For natives, who practically roll out of the womb on two wheels, it’s no problem. They view their bikes as an extension of their bodies, and they’re able to engage in any activity you can imagine without taking their feet off the pedals, from texting on their mobiles to cycling in high heels while tweezing their eyebrows and juggling chainsaws.
According to statistics, there are more than a million bicycles in the city—far more than the population of 700,000, suggesting that some residents can actually ride two bikes at one time.
For me, however, it’s a different story. Having rarely saddled up since my training wheels came off, I’m attempting to stay within a narrow bike lane while simultaneously avoiding oncoming cars, women ambling along with baby carriages, and little old ladies stepping blindly off the curb.
If I live through this, I reckon I’ll be ready for anything life might throw—or wheel—at me in the future. (If I have a future, that is).
While cycling in the Netherlands’ capital isn’t for everyone (and definitely not for me), there are plenty of less death-defying ways to experience Amsterdam.
Here are a few of my top picks.
AB FAB FASHION
Pieter Cornelisz Hooftstraat is Amsterdam’s most chi-chi shopping street, featuring fashion houses like Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, and Louis Vuitton. Take a stroll down Kalverstraat for more mainstream shops, like H&M and Zara, then wander through the Bloemenmarkt on Singel near Muntplein for a look at the colourful assortment of tulips and other flowering bulbs for sale.
My favourite area is De 9 Straatjes (www.de9straatjes.nl), a collection of nine quaint streets connecting the Heren-, Keisers- and Prinsengracht canals, flanked by all sorts of unusual boutiques.
For funky vintage finds reminiscent of Endora’s closet on “Bewitched,” pop into Laura Dols (Wolvenstraat 6 and 7, www.lauradols.com).
For art and fashion books, check out Mendo (Berenstraat 11, www.mendo.nl).
Hipsters, meanwhile, will dig the pottery and leather at Terra (Reestraat 21).
Monday to Saturday, head to the Waterlooplein Flea Market for deals on everything from furry handcuffs to second-hand clothing, or browse more than 300 stalls along Albert Cuypstraat, home of one of Europe’s largest multicultural markets, where vendors hawk clothes, cameras, cosmetics and loads of other stuff that doesn’t begin with a “c.”
Lastly, fashionistas will want to pay their respects at the Tassen Museum of Bags and Purses (Herengracht 573, www.tassenmuseum.nl), which showcases more than 4,000 examples dating back to the 16th century.
ART AND HISTORY
From landscapes to self-portraits, still-lives and personal letters, the Van Gogh Museum houses the most comprehensive collection of Vincent’s work in the world, as well as paintings by Pissarro, Monet, Manet and Gauguin. (Paulus Potterstraat 7, www.vangoghmuseum.nl)
Nearby, behind the Rijksmuseum’s castle-like façade, you’ll find a wealth of historic relics and important artworks, including Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch.” (Jan Luijkenstraat 1, www.rijksmuseum.nl). To see where Rembrandt lived and worked between 1639 and 1658, detour to the Rembrandthuis. (Jodenbreestraat 4, www.rembrandthuis.nl)
Although it’s guaranteed to reduce you to tears, you must visit the Anne Frank House for an incredibly moving, insightful glimpse into the heart and mind of this talented young woman. Tour the “secret annex” where she and her family, along with four others, hid for two years during World War II. (Prinsengracht 263-267,www.annefrank.org)
WET AND WILD
Amsterdam is a bit like Waterworld, only people dress better—and if they have webbed feet and gills, they’re well-concealed. But it is surrounded by the wet stuff, a port city crisscrossed by canals, with an airport that’s situated 12 feet below sea level. So it’s only fitting to explore it by water.
The Blue Boat Company’s large, glass-top boats offer an informative introduction to the city, giving you the lay of the land—and the water—along with a bit of history, courtesy of a recorded commentary. www.blueboat.nl.
Alternatively, purchase a 24-hour pass for the Canal Bus, which lets you hop on and off as often as you like, with 20 stops, including the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum and the Anne Frank House. www.canal.nl.
Feeling more energetic? You’ll get two typical Amsterdam experiences—peddling and splashing—for the price of one with a Canal Bike pedal boat which seats up to four. www.canal.nl/bike.
EAT, DRINK AND BE MERRY
On Saturdays, begin with a visit to the Boerenmarkt (Noordermarkt), an organic farmer’s market offering a selection of fresh bread, cheeses, olives, spices and more.
But leave room in your shopping bag—and your belly—for a chocolate treat at Puccini Bomboni (Singel 184, www.puccinibomboni.com), where you can choose from quirky flavours like pepper, port, and rhubarb, all handmade on-site. (Dessert for breakfast? Why not? You’re on holiday).
At Nieuwmarkt, enjoy lunch in the atmospheric Restaurant-Café In de Waag (www.indewaag.nl), an old medieval fortified gate house.
Stomach rumblings satiated, head to the hip House of Bols (Paulus Potterstraat 14, www.houseofbols.com, adults 18+ only), where you’ll wash down a few facts about Bols Genever liqueurs with a free cocktail and two shots of the liqueur of your choice. (Catchphrase: “Some museums have a great bar. Our bar has a great museum.”)
Sip a sobering cup of coffee at Café Americain (Leidsekade 97, www.edenamsterdamamericanhotel.com), admiring its beautiful stained-glass windows.
Then pay a visit to De Kaaskammer (Runstraat 7, www.kaaskamer.nl), which stocks more than 300 different cheeses, which can be mailed to you or shrink-wrapped for travel. (If you can milk it—cow, goat, sheep or buffalo—they sell the cheese).
For dinner, consider a belt-loosening Indonesian feast—the adopted cuisine of erstwhile Dutch colonizers–at Blue Pepper (Nassaukade 366, www.restaurantbluepepper.com).
But if it’s seafood you’re after, make a beeline for Bridges at the Sofitel Legend Grand Amsterdam (Oudezijds Voorburgwal 197, www.bridgesrestaurant.nl).
As for Amsterdam’s infamous “coffee shops,” which sell mood-altering substances that are much more hardcore than espresso, what can I say? Just follow your nose.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay: The 177-room, 52-suite Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam is one of the leading hotels in the city, located canal-side in the Old Center. It is one of only two “Legends” in the world, a designation denoting not only luxury, but history. Marie de Medici, Queen of France, visited in 1638, and Beatrix, Queen of the Netherlands, held her civil ceremony here in 1966. A two-year renovation maintained period details, like magnificent marble floors in the lobby, with stylish new contemporary décor, a redesigned terrace and spa. Oudezijds Voorburgwal 197, www.sofitel-legend-thegrand.com.
Canal House is an intimate, 23-bedroom boutique hotel ensconced within three 17th century merchants’ houses in the charming Jordaan neighorhood. It boasts dramatic, modern design and an elegant restaurant overlooking the garden. Keizersgracht 148-152, www.canalhouse.nl.
Hotel Pulitzer Amsterdam, a Luxury Collection Hotel, encompasses 25 canal houses, connected by an intriguing labyrinth of hallways. Some rooms boast period details, like sturdy oak beams, and afford views of the award-winning terrace or the canals. Guest rooms and Pulitzers restaurant were featured in the movie “Ocean’s Twelve,” which starred George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon. Prinsengracht 315-331, www.pulitzeramsterdam.com.
Tourism info: www.iamsterdam.com. Offers tips on restaurants, current happenings and detailed descriptions of Amsterdam’s different neighborhoods.
“I amsterdam City Card” includes:
- a public transport ticket
- more than 50 free and 60 discounted offers on tourist attractions and restaurants from 39 euro for 24-hour card.
Gstaad: It’s hard to imagine Satan in bowling shoes. But whoever named the stony pinnacle atop Glacier 3000 the “Quille du Diable” (The Devil’s Tenpin) must have managed it. Maybe he was affected by the thin air here in the Swiss Alps, 3,000 meters high in the sky–or perhaps he had imbibed too much gluhwein.
Drinking in the views atop this icy moonscape, I find it puts me more in mind of heaven than hell. Fog fills the valleys below, while snow-capped mountains serrate the blue sky in every direction.
