HOTEL REVIEW: GREAT FOSTERS

Heathrow is one of the busiest airports in the world, with planes taking off or landing every 45 seconds! As an entry point into Europe, many US travelers will pass through Heathrow/London on their way to other destinations – either in Europe or further abroad, such as Africa. As a result, I often recommend to spend a night or two in London at the start or end of one’s trip in order to break up the travel time. And for those who have visited London many times before, heading in and out of the city for a short stay isn’t all that appealing.

Enter Great Fosters. Part of Alexander Hotels, this stunning country estate has historic rooms, a Michelin starred restaurant and beautiful grounds to enjoy, and is located just 15 minutes’ from Heathrow airport. A stay at this property would be lovely on any occasion but I am particularly drawn to the convenience of its location. I can’t envision a more idyllic spot to recharge after a long flight or combat jet lag!

HISTORY

An estate is known to have existed at this location in Surrey since the Middle Ages and a portion of the original moat is still in tact today. While the history of the home through the centuries is quite lengthy, there are a few highlights worth noting in this short post, including a royal crest of Queen Elizabeth I located above the main porch and dating to 1598. The manor first became a hotel in 1930 when it was purchased and refurbished by Sir Harold Sutcliffe. The following year, Queen Mary visited the property and the famed Ascot Ball was held at the hotel, solidifying its place in modern history. In 2018, the Sutcliffe family sold the property to Alexander Hotels, who manage the estate today, along with four other historic manor hotels.

THE ROOMS

Currently, the estate houses 43 rooms, some of which are newly added and in a more contemporary style, attractive to business travelers who may be utilizing the estate’s conference facilities. In my opinion, the highlights of the hotel are the historic suites – 7 uniquely designed rooms in the main house. I personally had the chance to stay in Panel II. When I arrived on a stormy night, the dark wood paneling and four poster bed with rich velvet fabrics felt so traditionally British – I love when you can arrive to a place and feel you’ve stepped back in time a bit. I also had the chance during my stay to tour several other historic rooms and my personal favorites were the Queen Anne Suite and the Tapestry Suite.

DINING

The Estate Grill is the main dining facility, offering traditional British fare for breakfast, lunch and dinner 7 days a week. For a splurge, treat yourself to dinner at The Tudor Room, the hotel’s intimate Michelin-starred restaurant featuring cuisine by head chef Tony Parkin. The 20-seat dining venue serves a delectable tasting menu for dinner three nights a week (Thursday – Saturday) and for lunch four nights a week. Before dinner, you may opt to enjoy afternoon tea in the living room, or a cocktail in the hotels’ bar or on the terrace.

THE GROUNDS

As mentioned above, the grounds of the estate are partially surrounded by an original moat. Within those bounds you’ll find numerous English gardens that are lovely to stroll through and in warmer weather you can enjoy the outdoor heated pool or a game of tennis. For rainier days, you may opt for a spa treatment in the comfort of your room or simply to enjoy a good book by the fire.

All in all, this romantic country estate nods to a bygone era, offering the perfect respite to renew your energy at the start or end of a big trip. And the proximity to the airport makes it all too convenient! I would also just note that Great Fosters is quite popular for weddings, so weekends during peak periods tend to book up quite far in advance.

CALLING ALL WIZARDS

If you don’t already have the “Warner Bros. Studio Tour: The Making of Harry Potter” on your bucket list, now’s the time to add it. This attraction in Leavesden (just outside of London) is where they filmed the majority of the movies. The former studio now houses full sets, costumes, special effects, and so much more. Fans of the franchise will see the wizarding world brought to life, while also learning some of the behind the scenes secrets for creating magic in the films. On my last trip to England, we finally had the chance to visit the studio and it was a dream come true!

Here are a few essential things to know before you go.

Buy your tickets in advance. While the studio is large, only a set number of tickets are sold per day. And with school field trips and tour groups in the mix, tickets do sell out far in advance. Make sure you purchase tickets online here well before your trip.

Ticket types. From individual to family to group tickets, there are a variety of options to choose from. There is also the choice to purchase just a ticket or a package ticket that includes a digital guide and a paperback souvenir guide. Personally, I found the audio guide to be a bit overwhelming during the tour as there was quite a lot to read as well. If you want to purchase the souvenir guide separately (instead of bundled with your ticket), you can pick it up in the gift shop after your visit.

Getting there. If you have a rental car, the easiest option is to drive yourself and park (for free) in the lot just outside the city. If you’re based in London and don’t have a car at your disposal, you can opt to take the train from London to Watford Junction, followed by a 15 minute shuttle bus. Read more about these options here.

Plan for 3+ hours. As mentioned, the space is large! There is so much to see and explore! You will need at least 3 hours to visit the full space. If you would like to take part in any of the simulators or other special videos, you’ll want to allot more time. And as there is so much information, you may want to break in the middle for a rest and lunch or a snack. If coming from London, I’d really plan for this to be a full day excursion.

Look out for special events. We were lucky enough to visit during Christmastime where many of the sets were decked out for the holidays. The studio also has fun events around Valentine’s Day and Halloween so be sure to check the schedules well in advance if you’d like to visit during these times!

Have fun! Entry is timed at regular intervals with an intro and a short movie shown to each group before entering The Great Hall. Due to large numbers of people, this first part can feel a bit too crowded, but after the intro and movie, visitors move through the attraction at their own pace and start to spread out. Be patient and just enjoy yourself!

This was such a fun day and there is really something for everyone! I loved the costumes while my husband loved learning about the special effects and which magic effects were computerized versus physically constructed. Our favorite however, was truly the sets – they really just brought the world of Harry Potter to life before our eyes.

HOTEL REVIEW: THE KENSINGTON HOTEL

London is one of the larger cities in the world, and as such, travelers have a plethora of options to choose from when it comes to accommodations. On my last trip to London, we spent a night at The Kensington Hotel in leafy Kensington. Part of the Doyle Collection, this property is made up of 8 historic townhomes dating to the Victorian era. The property evokes the sense of staying in a friend’s posh home in London – with cozy fireplaces, an open and inviting lounge area and friendly staff.

