Wednesday, January 28, 2009

More Chilean Hacienda Happenings

I promised you more on my adventures at the Hacienda Tres Lagos in Chile's Aysen region. I packed a lot into a weekend:

1. My guide took me fly fishing to a point located between the teal blue Lake Bertrand (teal blue) and sea blue colored Lake General Carrera. I was hoping to catch any of four types of trout: steelhead, brown, rainbow and spotted. I'm told the biggest fish a guest pulled in was 40 pounds! But I'm suffering from bad technique. My guide told me I need more upper body and wrist action in the final cast to shoot the line out further. Oh well. No trout, 40 pounds or otherwise. But the views were outstanding: towering peaks studded with glaciers. It was oh, so peaceful, except for the sound of the currents.

2. One day we drove to Lake Bertrand where I found out that the fly fishing is alright if you hop aboard a raft and paddle to the middle of Rio Baker. (This river is also great for rafting the class III rapids). The lake, however, has too many people vying for too few fish. Instead we continued on to the confluence of the Rio Baker and the Rio Neff. There was a beautiful viewpoint of the raging Baker cascading over boulders.

3. Later we trolled on Lake Bertrand hoping to catch something. It didn't matter, however, because the views of the Fuentes Glacier were phenomenal. Finally, another try at fly fishing Lago General Carrera, this time it's evening so I'm hoping for better luck. But, no. Not a bite. Yet the purplish-colored peaks and wisps of clouds over the glaciers made it all worth it.

4. The next day was my fab excursion to the Marble Caves where we hopped aboard a small motor boat to cruise parallel to the shore. Here, there were soaring sea cliffs of marble. And thanks to wind and sea erosions their features are cast into curious formations that look like tree trunks and arches and caves, some wide enough just for the boat to pass through. Looking into the water I found colorful marble formations below as well. The Cathedral and the Chapel are the most famous.

5. Another amazing excursion was to the Explorer Valley on the gravel road that's only three years old. Before it was built, the only way into this area was on horseback. Glacier and ice studded peaks are all about and water running down from the high country to the roadside, with the occasional cascading waterfall. This is a road that's hard to drive because you want to look everywhere but at the road. Finally, we arrived at a short interpretive trail: Sendero Interpretivo Glacier Exploradores. The plants in this lush terrain are all labeled, including a fern with a name that means ribs of the cow and the holy tree. We climbed steeply among boulders that are part of a glacial moraine. And there in front of us was the bluish-tinged Explorer Glacier.
6. My last trek was on the day we had to drive to the airport. I managed a short hike to a lovely viewpoint where you can peer at both Lago Negro and Lago Carrera. We also passed the point where you could do a canopy tour but, alas, time didn't allow it. Hopefully, next time I'll spend a week.
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Monday, January 26, 2009

A Hacienda for Mellow & Type A Alike

In Chile’s little visit Aysen region, the Hacienda Tres Lagos couldn’t be more appropriately named. After all, the 18-room property sits among three magnificent lakes, each bearing a different blue or greenish hue: Lago Bertrand, Negro and General Carrera. After being picked up at the Balmaceda Airport, I found out it’s at least a five-hour journey to the doorstep of my accommodation. But the scenery of lakes, serrated peaks, wild horses, tumbling rivers and the eerie Bosque Muerto – an area of dead trees amongst thick volcanic ash – was plenty and pleasantly distracting. Once I set foot on the property and entered a lovely study with twin telescopes, I was immediately presented with a welcome pisco sour. A good way to wake up.

But, more than anything, what I soon noticed was the utter silence enveloping the hacienda. And I’m especially sensitive to this as a native New Yorker who falls asleep with the noises of a subway rumbling below the street. I walked to my luxe log bungalow and immediately wished I was spending a week here. Sliding glass doors opened to a porch with views of Lago Negro and far beyond are ice covered peaks. It was spacious, simple and comfortable with a soaring wood-beam ceiling, rough log walls, a wood burning stove and a bamboo rod for hanging clothes. It’s an interesting mix of the old and the new: sitting beside my bedside was an iPod docking station. And, though I was frustrated knowing I didn’t bring my iPod, no worries, I was told. Within moments they handed me one loaded with 175 songs, many were way better and more interesting than the ones I had at home.