The openness of the landscape—from the glacial expanse where I stand now to the wide vales that stretch out like fingers at its base—set Gstaad and the surrounding Saanenland apart from other popular resorts in the Alps.
“If you compare it to St. Moritz or Zermatt, they’re more narrow, and in Grindelwald, the Eiger is like a big wall,” explains ski instructor Bernhard Hauswirth. “When you come to the glacier, you can see so far, even to the Lake of Geneva and the top of the Matterhorn.”
The winter sports season also continues longer here than in many areas—right up through early May on the glacier, after the snow has melted away on the lower peaks. Snowshoeing, snowboarding and skiing, both downhill and cross-country, are the key wintertime attractions in Gstaad, which offers 155 miles of slopes.
Crucial for a snow bunny like me—a certified lowlander more familiar with the icy faux-snow of the Appalachians than the posh powder of the Alps—many of the mountains (including Eggli, my favorite) offer kinder, gentler descents, making it more family-friendly.
Beyond the temptations of the slopes, visitors are drawn to Gstaad for “the scene”–a quizzical combination of celebrities (ranging back to Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor to modern-day luminaries like Madonna and Anne Hathaway) and hard-working locals. Ski instructors often labour as carpenters in the off-season, keeping the centuries-old tradition of woodworking alive, and farmers lead their cows, draped in bells and festooned with blossoms, through Gstaad’s streets in September.
“Visitors like the authenticity of being with local people,” explains Karen Bach, a tour guide who also runs a diary farm with her husband, as we jostle through the valleys one morning in a horse-drawn sleigh.
Along the Promenade, Gstaad’s main shopping street, this synthesis is evident. Cartier, Louis Vuitton, and Hermes flank the road.
But within the wood-paneled walls of the Posthotel Rossli, wizened men with the weathered faces of farmers and shepherds still gather around the stammtisch—a designated “drinking” table, where you’re required to chat with those around you. (No eyes glued to iPhones here).
Ferraris and Range Rovers fill the parking lots, but nothing is too precious to be put to practical use, as I discover when I spy the world’s dirtiest white Porsche being loaded up with groceries. Sure, there are plenty of women in fur coats—as much a necessity as a fashion statement in these cold climes—but they’re paired with sturdy hiking boots as often as platform toe-pinchers.
If you do happen to spy a famous face peering over a fur collar, the policy is to leave them alone. “We don’t ask for a picture, and if someone asks where they are staying, I say I don’t know,” says Marianne Lupe, another guide who leads me through Gstaad. “We protect them, so they can make a holiday and have a normal life.”
Gstaad maintains its chocolate-box village charm through its unerring devotion to traditional architecture. Building codes prevent anyone, no matter how wealthy or well known, from building more than three stories high, and all homes must be clad in wood in chalet style. Inside, it can be as modern as you like, and you’re welcome to build as far below ground as possible without hitting the water table, resulting in countless subterranean cinemas, parking garages, pools and discos. Imagine the dream home of a hobbit-cum-billionaire, and you can just about picture the labyrinthine luxury that lurks underground.
The latest five-star hotel to open here is The Alpina Gstaad, which began welcoming guests last December. Presiding over five acres on a hilltop perch, The Alpina Gstaad appears like a large chalet from the outside, with a peaked tower at each corner.
Once inside, however, you can ditch those Hansel and Gretel illusions. The hotel boasts an impressive modern art collection and is as contemporary and high-tech as a lair from a Bond film.
21st Century features include night lights that turn on when your feet hit the floor and Bang & Olufsen televisions that turn to “follow” you as you move about your suite. Local stone, combined with centuries-old reclaimed wood and a smattering of hand-painted Swiss antiques, lend it charm and warmth. Crackling fires burn in the reception hall and the lounge, where an Italian DJ spins tunes in the evenings as the glitterati recline in custom-made sofas.
The Alpina Gstaad has three restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Restaurant Sommet, headed by Marcus Lindner, the first European outpost of MEGU, offering Japanese cuisine, and Stubli, serving traditional Swiss fare. There’s also a wine-tasting room, a cigar lounge, a cinema and a ski shop on-site. The 2,000-square-meter Six Senses Spa, equipped with an indoor swimming pool and a colour-therapy relaxation room with a fleet of waterbeds, offers everything from Shiatsu to Swedish and bamboo massages, holistic Ayurveda treatments, and colonic hydrotherapy.
The only hydrotherapy I’m after, though, is a dip in the heated outdoor swimming pool, where I can take in mountain views while floating in balmy bliss. It’s enough to make me revise my vision of heaven once more.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Fly into either Geneva or Zurich. From there, you can take the trains into Gstaad.
Stay: The Alpina Gstaad, www.thealpinagstaad.ch. The newest and one of the chicest hotels, set in Gstaad’s most exclusive area.
Grand Hotel Park Gstaad,
www.grandhotelpark.ch/uk/index.php. Comfort, warmth and hospitality are the guiding forces at this hotel, which features its own ice-skating rink in the winter.
The Gstaad Palace, www.palace.ch. Perched on a hilltop, this historic hotel presides like a castle over the village below.
Posthotel Rossli, www.posthotelroessli.ch/english. Conveniently located on The Promenade, this is a good bet for travelers on a budget.
Dine: Refuge l’Espace, atop Glacier3000, has a spacious terrace with breathtaking views, as well as a cozy indoor restaurant serving Swiss dishes. www.refugelespace.ch.
Snoasis is THE see-and-be-seen eatery on Eggli, where chic skiers sip champagne and nosh on French fries lavished with truffles on the patio. http://snoasis.ch.
Restaurant Mattestubli in Lauenensee Valley is open in winter and run by the Brand family, who live upstairs in this Swiss chalet. Try the cheese fondue, but save room for a slice of Veronika Brand’s homemade chocolate cake. There’s no glitz—just homespun hospitality. Reservations: +41 (0)33 765-3337. To get there, take a horse-drawn sleigh hired through Kutscherei Reichenbach. The ride through the mountain passes is ethereal, especially on a moonlit night. www.kutscherei-reichenbach.ch.
Schlittenfahrten Gstaad-Saanenland also offers horse-drawn sleigh rides through Gstaad and its environs. www.gstaadschlittenfahrten.ch.
I’m sitting beside a pool in the Bay of Biscay, sipping a gin and tonic as a Thai band plays a vigorous rendition of Van Halen’s “Jump.” A life-sized Barbie in a black-fringed thong bikini has just lowered herself into the water, no doubt inducing heart palpitations and several cases of whiplash among the men relaxing on the Lido Deck loungers around me.
That might seem like sufficient excitement for one afternoon, but all eyes are directed upwards when a crimson-coloured helicopter appears overhead, dangling two black-clad men from cables. For a moment, I wonder whether our ship—Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Serenity—is being commandeered by airborne pirates. But no, these two naval ninjas are deposited aboard the bridge to navigate our vessel up-river to Bordeaux.
If anyone feared that our days at sea might be, well, a bit too serene, we’ve just discovered that shipboard life is full of the unexpected. Perhaps they should consider rechristening the boat the Crystal Surprise.
My decision to come aboard Crystal’s 10-day, all-inclusive “European Embrace” voyage was largely influenced by the ports of call, which read like a “best of” list of European cities.
Beginning in Dover, England, we first sailed to Guernsey, a sunny little sliver of an island, best known as the setting for the novel “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,” about the German occupation during World War II. We still have Bordeaux, Lisbon, Cadiz and Seville, and Barcelona on the horizon.
I was also seduced by the promise of unparalleled luxury. This year, Crystal Cruises—which encompasses the 1,070-passenger Crystal Serenity and the 922-passenger Crystal Symphony—was voted the “World’s Best Large-Ship Cruise Line” for an unprecedented 18th consecutive year in the Travel + Leisure readers’ survey.
Crystal Serenity offers one of the largest space-per-guest ratios in its class, and eighty-five percent of rooms include a verandah. The ship, which first launched in 2003, recently underwent a US $35 million renovation and will benefit from another US $17 million redesign of the Lido Deck and its top four suites during a two-week dry dock this month.