LOCATION

Kensington is the perfect neighborhood for visitors looking for a local flavor. A bit removed from the more touristy areas like Piccadilly Circus, the hotel is still conveniently within walking distance to many museums, Hyde Park and Kensington Palace, making it a quiet yet agreeable home base in London.

THE ROOMS

Though it hardly feels like it, the hotel has 146 rooms and suites. As with many older properties, the room lay-outs and color schemes vary from room to room, with some featuring more traditional British decor and others a more modern, refreshed design. While some rooms have balconies, others have floor to ceiling windows, and some of the newer rooms even have clawfoot tubs right in the bedroom – perfect for a romantic escape!

Those looking for a more unique accommodation will love the signature suites. The Knightsbridge Suite is a stunner with a more modern design, large balcony and two fireplaces, but I actually slightly prefer The Brompton Suite with its more ornate decor and subtle safari theme. Of course, there is the option to combine both suites to create a small apartment style dwelling – ideal for families or groups.

Notably, the hotel also offers several “family suites” – a rarity in many European cities! These are slightly larger rooms with a bit more living space and 2 King sized beds, offering a comfortable and more economical option for a family of 4.

DINING

The main lobby area of the hotel is an open lounge that feels like an intimate living room, with a variety of plush and cozy seating areas, several fireplaces and the option to stop at any time of day for a cup of coffee/tea or even a light bite. In Town House restaurant you can enjoy a lovely breakfast with both buffet and a la carte options. In the later hours you can dine here for lunch or dinner, but the true stunner is their afternoon tea, which currently features pastry molded into the famous landmarks of London – a real treat!

In the evening, when you return from exploring the city, pop in to the famous K Bar, reminiscent of a private members club, for some excellent craft cocktails.

SERVICE

Aside from the warm and inviting atmosphere, the well-appointed rooms and plethora of dining and lounging options, what really sets this hotel apart is the service. The staff is incredibly friendly and welcoming. They left some unbelievably thoughtful and unique touches and amenities in our room that made us feel right at home. I was so pleasantly surprised and appreciative to see this sweet photo they left for me of my puppy Deacon!!

I highly recommend staying at The Kensington during your next trip to London and would love to help you plan! Please contact me to get started.

A COZY WEEK IN THE COTSWOLDS

Just two hours outside of busy London, you’ll find The Cotswolds, an area of lush meadows and rolling hills, dotted with quaint villages featuring the famous, golden-colored Cotswold stone. The Cotswolds region is a perfect destination for travelers searching for a quintessential English countryside escape.

DAY 1: ARRIVAL

We flew into London and picked up a rental car at the airport. While you could opt to take the train from London to Bath or Gloucester (taking a taxi or transfer from there), it’s lovely to be able to explore the Cotswolds at your own pace with the freedom of a vehicle. So if you’re comfortable enough with driving on the wrong side of the road and navigating narrow lanes, then this is the way to go. Another great option would be to hire a private driver for a couple of days.

From London, we drove to our first hotel in Cheltenham, at the northwestern part of the Cotswolds. On the way from London, we stopped in at Oxford for a bite at The Kings Arms (the oldest pub in Oxford, dating to 1607!), a quick walk around town to see the architecture and a self-guided tour of the Divinity School of the Bodleian Library (featured in the Harry Potter films as the hospital wing).

Once in Cheltenham, we checked into Ellenborough Park, a stunning manor house with a Great Hall dating to the late 1400s. The current iteration of the hotel opened in 2011, but was refurbished just recently in 2017. The property has 62 rooms, and many amenities for guests, including a fine dining restaurant, a bistro, swimming pool, fitness center, boot room and easy access to the nearby Cheltenham racecourse.

After checking in, we enjoyed a delicious and cozy meal at The Horse Box, Ellenborough Park’s 5-star country pub.

DAY 2: SELF DRIVE COTSWOLD TOUR

After a wonderful night’s sleep, a delicious breakfast with farm fresh eggs, and a quick stop in at the spa, we took off to explore some of the famous Cotswold towns. Our first stop was Bourton-on-the-Water, otherwise known as “The Venice of the Cotswolds” due to the river that runs through the town. One of the interesting attractions to see here is The Model Village – a complete replica of the town, built at 1/9th the scale! You will also find a lot of cute gift shops here that are great to peruse.

Next, we drove north to Stow-on-the-Wold, another adorable village. This one featured more art galleries and gourmet food shops which we enjoyed walking through.

Lastly, we drove up to Broadway, known for its broad main street – originally used as the main carriage way from London. You’ll find loads of cute shops and restaurants here so it’s a great stop for lunch. We popped in to The Bakehouse for a flatbread and a drink.

After our touring for the day, we returned to Ellenborough Park for a lovely afternoon tea in the main hall by the fire. And later in the evening, we enjoyed an incredible dinner at the formal restaurant, aptly named The Restaurant.

DAY 3: CHELTENHAM RACES

The British are big into horse racing and Cheltenham, where Ellenborough Park is situated, actually has a large race course. The main event is in March, but in November, they host the November Meeting – a 3 day event that draws people from all over the UK. We were fortunate in that our visit to Ellenborough Park aligned with the races and so we went one day. The really nice thing about staying at Ellenborough Park is that they are so close to the racecourse and they offer complimentary shuttles to guests staying over racing weekends – so you don’t have to deal with parking or Ubers, and can get dropped off right at the gates of the course.

While a bit chilly, this event was really great fun. We did a little betting (although no winning), enjoyed some food and drinks, and experienced great people watching. I particularly loved seeing all the British equine fashion and their great fall hats!

This evening, we ventured into the town of Cheltenham for dinner at Muse Brasserie – a fusion restaurant serving up a mix of Indian and French cuisine. It was innovative and delicious and a welcome break from the British fare we had been enjoying.

