Before we get any farther into 2010, I want to add one last “Best of 2009” list to those I posted last week.
In a year of exciting travel destinations, inviting hotels, great food, and high-drama adventures, these three experiences stood out. Maybe one will be the inspiration for your “best-ever” vacation in 2010.
HUT-TO-HUT HIKING IN THE DOLOMITES
Don’t be fooled by the term “hut.” The small mountain inns that greet hikers at the end of a day’s hike in the Dolomite mountains of northern Italy are captivating places, with drop-dead-gorgeous views, delicious local cuisine, hot showers, poufy down comforters on the beds, and a pervasive aura of accomplishment and camaraderie in the bar.
With two friends, my husband and I hiked the Grödnertal (also called Gardena Valley) and the Tiersertal (Tiers Valley), meandering through vast alpine meadows that begged us to sing a few bars of “The Hills are Alive,” and inching, with held breath, along narrow paths that seemed to float thousands of feet above the valley floor.
Some routes pampered us with a gondola (there’s skiing here in the winter) to the top of a peak. In St. Ulrich, a battered single chair lift, built some 40 years ago, whisked us to Raschötz Hütte, one of our favorite overnight spots. (Most huts are reachable only by foot or by some type of chairlift.)
During the days we took in the breathtaking scenery of towering granite peaks and the gentler SeiserAlm, a vast plateau dotted with spring flowers. By night, we played cards in cozy, wood-panelled bars called stübe and ate hearty pork and elegant pasta dishes made by the inn’s owner. Each morning we were awakened by the clanging of the bells hanging around the necks of local cows.
After four nights of hütte (a bargain at about $100 per couple per night for room, breakfast and dinner), we landed at Cyprianerhof, a family-run inn that was recently enlarged to include stylish suites and a state-of-the-art spa. We had carried (small) backpacks with all our belongings for several days; now we rejoiced in the luxury of Cyprianerhof (where the car we rented in Vienna waited for us, complete with a change of clothes, computers, etc.)
Many international companies, such as Backroads, offer guided tours of the area. However, it's easy to book huts on-line, and most paths are well-enough marked to find your way without a guide. One caveat: If the hiking map shows red dots or red crosses instead of a dotted red line, serious climbing is involved and a guide is a good idea.
MEADOWOOD NAPA VALLEY
I’m always amazed when people who brag about the number of wineries they visited on a trip to California’s wine country, kinda like gunfighters notching their belts. The way I see it, I can taste all the wines I want at home. I cannot bike Dry Creek Valley, take a mineral bath in funky Calistoga, stroll Bothe State Park, browse St. Helena’s cool boutiques, or commune with the spirit of Jack London at his original homestead.
In October, I attended the Culinary Institute of America’s (CIA) annual Worlds of Flavor conference, a mind-boggling array of seminars, tastings, demonstrations and lectures that’s open to professional cooks, restaurateurs, manufacturers and journalists.
When I wasn’t in a scheduled class, my husband and I experienced the wine country the way I think it should be experienced…up close and personal.
Home base was Meadowood Napa Valley, an idyllic resort set into a leafy hollow just off the Silverado Trail. A member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux hotel collection, Meadowood manages to combine the ultimate in luxury and pampering with a low-key sensibility and inviting earthiness.
Romantic rooms and suites, with sitting areas and fireplaces, are located in cottages scattered throughout the property. The award-winning Restaurant – recipient of two Michelin stars – is located in a stunning lodge that melts into the forest behind it. There’s golf, croquet, tennis and more, but my favorite way to burn off the calories from the superlative eateries in the area is one the resort’s five-mile walking path that swoops through the woods rimming the resort. The rolling trail, perfumed by pine and flowers, is dense and silent, yet a walker can bail out at any time and be back in a cluster of bungalows.
From Meadowood, it’s a flat and easy bike ride north to Calistoga or south to the towns of Yountville and Napa. One day, we loaded our rented bikes in the car and drove to Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley where we biked up Dry Creek Road to the stunning Warm Springs Dam and beaches, and back on West Dry Creek Road. There was little traffic on the roads, but lots of activity in the vineyards, and the sun shone kindly for the four-hour ride. (We rented bikes from St. Helena Cyclery on Main Street. Hybrid “comfort” bikes cost $35/day; road bikes are $65/day. Bike route maps are available, as is delivery for an added charge.)
