The following "reviews" cover the trips that I've taken in the last few years. Not reviewed, are the countries that I've visited prior to that. Although some are not actually countries in their own right, they have been included because they are listed as such by the Traveler's Century Club's official list of countries. These countries are:

 

Argentina

Aruba

Austria

Bahamas

Belgium

Brazil

Canada

Czech Republic

Colombia

Costa Rica

Crete

Croatia

Cuba

Czech Federated Republic

 

Denmark

Dodecanese Islands

Egypt

England

France

Germany

Gibraltar

Greece

Haiti

Hungary

Iceland

Ireland

Israel

 

Italy

Jamaica

Japan

Jordan

Kenya

Lebanon

Lichtenstein

Luxembourg

Macedonia

Martinique

Mexico

 

Monaco

Montenegro

Morocco

Netherlands

Netherlands Antilles

Northern Ireland

Norway

Palestine

Peru

Poland

Portugal

Romania

Russia

Scotland

Sicily

Spain

 

Sweden

Switzerland

Tanzania

Turkey in Europe (Istanbul)

Turkey in Asia (Anatolia,Ankara,Izmir)

Ukraine

United States

Vatican City

Venezuela

Virgin Islands

Yugoslavia

 

I have long journals for some of these trips, and I may eventually get around to putting them in this section.

Click here to view long journals for some of the countries that I had previously visited.

 

An African Safari (to Kenya and Tanzania)

 

 

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The Berkshires (The Williamstown Theatre Festival)

Brooklyn-Rediscovering my Hometown

 

 

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Costiera Amalfitana-The Amalfi Coast

Costa Rica: Jungles and Rainforests

Cuba: The Havana Film Festival

 

 

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A Day at the MGM Grand At Foxwoods, for dinner at "Alta Strada"

DisneyWorld (2000)

 

 

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Eastern Europe (Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania, Hungary)

 

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Florence (2000)

 

 

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Greece

 

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Las Vegas-2004

Las Vegas-2006

 

 

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Mohegan Sun

 

 

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Ogunquit, Maine: The Dining Room of The "Cliff House"

 

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"Paragon" at Foxwoods Resort and Casino

 

 

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Scotland (2001)

 

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Thanksgiving 2001 in DisneyWorld

Thanksgiving 2001 in DisneyWorld-Part 2

A Turkish journal

 

 

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The Vegas Trip- To See Bette Midler's Opening at Caesars

 

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A Weekend in the Country at Stonehedge Inn (Tyngsboro, MA)

 

 

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A LONG-DELAYED TRIP TO SCOTLAND!

You might ask, what took me so long to get to Scotland? (it's my 51st country.) I haven't a clue! But now that I finally DID get there, I can say that it ranks up there with the best of them. What's so great about it? The spectacular scenery (it's what Ireland likes to THINK it is;) the warm, friendly people; and the surprisingly fine food (some of the best-prepared food in Europe.)

If and when I write a longer piece, I'll pass it on to you, but for now let me list the highlights of this wonderful vacation:

THE LAVISH ACCOMODATIONS- We stayed at three of the most beautiful and historic hotels in the world. All three have played host to kings, queens, and movie stars. (1)The Cameron House on Loch Lomond is a self-contained resort overlooking some of the most beautiful scenery in the world...the Trossachs (Lowlands) and Loch Lomond. It's a baronial mansion (the ancestral seat of the Smollett family) that's been converted into a resort. If you've been to Blantyre in the Berkshires, it's that...quadrupled. It's there that we had our first exquisite meal (a dinner in the Drawing Room,) and where young Stewart introduced us to the glory of the bagpipes and his piper uniform. A cruise on the Loch was magical, taking in all of the story of its most famous resident, Rob Roy. (2) Kingsmills in Inverness in the Highlands. Everyone from Bonnie Prince Charlie to Charles and Diana stayed at this castle in the Highlands. Overlooking the dramatic mountains, which are covered with purple heather at this time of the year, we used this lovely house to explore this mountainous area of Scotland. In winter these mountains are snow-covered and they are Scotland's primary ski area. We drove around Loch Ness...no signs of Nessie! Went over to Macbeth's castle at Cawdor and after going through the castle and its beautiful gardens, we hiked the simplest of the many hiking trails in its woods (complete with Scottish pines and Sequoias!!!) (3) The Caledonian (the "Cally") inEdinburgh. One of the most beautiful hotels in the world, in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Situated on Prince's Street just below the imposing Edinburgh Castle high on the volcanic hill above, it's the perfect place for exploring this stunningly beautiful and exciting city.

THE FINE DINING EXPERIENCES- The biggest surprise to all of us was that we never had a bad meal in all of Scotland...from the lavish 5-star dining rooms (Pompadour in the "Cally,") to the bustling pubs (Gellions in Inverness) everything was perfectly prepared, using the freshest ingredients available. Scotland's historic ties to France are evident in every meal. I ate more fresh fish and salmon than I've ever had in my life. Thick hearty soups were wonderful, and desserts were sinful, and we drank single-malt Whiskey constantly! The surprising new taste experience for all of us was Scotland's traditional dish, haggis. Considering what's in it (sheep's innards and spices!!!) it's surprisingly tasty. It's served with turnips and potatoes ("neeps and tatties,") in a variety of styles. We actually ordered it often!

A DAY AT THE HOME OF GOLF: ST. ANDREWS- We spent a wonderful day roaming around this historic and picturesque university town, where young Prince William will start classes in September. Even if you're not a golfer, St. Andrews is worth a visit. If you ARE a golfer, it's a must. Golf was invented here, and its shrine is the Royal and Ancient Golf Club (the "R & A.") The "R& A" has only 1500 members from around the world. You have to know someone to play here. What surprised me was the look of the courses...they're WILD, and built over sand -dunes! No manicured lawns here (except at the New Course.) We ate lunch at the old course in the Conservatory right on the greens. Golf balls strike the "unbreakable" windows all the time. One broke! I picked up two "played" golf balls and an Old Course cap for a golfer who really wants one.

DINNER WITH LORD AND LADY OGILVY- We were invited to a superb dinner at Winton House, the private estate of Lord and Lady Ogilvy. One of many surprises that evening was that these royals were only in their late tewnties, and they insisted on us calling them by their first names. Francis (Lord Ogilvy) is an opera lover, and he's going to send me his review of an opera that I wanted to see on Sunday. He said that I should e-mail him, so that maybe we can have a "Dinner of the Glass" there. Yeh, that'll happen!!! In any case, I have put him on my e-mail list...my first "royal" on the list.

MY TRAVELLING COMPANIONS- I couldn't have asked for a more fun and interesting group of people to travel with than Sue, Marty, Matthew and Mark. We laughed constantly, over "Mary, Queen of Scots," who became the respectful butt of all of our jokes, and we came up with some instant-classic "one-liners."

We also met a few good people (Peter, Sue, Rob, Renate, and Mary) who added to our enjoyment of the trip.

THE MILITARY TATTOO- If you've seen this combination parade, show of marching bands, circus, Riverdance, fireworks display, all done in the magnigficent parade grounds of Edinburgh Castle at night high above the city, then you know why tickets are sold out a year in advance. We had excellent center seats.

A LONG-DELAYED TRIP TO SCOTLAND- Part 2

Several people have asked me about whether or not we attended any events at the Edinburgh International Festival, (or any of the other four Festivals taking place while we were there) and whether I thought it would be better to go to Edinburgh when the Festivals were NOT on.

Yes, we did attend some events. In addition to the Military Tattoo, the highlight of the International Festival, we saw a performance of "Opera Galactica" an hilarious spoof of "Star Wars," using the actual music of 12 operas (Tosca, Madama Butterfly, Cavalleria, etc.) Although the emphasis was on comedy, the singers were superb. For the other days and nights, we wandered down the Royal Mile, checking out everything from mimes, giant puppets, and living statues, to drag queens dressed as whores! Although Edinburgh would be beautiful at any time of the year, I would think that it's at it's most colorful in August, the month of all of the overlapping festivals (music, books, film, jazz, theater, and art.) The International Festival this year played host to such visiting companies as the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the New York City Ballet. The Fringe Festival plays host to anything NEW or AVANT-GARDE. Some of the world's greatest stars started out in this Fringe Festival. To go at any other time of the year would be like going to New Orleans when there was no Mardi Gras taking place.

Some people wanted to know what might be on the menu at one of our festive dinners. Here's the menu for our five-course first night's dinner at Cameron House:

Chilled Fresh Scottish Salmon served with an Arran Mustard Dressing

*****

Haggis, Neeps and Tatties

*****

Grilled Fillet of Halibut accompanied by a Spinach cream

*****

Seasonal Vegetables and Potatoes

*****

Layers of Shortbread with Fresh Strawberries together with a Drambuie Cream

*****

Freshly Brewed Coffee and Handmade Chocolates

*****

Wines: Cabernet Sauvignon/Sauvignon Blanc

 

Nick Back to Top

 

THREE DAYS IN THE BERKSHIRES, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival

If you're in need of a midsummer pick-me-up, and you live within driving distance of Western Massachusetts, let me recommend a trip to one of the most beautiful towns in America...Williamstown. We just returned from three glorious days in the Berkshires, where we attended two plays, ate at two exceptional restaurants, and visited some of the sights in and around this wonderful place. Williamstown, a town of vast rolling lawns in front of magnificent homes, a picture postcard "downtown" where the shops and restaurants are, and home to the campus of Williams College, is situated in the mountains near lakes and mountain rivers. In the summer it becomes a cultural mecca...the home of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The stars move in, and take over the town. It's a unique and fun experience. The two plays that we saw were:

THE WINTER'S TALE and DIVA. (See reviews in the Theatre section.)

 The best thing about the three days was our dinners at two magnificent restaurants.

MEZZE BISTRO & BAR- This upscale Meditteranean restaurant serves gourmet international dishes in a setting that can't be beat. We ate out on a terrace above the beautiful Green River. I had a Watercress & Arugula Nicoise Salad with Goat Cheese Croutons as my appetizer, and Black Pepper Ravioli with Roasted Garlic, Grape Tomatoes, and Guajillo Broth. My dessert was a Chocolate Souffle Cake with Vanilla Ice Cream. (5-Stars) Back to Top

MAIN STREET CAFE- As good as the Mezze was, this was even better! If you didn't know the high quality of the fine food here in Williamstown, you would have been shocked at the excellence of our dishes. I had one of the best Mozzarella in Carroza that I've ever had as my appetizer, and Charcoal Grilled Sea Scallops with Fresh Tomatoes over Linguini, as my appetizer. Sorbet of Plum, Grapefruit, and Peach for dessert. (5-Stars) Back to Top

All evenings end at the cabaret, where the stars of the shows come to perform songs and comedy, from 11pm until 1:30am. It's informal, and wonderful. There are no divas here.

We stayed at the Williams Inn, just across from the campus and the theater...convenient, and charming. Go to Williamstown...you'll love it!

Nick Back to Top

Just back from my annual trip to DisneyWorld(2000) to catch up with what's new(new to ME, anyway!). Here's my report:

No new hotels this year, so I stayed at the Boardwalk. It's my favorite, because you can walk to Epcot, and there's so much activity on the boardwalk at night.

Lot's of new things for the Millenium:

Millenium Village: Twenty countries, not represented by pavillions in World Showcase, have come together to create a series of mini-pavillions under one roof. Mostly interactive in nature(e.g.,simulated golfing in Scotland,etc.), the best of these is Sweden, with its' environmental walk-through "eggs" simulating the four seasons in Sweden(taken from the Swedish Pavillion at the World's Fair in Lisbon,) and Israel's motion ride to Jerusalem(actual and biblical). The Village can be seen in a couple of hours.

Tapestry of Nations: A magnificent parade around the World Showcase, using giant puppets created by the man who created the puppets for Julie Taymor's "The Lion King" on Broadway. With a beautiful musical score, this ones a "must-see;" I saw it four times!

Illuminations 2000: Very simply, the best fireworks/laser/fire/water/music/film display that Epcot has ever done!

Leave a Legacy: Get photographed, and leave your face( a one-square-inch image) on one of a sereies of giant slabs(a la Stonehenge) at the entrance to Epcot.

New rides and attractions:

Aerosmith's Rock 'n Roller Coaster: Disney's bid to get the teen-agers back from "Islands of Adventure," this one is not your Grandma's roller coaster. With its' "zero to 60 in 2.5 seconds start-up," and its' loop and two corkscrews, this is one to take very seriously! The premise is that we(the audience) are guests at an Aerosmith concert(thanks to free passes)and that, in order to get there in time, we have to take a high-speed "limo." Although I went on it(twice!) I can't say that I enjoyed it; I simply experienced it!!! Each time, as much as I tried to keep my head in place, I was so buffetted around, that I got an instant headache. It's a good thing that I had my Tylenol with me!

Tarzan Rocks: The new show at the Animal Kingdom, this one's a fun combination of rock concert, Cirque du Soleil(with Tarzan and Jane doing amazing acrobatics above the heads of the audience,) and "Starlight Express"(animals on roller blades whizzing in and around the audience on raised stages and in the aisles.) A terrific show; I recommend it highly for everyone.

Restaurants(new ones, and those new for me:)

Citrico's: The new restaurant at the Grand Floridian(replacing Flagler's) this place is quite beautiful. Designed by Martin Dorff, who designed the California Grill, Flying Fish, and the Big River Grille. Although it has an extensive menu, everything was a bit too "chi-chi" for my tastes, so Sue, Karl, and I went with the Penne Primavera special. Service and presentation were excellent; food was good. (3 1/2-Stars) Back to Top

Coral Reef: I can't understand why I've never eaten at this wonderful restaurant at The Living Seas Pavillion at Epcot. After you get past the initial confusion at the entry lobby, you're ushered into a beautiful space with large windows overlooking the aquarium itself. The food was excellent. Presentation and service were not so hot. Also, we could have done without the fat scuba divers with white legs swimming up to the glass and waving at us. Otherwise, excellent (4 1/2-Stars) Back to Top

Fulton's Crab House: Although this ones been around awhile(it replaced Diamond Lil's on the riverboat at Pleasure Island,) it's taken me a while to get around to eating here. I should have waited longer! There's nothing exceptional about this "very-ordinary" sea-food and steak place, except the prices! Food, service, and presentation were just average. (3- Stars) Back to Top

"Fantasmic"(at Disney-MGM Studios) and the "Electrical Parade"(at The Magic Kingdom) are still two of the best shows at Disney World.

Temperatures were in the high 90's every day. Oppressive heat! Hard to walk around some days. It didn't cool down very much at night. Nevertheless, we all had a great time. Next year, at the new Animal Kingdom Lodge. See you there?

Some afterthoughts on the Disney trip in answer to some of your questions:

There does seem to be a disturbing trend toward re-doing some of the old attractions and "dumbing them down,' especially in the Future Showcase area of EPCOT. For example, what used to be the Pavillion of Transportation, filled with audioanimatronic tableaux recreating the history of transportation in an amusing yet educational way, we now have the popular ride, "Test Track" which simulates the tests that a car goes through at the end of the production line. It's exciting, but it teaches nothing. In the Journey to Imagination Pavillion, what used to be one of the most creative, colorful, imaginative rides at EPCOT, has been replaced with a new ride that seems to negate the concept of imagination! In the Universe of Energy Pavillion, the introduction to the dinosaur ride was formally done with moving cubes, colorful projections, and music. It's been replaced by a sitcom-like intro starring Ellen DeGeneres! The narration in Spaceship Earth(the history of communication,) now uses simpler language and concepts. In order to compete for the teenage market, the Disney people seem to be pitching everything to the lowest common denominator, rather than trying to teach, and raise the level of its' audience; a disturbing trend.

In spite of the above, the overall image of DisneyWorld still remains. It appears to be the cleanest, safest, and least "diverse" place on Earth! As an elderly lady behind me told the small child with her, "this is the way things used tobe." If that's true, then the world that she was reminiscing about was one filled with merchandising, expensive meals, immaculate sidewalks and some of the most beautiful landscaping in the country.

The hotels(all 22 of them) are getting more and more creative, beautiful, and architecturally interesting. Hotel staffs around the world should be sent there to train in politeness, competence, and "knowledge of product." City transportation systems could learn a lesson on how to transport millions of people each day by boat, train, bus, and monorail.

In short, with all of its' faults, it's still the happiest, cleanest, friendliest, and best-run spot on this planet!!!

Nick Back to Top

FLORENCE (2000)

If I had the words of Dante, I could do justice to describing the beauty and wonders of his home town, Florence. But I don't, so I won't even try. Instead, I'll give you some of the highlights of the last two weeks...two of the most enjoyable that I've ever spent in a foreign city.