DAY 4: BATH

This morning, after our final breakfast, we bid farewell to Ellenborough Park, and drove south to the city of Bath. This is a beautiful city and one could really spend even a few days here, as with Oxford. But we just stopped for a couple hours and visited the ancient Roman Baths. Back in the 1st century, when the Roman Empire extended into the British Isles, they found a natural hot spring at this site and constructed a temple and traditional roman bathing complex. The Roman settlement of Aquae Sulis was later built around the sacred site. As centuries went on, this ancient roman site was eventually built over, only to be rediscovered and excavated in the late 19th century. Audioguides are complimentary with your ticket and offer a wealth of information about the construction of the site, how it was used and the types of people that visited there. This was really fascinating and I highly recommend it.

From Bath, we continued just a bit north to Castle Combe – a quintessential Cotswold village used as the filming site for the original Dr. Doolittle movie. Here you will find another lovely estate, called The Manor House. My parents actually stayed here many years before on their honeymoon, so we decided to stop in for Sunday Lunch at the on-site, restaurant, Bybrook.

After lunch, we headed to our home for the next two nights, Whatley Manor, a Relais & Chateaux property with just 23 rooms and suites. This property was truly fabulous and I am already planning to come back as soon as possible. Aside from the beautifully furnished rooms, they have an extensive spa, a private cinema, numerous common rooms, a brasserie and a 2-Michelin starred restaurant, The Dining Room.

After taking a bit of time to unwind and relax in our room, we headed down for dinner at The Dining Room. The experience began with cocktails and some nibbles in the lounge. We were then escorted into the kitchen (!!!) for the next part of the experience – some bubbly (to celebrate their recent 2nd Michelin star!) and three amuse bouches while we watched the chefs prepare our meal. This was such a fun surprise and an amazing way to start the evening. Next, we headed into the dining room itself where we enjoyed the rest of our prix-fixe dinner – each dish more innovative and delicious than the last – the whole meal was completely divine.

DAY 5: R&R IN THE COUNTRYSIDE

For our last day in the countryside, we just relaxed at the hotel. The sun was shining and it was a gorgeous fall day. After our 3-course breakfast, we borrowed the bikes and went for an hour ride through the countryside.

After our exercise, we enjoyed some much deserved spa time – swimming in the indoor/outdoor hydrotherapy pool, and using the sauna and steam rooms, before I went in for a treatment.

Later, we enjoyed an incredible afternoon tea and then watched a movie in the private cinema (complete with popcorn!), before sneaking back to the spa for one more swim before dinner in Grey’s Brasserie. It was a 10 out of 10 day, and the perfect way to close out our trip to the Cotswolds.

We really had the best time exploring this region of the English countryside. In 5 days, we really just scratched the surface and I can’t wait to come back here and explore more. The Cotswolds are a beautiful place to visit year-round and I would love to help you plan your next trip there!

SOJOURN IN SEVILLA

I recently had the chance to visit Sevilla for a work conference and really fell in love with the architecture and rich culture of the Andalucia region of Spain. Sevilla is the capital of Andalucia and famous as the birthplace of flamenco. With a population of approximately 1.5 million, Sevilla is the 4th largest city in Spain. It’s Old Town district is home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, making it a popular stop for visitors to Spain.

GETTING THERE

Sevilla is in southern Spain and, as a small city, doesn’t necessarily have direct flights from the US. However, it is easy enough to connect through Madrid or Barcelona, if flying straight through. Personally, I recommend flying into Madrid for a few days and then taking the train down to Sevilla. The route takes only about 2.5 hours, and the train is typically on time and cost effective. Plus you’ll get to enjoy the scenic countryside as you head south.

WHERE TO STAY

  • Mercer Hotel Sevilla – This luxury boutique hotel is right in the heart of Old Town and was a former Andalusian house. The property has just 12 rooms and a sleek, modern design. The rooftop terrace and pool are a perk, especially for the hotter summer months.
  • Hotel Alfonso XIII – Part of The Luxury Collection, this hotel was built in the 1920s to accommodate prestigious attendees of the Ibero-American Exhibition. A Virtuoso property, this is one of the grandest addresses in Sevilla today.
  • H10 Casa de la Plata – This 4-star property is a fabulous option for those looking to save a bit on the budget. Newly opened in May 2019, the style is contemporary, yet traditional with Andalusian ceramic tiles filling the lobby and guest rooms. I stayed here personally and can highly recommend it. Plus the location in Old Town is fabulous.

WHAT TO SEE

  • Royal Alcazar Palace – This complex is comprised of a 12th century fortress and 3 palaces. Rich in history, the Alcazar has been designated a UNESCO site since 1987. Queen Isabella actually had meetings here with Christopher Columbus before he set sail for America. Tours are offered daily and should be booked in advance of your trip. You can also visit the palace at night, which I recommend to see it all lit up.
  • Sevilla Cathedral – The Cathedral of Saint Mary is a Roman Catholic cathedral in the heart of Sevilla, and the second notable UNESCO site. Built in the 16th century, the cathedral took over the title of “largest cathedral in the world” upon completion, and still holds that title to this day. The building really is massive and quite an impressive architectural feat.
  • Archivo de Indias – The third UNESCO site in the city, Archivo de Indias houses 40,000 documents and maps referring to voyages to the New World, spanning three centuries. The 16th century building was a former stock exchange and is also renowned as an example of Spanish Renaissance architecture.
  • Maria Luisa Park & Plaza de Espana – A beautiful green space in the city, complete with palms and flowers, Maria Luisa Park is worth a visit on a sunny day. The Plaza de Espana is a square in the center of the park that was built for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929.

I’d love to help you plan your next trip to Southern Spain! Sevilla pairs perfectly with a few days in Cordoba & Grenada. I also love the idea of hopping down to Mallorca or Menorca at the end to enjoy some R&R and beach time. Please contact us to plan your next trip to Spain!

THE HILLS ARE ALIVE IN AUSTRIA: PART 2

Part II: Salzburg

From Vienna, we took a lovely three hour train journey west to Salzburg, a much smaller city of just 150,000 people. The train was easy and scenic but driving from Vienna to Salzburg is also a great option as there are many places to see and stop along the way.

