Photography by Yuri Krasov

Freshly shucked with a wedge of lemon, or grilled and smothered with barbeque sauce, oysters are a specialty at Nick’s Cove Restaurant, Oyster Bar & Cottages, overlooking Tomales Bay. In Marshall, California, where Nick’s Cove is located, everything is pretty much rotating around oyster interests. This tiny town, about an hour drive from San Francisco, has a population of 50 to 400, according to different sources, but on any day of the week it’s teeming with oyster lovers, sipping their Schramsberg Mirabelle Brut Rose and savoring their bivalves in any nook and cranny of Nick’s Cove or along a 400-feet pier leading to a boat shack with a spectacular view of Hog Island.
The oysters are coming from their own neat and clean beds in the bay, so they can’t be any fresher than that. The waterfront restaurant with glass-covered patio, festively decorated mahogany bar and impressive stone-plated fireplace was completely renovated about six years ago, and updated by new owners in 2011.
Nick’s Cove is one of the last remaining historic establishments continuously dedicated to the tourist trade, fishing, and sustainable agriculture since the early days of California travel. It got its name from a Yugoslavian immigrant Nick Kojich, the original owner the property, attracted by the similiarity of Tomales Bay with its mild winters and shallow waters to the Adriatic Sea. In the 1930s, Nick and Frances Kojich built several cottages on stilts over water, and opened a seafood restaurant. The succession of subsequent owners – Andrew and Dorothy Matkovic, then Alfred and Ruth Gibson – continued to improve the business that inevitably attracted travelers along California Highway One, the most beautiful road in the country, running mostly along the Pacific coastline.

The current owners of Nick’s Cove preserve the traditional architecture and historical ambiance of the cottages while perfecting their decor and adding modern amenities.
Staying at the Big Rock cottage is like traveling back in time, or being on a movie set of a period flick. The house is furnished with antique wooden furniture, leather sofa, oriental rugs, and fishing paraphernalia. Hardwood floors and wall panels, mica light fixtures, a wood-burning oven and especially a hammered copper bathtub and a wooden “commode” create an illusion that nothing has changed here since the Hollywood glamour epoch. However, this impression is deceptive. There is a heated marble floor in the bathroom, a contemporary temperature control throughout the house, and a nicely-appointed kitchenette with a wet bar and all the necessities.

Internet, telephone, and television are also available, but it seems a travesty to use these amenities in a place like this, where much better time would be spent watching egrets follow tides and ebbs in search of prey, contemplating a sunset through the wide dining-room windows, or listening to the soft splashing sound of waves right underneath the floor boards.
Big Rock cottage has its own little beach, where all the treasures of flotsam and jetsam can be found, and is a part of a duplex Big Rock/Little Rock, with each of the adjacent bedrooms having their own bathroom and street entrance, so it can be rented for a big family or even two families with utmost comfort.

Dining at the Nick’s Cove Restaurant is an event in its own right. Executive Chef Austin Perkins creates an amazing array of delectable treats using seafood from the bay and fresh produce from the surrounding Marin and Sonoma County farms. (It surely helps being smack in the middle of the most sophisticated agricultural region).

Raw miyagi oysters from Tomales Bay don’t really need much adornment, but surely benefit from champagne and shallot mignonette.
Georges Bank Sea Scallops are served on a dice of fried pancetta and Coke Farm sunchokes – seared to golden-brown, and laced with port reduction sauce.

Rosotti Ranch goat meatballs are served in a little cast iron cocotte, covered with melted leek tomato sauce and fine herbs.
A good chunk of Columbia River white sturgeon is wrapped in Fra’Mani ham and topped with green garlic soubise on a bed of lacinato kale in piquillo pepper sauce.

Thick and juicy, and bursting with flavor Nicasio Square Kurobuta pork chop is garnished with celery root puree, braised shallots and apple demi-glace.

The menu changes often to accommodate Chef Perkins’ creativity, the catch of the day, and seasonal markets, but most likely you won’t be disappointed with any of the available choices.