I’m in a 37-square-meter penthouse, which comes with a fully stocked bar, a Jacuzzi bathtub, and, oh yes, a butler–in full tux with tails. Tamas programs his number into my bedside phone, so that I can summon him at will (and who doesn’t like the idea of “summoning one’s butler.”)
So what does being “butled” entail? Well, your man will pack and unpack your steamer trunk (or suitcase) upon request, make reservations in the ship’s two specialty restaurants (Nobu’s Silk Road and the Italian Prego), set up shore excursions, salon and spa appointments, offer nightly nibbles (I’m referring to food here, people), and even arrange a private cocktail party in your quarters. Basically, it’s the full “Downton Abbey” experience, minus the soap-opera intrigue.
It’s tempting to simply remain aboard the ship, with something going on nearly every hour of the day. There’s ballroom dancing, art and computer classes, movies, Broadway-style shows, live music, a disco, and guest lecturers. My favourite is former FBI criminal profiler Clint Van Zandt. Without him, I’d never have known that the best way to remove your fingerprints is to soak them in a mixture of pineapple and papaya juice. (One day, this information may come in handy).
But who can say no to Bordeaux? Arriving on our third evening, my companions and I wander the cobblestone streets of the chic left bank with guide Christine Birem, who points out the city’s most prominent landmarks, like a lion-shaped weather vane atop the Grosse Cloche (the Big Bell).
“When his head is turned towards the river, he will drink and the weather is fine,” Birem explains. “When he turns his tail towards the river, he pees in it, and it will rain.” Alrighty then.
The town is full of cafes, like the shabby-chic L’Apollo on Place Fernand LaFargue, where university students sip their coffee and cocktails outdoors with insouciance, having noted the lion’s good humour.
“Bordeaux is a friendly town,” Birem notes. “It’s not in a hurry.”
With fine French wine flowing through your veins, it’s hard not to relax and enjoy the scenery, especially in the gratuitously lovely St. Emilion, which we visit the next day. Cascading down a steep slope, it’s like a vision by M.C. Escher rendered in golden stone, with its famous vineyards sprawled out beneath a blue sky beyond.
The city that comes as the biggest surprise is Lisbon. I had no expectations, but surveying the sunlit hillside city from Serenity’s deck on the morning of our arrival, I’m in love before I even set foot off the boat.
Rua de Augusta, a broad, tessellated boulevard, is the main shopping street. Shouldering through throngs of ladies laden with bags, on your left you’ll find the Elevador de Santa Justa, which transports passengers to the streets above.
I take a more circuitous route (which is to say, I get lost), wandering the Alfama neighbourhood, where laundry lines hang like bunting overhead and women chat to each other from their windows. The prize is the Castelo de Sao Jorge, where I roam the romantic ruins of the castle walls for hours, taking in panoramic views of the city below.
Each new port seems determined to outdo the last, and Seville is no exception. It’s a two-hour bus ride from Cadiz, where we dock, but it’s worth logging the extra miles. I could easily spend an entire afternoon exploring the maze of the former Jewish quarter, Santa Cruz, where the fictional Don Juan was “born.” (It’s probably no coincidence that the narrowest alleyway, Renosa, is nicknamed “the kissing street.”)
Yet you can’t come to Seville without visiting the eye-popping Real Alcazar, a royal palace where almost every surface is covered in intricately patterned tiles, and the Spanish Pavilion. The pavilion, with a dazzling columned arcade embracing a massive courtyard, served as an otherworldly palace in the “Star Wars” series and as Sacha Baron Cohen’s not-so-humble abode in “The Dictator.”
Saving perhaps the best for last, our final port is Barcelona, a city that redefines the notion of “surreally” beautiful, thanks to the fanciful architecture of Antoni Gaudi. His masterpieces include La Sagrada Familia, an unfinished cathedral that resembles a dripping sand castle, the mosaic-encrusted Parc Guell, La Padrera, and Casa Batllo, with “bones” and Mardi Gras-like masks adorning its facade.
After I’ve got my Gaudi on, I take a stroll along La Rambla, which buzzes with tourists, vendors hawking flowers and souvenirs, and some of the world’s most outrageously clad street performers. I cap my visit with a pint at El Bosc de les Fades near the Museu de Cera (wax museum). Gazing around at its fairytale-like grottos and twisted trees, their twiggy fingers seemingly poised to pluck me from my perch near the bar, I fear the week’s exertions may have taken their toll on me.
Time to retire to the boat, methinks, for a final evening of sweet Serenity.
IF YOU GO
Crystal Cruises will visit similar ports on the “Canary Island Serenade” (US $3,850 per person) November 27-December 9, as well as numerous cruises in 2014. Prices include food and beverages (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic). www.crystalcruises.com.
For thrills and chills on Halloween, pack up your pumpkin and your Ghostbusters’ proton pack and check out this spirited trio of historic escapes.
There is a death match brewing between the English cities of Chester, Durham and York, the likes of which the (nether)world has never seen before. While most places try to tempt tourists by touting themselves as “lively” destinations, these three cities take pride in vying for the title of the most (un)dead.
The Ghost Research Foundation International once named York “Europe’s most haunted city,” but HauntedChester.com insists that Chester “can rightly and justly claim to be the most haunted city in England,” thanks to a series of turbulent and tragic events. (While “Chester: Famine, plague, war—and more!” is hardly the sort of tagline you’ll find on promotional t-shirts and bumper stickers, it would seem to serve as a veritable primordial soup for spooks).
But if you think Chester and York are swamped with specters, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. According to ParanormalDatabase.com, Durham has been besieged by dozens of phantoms, including a Pekinese, flying pitchforks, an impregnating chair, and the, um, “limbless worm.” (Is there any other kind?) Aside from being “limbless,” this critter is described as “a long, hostile worm which inhabited an oak wood, attacking man and beast,” much like the killer rabbit from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
I only hope that my tour of Chester, Durham and York will finally allow the whole matter to, er, rest in peace.
In Chester, which was founded 2,000 years ago by the Romans, poltergeists and ghouls are said to haunt everything from a chocolate shop to the Eastgate Clock. Not surprisingly, however, most spectral activity centers around the pubs…perhaps because when you drink spirits, you’re more likely to see spirits, as well.
So, in the interest of research, I spend my first afternoon swallowing my fear, along with several pints of Guinness, at a trio of haunted pubs along Lower Bridge Street. At the Falcon, the Bear and Billet and Ye Olde Kings Head, glasses and bottles are said to fly off the shelves, as if tossed about by a butter-fingered bartender from the great beyond.
But despite these pubs’ admittedly spooky vibe, accentuated by ancient creaking timbers, the only phenomenon I notice is how quickly my glass seems to empty. However, I’m not dispirited (ahem), because tonight, I’m taking a tour tonight with ghostly guide Tom Jones.
“I never try to persuade people that there are such things as ghosts,” says Tom Jones, who certainly looks the part, with his stark white hair, black undertaker’s suit and a handshake so cold I’m tempted to take his pulse. “What I am going to do is take you to places where strange and inexplicable things are known to happen.”
One of the spookiest sites in Chester is the Church of St. John the Baptist, much of which lies in ruins. In the dim glow of a streetlamp beside the church, Jones recounts an incident that occurred here one autumn evening in 1982.
“A man saw a black swirling mist which passed right through him,” Jones intones. “He felt two sensations. First, a cold deep inside his body. Second was a feeling of most unspeakable evil which touched his very soul.” Fortunately these “smoke ghosts,” which Jones speculates may be “a concentration of centuries of misfortune, tragedies and evil,” are very rare.
Unfortunately, “for those who find themselves in an area where a smoke ghost appeared, there is a sort of latching effect, almost like an infection,” he warns us. “Days, weeks, years later, when you enter the safety of your own home, waiting for you in the shadows may be the smoke ghost. If that happens,” Jones pauses dramatically, “exorcism is the only answer.” At that exact moment, the electric street lamp is extinguished.
After this chill-inducing encounter, I decamp to Durham, which, in addition to the aforementioned worms and Pekinese, is apparently inhabited by several “Gray Ladies” (and I don’t mean the old dears down at the bingo hall).
