Photography by Yuri Krasov

The most popular vacation destination on the Caribbean coast of Mexico, Cancún boasts so many hotels that they form their own territory, Zona Hotelera de Cancún – a narrow strip of land protruding far into the turquoise sea and covered with sugar-white sand.

Cancun is a favorite with all kinds of vacationers from newlyweds and extended families to corporate execs, because one thing is always certain – here, like nowhere else everyone will get what they are looking for – full relaxation or active adventure, the joys of leisurely care-free life, and excellent service.

In the last few years, the fast-growing company, Excellence Group Luxury Hotels & Resorts, became a symbol of the quintessential Cancún hospitality. It operates three all-inclusive brands – adults only Excellence Resorts, all-ages Finest Resorts and boutique Beloved Hotels.

Excellence beach

My personal experience includes only the first two brands, and only for a couple of days each, but what I’ve learned about the Excellence Group in this short period of time speaks of unsurpassed perfection and keen attention to detail in every aspect of accommodating the resort guests.

As it happened, my husband and I were delayed by the carrier for our connecting flight, and after sprint-running to the gate only to discover we were four minutes late, stranded at the LAX for another 12 hours. Distraught, I asked my husband if we should venture into the city and try to make the best of it… “We’ll spend so much time in traffic you won’t be able to really enjoy Los Angeles,” he said. “One Delta delay is enough. You don’t want to miss our Cancún altogether!”

No, I didn’t want that. When we finally landed on the blessed land of Mexico close to 7 a.m. after a tiring red-eye flight, we quickly discovered that the tropical sun, the cloudless sky, and the ocean breeze provided a boost of energy sufficient to sustain us for the day. Who needs sleep if an endless sandy beach is awaiting you just beyond the swaying palms, and the five-star luxury is at your disposal every step of the way?

Excellence pool

Excellence Riviera Cancún is located in the vicinity of Playa del Carmen, 15-20 minutes from the airport. Its multi-million dollar renovation was completed only last year, and the creamy-white buildings with open terraces, the gorgeously appointed restaurant entrances, and open air fountains and sculptures throughout the entire territory surely look inviting.

Upon a quick efficient check-in we were escorted to our room – an oasis of calm and coolness decorated in aqua and sandy color scheme, with a balcony overlooking a free-form swimming pool running like a blue ribbon between manicured lawns and flowering bushes.

After a much needed full breakfast, during which we couldn’t get enough of freshly-squeezed tropical juices, smoked fish, meat and vegetable stews, omelets to order, yogurts and flans, and freshly-baked pastries, we embarked on a stroll around the resort.

Excellence room

There are ten restaurants on the premises of Excellence Riviera Cancún – Agave (Mexican cuisine, art glass décor, and nightly mariachi music), Barcelona (our lavish breakfast was had here), Basmati (Indian cuisine, Indian art décor, and the chef is from India), Chez Isabelle (French, upscale, live music every night), Flavor Market (food from all corners of the world), and others – equally enticing. The amount of love and creativity invested in food preparation and plating is simply astounding!

Excellence Treats

Ten bars include a pool bar, a non-alcoholic juice-and-smoothie bar (try O-Vi with guava, peach, mango, grapefruit, and pineapple), an exclusive Excellence Club bar, a coffee bar, a martini bar, and the list goes on.

Excellence spaExcellence Hydrotherapy

Miilé Spa looks like a white palace on an island formed by the resort swimming pool. Long white curtains at the entrance billow in the wind like sails. Inside, there’s a complex system of 17-step hydrotherapy massage, guided by an attendant, and of course all kinds of regular massages provided by skilled therapists.

Every morning, the resort guests get a newsletter, titled, The Excellence Times, that lists restaurants and bars, massage specials of the day at the spa, tours and excursions departing from the hotel lobby, romantic specials, like champagne breakfast in bed, fresh flowers service, and dinner for two on the beach, as well as tons of daily activities from tennis and beach volleyball to cooking lessons, Zumba and Texas Hold’Em.

Finest Golden bar

After two glorious days at the Excellence Riviera Cancún, we made a short ride to the brand-new Finest Playa Mujeres on the opposite side of the Zona Hotelera, located among the sandy dunes across from the beautiful island Isla Mujeres.

In the light spacious lobby of the hotel we found ourselves right in front of the imposing Golden Bar, actually made from copper, but shiny nonetheless. Here, an attentive bartender created lychee martinis for us, decorated with a little butterfly, carved from a carrot, sitting on a glass rim.

Finest cocktail

Later, for lunch at Le Petit Restaurant, served on a white table cloth, the most delicious pumpkin soup was delivered to the table in a white porcelain teapot, and poured over grilled shrimp and croutons.

Pre-dinner cocktails at Tinto & Tapas included a rainbow of mixed drinks, Spanish red wine, and an array of hors d’oeuvres, like imported from Spain jamon Serrano, gazpacho, and potato omelet tortillas.

Our multi-course dinner at Lizo Cocina Mexicana started with a tasting of hot sauces used in traditional Mexican cooking. I’ve always favored chipotle and arbol, but now discovered even more exciting varieties – la costena, cuaresmeno and habanero diablo!

The Lizo dinner, prepared and presented with the same perfection as everything everywhere in Excellence Group, continued with crab cocktail (onion, tomatillos, plantain chips); guacamole tortilla with shrimp, dried cheese, and chili; beef ribs in chipotle sauce; and for a sweet finale – a decadent caramel flan with pineapple candy and Mexican vanilla.

Finest food

There are ten restaurants on the territory of Finest Playa Mujeres and more than a dozen bars, including Piano Bar & Cigar Lounge, where we spent a joyful evening dancing to the disco music alongside hotel guests of all ages hailing from all over the world.

Finest spa inside

One Spa at the Finest is a very special place, where the hydrotherapy massages, saunas, steam rooms, and contrasting pools and showers (one, called the Cuban shower, features a wooden bucket of icy cold water overturned overhead at a pull of a rope) conclude with the most skillful and relaxing massage of head, neck and shoulders, administered by the talented therapists.

Finest pool for kids

A very special attention at the Finest is paid to the littlest vacationers. Kid’s Plaza includes mini-theater, mini-spa with hair, nails, and massage services, and an amazing swimming pool/playground with waterslides, waterfalls, fountains, and no borders, like a sea lagoon. At The Market Kitchen restaurant there is an entire area with low counters for children to pick their own food, and even to fill their own ice cream cone. The Finest Day newsletter defines all the daytime activities and nighttime entertainment for the guests of all ages.

The Excellence Club, only for adults, and The Finest Club, for all ages, offer heightened levels of luxury, customized services, more privacy, and more pampering (if that’s even possible).

For more information on The Excellence Group and its brands of resort properties, go to www.excellencegroupluxuryresorts.com.

Photography by Yuri Krasov

Some call it the best county in California, and some are just lucky to live and work here. As if the fertile and abundant land stretching from the ocean to the mountains wasn’t enough for a resounding success, Sonoma County is also blessed with talented folks who grow grapes and cattle here, make wine, distil spirits, brew beer, make cheese, cook amazing dishes and express themselves in countless art forms.

A short picturesque ride up north from San Francisco delivers us to this heavenly place, easy to navigate with the help of Sonoma County Tourism’s maps and guides, and visitor-oriented educational programs put together by the Sonoma County Winegrowers’ and Sonoma County Vintners’ associations.

