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

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

A Big Amsterdam Secret That Wasn’t: Our Lord of the Attic

December 7, 2009 at 12:30 pm | Posted in Europe, history, Netherlands | Leave a comment
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by Ed Wetschler

Any visit to the Netherlands in general and Amsterdam in particular offers plenty of evidence that tolerance — you might even call it an intolerance of intolerance — is part of the national character, from the famous smoke shops to the Red Light District. Those two examples, mind you, are not quite as “out there” as they once were, but even so, you will not confuse live-and-let-live Amsterdam with Salt Lake City — or even with the relatively freewheeling likes of London or Berlin.

This tolerance has long extended to religion, too — which I was reminded of on a recent visit to a quirky museum that’s one of Amsterdam’s oldest. Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder (Our Lord of the Attic) has an offbeat history that evokes this country’s live-and-let-live ethic even in a stormy time in its history: it’s a 17th-century merchant’s house that once doubled as a “secret” Roman Catholic church.

In the 1500s, you see, the Netherlands was ruled by Catholic Spain, and the Duke of Alba took it upon himself to crush the Protestant Reformation in the Low Countries, an effort that did not endear the locals to Catholicism. Dutch Calvinists fought back, declared their independence, and — tit for tat — prohibited Catholic worship.

Enter Jan Hartman, a Catholic merchant. In 1661 he bought a canal house with two rear buildings, joined its attic with that of the other buildings, and created a “clandestine” Roman Catholic church. Except here’s how clandestine that church was:

  • Dozens of workmen—and prodigious quantities of materials—went into building and furnishing it.
  • Up to 150 worshippers would troop in and out of masses every weekend.
  • Eventually, the church even added a pipe organ—not the least assertive of musical instruments.

Now, didn’t any of those workmen snitch, or get loose-lipped over a glass of gin in some pub? Didn’t the neighbors—or the authorities–ever notice scores of families entering Hartman’s home every Sunday morning? Can we believe that no neighbors or passersby ever heard a peep from that mighty Wurlitzer?

For that matter, what had made Hartman so sure that Catholics could get away with this? I think the example of 16th-century Spanish and Portuguese Jews finding a refuge in the Netherlands didn’t hurt. Dissidents from England had fled to Holland for religious freedom, too. Americans know them as the Pilgrims, and one of the primary reasons they moved on to North America was not Dutch discrimination, but lack thereof — a fear that their children were (understandably) becoming too attracted to the tolerant local ways.

In any case, the “hidden” church lasted for 200 years. Catholicism may have been illegal, but the Dutch, characteristically, were loath to pursue the issue. Classic “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

In 1887 a Roman Catholic church opened at street level, and Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder upstairs soon became but a curiosity, then a year later Amsterdam’s oldest museum after the Rijksmuseum. Last year it purchased an adjoining canal house to accommodate temporary exhibitions, and now the original living and worshipping spaces are being restored. “The museum will remain open during all the works,” museum spokesman Hans Gramberg assured me. Thus, even when there’s work going on, folks can still visit this immense “secret” space and smile over the fact that such an imposing thing could ever have been considered “hidden.”

Admission is 7€ (US$10.4o/£6.30), but free to holders of the Amsterdam Pass; for more info, see, and just for fun, check out the fine panoramic renderings of the place — especially options #3 and #4 — at

Berlin Celebrates the 20th Anniversary of Its Infamous Wall’s Fall

November 4, 2009 at 8:50 pm | Posted in Europe, Germany, history | Leave a comment
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pic Spotlights Berlin wall iStock_000009673520XSmallby Tripatini staff

November — and especially Nov. 9 — mark a huge, emotional anniversary for this country and its capital — and for that matter, for Europe and the world. Namely, it’s the 20th anniversary of the Mauerfall (fall of the Berlin Wall), leading to the reunification of the Bundesrepublik and the GDR, and of course to tectonic shifts in world politics, culture, and more as the Cold War started fading into the past. Visitors to unified Germany’s capital this month can attend various art and history exhibitions and presentations around the city including an open-air exhibition in Alexanderplatz. If you happen to be in town on the 9th, events include a huge street fair and a concert by the Staatskapelle on famous boulevard Unter den Linden near iconic Brandenburg Gate. Besides all that, there are sites that will remain into the future, such as the artist-decorated preserved segment of the Wall and ominous border-guard tower on Muhlenstrasse; a museum devoted to escapes from the GDR; and a re-creation of the famous “Checkpoint Charlie” border crossing. If you’ve got time to head beyond the city into eastern Germany, you’ll also find memorials, museums, and other monuments to the era of division. More info: Tripatini’s Berlin group.

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