.....first and foremost has to be the thrill of sleeping in my beautiful rooms at the unforgettable 13th century villa, the Torre Guelfa. Just around the corner from the Ponte Vecchio and the Arno, it was an easy walk to everything. Because I had a 40 by 20 foot terrace, complete with its own olive trees, and a view over the red-tile rooftops of Florence, I had a few wine, cheese, olive, and bread tastings there...whenever someone new came to town.

.....being in Florence for 15 days, gave me the luxury of wandering leisurely through the museums, being able to study every painting in the Uffizi, and every statue in the Bargello. By count, I saw 22 Michelangelos, 2 DaVincis, and dozens of Donatellos, Cellinis, Ghirlandaios, etc.

.....eating out every meal, and not having a bad meal once. The best was at Cibreo(the best restaurant in Florence,) where we had a truly unique dining experience. I ate there with Karl, Lillian, Pat, and Ivan.

.....climbing the tower of our hotel for every sunrise and every sunset. It's the tallest residential tower in Florence, and from the top, one has a 360 degree view of ALL of Florence. You can almost reach out and touch the Duomo and the Palazzo Vecchio. An unforgettable sight. Drinks are served up there, only adding to the experience.

.....walking down the medieval streets and having the lady where I used to buy my Pecorino, Caprino and Olives, recognize me and call out "Buona Sera." The same goes for my bread man, the waiter down the street, and the man who sold me my wine.

.....going back time and time again to the Accademia to see "David" and Michelangelo's "Slaves"as well as to the Museo del Duomo to see Ghiberti's bronze door-panels, the "Gates of Paradise", Michelangelo's "Pieta," and the Donatello and Della Robbia "Choir Lofts."

.....ending every night with those extaordinary gelatis...the best in Europe.

.....attending a "fashion shoot" at the Rembrandt room of the Uffizi, where my friends(and models) Paul and Leo were covered in white body paint...completely naked except for Salvator Ferragamo ties(!) Paul and Leo, in addition to my other model friends Helga and Hedwige, were staying at the Excelsior while they were in Florence to work all the fashion shows and magazine shoots. They had already worked fashion weeks in Paris, Rome, Milan and New York. What a life! They all invited us to a magnificent feast at the Excelsior, complimernts of their model agency. Little to say, we ate like Medicis.

.....having the time to go to the movies twice in the exquisite art nouveau Odeon theater, in one of the Strozzi palazzi. A truly civilized experience, compared to movie-going in America. Large velvet seats under a stained-glass ceiling, a huge screen and excellent sound, and wine, pastries, and espresso served in the lobby.

.....a half-hour in the unbelievable Laurentian Library, with its Vestibule and Staircase...all designed by Michelangelo. Probably the most beautiful staircase in the world.

.....attending several concerts in the churches, with my friend Karl, especially the magnificent Brahms Requiem(performed by the Dusseldorf Symphony and Chorus) in Brunelleschi's San Lorenzo.

.....meeting my friends and relatives who were staying there, for breakfast in the hotel's charming Cortile. Sometimes these breakfasts would go on for 1 1/2 hours!

.....the Vasari Corridor(opened for the first time this year.) It's the tunnel in the sky, built by Giorgio Vasari for his "boss" Cosimo di Medici. It runs from the Palazzo Vecchio(where Cosimo had his offices of state) over the rooftops and the Ponte Vecchio, through a church, around a tower, and eventually to the Pitti Palace(his home.) It's filled with thousands of priceless paintings, some being shown for the first time. What way to commute!

.....memorable side-trips to Siena and San Gimignano in the Chianti region. I'm in love with San Gimignano. I bought and served on my terrace the best white wine that I've ever tasted in Italy there, Vernaccia di San Gimignano.

.....went to a marvelous castelo in the Chianti region for a great wine(and olive oil)-tasting. We sampled Chianti, the better Chianti Classico, and the best Chianti Classico Riserva. I like the Classico as well as the Brunello. What do I know?

.....eating fantastic focaccia panini, and drinking wine, in a 200-year-old enoteca.

.....drinking more wine than I've ever had in any comparable periid in my entire life!!!!!

.....riding up to Fiesole and looking back down on all of Florence.

.....watching a Japanese bridal couple being photographed up at Piazzale Michelangelo, with all of Florence behind them.

That's it for now.

Arrivederci,

Niccolo

FLORENCE- PART 2

I've already received some responses to my "Highlights of my Florence Trip" e-mail, complete with some questions. Here are the questions, and my answers:

What is the most romantic spot in Florence?

Having drinks up on the tower of my hotel, the Torre Guelfa, at sunset.

What was your favorite restaurant, and did you try anything new? Did you like what you tried?

My favorite restaurants were: Cibreo- best food, service, presentation.

La Grotta Guelfa- neighborhood favorite...down a medieval alleyway, patio-dining

Alfredo sull Arno- best view(of Ponte Vecchio); sit out on the terrace

Paoli- best ambiance: 14th century vaulted ceilings and frescoed walls.

I tried Ribbolita(Tuscan bread soup with potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, and olive oil) I loved it!

I tried tripe(lining of the stomach) I hated it!

What was your favorite Florentine square?

My favorite square in Florence is the Piazza della S.S. Annunziata, with porticos on both sides designed by Brunelleschi, and a magnificent equestrian statue by Giambologna in the center, with fountains on both sides.

The most famous and beautiful piazza is, of course, the Piazza della Signoria (see the movie "Room With a View").

The other "where-the-action-is" piazza is the Piazza della Republicca, with four 19th-century sidewalk restaurants/cafes. Live music at the Caffe Paszkowski. Incredible food there as well.

What was your favorite painting? Statue?

Almost impossible to answer but here goes: Painting- "Adoration of the Magi" by Leonardo da Vinci. Because he left it unfinished, you can actually see the genius of the creative process at work. (The same can be said about Michelangelo's "Slaves" in the Accademia.) Sculpture- "David" by Michelangelo, followed closely by "Rape of the Sabines" by Giambologna.

Did you get to a soccer/football (calcio) match? Did you enjoy it?

Yes. I enjoyed the stadium and watching the fans, and the bus-ride over to the stadium but I got bored. The Florence team was playing a team made up of second-string players, so maybe it's because it wasn't a good game.

Did you buy any gold jewelry?

I'm taking you off my e-mail list! Don't you know I don't "shop" and that I hate gold jewelry(or any other kind for that matter!)

Did you meet any new/interesting people?

Yes, lots, especially Scott and Shari Roberts from Charlotte, North Carolina. I hope to see them again.

ARRIVEDERCI. KEEP THOSE QUESTIONS COMING. I'LL TRY TO ANSWER THEM.

Nick Back to Top

 

THANKSGIVING 2001 in DISNEY WORLD:

Sue, Marty, Matthew, Mark and I, had made plans early in the year, to spend the Thanksgiving holidays at the new Animal Kingdom Lodge at DisneyWorld...long before the wonderful trip that we took together to Scotland, and long before the nightmare of September 11th. We never considered canceling the trip.

Let me take you back now to the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. I had a car pick me up three hours before my flight time, anticipating the increased security at our beleaguered Logan Airport. In spite of the presence of uniformed national guardsmen carrying weapons, it took me only 20 minutes to get through the counter check-in and the heavily guarded security gates. I read my book for the rest of the time. The flight was uneventful.

As we turned into the grounds of the new Animal Kingdom Lodge at DisneyWorld, thatched roofs and log and stone walls appeared over the dense treetops. Even though I was expecting a monumental new hotel by the architect Peter DomiNick Back to Top (who designed the beautiful Wilderness Lodge,) I was astonished at how beautiful the new place is. The huge atrium lobby is created to give you a sense of Africa and its many lodges; it's actually much more beautiful than ANY of the magnificent lodges that I remember from my African safari 28 years ago! Through the 6-story high glass dormer windows at the rear of the lobby, you can glimpse the unique aspect of this hotel. It's built into a 74 acre savannah, filled with 200 hoofed animals and African birds. From the lobby, the pools, and especially your balconies, you can view the zebra, giraffe, wildebeest. gazelle, elands, bongos, etc. grazing, sleeping, and in one case, having sex! There are huge firepits built into the lobby, and on a tremendous outcropping of rock out on the savannah. These are used for the evening story-telling hours. The staff, mostly young South Africans and Kenyans add immeasurably to the sense of being on the Dark Continent.

Dining at the Lodge is quite an experience. Two of the three restaurants feature the foods of Africa, and I was shocked to see how delicious so much of what we ate actually was.

JIKO- the COOKING PLACE- Jiko is the premiere restaurant at the Lodge. The decor is striking, and the food was exceptionally good. Although there is no clearly defined African cooking, all of the food was excellent and beautifully presented. However, the service was shockingly bad. (3 1/2- Stars) Back to Top

BOMA- "Boma" is Swahili for "an open, natural, space that provides a safe and sheltered area in the bush." That's exactly what this restaurant is. All of the foods at Boma are presented in categorized pods or stations, buffet style. Everything that we ate there during our 5-day stay, was excellent. The only negative about the place was the incompetence of the three young South African girls who "manned" the reception desk of the restaurant; they didn't have a clue what they were supposed to be doing! (4-Stars) Back to Top

THE MARA- A cafeteria...nothing more, nothing less! (1-Star)

AT THE PARKS-

New this year at the parks, were the parades celebrating the 100th anniversary of Walt Disney's birth. The three that I saw (at the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, and the MGM-Studios,) were colorful and imaginative. Unfortunately because of their size and complexity, they're only presented once a day, except for the one at EPCOT which is the best by far. The new rides and attractions are not as interesting as I expected them to be. "The Magic Carpets of Aladdin" at the Magic Kingdom is a child's ride on the order of the Dumbo ride. The new "Tiki Bird Enchanted Room Under New Management" is just the old attraction gone hip-hop...not to its credit! Over at MGM-Studios the new attraction is "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" Don't be fooled by the elaborate authentic set. The whole thing is rigged, so that dumb kids get to to be picked as contestants, even though it becomes painfully obvious that they're as stupid as trees!

What is a wonderful experience...not to be missed...is the Christmas Candlelight Processional at the open theater at the American Adventure. (Although you can buy an expensive package that includes dinner and priority seating, my advice is to line up with everyone else about an hour before the show, and you'll get the best seats in the house for nothing.) The show is a retelling of the Christian Christmas Story complete with a dozen Christmas carols sung by a choir of 1000 voices(!) and played by a 100-piece symphony orchestra. There's a different celebrity narrator (Gary Sinise, Phylisha Rashad, Alfre Woodard, Robbie Benson)each week .

Where did we have our Thanksgiving meal? At the beautifully authentic LIBERTY TREE TAVERN at the Magic Kingdom. The food was terrible, and the service was so bad that it was hysterically funny. 

(1-Star)

 

Before I end this "review," let me tell you about an unusual dining experience that we had. We had never eaten at the HOLLYWOOD BROWN DERBY at MGM-STUDIOS, so we decided that we would try it out. The food, decor, and service were all excellent. But this is what made it truly unusual. While we were eating, Mark's water glass simply exploded (Rob, do you remember when this happened to you over 20 years ago?) Mark got soaked, and so, while we were eating, the waitress went out and bought him a new pair of pants...compliments of the house! That's so Disney!!! (4-Stars) Back to Top

I'm sure that I'm forgetting something, but these were the highlights. Oh by the way, on my return to Boston, I breezed through the Orlando airport in 15 minutes and had another smooth, uneventful flight.

What was the best part of the trip? NOT THINKING OF THE TALIBAN, TERRORISM, AL-QUEDA, ANTHRAX, AND BIN LADEN FOR FIVE WHOLE DAYS !!!

Nick Back to Top

THANKSGIVING 2001 at DISNEY WORLD-PART 2
Questions, asked and answered:
(1) How good was airport security?
Well, it was good AND bad. If you had any metal on you or in your carry-on bag, it would have been picked up easily at the security-gate scanners. However, you could have carried a nuclear bomb in your "CHECKED" luggage; they're not checked at all !! Until checked luggage is scanned and checked like carry on, there is NO REAL SECURITY on any flight.
(2) What is there to do at night at the Animal Kingdom Lodge?
You have two choices, have dinner or watch the animals. The Lodge is located about two miles from the Animal Kingdom, on its own Savannah and with its own population of grazing animals (no lions, elephants, rhinos, etc) and so you can't wander through THAT park and its attractions at night. Things to do at the Lodge at night are definitely LIMITED!
(3) Describe a typical meal at the Boma restaurant.
A delicious one that I had consisted of: Olive, white bean and sun-dried tomato hummus with pita bread, Smoked Tomato Soup, Cous Cous and Egyptian Lentil Puree, and Nut-encrusted Salmon. Dessert was Banana Bread Pudding. Drink was a South African Cabernet sauvignon.
(4) Were the parks crowded and were there security checks?
Yes, the parks were packed, and yes, there were security checks. At the entrances to all parks, there were long, long lines for people with backpacks, handbags, purses, shopping bags, camera bags, etc. There were quick, short lines for people (like us) who weren't carrying anything.
Nick Back to Top

 

 

A Turkish Journal -1989

THE TRIP. Names, Scenes, and Stories from long, long ago .......... Noah landing his Ark on Mount Ararat...the apostles 

John, Luke, and Paul spreading the word of Jesus in their home-towns...the Virgin Mary, living her last years, and dying in her 

home at Ephesus...St. Nicholas (our Santa Claus!) ... Antioch and Ephesus, the biblical rival cities of ancient Jerusalem ...Paris, and his Helen of Troy...Achilles and Ulysses; Hector and Agamemnon, fighting at the walls of Troy...Alexander the Great, crossing the Hellespont to cut the Gordion Knot and conquer all of Asia Minor... Constantine, transferring the capitol of the Roman Empire to Byzantium, changing its name to Constantinople (later called Istanbul,) and then adopting Christianity as the state religion...the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325...the glories of the Eastern Empire under its emperor, Justinian ... King Midas (of the golden touch) and Croesus, his rival "golden king"...Suleyman the Magnificent ...Galen, and his great hospital-school, the Aescalapion...two of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, and the Mausoleum at Halicarnassos ...Florence Nightingale tending the victims of the Crimean War at Scutari ...the battle of Gallipoli, etc.

All of these and more, are memories of events that occurred, and people who lived on, one single piece of land in this world...the land that was to become modern-day Turkey!

FRIDAY, AUGUST 4th and SATURDAY, AUGUST 5th-

I started to meet some friendly, young Turkish people right on the flight. Kemal was returning home after getting married in New York to an Israeli girl; Sinan was a senior in high school who was sent to London by his diplomat father "to brush up on English." Talking to them about growing up in Turkey (albeit the sons of wealthy parents) immediately dispelled the unfortunate "Midnight Express" image of Turkey as an armed camp. Turkey needs a good public relations campaign!

The ride in from the airport(where I met our guide, whose name I can't pronounce yet), took us past some unattractive and run-down "homes" and factories, until we rounded a curve along the river and came upon what has to be one of the most magnificent settings for a world-class city. The first view of Istanbul is one of two imposing hills facing each other on opposite sides of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn...the historic waterways that divide the European side of Istanbul from the Asiatic side. These hills are covered with Tuscan-looking buildings interspersed with soaring mosques and minarets. The most monumental of these mosques is the Suleymaniye...all else is diminished by the sight of this majestic architectural masterpiece. It even dwarfs the more famous Blue Mosque and the Aya Sophia, which on their own could be the crowning glories of any great city. The immense size of the Mosque of Suleyman comes as a shock, even for someone who may have seen it in pictures, or in films.

Now, I've got to shower and get ready for our get-together dinner in the dining room of our hotel. The Divan Oteli is beautiful. My room has a huge wrap-around terrace overlooking the Golden Horn.

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SUNDAY, AUGUST 6th- After a large buffet-style breakfast, we set out on our first day of sightseeing in Istanbul. Our first stop is the Topkapi Palace, the largest palace in the world. This is where the Sultans lived, and kept their many concubines in the 400-room Harem. Magnificent tiled rooms now filled with the largest Chinese and Japanese collection of China in the world. I was impressed by the collection of beautiful green celedon China, that conveniently turned color when arsenic was put into it! From every terrace and window of the Museum-Palace, spectacular views of the Golden Horn, across the Bosphorus to Asian Istanbul, and the Sea of Marmara. The Topkapi Dagger, with its rock-sized emeralds in the handle; the Spoonmaker's Diamond (one of the largest in the world), given to a spoon-merchant in the bazaar, by a woman who didn't know that it was a real diamond!

On to the Blue Mosque (the Sultan Ahmet Mosque), named for its blue-tiled interior. Monumental in scale on the outside; just another large mosque on the inside. I guess that I'm not Moslem or sophisticated enough to appreciate the beauty of the ancient building.

Now, we're at what the Turkish people consider to be the architectural masterpiece of their city...the Aya Sophia (most architects around the world would also agree!). A church in the time of Justinian; a mosque during the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans, who didn't believe in portraying the human face and figure in their art, were civilized enough to appreciate the beauty of the Christian mosaics of the saints, and instead of destroying these precious works of art, simply plastered over them, and then applied their own geometric designs on top of them! These two gigantic buildings, the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sophia (incorrectly called St. Sophia), face each other across the elliptical park on the site of the famous Hippodrome (where chariots raced,) and record the history of almost 2000 years in their stones.