Our Sonoma County experience is wonderful and festive, just like those neat vineyards on the green hills, peppered with wild flowers and studded with California oaks.

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As is customary in the best homes of Europe, our day in Sonoma starts with a glass of champagne… or three – at the famed Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards.

Hailing from Spain, and carrying on the great tradition of Spanish cava that has to be aged in caves, Gloria Ferrer boasts its own cave cellar, an exhibition of multiple awards won by the brand, an art collection of vintage and contemporary champagne glasses, Bubbles and Bites room for club members, and a sunlit tasting room with an outdoor terrace.

In addition to tasting Gloria Ferrer’s pinot noir- and chardonnay-derived bubblies the guests can enjoy a stunning view of vineyards and mountains from the winery’s enviable top-of-the-hill location.

I must admit that in all my life I’ve never opened a bottle of champagne before. It used to be always someone else who opened it for me. This time, at Gloria Ferrer, I’m entrusted with a precious bottle of Royal Cuvee 2007 with its distinct purple label and golden foil, first produced in 1987 for the royal family of Spain. Since then all other Royal houses of Europe got it, and the White House now places its orders for the Gloria Ferrer Royal Cuvee brut, made of hand-picked Carneros grapes, year after year.

Feeling the weight of responsibility on my hands I’m holding the Double Gold winner from the Sonoma Country Harvest Fair 2015, of which only 3000 cases were made. I’m advised to hold the French handmade bottle “like a baby,” to gently release the cage, to rotate the bottle until the cork gives (pointing away from the people in the room) and finally to release the cork almost noiselessly and without spilling a drop of the perfectly balanced blend, aromatic and full-flavored from the late harvest.

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St. Francis Winery & Vineyards, where we venture next, introduces a new program, implemented this year as part of Sonoma County Vineyard Adventures program.

A self-guided Vineyard Walk is a 1.2 mi tour with a handout map and 10 interpretive stops along the St. Francis’s certified sustainable vineyards. The Walk, during which we are accompanied by the friendly winery dog, Will, is accompanied by a tolling bell (made in Assisi, Italy) from the winery’s own bell tower, and of course with the tasting of St. Francis richly-flavored distinct wines – 2014 viognier from Wild Oak Vineyard, 2012 cabernet sauvignon from Lagomarsino Vineyard, and 2012 merlot from Behler Vineyard.

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At Farmhouse Inn, owned and operated by Catherine and Joe Bartolomei, siblings and fifth-generation Forestville farmers, we sit down to a white-tablecloth lunch, prepared by the Estate Chef Trevor Anderson.

Amuse bouche of red radishes covered in miso butter, garnished with beet pesto and topped with smoked tea leaves is the most delicious radish I’ve ever tried!

The first course – pork belly and candy cap mushroom hash with hedgehog mushrooms and pickled mustard seeds is paired with Moonlight Brewing Company’s “Misspent Youth” dry pale ale – a classic American pale ale – soft and smooth with slight bitterness.

Second course – beef tenderloin, braised beef arancini and fava leaves – is matched with medium-bodied 2012 Lost and Found Winery pinot noir from Russian River Valley; its label adorned with an international symbol for lost and found – an umbrella and a glove under a question mark.

Our dessert course, prepared by the Pastry Chef Phil Ogiela, presents Gianduja ice cream, pear cider gelee, and hazelnut lace with Asian pear slices and caramelized hazelnut, and 2014 Tilted Shed Ciderworks Barred Rock barrel aged cider.

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To walk off all the delicious lunch calories, we make a short excursion into Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, where a knowledgeable docent Glen Blackley takes us on a short trail through the majestic redwood grove. Here, walking into a tree trunk hollowed by a fire I feel just like a mouse, but it’s a safe, magical, fairy-tale feeling…

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And then there is the Barlow – formerly the world’s largest Gravenstein apples processing facility, and now a bustling marketplace of Sebastopol’s diversely talented producers of art, wine, food, spirits, and various crafts.

Tibetan Gallery & Studio is a working artist’s studio and a retail shop of exotic jewelry and fascinating trinkets. The artist, Tashi Dhargyal is currently working on a giant painting – the first thanbochi (a very large thangka for special prayer ceremonies) painted by a Tibetan outside of Tibet. The project is going to take up to five years, and when completed, the canvas will be two stories high. It is being made with hand-ground mineral pigments and 24K gold leaf. When finished, it will tour museums before being donated to a monastery.

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Spirit Works Distillery produces grain-to-glass vodka, gin, barrel gin, sloe gin, barrel reserve sloe gin, straight wheat whisky and straight rye whiskey – all tasting amazing and bottled beautifully.

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MacPhail Tasting Lounge provides a complete tasting experience of MacPhail Family Wines. Exceptional pinot noir is the trademark varietal of the family winery, made of fruit coming from the most coveted vineyards of the Sonoma Coast and Anderson Valley. The wines are paired with charcuterie, artisanal cheeses from local makers, and fruit jams made in house.

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At the end of the day of wonders, we are having dinner at Zazu kitchen + farm – the award-winning genuine farm-to-table restaurant, owned and operated by a husband-and-wife team – celebrity chefs Duskie Estes and John Stewart, founders of the Black Pig Meat Company.

The dinner starts with Black Pig antipasti and the freshest salad of chicories, blood oranges, pomegranates, and pistachios. The seasonal main course is porcini noodle Stroganoff with Sebastopol mushrooms, arugula, and Redwood Hill goat cheese.

The participating winemakers introduce their outstanding wines: Balletto Vineyards & Winery – Anthony Beckman (2012 brut rose from Russian River Valley); Laurel Glen Vineyard – Bettina Sichel (2012 Sonoma Mountain Estate cabernet sauvignon) and The Callings – Sandy Robertson (2014 pinot noir from Russian River Valley).

1. Sonoma Vineyards

Coming up in Sonoma County:

Farm Trails events familiarizing visitors with the local agriculture, artisanal producers and family farms. Spring Tour: Blossoms, Bees & Barnyard Babies April 30 and May 1; BBQ, Brews Barn Dance May 21; Gravenstein Apple Fair August 13 and 14; Fall Tour: Weekend Along the Farm Trails September 24 and 25; and Farm to Fork Fall Festival October 22. www.farmtrails.org.

Free farm tours of Tara Firma Farms that sustainably grow cows, pigs, and chickens delivered to households, businesses and farmer’s markets through CSA program. Tarafirmafarms.com.

Here’s how you can get to Sonoma County.

Get the FREE Visitors Guide and Wine Map Discover Things to Do Browse Wineries & Wine Find Hotels & Lodging and Deals

 

 

Photography by Yuri Krasov

According to The Monaco Times article, dedicated to this year’s record numbers of tourists flocking to the second smallest and most densely populated country in the world, Russian visitors closely follow the tourism avalanches descending on the tiny Principality of Monaco in the South of Europe from the neighboring France and Italy, and the U.S.A.

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The idea of running The Year of Russia in Monaco came up during a meeting between the Russian President and the Prince of Monaco back in 2013. A total of one hundred and forty events were planned for 2015 – the Year of Russia – including twenty-six concerts, four ballets and three operas – to emphasize the two countries’ shared cultural legacies and the historic ties between them. The year-long program also features other spheres of collaboration between Monaco and Russia, such as science, education, sport, food and fashion.