Among the seasonal desserts, created by the Pastry Chef Gillian Helquist, there might be a warm rhubarb upside down cake in a delicate round crust, served with a scoop of crème fraiche ice cream and light caramel sauce.
Long after the restaurant patrons finish their dinner, the bar area is alive, and for a good reason – a comprehensive wine, beer, and cocktail list keeps them coming back for more. Having a Marshall Manhattan (Breaking and Entering Bourbon, Anderson Valley Oatmeal Stout syrup) or a Pink Lady (Junipero gin, St. Germain, cherry juice, cream) while sitting at the table for two by a glass wall and looking out at the pier and boat shack in Christmas lights is a wonderful experience. For some reason, it’s never boring to be close to water…

To top the endlessly enticing stay at Nick’s Cove, a scrumptious breakfast for two is delivered to the cottage in the morning with the day’s edition of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Nick’s Cove is located at 23240 Highway One, Marshall, CA 94940. For reservations and additional information call 415-663-1033 or visit

Photography by Yuri Krasov

Here is good advice is for those who are in the beginning stages of wedding planning. I know, good advice usually goes unappreciated, but the place I want to tell you about is too good and underappreciated to remain undiscovered by the marrying public. The magical place, the historical place, it serves as an ideal gathering ground for all kinds of events, but very few people are aware of its physical proximity and poetical remoteness. Existing since the Spanish era, and maintaining its time-honored character alongside its modern comfort, this place was once called Casa Escondida (hidden house). It should not remain hidden any longer!
I still can’t understand how I could have missed this landmark of the Monterey Peninsula before, on my many trips to Carmel-by-the-Sea and Carmel Valley. It’s always been there, at the top of a hill, just a winding mountain road away from the well-known bustling tourist destinations.
Its outpost in the Carmel Valley Village is a Holman Ranch tasting room, where my husband and I tried some estate sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot gris, and pinot noir – grown on thin rocky mountainous soil, ripened under the hot sun and blanketed in marine layer coming from the Pacific – to ultimate grape perfection, before we continued uphill to the stone hacienda surrounded by oak groves, where we were booked for the night.
We spent a fair amount of time at the tasting room enjoying the wines that are distributed exclusively through the wine club membership and the Holman Ranch website. Approximately 19 acres of Holman Ranch vineyards yield a limited amount of the estate grown true varietals, especially for wine enthusiasts who know their pinots.
While I enjoyed a taste of crisp 2011 Sauvignon Blanc with aromas of lime, kiwi, and green apple, I liked the ruby-hinted reds even more – 2011 Pinot Noir “Heather’s Hill” with flavors of marionberry and black cherry, that comes from the highest part of the mountain; 2010 Pinot Noir, composed of four different clones, aged for 12 months in French oak and redolent of sour cherry and blackberry; and full-bodied energetic 2010 Pinot Noir “Hunter’s Cuvee” with pronounced taste of blueberry and raspberry jam – named after the eldest daughter of the estate’s current owners.
Leaving the tasting room, we picked up an old-fashioned cast iron key to our cottage, and soon ascended to the top of the hill, where we were greeted first by a small herd of deer unfazed by our arrival.
Hunter and Nick Lowder – respectively director and manager of guest services at Holman Ranch – met us at the hacienda for a delightful tour of the premises and a historical overview. At the time when California was still a part of Mexico, the land belonged to the Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmello, then to one of the first ranchers in Carmel Valley, Don Jose Manuel Boronda. Then, after the beautiful green acres at the top of the hill had passed through several hands, the Spanish-style hacienda was constructed in 1928, serving as a celebrity hideaway for Charlie Chaplin, Theda Bara, and other stars of the silent film era.
In the 1940s, Clarence Holman of Holman’s Department Store family acquired the estate and expanded it by adding guest rooms and a swimming pool, and turning it into a lively resort, used for Who’s Who parties and community events. The next generation of Hollywood stars continued to frequent the new center of Carmel social life – among them Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, and Marlon Brando.
Decades later, Dorothy McEwen purchased the Ranch in 1989, planted vineyards, built the stables, and continued to use the hacienda for various celebrations and events.
The current owners, Thomas and Jarman Lowder and their family started an elaborate restoration project in 2006, which brought Holman Ranch to its current splendor. Refurbished, refreshed, and updated, the place now looks like a dreamlike retreat from the everyday with its sunny lawns, flower beds, and chirping birds, far above the valley, surrounded by the blue ridges of Santa Lucia Mountains.
On the 400 acres of Holman Ranch there is enough space for everything, from stables and vineyards to elegant wedding celebrations. The Ceremony Lawn’s focal point is Ceremony Veranda with 360-degree views. Great Room is perfect for a dinner reception, while a charming inner courtyard leads to a cheerfully-decorated Chapel and Bride’s Room with full-length mirror, a large table and massive chairs, a.k.a. Conference Room.
Across the Rose Patio, lined by rose bushes and lemon trees, there is Groom’s Room that doubles as Game Room (but of course!) and a cozy bar with adjacent preparation and catering areas.
By the Main Plaza in the center of the estate there is an arbor that leads to the swimming pool, Carriage House, and charming cottages with guest rooms.
During our visit to Holman Ranch, between the booked weekend weddings, we fully enjoyed the serenity of the “hidden house.” The silence of the hills was audible, and the blue of the sky above was endless. The place looked gorgeous, even though it was still way to go before summer. I could only imagine how amazing it must be when all its flower beds are in bloom. I must hope to one day come back again – maybe, as a wedding guest.
Holman Ranch tasting room is located at 19 E. Carmel Valley Road, Camel Valley, CA. Call 831-659-2640 for more information, or visit;