Gray Lady number one haunts the imposing 11th century castle that looms over the city from its hilltop perch near the Cathedral.
The former Bishop’s wife fell down an oak staircase here and now supposedly floats between floors, although when I tour the castle, which today serves as the world’s most luxurious student dorm, the only spirit in evidence is a bottle of whisky swigged by undergrads “studying” in a hallway.
Undeterred, I head to Crook Hall, a surprisingly cozy stone manor haunted by Gray Lady number two. This spirit, also known as the White Lady (thanks perhaps to a dousing of Banshee Bleach), seems stuck on a supernatural treadmill, gliding down a staircase in the Jacobean drawing room.
At the foot of the steps, school children have left notes for the ghost. “Dear White Lady, Please don’t haunt me. I’m only 6,” pleads a girl named Jenny. Jade, on the other hand, seems destined to be a detective. “How did you die? Who killed you? What is your real name?” she demands.
The Lady’s current roommates are Maggie and Keith Bell, who moved in nearly 20 years ago and opened the home for public tours.
“I think when you die, you die,” says Maggie, who readily admits that she doesn’t believe in ghosts. “Although,” she adds cryptically, “we have had some strange experiences.”
Maggie once saw a psychic have a “physical reaction” in the 13th century Medieval Hall. The psychic then revealed that a soldier had been killed and bricked up in the corner. Later, as caterers were setting up for a wedding reception in hall, Maggie heard a blood-curdling scream. “One of the women said she had been leaning in the corner, and a man (presumably the soldier) put his icy cold hand on her back,” she recalls.
Her most hair-raising anecdote is about something her husband heard as they lay in bed one night. “I was asleep, and Keith became aware of a dragging sound in the Minstrel’s Gallery. At the door to the bedroom, the sound stopped. Then he heard footsteps going upstairs, where there are no stairs, and walking across the ceiling. There used to be a room there, but someone has blocked up the window and taken off the stairs.”
Looking at the sealed-off window from the garden below, I feel a chill and wonder who—or what—might have been bricked up in the attic.
These are the thoughts I take with me to Lumley Castle, a 600-year-old fortress complete with turrets, a trapdoor and an erstwhile dungeon.
The castle has been transformed into a tasseled and tufted hotel on the outskirts of Durham, but amid the swags of velvet and plump sofas lurks “Lily of Lumley.”
When Lily refused to convert to Catholicism in the 14th century, the lovely Lily was allegedly murdered by priests and thrown down a well, which is now enshrined under glass in the center of a hallway. Staff members have reported seeing flying lampshades, hearing the rustle of silk and taffeta on the stairs, and finding costumes flung about a locked dressing room.
The next day, I happily leave Durham’s undead behind me and head to York. “The Ghost Hunt of York,” led by Andy Auster clad in a top hat and cloak, serves as a rib-achingly hilarious introduction to this ancient Roman city’s afterlife.
“Some of you will scream, some of you will laugh, and YOU,” Auster points to a tall man at the back of the crowd, ”will wet yourself.”
As Auster leads us through the streets, he pauses before various landmarks to relate York’s most notorious ghost stories, including the legend of a Roman legion that emerged from a wall in the Treasurer’s House.
To demonstrate the horn blast that preceded the soldiers, Auster asks the tall man to blow upon a tiny trumpet. “Do you have any communicable diseases, sir?” Auster asks afterwards, examining the instrument with a look of distaste. “Well,” he adds in a tone that’s dry as a bone, “now you do.”
For a more serious investigation of York’s most famous ghost story—that of the Roman legion—I don a hard hat and follow a guide into the basement of the Treasurer’s House, now a museum. We descend a ramp that leads to a wooden platform erected atop the remains of an old Roman road. It was here, in 1953, that Harry Martindale, an 18-year-old apprentice heating engineer, encountered spectral troops emerging from a wall as he attempted to install a radiator.
“If anyone else had told me this story, I’d have said rubbish,” Martindale has admitted. “But I tell everyone, I don’t care whether you believe me or not. It’s something you couldn’t make up.”
Personally, I’m reserving judgment on the otherworldly until the day I come home and find a smoke ghost waiting for me. Better that, anyway, than a limbless worm.
What to do:
Chester ghosts tours: www.chesterguidedtours.com
Crook Hall & Gardens, www.crookhallgardens.co.uk
York Ghost hunt: www.ghosthunt.co.uk
Treasurer’s House: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-treasurershouseyork
Where to stay:
The Chester Grosvenor and Spa, Chester, www.chestergrosvenor.com
Lumley Castle, County Durham, www.lumleycastle.com
Grafton House, Durham, www.grafton-house.co.uk
Best Western Dean Court Hotel, York, www.bestwestern.co.uk
“Belle! Belle!” a man calls out from a corner café as I round a bend in my 1956 Porsche 356 Speedster. Whether his hoot of approval and accompanying wolf whistle are for me or, more likely, for my rented wheels hardly matters. With the top down and the sunshine of the French Riviera casting a golden glow across the landscape, I’m smiling ear-to-ear either way. I only hope I’m out of sight when I stall the car on a slope, the gears grinding and growling like an angry grizzly as I try to cajole the temperamental stick shift back into first.
Never mind. I’m going to enjoy my movie star moment, ensconced in a red bucket leather seat as I clear the coast and head into the pine-scented hills. This is silver screen country, after all, where dozens of seminal films have been shot since the 1950s. My ride, hired from Rent a Classic Car, is the same model favored by James Dean, and my hair is pulled back into a wind-defying blonde bun, a la Grace Kelly. All that’s missing from this picture is Cary Grant…and a snazzy score by Henry Mancini to drown out the carnage I’m inflicting on the motor.
Cruising in a vintage car is the perfect complement to my cinematic tour of the Cote d’Azur, which will take me from Cannes to the ridiculously picturesque mountaintop village of Eze, with stops in Antibes, St. Paul de Vence, Nice, and Villefranche-sur-Mer along the way.
The Cannes International Film Festival is held every May, but the scent of flash cash virtually perfumes the air throughout the year. Expensive yachts (is there any other kind?) line the harbor, and high-end boutiques flank La Croissette along the waterfront.
A mural atop the bus station serves as reminder of the city’s dedication to the movie industry, depicting characters like Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe and Star Wars’ C-3PO and R2D2. (Perhaps Nicole Kidman can be stenciled in, too, as she recently filmed scenes for the upcoming Grace of Monaco along the Riviera).
Outside the Palais des Festivals et des Congres, visitors gawk at the concrete-cast handprints of stars, including Sharon Stone, Michael Douglas, and Sylvester Stallone. But the real action happens inside the 2,300-seat auditorium, where films are projected before the festival jury and a bevy of celebs each spring.
Philippe Octo, the Stage Management Department Director since 1983, is in charge of making sure there are no glitches—which, much to his chagrin, there rarely are since movies have gone digital.
“It’s just a beam and a bit of sound, like a Game Boy. Push and play,” Octo sighs. He misses the days when films came straight from the lab and subtitles were burned on the spot using acid (gee, what could go wrong?). Nervous directors, who had only an hour to adjust color and sound at a pre-screening the night before, would beg the technicians for more time.
“Just to be around that energy…” Octo muses. “They were so tense. A lot of them were drunk. It was fun,” he grins.
The festival was founded in 1946, but the Riviera has been luring creative movers and shakers since the 1920s. In 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his mercurial wife Zelda moved into a seaside villa in Juan les Pins in Antibes, my next stop. Fitzgerald somehow found the time to pen “Tender is the Night” here, in between entertaining Ernest Hemmingway, Rudolph Valentino and Pablo Picasso.
The villa, which has preserved much of its Art Deco décor, still draws celebrities, from Sting to Bruce Springsteen, in its incarnation as the Hotel Belles Rives. Other recent visitors include Colin Firth, Emma Stone and Woody Allen, who filmed scenes from Allen’s 2014 flick Magic in the Moonlight here.
Nearby, the 16th century Fort Carré has also enjoyed its 15 minutes of fame. It featured in the 1983 Bond flick Never Say Never Again, with Sean Connery and Kim Basinger improbably jumping off the ramparts into the sea (on horseback, no less), and it served as Prince’s villa in Under the Cherry Moon.