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The concept of a whole year dedicated to the culture of another country is a first for the Principality, and a vivid reminder of its openness and cultural awareness. Each month of this year is packed with art events, conferences, and culinary presentations at various hotels and restaurants of the Société des Bains de Mer – a 150 year-old institution shaping the dreamily glamorous and elegant image of Monte-Carlo through a wide range of its properties and services built around the brand’s core values – excellence, generosity, audacity, creativity, and passion.

Emma heli

…On a hot mid-summer day I boarded a Heli Air Monaco chopper at the Nice airport, and after a seven-minute ride settled at the Monte-Carlo Bay Hotel.

2. Blue Gin

With a sigh of relief I immersed myself in a refreshing sandy-bottom lagoon, before ordering a champagne cocktail at the trendy Blue Gin bar on the premises of the five-star hotel.

8. Beach Hotel pool

At dusk, rejuvenated and excited, I was donning my petite robe noir and heading to the Imperial Dinner at Monte-Carlo Beach Hotel. It started with high-class entertainment by The Soloists of Monte-Carlo – soprano Elena Bakanova and tenor Yuri Kisin who masterfully performed arias from Russian operas in the magical blue light reflected in the large swimming pool of the hotel.

Russian Standard 12. Dessert Pavlova

The six-course all-organic-ingredients dinner was put together by the Michelin-star chef, Paolo Sari who heads the hotel’s restaurant Elsa. Salad vegetables from the Chef’s garden, red shrimp from San Remo, smoked salmon risotto Tsar Nicolas with champagne Crystal, local mullet fish with green pea puree and baby vegetables, desert Pavlova, coffee and petit fours were served on white table cloth with long votive candles and Russian Standard vodka bottles as centerpieces on every table.

With the exquisite food and wine, music and light, the dinner felt positively imperial even though no Emperor was present…

Palace concert

His Serene Highness Prince Albert II of Monaco honored with his presence one of the key events of the Year of Russia program – maestro Valery Gergiev’s concert, where the highly-acclaimed Russian conductor lead the Philharmonic Orchestra of Monte Carlo performing Aleksandr Borodin’s “Polovetsian Dances” from the opera “Prince Igor,” and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony #5. (The symphonic music concerts started at the Palace in 1959, and remain open to the public and extremely popular with the visitors and the Monegasque alike).

Dressed up to the best of my abilities, arriving for the concert at the Prince’s Palace on the top of a hill in Monaco-Ville overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, I was temporarily blinded by the sea of diamonds worn by mostly nubile, mostly Russian-speaking golden-haired women accompanied by mostly silver-haired French-speaking men…

3. Exhibition

Every step of the way in Monte Carlo I ran into my compatriots. A tour of the historical exhibition in the Palace library, “The Grimaldis and the Romanovs” exploring 150 years of the relationships between the two royal families, was led by a young Russian woman, married to a French citizen ”via internet,” and now commuting to work from Nice.

At the “From Chagall to Malevich, the revolution of the avant-garde” exhibition in the contemporary glass-and-steel building of the Grimaldi Forum, I participated in spontaneous Russian-language discussions about Russian constructivism, suprematism, cubo-futurism, and neo-primitivism, all the while admiring the rarely seen masterpieces created by the great Russian artists between 1905 and 1930.

4. Zelos Zelos fireworks

Afterwards, having dinner on the open terrace of the posh Zelo’s restaurant right there, at the top floor of the Grimaldi Forum, I had a chance to watch not only elaborate fireworks on occasion of the 10th anniversary of Prince Albert II’s rule, but also the arrival of some celebrity guests – Sylvester Stallone and Julian Lennon to be exact – seated a couple of tables away from me. I didn’t want to eavesdrop, but I could probably safely bet on the Russian descent of a bevy of young blond women who kept them company.

Head bartender

At Le Meridien Beach Plaza Hotel, where I enjoyed a lavish Sunday champagne brunch, I was cordially greeted a Russian front desk attendant, then by the Russian-speaking food and beverage manager, and finally spent some quality time with a Russian hotel guest, who like me, took a lesson on healthy cocktails prepared with seasonal fruit and berries, offered by the hotel’s Head Bartender. A large encampment of Russian grandmothers with their grandchildren occupied the private beach of Le Meridien, and a lively crowd of young Russian mothers were chatting loudly while pushing baby strollers along the seaside Princess Grace Avenue.

11. Le Meridien beach

To see the Ballets Russes photo exhibition in the Atrium of the Casino of Monte Carlo, presenting life-size cutouts of the Russian dancers from the Diaghilev’s famous turn-of-the-century troupe, I came early for the Ballet of Monte Carlo performance of “Creations” showcasing the work of three contemporary choreographers – “Fatalistic Visions Predominate (Tales Absurd)” by Natalia Horecna, “True and False Unicorn” by Jeroen Verbruggen, and “Summer’s Winter Shadow” by Pontus Lidberg.

I could hardly contain my delight with the masterfully staged and hauntingly beautiful one-act ballets, and joining me in loud applause and screams of approval were some young ladies sitting one row behind me and chatting in French – until they had to exchange a couple of secret observations – in Russian.

Casino details

During a tour of Europe’s most gorgeous and revered Casino, inaugurated in 1863, I heard Russian speech in every room, in front of every Black Jack, European- or American roulette table, underneath every marvelous painting, sculpture, and crystal chandelier…

Before my visit was over, I’ve learned that some of the most lucrative businesses (like the Monaco soccer team), most expensive mansions, and most luxurious yachts off the beautiful shore of Monte-Carlo have owners with Russian names, and that every well-off Russian’s dream is to be accepted in Monte-Carlo – “the rich man’s world.”1. View of Monaco from helicopter

More information about the Year of Russia and opportunities to travel to Monaco at: www.visitmonaco.com

– Société des Bains de Mer:
http://www.montecarlosbm.com/
– Monte-Carlo Bay Hotel & Resort:
http://www.montecarlobay.com/
– Hôtel Monte-Carlo Beach:
http://www.monte-carlo-beach.com/
– Blue Gin:
http://www.montecarlosbm.com/bars-lounge-and-night-club/blue-gin/
– Restaurant Elsa:
http://www.montecarlosbm.com/restaurants-in-monaco/gourmet/elsa/
– Casino de Monte-Carlo:
http://fr.casinomontecarlo.com/

 

Photography by Yuri Krasov

The more I travel around the globe the more I appreciate home. Granted, my home is San Francisco – the legendary American city of sophistication, elegance, and intellectualism as well as artistic spirit, inclusiveness, and openness to everything new and exciting.

I like to play tourist in San Francisco – visit its gorgeous hotels, eat in its posh restaurants, marvel at its museums and historic theaters, walk along the sights of unparalleled natural beauty. Swept with Pacific winds, steeped in summer fog, or baking in the hot autumn sun this city is endlessly magical, eternally majestic.

As a frequent traveler, I also appreciate all the little things that are readily available for the tourists (and for the locals) within the hospitality industry of San Francisco. The downtown Palace Hotel – one of the most magnificent hotels in the world – recently implemented a daily tea service in its spacious Garden Court restaurant, lavishly decorated with Italian marble columns, Austrian crystal chandeliers, and potted palms under the enormous Edwardian-style glass dome.

For a weary business or leisure traveler, just arriving from a long journey, what can be better than a pot of hot fragrant tea, beautifully served in the most welcoming space, alongside the light and elegant meal of freshly made finger sandwiches, scones, and pastries?

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How I wish I could have THAT in so many hotels in so many cities of the world, where the only thing I could count on without venturing out was a full bar (as if I needed alcohol after all those dehydrating hours in the air) and deep fried bar food, heavy and greasy, and not helping at all!