After another wonderful dinner at the Divan, my new friends Jim and Regina, and I, took a long walk through town and stumbled on a massive rally with Turks protesting the expulsion of Turks from Bulgaria. We continued on to a typical neighborhood carnival with lights, rides, and cotton-candy. Everywhere, we were made to feel perfectly comfortable and unafraid. What were we all afraid of?

MONDAY AUGUST 7th- After breakfast, a walk through the Spice Market, where the aroma of freshly ground chili, oregano, basil, mint, etc. filled the morning air. Here we were introduced to Turkish Delight...more later.

We board our ship for a short cruise up the Bosphorus. Here we get a new perspective on the beauty of Istanbul as seen from the water. On both the European and the Asian sides, we pass exclusive homes, called yalis, perched on the hills above, and palaces and more homes at the water's edge. After passing under the two bridges connecting Europe and Asia, we come to Riviera-like villages such as Tarabya and Bebek, looking very much like Marbella with British yachts in the harbor, or Portofino and Positano. At one of these fishing villages, we disembark for a 7-course lunch of fresh seafood (stuffed mussels, fried clams, salad, cous-cous and vegetables, yogurt with chives and beans, grilled tuna, and watermelon!) Absolutely delicious. Then we board our bus, drive down the shoreline alongside the magnificent Bosphorus, cross over the second longest suspension bridge in Europe, to Asia. Here we ride up to Camlica, recently restored as a pleasure park. The view of Istanbul from the heights of Camlica is unequalled. Two wedding parties were being photographed in the rose garden, against a background of the Golden Horn, the Blue Mosque, Aya Sophia, the Bosphorus and all of Istanbul. It sure beats a catering hall!

After the drive down from Camlica, we went to the Suleymaniye, the mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent. Suleyman's goal was to build a more beautiful building than either the Blue Mosque or Aya Sophia. I think that he did it!

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Perhaps it's because it was designed in simple elegance by Sinan the Great (Turkey's greatest architect). Not as colorful as the Blue Mosque, nor as Byzantine as the Aya Sophia... it is the King of Mosques!

We asked Husnu, our guide, if he would leave a few of us off at the once-elegant Pera Palas Hotel. This hotel was built by the owners of the Orient Express, to house the kings, tsars, movie stars, courtesans, presidents etc. who disembarked from the mysterious and wonderful Orient Express, and needed a suitable place to stay while in Istanbul. Therefore, the owners of the Railway built a sumptuous palace, suitable enough for visiting royalty. Stunned by the turn-of-the-century opulence of this aging grande dame of a hotel, we walked through the marble lobby with its many columns, into the dining room with its Waterford chandeliers, and then sat down for tea, in the high-ceilinged Drawing Room, with its carved ceiling, gilded bookcases filled with old leather-bound books, an Austrian grand piano, and Turkish carpets.

It was upstairs in Suite 411 that Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express. Taxi back to the Divan for an early dinner. Tomorrow, we have a 5am wake-up call, 5:30 breakfast, and a 7:30 flight to Ankara! See you there.

TUESDAY, AUGUST 8th- Some cities one leaves reluctantly because one wants to see more and more of them. One such city is Istanbul. After a very early breakfast (5:30!), we drive to the airport for our short flight to Ankara.

Ankara, the capitol city, is not very interesting architecturally or esthetically. Everything is relatively new. After all, it's only been 50 years since the great Ataturk moved the capitol from Istanbul and "abolished all of the old ways."

We visit the incredible Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, where is exhibited art work left in this land since the dawn of man(early cave man/ paleolithic sculptures and paintings!). We see art from Turkey's most important Stone Age dig, Catalhoyuk, one of the most ancient cities ever unearthed. It is certainly the earliest condominium to be discovered: in around 6500B.C., mud houses were constructed here in groups of 40 to 50 rooms, with a single entrance for better defense!

The world's most comprehensive collection of Hittite art and crafts, dating back to 2000B.C.

After a short stop at the monumental Ataturk Mausoleum(where the father of modern Turkey is buried,)overlooking the city from high on a hill, we have a long lunch up at Camlaya, the elegant embassy district. We met Husnu's father and sister there.

Then, a long 5-hour bus ride to the barren region of Cappadocia to see the fantastic landscape of eroded rock and underground cities. I should take a little time out to say something about our wonderful air-conditioned bus, in which our group of only 14 could move around very comfortably in this bus designed to accomodate 44 people comfortably! This long bus ride passed very quickly, believe it or not, not only because of the bus itself, but because our group is such a friendly bunch of interesting and intelligent people, that individual conversations with Jim (the genetic researcher), or Robert(the former CIA agent and current doctor), or Mary(the artist), or Ethel (the former WWII war photographer/correspondent), move the time along very quickly.

For the last two hours, we've been riding on the ancient Silk Road, where merchants led their camel caravans laden with treasures of silk from the Orient. Every 24 miles, we see the massive ruins of Kervansaray (Palaces for Caravans-the grand hotels of the former Silk Road caravans).

At last, we arrive in Urgup, the sleeping place for Cappadocia. Our hotel, the Turban, is a sprawling, palatial, self-contained resort, built in what appears to be a style reminiscent of Santa Fe, but was in fact, the look of biblical Cappadocia. Coming into this resort complex at night, as we did,

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is very dramatic, as we're nestled below an illuminated cliffside of carved-out rock dwellings, that stretches endlessly into the night. The sight is almost indescribable; I've certainly never seen anything like it.

After a late dinner, we explore the vast grounds of our hotel-complex, which includes an olympic-sized swimming pool surrounded by a garden of fragrant jasmine, an underground wine house, a Turkish bath, a disco, and a dining room the size of Rhode Island! The Turkish staff, as usual, is overly but genuinely friendly...they can't do enough for us. Where did we ever get the idea that these kind, good-looking, and gentle people were something to be feared? Don't tell me...I know! The average American certainly has the wrong idea about these wonderful people. When the American tourists discover them, will they ever be the same again? Strictly in terms of the way we've all been treated by Husnu, our guide; Osman, our bus driver, and all the Turkish people that we've met in the last five days, this is certainly one of the most enjoyable, interesting, and exciting tours that I've ever taken.

The food has been excellent and abundant, at every meal. I've found that eating the elaborate and delicious appetizers and salad, and leaving out the large entrees, is the only way to get through the day, without collapsing from overeating! Of course, we all treat ourselves to a bite or two of the sinful lokum ("Turkish Delight"), every now and then throughout the day. This powdered treat, that tastes like a more exotic and mouth-watering version of our Chuckles candies, is so, so good! And then there's Turkish taffy. I've stayed away from it so far! And all those wonderful cheeses. I'm always asking for peynir ve ekmek ... bread and cheese. Also, let's not forget that this is the country that gave the world yogurt, frozen or otherwise. So you see, eating is not a problem in Turkey!

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 9th- Today we spent the entire day driving through the magical moonscape that is Cappadocia. As we drove through this fantastic area, we had to stop every few minutes to study an unbelievable scene of magically carved-out mountains, and equally mysterious eroded valleys. Erosion by rain, snow, and wind, carved out the natural lava of which this entire area consists, creating "fairy chimneys," surrealistic shapes of towering cones, needles, pillars and pyramids, often topped by ingeniously-balanced slabs. Whole communities of persecuted Christians lived in these carved-out mountains, and elaborately-decorated caves. Many of these caves, deep in the mountains, were large churches, painted with frescoes of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the saints. Some of these hollowed-out mountains have many stories of "rooms, apartments, churches, and other public buildings."

Today, we explored the ghostly valleys of Goreme and Zelve, with their carved-out caves and rock churches, decorated with beautiful hand-painted frescoes.

Incidentally, if I haven't already mentioned it, we seem to be the only Americans in all of Turkey; we haven't met any yet, nor has anyone else that we've spoken to. We keep bumping into the same groups of French, Italians, and Germans. Most of these groups are very large, so ours stands out with only 14 members. We've had lots of fun with each of these groups, but the Italians are the best. Most of them are young, good-looking, and full of fun. We've developed a system of teasing each other, depending on who gets to the next attraction first. They sing to us, and we mimic them back in a sort of Sid Caesar-like "Italian." They love it, and we're getting very good at it (even the five people in our group who speak perfect Italian!!!)

After dinner, we spent the night sitting at the hotel's main terrace, drinking raki (a very strong anise-flavored drink) and Turkish coffee(ugh!), and sharing stories with Husnu, about Turkey and America. He's really becoming a friend. He's 26 years old and works as a partner in his father's ad agency, when he's not leading tour groups around Turkey.

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If you're even the slightest bit claustrophobic, over six-feet tall, or have back problems, don't even think of visiting the underground cities of Cappadocia! But if you can handle the rough going, these cities must certainly be the Eighth Wonder of the World. Built by the Christians in the 7th to the 10th Centuries to escape Arab persecution and raids, these cities of ten spacious floors, could accomodate 20,000 people. They were carved into the bowels of the earth, each level winding down to the next through narrow, low, steep, long tunnels. As our group proceeded down the first tunnel, we knew that we had a problem when Betty stopped dead in her tracks and said that she was too frightened to go on. Let me back up a bit. Betty is one of the oldest members of our group, and the token chronic complainer. She had planned the trip with her husband, but when he was diagnosed as having Parkinson's disease and told that he couldn't come on the trip, Betty came without him! That's our Betty! Now, back to the tunnel. There were eight members of our group, some on hands and knees, and some squatting behind Betty wedged in this cramped low tunnel, trying to convince her to move on. (Thankfully, I had not started into the tunnel yet, and was able to stand up in the preceding "room.") Finally, Husnu gave her a gentle kick and she slid out of the tunnel into the next room, which was a burial ground, all the while screaming "What if there's an earthquake, or the lights go out? We'll all be stuck in here and we'll have to eat each other! This burial ground could have been Betty's if she hadn't moved; the group was about to kill her!

In spite of Betty, and the unpleasant way of getting from one area to the next, the city was absolutely fascinating. There were churches down there, and dormitories, and large kitchens, and entertainment areas, and more amazingly, the air was fresher than above ground, thanks to cleverly engineered air shafts. Truly a unique, although frightening experience!

Throughout the day, we drove through other valleys, looking up at extraordinary honeycombed mountains that dominate the scene; an awesome scene of cone-shaped hills, carved-out rock churches, fairy chimneys and other Cappadocian phantasmagoria. There can be no other place like this on earth; and we survived the underground cities!!!

I mentioned Betty, one of our oldest tour members and a colossal whiner. Let me balance this off with Ethel, at 86, the oldest member of our tour group. Ethel was a WWII photographer, and friend of Margaret Bourke-White. Her stories about life in the trenches and parachuting out of planes were always fascinating, but Ethel was not one to live in the past. On our tour, a relatively rigorous one, nothing was too difficult for Ethel... she simply did everything. She was my "walking buddy" every night after dinner, and it wasn't long before we left the other walkers far behind. Not intentionally. We were just too busy gabbing to notice. How could you resist listening to someone who photographed Garbo, Chaplin and Churchill when she wasn't busy? With me trying to keep up with the fast pace set by Ethel, Regina (one of our three lawyers) dubbed these evening walks the "Nick and Ethel Forced March!"

FRIDAY, AUGUST 11th- Last night, at about 8p.m., the "bug" hit me!! How do you explain a sophisticated traveller like me coming down with the bug? Well, all the food in Turkey looks so damn good and tastes so damn good, and is presented so well in such clean surroundings... that one tends to forget that one is in the desert in Asia! Nevertheless, it hit me all night ... every half hour! In the morning, I was a zombie...completely drained, green, and knowing that we had the all-day bus-ride to Antalya, on the Turquoise Coast, ahead of us.

The first person I saw was Betty (at 5:30a.m.), who promptly shoved a Lomotil into my mouth. Then Robert (doctor/spy) met me and told me exactly what to eat, and what not to eat all day, and then shoved another pill into me. After a breakfast of peynir ekmek ve soo (cheese, bread and water!), which

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I learned was the perfect recipe for diarrhea, in case you're interested, we got into the bus and started our drive into the South of Turkey over the Taurus Mountains. I must say right now, that these 14 people, who were strangers to me only 10 days ago, cared for, pampered, and treated me as well as my own mother did, when I was sick in bed as a child! And, it was done with genuine affection and interest. At our long stop of the day in Konya, Mary, who has been Nick Back to Topnamed "the rug merchant," because she has bought just about every rug in Turkey (!), gave up her usual shopping foray to seek out and buy some dry biscuits for me. Diana bought me Cokes all day, and her husband Joe even offered to read to me from Tom Clancy's Red Storm Rising! Needless to say, with all this pampering and attention, I forgot that I was sick, and sat back on a reclining seat in the back of the bus, and "held court" all day. God help me, I loved every minute of the long drive down to Antalya! On the drive through and over the Taurus Mountains, we saw some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. From what we could see of Antalya at night, it looked just like a beautiful town on either the French or Italian Rivieras, complete with sidewalk cafes, lots of people in a festive mood, music... all reflected in the dark waters of the Meditteranean. Just seeing the Meditteranean makes me feel that I've come back to something familiar. Even a Sea can feel like home! (Incidentally, this is the Turquoise Coast that Marc Antony gave as a gift to Cleopatra!)

SATURDAY AUGUST 12th- The Villa Sera is a self-contained seaside resort, right on the beach on the Meditteranean.

Thank God that I woke up this morning feeling much better. I've decided to stick to a steady diet of cheese, bread, and water, until I'm completely sure that the "bug" is gone. It's really no inconvenience, because the cheeses are wonderful.

Today, we're going to see three of the most beautiful sights of the ancient Roman Empire in Asia Minor.

Our first stop is Side, with its wonderful 15,000 seat Roman Theater. You can just imagine the plays of Sophocles being performed here. The restoration is still moving along at a steady pace. In my eyes, however, I've seen operas and plays performed in less well-restored outdoor theaters than this one at Side. By the way, all of the Roman theaters are open-air.

On to the next site-the magnificent, virtually-intact Roman theater at Aspendos. The stage area is covered with reliefs and statues and carved friezes. In the vast multi-tiered semi-circular theater, much of the original marble is still intact. The acoustics are so perfect that even the slightest stage whisper can be heard in the upper-most row. We tested this by having Jim stand in the top row and having Husnu open his cigarette lighter down on the stage ... Jim heard it perfectly... no microphones needed here!

The last stop was the vast stadium at Perge. This stadium which could hold 22,000 people is considered to be one of the largest and best-preserved of all the Roman stadia in the world. With very little imagination, one could hear the crowds jump to their feet and roar their approval, as their favorite gladiators marched into the arena to battle to the death.

After a day spent in Ancient Rome, at Perge, Aspendos, and Side (I said that it sounded like an Hispanic law firm), we returned to the air-conditioned splendor of the Villa Sera. Unfortunately, it's just too hot to explore the magnificent landscaped grounds of this paradise-by-the-sea. Antalya is a sauna at this time of the year. The Turks come here from December to March, when it's cold in the capitol and in Istanbul. It's their Acapulco or Miami! Tonight, we went down to the old town and harbor area of Antalya, and found the charming and picturesque Riviera-like town of the guide books. (Only 4 of us went down ... Regina, Dick, Mary, and me). We walked the palm-lined Ataturk Caddesi; strolled through Hadrian's Gate into the award-winning

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restoration of the Old Town (where Regina, the lawyer from Brooklyn Heights, bought a $3000 silk Turkish rug); were "picked up" by a young Turkish man, Hami, who led us through a maze of picture-postcard streets down to the old harbor. Here, as we passed many beautiful old teak yachts (on some, people were eating by candlelight), we settled in at a harborside seafood restaurant, where the speciality of the house was fried calamari and salad. The waiter, the rug-merchant, Hami, and everyone else we've met tonight said we were the first Americans that they've come in contact with; everyone refused our tips! This is certainly an unusual experience. In fact, it's one that I've never experienced, even in the Russia of 15 years ago, or the Middle East of 18 years ago!

SUNDAY, AUGUST 13th- We left beautiful Antalya after breakfast... too soon. I could have stayed here an extra few days, just exploring the Old Town and the lower harbor. They were so Meditteranean. Homer was accurate when he described this part of Turkey as "...a place where the pink sun reflects in the wine-red sea."

We drove through the Taurus Mountains... so majestic and Alpine, with farms and red-tiled rooftops nestled in the green valleys below. After lunch, we stopped at a primitive "rug-factory," to see how Turkish rugs are made, right from the cleaning of the wool (for the wool carpets), through the dyeing process using natural products as dyes, through the endless weaving (six months to weave one foot of silk rug), to the completion of the actual rugs. We were then shown endless rugs for sale, ranging in price from $100 for towel-sized rugs, to $67,000 for a room-size silk rug! The showing of these rugs came complete with a short "lecture" about each of the rugs. I could have done without this, but several of the members of our group were buying, and so they were more than interested in all aspects of the rugs.

