Emma Krasov

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Emma Krasov is a professional travel journalist based in San Francisco, California. She is a travel columnist for several print newspapers and online publications nationwide, and a publisher of Real Travel Adventures and travel blog Art and Entertain Me www.artandentertainme.blogspot.com.

Photography by Emma Krasov

Arriving in Portugal, the westernmost European country, geographically closest to the U.S., I was thrilled to start touring the nature parks and quaint villages surrounded by granite mountains, crystal-clear waterfalls, mixed forests, and abundant wild flowers everywhere from foothill meadows to country roads. It was the very beginning of summer – the best time to explore Portugal’s glorious biodiversity. Daily weather patterns changed from cool breezes to occasional rains, to unexpectedly hot sunrays peeking through the dense clouds – a keen reminder of the country’s close proximity to Africa. The air was fresh, and filled with fragrances of blossoming linden, chestnut, and jacaranda trees. I felt immediately in love!

It started with my first acquaintance with Lisbon – a capital city where comfortable and well-served TAP Air Portugal flights bring American travelers directly from the East Coast.

Only a short stroll through the spacious Terreiro do Paco (“palace yard”) by the Tagus River was feasible before leaving the city and heading up north, and so I walked around the equestrian statue of King Jose I during whose reign the Great Lisbon Earthquake, tsunami, and fire of 1775 destroyed the royal palace, its yard, and almost the entire town in the unprecedented natural disaster.

Currently known as Praca do Comercio, the gorgeous city square is home to many shops and restaurants. Lunch at Can the Can was a wonderful introduction to Portuguese cuisine – bold, distinctive, and very healthy, too.

“Our way of cooking is a direct translation of our way of building cultural heritage – the enormous wealth passed down to us from generation to generation,” state the restaurant owners. “We are a kitchen full of ‘Portugality’, one that represents the best of Portugal and the Portuguese. Openness to outside influences is also key, and we welcome the world here, every day, in a grand, unique square intimately connected to the global story of our country.”

Can the Can emphasizes Mediterranean cuisine defined by the use of natural ingredients, and the art of food preservation, developed over the ages. (The canning industry in Portugal, a country with an extraordinary coast and ancestral tradition of fishing, dates back to 1865). Most dishes are based on a combination of high quality canned fish and fresh vegetables.

Immediately after lunch, our small group of three American journalists and a local guide and an excellent driver, Jorge Roque dos Santos, hit the road. Entering Obidos, an ancient walled city on the Atlantic coast, with a medieval castle and multiple historical churches, we were greeted by a bustling souvenir market along a cobblestone main street. The familiar blue-and-white design – a signature feature of Portuguese handcrafted tiles that decorate almost every building in the country was echoed by contemporary artisans’ creations.

After an invigorating walk through the town and around the castle, we settled for at The Literary Man Hotel, where all walls, nooks and crannies were lined with books, and a live band was playing at the restaurant during a candlelit dinner.

Following our route, the next morning we departed to Monsanto in Central Portugal, a fascinating hillside village where every little dwelling is built of stone or even of huge granite boulders that form foundations, walls, and roofs of the houses. A part of a massive 5000-square-kilometers nature park Geopark Naturtejo, Monsanto is filled with wondrous sites along its steep and narrow streets enlivened by blossoming rose bushes. Guided by Joana Rodrigues, a geologist employed by the geopark, we climbed up to the village castle to indulge in panoramic views of the entire region defined by white-walled houses under red-tiled roofs.

At lunch, at Petiscos & Granitas Geo-Restaurante we were seated next to a bulging boulder imbedded in the wall, and served the freshest house-made sausages, cured meats, and traditional salt cod made with spinach and bread crumbs into a delicious mush.

We then departed to Penha Garcia, also a part of the Geopark Naturtejo, the first Portuguese nature park dedicated by UNESCO in 2006. In this place, history goes way back, to a Neolithic settlement, later turned into a Lusitanian fort, and then into a Roman village. Just a few miles away from Spain, Penha Garcia offers spectacular views and a beautifully tiled drinking water fountain – one of many in this mountainous region where spring water is delivered to you uncompromised, straight from the source.

Tired, but happy and content with all the impressions of the day, we arrived at a posh Hotel Fonte Santa in Termas de Monfortinho. Built in the 1940s, during a period of intense interest in the thermal waters of Portugal, the renovated and upgraded hotel opened its doors in 2005. A spectacularly appointed property on a hilltop, with a blue swimming pool shimmering in the morning fog, it will stay in my memory as a dream that couldn’t materialize due to our short one-night stay, and the inclement weather that wouldn’t allow me to take a dip.

Our next day tour was dedicated to Serra da Estrela Natural Park – in the heart of the country – the highest mountain range in Continental Portugal. Our knowledgeable guide, Manuel Franco from a nature tourism company, Portugal A2Z, took us around on steep drives and easy hikes, and pointed out various curiosities from the characteristics of geological formations to the quirks of local flora, and from a history of a TB sanatorium turned upscale hotel to an absolutely a hidden gem of a lunch place, Varanda da Estrela.

Here, we indulged in freshly-cooked meats (lamb, goat, black pig) produced by local farmers with a traditional Portuguese garnish of olive oil-braised whole young potatoes.

A historical village of enchanted beauty, Castelo Rodrigo lay ahead, steeped in time and wrapped in a misty drizzle. By the time we’ve arrived, the sun, still invisible behind the clouds, was setting, and our home-made dinner was quickly delivered to an elegantly set table by Ana Berliner, the hostess of a boutique hotel, Casa da Cisterna where we were about to spend the night.

A biologist, born in Lisbon, and later enamored with the Coa Valley area, Ana settled in Castelo Rodrigo with her husband and daughters, and became a hotelier/restaurateur extraordinaire. On top of that, she entered a licensed guide program for Coa Archeological Park UNESCO World Heritage site of Paleolithic engravings found by the Coa River. The prehistoric rock engravings were discovered in Vila Nova de Foz Coa in the 1990s during a study for a proposed dam construction, and the archeological park was created in 1996 as an open air museum.

That night, Ana took us on a tour of the engravings, and with a strong flashlight in hand, showed us line by line and curve by curve the amazingly precise depictions of longhorn cows, horses, and deer, still pertinent to the area, and a mind-boggling image of an upstream-flowing salmon mirroring the nearby real river flow direction.

Once again, a shiny blue swimming pool by the hotel, made out of an old cistern that served as a water reservoir for the village and gave its name to Casa da Cisterna, remained but a dreamy vision. We had to depart early morning for Faia Brava Wildlife Reserve, also in the Coa Valley.

Now looking back at all the wonderful nature parks of Portugal I was so lucky to visit on this trip I can decidedly say that should there be only one park to visit and only one wildlife area to explore I would be heavily biased toward Faia Brava. The sheer vastness of this rocky hilly area studded with cork oaks and bright bursts of fennel and lavender shrubs and red poppies, a V-shape valley down below with a river running through it, its tall cliffs and boulders, its sunny meadows carpeted with white and yellow flowers, and especially its wildlife makes Faia Brava a dreamland for a nature lover.

The first privately owned protected wildlife habitat in the country, Faia Brava is a pilot area of the Rewilding Europe project since 2010.

Met at the park entrance by two experts on the area – Luis Pedro Ribeiro from Transumancia e Natureza Associasao (a non-profit environmental NGO) and Dr. Henk Smit – a board member of the park, our group was taken on an exciting adventure in the wilderness, devoid of human presence, and admittedly rarely traversed by hikers and bikers. On our journey we visited a high point from which we could observe through a telescope rare species of Griffon vultures and Egyptian vultures nesting in the cliffs. We met a family of wild Garrano horses with shiny, as if polished, chestnut-colored bodies and long raven-black manes. We couldn’t get enough of winding trails, partially conquered in a four-wheel drive, partially on foot, until it was time for lunch, and our gracious hostess from Casa da Cisterna, Ana Berliner arrived on the scene again with a home-made lunch of incredible delicacies and a bottle of champagne!

At our next stop, at Hotel & Spa Alfandega da Fe we were finally able to indulge in a serene warm spring-fed pool before a lavish dinner of Portuguese specialties at the hotel restaurant.