But let me start from the very beginning. The daily tea service was inaugurated at the Palace Hotel in the glamorous year 1910. The corridors of the Garden Court were crowded with guests in opulent dresses and hats of the Belle Époque. Since then it became a staple of the hotel, and over the years, the iconic dining room has become part of San Francisco history, and afternoon tea – part of its many traditions. Shared stories of fond childhood memories, bridal and baby showers and engagement celebrations have helped make a tea at the Palace a truly magical experience. For 105 years, the tradition has continued, but for the past few decades, tea has been served only on Saturdays and over the holidays. Today, this Saturday Signature Tea experience continues, while the Palace has added a more contemporary daily service in the GC Lounge (in the front area of the Garden Court). Specifically designed with the modern traveler in mind, Tea Time with its restorative attributes can now be enjoyed every day.

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Saturday Signature Tea

Signature Tea is served exclusively on Saturdays from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m., and is one of a kind experience. Service is upscale, and fine china and silver are used to present delicate tea sandwiches and house-made scones with Devonshire cream, lemon curd and fruit jam. The sandwich assortment might include Sonoma breast of chicken with toasted almonds on brioche bun; roulade of salmon with chive crème and salmon roe on dark rye bread; asparagus and egg salad with Dijon parsley aioli on mini-croissant; lobster and shrimp on buttermilk toast, and Black Forest ham and artisan cheese with lavender mustard aioli on focaccia.

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Assorted pastries are served on a three-tier tray, and are always abundant and breathtakingly delicious. A variety of teas – black, green, white, oolong, herbal – from the most reputable tea distributors in the world includes classic blends and creative infusions with high, medium and low caffeine. Signature Tea is always enhanced by the decadent ambiance with large bouquets of freshly cut flowers and live harp or piano music. Reservations preferred.

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Tea Time

Tea Time is served Sunday through Friday from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. It is offered in the GC Lounge. Tea Time restores an experience more than a century old, now re-imagined for today’s savvy, cosmopolitan traveler. Service is refined but a little less formal. An a la carte menu showcasing locally sourced items allows visitors to enjoy the time-honored tradition with a casual approach. Tea Time menu options might include warm crab and Asiago cheese tart, organic egg remoulade sandwich, panini toasts with artisan meats and cheeses, and smoked salmon roulade. On a sweet menu there are raspberry tart, sweet and salty walnut short bread, dark chocolate torte, strawberry and almond milk gelee, and house-made scones with all the trimmings. What a great way to relax and reinvigorate, have a break from sightseeing and shopping, a friendly meeting, or a brief business discussion. Tea Time in the GC Lounge is perfect to relax after a long flight, or recap the day’s adventures and plan for the night ahead. Reservations are not required.

7. Raspberry tart Thursday

The Palace Hotel offers 556 newly renovated rooms, three ballrooms, 45,000 square feet of function space with 23 meeting rooms and 4 executive boardrooms, a self-contained conference area and full service business center. Luxury features include three famed restaurants – The Garden Court, GC Lounge and Pied Piper, 24-hour in room dining, and a newly renovated Fitness Center and indoor pool. Centrally located, the Palace is steps away from the Financial District and Moscone Center, and within walking distance from designer boutiques, shopping areas, cable cars, the Embarcadero, Ferry Building Marketplace, Chinatown, AT&T Park, museums and theaters.

For tea reservations visit opentable.com or call 415-546-5089. Menus and more information are available at sfpalace.com.

 

Photography by Emma Krasov There are vacation travelers who think that long international flights are only justified by prolonged stays at their travel destinations. They even came up with a formula, “for every hour in the air a day on the ground.” Say, you fly to Munich for 12 hours, so you plan a 12-day leisurely vacation in the city for walking around and exploring. I love leisurely vacations as much as the next girl, but by the nature of my job I have no such luxuries. My travel formula is a crude one, “for every hour in the air two hours on the ground.” Three, if I’m lucky. That’s why I’m a big fan of Hop-on Hop-off buses available in all the big cities. The large comfortable double-deckers take visitors through the city streets to all the major attractions and stop right by the doors of palaces and museums. 3. Rathaus Staying in Munich for only one full day I knew exactly what to do to make my short visit memorable. Neat and clean, and equipped with a substantial breakfast, TRYP München City Center hotel provided exactly that – proximity to the city center as well as to the main train station Hauptbahnhof from where my Gray Line Sightseeing bus took me on a Grand Circle Tour of the city. Just riding through the streets of the Bavarian capital is a great excursion on its own. Munich’s architecture is a mosaic of styles and time periods, with Gothic and Baroque buildings framed by the glass-and-cement cubes of contemporary design. An imposing Neo-Gothic Neues Rathaus (New Town Hall) with a famous animated clock and 43 chiming bells on the central square Marienplatz is only steps away from the double-domed Frauenkirche which became the symbol of the city. In front of the town hall there’s Mariensäule – a 1638 column commemorating the end of the Thirty Years’ War and Swedish occupation. 7. Marienplatz A cluster of sights is conveniently located in and around the city center – the 15th century Old Town Hall, several historic theaters and art museums, an awe-inspiring 1746 Asamkirche – a genius creation of two brothers – an architect and a sculptor – and of course, a number of Bavarian-cuisine restaurants, like Cafe am Marienplatz, serving local brews and white veal sausages invented here in 1857. Asam detail My stop of choice in a sight-saturated city was Residenz Palace – the largest city palace in Germany and a former winter residence of the rulers of Bavaria in the course of 400 years. The House of Wittelsbach started its rule back in 1180, and continued until 1918. The enormous architectural complex called Residenz has 130 rooms and 10 courtyards, and combines Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, and Neo-Classic styles in its lavishly decorated and well-preserved facilities. Tall wooden double doors, guarded by the two bronze lions lead into the unimaginably rich collection of historical artifacts gathered inside the whimsically appointed ballrooms and bedrooms. The very first 1586 Grotto room with a multi-figured fountain in the middle is made entirely of sea shells and crystals with a gilded statue of Perseus at the top – its elaborate design inspired by the Italian Renaissance gardens. 4. Residenz The opulent 1571 Antiquarium (The Hall of Antiquities) contains an array of antique statues positioned under the densely frescoed arched ceiling. 8. Renaissance Hall The 1616 Imperial Hall with exquisite pink marble floors, tapestries and crystal chandeliers is followed by the endless rows of rooms encased in silk wall panels and adorned with gilded pilasters and countless paintings and statuettes. 8a. Imperial Hall Hours later, upon reaching the end of the display I could hardly walk, and my camera was shaking in my unsteady hands. Primarily, I had an ambitious plan to use a few Hop-on Hop-off stops to visit several sights, but by the time the Residenz palace was closing I barely managed to hop on the last scheduled bus. 9. Red room I was hungry, thirsty, and tired, but oh so happy to accomplish quite a feat in sightseeing in one full day in Munich! I got a fast relief from thirst and hunger at the oldest city restaurant/brewery Augustiner Großgaststätten. This historic eatery still serves beer invented in 1294 by the local monks, which pairs splendidly with the many traditional dishes on the menu, like beer-marinated pork with crackling skin. 11. Chapel I knew that my body will soon forget its tiredness, but my eyes will always remember the amazing and inspiring sights (also stored in photographs I took on this trip). Additional information at: www.muenchen.de.