Photography by Yuri Krasov

A city of Saratoga, found in the vicinity of Silicon Valley, is not your typical hi-tech hub with drafty office buildings and green organic fast food joints for lunching pros. In fact, it is not a high-tech hub at all. Besides, it is not an industrial valley town, but rather a romantic hilly retreat surrounded by mossy oak groves and glossy vineyards turning from emerald to gold on the brink of winter. And when it comes to food, you better prepare to enjoy it as slowly as you can, because the food, as well as wine, is exceptionally good in Saratoga. Hardly an hour drive away from San Francisco, Saratoga is a little known weekend travel destination, where all the major attractions are located in a walking distance from each other, along Big Basin Way, and where taking short rides to more remote sites is a pleasure due to the amazing beauty of the verdant mountainous surroundings.
Our weekend trip to Saratoga my husband and I started at Villa Montalvo, built in 1912 by the then U.S. Senator and San Francisco Mayor James Duval Phelan. He built his summer residence in Italianate style suitable for the Mediterranean climate of California, and surrounded the two-story airy building with gardens, lawns, and flowerbeds, and even an outdoor theater.
Senator Phelan named his villa after a Spanish novelist of the 16th century, Garci Ordonez de Montalvo, who used the word “California” for the first time in his fantastical fiction. To Montalvo, California was a paradise island, populated by Amazons riding gryphons and guarding their countless treasures. To Phelan, American California was a Spaniard’s dream-come-true and an incarnation of the terrestrial paradise he envisioned. The patriotic senator even wrote a poem inscribed on his patio wall, stating, “…her name foretold, her gold a paradise for eager eyes. His dream came true for me and you.” There is plenty to see with eager eyes at Villa Montalvo. Free and open to the public, the entrance to the site is at the end of a winding forest road adorned with contemporary art pieces coming from the resident Montalvo Arts Center. A great green lawn in front of the villa serves as a community picnic ground at the foot of which lies Italian Garden, surrounded by pyramidal Tuscan cypresses and rose bushes.
In the garden, there is an exquisitely preserved white marble statue depicting Adam and Eve, that Senator Phelan brought from Italy. There is also a white-columned Love Temple, with a strange sculpture – formerly a fountain – in its center.
A rectangular colored marble basin, now a planter, is surrounded on four corners by macabre-looking satyrs who peer inside with their tongues stuck out. Underneath, a shallow fountain bed has a wave pattern and four distorted faces looking up from under the waves. Dumbfounded, I was circling the construction trying to connect the dots.

Later, with the kind help from the Montalvo Arts Center’s historians I’ve learned the Love Temple’s own fascinating history.
According to the experts, the decorative motif of the Love Temple once revolved around the Roman goddess Venus, whose statue stood in the center of the fountain. Below, there were the faces of the four winds that blew Venus to shore after her birth. The original satyrs around the fountain were destroyed during the 1989 earthquake, and have been replaced with the “much more ghoulish-looking” versions that are on view today. By 1925, as shown in a dated historical photo, the fountain had been converted into a planter. At some point during the 1940s, the Venus statue was vandalized and removed (as was, unfortunately, much of the statuary on the grounds during that period).

Back in 1930, before Senator Phelan passed away, he left Villa Montalvo to the San Francisco Art Association as a charitable trust “to be used as far as possible for the development of Art, Literature, Music, and Architecture.” Today, according to his wishes, Montalvo Arts Center implements a variety of public programs – musical and theatrical performances, visual arts exhibitions, artists’ residency, lectures, classes, and literary events (
Our next stop was at Hakone – the oldest Japanese garden in the Western Hemisphere, established in 1917 by a family of San Francisco arts patrons, Oliver and Isabel Stine. Designed by a descendent of the imperial gardening family and spread over the 18 acres of mountainside covered with bamboo, red maple, and black pine, Hakone is a replica of Japanese samurai or shogun’s estate gardens, where rocks, plants, ponds, and bridges are arranged in heavenly harmony.
The Moon-viewing House on a hill above the Moon Bridge and koi pond, and other structures are built for quiet contemplation, Zen meditation, and tea ceremonies. In the layout and architecture of Hakone it is easy to see the difference between the Western attitude toward nature – the one of conquest and domination, and the Eastern desire to blend with it and appreciate everything that surrounds us. Stone lanterns next to gray stones, bamboo banisters in a bamboo grove, and wisteria blossoms hanging from an arbor made of dry wisteria trunks – everything here looks like a part of a landscape – with the exception of the ancient colorful koi in the pond.
One fish looks like a blue-and-white Japanese porcelain vase, another – like a silk kimono sleeve, the third one – like a flag of Japan with a red round symbol of rising sun upon its white head. One of the prime landmarks by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Hakone was a film site for the “Memoirs of a Geisha” and continues to host multiple international historic and cultural events (