Early in the morning we continued our journey to Geres – a thermal spring area in the north, long known as a healing resort for countless ailments. Geres village is a charming and well-equipped visitor-oriented place with several nice hotels (we stayed at the grand Aguas do Geres Hotel, Termas e Spa), good restaurants (our lunch at Petiscos da Bo Gusta was freshly prepared and tasty), and a gorgeous park with old trees and a waterfall running through the city streets.

From Geres, we explored the surrounding parkland and more of the fairy-tale little villages. Peneda Geres National Park, located along the border with Spain, is formed by a 300-million-year-old granite mountains and the Homem River. It contains countless labyrinths of serpentine trails among the pines and oaks, with good paved roads often invaded by pasturing cows and wild horses.

In our exploits, we stopped for lunch at a Restaurante Espigueiro do Soajo, known for its young wines traditionally served in little bowls, and its extensive menu of house-made meat dishes made with local lamb, pork, and goat.

The village of Soajo is famous for its ages-old rustic corn storage houses on stilts, mysteriously-looking and adorned with crosses to ward off evil spirits.

I must say that in our entire journey through the nature parks of Portugal we’ve met only benevolent spirits – friendly locals, smiling, easily engaging, and ready to help even if we all had to rely on non-verbal communication to be understood by each other. In my book, Portugal is a great tourist destination – immensely beautiful, hospitable and safe to travel.

Find out more at: www.visitportugal.com, www.centerofportugal.com.

Photography by Emma Krasov

Close to midnight, I walked through etched glass French doors into a hallway lit by flower-shaped chandeliers. High ceiling with gilded moldings, framed oil paintings on the walls, and little bronze statuettes positioned throughout on small marble tables greeted me in silence. Open rooms on both sides of the hallway invited to peek in, and freely displayed their treasures. A blue salon furnished with armchairs and sofas of silk upholstery, an Asian-style room with potted palms, red accents and a Buddha statue, a formal dining room with parchment wallpaper and a fully set table amid carved mahogany china stands and family crests on painted window panes…

An invisible source produced quiet, barely perceptible music. Eerily, there were no other people there. All alone, I sat down on a silk ottoman in enchanted reverie, and stared at a half-draped window enlivened by a starry night sky.

The Lost Estate [by Alain-Fournier] came to mind. Only this estate, not far from the city center of Lisbon, where I was having a moment of pure bliss, was not lost.

It was founded by Marquis de Valle Flor, born in 1855, who in his teen years moved to the islands of Sao Tomé and Príncipe in Central Africa, and became one of the largest producers of cocoa, and one of the richest men in Portugal. With the construction of this palace, the prosperous marquis established his family’s place in the country’s history – and created one of the most luxurious and significant dwellings in the capital city.

And then it was found by Pestana Collection Hotels – Portugal’s largest international tourism and leisure hotel group, and one of the largest in Europe – whose motto is, “The Time of Your Life.”

I knew I was about to have the time of my life here (however briefly) when I’ve learned that the enchanted Pestana Palace Lisboa Hotel where I’ve settled for a couple of nights was classified as a National Monument due to its 1904 Nicola Bigaglia architecture, turn-of-the-century Carlos Reis ceiling paintings, and exquisite frescos, stuccos, stained glass designs and other decorative features, all lovingly restored at the magnificent Belle Époque building in a splendid location on a hilltop overlooking the Tagus River.

 

From here, I explored the eclectic beauty of Lisbon – the bustling metropolis with its medieval castle of St. George and carved stone monastery of St. Jerome, the Renaissance tower of St. Vincent and the Baroque Estrela Basilica. Every time, tired after enduring the winding narrow streets of Bairro Alto in the summer heat, I returned to my cool hotel room with a view of the lush gardens studded with bronze statues and gazebos, and hurried to one of the swimming pools – indoors or outdoors, depending on the weather whimsy of the moment.

When in Lisbon, I discovered the singing soul of Portugal – the music of Fado – an original style and genre, approximately 200 years old, named after “fate” or “destiny” that is the major theme of fado lyrics.

At Adega Machado in Bairro Alto I was treated to an amazing talent of Isabel Noronha. A singer of an incredible range and very distinct, passionate yet reserved style, Ms. Noronha captivated the audience with a heart-wrenching sincerity of her poignant expression of the tragic longing and unrequited love – obviously the themes of the songs she delivered.

Fado songs are usually performed by strong-voiced solo singers, both male and female, with highly emotional expressiveness, accompanied by a Portuguese guitar and other instruments. The musicians also perform no-singing pieces with great panache and mastery. Fado performances, even though most often happening in restaurants, constitute a high art form, and require subdued lighting (candlelight), revered silence and undivided attention of their listeners.

The overall ambiance at Adega Machado is very welcoming and accommodating for the international gusts. The original tavern has been founded 75 years ago by a fado singer Maria de Lurdes Machado and her husband, composer and guitarist Armando Machado. At the recently renovated and reopened upscale restaurant, the legendary fado singers Amalia Rodrigues and Alfredo Marceneiro are honored in multiple images decorating the walls of the establishment.

Besides nightly fado music (on the night of my visit there were four singers and three musicians performing) Adega Machado offers an extensive list of excellent Portuguese wines, and a comprehensive menu of local and international dishes, with a la cart and tasting menu options.

In Porto, I had a chance to experience yet another Pestana hotel – the newest, opened mere months ago A Brasileira – a gorgeous 5-star property in a posh historic downtown building with Art Nouveau décor. Minutes from the central Avenida dos Aliados and the 1916 Sao Bento train station (still lavishly decorated with murals and blue-and-white tiles of amazing craftsmanship) the hotel is a walking distance from the iconic Ribeira district with its boat rides, port cellars, and multiple little restaurants featuring Douro valley wines and live music.

Historically, this luxury hotel was built around the famous A Brasileira Café, opened in 1903 by a Porto man who made a fortune buying coffee beans in Brazil, and married a Brazilian woman. He was the first coffee entrepreneur to serve espresso in Portugal in the early 20th century. His motto, “The best coffee comes from A Brasileira” still rings true today, in the cozy café, popular with the hotel guests and the locals alike.

For many years after the proprietor’s death the building stayed abandoned, until it was acquired and renovated under the new ownership and Pestana management.

Now, with a highly desirable location in the city center, A Brasileira offers 89 rooms and suites, a restaurant serving Portuguese cuisine, two meeting rooms, a well-equipped gym, a French patio with a vertical garden and elegant outdoor furniture, and the namesake café of 115-year history.

Each hotel floor that has a comfortable seating area of its own with a large horseshoe leather sofa, is thematically tied to one of the products imported from faraway lands during the Portuguese maritime expansion of the 15th and 16th centuries: coffee, tea, chocolate, pink pepper, cinnamon, and anise.

I was genuinely pleased with my pristine room, with a double balcony offering views over the picturesque rooftops of Porto historical center, with the snow-white bed topped with a fluffy comforter and pillows of three different sizes, with a decorative photo display of colorful teas in bowls above the bedhead, and with a sparkling clean spacious bathroom – rain shower and all!

The room amenity that impressed me the most was perched on a desk, plugged in a charger, under a large-screen interactive TV that was greeting me by name and offering an array of services. That room amenity was a smart phone with a remarkable GuestU software featuring a comprehensive interface with free internet, a list of local attractions, Google maps, an individualized concierge service, constant connection to the hotel, and even free international phone calls daily! With GuestU phone in my hand a city I’ve never been to before all of sudden became familiar, recognizable, easily navigable, and pedestrian-friendly at any hour of day or night.

I couldn’t get enough of the Porto walks, leading up to the closely clustered Trinity Church, a magnificent City Hall building, and the Liberty Square with the stunning Carmelite Church and the Clerics Tower nearby, or down to the Douro River, with a lively waterfront, studded with historical monuments.

One of them, the Stock Exchange Palace (Palacio da Bolsa) is definitely worth a visit, and provides guided tours in several languages every half an hour. With its spectacular glass dome decorated with the painted coats-of-arms of Portugal and the countries with which Portugal had commercial relations in the 19th century, and wonderfully appointed Tribunal Room, Assembly Room, and Golden Room with allegoric paintings and sculptures the building offers quite a few discoveries. The Arab Room, built at the end of the 19th century by Gonçalves e Sousa is echoing Alhambra in Spain with its Moorish Revival style, with intricate detailing constructed by Portuguese craftsmen honoring “the Educator, the Good Mother” queen of Portugal, Maria II.

