3 Tips For Better Car Rental Deals in a Recession

March 19, 2010 at 1:45 pm | Posted in car rental/hire, consumer travel | Leave a comment
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by José Balido

car rentalsThe current economic crisis has, of course, been changing travel patterns for many of us. Reduced spending by both leisure and business travelers, as well as tighter business credit, has especially affected the car-rental industry (aka car hire, to our cousins in the Commonwealth). So whether you’re a renter or in the rent-a-car business, you’re taking a hit.

For starters, a drop in orders for new cars to refresh rental fleets (Enterprise, for example, cut its orders almost in half in 2009) means said fleets have grown both smaller and older. That of course, results in more wear and tear, and more reliability and maintenance problems. Midsize and compact availability has been further worsened by the recall of Toyotas because of those infamous braking, acceleration, and “it-is-not-a-computer-problem” problems; it’s expected to affect at least eight million vehicles worldwide.

As a result, auto-rental agency locations may be less likely to have your first choice of size and/or model available. Some companies have also cut their locations’  business hours or shuttered some locations entirely.

What with the decrease in rental vehicles and the increase in maintenance costs, the base cost of renting has gone up in many parts of the world. Moreover, additional fees are being tacked on and/or jacked up like mad, including refueling fees and surcharges for returning cars to a different location from the one you rented at. In more than 40 U.S. states, increasingly strapped local and state governments have piled on new taxes. And rates at quite a few airports have especially shot up.

Given all the above, it’s hardly a shocker that renter satisfaction has plummeted along with demand; some 21 percent of those surveyed by J.D. Powers in 2009 were pretty darned ticked off.  But is there anything that can be done about any of this? Not a heck of a lot, but while we all ride out these tough times, there are three ways you can keep car rental costs down:

1. When booking flights, package tours, and, above all, cruises, it often pays to put on your best poker face and wait for a fire sale before showing your plastic. That used to work with rental cars, too, but now companies are offering discounts for people who pay in advance. For example, some Hertz locations offer 20 percent off if you book in March for a May rental. Another tactic that used to work was to land somewhere without reservations, walk from booth to booth, and bargain ’em down. But thanks to today’s decreased capacity, that could leave you stranded.

2. Don’t just go to one rental company site to book. Shop around on aggregator and auction sites including Breezenet, Kayak, Priceline, and Hotwire. You’ll find that car rental rates, much like airfares, are all over the map.

3. Because of the above-mentioned airport fees, renting at non-airport locations has long been the cheaper option–but today, it’s the much cheaper option. These fees are so exorbitant that roundtrip taxi, train, or bus fares to a suburban or downtown rental office may cost dramatically less than the difference in car rental rates. For example, the base price of a Chevy Cobalt at Hertz’s Oakland Airport office was US$75 at press time. Paying upfront brought that down to $60, but then Hertz added on the $20 “airport concession” fee and a $10 facility fee (huh?), so when all was said and done, the price was $238 three days. However, if you’d booked that same Chevy Cobalt from one of Hertz’s downtown locations, the tab was $134.


Visiting Prague? Get Outta Town — Bohemia and Moravia (Gently) Rock

March 17, 2010 at 10:38 am | Posted in Czech Republic, Europe, wine tourism | Leave a comment
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by Jacy Meyer

Sure, the capital of the Czech Republic is a many splendored thing, and 60 percent of visitors venture nowhere else in the country. But what they’re missing is massive, from ancient castles and abbeys to some of the world’s most gorgeous spas and best beer, along with lodging and dining that both of fine quality and highly affordable. You may have even heard of the likes of Karlovy Vary (aka Karlsbad) and UNESCO World Heritage Sites Český Krumlov and Telč. But here are five of my lesser known favorites, all within four hours’ drive of Prague.

Jindřichův Hradec In south Bohemia, beloved of Czechs but very beneath the tourist radar, JH has small-town charm, a great castle, nature right nearby — and a line proudly marking the 15th longitude meridian. The Renaissance castle complex is the third largest in the country, with some great frescos from the 1300’s; a round garden pavilion; and a Gothic palace. Other highlights include  the 14th-century Church of Our Lady with its frescoes, and an unusual eyepopper: in the city history museum, ensconced in a former Jesuit seminary, is the world’s largest mechanical nativity scene, built over six decades in the 19th century and containing nearly 1,400 figures.  Just out of town, hitch a ride on the narrow gauge (rails a mere 30 inches/760 mm apart) steam railway, the only one remaining in Bohemia; it rolls you through some lovely valleys, hills, and forests, practically up to the border with Austria.

Mikulov Moravia is known for its wines (which have been becoming ever more respectable by world standards), so a visit to a local vinárna (wine cellar) like Mikulovský Šenk (great outdoor terrace!) to sip the goods is a must. Right on the Austrian border, Mikulov (above right) was also historically famed for its religious tolerance and boasts many pilgrimage sites, including the Svatý Kopeček (“Holy Hill”), a slightly steep climb from the city center, here you’ll find a number of St. Sebastian’s Church, whose belfry offers great views. There are several Jewish sites here, too, such as the Upper Synagogue and a 15th- century cemetery. Off the city’s main square is St. Wenceslas Church with its small ossuary; right across the square in the Dietrichstein tomb you can check out skeletons of aristocrats. Finally, don’t miss the Baroque chateau looming over the city — probably its single most handsome feature.