After an eventful and educational morning, we lunched at Bella Saratoga – an Italian restaurant located in a beautiful Victorian and serving fresh Californian produce and seafood – a favorite place for local romantic dining. We felt very refreshed after consuming delectable bruschetta, polenta, and caprese.

Next, our route led us to Mountain Winery, founded in 1905 by a famous French winemaker, Paul Masson, who is considered a father of California champagne and whose name is still inscribed on the giant wine barrels that decorate the property. Excellent chardonnay and pinot noir produced here following Paul Masson’s original choice of grapes is not the only attraction of the winery.
One of the major tourist destinations, Mountain Winery boasts unparalleled views of the surrounding hills (with a San-Francisco skyline visible on a clear day) and hosts world-famous seasonal concert series. Over the years, a hillside amphitheater built in 1958, welcomed Diane Ross, The Beach Boys, Donna Summer, Ray Charles, BB King, Willie Nelson, and a long list of other celebrities. A celebrity photographer Ansel Adams worked at Mountain Winery, inspired by the beauty of this place, and some of his artwork can be seen today on the walls of an elegantly appointed tasting room inside the main building (
After all the walking on Saratoga hills, we were looking forward to our massage appointments at the award-winning Preston Wynne Spa known for its skilled personnel and serene relaxing ambiance. Every masseuse at Preston Wynne is an expert in some particular kind of treatment, therefore the list of services is long and varied, and includes everything from organic sugar scrub and detoxifying sea mineral wrap to rose oil massage and warm seaweed back pack. Peggy Wynn Borgman, the spa founder, authored a book, “Four Seasons of Inner and Outer Beauty” dedicated to the rituals and recipes for well-being throughout the year (

The next door hair salon, James Craig, specializing in haircolor and design, impressed me with its friendly staff and the best scalp treatment and blowout I had in years. On a busy weekend afternoon, the salon’s youthful and efficient team of workers found the time to exchange jokes with the customers while transforming and improving their appearances (

Feeling beautiful and energized, I didn’t mind visiting more places and acquainting myself further with the city of Saratoga.
At Cooper Garrod Estate Vineyard we tried some wonderful viognier, cabernet Franc, and signature Test Pilot blends from the estate grapes. We also took a good look at the gorgeous riding horses and ponies from the Garrod Frms Riding Stables (,

At Cinnabar Winery we celebrated new releases of 2011 Grenach from Paso Robles, 2010 Tempranillo from Lodi, and 2009 Malbec from Clear Lake with the Alchemist Wine Society (
At Saratoga Chocolates we enjoyed delicate truffles flavored with espresso and Kahlua, lime and mint, cinnamon and cayenne (

At Deja and Co Exquisite Jewels we got an eyeful of designer gems and a glass of champagne offered to the shopping public on a weekend night (
Finally, by dinner time we walked to the Plumed Horse restaurant, where Chef/Owner Peter Armellino tirelessly wows his patrons with his outstanding creativity and sophistication. Our tasting menu started with a fresh tuna tartar topped with brioche toast, quail egg yolk, and black caviar, followed by a miniature presentation of black pepper and Parmesan soufflé and uni and Dungeness crab fondue. Rabbit loin, wrapped in bacon, was garnished with silky Gruyere and onion flan, while an antelope sausage came in a company of sweet potato puree and wheat berries. Pear sorbet with pomegranate seeds arrived before dessert to cleanse the palate. For a sweet finale, chocolate mousse was sharing a plate with whipped crème fraiche, port gelee drops, and coffee nibs. Our lavish feast was paired with delicate wines from the restaurant’s glass-walled wine cellar ( When we finished our state-of-the-art meal, it was dark and rather late. Good that our hotel, Saratoga Oaks Lodge was literally steps away from the restaurant on the same main drag as everything else in this blessed city.
Cozy cottages with all the modern conveniences, snuggly nestled under the century-old oaks, formed a little quiet zone around a flowering courtyard. A living room with a fireplace, a kitchenette with a coffeemaker, and a very comfortable bed provided a good night sleep. In the morning, we picked up our freshly-brewed coffee, pastries and fruit from the office, and took our sweet time having breakfast on a terrace surrounded by potted banana plants and tropical flowers (