Close to the lower part of the city center, mere steps from Palacio da Bolsa, on a winding side street I settled for a very pleasant evening at the O Fado restaurant that served great wines and fresh seafood, and indulged its guests with the wonderful performances by the three singers – Antonio Laranjeira, Patricia Costa, and Sandra Cristina Amaral.

Looking back at my first ever visit to Portugal, and to the country’s two major cities I became enamored with so easily, I must admit that Pestana hotels and Fado music played a decisive role – each in its own way – in making my journey unforgettable and making me crave more encounters with the westernmost country of Europe.

Additional information at: www.visitportugal.com, www.pestanacollection.com, www.adegamachado.pt.

 

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Photography by Yuri Krasov

Looking back at Riches of the Mekong cruise (Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City) with AmaWaterways I can’t help but marvel at the incredible amount of amazing places I’ve visited in a course of just one week. I vividly remember the lush jungle greenery, the grayish opaque body of water studded with boats in various degrees of picturesqueness, and countless encounters with people – working on their crafts, selling fruit, riding family motorcycles, praying in Buddhist temples, or lounging in hammocks in their front yards and backyards – often smiling, but mostly going about their daily lives, and rarely paying attention to a crowd of tourists equipped with cameras, water bottles, fans, hats, umbrellas, and assisted listening devices for guided tours. It was hot; it was humid and sweaty most of the time, and yet – it was wonderful!

AmaWaterways’ motto is, Leading the Way in River Cruising, and that’s exactly what the company does on all its routes known for enticing itineraries and outstanding service.

After my last year’s Danube adventure aboard AmaStella, I couldn’t wait to embark on a Saigon-built AmaDara (“Dara” means “star,” same as “Stella”). I knew that a few star-studded happenings were guaranteed on an AmaWaterways cruise – exemplary sightseeing excursions geared toward different types of travelers with various activity levels; quiet starry nights on Mekong River, mostly spent in a swanky lounge with friendly chats, cocktails, and live entertainment; and stellar international cuisine by the local chefs.

What I didn’t know was the extent of all the countless comforts and conveniences provided by the cruise company. Air-conditioned staterooms with double balconies, mini-fridges, snow-white bedding, and spacious shower cabins; icy water bottles in small shoulder bags for excursion groups, cold towels and drinks upon return; a swimming pool on Sun Deck, constantly cool despite the relentless heat outside; fresh tropical fruit displays at every meal, and the meals themselves, always with a choice of amazingly well-prepared Western and Asian dishes, iced coffees and ice cream – everything doubly precious in the tropical climate and trying sanitary circumstances of faraway lands.

Now I can assuredly say that I would’ve never ever been able to endure my chosen vacation destination I was so eager to explore if it weren’t for the cruise. Just a thought of leaving a hotel room in the morning and returning late at night as I usually do when traveling abroad, makes me shudder. I wouldn’t last a day in the heat and humidity of South-East Asia, fascinating as it was with all its floating villages, wet fish markets, palm and mango groves, pink lotus ponds, and entire families clinging to each other for dear life, zooming past me on nimble motor scooters.

With the wisely scheduled excursion times – early after breakfast, and later in the day before dinner – with lunch and some down time for a nap or a glass of cold beer in the pool in-between, the onshore trips became much more pleasant.

Walking through Koh Chen village where silversmiths create their delicately engraved wares by the roadside, watching silk weavers at work by the ancient looms in Oknha Tey, and visiting a local school, greeted by the children singing, “You are my sunshine,” became much easier to enjoy in small increments, with plenty of cool sheltering aboard AmaDara.

When I’m trying to name the most memorable moments of the enchanting cruise, many wonderful adventures come to mind. An ox cart ride in the countryside in Kampong Tralach, followed by a visit to a majestic Oudong Monastery in Cambodia’s ancient capital, currently a place of pilgrimage. A Buddhist blessing ceremony was performed for the guests by the ochre robes-clad monks who scattered jasmine flowers over the crowd attuned to their melodic chanting.

A bicycle-driven tuk-tuk taking us through the bustling streets of Phnom Penh to the wide tree-lined boulevards and giant lotus-shaped Independence Monument erected in 1958 to signify the end of the French rule. A tour of the opulent Royal Palace built in 1866 by the great-grandfather of the current Cambodian king on a site chosen by royal astrologists. Silver-floored Prasat Prak temple with a mind-bogglingly shiny solid gold standing Buddha statue with diamond eyes and more than 2000 diamonds in adornments.

And last, but not least of the Cambodian part of the cruise, a visit to the Phnom Penh Central Market, overflowing with shiny things, lavish tropical fruit and flowers, and lots and lots of… elephant pants.

I’ve seen these comfy flowing thin cotton pants, painted with elephants in different colors, worn by many of my fellow cruisers as well as by practically every single non-Asian person I’ve met on the streets approaching any tourist attraction; the ubiquitous fashionable item easily explained by the temple/palace rule: visitors’ knees must be covered, or there’s no access to a site.

Sold everywhere by countless vendors at a miniscule price, the long and wide elephant pants can be worn over short shorts, sundresses, and mini-skirts, and thanks to their airy lightness they don’t seem to increase the body’s heat index in the slightest.

At the Central Market, my one glance in the direction of those pants was enough. An energetic duo of fast-moving women created a makeshift dressing room around me in the middle of a busy market aisle, and quickly found a pair of pants wide enough for my waistline, ever so slightly expanded now, after quite a few delicious dishes prepared by the cruise chefs I wasn’t able to resist.

Finally, I rightfully joined the sisterhood of elephant pants, and signed up for a Chef’s Table dinner with my new friends that night.

Chef’s Table Restaurant on AmaDara is an upscale addition to the Mekong Restaurant where the guests are fed three times a day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; Saigon Lounge, where coffee, tea, snacks and fruit are available at any time, with fresh pastries as early as 6:30 a.m.; and Sun Deck bar that serves drinks and snacks.

Since Chef’s Table requires reservations and serves a set 5-course tasting menu with wine pairing every night of the cruise, all passengers are encouraged to pick one night for a dinner there. Dining at the Chef’s Table is like going out on your birthday or anniversary – it feels very special, and many people do indeed make reservations for their birthdays or anniversaries. After all, a cruise with AmaWaterways is a festive affair suitable for a special occasion, so there are always some folks on any cruise celebrating their big dates.

Not just food and wine, but first of all the service at the Chef’s Table is nothing short of amazing, even though it is hard to imagine when experiencing excellency day in and day out in every aspect of the cruise life. Treated like kings and queens, we rejoiced in consuming the wonderfully prepared dinner that consisted of a delicate seared scallop amuse bouche, salmon salad, sea bass with Asian turnips and quail eggs, sirloin steak with celery root puree, and a trio of desserts with chocolate ganache, caramel ice cream, and lemon tart.

Was I glad that I was wearing my new beautiful and very forgiving elephant pants!

That night, we had the most entertaining evening show of all. Every night, Saigon Lounge turned into a performance venue. We’ve seen Khmer and Vietnamese dancers and musicians, took part in karaoke nights, dancing rounds, and music sessions with the onboard pianist Vy. But the crew’s talent show contest, “AmaDara Has Got Talent” was an undisputable winner!

Chefs’ team, servers’ team, housekeeping team, and the entire crew demonstrated their singing, dancing, and comical talents to the utmost delight of the cruise guests, late into the night.

That night, we were entering the waters of Vietnam. In two unforgettable days we visited a village of Tan Chau surrounded by emerald rice paddies and shallow lotus ponds, a city of Sa Dec with an enormous and enormously busy wet market, teeming with fresh fish, shrimp, clams, and piles upon piles of fresh fruit; observed rattan, silk, rice paper, and coconut candy making at local open-air factories; rode local boats past floating markets, and walked to the tourist attraction that was my primary draw on this cruise – “The Lover’s” house.

How could I imagine years ago, while reading “The Lover” by Marguerite Duras, winner of Prix Goncourt for “the best and most imaginative prose,” so poignantly constructed upon her own wild teenage love affair, and then watching the namesake film directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, that one day I’ll be entering the elaborately decorated Sino-French design house described in the novel!

An intricate woodwork and tiles inside, mother-of-pearl inlaid furniture, and portraits of the book author, her paramour, Huynh Thuy Le, and stills from the film round up the encounter with the real-life literary masterpiece.

A farewell cocktail reception with all the crew members introduced to the guests, and met with non-stop ovation, had a bitter-sweet feel. It seemed this one-week cruise on AmaDara left an indelible mark in everyone’s heart.

