June 13, 2012
This year the Hotel Astoria celebrates its 100th anniversary in St. Petersburg, Russia. I’m celebrating, too, because I got to stay there one white winter shortly after it was purchased and refurbished by the British hotelier Sir Rocco Forte in 1997. Other grand hotels may be more famous, but the Astoria holds its own place of pride among them.
A Russian icon in the Art Nouveau style on St. Isaac’s Square near the Neva River, the Astoria evokes a Belle Epoque world of grand dukes, ballerinas and Fabergé eggs. Everyone from Rasputin to Isadora Duncan stayed there, drinking tea from gold-rimmed teacups made by the czar’s favorite Lomonosov porcelain factory or swilling Russian Standard vodka at its velvet and wood-lined Kandinsky Bar.
All that was swept away by the Bolshevik Revolution, but the hotel soldiered on. Lenin gave a speech from its balcony in 1919 and during World War II Hitler planned to mark the city’s surrender in the Astoria, though Leningrad endured the 900-day German siege, proving the Führer premature.
The Astoria is sumptuous in an Old World way, not over-the-top like other modernized grand hotels, with soaring, chandelier-bedizened ceilings, voluminous swagged drapes, vanilla ice cream-colored molding and red-carpeted staircases. My room had a foyer separated from the sleeping chamber by etched-glass doors and a hand-embroidered bedspread, blissfully quiet even though its window looked directly over busy St. Isaac’s Square. There I watched snow coat the gold dome of the cathedral, sat reading Robert K. Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra or dressed for the ballet at the nearby Mariinsky Theatre.
As part of the centennial celebration, special boxes at the Mariinsky are available to hotel guests, and jazz evenings return to the Astoria, a tradition begun in the 1920s. If you go, please raise a Russian Standard on the rocks in at the Kandinsky Bar. I’ll be doing the same in spirit.
June 11, 2012
Some scholars say Bermuda inspired Prospero’s island in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Others claim it was modeled on the Mediterranean’s Corfu. But I’m pretty sure that the exiled Duke of Milan turned sorcerer in the South Pacific. “Be not afraid, the isle if full of noises,” says Prospero’s woebegotten slave Caliban, a description that admirably suits the island of Huahine about 110 miles northwest of Tahiti.
It’s a mecca for the sunburned, barefoot crew who drop out for a spell to pilot sailboats among the 130 islets that make up French Polynesia. Otherwise, most tourists head for Bora Bora with its fabled lagoon or the diver’s paradise of Rangiroa, leaving Huahine a lazy, slow-lane, off-the-beaten-track South Pacific backwater with only a handful of resorts, a half dozen sleepy villages chiefly populated by mangy dogs and one main town, Fare, where there’s a ferry port, airstrip and hordes of mosquitoes.
Huahine is actually two islands—Huahine Nui, the bigger one, and littler Huahini Iti—connected by a bridge. Both are ringed by skinny sand spits known as motus, where islanders grow watermelons with sweet, yellow meat. The interior is all volcanic mountains carpeted in tropical jungle that can only be broached with machetes, where early settlers, possibly from Samoa, built temples—or marae. Now atmospheric ruins covered in creepers, they are the island’s only tourist attraction, apart from yacht harbors, wild beaches and noises that I started to hear almost as soon as I got there.
I hove-to in a perfect Lord Jim sort of place, the Pension Enite outside Fare, where the room rate included a perfect French Polynesian dinner, headlined by steamed clams, sautéed fish and a half carafe of table wine from Burgundy or the Rhone; oenophiles are lucky for whatever they get on Huahine. My room in a garden-framed bungalow had well-mopped linoleum floors, Polynesian fabric curtains and a slowly circling ceiling fan. Still, it was hot, so I left the door open.
I was in the middle of a Jungian dream about my childhood when the sound of heavy breathing made me rise up from unconsciousness and open my eyes to see two bare feet underneath the curtain at the room’s entrance. Size 3, maybe. Then a little hand reached to the hook just inside the door, where most guests must have left valuables in the past, though I didn’t. My money belt was under my pillow and I still marvel over the instinct that brought me out of a deep, tropical sleep to shriek get out of here in high-school French.
Pat, pat, pat went the little feet, in retreat. The next morning, I told the pension’s unflappable French proprietor about it and found that the little sneak thief had made off with the lower half of my two-piece swimming suit, which I’d left to dry on a line outside. God knows what he wanted with my bikini bottom.
After that a lot more weird things happened to me on Huahine, not least getting chased by a pack of wild dogs on a path leading through the jungle to temple ruins and some misadventures on a motor-scooter ride around Huahini Nui. I could tell you about them, but instead will call to mind what Prospero said at the end of the play: “As you from crimes would pardoned be, let your indulgence set me free.”
June 7, 2012
Did anybody else see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel over the Memorial Day weekend? Somebody must have because the film, which opened on May 4, continues to do well at the box office, and that’s compared with a slew of big-budget blockbusters—Men in Black 3, Battleship, The Avengers—that have come along since then. Marigold’s popularity has been credited to John Madden, who also directed Shakespeare in Love, and to its 24-karat gold cast, including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy, all of them over 60. (The film is based on These Foolish Things, a novel by Deborah Moggach about a group of English oldsters who move to a retirement hotel in India.) But the movie’s reception is also seen as proof that there’s a market for movies about people who aren’t young and beautiful, just interesting—as are the characters in Marigold, coping with end-of-life transitions in a drastically foreign place.