Italian Blood Orange Sea Salt Scrub is currently offered at The Nob Hill Spa at The Scarlet Huntington Hotel in San Francisco as a seasonal treatment through the end of May. Blood oranges are ruby-golden on the outside and crimson-red to deep purple on the inside. These very special fruits are a product of natural mutation, thriving on the volcanic soils of Sicily. They acquire their color from antioxidant pigments, beneficial to human health. I indulged in the invigorating spa treatment that combines full body scrub and massage with the super-powerful mix of citrus elements – and the experience left me enlivened and energized; my skin as smooth as orange blossom petals.

Orange blossoms are prevalent in the citrus blend used for the scrub, which also includes blood oranges and grapefruit juice. This amazing citrus blend uplifts the spirit and awakens the body.  In addition to the scrub, blood orange lotion and blood orange body wash are used in the course of the treatment, which ends with a cup of blood orange tea graciously delivered by your massage therapist.

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The Scarlet Huntington is the only hotel in San Francisco with a full-service spa, boasting unobstructed city views from a private outdoor terrace, especially desirable on sunny spring days. The Nob Hill Spa is a tranquil sanctuary inside the iconic San Francisco hotel perched atop the city’s posh Nob Hill. Since 2000, the spa has been a popular hideaway for bachelorette parties, birthdays, baby showers, client meetings, and techy retreats, offering global healing traditions interwoven with customized services. The three-level facility has ten treatment rooms, a large indoor infinity pool, a fireplace, Zen relaxation room, eucalyptus steam room, dry saunas, whirlpool and a workout room. It accommodates individuals and groups, and is open not only to the hotel guests, but to the general public as well. Not surprisingly, it continues to be a staycation destination for locals seeking an urban escape and the premier spa experience.

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Recently, the hotel introduced another unique feature – a style-forward gathering retreat – the Spa Suite. It’s an intimate venue for up to 15 people, with the main space for convening, a separate treatment room with two massage tables, and bathroom with a rain shower, a vanity mirror and a double sink. Designed for hosting a range of formal and informal parties, the Spa Suite, staffed by Nob Hill Spa therapists, offers massages, facials and body and nail treatments. Catering is provided by Big 4 Restaurant in the meeting room buffet-style or à la carte.

While the Spa Suite is still on my “to experience” list, the Big 4 Restaurant, led by the Executive Chef Kevin Scott is the place I’ll be happy to return to – for an elegant dinner, excellent service, and a slice of California history.

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A San Francisco institution, the Big 4 Restaurant on the ground floor of The Scarlet Huntington Hotel, is named after the 19th century businessmen, philanthropists, and most distinguished and talked about citizens of the city who built the Central Pacific Railroad – C. P. Huntington, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins and Leland Stanford. These men’s life journeys from California pioneer beginnings to national importance coincided with a long and colorful era of Pacific Coast history. At the top of their careers, the “Big Four” all resided in the exquisite Nob Hill mansions, and almost daily were featured in the local press in references to their varied activities. The Big 4 Restaurant’s ambiance recaptures the era of the Big Four with opulently decorated dining room, period furnishings, antique artifacts, and celebrated original dark wood bar – a hub of the bourbon and whiskey revival.

Nearly obsessed with all things citrus by dinner time, I started my lavish meal at the Big 4 with Bitter Delight – a blood orange-colored cocktail made of Campari, Combier, fresh grapefruit, and prosecco. It was followed by seared foie gras (thank you, California, for bringing this delicacy back!) garnished with mache, port cherries, toasted pistachios and brioche.

Perfectly grilled Berkshire pork chop came with a side of roasted root vegetables in cider sauce.

For dessert, I ordered the seasonal panna cotta Milano with Campari gelee, shortbread cookie, and of course, a slice of candied orange.

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Owned and managed by Singapore-based hospitality group Grace International, the renovated and reimagined Scarlet Huntington seamlessly unites tradition and contemporary style with a distinct blend of refinement, relaxation and pure luxury.

The red brick façade, the cable cars passing by, and the famed illuminated sign atop the hotel remain the historical references unchanged with time, as well as the structure, the original woodwork and crown moldings in the hallways, and the 1924 gold leaf ceiling in the former Mr. Huntington’s apartment.

However, new Singapore Straits Chinese-inspired interior design elements and a provocative use of color are present in all 134 spacious rooms – a fusion of classic grace and global influences that stirs the imagination.

The four room types – Superior, Deluxe, Executive and Premium, 34 one-bedroom suites, and three signature suites – Opulent, Passion and Mulholland, delight visitors with a sense of elegance and brightness.

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The hotel’s positioning grants easy access to the city’s famed cable cars and a short walk to Union Square, Financial District, Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Ferry Building.

The Scarlet Huntington is located at 1075 California St., San Francisco, CA 94108; 415-474-5400; www.thescarlethotels.com/sf. Photo credit: The Scarlet Huntington.

Photography by Yuri Krasov

If there’s a better season than winter to experience California desert I’d like to hear about it… or better yet see it for myself. Meanwhile, when record freeze was bracing the American East and Midwest, and pouring rain (finally!) was falling all over the San Francisco Bay Area, the sun was shining brightly, and palm trees were gently swaying over blue pools in a charmed corner of the world known as Greater Palm Springs. It took us several hours in a problem-free Enterprise Rent-A-Car vehicle to get there from SF, and slightly over an hour to get back on Alaska Airlines uneventful flight for an exciting and relaxing.
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JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa

Located in Palm Desert, this aquatic oasis is designed to satisfy every whim of its guests so they would never want to venture beyond its 450-acre territory. Several eateries on the premises include the Lobby Bar and the Sushi Bar; Starbucks – also in the hotel lobby; voted “Best Seafood Restaurant” Fisherman’s Landing Market & Grill; and a few full-service restaurants on the shores of the resort’s own lagoon – poolside Oasis grill, waterfront Rockwood Grill, Blue Star Lounge, and Mikado, a Japanese steakhouse with teppanyaki dining. To get there, diners can board one of white-and-blue speedy boats that take passengers in the open-air lobby area and bring them back every 10 minutes. The lagoon, adorned with fountains and populated by black and white swans, geese, duck, carp, and pink flamingoes, stretches to the far reaches of the five heated pools and two 18-hole championship golf courses.

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The Spa at Desert Springs offers wonderful massages, and has its own sunlit pool, its own café, steam rooms and saunas, a beauty salon, and an adjacent fully equipped gym, actually filled with health-conscious travelers.

A long chain of retail outlets with resort and gift wares stretches along the Colonnade of Shops, and even a contractor hawk trainer can be seen on the roof giving some practice exercises to his winged predator in-between guest-ordered lectures and demos.

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Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

No trip to the area is complete without a breathtaking ten-minute ride up the mountains on the world’s largest rotating tramcar to the Mt. San Jacinto State Park. The two Swiss-built glassed cabins carry 80 passengers at a time up Chino Canyon from the 2,643-foot Valley Station to the 8,516-foot Mountain Station, passing as many climatic zones along the way as are found on a long Pacific shore stretch from Mexico to Canada.