With disembarkation at Ho Chi Minh City, we arrived on Vietnam Independence Day, preceded by the May Day, well reflected in the city’s street décor.

Find more information at: www.AmaWaterways.com.

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Photography by Yuri Krasov

Fresh green grass after the rain, pine trees with lacy moss hanging from their branches, a stretch of the road with hardly any vehicle passing by, a veil of fog over Smuggles Cove’s splashing waves, and a few lawn chairs made of silvery drift wood placed on a hill to face the ocean… That was the view from our room at the Brewery Gulch Inn near Chapman Point in Mendocino – a magical place to which my thoughts travel back again and again, unable to break the spell.

Upon arrival at this country inn, rather new, and tastefully decorated with handcrafted wooden furniture in honey colors; leather sofas; bird-patterned throw pillows, and contemporary art pieces awashed in light streaming from the tall windows, my husband and I felt immediately at home, greeted by a smiling concierge Sarah Rowe with long mermaid hair, and a scattering of shiny AAA Diamond award plaques on the wall behind her back.

A word “Brewery” was placed in big vertical letters between the double clear-glass French doors leading to the outdoor terrace overlooking the misty ocean. When I asked Guy Pacurar, the Brewery Gulch Inn hospitable proprietor, if there’s indeed a brewery located anywhere on the property, he smiled and said that that was just the name of some former land owner. A detailed map of the area mentioned Breurry Gulch (which probably evolved colloquially into “Brewery” over time) but the historical spelling of the gulch’s name was the least of our concerns. We were mostly preoccupied by the immense beauty of the place; by our conflicting desires to sit by the fireplace, to linger on our balcony, to rush for the cameras and photograph a flock of wild turkeys parading by the Inn’s small parking lot – and a nagging realization that our stay here was too short – even before it really started!

Our room, “Osprey,” with a warm rustic feel, nautical/Native-American décor, and luxurious Sferra linens over a featherbed, was equipped with leather armchairs by the gas fireplace, a desk, a flat screen TV, a spacious wardrobe, and a full bathroom with high class Asprey amenities, Himalayan bath salts and thick Abyss towels.

Since Ms. Rowe reminded us about the nightly served dinner at 5:30 p.m. (included in the room rate, same as breakfast) prepared by the Inn’s private chef, and paired with the famed local wines and artisanal beers, we decided not to venture too far from the Inn, especially that our drive from the San Francisco Bay Area took quite a few hours with frequent photo stops along the breathtakingly beautiful Mendocino coast.

What was called “light dinner” on the Inn’s website turned out to be a rather substantial meal with freshly-prepared salad; crab cakes made with locally-caught seasonal Dungeness crab, accompanied by two dipping sauces; a grilled vegetable medley; a main course chicken and vegetable casserole, and a couple of house-made cakes for dessert!

The buffet-style meal was served at the Great Room, where Inn guests were seated in comfortable big chairs by the large tables around the four-sided fireplace of swanky contemporary design.

The next morning, a lavish breakfast was served in the same Great Room, prepared by the same excellent chef from premium organic products, and served by the friendly staff, including Mr. Pacurar himself. After we indulged in an array of fresh-squeezed juices, eggs Benedict, cooked-to-order omelet, the Inn’s special Millionaire’s bacon, and more home-made cakes, all served on artful china, he handed us a thoughtfully prepared list of places to visit around the Inn, with detailed directions, and notes like “tasting fee waived for Brewery Gulch Inn guests” across from the names of spectacular wineries with highest-rated pinot noirs and chardonnays and great ocean views.

We spent the day exploring the many parks and beaches of stunning beauty – marveling at the crashing waves next to a truckful of curious dogs, tasting wines at the Pacific Star winery with a row of red Adirondack chairs placed movie-theater style over the majestic Pacific; visited a poignantly lonesome lighthouse at Point Cabrillo, gilded by the setting sun, and return back to the fireplace warmth, and delicious aromas coming from the kitchen of our home away from home. Before we checked in, we were asked by the Guest Services to please warn the staff if we had dinner plans elsewhere. With the preparation of all meals right at the Inn using locally sourced fresh ingredients it was critical for the staff to calculate the right amount of produce needed for each meal, plan accordingly and avoid food waste.

Knowing from experience that the “light dinner” will not only be varied and delicious, but will satisfy the heartiest appetite, we surely didn’t have any plans to go out. That night, a succulent steak and roasted potatoes were accompanied by a fresh salad with sweet corn, mushroom ragout, a cheese plate, and those tempting sweets – too good to skip.

We fell asleep to the sound of the ocean, and slept soundly through the night like never before!

On our way back home, we stopped at the artist’s studio of Rebecca Johnson – a Brewery Gulch Inn featured artist. Her striking paintings of lonely barns (made of real barn wood collected at demolition sites) against green fields and blue skies, placed on the walls of the Inn impressed us so much that we decided to visit her studio, and meet with the artist of a great poetic vision.

Apparently, we weren’t alone in our desire to see more of Ms. Johnson’s work. On our list of places to visit shared by Mr. Pacurar, her studio was mentioned at the very top, and clearly marked by the amount of miles to drive from the Inn.

To help guests prepare for their stay, the Brewery Gulch Inn website has a What To Do section with suggested itineraries and an annual calendar of events as well as a link to Mendocino’s official website with plentiful information on local sites, area restaurants, and festivals. The Pre-Arrival Concierge section lists a variety of services and activities, including massages, wine tours, chocolate tastings, restaurant reservations, and horseback rides that can be arranged prior to arrival.

To book your stay at the Brewery Gulch Inn, go to: http://www.brewerygulchinn.com/.

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Photography by Yuri Krasov

Enamored with Mendocino County, its wild Pacific coast, wind-bent cypresses and towering redwoods, roaring waves, and squeaking seagulls, I never miss a chance to visit this magnificent part of Northern California.

This year, the occasion was enormously grand – I joined the ranks of the judges for the 19th annual Crab, Wine & Beer Festival benefiting Mendocino Coast Clinics.

In my past endeavors judging all kinds of food and beverage competitions from barbecue ribs to chocolate truffles, and from chilled sake to hot cocoa, I developed quite a keen understanding of subtle differences between the good, the excellent, and the outstanding, but nothing had prepared me for the never-ending feast that awaited me in Mendocino this past January…

My husband and I embarked on a road trip from our San Francisco Bay Area home early in the morning, not to miss the many opportunities of frequent stops along the coast – to look at the ocean, to walk on a trail framed by flowering aloe vera, or to swerve into a quaint little town for some good coffee and street art viewing.

By the time we’ve reached our destination – the newly opened Noyo Harbor Inn in Fort Bragg – a lavish reception for the crab fest judges, organized by the Inn’s management and Visit Mendocino County staff was about to start. We were greeted by the festival organizers, treated to the wonderful local wines and delicious bites, and instructed on the next two days’ itinerary.

When we ventured upstairs to our room I clung to the window overlooking the Noyo Harbor – serene and pearly-gray in the approaching sunset under the cloudy sky. Enchanted, I observed a few seagulls gliding on the water, and a couple of sea lions cavorting by the docks.

Our suite was spacious, lovely, beautifully appointed with hand crafted wood panels, plush furniture, Mission Prairie style lamps, and a gas fireplace with intricate metalwork. By the window, an electric teapot, brand name tea packets, and French press coffee were neatly placed on a little table. In a full-size bathroom there was a large soaking tub.

We took a short tour around the property, marveling at its elegant beauty, warmth and hospitality of its staff, and a significant collection of mesmerizing art pieces – the majority of them produced by some talented members of the Inn owners’ family…

We could’ve slept in our comfortable bed for many hours, but the harbor view right before dawn with crab fishermen getting in the ready on their boats was too gorgeous to miss. After a well-served breakfast at the cozy Noyo Harbor Inn Restaurant we were ready for the day.

As the 2018 Crab, Wine & Beer Festival judges we were participating in an important fundraiser helping to raise money for the Mendocino Coast Clinics, a non-profit, board-governed community health center that provides medical, dental, perinatal and behavioral health care to all Mendocino coast residents and visitors, regardless of their ability to pay.