But for the most part, the appeal of this village is its ability to “keep it real.” Fishermen hawk their catch at the harbor, restaurants boast silly names like The Happy Face and Eat and Smile, and locals shop at the central market, perhaps pausing for a glass (or two, but never more than three) of absinthe at the underground, atmospheric Absinthe Bar on the Cours Massena.
By contrast, St. Paul de Vence in the hills above looks like an old movie set come to life, with a maze of cobblestone streets which seem to be entirely populated by art galleries. The village’s most famous hotel and restaurant, La Colombe d’Or, is a favorite celebrity destination. Among those who have wined and dined or bunked down in this hilltop hideaway are Orson Welles, Roger Moore, Tony Curtis, Michael Caine, and Kirk Douglas, as well as artists like Picasso and Matisse, who would sometimes pay their bills with paintings—hence La Colombe’s museum-worthy art collection.
Back on the coast, Nice has featured in films ranging from To Catch a Thief (Cary Grant and Grace Kelly) to Ronin (Robert De Niro).
Strolling through the bustling flower market or negotiating the seafront Promenade des Anglais, where locals relax with the newspaper or zip through the crowds on rollerblades and bicycles, it’s easy to understand why cinematographers have found Nice’s energy and atmosphere irresistible. Allow yourself time to get lost in the narrow streets of the Old Town, and catch the free lift to the hilltop Castle Park for incomparable views of the city below.
For me, the biggest surprise along the Riviera is little Villefranche-sur-Mer, a huddle of buildings in sunny shades of yellow and pink that cascade downhill before halting abruptly beside a deep harbor.
It’s a stunning town with an imposing fort, and though I’d never heard of it, it seems oddly familiar, perhaps because it served as a backdrop for so many films: An Affair to Remember (Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr), The Jewel of the Nile (Kirk Douglas and Katherine Turner), Never Say Never Again (yes, again), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Steve Martin and Michael Caine), W.E. (the tale of Wallace Simpson and King Edward VIII, directed by Madonna), and, er, Simon Sez, with Dennis Rodman…just to name a few. (The local tourism office can arrange guided movie tours, complete with touch-screens depicting scenes filmed here).
Dozens of luminaries, from Jean Cocteau (who painted the interior of Villefranche’s fisherman’s chapel) to Gerard Depardieu, Catherine Deneuve, Harry Truman, and Sir Winston Churchill, have visited the delightful Hotel Welcome, which more than lives up to its name, with sea view balconies and the friendliest staff I encounter on the Riviera.
Likewise, many celebrities, from Madonna to Bono to Robert De Niro, have made their way next door to La Mere Germaine, a cozy restaurant founded in 1938 by a warm-hearted woman who became a sort of adopted mother to World War II navy seaman. It’s currently run by her Tahitian-born son-in-law, the affable Remy Blouin, who produces a photo of himself with his arm around a smiling Boris Yeltsin, their necks strung with Polynesian shells.
How can I possibly hope to top Villefranche? Only by headed up…and up…to Eze, a 13th century stone village towering 429 meters (1400 feet) above the coast. I stay at the gracious Chateau d’Eza, the former home of the Prince of Sweden. Voted the most romantic hotel in the world by Conde Nast Traveller, the hotel boasts a one-starred Michelin restaurant where Bono, who owns a home in the town below, proposed to his wife.
I’ve been invited to dine at the neighboring Chevre d’Or, another legendary hotel and restaurant which has hosted a catalog of stars that reads like the Hollywood Walk of Fame: Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Elizabeth Taylor, Leonardo Dicaprio, Robert De Niro (he does get around), Javier Bardem, and Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, who filmed a scene from The Bucket List here. Dinner at the gastronomic restaurant, which features two Michelin-stars, was–not surprisingly–on the men’s list of “things to do before we die.”
As for my own bucket list? I’ve just penciled in a return to the Riviera—and perhaps another spin in “my” trusty Porsche.
IF YOU GO
Getting around: Rent a Classic Car, www.rentaclassiccar.com. Be forewarned: classic cars don’t come with airbags—or sometimes even seatbelts. If you prefer to be chauffeured in a modern vehicle, contact the charming Piero Bruni at Executive Transport Service, www.executive-transport-service.com.
Where to stay:
Cannes: Splendid Hotel, www.splendid-hotel-cannes.com. Classic harbor-front hotel owned by elegant octogenarian Annick Cagnat. Rooms from 90 Euro.
Alternatively, consider Le Grand Hotel, www.grand-hotel-cannes.com. Decorated in retro 70s chic, this property features a one-Michelin-starred restaurant and a private beach. Rooms from 190 Euro.
Antibes: Hotel Belles Rives, www.bellesrives.com. With its Art Deco style, links to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and a great bar, this five-star hotel is THE place to stay in Juan les Pins, Antibes. Rooms from 189 Euro.
St. Paul de Vence: La Colombe d’Or, www.la-colombe-dor.com. Hey, if it’s good enough for half of Hollywood, it’s good enough for you. Rooms from 250 Euro.
Nice: The Negresco, www.hotel-negresco-nice.com/en/. Filled with antiques, this is the kind of hotel that makes you stand up a little bit straighter–especially if you’re staying in Suite 516, with its gold-flecked walls, bathtub and bidet. Rooms from 194 Euro.
Villefranche-sur-Mer: Hotel Welcome, www.welcomehotel.com. Directly across from the Cocteau Chapel on the harbor, this lovely hotel and its staff could not have been more welcoming. Rooms from 135 Euro.
Eze: Chateau d’Eza, www.chateaueza.com/the-hotel.html. 11 unique rooms and suites, many with panoramic views. Visitors have included Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, and Nicole Kidman. Rooms from 270 Euro.
Nor can you go wrong at the Chevre d’Or, www.phoenixhotelcollection.com/chevre-dor. Its 37 rooms and suites—including a Presidential Suite with a private infinity pool–are scattered around the village. From 294 Euro.
Barcelona – Gripping a pair of long, lethal-looking tweezers, chef Tristan Lopez is hunched over a plate of pale anchovies, painstakingly applying tiny silver-powder-coated potato paper “scales” to each slender sliver. Beside him, waiter Manel Vehi Mena dispenses “liquid olives”—just one at a time, presented on its own plate. He serves them with such reverence that I sense, even before tasting star chef Albert Adria’s invention, that they aren’t snacks to be absent-mindedly gobbled, but miraculously soft, melt-in-the-mouth bursts of flavour that deserve to be savoured.
Watching the action at prep stations around the restaurant is all part of the “show” at Tickets. One of Barcelona’s most revolutionary tapas bars, it’s the brainchild of Adria’s brother Ferran, head chef at Spain’s legendary El Bulli. With that three-Michelin-starred establishment having closed in 2011, tastemakers turned their attention to the brothers’ Barcelona venture, where reservations are among the hottest tickets in town.
A doorman in a black jacket illuminated with the restaurant’s blinking logo sets the stage. As customers line up on a crimson carpet beneath a box-office-style marquis, he ticks off each name on a list before slipping a red velvet rope free of its moorings and ushering them inside this culinary sanctum.
If it seems like an incredible amount of pomp and ceremony for what is, after all, just a meal, bear in mind that this is Barcelona, whose denizens revere food and style in equal—and perhaps excessive–measures. Tapas bars line the streets, and dinner can eat up three hours or more of your day.
Barcelona also proves a visual feast, of course, serving as a showcase for one of history’s most original architects, Antoni Gaudi. At Casa Batllo on Passeig de Gracia, pilgrims crane their necks toward its wavy roof, representing the dragon slain by Catalonia’s patron saint, St. George. Gradually, their gaze cascades downwards over the broken-tiled mosaic façade, which is punctuated by bone-like columns and balconies reminiscent of empty eye-sockets—an homage to the dragon’s victims.
Down the street, the undulating curtain walls of Gaudi’s La Pedrera recall the rippling waves of the ocean. As Miriam Jover, who works with the Barcelona Guide Bureau explains, “Gaudi said he would learn nothing from books, because they were written by humans, and humans are imperfect. He was always talking about the great book of nature, written by God.”