Photography by Yuri Krasov

Hawai’i is a big part of the American dream. When this dream comes true, it’s everything you’ve been hoping for, and more. I planned our summer getaway to make my diver husband happy, and to let myself enjoy the not-so-active part of our vacation. I really needed to relax and get away from any stresses, even good ones. Two nights on O’ahu doesn’t sound like much, but that depends of what you make of it.

Our stay at the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani was pleasant and care-free. The beautifully appointed resort is located smack in the middle of the Honolulu main drag and steps away from the Waikiki beach. Tropical cocktails around the pool, nightly entertainment, and clean airy rooms overlooking the palm trees teaming with birds were everything we needed for a quiet retreat. On our first evening, my husband and I walked to the historic Royal Hawai’ian Resort that looks like a rosy dream, or rather, like the Pink Palace of the Pacific.

Besides being the ultimate upscale hotel on Waikiki, that hosted royals and presidents since its opening almost a century ago, this Spanish-Moorish style property, recently renovated to sparkling splendor, is home to a new restaurant, Azure, headed by the Hawai’ian-born and French-educated executive chef, Jon Matsubara.
Seated on the open air terrace overlooking the ocean, we felt like royalty. The sea breeze, the warmth of the setting sun, the plush candlelit ambience and excellent wine and food – everything was perfect. Azure serves the freshest seafood from the daily Honolulu fish auction, and we had more than one chance to try it with our tasting menu. Signature sashimi included Hawai’ian yellowfin ahi and hamachi, garnished with avocado and radish salad, soy-ginger vinaigrette, and wonton crisp. “Ocean Cappuccino” in a coffee cup contained Dungeness crab and Black Tiger shrimp bouillabaisse with good chunks of seafood and dairy froth on top.

Kona lobster tail risotto was redolent of saffron, served with Waialua asparagus and locally-grown tomatoes, and paired with sweet German Riesling. For dessert, we enjoyed Kula strawberries from Maui with balsamic and cinnamon drizzle over ice cream. Next morning, conscious of those sweet extra calories consumed the night before, we headed for Hans Hedemann Surf School, a few short blocks away from our hotel.
While my husband enjoyed a vigorous surfing lesson with a skilled instructor, I attempted an ancient and graceful water sport, known as stand-up paddle boarding. In the process, I learned two things about myself: that my toes can curl and thrust the board just like cat’s claws to maintain the balance, and – that I can maintain my balance on the board gently swayed in opposite directions by the ocean currents. After this calorie-reducing exercise and some frolicking in the silky blue waters of Waikiki, exhausted but excited, we made a reservation at the landmark Honolulu restaurant, Chef Mavro, named after the famed French-born chef/owner, George Mavrothalassitis.
Chef Mavro’s gastronomic creations and wine pairings are true masterpieces in balance and subtlety, thoroughly appreciated by the local elite and visiting dignitaries alike. I won’t soon forget those meaty Kaua’I shrimp nestled in the bright orange sea urchin froth, and paired with the delicate Ginsuika sake. Day boat catch brought in a tender ono filet crusted with mochi, and garnished with asparagus spears in green veloute. Botani, dry muscatel from Malaga, complimented it nicely.
Kurobuta pork two ways came with vanilla glazed Molokai sweet potatoes and Sumida farm watercress, paired with delightfully full-bodied Andis Grenache from Amador County, California.

When it seemed I couldn’t be impressed any more, our knowledgeable server brought along a delicate cube of champagne gelee with watermelon balls inside, and sweet Italian malvira to make it complete. Our one full day on O’ahu proved to be rather eventful and definitely joyous. Next morning, before heading for the airport to continue our vacation on the Big Island, we met with a Honolulu friend, who took us to breakfast across the street from our hotel, to the Moana Surfrider, a Westin Resort & Spa.
This grandiose white-walled hotel – Waikiki’s first resort – was designed by the architect Oliver Traphagen in the old colonial style, and opened in 1901, signifying the birth of Hawai’ian tourism industry. Today, its open air restaurant, The Veranda, is very popular for its delicious breakfast selections, from salmon eggs Benedict to powder sugar-dusted Belgian waffles with fresh berries.
The Big Island (or Hawai’i) is so big, even a million and a half tourists that visit annually, cannot overwhelm it. There is always a place where you can be alone or almost alone, enjoying its vastness and the unbelievable diversity of its landscape and climate.
The sunny side of the Big Island is called Kona, and we stayed at the Royal Kona Resort in Kailua-Kona village. Among the biggest attractions of this resort are the stunning sunset views from the Polynesian-themed restaurant, Don The Beachcomber headed by the Executive Chef Ken Omiya.
We shared a sampler platter of Hawai’ian seafood delights, like Kona crab cake, Tsunami prawns, and seared peppered ahi, and then had some more fish from Don’s Line Caught Catch of the Day menu. It was hebi – shortbill spearfish with succulent tender flesh.