Then we drove on to Pamukkale, another of the world's natural wonders. A virtual mountain of cascading waterfalls and pools, made entirely of salt, deposited by the natural flow of the area's thermal springs. An eerie and unbelievable sight to see from afar, and an even more unusual experience walking over this "mountainside of salt."(It's called the Cotton Castle by the Turks.)

Nearby are the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Hieropolis, with its imassive Necropolis(city of the dead...cemetery), its theater (not as magnificent as those of Perge, Aspendos and Side), and its grand long "main street," leading through the ruins of temples, shops, homes, and under one grand arch. If the Turkish government had the money to restore completely all of their ruined Roman and Greek cities, they could easily rival Italy and Greece as "museums" of the Ancient World. But, they're working on it and supposedly they've performed miracles with Ephesus, Pergamon and Troy. We'll see in a couple of days. (Oh, by the way, our hotel in Pamukkale sits right on the mountain of salt; we have three thermal pools in the salt!)

MONDAY, AUGUST 14th- This morning, we set off on a day-long journey that will eventually end up on the beautiful beaches of the Aegean Sea.

Our first stop, before lunch, is the magnificently-restored city of Aphrodite ... Aphrodisias. This restoration was a joint venture of the Turkish Government and a team from New York University. We walked through the stone streets, beside the large temple of Aphrodite, with its rows of Ionian columns; we sat in the seats of this, the largest oblong ancient stadium that I've ever seen, and visualized the gladiatorial battles that took place there, etc. etc. etc.

After leaving Aphrodisias, we had one of the best lunches that we've ever had, in an outdoor restaurant in the hills just outside of town. This was the best of many excellent meals ... the owner of this al fresco restaurant was a former tour guide!

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The beautiful blue Aegean Sea suddenly appeared as we came over the hills, and we descended slowly to Kusadasi. Once again, our hotel is not in the small, overgrown, central, waterfront area, but rather out on the beach a few miles from town, in an area reminiscent of Miami Beach in the 1950's. Our hotel, the Onur is very Fontainebleu/Eden Roc in their glory years, as is the entire half-moon shaped beach area just North of the town of Kusadasi. Outside of Istanbul, this is probably the most popular area for tourists, and cruise ships. Unfortunately, it's all starting to get overbuilt ala Miami, Acapulco, Rio, etc.

We had a lovely dinner outdoors on the huge poolside terrace, overlooking the beach and the Aegean. We've come to expect magnificence and luxury, and we're getting it in large doses everywhere. I still can't get over how gentle, kind, and helpful the young Turkish people are. The Americans will eat them up when they get here in the 90's! We still haven't seen any Americans in the entire country yet, even in a large hotel like the Onur, here in Kusadasi.

TUESDAY, AUGUST 15th- Breakfast was once again the usual sumptuous buffet, consisting of scrambled and hard-boiled eggs, various kinds of cheeses, selected cold cuts of delicious meats, olives of all kinds, fresh-baked breads and rolls, and fresh-squeezed orange, grapefruit, or cherry juice. All of this served on a huge outdoor terrace overlooking the bright blue Aegean.

Today's agenda takes us into the heartland of the Ionian League, to three ancient Ionian cities. The first is Priene, which required some very steep climbing to reach the beautifully laid-out remains of this hillside city. Betty practically had to be carried up, purse and all, by Husnu; he's reached the end of his rope, and is about to use it on her!

After crossing the winding Meander River (get it?), we come to the second city, Miletus, the first Greek city to coin money. There's not much left of this once-great city of philosophers(Aristides), historians(Kadmos), and geographers(Hekataeos, who drew the first map). Only the splendid 2nd Century Roman theater stands guard over the ruins.

In Didyma, the third city we've come to see the grandeur and beauty of the Temple of Apollo. A monumental stairway leads up to a "forest" of 124 mostly well-preserved giant Ionian columns. This is one of the largest temples to Apollo in the world, and certainly one of the most majestic.

We arrive back at our hotel in mid-afternnoon in time to relax for awhile by the pool. I won't say anything about what a fool I made over myself with this gorgeous topless Italian woman! Tonight, a few of us are going into Kusadasi to explore the waterfront atmosphere of this major Turkish tourist attraction. We can see from our hotel, that two cruise ships have already deposited some of their charges on land, where many are scurrying off to try to see Ephesus, Pergamon, and Troy, on their one day in Turkey!

The bustling waterfront of Kusadasi is much like old Acapulco, with a little bit of Marseilles thrown in(in the form of a magnificent illuminated castle on the Island of Birds just offshore). Everyone is out in the streets; shops are back to back, and the night is filled with color, noise, aromas, music, and the splash of the waves. Wonderful!

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 16th- None of the ancient cities seen so far ... Hieropolis, Aphrodisias, Perge, Aspendos, Side, Priene, Miletus, Didyma... could prepare you for the greatest of them all ... Ephesus (possibly the largest archeological site in the world!)

When you come upon Ephesus for the first time, you enter it in the upper portion of the city, and so it doesn't seem as massive as it is. But, as you start to descend to the sea, the avenues become larger and marble-paved, the fountains lining the street, more elaborate, and the public buildings begin to appear ... the Baths, the Stadium, and finally the massive Celsus

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Library (two-stories high and covered with columns and statues!). Pompeii may be larger in land area, but there's more of a sense of a royal city here at Ephesus. This was not a resort-city as was Pompeii, but a real Imperial City.

We wandered through the streets for over three hours, with surprises at every turn. The main thoroughfare, known now as Marble Avenue, was considered in ancient times, to be the most beautiful thoroughfare in all of the Roman Empire. Thirty-six feet wide, almost three miles long, and lined with columns and the ruins of ornate triple-tiered fountains, and majestic buildings, it's still pretty awe-inspiring.

After leaving this open-air museum reluctantly, we drove up the hill to the ruins of the Basilica of St. John, mainly to see the tomb of the apostle, John. It was very simple, but quite moving when you realize that this grave belonged to a man who was Jesus' friend!

Then the long, steep drive up to the top of the mountain, to the plain stone house of the Virgin Mary. It was to this house that St. John brought her, after promising Jesus at the Crucifixion, that he would take care of His mother. The house overlooks the entire city of Ephesus from its very peaceful garden site. The ancient trees in the garden could have been planted by John himself for the new and infamous tenant of the house. For the doubter in the crowd, documentation for the authenticity of this house can be found in the Gospels, as well as the Koran. The last four popes have declared it a pilgrimage site, and have said Mass here.

After coming down the hill from Mary's house, we passed the site of the ancient, grand Temple of Artemis (Diana) ... one of the Seven Wonders of the World; three times the size of the Parthenon in Athens ... only one column remains at the site!

Then, a short drive to Izmir and our five-star hotel the Buyuk Efes, or Grand Ephesus, The accomodations, as usual, are excellent.

After dinner, Husnu, Marilyn, Jim, Regina and I took a very long walk along the waterfront, and then we sat for awhile at a cafe, to watch the nightlife of Izmir. Everything seems quite cosmopolitan here in this, Turkey's third largest city. People dress well (as they did in Istanbul and Ankara), and seem to be enjoying themselves and their families. As in Mexico, the very young children get to stay out until very late at night. We gave one little boy a balloon, and he played with it all night! Husnu bought us drinks and Turkish coffee, and we all shared stories of life in America and Turkey. Husnu and I have discovered that we have the same bizarre, black sense of humor and we've been shocking and entertaining the rest of the group with our sick "made-up" stories. They love them, but our imaginations are truly out-of-control!!!

THURSDAY, AUGUST 17th- We're coming to the end of our odyssey, a journey of explorations through the ruins of some of the most famous Greco-Roman cities of the ancient world. And now, we're down to our last two.

In Pergamon, we see massive columns, the only remains of the second most famous library in the world after the one at Alexandria. When Caesar's troops "accidentally" burned the library at Alexandria, Marc Antony gave Cleopatra a gift of 200,000 volumes from the library at Pergamon! Also, when Egypt decided that the Pergamon Library was getting to be too big a rival, they stopped sending papyrus for the scrolls. So, the wise men of Pergamon simply invented their own writing material and named it for their city ... parchment!

And now, we come to the least impressive of all of the ruins in the simple terms of what actually remains of the city. Just segments of the massive walls and towers; just a windy street; an agora; a house or two. But, why then do we all have such an emotional attachment to this, the most famous of all of the ruined cities... Troy? How well Homer made us care about the people who lived and died in this town. Helen and her Paris; Menelaus and his Greek navy, coming to recapture his kidnapped wife..."the face that launched a thousand ships," Hector and Achilles;Cassandra, Andromache, and Hecuba ---

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the Trojan Women. All of these people are so familiar to readers, and so everyone loves Troy. Homer was also right about it being perpetually windswept here. We arrived in Troy at sunset, with a strong-wind blowing from the Dardanelles (the Hellespont of ancient times), and we wandered through the streets, under one section of massive walls, as if in a daze. Ulysses walked here, and Helen, and the Wooden Horse may have rolled through this very street. But, I'm repeating myself!

After Troy, we drove on to Canakkale, just in time for dinner at the Truva Hotel, and for a stroll on the busy waterfront. Tomorrow, we take the ferry across the Dardanelles back to European Turkey. We land at Gallipoli the WWI battlefield!

Could we go back to Pergamon for a short time? It just occurred to me that I left out a description of one of the most unusual places in our trip. Pergamon was also the home of the great physician, Galen, and the site of his world-famous hospital complex, the Aescalapion. Here, doctors from all over the Roman Empire, trained by Galen in all forms of medicine (including forms of psychotherapy and shock treatment), treated everyone from commoners, to the Emperor Caracalla. Hypnosis, and subliminal therapy (although not called that), were also used. For instance, when patients arrived at the Aescalapion, after making the usual sacrifices of live animals, they proceeded down the Sacred Tunnel (a long, black tunnel, filled with snakesl). When we walked through the tunnel, the snakes were mercifully absent! Holes were cut in the roof and the sides of the tunnel, so that the doctors could whisper to the patients some strong psychological suggestions. Some people were actually "cured" before even leaving the Sacred Tunnel! Then, in their sleeping quarters, while the patients-slept, the doctors whispered to them through holes in the walls, planting curative suggestions in their minds. So, much of what went on at Galen's Aescalapion, was psychological in nature! However, much was also physical, and in that respect, Galen and his doctors, were unequalled in the ancient world until the time of Maimonides.

Now, back to the town of Canakkale, the Hotel Truva, and the ferry-ride across the Dardanelles, back to European Turkey ...........................

FRIDAY, AUGUST 18th- We left on the 9:30a.m. ferry. The trip across to the Gallipoli peninsula (site of the WWI battle) was ferociously windy, but otherwise uneventful,

On the European side, we drove for a good part of the day, along the beautiful North Coast of the Sea of Marmara, passing the summer homes of the "well-to-do" of Istanbul, until finally we returned "home" to Istanbul! Before we even checked into our hotel, the luxurious Etap Marmara, we went to the Covered Grand Bazaar... the largest indoor bazaar in the world, consisting of 6000 shops. Now, that's a shopping mall! Of course, everyone (except Jim and I, who don't shop!), went bananas shopping for that last minute rug, piece of leather, or gold! Then, off to the hotel. Our rooms are lavish, comfortable, and overlooking Taksim Square.

After dinner, Regina, Marilyn, and I took a stroll around Taksim Square; went up to look at the city by night from our hotel's roof-top restaurant; took a look at the Casino; and then went to bed. Tomorrow is our last day in Turkey.

SATURDAY, AUGUST 19th- Today, after breakfast, we went to the magnificent Dolmabache Palace... the victorian palace of Turkey's Sultan's in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Done in the style of the great palaces of Europe, this ornate Piece of Victoriana sits right on the banks of the Bosphorus. There are so many spectacular features of this great palace, but two must be singled out; the largest chandelier in the world (made by Baccarat and weighing 4-1/2 tons), and the largest throne room in the world.

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Then, we jumped onto a cruise ship and sailed to one of the Prince's Islands in the Sea of Marmara... the summer retreat for those who can afford the homes here. On a series of eight islands, the wealthy of Istanbul spend their summers in fairy-tale villas perched high on the hills of these carless islands. The largest, and most beautiful of these, BuyukAda, is the one that we went to for lunch, and to take a leisurely look around. Only horse and carriages(called phaetons) on these hilly islands. As we rode up the hillside, past the beautiful villas and tiny plazas, reminiscent of Montmartre and Capri, beautiful vistas of the sea opened up before us. Altogether, an unreal and exquisite place ... an artist's paradise. What a perfect way to spend our last day in Turkey!

Farewell dinner was at the Karavansaray, complete with belly dancers, knife throwers, jugglers, and singers who sang "Memories" and "Fascination" in Turkish. I didn't go! I had already started to wean myself away from the group on the cruise to BuyukAda.

SUNDAY, AUGUST 20th- The long journey home begins with a wake-up call at 5:30a.m. The rest is just a matter of "cranking-it-out" as Bob Profaci once said, when referring to his own trip to Italy!

A 4-1/2 hour flight from Istanbul to London.

A 3 hour lay-over at Heathrow in London, that turns into a 5-1/2 hour lay-over when the cargo-door of our plane won't shut! Thank God for British Airways and their over-concern for doing things correctlyl

Then, the interminable 7-1/2 hour flight from London to JFK, made relatively pleasant by my two seat companions. On my left, an exchange student from Belfast coming to New York to go to college somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains(!). On my right, a young Cypriot, who is beginning his freshman year at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. Would I have the guts to do something like that at age 18?

And so, the trip is over, and the processing of Turkish memories begins...

HIGHLIGHTS OF AN AFRICAN SAFARI TO KENYA AND TANZANIA- 1973

After an incredibly long flight on Lufthansa to Frankfort, and another equally long flight to Kenya, we landed in Nairobi, where we were greeted by our "great white hunter" (tour-guide,) who turned out to be a gorgeous British blond named Kendra Donelson! We also met our Kikuyu drivers, as well as the other members of our 10-member safari group. They seem to be a diverse and at least interesting-looking lot. We drove to our hotel, a charming Colonial left-over, in the heart of bustling Nairobi. We settled in, and then, on our first full day in Africa, we went to Colpro, the safari shop, to be outfitted for our tour. Much to the surprise of those people who bought their outfits in their home-towns (we were told not to,) the full outfits, complete with elephant-skin shoes, and leopard-trim hats, was less than 1/4 of the price that the big safari-outfitters in New York, etc. charged! I bought everything there! For the next couple of days, we were taken to a game preserve (our first) right in Nairobi, where we were taught the "ropes" of being on safari. Most of this consisted of learning how to ride standing up, in the open-topped jeep vans, while traveling through difficult terrain. It took the full two sore-filled days to learn this. We also learned the "do's and don't," (e.g., don't ever get out of the vans...the animals think of the vans and their contents as just another animal in the wild, don't photograph the Masai as we are driving through their territory, don't ever leave your doors open in the lodges...snakes will come in, seeking the heat of your body, etc.) Next stop, Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania, just a short flight away.

In Dar, we checked in at the unbelievably beautiful Kunduchi Beach Hotel, directly on the Indian Ocean. It looks like a contemporary version of an oasis harem out of an old Maria Montez-Jon Hall movie! We were told that people beginning safari were put here first, to prevent over-exhaustion and strokes, which I hope are not common occurrences! In any case, the rooms are delightful (done in an elaborate Hollywood style) and the food is excellent. Ah, if things could only keep up this way!

I woke up to a spectacular African sunrise, with the dhows flowing by on the Indian Ocean, just beyond the long white beach. We went down to Kariokoo Market, Dar's central marketplace...aromas, colors, drums. Went on to see all of Dar, Tanzania's capital city, and were intrigued by a nearby African village, showing the variety of hut-styles to be found in Tanzania and Kenya. Time to leave Dar.

A half hour after we left Dar on East African Airlines, we were driving up the entrance to still another beautiful hotel, the Mombasa Beach Hotel in Kenya. It's a relief to be back in Kenya again after the real paranoia that is Tanzania. Because of the extreme nationalism of its young government (heavily oriented toward its "patron," Red China,) everyone in Tanzania walks on eggs. Most former residents who aren't black Tanzanians are pulling out. In any case, the island of Mombasa is a welcome change, and the hotel is a paradise, with the most beautiful outdoor landscaping that I've ever seen. No sooner had we begun to enjoy Mombasa than we were on our way again. The "acclimation phase of the tour" is over and the safari part of our trip begins.......................