Our first order of the day was to tour the sparkling-clean, highly-efficient medical facility with Lucresha Renteria, Executive Director, and to meet with Lawrence Goldyn, the Medical Director of the Mendocino Coast Clinics. We were thoroughly impressed with the impeccable state of the buildings, the roster of medical services, the abundant financial support available to low-income patients, and the overall feel of a close-knit community of deeply engaged caring people.

A crab fest poster, attached to the announcement board, reminded the Clinics visitors where they have to hurry for the upcoming weekend.

Inspired by the wonderful goals reachable through popular events like our eagerly-anticipated crab fest, we headed for our first judging session to the Little River Inn in the town of Little River.

The white cottages and emerald-green lawns of the Inn, splashed by the recent rain shower, greeted us with a double rainbow across the sky – definitely a good omen!

At the Little River Inn’s Abalone conference room we were first outfitted with the special goofy crab hats, and then seated around a table with multiple wine glasses in front of every judge. That was the wine tasting portion of the judging – we were supposed to blind-taste 40 wines in eight flights, including sparkling wines, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot blanc, Riesling, gewürztraminer, and rosé to identify not just the best tasting wines, but the ones best paired with Dungeness crab.

Freshly cooked and cleaned, the succulent chunks of sweet California crab arrived in little plates in front of each judge, while the festival volunteers were pouring the wines, produced mostly in the immediate Mendocino area.

The three winning wines were decided upon by the majority of votes, while many of us were having a really hard time making our preferences. By naming the winners here I only want to stick to the facts, not to imply that all other participating wines lacked in anything! That was really an exquisitely capable selection of the best California whites and rosés! The First place was given to 2016 Husch Vineyards sauvignon blanc, the Second place to 2016 Handley Cellars Riesling, and the Third place to 2015 Yorkville Cellars organic Semillon produced in Anderson Valley.

That same evening, we were hospitably invited to the Mendocino Coast Clinics Cioppino Dinner – a family-style celebration for hundreds of local residents, and also a fundraiser at which the Clinics directors, staff, and countless volunteers served piping-hot bowls of seafood stew from a gigantic vat attended by a cool-looking beer-in-hand Cioppino Chef James Hoffman.

The main event of the Festival, Crab Cake Cook-Off and Wine Tasting Competition, was happening the next day, on a Saturday, in downtown Fort Bragg, in The Big White Tent with a “Sold Out!” sign in front of it.

Once again we, the judges, were seated around a big table and supplied with numbered graphs to take notes of the 17(!) competing crab cakes coming from the ambitious chefs of the best Mendocino inns, hotels, restaurants, and wineries.

All imaginable varieties of crab cakes – from lightly- to heavily breaded, from embellished with soft-cooked egg and caviar to smothered in chipotle mayo, and garnished with a variety of sides, like coleslaw, citrus fruit, watercress and microgreens, were brought to our table, some artistically plated, even though the plating was intentionally left out of the score to help us concentrate on the taste and texture of the chefs’ creations.

Once again, the task to pick and choose the winners was not easy. After thorough consideration, the First place was taken by Chef Marc Dym of Little River Inn in Little River, Second place – Chef Andrew Wells of Mendocino Jams & Preserves, and Third place was a tie between Chef Willy Real of Noyo River Grill in Noyo, and Chef Taylor Pedersen of Ukiah Brewing Company in Ukiah.

For my readers’ sake, I’m listing all the other chefs and their respective venues, so when you’ll be driving to Mendocino (hopefully soon!) you’ll know where to look for the succulent crab cakes and other delicious local fare.

The crab cake competition chefs (from Mendocino when location isn’t mentioned): Adam Celaya of Adam’s Restaurant in Willits, Julia Kendrick Conway of Assaggiare Mendocino in Fort Bragg, Jim Modesitt of Maple Creek Winery in Yorkville, Victor Hugo Aguirre and Joe Niesyn of Brewery Gulch Inn, Julian Lopez of Café Beaujolais, Miguel Mex of Café 1 in Fort Bragg, Joe Harris of Cucina Verona in Fort Bragg, Richard Scott Klaisner of The Golden Pig in Hopland, Margaret Fox of Harvest Market in Fort Bragg and Mendocino, Jon Krebs (individual master-chef) from Fort Bragg, Fabrice Dubuc of Noyo Harbor Inn in Fort Bragg, Singyn Hunter of The Inn at Newport Ranch in Westport, Mayra Ahumada and Carlos Villafania of The Q BBQ in Fort Bragg.

There were also People’s Choice Awards. The Best Crab Cakes: First place – Chef Jim Modesitt of Maple Creek Winery, Second place – Chef Taylor Pedersen of Ukiah Brewing Company, and Third place – Chef Marc Dym of Little River Inn. The Best Winery: First place – Maple Creek Winery, Second place – Toulouse Vineyards, and Third place – Scharffenberger Cellars.

As a result of the Festival fundraiser and generous donations from its participants, Mendocino Coast Clinics has reached a new record high of more than $150,000 (www.mendocinocoastclinics.org).

The 20th annual Crab, Wine & Beer Festival is scheduled for January 25-26, 2019. Online ticket sales start on October 15, 2018.

The annual Crab, Wine & Beer Festival is only one of the many culinary-, arts- and sports- events happening in Mendocino County all year round. Find additional information at: www.visitmendocino.com.

Photography by Yuri Krasov

Mid-winter my husband and I try to use at least one weekend to travel down south. Since in California both winter and south are relative terms, our trip to Monterey Peninsula takes less than two hours in a car, and mostly coincides with the annual Big Sur Foragers Festival benefiting the Big Sur Health Center.

We are usually staying at our favorite place – Hofsas House Hotel in the fairy-tale town of Carmel-by-the-Sea (this year in a beautifully renovated room with lots of sunlight, luxuriously comfy bed, and pristine spacious bathroom). Every time arriving here, we first of all rush to the ocean, visible from the hotel balconies and terraces, to catch one of those legendary Pacific sunsets and a few distant fountains exhaled by the migrating gray whales, and every time we discover yet another park, beach, or trail, new to us and never seen before. Or maybe those amazing vistas just look different every time, so the sensation of discovery is always present in our adventures in the area.

This time it was Garrapata State Park that greeted us with grassy rolling hills, and sweeping views of the roaring waves under strong whistling wind, scented with seaweed.

When, wrapped in two jackets – my own and my husband’s – and in a scarf around my cap that was trying to fly away I finally got enough ocean air and sunset photos, we returned to town, where a pleasant surprise was awaiting right on Ocean Avenue, the main drag of Carmel-by-the-Sea.

At the new Mediterranean cuisine restaurant, Artemis, with a comprehensive list of rare Turkish wines and a menu filled with exotic delicacies, we were greeted by Oğuzhan Demir (or simply Ozzy) the owner’s son who looked like a movie star manning the bar under the multicolored glass lanterns amid Turkish rugs.

Our server, well versed in the viticulture of Turkey, and with the knowledge of the language, recommended delightful Sevilen wines and traditional dishes – Eggplant Meze, Walnut Ezme, and The King’s Plate, Hünkâr Beğendi made of sautéed lamb in a special sauce over pureed eggplant.

Full to the gills, we also had a dessert, recommended by Ozzy and called Künefe, made of two layers of shredded filo dough stuffed with sweet cheese, baked to golden, and sautéed in syrup, then topped with crushed pistachios and served with ice cream.

My husband’s perfect cup of Turkish coffee filled the dining room with subtle aroma while I was trying to abstain and not to disrupt my night sleep in anticipation of a big day ahead.

This year, the Big Sur Foragers Festival’s main culinary event – the sixth annual Fungus Face Off competition – returned to its feature venue, Ventana Big Sur Ocean Meadow Lawn up on a hill, with spectacular views of the ocean shimmering under the bright sun. What a difference a day makes in California weather!

Clad in sun dresses, tank tops and shorts, festival guests were sampling an array of exciting dishes prepared by the best area chefs and paired with locally produced wines and beer, with the proceeds from all of the events going to support the Big Sur Health Center whose continued presence assures local healthcare services in the Big Sur.

To be fair, and to acknowledge every participant of the Fungus Face Off, simply because everything put up to the public judgement was extraordinarily good, let me list all the chefs/restaurants that showed their mastery with the most exquisite mushroom dishes.