At the top, where the temperature drops 20-40 degrees even in the middle of blazing-hot summer, the Mountain Station has Long Valley Deck surrounded by pines, covered with fresh snow in wintertime; Desert View Terrace with views of rugged mountains and a forest of windmills on the valley floor; an exhibition of flora and fauna indigenous to the area; a visitor center with park information and trail maps; a movie theater showing a documentary about the building of the Tramway in incredibly harsh conditions, and new tromp l’oeil murals by the local artist Keith Blum.
There are also Peaks Restaurant and Pines Café at the Mountain Station, now led by the new chef Kevin Land. Food stuffs are delivered to the top on the “first tram” early in the morning, before the crowds flock in, and water – in a special reservoir under the passenger cabin. Reportedly, some dishes have to be prepared in the valley and taken here, since the lower-oxygen mountainous conditions change the way food is being cooked and especially baked.
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Desert Hills Premium Outlets

The little town of Cabazon can get really overpopulated with eager shopper battalions arriving by car and bus in great numbers, especially during the winter holiday season. Every- or almost every imaginable international brand has a factory outlet here, and tourists from as close as Los Angeles and as far as the Peoples’ Republic of China take full advantage of it. In the frenzy of gift shopping at the lit with myriads of Christmas lights East Village and West Village with a combined collection of 180 designer and name brand stores, the shoppers make a quick stop at Blaze Pizza, where the new speedy method of combining thin crust with a choice of sauce and toppings reduces lunch time to mere minutes.
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Shields Date Garden

This unique “all about dates” farm and shop in the town of Indio features an incredible amount of date samples, recipes, and packaged varieties, plus a 1950s film “Romance and Sex Life of a Date.” Founded in 1924 by a husband and wife team of a mechanical engineer and a teacher from back East, Shields Date Garden is still producing those sweet hard-to-grow fruits, and is famous for date shakes, date ice cream, and fragrant citrus. Mr. Shields was the inventor of date sugar and the date crystal. Date sugar adds flavor to recipes and date crystals are a dry blend of dates used in cooking, on cold cereals and in date milkshakes. The Coachella Valley produces 90% of the dates in North America.
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Cathedral City

In the Center of Coachella Valley, the tiny, neat and trip Cathedral City has a remarkable Town Square with an elaborately sculpted and adorned with glass mosaic pieces Fountain of Life, symbolically depicting blooming palm trees surrounded by desert animals. Right next to it, there is Mary Pickford Theater – home to a small museum displaying personal belonging, some costumes, and two documentaries of “the girl with the golden curls” considered the most famous and beloved woman in the world in the silent film era. Equal in her international fame to Charlie Chaplin, the hard-working comedienne starred in 50-80 moving pictures a year, until the talkies which she contemptuously compared to lipstick on Venus de Milo ultimately ended her brilliant career.
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Joshua Tree National Park

The true treasure of the California, Joshua Tree National Park lies in the overlap between the Colorado and Mojave deserts and stretches over 794 000 acres. The eastern half of the park is dominated by cholla cactus, palo verde, and ocotillo, while the western half contains forests of whimsically twisted Joshua tree amid giant smooth boulder stacks – the result of prehistoric volcanic activity in the area.
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Hard Rock Hotel Palm Springs

One of the newest hotels in the city center, Hard Rock is filled with rock musicians’ instruments, stage costumes, amplifiers, and other paraphernalia, and features over-the-top décor in the designer lobby, pool area, and in every room, each marked by a dedicated album from a legendary group.
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Sparrows Lodge

This brand new hotel, built to resemble a 1950s lodge, has only 20 rooms that surround a swimming pool with a hot tub and a fireplace. The rooms have cement walls with pebble trim, and a slate rock shower area with rough lead piping. Folding leather chairs and wooden tables constitute room furnishings, and the “papa bear” rustic beds are covered with Salvation Army-style thin blankets. There’s a cozy couch in front of a fireplace in the entrance area, and at the opposite end of the swimming pool that takes the center stage on the property – a breakfast nook and a bar with enough space for guests and their dogs in this pet-friendly establishment.

Greater Palm Springs Visitor Information 1-800-969-3767; www.visitgreaterpalmsprings.com

Photography by Yuri Krasov

Bali! The world of dreams. The world of smiles, bows, and frangipani flower necklaces, where the air is fragrant, the lush tropical greenery is awashed in warm downpours and sunlight; where subtle pleasures and indulgencies are delivered in a myriad ways – where you feel light and floating on air, like a flower petal…

All through the drive from the Ngurah Rai International Airport along winding narrow left-side roads of central Bali, I’m amazed and enthralled by the giant sculptures of Hindu gods and goddesses; scary ugly demons carved of lava rock, guarding entrances to temples and dwellings under coconut palms; stone and wood carvings and pottery displayed in front of artisan shops. Children in school uniforms, women with baskets on their heads, teens on motorbikes, and crowds of brightly dressed people gathered for a temple ceremony move to and fro on our way.
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We head to Viceroy Bali – an exclusive five-star resort, literally cut into a vertical mountain side high above the green Valley of the Kings in the vicinity of a bustling Ubud village.
Beautifully appointed amid tropical wilderness, secluded and serene, Viceroy Bali is a paradise for newlyweds – and for olden-weds, too. 25 luxury villas under the traditional Balinese thatched roofs are light, spacious, with open-plan bedrooms and living rooms, marble bathrooms and private dipping pools.
The villas are perched on a steep ridge one above another in three rows, all facing the opposite side of a deep canyon overgrown with tropical forest.
Our Deluxe Terrace Villa has two glass double doors opening to a private patio with an endless-edge pool, a cozy gazebo for two balanced on its far corner, and on the other side – a small fountain streaming from a stone bowl held by a sculpted couple in tender embrace (Shiva and Parvathi?)
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At the tranquil indoor-outdoor Lembah Spa overlooking the Petanu River Gorge, our couple’s massage starts with a foot bath – the copper tub filled to the brim with rose petals. Spa therapists, trained in Swiss massage, are highly skilled and soon make us forget all the exhaustion of a long flight.

After the spa treatment, in pouring rain, we are escorted under large umbrellas to a next door CasCades restaurant, where high tea with finger sandwiches and house-made pastries is served just for us! The restaurant has no walls, and from any corner we can observe the endless jungle, lashed by the rain, and then suddenly blue sky, foggy vapors rising from the green lawns, and the large hotel pool – sparkling again, with a little tiled island lined with long chairs.

CasCades, multiple award-winning restaurant, serves creative Asian-influenced French cuisine, with nightly offerings including little masterpieces like Tomato Carpaccio, Barramundi Fish Teppanyaki, and Passion Fruit Mousse for dessert.

Come morning, we discover yet another CasCades wonder – a lavish a la carte breakfast, included with the room stay, and served on white table cloth. I inevitably pick a plate of tropical island-grown fruit and Bali coffee.
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After breakfast, we take a free hotel shuttle to Ubud village and walk to a sacred monkey forest Mandala Suci Wenara Wana. Cute little fluffy gray monkeys – many with tiny babies, firmly attached to their bellies – roam the trees, sit on the road, busily pounding fallen leaves with rocks, and communicate with visitors, looking for apple bananas sold from a cart right there, and skillfully peeling them. They go in and out of a locked up temple with a note on a gate, “For worshippers only,” and rest upon stone statues that surround the sacred ground.

We take a Balinese dance lesson at Arma museum with a professional dancer Ketut Riawati. When she tells us that a few years ago she traveled to San Francisco, and danced on a Berkeley stage in a large ensemble, my husband and I look at each other in disbelief. We’ve seen that performance! That was a remarkable show – only one in many years, and we remember it well – authentic Balinese dance and gamelan music brought to the California stage in all its exquisite beauty. We double our efforts to get to the core of the arm and eye dance movements (“Long arm! Big eyes, never small!”)…

We manage to pack a half-day tour departing from the hotel into our short stay at Viceroy Bali. Our experienced and friendly driver takes us to the “Moon Rock” temple Batu Bulan to watch a Balinese dance performance Pemaksan Barong Denjalan.