Gaudi’s organic inclination is evident at his unfinished La Sagrada Familia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and minor basilica consecrated by Pope Benedict XVI in November 2010. “My client is not in a hurry,” Gaudi supposedly quipped when questioned over the church’s protracted construction, which began in 1882 and continues to this day, overseen by a succession of architects since his death in 1926.
Outside, his handiwork is exemplified by the tapered spires of the Glory façade. Inside, it calls to mind a cathedral as imagined by Walt Disney on acid. Columns stretch upwards like trees, branching out and flowering in leafy medallions. To attend a service here would be akin to worshiping in a forest of whitewashed redwoods, dwarfed and humbled by the spirit of the ultimate architect from whom Gaudi, buried in a crypt below, drew his inspiration.
Still, when the sun shines, as it usually does in Barcelona, I’m loath to spend much time under any roof, even in a temple devoted to nature. I escape to Parc Guell, another of Gaudi’s creations, with its curving mosaic benches and fanciful stone arcades set within a hilltop wilderness. I also take the obligatory stroll down La Rambla, a boulevard flanked by flower stands and kiosks stocked with postcards, weaving between flamboyant street performers and tourists moving at such a slow, tooth-grinding “ramble” that I reckon they have nowhere else to be ‘til Christmas.
It’s just as crowded on the sandy beaches of Barceloneta, where topless tanned women and hard-bodied young men are silhouetted against blindingly blue waters, but the pace on the boardwalk is anything but leisurely. I’m less worried about sunburn and more concerned about getting mowed down by rickshaws, rental bikes, and rogue rollerbladers—especially when the rollerbladers are skating backwards. One man on a skateboard even dares to navigate the masses with a surfboard in his arms.
For a bit of a breather, I duck down a side street, where laundry lines wave like bunting in the persistent sea breeze and a woman with improbably red hair stands on a balcony in her bra and knickers, smoking a cigarette and sipping a glass of red wine, oblivious to the world around her.
More peaceful still are the labyrinthine alleys of the Barri Gotic district, with its medieval architecture and leafy squares. An accordionist in the Placa del Pi squeezes out the lazy strains of “Summertime,” segueing seamlessly into Hava Nagila. Just off the antiques-laden Carrer Banys Nous, local men have taken refuge beside the bar at El Portalon Tapas, exchanging banter between sips of wine and cervezas.
This hole-in-the-wall establishment would appear to be the antithesis of Tickets. No velvet rope, no crowds, no “molecular gastronomy.” But in a sense, it’s very much the same. As Albert Adria explained earlier to me, Tickets has a simple goal. “Come with friends, laugh, and have fun.” That, summed up in one bumper-sticker-worthy slogan, is the essence of Barcelona.
4 Places to Stay
Hotel Miramar, Pl. Carlos Ibañez 3,www.hotelmiramarbarcelona.es/en/. Tucked into a hillside in Montjuic, this chic hotel isn’t far from the city centre but feels like an oasis with its skyline views and garden pool.
Hotel Claris, Pau Claris 150, www.derbyhotels.com. This converted palace preserves its 19th century façade, but crowns it with a slick addition that includes a rooftop swimming pool and bar. The hotel’s art collection ranges from Egyptian artifacts to lithographs by Andy Warhol.
Mandarin Oriental Barcelona, Passeig de Gracia 38-40, www.mandarinoriental.com. This ultra-hip 98-room hotel boasts a rooftop pool terrace and a Zen-like spa. Stop in the Banker’s Bar for a gin and tonic, Barcelona’s signature cocktail, and dine at the Michelin-starred Moments.
W Barcelona, Plaça de la Rosa del Vents 1 (Final Passeig de Joan de Borbó), www.w-barcelona.com. Billowing like a giant sail at one end of La Barceloneta boardwalk, this 473-room hotel designed by Ricardo Bofill opened in October 2009.
4 Places to Eat
Tickets, Avinguda Paral·lel 164, www.ticketsbar.es. Reservations must be made on-line.
El Bosc De Les Fades, Museo de Cera, Passage de la Banca 5. With its mysterious grottos and drunken Ent trees, this quirky bar is like Timothy Leary’s version of the Hundred Acre Wood.
Mercat de La Boqueria, La Rambla 91, www.boqueria.info. You’ll find everything you need for a picnic lunch at this bustling market. Alternatively, belly up at one of its tapas bars.
Bar del Pla, Calle Montcada 2, www.elpla.cat. Cheap-and-cheerful local tapas bar.
4 Places to Go
La Sagrada Familia, c/Mallorca 401, www.sagradafamilia.org.
Casa Batllo, Passeig de Gracia 43, www.casabatllo.es.
Fundacio Joan Miro, Parc de Montjuic, www.fundaciomiro-bcn.org. Museum dedicated to the Catalan surrealist painter, with a rooftop terrace and sculpture garden.
Museu Picasso, Carrer Montcada 15-23, www.museupicasso.bcn.cat/en/. Features the largest collection of Picasso’s work in Spain.
Tourism info: www.barcelonaturisme.com
Peter Island, BVI–Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me. As Johnny Depp so convincingly depicted in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, there was an undeniable allure to the life of those seafaring swashbucklers in centuries past: the freedom, the adventure, the really cool clothes.
Sure, there was a downside. It was a cut-throat profession (har!), and there was always the chance you might be doomed to sail the ocean forever as one of the insatiable undead, like the crew of Jack Sparrow’s ship–or in a far more likely scenario, be abandoned on a lonely spit of land.
Pirates poetically dubbed the latter punishment “being made governor of your own island.” But, as I’ve discovered, that’s not such a terrible fate after all–if you happen to be marooned on Peter Island.
Located in the British Virgin Islands and flanked by the Caribbean, the Atlantic and Sir Francis Drake Channel, Peter Island is almost entirely occupied by one luxury resort of the same name. Originally developed as a vacationer’s Valhalla in the 1960’s by Norwegian millionaire Torlof Smedwig, today the family-owned escape encompasses three hillside villas, each with a private pool, 52 guest rooms, a 10,000 square foot spa and a deep-water marina.
Only 300 acres of this 1,800-acre island have been developed, meaning that you’re not likely to lack elbow room. But if you really want to play castaway, you can rent out the whole resort—and institute a no-fly zone overhead. When your clients include billionaire businessmen, Hollywood movie stars and musicians like Paul McCartney, privacy is key.
But long before the baby-faced Beatle and celluloid sirens arrived on the scene, the Caribbean corridor abutting Sir Francis Drake Channel was a pirate’s playground. In fact, Peter Island was allegedly named for a buccaneer, as were several of the surrounding Necklace Islands, including Norman Island, believed to have served as the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.”
Another pirate legend haunts Dead Chest Island, which lies tantalizingly close to the sandy crescent known as Deadman’s Bay. Dead Chest, an old sailor’s euphemism for a casket, earned its name in the 1700’s when Blackbeard marooned a mutinous crew here, equipping each man with only a cutlass and a bottle of rum. The tale gave rise to the song “Fifteen men on a Dead Man’s chest, yo ho ho and a bottle of rum”–another bit of buccaneer lore immortalized in “Treasure Island.”
Looking out across the moonlit bay my first night on Peter Island, I could easily imagine a ghost ship like Jack Sparrow’s Black Pearl emerging from behind Dead Chest’s sheer rocky bluff, the white bones of the ship’s skeletal crew glinting in the darkness beneath tattered sails. It’s an eerie image that would certainly have sent shivers up my spine, were it not for the balmy breeze that whispered warm across my skin–and the rum punch from the manager’s weekly cocktail party still warming my belly.
Every Wednesday, guests gather for a Caribbean buffet and sundowners at Deadman’s Beach Bar & Grill–and leave with an unsteady pirate’s stagger…er, swagger. This casual stone and cedar structure, with massive windows opening directly onto Deadman’s Bay beach, offers Caribbean fare such as “finger lickin’ good” ribs, Jerk chicken and conch fritters.
My treats of choice were the hockey-puck sized chocolate chip cookies served at the lunchtime buffet. They were so deliciously tempting that, according to hostess Jean Kelly, even Dr. Robert Atkins, famous for developing his low-carbohydrate diet, couldn’t turn them down during his visits. After all, the man was only human, and under the doting eye of Ms. Kelly, resistance would have been futile.