Those were: Roy’s, Carmel Valley Ranch, The Sur House at Ventana Big Sur, Alvarado Street Brewery, A Taste of Elegance, aligned with the local wineries and breweries: Mesa del Sol, Morgan Winery, Bernardus Winery, Comanche Cellars, Mad Otter Ale, Boony Doon Vineyards, Blair Wines, Baker and Brain, Paul Lato Wines, Fillipponi Winery, Alvarado Street Brewery (who also did a chef’s presentation), Fly Wheel Wine, and Chappellet Vineyards.

Other participants included the Marketplace vendors and tastings from Carmel Honey Company, Quail and Olive amazing original oils and vinegars, and Percy Pies.

Later that night, we had a plateful of flash-fried Monterey calamari and some panko-crusted sand dabs at the picturesque, over-the-water time-honored dining establishment – the Beach House restaurant and bar at Lovers Point.

Happy to make it back to the Hofsas House in time for sunset, we were clicking away with our cameras, joined by a few groups of international guests of the beloved hotel.

For those who plan to visit Carmel-by-the-Sea this year, Hofsas House offers several lucrative special packages:

Get Artsy Package includes a stay in the Room 47 — painted by Diego Rivera’s student, Maxine Albro, who also created the famous hotel’s Bavarian-themed mural. Mention the Hofsas House “Get Artsy” package with the code “HHArt” and receive a gourmet cheese tray and bottle of wine upon arrival. Hofsas House can help arrange a tour of Carmel’s art galleries and artists’ studios with Carmel Art Tours. Discover secret passageways and visit hand-picked galleries with an opportunity for a chance encounter with an artist at work in a Carmel studio. Cost is $25 per person, reservations are required, and participants meet for the tour at Carmel Visitors Center. Info at www.carmelarttours.com, or 800-979-3370.

Wine and Chocolate Package allows to upgrade your stay with a four pack of handcrafted artisanal sea salt caramels from Monterey’s Lula’s Chocolates and a bottle of award-winning Monterey County wine. Monterey County produces 42 different varietals of high-quality award-winning wines, especially Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. For this special package choose either a Monterey County Chardonnay or Pinot Noir from a personally selected list of wines.

Lula’s Chocolates, founded by Scott Lund, are made the old-fashioned way, using recipes passed down from Scott’s grandmother, Lula herself. Each small batch is hand-dipped and deliciously fresh. Cost for this wine-and-chocolate package is $25. Use the code HHChoc when booking.

Tail-Wagging Package includes a complimentary “Doggie Welcome Package” upon arrival with Hofsas House dog Frisbee, Hofsas House collapsible dog bowl, special dog bed, a letter from Tank, the onsite Pet Concierge, special dog amenities package, tips and recommendations for your four-legged friend’s stay, walking trail and hiking guide, a package of treats, and Coastal Canine Magazine offering the best four-legged options for visiting Carmel. This package requires a minimum two-night stay, $30 fee per night for one dog and $50 per night for two dogs.

Relax at Cinq Mondes Spa Carmel is the French cosmetic company’s first and only Cinq Mondes spa in the United States and serves as the company’s flagship location in the U.S. at the Crossroads Shopping Center in Carmel. Hofsas House is partnering with Cinq Mondes to offer guests a spa package that includes a 60-minute massage or facial. Cinq Mondes’ signature facial is the anti-aging “Ko-Bi-Do” with unique use of Dermapuncture, or “acupuncture without needles.” Its signature massage is the Moroccan massage. $120 per massage or facials. All Hofsas House guests will get a special gift from Cinq Monde. This special package must be booked at least 72 hours in advance and is subject to availability.

More information at: www.hofsashouse.com, www.carmelcalifornia.com, www.artemiscarmel.com, www.bigsurhealthcenter.org.

Photography by Yuri Krasov

Traveling to Ashland, Oregon, is enticing and rewarding all year round. For a relatively small urban area (population below 22,000) it has an enormous amount of festive public events to enjoy, excellent wineries, breweries, and restaurants, and – tax free shopping to cherry-top your cake! In winter, there’s Festival of Light, Victorian Christmas Celebration, Rogue Winter Fest, and Festival of Trees. In spring, Ashland Independent Film Festival, Pear Blossom Festival, Oregon Cheese Festival, and Oregon Chocolate Festival. In summer, 4th of July Celebrations, Medford Beer Week, Britt Music and Art Festival, and Oregon Wine Experience. Finally, in the fall, there’s Ashland Culinary Festival, Southern Oregon Music Festival, and Harvest Festival. Not to mention the most famous of them all, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, founded in 1935, that goes on every year from early spring to late fall, and produces eleven plays on three stages every season.

The culinary festival became a reason forme and my husband to drive up north from our California home at the very beginning of November, when San Francisco’s East Bay inland temperatures refused to go down, and the sweltering summery heat infused with post-fires’ residual smoke was becoming a nuisance.

We were hoping for the healing powers of Ashland that manifest themselves not only in the mineral springs that bubble to the surface from the Earth’s crust, but also in the serenity of the surrounding nature and in the unhurried balanced lifestyle of its residents.

Passing the snow-capped Mount Shasta on our way, we were pulling out our winter coats faced with the freshness of Oregon air; reminded once again of the Russian origins of the word Shasta (which means “happiness”).

A short drive and walk around the city yielded plenty of poetic views of leafy trees changing color, Ashland Creek running among the old grows of Lithia Park, and even a couple of deer grazing peacefully in someone’s front yard one block off the main drag.

We were taken by the quiet beauty of red, orange, and yellow leaves shining line precious jewels against the cloudy sky. I was thinking of how important it was to see this tempest of colors, to feel the autumnal air, to walk in silence, and – to sip from a public drinking fountain some Lithia water, so called because of natural lithium oxide deposits that presumably produce a healing tonic effect…

 

Upon checking in at the Lithia Springs Resort, we were greeted by the friendly staff, and immediately invited to the afternoon tea that is taking place daily in the beautifully decorated Tea Room, Library and lobby with a fireplace, designed by the owner/creative director, Becky Neuman.

High-quality tea, home-made scones with lemon curd and jam, and fresh berries were surely rejuvenating after a long drive, and made us feel welcome, however, the best was yet to come.

What a wonderful surprise was awaiting in our Hillside King Suite, overlooking a wooded hill in fall colors, and with a large tub to enjoy a hot mineral bath right in our bedroom!

A two-sided fireplace, open to the bedroom and to the spacious living room, a cozy kitchenette with a breakfast nook, and a plush sofa with a coffee table and armchairs – the suite was luxurious, and oh so welcoming!

It seemed there was no necessity to go outside, if it weren’t for the 11th Annual Ashland Culinary Festival Kickoff Event that was happening at the Ashland Hills Hotel & Suites and included Celebrity Quick-Fire Cooking Challenge, the 2nd annual Mixology competition where local bartenders competed for the title of Top Mixologist, wine tastings by the Bear Creek Wine Trail, and small bites from the best Ashland restaurants.

The Cooking Challenge Teams were studded with celebrities: Judge and Emcee Cory Schreiber & Rolar Yondorf, a former Festival Judge, from Porters Restaurant; Judge Fabiola Donnelly & Chef Kate Cyr, the Festival Committee Member, from the Neuman Hotel Group; Judge John Ash & Dennis Slattery, a former Festival Emcee, Ashland City Councilor and SOU Professor; Top Chef 2007 & 2008, Neil Clooney of Smithfields & Trish Glose from KTVL Channel 10.

Bartenders from eight distinctive restaurants took part in the 2017 Mixology Competition: Arturo Almazan – Smithfields Pub & Pies; Freddie Herrera – Hearsay Restaurant, Lounge and Garden; .Jess Jeffery – Alchemy Restaurant & Bar; Ross Jones – Larks Restaurant; Sondra Mayer – Brickroom; Blake Satre – Ostras Tapas and Bottle Shop; Saphire Stevens – Oberon’s Restaurant and Bar, and Greg Waites – Black Sheep Pub & Restaurant.

The next day, hands-on culinary workshops were held at different locations, spreading throughout the city, and the 2017 Junior Chef Competition showcased Junior Chef Teams of Ashland High School – China Larsen & Quinn Vogel; North Medford High School – Coy Wimberly & Dezmond Barros; South Medford High School – Chase Tonini & Kyle Smith; Grants Pass High School – Kassidy Kipert & Cecil Dowdy.