Strawberry cheesecake for dessert, topped with whipped cream and fresh berries, and tropical cocktails made with rum and fruit juices seemed especially sweet against the backdrop of the setting sun. Next morning, bright and early, we signed up for a tour with Dolphin Discoveries, a local company that provides boating and snorkeling excursions around the island. We were there to see Hawai’ian spinner dolphins who populate these waters in large amounts and often like to spend time and even play with us, mere humans.

Did I see any dolphins? No. My husband did, the majority of the passengers on our boat did, but I and a couple of far-from-the-Olympic-level swimmers did not. Every time our captain shouted, “There they are! Jump!” we tried to put on our masks and snorkels really fast, but were always late even to spot a dolphin’s tale. In the water, looking at the brilliant sunrays penetrating the endless blue of the Pacific around me I thought that it was also beautiful, but – no dolphin.
On Kona, I preferred to spend time with my kindred spirits – sea turtles. Exhausted by their daily activities, and coming from the ocean to the sandy shore to rest, these creatures climb up only as far as necessary, and begin enjoying themselves the moment they embrace dry land with their fins. Calm, serene, satisfied with life – isn’t it something we all are trying to achieve – at least while on vacation.

I entered the Mandarin Oriental spa in Macau. There was a sharp pain in my shoulder as I arrived. Perhaps it was from carrying my heavy baggage all the way from San Francisco. The Cathay Pacific flight from SFO to Hong Kong and then the ferry from Hong Kong to Macau went quickly, and I slept for an amazing 7 hours. And now it was time to reward myself for the long trip.
The aroma as I entered the spa area was enough to tell me to put all stresses and concerns aside. The peaceful, inviting area beckoned to me to come further inside. So I did. And I was not disappointed. From the moment my shoes were exchanged for spa slippers at the Mandarin Oriental spa. I knew it was time to unwind

As I handed over those shoes, I felt I handed over a part of myself and was ready for the unloading of any burdens I might be carrying. The spa was warm and quiet, with just a hint of melody in the background and a soothing fragrance. It seemed as if I was the only one there.

I later found out that this is all deliberate. According to Sean O’Connor, Group Spa Manager – Design & Development, this is actually all part of the plan to make you THINK you’re the only one there. They call it “Guest Traffic Management” and it’s designed to make sure you don’t meet any other guests either before, or after, your treatment. The Mandarin Oriental realizes you may not want to feel embarrassed meeting a stranger when you’re somewhat vulnerable in nothing more than a spa robe, particularly with your hair down and tousled, no makeup on and your contact lenses stashed safely in your locker.

“I am very proud that we manage visitors to our spas,” says O’Connor. “You’ll very rarely meet another person, so you don’t have to feel naked behind a robe. We make you feel special–as if you’re the only person there–because, to us, you ARE the only person there–the only person there who matters at that time. That’s part of our management. We want to delight our customers always, and that level of detail is something nobody else has. The ambiance and the experiential aspect are second to none.”

And he’s right. After changing into a swimsuit, I checked out the Vitality Pool. There were three different places or seats here–one was a sit-up spot and the others were in the shape of 2 lounge chairs. Each had jets sending refreshing bubbles onto my body. Hmmm, I could have stayed there for a long time.

The Experience Shower had an energizing mist that descended over my body, and it would have provided cold water had I been brave enough to experience it. I wasn’t, though. I stuck with the Tropical Rain Shower option, it was all-too-soothing.

Then it was onto the massage experience. First the therapists led me into a warm, darkened room and washed my feet and my legs.The foot washing felt like something out of the Bible, and it was both unexpected and strangely welcome – I’d never had anyone wash my feet and legs before. The Foot Ritual is an honorific experience that forms part of the “Spa Journey” and harks back to Oriental heritage – of which Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group is so proud.

