists, and we’d meet neighbors coming up and down the stairs with their shopping all the time. Late at night, when the area cleared out, the street and adjacent Coal Market Square turned into, er, another kind of market — never dangerous, but it was certainly a trip and a half to note the wide (in some cases literally) variety of ladies of the evening that strutted their stuff. Bittersweet, too, how coming back from clubbing in the wee hours, the only ladies left standing were Gypsy grannies (seriously!) who’d not yet discovered the wonders of upper-lip depilation.

OK, maybe that wasn’t exactly the best example for families. But it still shows the kind of insight you can gain into local societies — an advantage that most hotels, offering a very tourist-oriented experience, rarely offer. And as short-term rentals and rental agencies become more and more common in more and more destinations, it’s easier than ever to live more like a local when you travel. A Google search will produce any number of outfits renting apartments all around the world, such as the Apartment Rental Service Worldwide. Give it a try on your next trip!

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