Junior Chef Competition was followed by a daily festival program, Sip, Sample, and Taste with a long list of vendors, and Chefs Competition of 12 local chefs competing while using ingredients from local farms and artisans. This competition went on for two days, and involved the following chefs and restaurants: Josh Dorcak – MÄS; Brent Herud – Larks Restaurant; Melissa McMillan – Sammich; William Shine – Hearsay Restaurant; Shawn Alamo – The Black Sheep Pub & Restaurant; Javier Cruz – Simple Café; Skye Elder – Brickroom; Alfredo Nava – Omar’s Fresh Seafood and Steaks; Stefano Cipollone – Standing Stone Brewing Co.; James “Cyrus” Gray – Southern Oregon University (The Hawk Dining); Tony Efstratiadis – Plancha; and Jackson Kelsay – Amuse Restaurant.

We were pleased to check out Luna Café & Mercantile, located right there, where the Festival headquarters were, in the Ashland Hills Hotel & Suites – very modern, with astronomy-themed decor. By using products grown and raised in Oregon, namely in the Rogue and Applegate valleys, the restaurant supports local farmers and artisans, and serves the freshest, healthiest food as well as local wines and cheeses, specialty coffee and handmade chocolate treats.

Free range rotisserie chicken with herb relish, and burgers with Tillamook cheddar and Luna sauce on a house bun are some of the delicious hits of the menu!

For a formal dinner with great cocktails and wine, we headed to Larks restaurant in the iconic Ashland Springs Hotel – the most prominent and famous landmark of the city.

White wine and garlic steamed mussels, pork osso bucco with celeriac potato puree and wilted spinach, and local rabbit cacciatore with house-made pappardelle, bacon, and manchego black pepper sour cream were surely memorable creations of the “home kitchen cuisine” by the Executive Chef Franco Console, followed by the flourless chocolate cake and ice cream for dessert.

Our short “long weekend” in Ashland proved to be relaxing, healing, and energizing. To learn more, visit: www.travelashland.com, www.ashlandchamber.com, and www.neumanhotelgroup.com.

 

Photography by Emma Krasov

Taiwan’s growing prosperity, its high tech developing alongside upscale retail and hospitality, the freedom-loving stance and the innate friendliness of Taiwanese people, many of whom speak good English, make this East Asian country an attractive vacation spot for American tourists.

I was fortunate to visit the tropical island before and during one of the major annual events – 2017 Taiwan LGBT Pride Parade – the largest in Asia, attended by more than a 100 000 people, that was taking place in the capital city of Taipei. The 15th Taiwan LGBT Pride started on a warm October Saturday morning on Ketagalan Boulevard, between the Presidential Office building and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and proceeded in three directions, looping back to the thoroughfare, where the main stage was set for the community activists, famous musicians, and representatives of LGBT organizations from Taiwan, Japan and Korea.

This year advocacy theme was “Make Love, Not War – Sex Ed is the Way to Go” stressing the importance of gender equality, sex education and a humanistic approach to sex and gender issues without discrimination and stigma.

The message of acceptance sounded loud and clear in the Pride chanting, “No matter who you are, no matter who you love, stand proud!” Topical activities of the event included Gender Equality Education, Social Movement Stand Together, and Marriage Equality – the latter expected to be finally legalized in Taiwan in two years term.

A giant rainbow flag, almost the length of a city block, carried by dozens of college students and members of non-governmental organizations; elaborate costumes, music, laughter, and a generous scattering of rainbow crowns, ribbons, fans, and plumes turned the always busy, congested with traffic capital of Taiwan into a festive flowerbed, studded with happy smiling faces.

What an amazing show of unity and joy! This reporter was especially impressed with the seemingly self-regulated crowd. Not a single episode of rudeness, impatience, or any kind of conflict. A lone protester with a sign invoking religious prohibitions on homosexuality was guarded by two police officers, but the biggest harm done to him or any of the parade participants was the incessant flashing of photo cameras.

By the time evening traffic started to accumulate, rainbow-marked guys and girls dispersed into buses, subway trains, and to the surrounding streets on foot, mixing with the daily crowd, entering it as a part and parcel of the big city.

Our group of American travel journalists, in Taipei primarily for the Pride, had nevertheless a full tourist program, exploring the gorgeous island with its natural wonders, historical monuments, and superb culinary scene.

From the windows of AMBA Taipei Songshan, a new boutique design hotel – a playful brand, originated in Hong Kong – near Xinyi shopping and business district, we took our first glance at the Keelung River, circling the city in the north, and at the bamboo-shaped Taipei 101 Observatory, not long ago the tallest building in the world.

A tour of the 101-story tower included and exhilarating elevator ride that took us from the 5th to 89th floor in 37 seconds; breathtaking panoramic views of the city and its environs, and a gourmet lunch at the world-famous Din Tai Fung on the ground floor of the observation tower.

Here, in the spacious dining room, separated by a glass wall from a pristine kitchen, where all workers were clad in white sanitary suits and masks, our group was greeted by my Taiwanese namesake, Emma, a deputy supervisor of catering department.

The young woman with an infectious smile, dressed for business, and speaking effortless English, she conveyed to us the history of the notorious dumpling restaurant, awarded multiple stars, medals, and mentions by the international foodie authorities. According to the legend of Din Tai Fung, it all started in a cooking oil retail shop back in 1958 that gradually turned into a “fast food” restaurant specializing in xiao long bao, or “soup dumplings” made with pork meat and pork fat jelly that turns into aromatic liquid during steaming.

The original process of kneading, rolling, filling, folding (18 folds, no less no more) and steaming the dumplings is still meticulously followed in all the kitchens of Din Tai Fung in more than 100 locations all over the world, and of course in its flagship restaurant in Taipei. Only now more than 50 kinds of dumplings, wontons, buns, noodles, and rice dishes grace the menu, appreciated by the tourists as well as regulars who dine here a few times a week.

That is not to say that other restaurants lack fans among the local and international visitors. Some of the highlights of Taiwanese cuisine, like steamed fish, crab with bamboo shoots, thousand year egg, black chicken soup, and countless others can be enjoyed in practically every small or large eatery throughout the country.

Before we left Taipei for further exploration, we visited a festive night market – one of several, each stall teeming with eager customers attracted by the delicate aromas of pork buns, green onion crepes, and other amazingly enticing local dishes.

We also spent a good chunk of time in two remarkable museums, representing the historical past and the assertive future of the country. The National Palace Museum contains immense treasures of the Chinese imperial court, transported to Taiwan for safekeeping after the fall of the last dynasty. Among the most popular exhibits at the museum is jadeite cabbage, carved from a single stone with auspicious color variations, presenting the humble vegetable in a noble form of an exquisite art piece. The never-yielding crowd around the display case wouldn’t let me take a good picture of the precious artifact, so I had to settle for a back view that still conveys the fragile elegance of the awesome work.

MOCA Taipei, Museum of Contemporary Art, brings to the public attention the bold and edgy art created here and now. During our visit, a major exhibition, called “Spectrosynthesis – Asian LGBTQ Issues and Art Now” created in collaboration with The Sunpride Foundation curated by Sean C. S. Hu was on display, showcasing 22 artists from Taiwan, China, Hong Kong and Singapore.

On our way to the city of Taichung via HSR high speed rail, we spent a wonderful sunny day at the serene Sun Moon Lake, taking a boat tour and then cycling to Xian Shan visitor center, where we could see the open air exhibition of bonsai and decorative arts against a backdrop of the turquoise lake. At least four-five weddings were conducting their photoshoots along the shores.

At lunch at Lusihan – an aboriginal restaurant – we’ve not only tried the most exotic foods, like “wax apples” stuffed with dried shrimp and seaweed, and sticky rice baked and served in bamboo cups, but also learned about the tribal history of Taiwan – of 16 different tribes composing the island nation.

The Lin Hotel Taichung welcomed us into its luxurious fold offering boldly decorated rooms in red, gold, and black-and-white; supremely comfortable beds, and a breakfast hall filled with freshly made wonders of all imaginable cuisines.

The day program started with a visit to the historic 1927 Miyahara building – formerly a Japanese eye doctor’s hospital, currently the sought after Dawn Bakery, where dressed in Japanese military uniform sales clerks dish out samples of heavenly cheesecakes, and give cautionary warnings on expiration dates of pineapple cakes and mooncakes, packed in dainty boxes made of Japanese wrapping paper.