The treatment itself was nothing short of intoxicating. With its long, soothing strokes, the massage pressed into every one of my tired, aching muscles with firm, but gentle, determination. Every knot dissolved as the tension melted away under the expert kneading of my massage therapist.
The whole, indulgent, experience lasted longer than any treatment I’d ever had — an amazing 1 hr and 50 mins, yet it seemed to glide by as I fell effortlessly in and out of sleep.

If you need to feel relaxed then THIS is the place to go. The hardest part of my treatment in Macau’s Mandarin Oriental was getting off the table. I felt like the massage table and I had become one. Ah, bliss. The treatment table is custom made in America to MOHG specifications and is called the MO Experience Bed.
Be sure to choose whatever scent works best for you at the beginning of the massage treatment. I chose the citrus one for its refreshing aroma. And as for that pain in the shoulder? What pain? I woke up from what felt like the most relaxing spa treatment of a lifetime and the pain was, bewilderingly, gone.

The whole experience at the Mandarin Oriental in Macau quite simply puts the ahhhh back in spaaaaah.

But don’t just take my word for it. Check out what others have to say.

Vincent Rossemeier, a freelance journalist from the US, says: “For me, it was the most personalized spa treatment I have ever received. I thought the therapist really listened and customized treatment to points on my body that really needed attention.”

And Teresa Bergen, author of the book The Vegetarian Asia Travel Guide
( couldn’t agree more: “I had the Macanese Dragon
experience, which included a body scrub, foot bath, long massage, and time in the hot tub.

“All I can say is–beautiful facilities, great aromatic products, and Lisa–my therapist–had marvelous hands. My skin felt so soft afterwards!”

A massage like this is just what you need before, or after, a visit to some of Macau’s best sites–whether that be a visit to the old town with its UNESCO World Heritage Sites or to Macau’s newest attractions.
In the old town you’ll marvel at the ruins of St. Paul, the Na Cha Temple, the Macau Museum and the Senado Square, while the newest attractions in Macau include the Science Museum, the Macau Tower (where you can do the world’s highest bungee jump) and the Michael Jackson’s Gallery, where you can spot the famous Jackson glove.

And after you leave? That will no doubt leave you with a feeling you can’t quite describe. It’s something beyond longing, beyond nostalgia and can only be described as a niggling feeling that you can’t quite place.

In fact, what you’ll be experiencing is actually known as “saudade.” Macau tourism representative, Joao Rodrigues explains it thus: “Saudade has no direct English translation; no other language in the world has a word with such a meaning, making saudade a distinct mark of Portuguese culture.”

Simply put, Saudade is a feeling of wanting to go back. Macau and the Mandarin Oriental spa will both have that effect on you.

And the answer? That would be to book your return trip to Macau as soon as you can.

There really no other answer for it!

Photography by Emma Krasov

Traveling to Vienna in spring is a double treat – the weather in this gorgeous European capital is balmy, and white asparagus is in season. Let me elaborate.

I remember how I came to try white asparagus for the first time. It was in Chicago, and the preparation was done by the world-famous chef. Under my server’s intense gaze I bit into a pale meek stalk, and couldn’t force myself to take another bite. “So, how is it?” he said. “Bland,” said I – to his barely contained outrage. Since then I was not actively seeking this perennial shoot intentionally held underneath the soil to keep it colorless. It didn’t do anything to me – until I’ve tried it at Palmenhaus restaurant in Burggarten, Vienna.

Silky, tender, mild, but full of spring-like fresh flavor, it was simply served with a boiled potato, some bitter greens, and buttery-lemony hollandaise sauce. What a delight!

Steel-and-glass Art Deco Palmenhaus, where Emperor Franz Joseph liked to spend his time off admiring the hot house palm trees, is not the only place that serves white asparagus. Every self-respecting eatery in the city does it in spring and early summer.

While I continued to order it everywhere, I took time to explore other notable staples of local cuisine and the local culinary scene in general.
At Le Loft, located at the top floor of the Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom overlooking downtown, I appreciated traditional marinated herring in mustard sauce, paired with a local wine.
At Zum Schwarzen Kameel, a historic restaurant first open in 1618, I indulged in the Tafelspitz, a favorite dish of Emperor Franz Joseph, who allegedly ate it every day for dinner.
At Meierei im Stadtpark, a former milk drinking hall on the Wien River, I devoured a world-famous Wiener schnitzel, deliciously breaded and sprinkled with lemon.

At least once a day during my trip, exhausted by the sightseeing overdose, I did what tourists do – lounged on a banquette at one or another notorious Viennese café drinking coffee and snacking on chocolaty Sachertorte or vanilla-drenched Apfelstrudel.
There is nothing like a cup of strong mélange to lift a weary traveler’s spirits at a modern Café Motto am Fluss on Danube Canal, or a glass of creamy Wiener Eiskaffee at Café Schwarzenberg, in operation since 1861.
The city is brimming with all kinds of indulgences. Viennese inherent sophistication defines everything here from art and design to sublime culinary delights.