After a long drive through spectacular country, we arrived at Voi Safari Lodge, which stands high on a cliff commanding breathtaking views of the vast plains of Tsavo East National Park, which is about 5000 square miles in area. It's difficult to describe this well-camouflaged lodge from where you can watch elephant, buffalo, zebra, rhino, wildebeest, etc., all through your picture window! All rooms overlook the immense watering hole. Tonight, during dinner, we were watching seven huge elephants drinking at the watering hole and then, suddenly out of nowhere, a herd of thousands of cape buffalo appeared, each one weighing over a ton. We ran down to the tunnel that puts you within about 20 feet of the animals, and watched one of the most impressive sights that I've ever seen. So many animals, and yet all of them so very quiet. Just drinking and kicking up eerie clouds of dust.

We had our first game drive today...very early in the morning, and lasting for several hours. On this run, we saw many elephant, impala, giraffe and gazelle. A late afternoon game drive (where we photographed gerenuk, baboons, and crocodiles,) was also on our agenda. For our relaxation ( and we need it!) between game runs, the facilities of our Lodge include a splendidly sited swimming pool overlooking the plains, and built into the natural rock of the site.

We left Tsavo East at 8am this morning and drove on a four-hour game run to Tsavo West National Park. The well-populated watering hole at our new lodge, the Ngulia, is only 100 feet away from the dining terrace. You should see the pictures that I took from that vantage point. On our afternoon game drive, we were starting to get a little bored (!) when our tracker spotted lion tracks. We followed them into the bush and came upon a pride of seven lions (one female, two males, and four cubs.) They had just killed a zebra, and were about to start dinner. Obviously, we were all very excited!

On the road again, in our well-armored jeep-vans. this time we're off to Nairobi, for a short rest before we begin the really heavy part of our safari. Went to my first mosque. 

After a two-day stay in Nairobi, we left the city and drove through the Great Rift Valley, via Narok (the administrative center for the Masai tribe) to Masai-Mara (a drive of 175 miles...about 3 1/2 hours.) After lunch, we had a game run into Masai-Mara. The run was to be a short one and not very exciting. That is, until our Kikuyu drives spotted the vultures overhead. They led us right to a pride of lions feeding on their fresh kill, a cape buff. The five or six young cubs were half in the belly of the animal enjoying the meal, while mama and a couple of young males stood guard. Papa, and one of his buddies were asleep under a shade tree. (The male lion spends about 18 hours a day sleeping, while the female does all the work, including hunting up a meal every three days.)

We leave Masai-Mara Game Reserve driving across the border back into Tanzania (our safari route seems to be making a large figure eight,) to arrive in the world-famous Serengeti Game Reserve, covering an area of over 5,700 square miles. Our lodge is the famous Lobo Lodge. In the Serengeti (the biblical Garden of Eden,) where the greatest and most spectacular concentration of game in the world can be seen, our runs bring us into contact with thousands of wildebeest, zebra, Thomson's and Grant's gazelle, eland, impala, and giraffe. But the most exciting of all, are the large numbers of black-maned lions, for which the Serengeti is famous. Today we saw a pride of 24 of these, as well as a cheetah, before and at the moment that it killed an impala. The hideous hyenas, nature's garbage collectors are everywhere.

Leaving the Serengeti behind, we came upon the great Olduvai Gorge, where the oldest fossils of man were found...1.7 million years old. We stopped for a while to look down into the five levels of the Gorge. We then began our climb up to the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater. At the top, we had lunch at our Lodge, checked into our rooms, and then began a hair-raising drive down into the largest crater in the world, descending 2000 feet by land rover, onto the floor of the 100 square mile crater. In this wonderland of wild animals, vast herds of game live along-side the Masai villagers. Inside the Crater we were charged by a rhino (thank God they're almost blind!) and had one of the tires in one of our vans blown by a spear thrown by an angry Masai warrior, who objected to the French bitch's taking his picture. (This woman, who caused nothing but trouble due to her arrogance and stupidity, was sent packing at the next stop!) In Ngorongoro, we saw sleeping hippos, and flocks of beautiful bright pink flamingos in Lake Magadi in the Crater.

We left Ngorongoro after breakfast and drove 40 miles to the shores of Lake Manyara, where we're staying at the Lake Manyara Hotel. Lake Manyara is famous for its tree-sleeping lions. The lions have learned that by sleeping in the trees, they can escape the dreaded tsetse flies. I was not comfortable driving under them in our open-topped vans.

We spent all of the morning driving across the desert, over the border back to Kenya, where we stopped at Amboseli at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. I took another malaria pill last night (part of the program that is required of a safari,) so I wasn't feeling completelu up to par today. But the first sight of Kilimanjaro peering up out of the pink clouds, made me snap out of it. It's breathtaking. One of the highlights of this trip is our overnight camping-out high up on one of the slopes of Kilimanjaro. Don't think for a minute that we were roughing it...our tents were luxurious, and we dined in the main tent by silver candelabras. Nevertheless, our camp was still prowled through by animals while we slept, oblivious to all of the activity outside of our tents! We were shocked to see the many tracks in the morning. Our guides said that we were perfectly safe all the time! On our trek down from Kilimanjaro, we followed the vultures, and came upon lions eating their kill, a wildebeest. On the way back to Amboseli, we took some beautiful photograps of cheetahs.

Leaving behind the dusts of Amboseli, and the "snows of Kilimanjaro," we drive across the Equator to Nanyuki, the site of the ultra-exclusive country club for the international set...actor William Holden's Mount Kenya Safari Club. To say that our accomodations, in cottages on the magnificently-landscaped grounds, were spectacular is an understatement. We were greeted by peacocks at our front doors in the morning. It was here that I decided to call it quits and head for home. The safari portion of the trip is over and the next week will take us to Addis Ababa in disgustingly-poor Ethiopia...not exactly high up on my list of must-see places to see in this world. So, after three incredibly mind-altering weeks, I bid farewell to our group and hop on a Lufthansa jet, which whisked me back to New York via Frankfort. I slept most of the way!!! 

 

CUBA: THE HAVANA FILM FESTIVAL (Festival de Cine)

December 6-15, 2002

Friday, December 6th-

This time, my usual flying-day nerves were more about whether or not we'd be able to take off from Boston, due to a lingering snow-storm. After boarding on time, we were delayed at the gate while we waited to be de-iced. We finally left 1 1/2 hours late. It was a good flight and arrival in Miami. I had to wait 45 minutes for my luggage to come out; the penalty for arriving early on the other end. I checked in at the Miami International Airport Hotel, right in the terminal in which we arrived...very convenient. I had dinner (Angel-hair Pomodoro and a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon,) at the Top of the Port restaurant in the hotel, and then went to bed early at 8pm.

Saturday, December 7th-

I got up at 4am, checked out, and headed over to Concourse A-1, where we would meet Harlan Jacobson, our tour leader (and the president of Talk Cinema,) at 5am. No sign of Harlan! After drifting around from place to place in the terminal, I finally found our check-in point. Still no Harlan! I gave the woman at the desk my name, and then more fun...they had no ticket or visa for me. The woman's "co-host" Hamlet (!) made these documents for me in 5 minutes while I waited. Not a good beginning.

After checking my luggage in, another woman asked me to pay a $50 airport tax. I explained to her that I was on an "all-included" tour, but she was adamant...she wanted the $50. Up popped Hamlet, who explained to her that I was right. No tax. An annoying characteristic of the hispanics that I've dealt with so far down here, is that you can't speak to them one-on-one without them being interrupted by another person, both of whom proceed to have a conversation while the first person is trying to settle your business. Therefore, mistakes are made. (Hamlet put the wrong time on my return plane ticket.) I had breakfast at the Miami Grill, after clearing two security check-points that were more "in depth" than those in Boston. Still no sign of Harlan! As people in our group started to trickle down to the area where I had been waiting for them for about an hour, they told me that he got lost getting to the airport and kept 52 people waiting for their tickets for over an hour. I was already cleared.

Upon arrival in Cuba, we cleared customs relatively easily, no thanks to Harlan, who didn't have a clue what to do there.

The drive to our hotel was unimpressive; lots of dreary, run-down buildings and open-air markets. Everything needs a paint job.

The Hotel Nacional (a sister hotel to the Breakers in Palm Beach,) is quite beautiful, in a run-down sort of way. We had to wait for 3 hours to get our rooms, because Harlan was either not there, or completely ineffective when he was. I finally got my room ( a simple, but clean, room with a magnificent view of one of the pools, the ocean, and the Malecon,) by being nice to two of the people behind the desk...Rafael (the hotel manager,) and his beautiful wife, Lissy.

I unpacked, shaved my head, and at 4pm I took a walk around the gardens of the hotel. I met the group at 7pm in the lobby. Harlan screwed up again! We were supposed to eat at "La Divina Pastora" tonight but according to Harlan, "somebody cancelled the reservations." So, instead, we ate a terrible buffet dinner downstairs at "La Veranda" (a Holiday Inn-like dining room) at the Nacional.

Sunday, December 8th-

Yesterday was a washout because of Harlan's incompetence as a tour leader. However, Connie, Kieran and I did manage to spend some time on the lovely hotel veranda, overlooking the gardens and the ocean, while we had a light lunch of sandwiches and orange-juice. Also, we enjoyed simple walks outdoors in the gardens. The weather is summer-like.

Today is a new day....................................................................

At 7am, I went down to have breakfast at "La Veranda," now transformed into an "everything-you-could-imagine-having-for breakfast" room. I chatted with Juan, my waiter.; an interesting guy. He's not happy with the "nothing-to-look-forward-to" life in Cuba today.

After breakfast, we took an orientation City Tour, seeing the four neighborhoods in which we'd be spending most of our time: Miramar, Vedado, Centro Habana, and La Habana Vieja. We then had a walking tour through Old Havana ("La Habana Vieja.") It's absolutely charming, looking just about as it must have looked in the 50's.  Here's where all of the restoration money has been spent. It was well worth it.

We ate lunch at "Cafe Taberna" in an historic building (1772.) Great music and dancers. The food was OK. It consisted of what was going to become VERY familiar: Cucumber, Cabbage and Tomato Salad, Filet of "Fish," and Strawberry Ice Cream. I declined the ubiquitous Mojito...one of Cuba's national drinks. It tastes like nail-polish remover smells!

We went back to the hotel to reserve our table at the Tropicana nightclub for Wednesday night, buy some t-shirts, and delete some e-mail.

Dinner was at "La Divina Pastora" where we were supposed to have eaten last night. It was a fine seafood dinner (Shrimp Cocktail, Salad, Filet of Fish with Mashed Potatoes and Cabbage , Cake and Ice Cream,) in a lovely setting next to Morro Castle across from the "skyline" of Old and Centro Havana. Then back to the hotel veranda for a nightcap.

A long day, but a good one.

Monday, December 9th-

After breakfast at "La Veranda," I went to a press conference for the film "Frida," which was presided over by Julie Taymor, the film's director, Salma Hayak, its star, and the art and music directors. I was shocked to hear Julie Taymor kissing up to the Latin-American press corps by making anti-American remarks (e.g., "Most Americans can't appreciate the subtleties of the film's politics the way Cuban audiences can. They think that Trotsky is Tolstoy." "Americans don't know anything about Mexico; they think that it's nothing but drugs, big sombreros and mariachi bands.") Prior to this conference, I had thought that Taymor was a class act. Not so. Even Salma Hayak told her that she wasn't being fair to Americans. Now that's a class act.

At the pool with Linda (one of the women from Massachusetts on the tour) for awhile. I then had lunch at "La Rincon de Cine," a fun movie-studio-setting cafe at the hotel.

I then went with Elsi and Giselle (two charming part-Lebanese friends to see the Capitolio Nacional. What an incredible building...the most extraordinary in all of Cuba. This is where the Cuban Parliament used to meet. On the way over, we bumped into Danny Glover, who's also staying at our hotel. He thought that he knew me ("Hey man, how ya been???")

After walking through the magnificent chambers of the Capitol building, we went over to the opera house, the Gran Teatro de la Habana...the oldest operating theater in the Western Hemisphere. There, we observed one of Alicia Alonso's ballet classes rehearsing ("The Nutcracker" of all things!) The strikingly beautiful bodies on these young, near-naked dancers made you want to go home and cover every mirror in your house!

We then stopped in to see some hotels: the Inglaterra (the oldest in Cuba...very Moorish,) the Telegafo (beautiful cocktail lounge built into the ruins of the former building,) the Parque Central (elegant.) Stopped in to see "El Floridita," Hemingway's watering hole, where the frozen daiquiri was invented in the 1920's. Very classy-looking joint.

Back at the hotel, I had a long and pleasant chat with Felipe Fernandez, the young production designer on "Frida," and I had a chance to tell him how I felt about Julie Taymor's remarks this morning. He had some very interesting things to say about the film, and how defensive Taymor is because of the way that she's been attacked by the Mexican and American press. Felipe asked me how I was connected to the film industry, and I told him that I had no connection except that I wrote film reviews for a private web-site. He asked for the web-site's address. Ooops! I gave "Frida" a bad review.

Connie, Kieran and I went back to Old Havana to have dinner at "El Patio," in the Plaza de la Catedral. We had spotted this incredibly picturesque place on our walking tour, and swore that we must have dinner there. It was our best meal so far. The atmosphere, complete with strolling musicians (who are EVERYWHERE in Havana!) and a spectacular view of the Cathedral, was hard to beat.

Bumped into "my friend" Danny Glover again back at the Nacional.

A wonderful, very complete day.

 

Tuesday, December 10th-

Breakfast at "La Veranda," accompanied by long chats with Juan and Johanyi, my waiters. The planned trip to Hemingway's house was canceled for today, due to another Harlan screw-up! It will take place tomorrow instead. Kieran, Connie and I had our Cuban guide, Adel, drop us off the bus at Plaza des Armas in Old Havana. We started a walk together, but then Connie and Kieran wandered into an Arab museum (!) and stayed in there for ages. I decided to explore some hotels on my own. My first stop was the "Santa Isabel," where Jimmy Carter stayed on his last visit. It was a magnificent mansion in Colonial times. Then, I crossed the Plaza des Armas and went into the baroque Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, one of Cuba's most majestic buildings. Until 1898, this was the residence of the Spanish captains-general. In 1902, the building became the presidential palace. It was furnished as it was during these luxurious times. Very impressive.

Then I was off to explore the second of the hotels on Calle Obispo, the "Ambos Mundos." During his in-town stays in Havana during the 1930's, this is where Hemingway stayed, and wrote "For Whom The Bell Tolls." There's a beautiful open-air restaurant on the roof, with a terrific view of Old Havana, the castles, and the seaport. I then proceeded up Obispo to the last hotel, the "Florida," a three-story building in the purest colonial style, with arches and pillars around a central courtyard.

Back to the Nacional for lunch with Elsi and Giselle. They're such lovely people. They pointed Marisa Tomei out to me, so I went over to ask her for her autograph. (So not me!) I chatted with her about her upcoming "Salome" with Al Pacino, off-Broadway in New York. I had overheard her saying that she wanted a cigar for her father, so I told her about the web-site in Edinburgh, Scotland for buying Cuban cigars, so that he could have cigars whenever he wanted them. She thanked me, and took my web-site address.

I bumped into Steve Mindich (owner of the Boston Phoenix, and founder of the Boston Film Festival) at the "Salon de Fama" at the hotel. We had met many, many years ago on an Amtrak train to New York. He introduced me to his wife, Maria Lopez, the judge who's going through a very ugly, and very public censure/disbarment trial. She's quite charming in person, unlike the way she comes off on the evening news.

The group went off to dinner at "El Aljibe," a thatched roof affair in the ocean-side residential district of Miramar. This was the best meal so far, with all-you-can-eat portions of Roasted Chicken in Orange Sauce, Black Beans and Rice, French Fries and Sweet Plantains, and Pineapple Ice Cream. Unfortunately Connie and Kieran missed out, because they had made other plans to go to a different restaurant. Hopefully, their restaurant is just as good as "El Aljibe," which was recommended very highly by Cigar Aficionado magazine.

Buenas noches.

Wednesday, December 11th-

After another chatty breakfast, I attended a press conference given by Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover. Glover was his usual sweet, kind self, but Belafonte sounded the trumpet for both of them, and led a vicious attack on just about everything in America (e.g., the Bush administration, the impending war with Iraq, CNN-"the war channel," the press, educational institutions, the film industry, etc.) Once again, an American who has thrived on the bounties reaped upon him in his adopted country, has taken this very inappropriate opportunity to bite the hand that fed him. He should be deported back to Jamaica on the first banana boat, to see how long he can survive there, "tallying the bananas." Maybe he could take Julie Taymor with him.

I met the stand-up comic, Reno at this same press conference. I told her how much I loved her film, "Reno: Rebel Without a Pause," and we talked about the possibility of showing her film in Boston.

After seeing her overpowering persona on screen, I was surprised to see what a gentle, soft-spoken soul she is in person. We exchanged e-mail addresses. By the way, see this film if you get the chance. It's one of the best films of the year.