The old and new theme is found also in the main house where I checked out an array of artifacts: the antique locks, old coffee grinder and mortar and pestle in the dining room and curious ceramic vessels in the study.

Aside from the placid atmosphere and yummy food (my first dinner was hearts of palm, grilled salmon and lemon meringue pie), I found the staff more than gracious and helpful. On the multitude of excursions they arrange and provide, they bring along a digital camera to take photos of the guests and then burn a CD for you; they also tote along binoculars – of course I forgot these as well. A bit chilly? Again, not to worry: they’ve got a wool poncho and a cowboy hat to lend you. Can’t figure out how to get the fire going in your wood burning stove? They are expert fire builders.

The next morning, I awoke to see horses grazing in front of my windows and the mountains were glowing with the rays of the rising sun. I could get used to this. Every meal had something regional to choose from: at dinner there was a steak topped with a fried egg; for breakfast it was homemade manjar, which is cooked milk with sugar, made into a paste and spread on bread. And then there’s the traditional asado in which a fresh lamb is cooked on a vertical spit in an open brick oven.

I found lakefront amenities galore, including a sauna, massage room and a Jacuzzi. Sure there was more peace and quiet than I was used to. But as a type A person, the Hacienda was my kind of place: they offered so many activities that you could easily spend more than a week here and never be bored -- horseback riding; a boat tour on Negro and Carrera lakes; fly fishing; whitewater rafting on Rio Baker; snorkeling Lake Negro; mountain biking; and several hikes up a mountain bearing fossils, through a valley where you could spy eagles, along lakefronts, to an old gold mine or a small hamlet. So many choices, so little time.

In a few days, I’ll post some of my activities while lodging at the Hacienda Tres Lagos.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Codfish – Have It Your Way

In Lisbon across from the parliament building, it's easy to miss the entrance to OhCOD, a restaurant that opened for dinner in spring 2008. After all, the simple, nondescript facade displays the name Santo, its lunch restaurant that transforms to OhCOD for dinner. (The two have completely separate menus and atmosphere – the evening spot is candle laden and intimate while the lunch restaurant serves cafeteria style.) At night, instead of the usual meat-laden rodizio, the restaurant, housed in a 19th century building, is doing a unique fish rodizio, serving up bacalhau or cod eight ways -- and as much as you can eat. Among preparations of noted Portuguese chef Michel da Costa are: carpaccio with the fish smoked over wood derived from port wine barrels; salted and dried and then soaked in milk to reduce any strong flavors; combined with potatoes and squid ink and then fried into an oval fritter; a mousse of fish and paprika; and cod strips fried with eggs, salsa, onions and potatoes. My two favorites were the carpaccio and the fried cod with eggs. In fact, I had several portions of both of these. The other six preparations were tasty as well and none displayed a strong fishy aroma that turns a lot of diners off. The two wines I sampled during this meal were a Fado White made from antao vaz and roupeiro grapes; and the Fado Red made from four grape varieties: aragonez, alicante bouschet, touriga nacional and trincadeira. The white is crisp with an apricot nose while the red was bright with a smooth finish. Having filled my belly with too much cod, I passed on dessert which was an olive oil ice cream. It’ll have to wait for my next visit.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

An Idyllic Italian Isle

Sardinia's Costa Smeralda on the east coast may get all the celebrity attention, but I found that bicycling the island's west coast with locally based Dolcevita Bike Tours is the way to experience the real Sardinia. For one week, I pedaled alongside Italians and native English speakers sharing mandatory and frequent espresso stops and picnicking on sheep's milk cheese, prosciutto and cantaloupe, or brochette bread with olive paste. We ventured through some of the most remote and wildest parts of Sardinia, sampling eucalyptus honey, wild boar sausage and wines made from indigenous grapes. Rolling past olive groves, vineyards and Genoese watchtowers perched on promontories, we rested on strikingly white sand beaches and parked our bikes near ancient Roman ruins. Instead of simply visiting one beachside resort after another, traveling with a local company brought us myriad intimate surprises. For example, while biking the Costa Verde with its rocky gorges and uncrowded beaches, we found giant foliage-draped sand dunes that are the highest in all of Europe.