“You can try ONE bite!” she insisted with a reassuring smile, setting a slice of Key Lime Pie and Peanut Butter Pie on my table. “You will leave this place with a happy heart, knowing you tried all the good things.”
It’s a philosophy I was only too willing to adopt, beginning with breakfast each day, ordering a hearty portion “Jean Kelly’s Famous Coconut-Crusted French Toast” topped with bananas and syrup. I enjoyed my feast al fresco at Tradewinds, the resort’s more formal restaurant. But at breakfast, the atmosphere is casual, with entertainment provided by sailboats gliding across sun-drenched Drake Channel—and, on one particular morning, a toe-headed boy chasing butterflies amongst the bushes. He never caught them, but neither the boy nor the butterflies seemed to tire of the game.
Boredom just isn’t an option here, whatever your age. Activities range from scuba diving to snorkeling, sailing, windsurfing, kayaking, paddleboarding, (pause for a deep breath), hiking, volleyball, tennis, basketball, yoga, and a weekly horticultural walk with Peter Island’s head gardener.
The island also boasts six bays and five beaches to suit every mood. Giant iguanas like to hang out in Sprat Bay, while turtles, sting rays and lobsters are resident attractions at White Bay. Honeymoon Beach, formed naturally by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, is an intimate crescent–only big enough for a couple of chaises, which suits the honeymooners just fine. Big Reef Bay isn’t good for swimming, because of its shallow reef, but it promises a scenic, solitary stroll, with views of Salt Island and Ginger Island.
My favorite way to spend the day was at Deadman’s Bay, a mile long stretch of sand fringed with coconut palms and thatched-roof umbrellas–perfect for sunbathing. More ambitious guests can opt for water sports like scuba diving, kayaking or windsurfing, but I found my bliss bobbing weightlessly in the teal blue sea, a castaway buccaneer reluctant to be rescued.
IF YOU GO:
Peter Island, www.peterisland.com, 1-800-346-4451. From the UK, dial 001-800-346-4451. Doubles from US $385 per night (£239).
General tourism information: www.bvitourism.com.
Boyd. Bill Boyd. Okay, so the name may not ring a bell—yet—but British author William Boyd is certainly stirring up a media storm with the recent publication of Solo, the 45th novel featuring the world’s sexiest superspy, James Bond. (Sorry, Jason Bourne).
Solo is set in 1969, the same year that “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” starring George Lazenby was released. Eager to undertake my own double-O exploits, I head to the jagged Swiss Alps to follow in the stealthy footsteps of Lazenby’s Bond.
Interlaken, Switzerland–“Okay, get ready. Run!” Heart pounding, I heed the command, leaning forward as I break into a jog, feeling the hot breath of a stranger on my neck. Seconds later, as my orange-and-white paraglider catches the breeze, I’m like a cartoon character treading thin air.
The rolling foothills of the Alps quickly recede beneath me, and the palm-sweating terror I felt just moments ago is replaced with goggle-eyed awe. As the silent pilot strapped in behind me maneuvers us towards an updraft, following a pair of circling hawks, the only sound I hear is the wind rushing in my ears.
At 7,500 feet above the chilly blue-green waters of Lake Thun, the quaint Alpine chalets below resemble Monopoly houses on a field of velvet, and my feet dangle above–ABOVE!–snowcapped peaks. Glancing down, I feel as if I’m orbiting the earth in a swing.
Just as I’m beginning to feel at home in my airborne perch, strapped atop the lap of a blue-eyed enigma who holds my life in his hands, he motions to the right. There, fifty yards away, another paraglider has swooped alongside–and he is SHOOTING at us.
Instead of panicking, my pilot turns to me with a mischievous glint in his eyes. “Do you like rollercoasters?” he asks with a wicked grin, and suddenly, we’re swaying erratically through the sky before he takes us into a spin over the holiday resort town of Interlaken, its red-tiled roofs twirling like a kaleidoscope and growing closer by the second.
Then, as quickly as our descent began, it stops. We seem to hover in mid-air until, perfectly positioned over a grassy commons in the center of town, we glide to a running stop. My knees are still shaking when my pilot (Dean…Richi Dean) nonchalantly invites me to join him for a drink.
It could be the opening scene from a “007” film–almost. Because, in reality, the guy “shooting” at us was no knuckle-cracking villain, but another paraglider snapping photos to immortalize our high-flying adventure.
But here in the Bernese Oberland, arguably Switzerland’s most ruggedly beautiful region, it’s hard to avoid a 007 frame of mind. That’s because “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” the only Bond film starring George Lazenby as the iconic super-spy, immortalized this panorama of white peaks and Alpine villages nearly 45 years ago.
My headquarters for this Swiss mission is the Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel and Spa in Interlaken, located across from the park where I made my dramatic airborne entrance (though not with my luggage). This five star luxury hotel, distinguished by its wisteria-draped terrace, wrought iron balconies and a gleaming dome, is a 19th-century grande dame that has preserved the gilded glory of the Belle Époque.
It’s easy to imagine your favorite Bond, decked out in a white tuxedo jacket, gliding down the broad marble steps into the hotel’s Jungfrau Brasserie, where carved columns support a painted coffered ceiling; flicking ash from a cigar in the Salon Davidoff, with its closet-sized humidor and selection of blended whiskies and single malts within easy reach at the bar; or sweeping a girl off her feet beneath the candle-lit crystal chandeliers at the 19th century La Salle de Versailles ballroom.
In the morning, though, Bond might wake to an unfamiliar sight–a Virgin. But, even for the world’s sexiest superspy, it’s practically unavoidable, as most of the hotel’s 224 rooms boast spectacular views of the Jungfrau, an 11,333-foot pointed peak whose name means “The Virgin,” due to its perpetually snow-capped (read: frigid) appearance.
But the mountain that intrigues 007 aficionados is the Schilthorn, a half-hour drive from Interlaken through the verdant Lauterbrunnen Valley, where the most action-packed scenes of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” were filmed. Atop this 9,742-foot peak, accessed by the longest aerial cableway in the Alps, the villainous Count Blofeld (the inspiration for “Austin Powers’” chrome-domed Dr. Evil) based his headquarters in a round revolving aerie that today serves as a restaurant, the Piz Gloria.
Feasting on a “James Bond buffet” (Swiss cheese, scrambled eggs, and champagne–breakfast of international super-spies), I notice that the Piz Gloria still features the same bleached blonde wood and groovy gold grillwork from the film. There’s also a gift shop hawking everything from cow bells to 007 embroidered T-shirts and hats, a “Bond World 007” exhibit offering helicopter simulator rides, and a movie theater showing key scenes of Lazenby as Bond, Telly Savalas as Count Bloefield, and Diana Rigg as the strong-willed “Bond girl.” I wonder briefly if the sign I saw outside on a snowy precipice–the one with a red circle around a high-heeled shoe indicating an inappropriate choice of footwear–was put there to deter Bond babe wannabe’s eager to follow in Rigg’s sexy stilettos.
I wisely eschew the Jimmy Choos in favor of rubber-soled boots for a hike through the mountain village of Beatenberg with Markus Metzger. Leading me along a winding path that threads past stands of pines and fields abloom with wildflowers, the lanky, gray-bearded druggist reveals a secret use for just about every plant in the Alps.
Got a cough? Small pink daisies with yellow centers should help, he says. Want to clean your kidneys? Metzger suggests cow lips (the plant, that is–not a bovine pucker). Suffering from menstrual cramps? Woman’s mantle can alleviate the pain–which is nice to know, except I wonder how this information might help 007, unless he’s trying to keep a PMS’ing femme fatale off his back.
So what WOULD interest a sex-crazed secret agent? “Ah,” my woodsman says with a knowing smile. “Vegetable Viagra.” Metzger assures me he has one such plant–Horse Tail, sporting suspiciously perky shafts–growing just outside his shop in Beatenberg.