Outside of Austria, Salzburg is famous as the setting of The Sound of Music and there are many sites in and around the city that are featured in the film. In Austria, the city is well known as the birthplace of Mozart, and for the Salzburg Festival, a music and arts festival attracting visitors from around the world every July and August to enjoy fabulous opera, concerts and theatre. 

WHERE TO STAY

  • Goldener Hirsch – I had the opportunity to stay at the Goldener Hirsch on my visit and absolutely loved it. The hotel dates to the 1400s and is located right in the center of Salzburg’s Old Town. The entire property just recently underwent a thorough renovation and the result is a historic hotel that retains much of its charm and authentic design as a Salzburg country inn, while also incorporating many modern luxuries (think USB ports by the bed and motion-detection lighting). 
  • Hotel Sacher Salzburg – The sister property of the Sacher Vienna, the Salzburg property is currently undergoing a facelift in its main areas (full renovations will be done by Spring 2020). The design here differs quite a bit from the Sacher Vienna, featuring a lighter, brighter palette with cool grays and whites. The location is perfect – set on the riverbank, directly across from Old Town. Definitely spring for a room with a river view – some even have small balconies.

WHAT TO DO:

  • Salzburg Festival – This famed arts and music festival will be celebrating its Centennial in 2020. Running for 6 weeks in July and August, the event draws performers and arts enthusiasts from around the world. 
  • Hohensalzburg Fortress – Perched high above the city, the fortress was built in 1077 by one of the Prince Archbishops of Salzburg and took nearly 600 years to complete. Take the funicular up to enjoy beautiful panoramic views of the city or wander through the museum. For a special evening, you can enjoy a Mozart concert in the fortress. 
  • Helbrunn Palace – Just outside the city limits, this former residence is famous for its trick fountains! 
  • Mozart Birth Place & Mozart Residence – Classical music fans can visit the home where Mozart was born, located in Old Town Salzburg. Just across the river, you’ll find another Mozart Residence where he moved with his family at the age of 17. This building now houses a museum with various artifacts from Mozart’s life. 
  • Old Town – Salzburg is an extremely old city, and you’ll still find this historic appeal in Old Town. Visit the Salzburg Cathedral and pass through the Mozart square to shop the winding pedestrian streets. 
  • Sound of Music Tours – Sound of Music tours are extremely popular in Salzburg as the movie was based here. Tours visit a variety of filming sites, including: Mirabell Gardens, Leopoldskron Palace, Nonnberg Abbey, the Wedding Church, and Mondsee Cathedral.

WHERE TO EAT

  • M32 on Moenschsberg Mountain – Take an elevator up through the mountain to the modern art museum where you’ll find this restaurant with spectacular city views.
  • Restaurant s’Herzl – Located in the Goldener Hirsch hotel, this cozy, casual restaurant has been operating since 1569 and features Austrian home cooking favorites.
  • Café Tomaselli – Austria’s cafe culture extends far beyond Vienna and Cafe Tomaselli is the most famous cafe in Salzburg. Located in Old Town, the cafe has been run by the Tomaselli family for over 150 years. 
  • Zirbelzimmer – In the Sacher hotel this wood-paneled restaurant overlooks the Salzach river and serves gourmet Austrian cuisine in a rustic setting. Be sure to order the famous Salzburger Nockerl for dessert! 
  • St. Peter Restaurant – Touted as one of Europe’s oldest restaurants (dating to 803!), this is the best spot in town for fine dining. 

BONUS: SALZBURGERLAND

If you can tack on an extra few days to your trip, I highly recommend spending them in the lake district just outside of Salzburg. With bright blue water, soaring mountains and Austrian chalets dotting the landscape, this is a side of Austria you don’t want to miss.

WHERE TO STAY

  • Schloss Fuschl – Built in 1450 as a hunting lodge for the Archbishop of Salzburg, Schloss Fuschl became a hotel in 1945 and was renovated in 2006. The setting on the lake is perfect and many rooms enjoy a beautiful view. The castle suites, which are located in the original lodge building, are my favorite for their lake views and the feeling of stepping back in time. 

WHAT TO DO

  • Visit the Salt Mines – Salzburg is aptly named after the “white gold” which is naturally found in the region. Salt was highly prized in olden times as a way to preserve food, as well as add flavor to cuisine. There are several salt mines in the surroundings of Salzburg that can still be visited today, the most famous being Hallein.
  • St. Gilgen – This town was home to Mozart’s mother and later to his sister. Make sure you stop in at Cafe Dallmann, a famous family-run coffee shop that has been in operation for 70 years. 
  • St. Wolfgang – From St. Gilgen, you can take a scenic boat ride across Lake Wolfgangsee to St. Wolfgang, a quaint pilgrimage town. 
  • Hiking around Lake Fuschl and Salkammergut Region – There are many, many hikes in the region. Whether you’re staying at Schloss Fuschl and want to set out for a hike around Lake Fuschl or want to venture farther afield, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to enjoy the nature. 
  • Zwolferhorn Mountain Cable Car – From Saint Gilgen, you can take a cable car up Zwolferhorn Mountain for beautiful views of Lake Wolfgangsee and the Salkammergut Region.
  • Hallstatt – A little further afield, you’ll find Hallstatt, the picturesque lakeside village that has become Instagram famous over the past few years. While it is now a bit overrun by tourists, its still worth a visit – just be sure to arrive quite early in the day.

WHERE TO EAT

  • The Fishery – At Schloss Fuschl you’ll find two restaurants. The Fishery is a more casual option and perfect for a light lunch. Located lake-side, many of the fish smoked and served here are caught from the lake. 
  • Schloss Restaurant – The more gourmet dining option at Schloss Fuschl serves up modern Austrian cuisine with beautiful views of the lake. 
  • Forsthaus Wartenfels – About 15 minutes’ drive from Schloss Fuschl, you’ll find this most traditional Austrian chalet. Note: If you’re looking to order the fondue, you’ll need to call in and order ahead. 
  • The Dorfalm on Lake Wolfgangsee – If you happen to take the boat from St. Gilgen to St. Wolfgang, this is another excellent restaurant to enjoy traditional, casual Austrian fare over lunch or dinner.