We drive to the “Elephant Cove” temple Goa Gojah, where worshippers still bring fruit and flower offerings in white coconut leaves to a Buddha statue, toppled over by an earthquake.

We admire a view of terraced rice paddies – emerald-green in drizzling rain, and travel to water temple Pura Tirta Empul where pilgrims perform purification rituals in a deep pool formed by underground streams.
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To bring back an exotic souvenir, we stop at a coffee plantation Teba Sari Bali Agrotourism, and get some Luwak coffee made with locally grown coffee berries eaten and “naturally processed” by mongooses. The small fluffy-tailed animals live on the plantation, gladly eat sweet red berry flesh, and excrete indigestible coffee beans, fermented in their stomachs. The beans then are washed, roasted, and sold as a delicacy.
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…The last two days of our journey we spent at the sea level in a futile attempt to experience Bali’s famous beaches. The rainy season prevented us from sun-tanning, but soon we’ve discovered that resort life in Bali never stops to amaze and indulge…
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Ayana Resort and Spa and Rimba Jimbaran Bali comprise Bali’s only integrated resort, a winner of multiple awards, located on a 220-acre Karang Mas Estate in south-eastern Bali, not far from Ngurah Rai International Airport.

The Villas at Ayana (“a place of refuge” in Sanskrit) are 78 individual secluded luxurious dwellings with private plunge pools and gazebos on limestone cliffs above the Indian Ocean. We felt positively pampered when our amiable on-call butler took us in a golf cart to our exquisite Cliff Villa surrounded by coconut palms and flowering hibiscus and bougainvillea.
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Everything seemed special, designed for ultimate relaxation and enjoyment inside the traditional Balinese-style gate, under the alang-alang roof… Inspired by the Balinese philosophy of Tri Hita Karana (“three reasons for well-being” – harmony with people, deities, and nature), indoor areas seamlessly connected with the outdoors.

In our large marble bathroom the bath tub was filled with red rose petals and yellow frangipani flowers. Behind the tub, a picture window framed frangipani trees covered in white, pink, and yellow blooms on a green lawn.
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The beneficial presence of water was felt everywhere. We spent plenty of time at the Thermes Marins Bali Spa, unique to Southeast Asia, in the largest in the world Aquatonic Seawater Therapy Pool, deservedly praised for therapeutic properties of its vigorous underwater massages performed by powerful jets. We indulged in deep tissue Balinese massage with age-old techniques used by the thorough spa masseuses.

At Dava (Sanskrit for “water”) restaurant with koi ponds and lotus pools, we enjoyed flawlessly served a la carte breakfast, included with the Villa stay.
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By the end of the day, we picked fresh-from-the-boat rock lobster and giant prawns from an icy display at Kisik Bar and Grill right on the beach. Grilled, sauced, and served with an array of Balinese accompaniments, our dinner was brought to our table on the sand, lit by glowing tiki torches by the Ocean Beach Pool.

We took a brief walk to the iconic Rock Bar perched above the clear waters of Jimbaran Bay. Guests are taken down to the Bar in a lift descending along the steep cliff. At sunset, dozens of Bali vacationers line up for the lift, although the hotel guests are treated as VIPs and use their own, shorter line.
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A complimentary resort shuttle in mere minutes delivered us from more traditional Ayana to the boldly contemporary Rimba with its ark-shaped lobby, designed in the style of a ship surrounded by reflective pools. The 5-star hotel has 282 luxurious rooms and suites decorated with natural materials, like reclaimed wood and plant fiber.

From the balcony of our Jimbaran Bay Suite, we admired a sweet sound of a flute – the performer in a floor-length gown was standing barefoot on a platform half submerged in an oval-shaped endless pool as if suspended in the air.

As soon as the nightly musical performance was over, we headed for Unique Rooftop Bar, situated on top of one of Rimba’s four buildings that offers dramatic 360-degree views of the Uluwatu Hills to the south-east, and ocean to the west.

Here we lounged on long chairs under an umbrella, sipped our island mojitos garnished with sugar cane sticks, and took swims in a pool cleverly positioned between the tables and the long chairs area.
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After a good-night sleep in our large and quiet room, and before leaving the resort, we had a substantial breakfast at To’ge restaurant. The morning buffet featured dishes inspired by the street food from all corners of Asia as well as Western classics. True to form, we picked Indonesian chicken and rice, local tropical fruit, and coconut juice from a whole coconut.
More information at: www.viceroybali.com, www.ayanaresort.com, www.rimbajimbaran.com.

Photography by Yuri Krasov

I’ve always known that vacationing in the mountains was for the athletic, physically well-adjusted, and fearless people who don’t mind long hikes, sharp air temperature changes, and heavy backpacks…

Just like the absolute majority of vacationers, I’ve always preferred seaside and leisure to snowy peaks and incessant hiking. However, my recent personal discovery of Tirol region in Austria made me rethink my vacation persuasion.

Our lucky adventure started with the Lufthansa non-stop flight San Francisco- Munich. From there, it was an easy ride with a car-and-driver transportation service, Four Seasons Travel – their office located right at the airport. Soon my husband and I were in Austria; warmly greeted at a charming Hotel Alte Post in a beautiful little town of St. Anton am Arlberg – one of the 12 “Best of the Alps” most traditional Alpine resorts in Europe.

Besides excellent service, based on decades of hospitality culture, Hotel Alte Post boasts a large wellness facility with sauna, steam room, swimming pool, and hot tubs, and a high-class restaurant that serves full breakfast and dinner.
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Through the windows of our spacious, clad in warm pinewood hotel room, I observed an idyllic picture of hilly green pastures with flocks of sheep whose faint bleating and tinkling bells could be heard in the clean mountainous air.

Our first order of business was to get to the top of Valluga (2811m) where from a 360-degree sightseeing platform one could enjoy the view of the Alps in four different countries – Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy.

State-of-the-art Galzigbahn, constructed in 2006, took us on a fast and breathtaking trip above the clouds. Back in 1937, the Galzig cable car was one of the first gondolas in the region, serving 210 persons an hour. The new contemporary lift is based on the technology of a Ferris wheel, making it possible for the passengers to embark and exit at ground level. The unique glass construction of the gondola station looks like a giant crystal, lit up at night.
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A local museum, dedicated to the history of St. Anton and located in a 1912 “Villa Trier” tells a story of Hannes Schneider – the Arlberg ski pioneer. The father of downhill skiing as we know it began his career as a ski instructor in 1907 and founded the world’s first ski school in winter of 1920-21, teaching the guests of the Hotel Alte Post how to shift their weight, and adjust speed and balance on uneven terrain. In his St. Anton ski school, which still exists today, Schneider trained groups of students according to their individual abilities. He introduced the “Arlberg technique” to the international audiences, and then traveled to Japan with a series of lectures and seminars affirming his motherland’s leading role in the development of winter sports.

He also performed as an actor in a number of highly popular ski movies, like Der Weisse Rausch (The White Thrill) directed by Arnold Fanck and shot in St. Anton in the winter of 1930-31.