After the press conference, we drove out to Hemingway's house, "Finca la Vigia," on a hilltop at San Francisco de Paulo. I expected a hut, and was surprised to see a sprawling white villa in a wild, overgrown, tropical setting. He lived there from 1940 until 1960, and everything is just about how he left it, including his Nobel Prize medallion (for "The Old Man and The Sea.") His fishing boat, "El Pilar" is in a permanent dry-dock next to the swimming pool.

We then drove to the little village of Cojimar, the prototype of the fishing village in Hemingway's book. Gregorio Fuentes, the old fisherman who was the model for the protagonist in the book, just died this past year at the age of 102! We ate a late (excellent) very-pricey, lunch at the scenic "El Cubana" restaurant near the beach. Once again, the meal consisted of grilled fish with french fries, a salad of cabbage, tomatoes and cucumber, black beans and rice, and ice cream. However, as with last night's meal, it was prepared beautifully. But I'm getting very tired of this same meal!

When we got back to the hotel (at about 5pm,) I found out that Connie and Kieran didn't come on the trip today because Kieran has come down with something, and is running a fever. I guess that going off to that alternate place to eat last night, was NOT such a good idea. I hope that he feels better for the big Tropicana show tonight.

As I was taking my nightly "walk through the gardens before dinner," I passed a group consisting of Marisa Tomei, Elvis Mitchell, Matt Dillon and Fisher Stevens. To my surprise, Marisa Tomei waved to me and asked me to come over. She asked me if I would give her and Fisher Stevens the cigar web-site address again, because she had lost it. So I wrote it out on the back of my personal cards and gave it to each of them. To the passerby, it looked as though I was giving out MY autograph to THEM!

On the way into the lobby, I passed Reno and a photographer, and she yelled out "Hey Mr. Boston, don't forget to come to my show tomorrow night at 7pm." Yikes! This is a very strange feeling having celebrities recognize ME and yell things to ME. I could get to hate this very quickly!!!

On to the Tropicana......................................................

A night at this fabulous, immense, out-door nightclub (once the largest in the world,) is like stepping into a time-warp into a 1950's Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie (with Carmen Miranda and Xavier Cugat, of course, as co-stars!) It's just what I expected. Part Las Vegas revue, part Carnivale, part Paris' "Folies Bergere," part Mardi Gras...all accompanied by enough champagne, and rum to make you think that you've never seen anything like it anywhere on Earth! The music and costumes were dazzling. I loved every minute of it!

Thursday, December 12th-

At breakfast, author Josefina Lopez ("Real Women Have Curves") spoke to our group, and she was, in a word, wonderful! What a dynamic, articulate, intelligent latina this woman is. She was supposed to have been joined by Lupe Onteverdi, who starred as the mother in the movie, but she was detained elsewhere. (In fact, we've seen her all over the hotel.)

I went to the open-air market at the Malecon (the broad promenade boulevard fronting the ocean,) in Habana Vieja with Linda and Tina. I could have bought the whole place, especially the artwork. Almost everything was under $10. We had lunch at the open-air roof-garden at the "Hotel Ambos Mundos." I had Onion Soup with a Toasted Slice of Bread on top, and Bruschetta with Cheese, Onions, Tomatoes and Garlic. Elsi and Giselle joined us there for lunch, and we took some pictures afterward. The food was excellent as was the atmosphere. After lunch, we went downstairs to Room 511, Hemingway's "room in town" where he wrote "For Whom The Bell Tolls." As I wrote in the guest book, "I could have written great literature too, if I had this view out of my windows."

I went back to the Nacional's Cybercafe, where I cleared dozens of e-mails (I've been doing this every day,) and then off to the big pool to meet the ladies. (The front pool is used mainly for the Water Ballet, which takes place twice a week. I loved to watch their rehearsals. More great bodies!)

Drinks on the Terrazza. We saw Roman Polanski there, as well as my congressman, Bill Delahunt. He chairs the committee to study about removing the hateful embargo. I spoke to him about this every time that I saw him. He's a real accessible gentleman...and politician.

We had dinner reservations tonight at the most famous of the paladares, "La Guarida." This is the first, and only, paladar that I've been to on this trip. Paladares are family-run restaurants, which were approved by the government in 1995. To limit competition with the state-run restaurants, a paladar is limited to 12 seats, and to meals consisting of pork, chicken, and fish. "La Guarida" is easily the best restaurant that we've eaten at in all of Havana. I can't imagine another being better. Preparation and presentation of the food was excellent, and the atmosphere was that of a speakeasy. Up two flights of stairs in a run-down, dark, ancient building, in a neighborhood that I wouldn't dream of walking through. It may have been perfectly safe, but it sure didn't look it. Once inside, it couldn't be more comfortable, or charming. I had Asparagus Pie with Foie Gras Sauce as an appetizer, and Grilled Snapper with Vegetable Pisto for an entree. My dessert was a Chocolate Tart with Creme Anglais and Camomile Tea. What an incredible place, and what a scary ride to get there. Thank God, they called us a taxi to drive us out of this dangerous-looking area of Centro Habana.

I can't wait to see Kieran's pictures of the place. He took pictures of every square inch...inside and out.

Back to the Nacional where I watched the last half-hour of the Water Ballet in the huge, rectangular Terrace Pool. Nicely done, with beautiful music.

Friday, December 13th-

Our guest speaker at breakfast this morning was Elvis Mitchell, film critic for the New York Times. He had some interesting things to say about film festivals in general, and some very specific things to say about the Havana Film Festival, which he considers to be an important film festival. I spent so much time gabbing with my waiter Johanyi, that I missed the press conference for Roman Polanski!

I hung out at the pool with the ladies, and had lunch there as well.

After lunch, I walked over to the Universidad de la Habana (founded in 1728 by Dominican monks,) where I was immediately surrounded by students who wanted to pick my brain (and vice versa.) They were so interested and so interesting. Their questions were probing, and they generally wanted to know about my feelings and those of my country. I was shocked at the sorry state of their text-books. They looked like workbooks used by third-graders in America! It's amazing how alive, seemingly happy, and friendly these young people can be in a country that treats them so poorly. When they get out of college, the most that they can hope to earn is $15 a month, unless they work in hotels or restaurants, where Americans can slip them tips "under the table." Dreadful and depressing.

I stopped at Coppelia (the ice-cream parlor in the park) on the way back for a Strawberry and Chocolate Ice Cream. This is the ice cream parlor that was featured in the famous Cuban film "Strawberry and Chocolate," (as was "La Guarida" and just about everything else in Havana.) I'll have to rent the video because I saw it so long ago, and it will have new meaning for me now.

Back to the Cybercafe to check my e-mail, and then out to the pool again. Early dinner at the "Rincon de Cine" (where the cheeseburgers and fries are every bit as good as they are back home.)

Tonight, in order to attend the Clausura (the Closing Ceremony) and film, it's impossible to attend our Farewell Dinner. Once again, poor planning on the part of our tour "director," Harlan Jacobson. Que idiota!

Clausura (The Closing Ceremony of the Festival de Cine): A sudden raging thunderstorm came out of nowhere just as we were about to board the buses that would take us out to the Karl Marx Theater in the Miramar section of Havana, where the Closing Ceremony was being held. We were ushered to our VIP orchestra seats in this huge theater, from where we watched the awards being given out. Brazil and Argentina took most of the awards, especially the film "City of God." The American entries were very weak, although there were 40 of them. After the awards were handed out, Roman Polanski introduced his new film, "The Pianist," which was then shown in its entirety.

MOVIE REVIEW- "THE PIANIST"

Yet another Holocaust/Warsaw Ghetto film. This time, the horrors are seen through the eyes of a concert pianist who manages (through bumbling stupidity and the kindness of others,) to survive the insanity. A true story. Adrien Brody finally gets a role that shows off his considerable talents. Beautiful Chopin music, played brilliantly by a Polish pianist, whose name I didn't recognize when the credits rolled at the end. Too long, and the hour was very late.

(3-Stars) Back to Top

We decided to skip the awards party at the pool/ballroom of the Havana Libre (the old Havana Hilton) Hotel. We were all wiped out. All we missed was one of Cuba's hot dance bands, Van-Van. I'll survive, and maybe look for a CD of their music.

Back to the Nacional for drinks at the Garden Terrace.

(By the way, did I mention that among all of the celebrities that are staying at our hotel, the one who was recognized by all of the Americans was Al Lewis....Grandpa Munster?)

Saturday, December 14th-

Before breakfast, I knocked on Linda's door and asked her if she had already taken her walk with Tina on the Malecon...their morning ritual. She hadn't, so I asked her if I could walk with her. The Malecon, when it's restored to its former glory, will be one of the great ocean-side promenades anywhere in the world, along with the Costera in Acapulco, the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, and the swirly sidewalks on the Copacabana beach in Rio. As you walk along on the Malecon, you get a great view of the "skyline" of Havana, stretching all the way from Miramar to the castle-fortresses in Old Havana. Then there are all of those 1950 cars riding along the wide Malecon, in their Technicolor colors. Cubans are said to be the best mechanics in the world, maintaining this fleet of Fords, Chevies, Pontiacs, etc. in their 50's glory, without the benefit of parts!

After breakfast, I completed the check-out process (no problem,) put my baggage down in the luggage room, and took a coco-taxi with Giselle and Elsi to see the Museo de Bellas Artes. (The coco-taxis are little round orange balls with three seats over a motor scooter!) Both the modern and the traditional collections of artworks are housed in magnificent buildings. Cuba's art scene matches its music scene in extent and popularity. Beautiful modern art is everywhere, as is music. In art and music, Cuba can take its place alongside any first-world nation. In everything else, unfortunately, it's still a third-world country.

We ate lunch at the "cafe in the ruins of the old building" at the Hotel Telegrafo.

I took another coco-taxi back to the Nacional and hung out with Connie and Kieran at the pool cafe.

Our group was bussed to the Jose Marti "International" Airport where it was a case of "hurry up and wait." I had dinner at the airport restaurant (Spaghetti Napolitano.) Nothing to write home about.

The flight to Miami was smooth. No real problems getting through customs. Checked in at the Miami Airport Hotel. (Did I mention the fact that almost no-one speaks English at the Miami Airport and Hotel, whereas just about everyone in Havana does? There's something wrong going on here, isn't there?) It's a good thing that I had a print-out of my reservation, because the latina idiot at the front desk said that I hadn't guaranteed it on a credit card. Not only HAD I done that in August, but I guaranteed it again with HER last week when I was here! In many ways, the people in Cuba are more efficient than the people in Miami!

In bed by 11:30pm.

Sunday, December 15th-

I was up at 6am after a good night's sleep, and went up to the Top of the Port for an American breakfast. I miss the freshly squeezed orange juice, the made-to-order omelette and all of those freshly-baked goods of my Cuban breakfast. I checked out of the airport hotel at 10:45, expecting long delays at check-in and security downstairs...but I breezed through both, in less than 15 minutes. After check-in, I had lunch at "La Carreta"(a Tuna Sandwich and a Chocolate Chip Cookie!) It was an excellent flight home...only 2 1/2 hours. During this time, I made the following list:

THINGS I LOVED ABOUT CUBA:

1. The warm, genuinely-friendly, and polite Cuban people.

2. The music everywhere...in restaurants and sidewalk cafes, on street corners, etc.

3. The charm of the Hotel Nacional...a true grande (although-aging) dame.

4. The feeling of safety and welcome everywhere in Havana.

5. The Technicolor fleet of 1950 American cars riding all over town.

6. The beauty and color of Cuban art.

7. The stunning architecture of the run-down buildings...waiting to be restored.

8. The charm of La Habana Vieja (Old Havana).

9. The summer-in-December weather.

10. The spectacular show at the Tropicana nightclub.

THINGS THAT I HATED ABOUT CUBA:

1. The choking smell of smoke everywhere, from those damn Cohiba cigars (as well as cigarettes.)

2. The depressing feeling expressed by the young people..."we have nothing to look forward to."

3. The run-down look of once-magnificent buildings.

4. The stupidity of the embargo. But that's our fault, not there's.

THINGS THAT WERE DISAPPOINTING ABOUT CUBA:

1. The sameness of the food in all of the restaurants, except in the paladares.

2. The horrible taste of the popular Cuban drink...the mojito!

Hasta la vista!

COSTA RICA: JUNGLES AND RAINFORESTS

Introduction- Air travel in this "age of the jihad" has become a complete nightmare. Even without last week's blackout that hit 6 states while we were away (and knew nothing about it until our trip home,) utter chaos reigns at the airports. If you're unfortunate enough to have to make a connection, count on missing it, as we did on the way down. (We had to kill 6 hours in the Miami airport. I got my head shaved there professionally for the first time. Just about every hispanic at the airport stopped to make fun of me. Unfortunately I understood what they were saying! That killed one of the six hours!) JFK in New York has become a third-world airport, with hordes of spangled and spandexed Caribbeans, rushing to the gates carrying luggage large enough to house the furnishings of a studio apartment. Little or no English is spoken at either JFK or Miami "International." As my friend Sue says, American Airlines should be renamed Non-American Airlines! If you're old enough to remember JFK when it was Idlewild, and a tourist destination in and of itself, this is a sad day for travel. Air travel was once the domain of the elegant and the elite, where one often dressed to travel. Now, it's a cattle-call!

Now, my thoughts about our trip to Costa Rica. If you're fortunate enough to have been on a safari in Africa, or have visited the Bronx or the San Diego zoos, or have had an over night in the woods with the Scouts, or have watched the Discovery channel, or have taken the Jungle Cruise ride at DisneyWorld, there's absolutely no reason to take an "ecological adventure tour" to Costa Rica. It's not a matter of false advertising, because the tour was exactly as was stated in the Tauck Tour catalog. It's more a matter of "what the hell was I thinking?" This tour is SO NOT ME!!! For the first 5 days, we had fine, abundant meals in adequate lodges, interrupted by an occasional sighting of wildlife. Trips to butterfly farms, hummingbird galleries, cheese factories, coffee plantations, frog ponds, and insect museums were a case of "much ado about nothing." Long hikes in the Cloud Forest Reserves were simply exhausting and/or meditative, because we saw almost no signs of animal life there. The trip only came alive during the last 5 days, when we took boats into the jungle to spend a few nights observing the wildlife, of which we finally saw a great deal. In the first half of our trip, as our uncomfortable coaches (called "coasters") drove along some of the worst roads in the world, and stopped at occasional rest-stops, what was strangely missing everywhere were three staples of other Latin American countries: music, art, and literature. We were told that their obvious absence was due to Costa Rica's peaceful and untroubled history. "Culture grows out of unrest." Costa Rica has had none, therefore no music, art, or literature. How sad! It would be to their cultural advantage if a neighboring country invaded them!!! This tour is for children under the age of 13 who still get a thrill out of their school's science fair. Adults, stick to the Discovery channel!

Highlights:(1) The first 20 steps into the Cloud Forest Reserves and the Rain Forest. When we realized that we would only be seeing an occasional sloth or quetzal, it then became just a "long walk in the woods."(2) White-water rafting through the Rain Forest on the Penas Blancas River. It was here that we saw monkeys, crocodiles, snakes, bats, vultures, and iguanas.(3) A bizarre, but beautiful barbecue dinner on the grassy slopes of the very-active Arenal volcano.(4) Everything about the two full days spent in the jungles of Tortuguero...from the exotic Tortuga Lodge, where we stayed, to the skiff (boat)-trips that took us into the heart of the deepest jungle, where we saw everything that you've ever imagined you'd see in a jungle! (5)Boating over to the dark beaches on the Caribbean side of the jungle, where we walked in darkness until we spotted the miracle of the giant (5-6 feet) Green Turtles. There, numerous females crawled out of the ocean onto the beach, where they dug large holes, laid their many eggs, buried them, and then, crawled back into the ocean. An unforgettable sight, and the highlight of the trip for me. (6) Wandering through the many gardens and hot pools of the Tabacon Hot Springs Resort. Last, but certainly not least, (7) spending quality time with four of my dearest friends, Susan, Marty, Matt, and Mark...my most compatible fellow-travelers.

Lowlights: (1) Our bus was caught in a mudslide on one of the horrendous mountain roads. We got out, and while standing in the muddy road for one hour, waiting for the bus to be pulled out, we were "attacked" by fire-ants as we tried to scrape the caked mud off of our shoes. (2) Our rooms at the Monteverde Lodge in the Cloud Forest Reserve, which we had to share with ants, who thought nothing of biting us while we slept at night. (3) The boring and uninformative lectures throughout the tour; by students at EARTH university; the Quaker founding-father of the town of Monteverde; an unintelligible guide at the Frog Pond. I learned much more about each of these by reading my very fine National Geographic guide book. (4) The surprisingly large number of "dysfunctional" people in a tour group of only 27! (5) The terrible ordeal of trying to make our flight connections. (6) Realizing that air travel is now just a way of getting lowlifes from one place to another!