Then we headed to a fun and exciting Pearl Milk Tea Workshop with Chun Shui Tang Cultural Tea House. In a special classroom on the top floor of a popular restaurant we were educated on producing the real original bubble tea, invented here four decades ago by the founder Liu Han-Chien. We learned the difference between bubble tea (shaken into foam) and boba tea (with added tapioca pearls), and upon successful completion of our course each of us received a certificate of our iced tea mastery!

Traversing the entire country, next we landed in the Southern city of Tainan, a former capital, densely populated with historical monuments, like Chihkan Tower (Fort Provintia) a former Dutch outpost on Formosa, built in 1653 during the Dutch colonization of Taiwan, and Anping Old Fort near a “tree house” – a skeleton of an ancient structure completely overwhelmed by an overgrown banyan tree.

We marveled at the enlightened austerity of Tainan Confucius Temple and at the lavish gilded décor of The Grand Matsu Temple, a.k.a. the Great Queen of Heaven Temple, where at the time of our visit middle-aged priestesses in bright-yellow silk robes performed a ceremony to the sound of drums.

At the Du Hsiao Yueh noodle house we all took the same picture of a beautiful blue and white plate of noodles with a bright orange shrimp on top – the same that serves as the restaurant’s logo and is served to every diner who ever ventures in.

At the designer boutique hotel, Jia-Jia at West Market, we slept in artfully decorated rooms, ate at a communal table in the cozy lobby filled with inventive artwork, and participated in one of the hotel’s cultural activities – a kind of a cosplay, when we all donned Taiwanese garb, offered by the staff, and walked around in it through the lively stalls of the historic West Market. Apparently, the hotel CEO, also an artist, creates these fashions from vintage fabrics, formerly found at the West Market. She offers her guests an opportunity to try them on and walk in them, reaching a double goal – to familiarize foreigners with the traditional Taiwanese attire, and to remind the locals of their national traditions.

Posing for a group photo in my gorgeous vintage dress (which I eventually bought from the hotel and brought home to wear on special occasions) I thought that traveling in a company of gay men – well-mannered, kind and with a great sense of humor – for moi had its undeniable advantage.

More information on Taiwan travel at: www.taiwan.net.tw.

Photography by Yuri Krasov 

In Prague, every traveler faces a challenge of finding a place to stay that would be close to the major historical sites. And major sites in Prague are plenty! From the Old Town to the New Town, and from the Castle District to Lesser Quarter, the finest examples of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, and Art Nouveau architectural styles are pulling all eyes upward, threatening cobblestone-related injuries to the viewfinder thrill-seekers.

Were we lucky to settle at Hotel Klarov when my husband and I arrived in the capital of Czech Republic onboard economically conscious RegioJet bus? You bet we were! From our third floor window at the 25-room boutique hotel in the 1889 Neo-Baroque building we were able to see the legendary 1357 Charles Bridge across the high-leveled Vltava River, the spires of St. Vitus Cathedral and the patinated domes of Prague Castle rising above the red roofs of Mala Strana.

Interestingly, the spacious rooms at Hotel Klarov are embellished with names and memorabilia of world-famous musicians who visited Prague and left their mark in the city. Ours was dedicated to Rolling Stones who on one of their visits provided illumination for the Prague Castle so it would be lit at night and visible from afar.

To get closer to all the treasures of one of the largest and best-preserved European cities, right after the hotel breakfast we embarked on a walking tour with Jitka Simkova of Prague Walks. Our guide took us across the Charles Bridge with its 30 statues, allegedly constructed in alignment with the tomb of St. Vitus and the setting sun on the equinox, and crowded with international visitors at any time of day and night; through narrow streets and wide-open squares to the lavishly decorated Belle Époque buildings, like the Grand Hotel Evropa; Baroque churches, and splendid old synagogues in the Jewish Quarter.

We watched changing of the guards at the Prague Castle, originally built as a walled fortress in about 970 – the largest ancient castle in the world, formerly home to Bohemia’s kings, now the official residence of the Czech Republic’s President, visited Café Louvre for a posh coffee break, and marveled at the curious monument to Franz Kafka by Jaroslav Róna. The bronze statue replicates a scene from Kafka’s first novel “Amerika” in which a political candidate at a campaign rally is carried to the people on the shoulders of a faceless giant.

Besides the world-famous sights, like the 11th century Gothic Powder Tower remaining from the original city gates, the Astronomical Clock of the Old Town Hall, first installed in 1410, and the gorgeous epitome of Art Nouveau style – the Municipal House built in 1912 – we visited a few 20th century monuments, some of them grim reminders of the recent dark past overshadowed by Nazism and Communism.  

Pinkas Synagogue, built in 1535 in Gothic and Renaissance styles near the Old Jewish Cemetery with the most ancient graves from the 1300s, is now the Memorial of Holocaust Victims of Bohemia and Moravia whose names are listed with each last name followed by the first names of family members, their dates of birth and dates of death. There are 77,297 names of Holocaust victims – countless Josephs, Alberts and Rudolfs, Hannas, Marias and Albinas, ranging from babies mere months old to 80-somethings, all killed in WWII years – covering the entire wall space of the synagogue, with the geographical locations of 24 death camps listed in the center of the main hall. Among the victims names’ on the walls are the grandparents of Madeleine Albright, the first female US Secretary of State.

The Memorial to the victims of Communism by Olbram Zoubek presents bronze figures of a man descending stairs while gradually deteriorating, losing limbs and breaking open. The numbers, etched on the monument commemorate 205,486 arrested, 170,938 forced into exile, 4,500 who died in prison, 327 shot trying to escape, and 248 executed during the Communist rule in 1948-1989.

Two abstract steel sculptures by John Quentin Hejduk inspired by David Shapiro’s poem “The Funeral of Jan Palach” are dedicated to the memory of the Prague student and his 1969 self-immolation in protest of the 1968 Soviet invasion. Called The House of the Suicide and The House of the Mother of the Suicide the structures are accompanied by a plaque displaying the poem whose lines, “When I had a voice you could call a voice/My mother wept to me/My son, my beloved son/I never thought this possible” reflecting the ideological oppression of the regime and the desperate protest of the dissident.

Among the contemporary architectural wonders visible from afar from the city hills and bridges are Frank Gehry’s The Dancing House completed in 1996 and Zizkov Television Tower by Vaclav Aulicky, built in 1992. In 2000, ten black fiberglass sculptures by David Cerny depicting giant babies were installed on the TV tower crawling up and down its pillars.

…In preparation to our trip to Prague, we planned on staying at the most luxurious and highly acclaimed Alchymist Grand Hotel and Spa in the city center, next door to the American Embassy. The hotel availability, severely limited in the high season of autumn travel, yielded only one precious night in a royally decorated suite with plush rugs, gilded furniture, and a crystal chandelier in a 45-room dream palace comprised of four historical houses, half-millennium old.

Rich hues of red and gold in a vaulted-ceilinged lobby adorned with live orchids; murals on the walls of the Aquarius restaurant, depicting exotic scenes of faraway lands; the Renaissance courtyard with a cherub fountain, and the turquoise water of a swimming pool at the Ecsotica Spa were topped by the melt-in-your-mouth hand-made chocolate pralines prepared at the cozy and decidedly decadent Barocco Veneziano Café. Even this brief encounter with the Alchymist luxuries left an indelible mark on our entire Prague experience, making it a memorable highlight of this year’s travel adventures.

Of course no European travel is complete without some culinary exploration, and for that we turned to the tried and true Eating Europe – a great walking tour company that operates in several European capitals with a staff of professional guides, highly knowledgeable in history as well as in food scene of each city.

On an Eating Prague tour that was titled Prague Evening Food Tour, our excellent guide, Jan Macuch took us to family-owned bars and cafes so tiny they could’ve been easily missed in a maze of narrow streets and dark alleys surrounding the Castle hill. And that would be a pity!

From artisanal beer accompanied by locally produced cured meats and cheeses to amazing local wines, and from freshly prepared hearty soup to traditional goulash served with home brewed ale – our small group of culinary curious travelers consumed plenty of special treats along our leisure walk to the John Lennon Wall, Kampa island, and the famous Café Slavia – a historic hangout of Czech artistic intelligensia with live piano music and the notorious “green fairy” of Czech absinth.

It was time to say good-bye to the “Golden Prague” with its spires and bridges, white swans on Vltava, and its old-world elegance and hospitality.

Additional information at: www.czechtourism.com, www.hotelklarov.cz, www.alchymistgroup.com, www.praguewalks.com, www.eatingpraguetours.com.