In 1938 Schneider was imprisoned by the Nazis for repeatedly speaking up against the Nazi regime and supporting Jewish friends. Thanks to international pressure, he was soon released, and in 1939 immigrated to the USA, where he established a famous ski school in New Hampshire, and died in 1955.
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We boarded a train of the Arlberg railway, inaugurated by the Emperor Franz Joseph in 1884 – a masterpiece of alpine engineering still in an excellent working condition today – and headed to Innsbruck, the capital of Tirol.

In Innsbruck, the mountains come up closer to the city – cold, severe, with snow-covered tops. Here, we ascended to the wind-swept heights of Seegrube (1905 м) and Hafelekar (2300 м) in a funicular and two cable cars, just to get a quick look at the endless mountainous country, and the lush emerald greenery of the city below, traversed by the jade-colored river Inn.

Chilled to the bone from a close encounter with the North Chain mountain range, I indulged in a warm delicious Kasspatzl’n mit Roestzwiebln (cheese spaetzle with roasted onions) at the oldest city restaurant, Weisses Roessl, founded in 1590. This slow-food restaurant serves all the farm-to-table traditional specialties stemming from Austrian, Hungarian, and Bohemian culinary roots.
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After lunch we explored the Old Town and its historical landmarks – Goldener Dachl, a golden roof built for Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519) over a balcony from which he liked to observe the knights’ tournaments; St. Anne’s column, commemorating a 1703 Tyrolean victory over Bavarian troops; and a contemporary outdoor artwork of orange banners listing the names of Austria’s courageous citizens who raised their voices against the Nazi regime during WWII.

For a relatively small city of about 125 000 population, Innsbruck has an impressive wealth of museums and other cultural institutions. Kaiserliche Hofburg – the imperial court palace, built as residence of the Tyrolean provincial rulers under Archduke Sigmund the Rich, was then extended by Emperor Maximilian I, and later rebuilt in the Viennese baroque style by Maria Theresa (1717-1780). At the Hofkirche (the court church) there is Emperor Maximilian I’s enormous tomb adorned with marble reliefs and surrounded by 28 larger-than-life bronze statues of the Emperor’s ancestors and heroes of antiquity, with three figures designed by Albrecht Durer.
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An outstanding collection of arms, arts, and wonders of nature was composed at Schloss Ambras by Archduke Ferdinand II (1529-1595). An extensive Habsburg Portrait Gallery displays masterful depictions of the royal family members from Albrecht III to Franz Joseph I.

Tiroler Landesmuseen contains a series of permanent art exhibitions, and also includes a solid square kilometer of Das Tirol Panorama – a massive and magnificently realistic painting. It’s dedicated to the formation of Tyrolean identity at the battle of Bergisel Hill under a peasant leader Andreas Hofer against the Bavarian and French occupiers during the Tyrolean Was of Independence in 1809.

Late in the evening we settled in our cozy room in a recently renovated Grand Hotel Europa in the city center. A hearty multi-course dinner at the hotel restaurant, Europa Stueberl consisted of regional and seasonal specialties, like beef broth with liver dumpling, boiled beef with spinach and potatoes, and Tyrolean dessert of knoedle (dumplings filled with plum jam).
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Restored and rejuvenated after a good night sleep, we headed for the Swarovski Kristallwelten – a lavish display of all things shiny from the world’s leading manufacturer of cut crystal. Coming from Bohemia in the 1880s, the Swarovski brothers found an ideal place for their sparkling product at the foothills of the Austrian Alps. With a major breakthrough – the invention of the machine to substitute hand-cutting – Daniel Swarovski started a trend that continues to dazzle our stage, screen, and party life for over a century.

The company produces zirconia – an artificial diamond with different colors of crystals coming from different metal oxides used in the process, and clear stones with diamond cut. Artists from Salvador Dali to Andy Warhol used Swarovski crystals in their art, and their remarkable artwork is on display today, as well as a number of site-specific exhibitions that change every several months.
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We were in a hurry trying to get to Kufstein – by the Kaiser mountain range, surrounded by meadows, woods, and lakes – in time for the annual cattle drive. Tyrolean cows, which spend all summer in the green mountainous pastures, hardly have any natural enemies, but they might parish in a thunderstorm, or fall down from a steep hillside. When all the cows are safe and sound at the end of the summer season, their homecoming turns into a grandiose celebration in the Tyrolean villages.

We arrived just in time for the festivities. Along the main drag of Kufstein the bands were playing, the shepherds in lederhosen and Tyrolean hats were performing a rhythmical dance with whips, and krapfen pastries were prepared right there, in multiple street stalls.

Soon a herd of well-fed brown-and-white cows appeared at the end of the street. Adorned with headdresses made of flowers and ribbons, like Las Vegas showgirls, the cows proceeded down the street past the cheering and applauding crowd. Long after the last of them returned home to their owners, the people continued to celebrate with song and dance, schnapps and sausages from the local makers.
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We checked in at the new, well-appointed and exceedingly comfortable Hotel Stadt Kufstein, with wonderfully fluffy snow-white beds in spacious nicely decorated rooms; state-of-the-art wellness facility; beautiful restaurant serving buffet breakfast, a chic bar, and above all – excellent service.
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From the large windows of our room we could see the round white tower of Festung Kufstein (Kufstein fortress) – a landmark dating from 1205 – that soars over the neat and clean little town. It contains a museum of the fortress that used to be a military base, an arena of many battles, especially during the war between Bavaria and Tirol, and a prison in the dark times of religious persecutions and “witch” trials. There is also a history museum, and the largest open-air organ in the world, “Heldenorgel,” which can still be heard all over town every day at noon. A lift “Kaiser Maximilian” with a panoramic view takes visitors to the fortress.

Rows of beautiful and well-kempt historical buildings along the main street Roemerhofgasse in the old town center surround a pedestrian zone, studded with souvenir shops and quaint little restaurants.

We had enough time only for two of the Kufstein restaurants, but both were truly remarkable.

A restaurant at the Hotel Andreas Hofer serves seasonal fare, including wild mountain goat (chamoia) and venison during the hunting season. The game is nicely complimented by the traditional vegetables – red cabbage, carrots, and mashed potatoes.

I was blown away by the dessert. Blueberry pancakes Tyrolean style looked dark blue, since they contained more berries than dough, and were simply addictive. After I finished my plate of pancakes, my lips and tongue appeared blue from the abundance of blueberries, but I was in a good company – the majority of the diners at the restaurant were beaming with similar blue-colored smiles.

The oldest restaurant in town, Auracher Loechl, with the “olden days” décor, and very popular with the tourists and locals alike, serves all the Tyrolean specialties, and a remarkable desert, Kaiserschmarrn. The legend has it that once upon a time an imperial chef accidentally cut up a pancake which he was supposed to serve to the Emperor Franz Joseph. He masked his mistake with rum, raisins, and powdered sugar, and since then the dish has acquired notoriety and popularity.
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Our last stop before heading home was at the world-famous Riedel Glass factory in Kufstein. From a second-floor gallery, the visitors can observe a team of skilled glass-blowers in white shirts and sunglasses noiselessly moving in front of the red-hot ovens, transporting bubbles of flaming liquid from one work station to another. They create delicate pieces of glass art – wine glasses that presumably enhance the taste of wines, whimsical decanters, and flower vases – with an ancient mouth-blowing method, and apply time-honored complicated techniques to produce one of a kind handcrafted Riedel glass, cherished throughout the world for its incomparable beauty.

More information at: www.tirol.at, www.stantonamarlberg.com, www.innsbruck.info, www.kufstein.com.