Plzeň Don’t recognize the name? “Pilsen” ring a bell instead? Bohemia’s famous for its pivo (beer), and anyone who enjoys a nice cold one should appreciate the work of the brewers in the country’s fourth largest city, a couple of hours west of Prague. They came up with bottom-fermented lager in the mid-1800s lager, and now most beer around the world is made this way. The Pilsener Urquell brewery’s interesting tour ends with a tasting of unpasteurized and unfiltered beer straight from the oak barrels. But don’t neglect the rest of Plzeň, starting with the huge main square, dominated by the Cathedral of St. Bartholomew, which boasts the country’s highest tower and terrific countryside views; architecture fans will appreciate the sgraffitto and other Renaissance detail, some by Italians, others by well-known Czechs. The tourist information office on the square offers a map with a do-it-yourself walking tour covering the most historic buildings. Two other must-sees include the Patton Memorial, paying homage to American soldiers who liberated the city in World War II, and the Techmania Science Center, an interactive museum for all ages.

Tábor About 90 minutes’ drive south of Prague, fetchingly perched on a hill over Central Europe’s largest manmade lake, this town’s old quarter is a compact 15th-century charmer, with narrow lanes zigging and zagging all over the place. Named after the biblical Mount Tabor, the town earned notoriety in the 1400s thanks to its Reformation-era religious freedom and experimentation — and the subsequent attempts to extinguish them in the Hussite wars. Its defenders would gather in the large main Žižka Square, and the streets were deliberately made difficult to confuse invaders. But its best-known attraction is under your feet; after exploring “up top” and perusing the Old Town Hall’s Hussite museum, climb down the steep steps to a warren of damp tunnels once used for storing food, making beer , stashing prisoners, and hiding from attacks; a half mile is open to visitors.

Valtice/Lednice These next-door towns are less than an hour’s drive from Mikulov, and what makes them special is the Baroque complex built by the aristocratic Lichtenstein family. It spans 618 acres (250 hectares) between the two towns, including chapels, statuary, ponds, woods, and an easy seven-mile (11-km) path connecting the towns. Each town has a slightly different feel; I think that overall Valtice is more attractive, with better restaurants and hotels, even though the castle is a bit more rundown than Lednice’s (do check out, though, the castle’s new Tiree Chmelar herb garden, opening May 29, 2010). Around here, too, wine is big, and at Valtice’s National Wine Bank you can taste the Czech Republic’s top 100 wines (pace yourself). Lednice is a bit bland but does sport one of the country’s most appealing castles, complete with a minaretlike tower and boat rides on its canals. And for an odd final touch, don’t miss the Agricultural Museum, which for some surely good reason displays a massive mammoth head.

Coming soon: the spectacular spa towns of Bohemia.

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.

We Don’t Need Another Hero — Unless of Course It’s From Japan’s Funky Monkey Babys

March 12, 2010 at 9:20 am | Posted in Asia, Japan, music | Leave a comment
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by Tripatini staff

Adopted as the theme song for the Japanese TV show Zoom In! since its late 2009 release, “Hero” (ヒーロー in Japanese, pronounced “hiiroo”) is the latest single from a trio from a Tokyo suburb called Hachioji, formed as a duo in 2004. Also known to their fans as “Fanmon,” and headed by 31-year-old lead singer Katou Shunsuke (stage name “Funky Katō” ), they’re an undeniably high-energy bunch of dudes who’ve been all over Japan’s media and have managed to corral other celebs into appearing on their albums and videos. “Hero” is an actually rather sweet parable set in the high-octane world of TV news, with an anchorman who learns to make time for wifey and their adoring but neglected-feeling young son. Perhaps the most bemusing thing about Funky Monkey Babys is that they’re considered a “hip-hop” act. By Japanese standards maybe, but these guys come across about as gangsta as Hannah Montana — in our book, file this tune, at least, under “sugar-pop.”

Devon, England’s Agatha Christie Trail

March 10, 2010 at 12:54 pm | Posted in Europe, United Kingdom | 1 Comment
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by Max Pesling

Britain’s National Trust runs a beguiling array of estates, castles, churches, and abbeys, plenty of which can boast an air of mystery and even a few murders committed within their precincts.  But how many can claim they sheltered the world’s greatest maestro of the murder mystery? Just under three hours’ drive or train ride west of London in Devon (you might want to get the 4:50 from Paddington), Greenway, the manse and gardens shared by Agatha Christie (1890-1976) and her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan on the River Dart near Brixham, was opened to the public for the first time just this past year, and it makes for a fascinating peek into Dame Agatha’s life, times, and œuvre. Yanks and Canucks might also appreciate the nifty New World connections dating back to the 16th century: Sir Walter Raleigh was born here, and the house was built by a family that included the discoverer of Newfoundland.