And let’s not forget another major factor in Marigold’s success: India, specifically the western state of Rajasthan, long a favorite with travelers for its mighty hill forts, bedizened palaces, teeming markets and lost desert villages. The hotel in the book—Moggach called it the Dunroamin—is located in the dreamy lake city of Udaipur, though the movie was filmed in Jaipur to the north. I recognized the setting immediately because I began a tour of Rajasthan there ten years ago.
It was in Jaipur—known as the Pink City for the color it was painted when England’s Prince Albert came to visit in 1876—that I learned how to take wild rides in auto-rickshaws without fear, tasted my spinach paneer at a vegetarian restaurant downtown, climbed to Amber Palace built by Raja Man Singh in 1592, and had a fine gin and tonic in the style of Prince Albert at the Polo Bar in the Rambagh Palace Hotel, where the Maharani of Jaipur lived until 1957. And I only have to look as far as my bedroom to remember a daylong shopping expedition aimed at finding the perfect quilted cotton spread, decorated in woodblock prints, a specialty in Jaipur. Mine is in shades of blue—soft and beautiful, albeit somewhat threadbare now.
I went on from there to Udaipur, the Jain temple complex at Ranakpur, Kumbhalgarh Fort and Jaisalmer, the last Thar Desert outpost before the Pakistani border. But Jaipur remains most deeply etched in my memory, which is why I took so much pleasure in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The $13 ticket price is a small amount to pay for a trip to Rajasthan.
June 4, 2012
Even when you find affordable airfare to a great destination, the cost of lodgings—sometimes averaging over $200 a night—can be a deal-breaker. For that reason, I’ve resorted to every scheme I can think of to hold down the price of accommodations, including bunking with friends and apartment swaps. One of the best approaches I’ve found is renting a room in a college dorm when students are on summer vacation.
That’s how I once took a budget getaway up the Hudson River from New York, staying in a dorm room at Marymount College overlooking Tarrytown for $25 a night, clean sheets and towels included. I had fun touring the Rockefeller estate Kykuit and walking the old Croton Aqueduct Trail. But the best part was feeling like a freshman again.
Another college room I rented put me in the heart of literary Bloomsbury, though by comparison with my lodgings at Marymount, the University of London’s John Adams Hall seemed rather worse for the wear. My $35 room there was at the end of a dark hall with a narrow single bed, empty bookshelves and a bulletin board. That was 20 years ago, but the university still rents rooms during summer vacation in six student residences for as little as $90 a night.
It’s not as easy at it once was to find deals on campus like these, though USA Today reports that it’s still possible by getting a list of colleges in the place you want to visit and contacting their housing departments directly; even if vacation dorm rental isn’t part of the program, they’re sometimes willing to consider it in order to raise money.
One extremely attractive option is the little-known UC Santa Barbara Family Vacation Center, headquartered in a dorm with roomy suites on the university’s stunning, waterfront campus in striking distance of state park beaches, Santa Barbara cultural institutions and the Santa Ynez wine country. Actually, frequent UCSB vacationers are happy to stay put because the price ($965 per person for a week, $455 for a 4-night mini-week) includes meals, internet, housekeeping and recreation (tennis, yoga, hiking, mountain biking, infant and toddler care, kids camp), not to mention the good company of other family vacationers, many of whom return year after year.
The Summer Vacation Center has been attracting UCSB grads and their families for 40 years, but you don’t have to be an alum to take part. You do have to plan ahead, however, because reservations must be made by mid January for sessions the following summer that begin in late June and run until late August.
Talk about the benefits of higher education!
May 23, 2012
Hold on. Before you buy a new Audi, Fiat or BMW, take a look at a Volvo. Never mind the style and engineering. They’re giving away vacations.
Sound like one of those annoying TV ads? Hyperbolic. Too good to be true. Appended by fine print that makes the deal a loser.
In this case the offer is as sound as a Volvo, made to safely handle the ice and snow of the homeland.
The carmaker’s Overseas Delivery Program is for people who buy Volvos directly from the factory in Gothenburg, Sweden, where Volvos have been produced since 1927. Along with free shipping of the vehicle to a U.S. dealer, purchasers get two round-trip plane tickets to Sweden on Scandinavian Airlines and a one-night stay at a hotel in Gothenburg, giving them time to tour the Volvo Museum, where visitors learn that the brand’s name means “I roll” in Latin and that since 2010 it’s been owned by Geely Automotive, headquartered—where else?—in China. Gothenburg also has a city museum with Sweden’s only surviving Viking ship and some of the freshest seafood in Europe.
Once you get your car, which comes with European vehicle registration and insurance, you’re free to hit the road along the west coast of Sweden with its fishing villages, traditional folkways and scattering of islands. There’s Marstrand, guarded by 17th-century Carlsten Fortress, black dolomite-fringed Gullholmen and wild Hallo, where people who can tolerate cold water swim and snorkel.
Or you can head south over the Oresund Bridge to Denmark, the gateway to mainland Europe, driving the autobahn to Berlin, back roads in France, even over the Alps to Italy. Great destinations, all of them, especially in a new car. If you return the vehicle when you’re done to the Volvo factory in Gothenburg, shipping back to the U.S. is free, though a fee is charged from Amsterdam, Paris, Madrid and other drop-off points across the continent.
When I heard about the plan, I couldn’t figure out why the company would make such a generous offer. But it turns out to be a good deal for Volvo, too. “Our Overseas Delivery customers are among the best ambassadors we have for the brand,” U.S. manager Anders Robertson told me. Moreover, it saves the company money by not tying up capital while a car sits on the lot waiting for purchasers.
Too bad I’m not in the market for a car. But I may go window-shopping at a Volvo dealership, where I’ll ask a few questions about standard features before taking a seat behind the wheel, not for a test drive, but to fantasize about a trip to Europe.