Conclusion: Am I glad that I took the trip? Absolutely. Would I ever do it again? Never!  

THE "MOHEGAN SUN" GAMBLING CASINO & RESORT (in Uncasville, Connecticut)

If you've never been to the fabulous Mohegan Sun Gambling Resort in the rolling hills of Connecticut on the Thames River, and you're within driving distance, then it's certainly worth a visit. Long before you reach the resort, you'll see the 40-story glass prism of the hotel, towering above the neighboring countryside. The theme of the resort is the American Indian and his Land, as imagined by designers and architects intent on recreating the glitz of Vegas and DisneyWorld. Surprisingly, it all works, because it's done artistically, beautifully, and creatively. There are indoor dramatically lit, towering mountains of glass, as well as mountains of stone with cascading waterfalls. Trees made of every material imaginable cover the interior, and the roof of the casinos is made to look like a star-filled sky. Lavish shops line the indoor marble "roads" connecting the Casino of the Earth, and The Casino of the Sky. As one approaches the magnificent rotunda lobby of the hotel, one passes a dozen restaurants such as Michael Jordan's Steakhouse, Jaspar White's Summer Shack, and the one that brought us there this visit, Todd English's "Tuscany."

RESTAURANT REVIEW- TODD ENGLISH'S TUSCANY

I can't remember if I've ever entered a restaurant through a cave-like entrance carved into the wall of a stone "mountain" with a waterfall cascading down its cliffs. No, I never have. I would have remembered! The interior carries the theme of the mountain through to its inner walls, where a Tuscan restaurant emerges from the rock. Very dramatic. The menu is typical Todd English, and the presentation is the usual "towers of food." My appetizer was a Salad of Baby Leeks, with Fingerling Potatoes, Roquefort, and Whole Grain Mustard Vinaigrette. My entree was A Dish of Handcrafted Potato Gnocchi with Roasted Plum Tomato Sauce, Basil and Parmesan. The dessert that I shouldn't have had, was an order of Profiteroles with Coffee Ice Cream. There were three large profiteroles on the plate...enough to feed three people. I ate ALL of them! Our wine was a too-sweet Sangiovese.

4-Stars

After dinner, before gambling, we hit the Dubliner Pub, one of several lounges, bars, pubs, and night clubs. Al Martino (if you're old enough to remember him) was appearing in the Cabaret. We passed on that, since my young friends had never heard of him, and I wasn't keen on seeing someone who's older than I am!

The hotel rooms were well-appointed, in an art deco style. They were lavish, and came with every amenity, including internet access with a keyboard. The bathrooms were especially luxurious. I've stayed in hotel rooms that were smaller than the bathroom!

In the morning, we had breakfast at one of the resorts Vegas-styled buffets...the Seasons Buffet. Everything that one would want at an all-inclusive brunch was available at the buffet.

Oh, did I mention that the hotel has a large nicely-heated pool, which we took advantage of, before dining and gambling the night away. In case you're wondering, I broke even at the end of the evening (in the wee hours of the morning actually!) All in all, a very enjoyable visit to a somewhat magical place.

A WEEKEND IN THE COUNTRY- (THE STONEHEDGE INN in Tyngsboro, Ma.)

Hidden away up in the beautiful "horse country" area of North Central Massachusetts is the sprawling, majestic resort of Stonehedge. The baronial English manor house sits in the midst of green pastures, where retired thoroughbreds run in the fields. After checking into our suite, we began to experience the world of Stonehedge...the beautiful furnishings of our suite; the lovely grounds; the indoor/outdoor heated pool (where we spent much of the morning,) and the Spa, with its extensive selection of massages, facials and health therapies. Then, there's Silks. Silks is the internationally-renowned French restaurant at Stonehedge...famous for its wine-and-food festival weekends, and its world-famous wine collection. (It has the 3rd largest wine collection in the United States and the 9th largest in the world. Isn't that amazing?) Is its reputation justified? Read on.................

RESTAURANT REVIEW- "SILKS" (at Stonehedge Inn, in Tyngsboro, MA)

Sure, "Silks" is extravagantly beautiful, but its clientele comes here for the food and wines, not for the luxurious appointments of the room. This is a place that's comfortable in its celebrity, which it takes in stride. Everyone, from the maitre d' to the sommelier, is used to dealing with demanding customers who come from all over, to enjoy the dining experience at "Silks." Well, you won't be disappointed if you become one of those customers. Everything is perfect...the decor, the service, and especially, the food and wine. (It was nice to really indulge in both, knowing that all we had to do, was to walk back to our room, rather than drive anywhere!) There was so much of quality on the menu, that it was truly difficult to settle on just one dish from each course. But we did. After an amuse-bouche of Mussels and Chives, I had an appetizer of Cream of White Asparagus Soup with Roasted Scallop and Rye Bread Croutons. My entree was Grilled Sea Scallops with Okra and Tomato Risotto, in Tarragon Sauce. Our dessert was Seasonal Fruit Salad in A Florentine Cone, with Passion Fruit Sorbet and Mango Sauce. Our wine was a Shiraz, which, considering the selection from which we were able to chose, turned out to be disappointing. We selected wrong. I can't remember the last time that I ate in a restaurant, where the staff (young, attractive people from all over the world...but mostly from Turkey,) were so knowledgeable, charming, friendly, and as I said before, good to look at. All in all, a dining experience fit for a king!

Looking back on the weekend, I'd have to say that we spent most of our time eating and drinking! After a morning at the pool sunbathing, it was Bloody Mary's and lunch. Then, after a bit of exploring and chatting it up with some of the staff, it was time for High Tea (Tea, Scones with Clotted Devonshire Cream, and Freshly Baked Cookies.) A nap, and then dressing for dinner. Before-dinner cocktails in the beautiful Bar, and then Dinner at Silks. After dinner some cordials while listening to some jazz, and then finally, back to bed.

After a sumptuous breakfast, we went over to the Spa, where my friend had a Camoumile Body Buff, while I sat by the pool and read. I left Stonehedge, knowing that I'd be back. However, I won't step on a scale for at least a week!!!

(5-Stars) Back to Top

 

REDISCOVERING MY HOMETOWN...........BROOKLYN!
This year, I decided to see if all of the travel buzz was right. Was the most exciting and dynamic place REALLY Brooklyn? So after 35 years, I decided to spend my first extended period of time in my old hometown to rediscover the place where I was born and raised. I checked into the new Brooklyn Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge...the first hotel to be built in Brooklyn in 60 years. It's quite lavish, with huge rooms filled with all of the amenities, the largest hotel gym that I've seen outside of the Nacional in Cuba, a beautiful pool and hot-tub, and a 5-star restaurant, Archives. After settling in, the first thing that I did was:
.......join some of my friends and cousins at the new Russian night club, Rasputin, in Sheepshead Bay. I expected it to be seedy, tacky and cheesy, and it was everything but that. The ambience was very nice; the food and drink were excellent and abundant; the show was exceptional...lots of beautiful talented girls, great music, and colorful costumes. A truly elegant and classy touch of Vegas in the heart of Brooklyn. Not to be missed, if you're anywhere in the vicinity.
......I began my explorations of the neighborhoods that were too dangerous to visit when I was growing up. Although I knew that the homes and other architecture in these areas was stunning, they had fallen into such disrepair during my formative years, that it was just easier to stay away from them. If only I had invested in these areas THEN. Now, they've been gentrified and are so beautiful , and such desirable and convenient places to live, that only wealthy people can afford to live there. Wealthy people, and young people who are willing to share their living space with room-mates. The most beautiful of these neighborhoods are Brooklyn Heights (with its incredible views of lower Manhattan,) Park Slope, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, and Ft. Greene. Beautiful homes (some qualifying as mansions in my book;) lovely gardens; tree-lined streets; picture-postcard views.
......Brooklyn's cultural institutions rival those of some large cities of the world...and it's only a borough of a city! I spent a day checking out the fabulous Brooklyn Museum...a world-class museum, and the second largest in America. Then, I went over to the Brooklyn Library (what a magnificent building,) and then to the music area, where I saw the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Brooklyn's own opera house, the Mark Morris Dance Theatre, and the Harvey Theatre (modeled after Peter Brook's Parisian theater, Les Bouffes du Nord.)
.....the restaurants of Brooklyn are reason enough to come to Brooklyn, as anyone who has eaten at any one of them will tell you. I ate at 12 of them! The best of these is easily "The Grocery" in Carroll Gardens, which is listed in the new Zagat Survey as "one of the 10 best new restaurants in America." It certainly is that. Some other fine restaurants where I had excellent meals were the Peter Luger Steak House (in Williamsburg,) Al Di La, Trattoria Mulino, and Two Boots (in Park Slope,) and Grimaldi's (in DUMBO) for what is arguably the best pizza in New York City.
.....two former industrial areas, that have become famous for their "art scene," are Williamsburg and DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass.) In fact, Williamsburg is famous as the epicenter of new and emerging art in the United States. Every former warehouse is now either a gallery or a condo. Very expensive!
.....two of the most beautiful green spaces in Brooklyn were designed by Olmstead and Vaux. They are the lavish, sprawling Prospect Park, and the more compact Ft. Greene Park. More formal plantings are to be found in the magnificent Botanic Gardens. Don't miss the Conservatories, and the huge Japanese Garden.
                                                                                                                                                                                                    
I did find time to head over into Manhattan (A 10-minute ride on the subway,) to check out the new Stephen Sondheim musical "The Frogs" starring Nathan Lane. Who would have thought that Aristophanes wrote an anti-Bush play. What a bore...even if you're a Democrat! While in Manhattan, I managed to eat at three fine restaurants: "Public"(excellent,) "V-The Steakhouse" (I ordered wrong!) and "Per Se" (didn't live up to all the hype.)None of these was better than "The Grocery" in Brooklyn!
Back in Brooklyn, I spent an enjoyable night attending a Brooklyn Cyclones (a Class A Affiliate of the Mets) game at the new KeySpan Park on the beach in Coney Island. Of course, I had a couple of Nathan's hot dogs and Fries at the Original Nathan's, before the game. What a beautiful night.
I've written enough...and you've probably stopped reading paragraphs ago. Do yourself a favor and reserve one of your upcoming trips to exploring the borough of churches...BROOKLYN!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

RESTAURANT REVIEW- "PARAGON" (at Foxwoods)

Sitting high atop the brand new Grand Pequot Tower at Foxwoods Resort Casino is one of New England's most beautiful and elegant new restaurants...Paragon. With wraparound glass windows, the view is spectacular, and so is the decor of the interior; deluxe in every way. The look is elegant Art Deco, with polished woods, brocaded fabrics on comfortable chairs, muraled ceilings with twinkling lights, and floor-length double table-cloths. The menu matches the ambience, with some high-quality dishes sharing space with some of the expected items. The cuisine is that hated French-Asian fusion thing, but here it works, mainly because the food tastes neither particularly French nor Asian. Just damn good! After some complimentary champagne, and an Asian-tinged amuse-bouche of Sweet and Sour Pork, Beef Satay, and a Sea Scallop, I had an appetizer of Escargots en Brioche. Escargots may be a French dish, but this was definitely Asian-tasting, with mushrooms cooked in an unusual Chinese-tasting gravy. Delicious, and filling enough to be an entree! My entree was Penne al Arrabiata, which again, tasted more Asian than Italian. In this case, that was unusual, and it worked. A huge portion, and I couldn't finish it. Breads served with the dinner were extraordinarily good...and varied. Our dessert was Lemon Souffle with Creme Anglais. By this time in the meal, we were wondering if we'd even be able to get up from the table! What a filling, and delicious meal. Our wine was a wonderful Pinot Grigio. Oh yes, there was a live pianist who added to the mood. An exceptional dining experience. Did I mention that the service was very "old school"....impeccable?

(5-Stars) Back to Top

REPORT FROM LAS VEGAS- 2004 (with Nick Back to Top and Omar)

For those of you who don't know my friend Omar, he's the "guiding light" at my gym, the Marino Center. He travels to Vegas at least once a month, sometimes going for a special show and not even staying over. He knows Vegas like the back of his hand, and so I thought that he would be the perfect person to go with on this short trip to catch up on the new hotels and restaurants. He was!

Day One
We're in two huge, elegantly furnished suites at the "old school" Flamingo,
overlooking the water show at the Bellagio. Each one is bigger than my
apartment. They look like a movie set from "Bugsy!"

Breakfast at our own hotel at Lindy's of New York.

We've been to Caesar's to see all of the new additions (WOW,) to The Hotel and Mandalay Bay, to
the Palms...owned by Omar's cousins, (we're going back tomorrow night to check out the clubs Ghost,
Rain and Skin,) and then we drove out to the very Italianate resort, the
Ritz Carlton out on Lake Las Vegas, for a Mediterranean lunch at the Cafe
Tenuta (followed by Limoncello gelati at Tutti Gelati.) It all looks like a Tuscan hillside village on a lake, as
visualized by Disney! Tonight we're having dinner at "Valentino" at the
Venetian, and that's only the first day.

Day Two
Dinner last night was fabulous. Piero Selfaggio has brought his California brand of
"alta cucina" to the Venetian Hotel. In the Venetian, where the restaurants range from the French sublime Lutece, to the Mexican foolishness of Canonita, Valentino stands out as a prime destination for connoisseurs of fine Italian cooking. We dined there in style. After dinner, Omar received a
phone call from his friend, Rebecca, and then it all began...................................................
We were bad last night, VERY,VERY, BAD! But that's a long story for another
time and place.
After breakfast this morning at the Bally's Kitchen Buffet, we walked
through the cobble-stoned streets of Paris (Paris Hotel,) and the fantasy streets of
Arabia (Aladdin Hotel,) where we were caught in a very realistic rain storm, complete with
rain, thunder and lightning. Then we went over to the Shark Reef at the Mandalay Bay,
where we observed sharks, eels, manta rays, piranha, barracuda, etc. in an
incredible underwater setting. Zagat has called this "Las Vegas' best attraction."
Lunch at the picturesque sidewalk café, Mon Ami Gabi, at the Paris, and
then over to the Hilton, to "Star Trek Experience -4D," where we were attacked by, and fought
off the Borg and Klingons. We survived in time to crawl back to our suites to rest up
for our night tonight. Next stop? Dinner on the Eiffel Tower tonight.

Day Three
One good "turn" deserves another, so last night we took the girls to dinner
at the fabulous Eiffel Tower Restaurant at the Paris Hotel. Everything
about this place reeks of class, elegance and style. From the minute we set
foot in the elevator that whisked us up to the restaurant itself, to the
fact that the manager came over and introduced himself, to the perfect
window table that we were given, overlooking the water-show at the
Bellagio, I knew that we were getting VERY special treatment. I attributed
it to the fact that we were well-dressed, and accompanied by four beautiful
"showgirls." However, Omar told me later, that he told them that I was a
very important food critic! This is one of the finest restaurants in Las
Vegas (or anywhere else for that matter,) where the chef is none other than
J. Joho, the chef/owner of Boston's own Brasserie JO. The setting is
magnificent, and it's matched by the food and the impeccable service.
This morning we ate at our hotel's Garden Buffet, and then after
overindulging, we took a long walk through the lush gardens of the
Flamingo. Only a hotel this old, could have gardens that are so beautifully
overgrown and elaborate. In addition, there are ponds, waterfalls and
streams filled with carp, flamingoes, penguins, herons, egrets, etc. A real
tropical paradise.
Now, it's off to a museum! In an 8,000 square-foot space in the Venetian
Hotel, noted Dutch architect, Rem Koolhaas, has designed a
perfect place to house the new Guggenheim Hermitage Museum, a unique
alliance between the New York City and the St. Petersburg, Russia museums.
(The Bellagio was the first to house a museum in its hotel, and now the
Venetian has done the same.) The current exhibit is devoted to "The Pursuit
of Pleasure," and it's truly awesome, with paintings by Titian, Rubens,
Chagall, Picasso, Velasquez, Degas, Fragonard, and a sculpture by Rodin.
It's jarring to come out of this impressive museum right into the casino!
Over to Caesar's and its new terrace restaurant on the Strip, Viale, for a
light lunch.
That was great. What a perfect setting for people-watching on the Strip,
and for eating a delicious Italian panini (mine was mozzarella, tomato, and
pesto.) The huge awning-covered terrace is shaded, but Thank God for the
overhead sprays of mist.
Back to the hotel for relaxing, and a last walk around the pool area and
gardens. Then, it's dinner at the hotel's new 3-storied
mega-restaurant, Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville. You know what THAT'S all
about.
Caught the red-eye back to Boston. Mercifully, the flight went quickly.

Well, that's it. I've left out a lot, but as they say, "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas!"

~Nick Back to Top


PARADISE- PART 1

The Costiera Almalfitano (the Amalfi Coast)...two weeks in Paradise!