All in all, Austria was a magical place – I was so impressed by the architecture, the food, the history and the kindness of the people. I would absolutely love to share this country with you and help you plan your next trip to Austria. Please contact me to get started!

THE HILLS ARE ALIVE IN AUSTRIA: PART 1

Austria is the 20th largest country in Europe by area. Its small size and convenient location make it a great year-round destination for travelers who wish to enjoy the continent’s renowned culture, while also experiencing some of its breathtaking countryside.

PART I: VIENNA

My trip began in Vienna, the capital of Austria, and city of about 2 million people set along the Danube River. The imperial city is known for its historic architecture, café culture, appreciation of the arts, and former famous residents (including Mozart and Beethoven). The metropolis was recently named the “Most Liveable City in the World” for the 2nd year in a row by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

WHERE TO STAY

Given that I was here for a work study trip, I had the opportunity to visit 7 different properties, all in the heart of Vienna:

  • Hotel Imperial – This is where I stayed personally and I loved it! The building dates to 1863 and was originally built as a palais by a Duke as a present for his wife. In 1873, it was converted to a hotel for the World’s Fair and is now part of the Luxury Collection. The decor feels very royal with chandeliers everywhere, rich fabrics and grand staircases.
  • Hotel Sacher Wien – Dating to 1876, this hotel is still family-owned and has an excellent location right in the city center. The atmosphere is very boutique and intimate – you feel as though you’ve been invited to stay in a grand family home. The name may sound familiar to you, as the hotel is also the producer of the famous Sacher Torte – a delicious chocolate cake that tourists line up around the block to taste (Bonus: as a guest, you can try the cake any time you like, even for breakfast!)
  • Palais Hansen Kempinski Vienna – On the opposite side of the Ringstrasse, you’ll find the Kempinski Vienna, which has a more modern feel, having just opened as a hotel in 2013, though the building is still historic as are most of the structures in Vienna’s first district. My favorite part of this hotel is the lobby which is lovingly referred to as “the largest living room in Vienna.”
  • Park Hyatt Vienna – Another newer property, the Park Hyatt opened in an old bank and gives a subtle nod to its roots with the original ceilings in the lobby and event spaces, vault-style minibars in the rooms and a spa pool built in the old bank vault in the basement! This location is also perfect for Christmastime as it’s right in front of a square that hosts one of the main Christmas markets in Vienna. 
  • Hotel Bristol Vienna – Another Luxury Collection property, the Bristol’s design is also very traditional, with the exception of 10 more modern rooms that were recently added and designed in a 1920s style. Opera enthusiasts will flock to this property which is adjacent to the famed opera house. In the summertime, a screen outside the opera building offers Bristol guests the ability to enjoy the performances from their open windows, perhaps with a bottle of champagne and some room service. 
  • Palais Coburg Residenz – This is such a unique and special property. If you dream of staying in a palace, then you better hop on a plane to Vienna. This 117 year old palais was built atop the old city walls of Vienna and the traditional imperial design now incorporates both this extremely historic city wall and modern touches of glass. The wine cellars here are to die for, as are the state rooms, which practically feel like Versailles. And with only 32 suites, you’ll definitely feel as if you’re a royal guest. 
  • Ritz Carlton Vienna – Last but not least, the Ritz Carlton Vienna is a great option. I love the Ritz’s club lounge which provides a nice gathering area (especially for families), but the hotel is most famous for its rooftop bar (in the summer) and rooftop Christmas market (in the winter). 

WHAT TO DO & SEE

  • St. Stephen’s Cathedral – This gorgeous cathedral has a beautiful mosaic rooftop. Visitors can also climb the towers for a birds’ eye view of Vienna. 
  • Viennese Cooking Class – We learned how to make strudel from Chef Bianca of Cook in Vienna. Austrian cuisine is so unique, I highly recommend a cooking class! 
  • Bosendorfer – The official Austrian piano maker has a salon in Vienna where you can view the famous pianos and learn more about their history. 
  • Schönbrunn Palace – Just outside the city, you’ll find the 1,441 room summer palace of the Hapsburgs. Be sure to purchase tickets in advance. 
  • Belvedere Museum – Set in another former palace, this museum now houses the largest collection of Klimt paintings in Vienna, including his most famous one, The Kiss
  • Hofburg Imperial Palace – This was the main residence of the Hapsburg rulers and the center of the city. It is now home to the Spanish Riding School and the crown jewels. 
  • Museum Quarter – Have no fear of a rainy day in Vienna; there are plenty of museums to visit in the Museum Quarter!
  • Vienna Boys Choir – Known as one of the best boys choirs in the world, the Vienna Boys Choir performs regular concerts and is a joy to listen to. 
  • Vineyards – Just 20 minutes or so from the city center, yet still within the city limits, you’ll find Vienna’s vineyards and the Heurige, taverns that produce and sell their own wine. 
  • Beethoven Museum – in Grinzing, you can visit Beethoven’s summer home, which is now a museum, and learn more about his life. 
  • Christmas Markets – From mid-November to Christmas eve, you’ll find Christmas markets all over vienna, complete with punch and gluhwein. 
  • Café Culture – Vienna is also famous for its coffee houses, many of which are 100s of years old and were frequented by famous people in history. 
  • Vienna Woods – Just a hop skip from the city, you can visit the large green area known as the Vienna Woods, a Biosphere Reserve designated by UNESCO. Enjoy one of the hiking paths or visit Heiligenkruez, an old monastery.
  • Vienna State Opera – Enjoy a performance at the Vienna Opera House – or two or three, they put on a different one every evening.

WHERE TO EAT

  • Plachutta – Famous for its Tafelspitz (boiled beef). Don’t be fooled by the name – it’s very flavorful and delicious!
  • Demel – A lovely patisserie right near St. Stephen’s. Austrians love their sweets and you will find plenty here.
  • At Eight – A relais & chateaux restaurant on the Ringstrasse. It’s a bit out of the main hub but totally delicious. 
  • Heurigen Mayer am Pfarrplatz – A lovely wine tavern in Grinzing with down-home Austrian fare, local wines and a beautiful outdoor seating area. 