But before heading back to the village–with its classic slope-roofed chalets and blooming window boxes populated by tiny ceramic gnomes–Metzger has a surprise. Pausing for a picnic, he ducks into the woods and returns with a bottle of champagne and fluted glasses. It’s an elegant touch worthy of Bond himself–though Metzger blends the bubbly with Drachensirip (the druggist’s own non-alcoholic syrup) and a couple of freshly picked daisies to create a uniquely Alpine cocktail.
Cheers, Markus. I’ll have mine shaken—not stirred.
IF YOU GO:
Where to stay: Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa, www.victoria-jungfrau.ch.
Activities: Twin paragliding, www.twinparagliding.com.
Visit the Schilthorn, www.schilthorn.ch.
Nature hikes in Beatenberg, www.naturpur.ch.
“So, what do you like to…do…when you travel?” my mother asked me recently. She posed the question with a slightly furrowed brow, in the sort of dubious tone you might otherwise reserve for quizzing the man next to you on the Tube about why he’s wearing a lime green mankini and clutching a jar filled with human hair and toenail clippings—except, of course, that you would never speak to that man, or, in fact, even look him in the eye.
At any rate, it was a fair query. My mom is not an especially avid traveler, and if you read my prior post about being trapped for 14 hours in a car with two whiny children and three Siamese cats (one of which, I neglected to mention, was in heat—the cat, that is), you’ll find her aversion understandable.
It should have been an easy enough question to answer, but to be honest, I had to think about it. I’m not a keen collector, so I’m unlikely to spend my days bustling between boutiques searching for the perfect addition to my “Cities of the World” limited edition ceramic thimble collection. Nor am I a real “culture vulture.” I get hives if I spend too much time in a museum—particularly if it’s a sunny day—and, I’m ashamed to say, I fall asleep at the opera and the ballet.
“Well,” I finally admitted, “I guess I just like to wander.”
When I’m in a new city, I enjoy simply stepping into a strange street with a map and a short, scribbled list of recommended restaurants and cafes (and bars, of course), and then…getting lost. That last bit happens inevitably, because I have such a poor sense of direction, I wouldn’t know up from down if it weren’t for gravity.
I’m a sucker for a narrow, winding cobbled lane. I’m always sure it will lead somewhere interesting. Usually, it does, and when I find whatever that is, I have my camera at the ready.
I come back from every trip with hundreds of photos. A wall of graffiti. An imposing door. An intriguing sign. A gargoyle hunkered in a sunbeam atop the roof of a cathedral. A man in a Subway sandwich suit on a street in St. Petersburg. Two grown men, inexplicably clad in diapers, loitering beside the Seine.
Although I’m never going to melt my credit card in a buying frenzy, if I see a shop that’s particularly unusual, I’m not averse to crossing the threshold.
Istanbul’s labyrinthine Grand Bazaar is an absolute must. Not only is it an Aladdin’s treasure trove of hookahs, mosaic lanterns, Turkish rugs, tasseled slippers, belly dancing outfits, designer underpants and the occasional axe and chainmail, but it’s also cheap entertainment–if you’re not intimidated by the aggressive sales pitches of the proprietors. My favorite? “Excuse me, lady. May I sell you something you don’t need?” It was so cheeky, it almost worked.
I’m also a huge fan of cemeteries, which might seem morbid, but I think of them as big, leafy parks filled with intriguing sculptures. In many cases, they also provide your best opportunity to get up close and personal with celebrities (albeit dead ones) without having a restraining order issued against you.
The first time I visited Paris, I dragged my poor beleaguered husband to every repository of human remains in the city, including the granddaddy of them all, Pere Lachaise. There you’ll find Jim Morrison, his grave marked by flowers, empty liquor bottles and tiny plastic cups filled with…well, how the heck do I know? I certainly wasn’t drinking it. But the true rock star is Oscar Wilde, buried beneath an Egyptian effigy that is covered with red lipstick kisses everywhere. EVERYWHERE, people.
My other great indulgences are ruins and castles.
Give me a ruined castle, and I’m in heaven. There’s just something about meandering along crumbling walls and musing over the scenes witnessed by those centuries-old stones. The whispered conversations by a fireplace. The secret assignations on a spiral staircase. The arrows that might have flown from that slit of a window. The…oh crap…did I just step in a wad of gum?
And so, sometimes, Mom, I also find myself shopping for a new pair of shoes.
I have a confession to make. I don’t like to fly. I love going places. It’s just the getting there I’m not that fond of.
That might seem like a strange admission for a travel writer—but then again, maybe not. I mean, the more often you’re required to shoehorn yourself into a seat that wouldn’t comfortably accommodate a malnourished hamster, the less likely you are to look forward to it. If I actually enjoyed crumpling my body into a defeated wad of human origami, I’d take yoga, and at least I’d have the skull-cracking thighs and six-pack abs to show for it.
You’re not even awarded the privilege of painful bodily contortion until you’ve already been through the soul-sapping process of submitting to airport security. Shuffling sock-footed through the metal detector, grasping at your unbelted trousers to keep them from falling down around your ankles, you still have to run the gauntlet of heaven-knows-where-those-hands-have-been rubber-gloved officers who might randomly pull you aside for a pat-down. Every time this happens, I’m tempted to ask them to at least treat me to dinner and a movie first…but somehow, I doubt they would be amused.
I think you can tell a lot about a person by where they like to sit on an airplane. The obvious answer, of course, is “at the front. In First Class.”
But given the intolerable lack of a winning lottery ticket, you’ll usually find me in cattle class, which can be just about bearable when I snag an aisle seat.
Why do I prefer the aisle? Because I have a very optimistic bladder. That is to say, it’s always half-full, and I like to be able to make a quick escape to the (tin can-sized) loo without having to give a lap dance to the other folks in my row. (Although, come to think of it, there might be a few bucks to be made there).
More unfortunately still, I seem to have some perverse Pavlovian response to the “fasten seatbelt” sign. No sooner does that dreaded light go on than my bladder pings my brain, signaling that it would quite like to have a wee. RIGHT. NOW. This makes me very popular with flight attendants, as you can imagine, who seem to regard me jettisoning from my seat as a sign of civil disobedience–or worse, terrorism.
Other people prefer to be ensconced beside the window, of course–presumably so that they’ll be the first to spot an engine fire. Fair enough. But can we all agree that the middle seat is basically Dante’s seventh level of hell?
Personally, I would sell both my ovaries to avoid being stuck in the middle, sandwiched like the creamy, compact filling in an Oreo cookie. You can’t lean against the window, checking the condition of the engines and marveling at clouds that look like Jerry Garcia or Carrot Top or penguins on pogo sticks. (Did I mention I take full advantage of free booze offered on international flights?) Nor can you stretch your legs out in the aisle, thereby incurring the wrath of whomever is piloting the drinks cart. It’s very likely you will be denied even the small solace of an armrest, as the people who requested the aisle and window seats are almost certainly far more selfish than you and have already claimed them with pointy-elbowed defiance.
This is based on my observation that only the nicest people end up in the middle—a conclusion supported by a highly scientific survey of one. That is to say, I’ve only ever met one girl who actually likes the middle seat, because she says it makes her feel safe and cozy.
Miss Middle Seat is also among the sweetest people I know, which makes me wonder if perhaps this should be a standard question in Match.com profiles. If you happen to spot someone with a preference for the middle, don’t even wait to arrange a first date. Just bang out an e-mail asking them to marry you and order the wedding invitations. They’ll probably be too concerned about hurting your feelings to turn you down.
Only once in my life have I boarded a plane and thought, “You know, 14 hours just isn’t going to be long enough.” This was while flying in business class on Singapore Airlines. The lay-flat “seat” was approximately the size of a football field. The alcohol flowed like an IV drip, and the food was superb—although I was surprised that they served us chicken satay on wooden skewers. (One unexpected air pocket, and you’ll put your eye out).
I have no idea what blessed nirvana must await their first class passengers. Probably a 90-minute hot stone massage, caviar facial, complimentary bag of gold and diamonds, and a lovely flight attendant to read you a bedtime story, stroke your hair and sing you to sleep as you wing your way to the Land of Nod.
Hey, we can all dream. Until then, I’ll see you in the back, in line for the loo.