Another day in the hamlet of San Salvatore, once a site of many a spaghetti western, the locals offered us wine that they produced for a much-celebrated religious feast where villagers race barefoot from town to town carrying the saint's statue. In the town of Arbus that's snuggled on a hillside, we met Paolo Pusceddu, the infamous knife maker who presides over the town's Knife Museum. (There we examined his 650-pound folding knife that's considered the world's heaviest.) And, given that Sardinia is dotted with thousands of nuraghi, we had plenty of opportunities to inspect these curious truncated cone-shaped stone structures dating to the Bronze Age.

I always prefer traveling with local groups rather than a U.S.-based company as a way to get a real perspective of the land and its people. And Dolcevita was everything I had hoped for and more. The guides were attentive, always available to answer questions on everything from history to cuisine. The other cyclists, particularly the Italians, were a delight. Not only were they amazing cyclists -- there were more than a few steep hills to climb on this journey that they navigated with aplomb; considering one had raced professionally and three others did regularly high-speed, heavy-duty cycling, I picked up plenty of biking tips -- but they were personable, funny and ever so stylish. In fact, I joked with them that they were the most fashionable cyclists I'd ever traveled with. As one might expect from the Italians, for our seven-day trek, many wore a different bike outfit every day. And, amazingly, everything matched, from the jersey to the tights to the gloves and socks. Overall, an unforgettable adventure with people that will remain my friends.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

A Magical Estonian Retreat

As soon as I set foot on the property, I knew that a one-night stay wouldn’t be enough. All week as I traveled through Estonia, the weather couldn’t be bleaker. Yet, though the cloud cover remained and storm clouds hovered on the horizon, the Nami Namaste property conveyed an air of sunshine.

The name that literally means "yummy, welcome to my heart" just about sums up my visit to Nami Namaste, a country inn on the small Estonian island of Muhu. Owner Sikke Sumari, who once owned a cooking school in Finland, told me that she found this enticing property under somewhat magical circumstances: Seeing the property for the first time and still undecided, Sikke noticed that the black tulips bent in the direction of what would become the main house. The magic continues with her property that entices all the senses. She walked me through the aromatic herb garden that grows lavender, sage and oregano that are used in the inn's recipes. Most everything is locally sourced, including the meats and eggs, with many of the vegetables, from parsnips to onions, also coming from her property. Snuggled amidst the lush foliage incongruously stands a Tuscan stone pizza oven. I found out that Italian chef Davide Alberoni built it and now presides over the kitchen, dishing up tasty recipes derived from his hometown region, Abruzzo, and other parts of Italy, with a hint of Asia for a more international flavor. (Like Sikke, he couldn’t be friendlier and more welcoming. If my Italian was more proficient, it would’ve been fun to practice with him.)

This 18th century fisherman's farm is outfitted with an outdoor hot tub that sits under age-old apple trees, a white-on-white presidential suite that has hosted the president of Estonia, and a sauna that's housed in a former blacksmith's shop. This is truly a place to spend at least a few days relaxing in the garden and taking day trips around the woodsy, placid island.

Sikke is very much into a "back to basics" mode, whether it means having guests learn how to make pasta in one of her cooking classes or relaxing in the former barn, now a lounge, beside a lovely stone fireplace. She’s the model hostess, providing me with a thick blanket and warm wool socks to snuggle up with while I listened to jazz and browsed the design magazines stacked on the tables.

While on Muhu Island, we drove roads that wend past dense woods and paths leading to limestone cliffs. In Kogura Village, that preserves buildings dating to the 1500s, former farm buildings that once belonged to the family of Juhun Smuul, a noted writer, were transformed into an open-air museum. Here you can see the old school house, as well as a contemporary art gallery exhibiting works by local artists and an ethnographic museum displaying traditional clothing and other textiles.