Fans will also want to hang a while (as it were) in the somewhat funky seaside resort city of Torquay, a drive of 20 minutes or so away, part of the so-called English Riviera (and BTW where the famous Britcom Fawlty Towers was set), where the lady grew up and spent most of her life. Here amid the various hotels, restaurants, and fish-and-chips shops they can stroll the Agatha Christie Mile, whose 11 stops include Torquay, Devon, England, United Kingdomthe town museum with its inevitable Christie exhibit; the town hall where she worked as a nurse during World War I, when it served as a Red Cross hospital; Meadfoot Beach; the formerly grand Pavillion, now home to a somewhat sad-sackish little mall; and All Saints Church (where they’ll even give you an Agatha tour). Even the darn 12th-century Torre Abbey has an Agatha Christie room. And that’s not all, folks: the local tourist board sites and others like  Torbay-Online.co.uk list a few additional sights in the Torbay area (which includes Brixham and Paignton as well as Torquay) either associated with Dame Agatha or used as inspiration or settings for her stories.

You’ll want to stay at the Grand Hotel where she honeymooned, and I’d definitely make time for a ride on the Paignton-Dartmouth Railway, a charming seven-mile steam-train run which pops up in several Hercule Poirot novels.

Agatha Christie bust, Torquay, Devon, England, United KingdomIf any of this tempts you, consider booking well ahead in order to come during September’s weeklong English Riviera Agatha Christie Festival (running Sept. 12-19, this, the sixth annual, should be even more elaborate than usual, given that it’s the author’s 120th birthday); for pics from the ‘ 09 festival, click here. It’s sure to be a delightful orgy of murder most fair.

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

Premier Tours Stuffs the Oscars Swag Bag with Lions & Rhinos & Elephants, Oh My

March 6, 2010 at 4:41 pm | Posted in Africa, safaris, South Africa | Leave a comment
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by José Balido

Every once in a while we like to toot the horn for members of Tripatini’s travel social network — and since it’s Academy Awards weekend, what could be more tootable than a member who’s donating a luxurious African safari experience to the likes of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Morgan Freeman, Sandra Bullock, Matt Damon, Penelope Cruz, James Cameron, and Quentin Tarantino?

Raised in Africa, longtime author and tour operator Julian Harrison has written on Africa safaris for Tripatini, and his Philadelphia-based Premier Tours is contributing to the high-end goodies handed out Sunday night to the most acclaimed Hollywood types of 2010, in the form of a four-night stay at the five-star Lion Sands in South Africa’s Kruger National Park.

Located in a family-owned spread that’s part of Sabi Sand Game Reserve, which is right next door to Kruger Park, Lion Sands is actually split into three sleek lodges mixing the contemporary and the traditional. There’s 1933, a four-suite compound that’s the most exclusive and private of the three (above); the Ivory Lodge, with six individual villa-suites; and the 18-room River Lodge, the mainstay of the trio. Naturally, they’ve got all the über-fancy amenities a pampered celeb could want, from spas and private chefs to private plunge pools.

Normally, rates here start at 4,675* rand per person in the River Lodge to 84,850 rand** for the 1933 compound; the latter is of course where the Oscar folks will bunk. You’d think these folks could afford those kinds of price tags on their own — but such are the perks of Oscardom. Big congrats, Julian!

*at press time, US$632 /£417 / €464 / CA$652 / A$696

**US$11,475 / £7,576 / €8,425 / CA$11,825 / A$12,637

Portugal’s Mariza: Fado’s First 21st-Century Diva

March 5, 2010 at 8:28 am | Posted in Europe, music, Portugal | Leave a comment
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by Tripatini staff The most famous contribution of Portugal to world music — compared to Spain’s flamenco, Argentine tango, and the blues of the United States, and usually sung in a minor key — soulful, melancholic fado originated in the slums of Lisbon nearly two centuries ago and has been seeing revival and evolution in the decade since the passing of its most famous icon, Amália Rodrigues. Fado’s top diva of the 21st century so far is blonde, 39-year-old Marisa dos Reis Nunes — stage name Mariza — whose background does proud by the genre’s African and Brazilian colonial influences; she’s part black, born in what was then still in its final years as the overseas province of Mozambique, and besides mostly growing up in Lisbon also spent part of her childhood in Brazil. This lovely clip, Rosa Branca, is the featured single from Mariza’s Latin-Grammy-winning sixth and latest album Terra (Earth), released last year. It includes a beautiful old Sintra palace backdrop and traditional folk dancers, yet very much conveys that contemporary, jazzed-up sensibility, by among other things adding afro-Brazilian percussion. Here she sings, “I know you so love roses — why don’t you love me?” But wethinks the lady doth protest too much — this classy, dynamic songstress has already conquered the likes of Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, and the Royal Albert Hall, and chances are we’ll be getting plenty more bouquets from her in the decade to come.

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

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