Another day we parked in Yountville’s Vintage Marketplace, biked south to Napa, then climbed Mount Veeder Road that snakes past a bunch of wineries including Hess and Mt. Veeder, crests atop the Oakville Grade, then sends riders flying down Napa Valley's Dry Creek Road.
In between bike rides and walks on Meadowood’s enchanting walking trail, there were memorable meals at Bottega, Bardessono and the resort’s Restaurant where chef Christopher Kostow blew me away with crispy artichokes served with “Molten Parmesan Tortellini” and tiny lamb noisettes, marinated in the citrusy herb mixture known as chermoula, and served with wisps of date and eggplant. Each course was paired with a small taste of an interesting wine…now that’s the way to taste wines in California’s wine country!
(Rooms at Meadowood start at about $450 but there are special packages available, such as the Bed & Breakfast package for $500 that includes upgraded studio accommodations, a $50 credit for breakfast, and a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon.)
CRUISING FROM VENICE TO ROME ABOARD THE SEABOURN SPIRIT
For decades I’ve dodged all talk of cruises by friends and family. I didn’t want to be cooped up, I explained. I get seasick just looking at boats sloshing in a harbor.
But when my 87-year-old mother announced she was crossing theVenice-Rome cruise off her bucket list because she had no one to go with….well, hey…what’s a good daughter to do.
That’s how I found myself in a Seabourn Spirit stateroom a few months ago, feeling the sway of the ship (even though we were still tied to the Venice dock) and wondering how the hell I was going to survive seven nights.
Not only did I survive, but I fell head over heels in love with the Seabourn line, with the huge personalities and remarkable efficiency of the crew, with food that rivaled that of America’s starred eateries, and with the giddy delight of watching miles of picture-perfect scenery glide past as I relaxed with my mother (right), sister and 23-year-old niece.
Seabourn, as I now know, is one of the elite cruise lines. The guest count runs between 210 an d 400 (depending on the ship) and the pricing is all-inclusive. That means all food, beverages, alcoholic and otherwise, entertainment, and service (there’s no tipping). It’s not cheap – ignore the published prices and look for “deals” available if you book early or book last-minute. We paid about $350 per person per day; I met one couple who paid $250 per person per day by booking at the last minute.) It's definitely a splurge. But with luxury hotel rooms in major cities going for 400 bucks a night and up (plus exorbitant taxes), we considered our Seabourn cruise a great value.
After setting sail from Venice, we spent our first day alongside the Croatian island of Hvar, where we went on a walking tour, heard a men’s a cappella group sing in the courtyard of an ancient monastery, and hung out in the old, cobble-stoned port. The next day, Marina Day, was spent floating in the Adriatic, where we got to act like kids away at camp….playing with paddleboats, water skis and an inflated banana-like contraption that swirled us around in the sea while we screamed with glee.
Monopoli was the next stop. Of the several desirable shore excursions offered, we chose a walking tour of Ostuni, the whitewashed town, chiseled into a hillside, that looks from a distance like a giant Dairy Queen ice cream cone. We also visited one of the oldest olive oil mills in Puglia, where we tasted oils from different olive varieties.
In the Sicilian hilltop town of Taormina, my mother and I poked around by ourselves, visiting the ancient Roman ampitheater, eating cannoli and drinking espresso at a sidewalk café, and strolling on the tiny beach below the town which we reached by a funicular. The Aeolian Islands offered a make-your-own pizza lunch and a bombastic show by the active volcano island, Stromboli. Our affable captain, Magnus Bengtsson, anchored the ship alongside the island after dark, so we could watch the fireworks while we dined on the open-air top deck. More pizza in Sorrento; a guided tour of the ruins of Pompei; and, finally, in Rome’s port of Civitavecchia, farewells to new friends, and hello to a new way of travel.