Stay tuned next week for Part 2 on Salzburg!

ADVENTURES IN ICELAND: SPRING EDITION

I rang in 2017 in Iceland, watching the Northern lights dance vibrantly over the frozen terrain. With just about six hours of sunlight a day, winter in Iceland is dark, cold and windy, but also eerily beautiful. While many choose to visit at that time of year to see the Aurora, the spring and summer offer a completely unique experience – with green landscapes, rushing waterfalls, and a never-setting sun.

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Reykjavik and Its Environs

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Where to Stay – The Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina is conveniently located at the Reykjavik waterfront, just a short walk from the Old Town city center. The rooms are small, yet comfortable, with touches of Icelanders’ cheeky humor. The property also includes a restaurant with an extensive breakfast buffet, a quaint cafe / bar for a morning cup of coffee or an afternoon cocktail, and a private cinema for a night in!

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Where to Eat – While expensive, the food in Iceland is excellent – using high quality, local ingredients and employing innovative culinary techniques. Lamb and cod frequent the menu, along with lobster soup, salmon, skyr (an Icelandic yogurt), fresh blueberries, and (surprisingly) hot dogs. Guide books also make mention of Icelandic delicacies such as cured whale and shark, however we had a harder time finding these than anticipated.

  • Food Cellar – In Old Town Reykjavik, Food Cellar’s ambiance is unparalleled, with subterranean rooms, live piano music and amazing craft cocktails. They also serve warm pretzels with ginger lemon cream cheese before dinner – just don’t eat too many and spoil your appetite! LRG_DSC01726
  • Kol Restaurant – We saved this for our final meal of the trip and went for the tasting menu – every bite was sublime! Make reservations in advance as it’s extremely popular and on the smaller side. They also have really interesting cocktails, some of which light on fire.IMG_9724
  • Salt Kitchen & Bar – Perfect for a more casual dinner near the hotel. IMG_9293
  • Pylsuhusid – Located at the center of Old Town, this hot dog house is a great spot for a quick lunch and a milkshake. LRG_DSC01727

What to See

  • Hallgrimskirja – The church sits perched atop a hill and is one of the main attractions to see in Reykjavik. You can buy tickets to ascend to the top of the spire for aerial views of the city. LRG_DSC01699LRG_DSC01707
  • Harpa – Harpa concert hall opened in 2011, showcasing an innovative architectural design. It stands out as a major landmark in the city and is worth a quick tour.LRG_DSC01725
  • The Sun Voyager – Designed by artist Jón Gunnar Árnason, the Sun Voyager sculpture pays homage to Iceland’s discovery by the Vikings.IMG_9215
  • Whales of Iceland – If you need a rainy day activity, this exhibition featuring life-sized replicas of the dozens of whale species that call Iceland home is extremely informative. IMG_9224

Excursions – Reyjkavik makes a great home base, especially for a shorter stay in Iceland. Many tour operators offer half day and full day excursions into the countryside with pick-up from your hotel.

  • The Blue Lagoon – The Blue Lagoon is a year-round destination with an average temperature of 100 degrees. As I mentioned in my winter post, it’s definitely a touristy activity, but still worth spending a couple of hours in the warm waters. I definitely recommend the Premium ticket for a more VIP experience and to avoid some crowds. This time I also enjoyed the in-water massage and thoroughly enjoyed it! Located closer to the airport at Keflavik, many visitors choose to stop by the Lagoon upon arrival or prior to departure.IMG_9201
  • Inside the Volcano – This half-day excursion offers the very unique opportunity to descend inside a dormant volcano. About 45 minutes outside the city, the tour begins with a 2-mile hike through lava fields. Groups then take turns descending into the volcano via elevator and spend about 30 minutes exploring the extraordinary geography within. Following a warm bowl of lamb soup, you return back the way you came. LRG_DSC01759IMG_9294

The Golden Circle

The Golden Circle is a popular route with departure from Reykjavik that takes you through the nearby countryside to see some of the area’s most unique geological features. I drove this route on my prior visit, and it was really interesting to see the juxtaposition of the main sites at two very different times of year!

On this trip, we also opted to snorkel through the frigid water at Silfra Fissure – the exact location in Thingvellir National Park where the tectonic plates are separating. This was a truly unique experience! Apparently you can also do this year-round, although I’m glad we didn’t do it in the winter, because it was freezing enough in the spring!

 

The Road North

From the Golden Circle, instead of returning to Reykjavik, we began our trek North and spent one night at Hotel Glymur along the way. The hotel is really in the middle of nowhere but has beautiful water views of an inlet. And while the loft-style rooms are a little unconventional, the restaurant more than makes up for it with gourmet food and an extensive homemade breakfast. IMG_9315

The next stop on our trip was the town of Husafell, where we spent one night at Hotel Husafell, one of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World.  Renowned for its sustainable and Scandinavian-style design, the hotel is a modern oasis in the Icelandic countryside.

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The main attraction in Husafell is Into the Glacier, a tour through a man-made cavern/tunnel within a massive glacier. You can either take a special bus to the site, or travel via snowmobile for added excitement and adventure. As an extension of the tour, you can also visit a nearby lava tube for a guided walking tour. While a little touristy in nature, the juxtaposition of the ice and lava formations is very uniquely Iceland.

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From Husafell, we continued our journey North on part of the Ring Road, stopping along the way at The Settlement Center in Borgarnes where we learned about the origins of Iceland, and at Glanni Waterfall for some show-stopping scenery.

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A couple of hours later, we arrived at our destination – Saudarkrokur and Hotel Tindastoll – the oldest hotel in Iceland. While Saudarkrokur is a tiny old fishing village with just 2 restaurants, we spent a night here due to its proximity to Drangey Island – my favorite excursion of our whole trip. From Hotel Tindastoll, we drove 20 minutes North to the end of the road at Reyki harbor and met our guides, a father-son team who had agreed to start their season a day early to accommodate our schedule. The tour began with a 25-minute boat ride to Dragney Island, which serves as a rookery for thousands of seabirds, including puffins! Once docked, we hiked up the steep trail to the top of the island (with the help of a rope!) where we continued our hike, learning about the history of the site and the many bird species that call it home. This was another truly unique Icelandic experience. The puffins were nesting and flew so fast it was hard to get a great picture of them but we still saw a lot of them, along with guillemots, gannets, kittiwakes, seagulls and ravens.