Before leaving Vienna, I stopped at Demel – the historic café und konditorei heading into the third century of its relentless excellence. Formerly a supplier to the imperial court, Demel still carries Empress Sissi’s favorite candid violets and Les Langues de Chat (cat tongues) chocolates exquisitely packed in vintage design boxes tied with silk ribbons.

Photography by Yuri Krasov

Roughing it at Yosemite has been a favorite pastime of seasoned nature lovers from all over the world for the last 100 years or so. The massive granite mountains, spectacular waterfalls, groves, lakes, and meadows of the paramount national park in Northern California attract hikers, rock-climbers, skiers, and other happy campers all year round. For the rest of us, chicken to slumber in a frost-covered tent or climb Half Dome with a candy bar and a water bottle for nourishment, there is a much more accommodating activity at the historic Ahwahnee Hotel.
Every winter, hundreds of guests come here from near and far, some for ten years in a row, for the annual culinary vacation, Chefs’ Holidays. Coming to Chefs’ Holidays 2012 for the very first time, I signed up for the first session, which started a week after the New Year’s Day. In the round up of eight three-day sessions, California chefs seemed to prevail in the glorious line up, joined by their counterparts from New York, New Orleans, Las Vegas, and other cuisine centrals.
Staying at the Ahwahnee, filled with the original furnishings, photographs, and artifacts, is a big part of the event. I was immediately smitten with the unique charm and character of the hotel first built in 1927 at the side of a 10-million-year-old rock, and true to the essence of Yosemite – the way it used to be – before it started accepting 10 000 cars a day. From my room view, to the wall and floor details, to the communal spaces with stained-glass windows, aged armchairs, patterned rugs, and roaring fireplaces, to the traditional morning coffee and afternoon tea with fresh-baked cookies – everything seemed to be designed to please and enchant.

The Ahwahnee is a AAA Four-Diamond hotel listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and a member of Historic Hotels of America, but it retains its immediate intimacy and a friendly feel, perhaps, unchanged since its early days.
Our Chefs’ session featured Kent Rathbun of Abacus, Jasper’s, and Rathbun’s Blue Plate Kitchen in Texas; Brian Streeter of Cakebread Cellars in Napa, California, and Annie Sommerville of Greens in San Francisco. The distinguished chefs presented their star dishes during culinary classes for the guests, and Chef Rathbun prepared the gala dinner at the session closing. He was doing the first cooking demo of crabmeat and white truffle oil-stuffed deviled eggs spiked with Creole seasoning and lemon juice. Chef Streeter introduced his caramelized onion and walnut biscuits with blue cheese butter. Being a California Wine Country winery chef, he supplemented the tasting of his delectable biscuits with some Cakebread Cellars wines.
Chef Sommerville – a master extraordinaire of vegetarian fare, demonstrated an elaborate step by step preparation of Mexican tartlets with roasted winter vegetables. Rustic cream cheese dough with masa harina was filled with fire-roasted poblano chilies, butternut squash, sweet peppers, onion, garlic, cheddar cheese, herbs and spices. Pumpkin seed and cilantro salsa topped the tartlets. After the classes and Q and As, every guest took home the chefs’ recipes in hopes to recreate them at home.
Our tour of the Ahwahnee kitchen presented a ginormous operation working like a well-oiled mechanism and involving boxes of pomegranates, sticks of butter, vats of muffin batter, and trays of chopped clams and mussels. The five-course gala dinner paired with wines and served by candlelight was yet to come.

By 6 p.m. on the closing night, formally dressed guests started to arrive at the world-famous Ahwahnee dining room. A long-standing hotel rule requires formal wear for dinner, and the guests seem to enjoy and follow it without exceptions. Tables were set with ivory tablecloth and napkins, silverware for every course, and multiple wine glasses.
For the first course, Chef Rathbun treated the foodie crowd with Niman Ranch maple-glazed bacon and scrambled duck eggs. Crispy seared black bass with caramelized cauliflower and persimmon-pomegranate brown butter came second. The third course was a grilled Manchester Farm quail with jalapeno cornbread pudding and pozole tortilla sauce. Cappuccino-cured Cervena venison with white cheddar potato and Abacus house steak sauce compiled the fourth course. For dessert, a chocolate and roasted sweet potato pecan pie was topped with cinnamon ice cream.