I plan on returning Nami Namaste for a weekend of cooking classes with time to check out the horseback riding, bicycling and canoeing in the area.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Tallinn, A Trendy Medieval City

On my recent trip to Tallinn, the medieval capital city of Estonia, I found that it straddles a fine line between quaint and trendy. Its old quarter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with ancient wall fortifications and a multitude of steeples piercing the skyline. Yet, this city, which will be European Cultural Capital 2011, is hardly stuck in the dark ages. In fact, quite the opposite. After all, Tallinn is home to Skype, the internet-based communications program.

Trendy restaurants, cafes, wine bars, galleries and boutique emporia can be found down many a cobbled lane. Last spring, an Asian fusion restaurant, Chedi, opened. Grilled Chilean sea bass with Chinese honey and stir-fried venison are a couple of the dishes served in this intimate space. The Gloria Wine Bar with its warren of cozy stone rooms and a fourth-floor attic that's home to Veini Pooning are two of
Tallinn's most intimate bars to sample wine. One of the most curiously-named restaurants, Ö, meaning "island" in Swedish, serves up Euro cuisine that's heavy on Scandinavian and Estonian products. Diners sit among images of Rubens hung on the walls. Past tall cast iron gates, another restaurant, Egoist, is housed in a centuries-old mansion that's detailed with antiques galore.

Tallinn has no shortage of cozy cafes with fab pastries, including Chocolaterie, Kohvicum and Bonaparte. I particularly loved the tranquil outside courtyard at the former that serves creamy homemade truffles, including those filled with passion fruit and chiles. Bonaparte has a comfortable subdued interior where you enter through a rustic tall wooden door reminiscent of what you might find in a castle -- after all, the building dates to the late 13th century -- yet contemporary art hang on the walls. Here I devoured a very tasty red currant tart -- there are so many yummy pastries it's hard to choose.

The city's relatively new vanguard institution is the modernist
Kamu Museum that's built into a limestone cliff and displays contemporary and classic art. You could spend the whole afternoon wandering the sun-filled interior. The Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design didn't get a lot of tourist traffic when I was there but it's definitely worth a visit to see the works (from furniture to porcelain) of Estonian designers that they promote. More locally produced works can be found at Nu Nordik, a small shop chock full of creative, whimsical items, from T-shirts and pillows to jewelry and pottery. Reet Aus is an eco designer-owned shop selling very wearable, comfortable women's clothing.

On the accommodation front, these are my two picks: Three 14th century merchant homes serve as the home of Three Sisters, a boutique hotel that mixes old and new where no room is alike. An old wooden staircase spirals up to the rooms where some have claw foot tubs, four-poster beds and centuries-old wood beams. After dinner, a visit to their cellar wine bar makes a fine way to end the evening. Another accommodation, the Hotel Telegraaf is aptly named for the 19th century telegraph building where it's housed. Their spa offers Tibetan massage as well as wraps using a Balinese recipe.

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Thursday, January 8, 2009


I just returned from a week in Cadaques, a town in Spain’s Catalunya region where Salvator Dali lived with Gala for many years. This seaside town is packed in the summer but a visit around New Years allows you to participate in an interesting tradition: The locals drive from the surrounding towns to the peninsula of pristine Cap de Creus – a half hour from Cadaques – to celebrate the sunrise on January 1st. No wonder, considering this windswept nature reserve with its rocky cliffs and headlands and working lighthouse is so far east that it’s the first place on the Iberian Peninsula to see the sun rise. Some years a thousand or so folks start out at 5 in the morning in order to get a parking space either in the small lot beside the lighthouse or, if that’s full, then along the roadside. The lighthouse played a prominent role in the 1970s film: “The Light at the Edge of the World.” And standing on the cliffs, whether in the wee hours of the morning as I did or later in the day, does feel like you’re at the end of the world.

Since it’s a nature reserve with unique flora that carpets the rugged slopes, the only building beside the lighthouse is the Restaurant Cap de Creus, housed in a former administrative edifice. The restaurant, that features Catalan and Indian cuisine, takes reservations for the multi-course New Years Eve dinner which is amazingly popular. I didn’t make it – I was too busy dining with friends in Cadaques and then eating the traditional 12 grapes right before midnight – but I heard they were packed. When we arrived at 5:30 a.m. on the 1st we found about 15 people who had stayed all night – also very typical here. They were still dancing (the restaurant hosted a jazz big band on New Years Eve but the music transitioned to meringue as that band packed up) but now they were drinking café con leche rather than something stronger. It was cold outside with a bitter wind so my three friends and I waited in the restaurant until 7 a.m. as more and more people gathered.