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Akureyri and Its Environs 

Akureyri is Iceland’s second largest city and located at the very Northern part of the island. This is a great home base for your Northern adventures around Iceland and where we headed following our stay at Hotel Tindastoll.

Where to StayIcelandair Hotel Akureyri is centrally located, and comfortably appointed. The rooms are bigger here than in Reykjavik and even the standard rooms feature small seating areas. IMG_9446IMG_9447

Where to Eat – Though the city is smaller than Reykjavik, there are still a number of fantastic restaurants to choose from. And if you’re getting a little tired of Icelandic food at this point (as we were) then the Asian/Icelandic fusion cuisine you’ll find is an unexpected, yet welcome, change.

  • Rub23 – Their extensive sushi menu is a great way to still eat local, fresh fish but prepared in a different way. And don’t miss dessert!IMG_9561
  • Strikid – Located along the waterfront, the view from the dining room (and from the patio during warmer weather) is lovely.

What to Do:

  • Explore the Town – Akureyri has some cute shops and cafes along the main street. You can also walk further afield along the edge of the Botanical Garden to the Old Town, which was the original city center. Plaques highlight historic buildings and explain their former use. IMG_9562
  • Whale Watching in Husavik – Husavik is just an hour’s drive from Akureyri and is the whale watching capital of Iceland. Several operators run tours in the town but we chose to go with Gentle Giants. The boat was small enough to get up close and personal with the whales yet not so small that I had any concern. They also provided dry gear in case of inclement weather. Humpbacks and minke whales are the two most common species to see in this area. You’ll likely see some puffin and arctic terns as well. This tour was my second favorite excursion – we saw DOZENS of whales and it was spectacular.LRG_DSC01937LRG_DSC01951LRG_DSC01979LRG_DSC01971IMG_9663IMG_9734LRG_DSC01938
  • Diamond Circle & Lake Myvatn – While the South of Iceland has the “Golden Circle”, the North is known for its “Diamond Circle,” which centers around the Lake Myvatn region. While you can do a full day tour from Akureyri, it’s also nice to stay in the Lake Myvatn region to minimize driving. Fosshotel Myvatn is a brand new property with stunning views of the lake shore and delightful copper accents incorporated in its interior design. IMG_9668IMG_9664IMG_9716Following the Diamond Circle there are a couple key stops along the way:
    • Godafoss – Another massive waterfall that seemingly appears out of nowhere. LRG_DSC01996
    • Skutustadagigar – These moon-like craters are a unique geological formation caused by steam explosions, found only one other place on Earth. LRG_DSC02003LRG_DSC02008
    • Dimmuborgir National Park – These lava formations are also unique in the world. Several hiking trails offer the opportunity to stretch your legs. And a small cafe provides a welcome break of warm soup and “geysir bread” – a local delicacy, this rye bread is baked in a pot underground near a hot spring. LRG_DSC02021
    • Hverfjall Crater – A massive ash crater you can climb to the top of. There’s not much to look at inside the crater except for a big hole, but gaining elevation offers unparalleled views of the surrounding landscape. LRG_DSC02025
    • Grjotagja Cave – This magical geothermal grotto is actually on private property, but was made famous as a filming location for Game of Thrones. LRG_DSC02027

**Pro Tip: If you follow a similar itinerary, driving North from Reykjavik to Akureyri and don’t want to drive back south, you can take a quick flight from Akureyri down to Reykjavik’s domestic airport before your international departure from Keflavik**

Overall this trip to Iceland was more extensive and allowed me to view more of the country’s otherworldly geological formations, seasonal wildlife (including whales, puffins and other seabirds), and dive a bit deeper into Iceland’s culture, history and cuisine. I would recommend a trip to Iceland at either time of year and would be hard pressed to choose just one, so I’m glad to have experienced both. One thing that I noticed again on this trip is how expensive the country is. While the flights from the US are fairly affordable, be prepared to spend more on the remainder of your vacation.

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LONDON CALLING: A WEEKEND IN THE UK’S CAPITAL

A few weeks ago, I was booking flights for a business trip to London and (naturally) decided to hop across the pond a few days early to spend the weekend exploring the city with a friend. I had visited London only once before and that was about 16 years ago so I was long overdue for a return trip.

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Where to Stay

Given the time since my last London visit, I wasn’t all that familiar with the city’s different neighborhoods. But after a little research, I stumbled upon Covent Garden, a quaint area of cobblestone streets, local shops and plenty of sidewalk cafes, just a stone’s throw from London’s vibrant theatre district.

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I booked a room at the Covent Garden Hotel, operated by Firmdale Hotels – a group that specializes in boutique stays in both London and New York. The rooms offer everything you’d expect from a luxury hospitality brand, but what really made our stay so special were the unique touches: the lavender room mist they left at our bedside during turndown service, the Honour Bar (complete with mini pints of local ice cream) adjacent to the wood-paneled drawing room, the adorable brasserie off the lobby with its (surprisingly affordable) breakfast buffet and afternoon tea, and (of course) the private screening room.

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Eating & Drinking Around Town

  • Afternoon Tea at Sketch – Well if you’ve read any of my prior posts, you probably know how I feel about afternoon tea. So this was one of the primary activities I wanted to fit into our weekend. And when two people recommended Sketch, I knew I had to go. The place did not disappoint – it was like stepping into a scene from Alice In Wonderland. Though a bit on the expensive side, the food was delicious and the whole experience was one surprise after the next. IMG_6884IMG_6895IMG_6897IMG_6898
  • Sunday Roast at The Princess of Shoreditch – Another iconic British tradition is Sunday Roast – basically a full Christmas dinner every week: roasted meat, veggies, potatoes, yorkshire pudding, and of course sticky toffee pudding. The Princess of Shoreditch was a friend’s recommendation and once again we were in food heaven. Luckily we’d been on our feet all day so this was a well-deserved meal. IMG_6938IMG_6940
  • The Culpeper Roof Garden – I’ve dubbed Shoreditch the “Brooklyn” of London. With trendy restaurants and bars on every corner, this seems to be the neighborhood where every young professional in London is living these days. Our first night in town, we grabbed drinks on the roof of The Culpeper, which offers amazing views of the London skyline. And their Aperol Spritz (aka the cocktail of the summer) was on point.IMG_6910IMG_6908
  • Flight Club Darts – Flight Club is basically the British alternative to an American bowling alley. With two locations – Shoreditch and Bloomsbury – Flight Club is a great option for an evening out with a big group. Each group gets their own “Oche” (ie. bowling lane of darts) with a digitized dart board offering a variety of popular dart games and a waitress to order food and drinks. Despite being a terrible dart player this place was still really fun, offering a modern twist on a traditional British past time (plus they served up a great Pimm’s Cup). IMG_6949

Cultural Sites

The first time I visited London, I hit all the must-see tourist destinations. Since this was a second visit, I was less concerned with checking off the to do list and more interested in just enjoying the city. One of my favorite ways to do this is to go for a long walk or run first thing in the morning. It helps you get your bearings, get in a little exercise and also see a lot of the major sites before the crowds. From our hotel, we were able to easily see all of the following:

  • Buckingham Palace – The Royal residenceIMG_6882
  • Piccadilly Circus – Famous road junction near the theatre district
  • Hyde Park – Large park in central London (don’t miss the rose garden)IMG_6926
  • Westminster Abbey & Big Ben – British houses of Parliament and the famed London clocktowerIMG_6923
  • The London Eye – Ferris Wheel with sweeping views of the city
  • River Thames – Main body of water that runs through the city. It’s lovely to walk along the bank of the river and across the bridges.

We also booked a historical walking tour with City Wonders UK. This particular tour offered a 1.5 hour walking tour of Westminster and the surrounding areas with a guided history pertaining largely to World War II and Winston Churchill.

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Following the walking tour, our ticket granted us access to the Churchill War Rooms (without waiting in the very long line!), a series of rooms in a bunker under the heart of London from which Churchill conducted the British war effort during WWII. The museum has audio guides and includes a full chronology of Churchill’s life, in addition to the restored “war rooms” from the 1940’s. Both the tour and museum were fascinating and though we looked a lot like tourists with our headsets, audioguides and cameras, we learned a lot about British history during the war.

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Other Recommended Things to See

If you have more than just a weekend and/or it’s your first time visiting London, I definitely recommend these sites:

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ALPS TAKE 2: CHAMONIX-MONT BLANC

Last year, my friend and I traveled to Zermatt to ski alongside the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps. This year, we decided to check out the French side of the mountain range and ventured to Chamonix to ski alongside another iconic European mountain, Mont Blanc.

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Getting There

While Chamonix itself is in the French Alps, the resort is located right on the border of Switzerland, making it easily accessible from Geneva’s airport. From New York, we flew to Geneva on Air France, with a short layover at Charles de Gaulle in Paris. The drive from Geneva to Chamonix is an easy 1 hour and 15 minutes and many shuttle companies offer affordable transportation. We booked with Alpybus for about 50 euros per person (round trip).

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Where to Stay

The Chamonix-Mont Blanc valley consists of a few different ski areas and as a result, there are plenty of options for accommodation. We booked a little late but were able to get a room at Chalet Hotel le Castel, a boutique property in Les Praz de Chamonix, a quaint little village located about 5-10 minutes drive from Chamonix’s main downtown area.

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The hotel was absolutely perfect for a weekend – located just across the street from La Flégère cable car, offering ski-in/ski-out access. Le Ravenel Sportshop is also located between the hotel and the lift, so renting equipment is a breeze.

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Our room at Chalet Hotel le Castel was absolutely adorable – the perfect blend of modern amenities (hello TV in the mirror) and quirky furnishings (don’t miss the giant flamingo), while still maintaining the look and feel of a French ski chalet.

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The Mountain

As I mentioned there are several ski areas located within the Chamonix area. Since we were across the street from La Flégère, we stayed on the slopes in that area, which also connects to Brévent. There was plenty of terrain in the Brévent-Flégère ski area for two full days, although I’d recommend trying some of the other ski areas if you are visiting for a longer period of time.

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The lifts opened each day at 8:50 am and we were usually one of the first in line. We were lucky enough to have amazing spring skiing weather during our trip, so we were treated to warmer temps and plenty of sunshine. Generally, we like to ski harder in the morning and stop for an early lunch then head back out for a few hours in the afternoon before finishing the day with a little après-ski beverage.

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Where to Eat

On the Mountain:

  • Altitude 2000 – in the Brévent ski area, offers salads, sandwiches, pizzas and drinks with plenty of outdoor seating. Sunny and quick service.fullsizeoutput_826
  • Le Panoramic – Also in the Brévent ski area, but at the top of the mountain (take the gondola up); offers panoramic views of the mountains and valley.
  • La Chavanne – Back in Flégère, a great spot for a quick lunch snack or perfect for après-ski. Both days we stopped here around 3-3:30 to enjoy some live music and rosé. (Tip: don’t miss the chocolate crepe for an afternoon snack)fullsizeoutput_82bfullsizeoutput_828

In Les Praz de Chamonix:

  • La Cabane des Praz – A recommendation from our dear friend, this place did not disappoint. Offering refined french cuisine in a rustic setting, we had the perfect seat by the fire and a delicious three-course meal.
  • Restaurant le Castel – The restaurant in our hotel was so delicious, we ate there twice. Being so close to the Italian border, they had all of my favorite Italian dishes: fresh carpaccio, penne a la vodka and probably the best tiramisu we’ve ever had. Great comfort food after a tough day of skiing!fullsizeoutput_83bfullsizeoutput_81d

Overall, Chamonix was absolutely gorgeous, offered tremendous skiing, and delicious food. Plus, it was an easy weekend trip for Europe. We can’t wait to come back!

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