Outside, musicians with a variety of wind instruments set up as did those who would lead the national dance of Catalunya: the Sardana. At 7:30 the band members started playing and several circles of dancers formed, each member’s hands were linked to the other and all had their arms raised high. Near the band, women set up long tables full of freshly-made and steaming thick hot cocoa and almond coffee cakes and biscuits. We warmed our hands with the cups of hot chocolate while staring out across the rough seas, hoping the thick cloud cover won’t obscure the event. I noticed that many people came prepared with blankets and sleeping bags and carried these partly down the rocky slopes where they perched, waiting for the big event. Others walk out to the edge of a rocky headland. Finally, a thin strip of pale yellow light appeared in the east. To the right, a tiny ball of orange. The crowd registered a collective “ahhh.” The dancing, cocoa drinking and almond cake munching continued until around 9 a. m. when most people wandered to their cars and we decided that, since we couldn’t feel our feet, it was time to get back into the car. Of all the things I’ve done to celebrate the New Year, this was probably the loveliest. A sure way to not only get in touch with Spain’s natural beauty but also its nationalistic people in the Catalan region.


Monday, January 5, 2009


Combining a land and sea adventure is one of the best ways to explore so many of Croatia's delights. So I signed up with a Canadian-based company, Pedal & Sea Adventures which offered a low-key, value-for-the-money trip -- they paired up with a German adventure tour company that handled the land operations. The newest boat they operate is the Romantica, a 110-foot-long teak and mahogany motor cruiser that was manned and personally built by the young handsome captain and his 25 Croatian friends and colleagues. For someone so young -- he's under 40 -- he did an amazing job of deftly maneuvering our ship into each of the often crowded ports. Our cabins were comfy and cozy and each day they prepared meals centered on locally-sourced ingredients where fresh fish, fruits and vegetables were abundant. We needed all the calories we could devour because we spent most of each day cycling 30 to 40 miles or so up and down a multitude of hills through the heart of each island. But there were always options to either hang on the ship taking in the sun or cycling only part of the way on each island.

Mljet, Sipan, Korcula,
Vis, Hvar and Brac each had a distinct personality both scenically and historically. Sipan is unspoiled and covered with thick pine and cypress forests that hide old chapels, fortresses and the summer villas once occupied by Dubrovnik's rich.

On Mljet we rode past fig trees into a national park that's home to a unique feature: two interconnected salt water lakes. In the middle of one sits an islet where we found a 12th century Benedictine monastery.

Korcula, the supposed home of Marco Polo, has roads that wind past vineyards that grow the unique Posip grape, and later along an allee of lime trees in the town of Blato.

We were lucky to arrive in Vis because usually the seas are too rough for the crossing. Here we found the tranquil fishing village of Komiza where a Venetian fortress is now home to a maritime museum. Later we were delighted to take a break at Vinoteka where the family has been making wine for 200 years. (They served us sheep cheese, anchovies and proscuitto.)

Hvar gets plenty of tourist traffic but we avoided most of it by pedaling on roads where vendors sell lavender and cherry liquors from roadside stands. Later, we spent time in the old town of Stari Grad where a noted 16th century poet built an amazing summer palace. In the late afternoon, we took the optional bike ride to seaside villages and small towns pierced by church steeples.

Brac's most noteworthy feature is the Golden Horn, an unusual 1,300-foot-long sandy tongue that constantly changes shape. Famous for its white limestone -- it was used in the White House and other notable edifices -- Brac is blessed with placid hillside villages with tall bell towers and where men still sit astride donkeys. It's hard to be bored or disappointed on this Pedal & Sea trip because every day brought an interesting adventure. And I found a broad cross-section of friendly guests -- young and old alike from all over North America -- so you're bound to find a kindred spirit to hang out with.