I've just returned from one of my best vacations, and I'm still so overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of Amalfi and its sister towns and cities, that it will probably take me a while to process everything that I saw and did there. To give you an idea of how overwhelming everything was, I took my copy of the new Harry Potter book with me, and didn't read more than 10 pages!

When we arrived at our hotel in Amalfi, the Luna Convento, ( the 12th Century convent turned into a charming hotel,) it looked very unprepossessing from the road below...simply a clutter of old buildings rising up the mountain, opposite a Saracen Tower, and the Bay of Salerno. To get to the hotel proper, we entered a small marble hall built into the rock, and ascended in an elevator, through the rock mountain to arrive at the open-air cloister of the original convent, founded by St. Francis of Assisi. This is the "lobby" of the hotel! Some of our friends were already there (the Morreales, and MarieElena and Chris Corrao.) Over the course of the next two days, we would be joined by the Profacis, the Colavitas, and some of their friends, and our friend from Cuba, Gisele Bathish. I had come with the Gambinos, and my friends Linda Preissel and Priscilla Douglas. All in all, there were 28 of us, when everyone was there! We also made lots of new friends, from all over the world.

I settled myself into my room, which, I was delighted to see was a beautifully-appointed magnificent corner room, with terraces overlooking the Mediterranean on one side, and the entire panorama of Amalfi on the other. Exploring the hotel, we found it to be just perfect. For those of you who have ever joined me at El Mirador for those dozens of Christmases in Acapulco, it was very reminiscent of that other paradise...perched high on the cliffs, overlooking the water, and the neighboring town below. 

Our days started in the same way...at our huge table on the terrace facing the Sea in front of us, and the picture-book beauty of Amalfi, climbing up the mountain, on our right. The buffet breakfast consisted of fresh fruits, cheeses and meats of all varieties, hard-boiled and scrambled eggs, fresh-squeezed juices, breads hot out of the oven, and all types of fresh-baked pastries, cakes and cookies. There were oat-meals, cereals, and yogurt for the health-conscious.
We decided on a one-day-at-the-hotel, one-day-exploring agenda. On hotel days, people in our group either chose to swim down at the pool, that was carved into the rocks below the hotel, jump off the rocks and swim in the crystal-blue Mediterranean that was filled with sea urchins, octopii, anemones, and other under-water life, or simply go down the hill to shop and sightsee in Amalfi.
In the mornings, the staff of our kitchen, (remember, this is also a culinary-arts school,) would print up the menu for the evening meal. It always consisted of six appetizers, six entrees, and four desserts. We were encouraged to try EVERYTHING! (WE NEVER HAD A BAD MEAL!!!)
On our exploring days, we settled on six places to be seen on day trips from our hotel...Positano (we've rented a boat to take us there tomorrow,) Pompeii and Herculaneum, Capri (we've chartered a yacht to go there on Friday!) Sorrento, and Ravello. We've also made reservations for dinner at Don Alfonso's 1890, high up in the mountains at Sant Agata. Why give up even ONE meal at our wonderful dining room? Because Don Alfonso's 1890 is supposed to be the best restaurant in Southern Italy, and possibly in ALL of Italy. (It was!!!)

POSITANO- the unbelievably picturesque playground of the jet set...we arrived in style, in our own private little boat. TO BE CONTINUED...............................................................................

~Nick Back to Top


PARADISE - Part 2

POSITANO: On our half-hour cruise to Positano in our private "water-taxi," we passed huge villages high in the hills, deluxe hotels, lemon groves, and grottos. Coming up to Positano by sea (the best approach,) is one of the most magnificent sights in the world. The multi-colored buildings spill down the mountainside to the marina below. After docking, we climbed the narrow cobble-stoned streets, filled with shops and restaurants. Everything is so picturesque that you can't take a bad picture...just point and shoot. An instant postcard! We went to the Arabian-Nights-like "Le Sirenuse" hotel, for drinks at the pool terrace. For about an hour, we WERE the beautiful people! Back in the '70s, when it first opened, I stayed at the other big hotel in town, "San Pietro." I like this one much better...less glitzy...more elegant. Before boarding our private boat, for our trip back to the Luna, we stopped at a cafe on the marina for some pizza. After all, Campania IS where pizza was born. It was delicious. Back to the hotel for some swimming, and another incredible dinner.

POMPEII and HERCULANEUM: The most famous ruins in the world have only gotten better since the last time that I saw them. After an annoying dispute with a guide who insisted that he was the best way to see the ruins (he wasn't!) we dumped him, and did them all on our own, using our own guidebooks...and brains! In four grueling hours, we saw everything, from the majestic Villa of the Mysteries on the west end of town, to the impressive Amphitheater, all the way over on the east end. With a good imagination, you could picture the horrible scene in 79 AD, when Vesuvius erupted, and buried this Roman "Las Vegas."
Near exhaustion, a few of our brave group went on to see the ruins at Herculaneum, which gave a clearer picture of the everyday life in these two once-magnificent cities of Ancient Rome. I had never been to Herculaneum before, and I found it really enlightening.
This was our most exhausting day...and one of our most rewarding.

AMALFI: On one of our "days at home," some of us took the time to explore the beauties of Amalfi...the beautiful Duomo, perched high above its imposing staircase of 65 steps; the ancient Water Mill, which produced the famous stationery that, along with the maritime compass and its sea trade with the world, made Amalfi famous; Piazza Flavio Gioia, and the other tiny, but charming squares. A beautiful, easily walked-around town

CAPRI: to be continued

PARADISE- PART 3

CAPRI: We boarded our private yacht down below at our own pool area. The boat was 43 feet long, with three "bedrooms," two "bathrooms," a sundeck, and a two-man crew. It was quite comfortable, and we set out for our 1 hour cruise to Capri. Some of our women sunbathed on the front sun-deck, while the rest of us took pictures of ourselves and the scenery. We sailed past the Emerald Grotto near Amalfi, Positano, and other on-shore resort towns. Soon the imposing island of Capri came into view. We sailed around the entire island, past the famous villas, the Blue Grotto, the Arco Naturelle, and then UNDER the gigantic Faraglioni Rocks. After docking at the Marina Grande next to some of the biggest, most beautiful yachts that I've ever seen, we took the funiculare up to Capri itself. We wandered around this unreal place, one of the great capitals of the jet set, and found the recommended La Capannina restaurant. Lunch was fabulous. (Sylvester Stallone had a party there the night before. Uma Thurman and Keanu Reeves are also on the island.) Everyone that we've met everywhere, including the entire staff of our own hotel, treats us as though we're celebrities. I could get used to this. While those who have never been there, took our boat and went over to see the Blue Grotto (they actually got to swim in there,) the rest of us explored Capri...including visits to the majestic Quisisana Hotel (where I stayed 25 years ago,) the Punta Tragano hotel (designed by Le Corbusier, and once home to Churchill and Eisenhower,) and other famous sights. After an incredible drive up to mile-high Anacapri to see some of the villas and hotels, we went down to the Marina, to meet up with the rest of our group, for the sail back to Amalfi. They were raving about their time at the Grotto. On the way back, we passed the mysterious island where dancer Rudolf Nureyev lived. 
Back to the Luna for another fabulous dinner, and then at midnight, one of the most spectacular fireworks displays that any of us has ever seen!

DINNER AT "DON ALFONSO's 1890" to be continued..............................

SANT AGATA- DINNER AT "DON ALFONSO 1890" - In my research, I had read a great deal about "Don Alfonso's 1890 restaurant and inn," and my cousin John (who's in the food business,) recommended it as one of the finest restaurants in all of Italy. So, on those recommendations, we drove up to the tiny hilltop town of Sant Agata, overlooking Sorrento. The 1-hour ride up the winding, cliff-side road was even more scenic than the already spectacular Amalfi Drive. In the middle of this picture-postcard little town, is a pink and white 3-storied villa. It's the Don Alfonso 1890 Restaurant and Inn (part of the prestigious Relaix & Chateaux group.) The rooms and gardens are formal and elegant, with bright white dining rooms hung with impressionistic paintings of the Amalfi Coast. But the reception by everyone, including the owner, his wife, his chef, and the wait-staff, was so warm and friendly, that we thought that they had mistaken us for someone else! The preparation and presentation of the gourmet food, as well as the exceptional service, was of 5-star deluxe quality. When we finished our remarkable dinner, and were about to leave, the owner's wife brought shopping bags of pasta and recipes for the women, and she waited outside on the steps of the garden, waving to us as we drove away. In my opinion, this is the finest restaurant in all of Italy...a truly unique experience. 

SORRENTO- I don't think that we experienced the true sense of this beautiful, legendary city, because we arrived on the hottest day of the summer, in the midst of a traffic jam. (It took us one hour just to drive into the Center from about 10 blocks away!) Once our driver let us off at the Piazza Tasso, we took a long walk around town taking in the sights of the Duomo, the colorful Via S. Cesario, the Palazzo Correale courtyard, the Villa Comunale Gardens (great view of the Bay Of Naples and Vesuvius,) and the Sedile Dominova. What we enjoyed the most however, were our visits to two of Sorrento's most beautiful hotels...the Hotel L'Imperial Tramantano, and the Hotel Bellevue Syrene (with its Villa Pompeiiana restaurant...a perfect replica of a Pompeiian villa.) I had been to Sorrento many years ago, and I have fond memories of a less congested, less oppressively hot city. Don't get me wrong, however. It's still an incredibly beautiful city, worthy of the song "Come Back to Sorrento."

RAVELLO- to be continued................................................................................

RAVELLO- The last town that we visited on our day trips out of Amalfi, was one of the most charming. Perched above Amalfi, about 4 miles away, is the lovely, secluded, tranquil Ravello. In the summer, the town overflows with tourists, who come up to hear the classical music of the Ravello Music Festival. The concerts take place in one of the the town's two majestic villas, the Villa Rufolo and the Villa Cimbrone. Both are famous for their gardens, but the Villa Cimbrone gardens have to be seen to be believed. Fountains, busts of emperors, views of the Mediterranean, and flowers, flowers, and more flowers. On the long way up to the Cimbrone, we stopped in at what appeared to be a simple villa, the Villa Maria. But when my friend Priscilla asked to see one of the rooms, the owner took us on a grand tour of his two beautiful hotels, the Maria and the Eva, and insisted on showing us the gardens and pool, and magnificent dining terrace. It's there that we had another memorable lunch. The food was as good as that at the Luna; the view was breathtaking; and the owner was the perfect host, even bringing us complimentary desserts. We left his restaurant and hotels feeling as though we had left a friend.

"PARADISE" - FINALE

Before saying a final arrivederci to the Amalfi Coast, I'd like to mention just a few random things: 
....the excellent luncheon at Amalfi's DeLuxe hotel, the Santa Caterina, with Connie and John Profaci, Arlene and Joe Gambino, and my dear friend Gisele Bathish. Although this hotel ranks as Amalfi's only 5-star hotel (the Luna is only 4,) I liked our place so much better...much more charming and people friendly,
....Enrico Colavita's dinner for all of us in our terrace dining room overlooking the Mediterranean. I hope that he didn't get stuck with a dinner bill for the 13 of us who paid for FULL room and board (Joe, get on this,) 
....the lemon trees that grow everywhere, even in our lovely cloister-courtyard, with lemons the size of grapefruits, just there for the picking,
....how the people in our three-generational group jelled so beautifully. Everyone in this group of 28 is a STAR, and yet they all played the roles of supporting players to one another. Some of us have known each other for over 50 years, and a few met for the first time, but all got along as though they were the best of friends,
....the look and taste of the fruits and vegetables in Italy, so different than the over-dosed-with- chemical-additives, of their American cousins. It'll take a while before I can eat a tomato or a peach again. 
....the delicious taste of the lemon products of the region, from lemon ice to limoncello to lemon jam,
....the fact that I didn't watch television or read even one page of a novel for two weeks,
....the day that Andrea took us on a tour of the chapels in our own hotel...the beautiful, ornate functioning chapel where weddings are conducted, to the mysterious 12th Century original chapel below it...the chapel that was the heart of this convent, founded by St. Francis of Assisi,
....and finally, one last word about the kindness, helpfulness, and willingness to serve, of EVERYONE on the staff of the Hotel Luna...from the wonderful manager, Sr. Ciccone, to our happy maid. They couldn't do enough for us. (The hotel drivers who drove us everywhere along the treacherous, but magnificent Amalfi Drive, the most beautiful 25-mile stretch of roadway in the world, were especially terrific.) A lesson to be learned for the creeps who work in OUR hotels.
Now, I can say it..."arrivederci Amalfi!"

LAS VEGAS-2006

LAS VEGAS Day #1
First class flights to Europe involve lots of luxuries, like horizontal beds. First class flights to Vegas involve some decent food and drinks, and a few extra inches in the seat and in legroom.
Omar picked me up at 6:45am, and we were checking in at the airport desk a short while later. We had our breakfast in the World Club, and then we boarded our flight. Two hours later, we were in the Detroit airport, where we had some snacks in the luxurious World Club there, and then we boarded our connecting flight to Vegas. We had some fun with the stewardess, who was being harassed by an obnoxious bitch in the first row.
My God, did I fall asleep for an hour? The lunch (a mozzarella wrap, with a delicious salad, and an oatmeal raisin cookie,) was great. Wow, there are the Rockies already; a quick uneventful flight. After a longish wait for our luggage, we picked up our Lincoln Town Car, and drove to the Hilton. The room has everything that you could want in a hotel room, plus a great view. Unpacking was faster than packing, and guess what? No wrinkles. Laid out tonight’s suit, and now I’m heading for a shower. Later………….
Just put on my sand-colored suit, and I’m going down to the lobby to meet Omar. We have dinner reservations at Joel Robuchon at The Mansion at The MGM Grand. (That’s the Michelin 3-star Parisian restaurant La did da!) Let’s see what you’ve got for us Monsieur Robuchon.
This place is magnificent…one of the most beautiful restaurants in the world. It’s all black and white marble, with purple velvet banquettes and Swarowski chandeliers. We were taken through the elegant main dining room “out” to an “outdoor” (indoors!) patio, with a wall of ivy and azaleas, and beautiful statuary. Thank God we knew what to expect here in terms of prices (about $300 per person!) otherwise we might have had a heart attack when we saw the menu. It was worth it for the entire dining experience, but I must say that I’ve had better French food in Boston for 1/3 of the price!!! It was a beautifully presented 7-course dinner, that began with a Grapefruit Sorbet, and proceeded through Crabmeat, Scallops, Turbot, Lamb, Champagne & Peach Parfait, and a Dessert Cart of Miniature Desserts. It had the best freshly baked Breads that I’ve ever seen in a restaurant. Our wine was a sharp Sancerre “Chateau.” As I said, you are paying for the total Robuchon Experience, and it’s wonderful.
After dinner, we went to see “KA,” without a doubt the most spectacular show that I’ve ever seen in a theater, in my life! It’s an Asian-fantasy, with dazzling special effects, death-defying stunts, beautiful original live music, and an engineering marvel of a stage, that is truly the star of the show. As Omar said, “I’ve been to a lot of events with you, and I’ve never seen you so amazed and excited.” I’ll dream about this tonight!
Collapsed into bed after an amazing, eventful day!

LAS VEGAS Day #2
After only four hours of sleep, (hell it IS Las Vegas,) I met Omar downstairs, and we went to breakfast at the hotel’s 24-hour Paradise Café. I had a Banana, Bran Muffin, and Cranberry Juice…my usual hotel breakfast.
OK. Let’s go explore the Spa. The 3rd floor rooftop at the Hilton is devoted to a complete spa, with a gym and a pool the size of Rhode Island. Time for a work-out; see you later.
For lunch, we decided to drive out to the new Red Rock Resort in the hills west of town. This is quite a place. Just as the Ritz Carlton on Lake Mead, is a little bit of Tuscany in Vegas, Red Rock takes its inspiration from the red rocks of the mountains beyond. My friend Marty, who’s in the brick and cement business, would love this place, with its beautiful architecture of bricks, colored cement, and red rocks. Lunch “South-of-the border” - style at Cabo restaurant there. What an excellent Mexican restaurant this turned out to be. With a basket filled with freshly cooked tortilla chips, and four bowls of hot sauces and refried beans, we plunged into our Tacos, Enchiladas, and a Salad with Bleu Cheese Dressing. Everything was so fresh. This is definitely not Taco Bell.
Back to the hotel for a rest, and then it’s out again to head over to Caesars to see the new wing of the Forum Shops there.
Wow! We’re at Caesars now, in the new Forum Shops area, and it’s stunning. All of the top name brands are here in this new wing. Have you ever seen twin spiral escalators? All that marble; all those gigantic statues, and fountains. We went to Ferrara’s, but Adeline’s son Peter wasn’t there, so we just looked around and left.
We then went over to the Venetian to see the early show of “The Phantom of the Opera.” The production (95 minutes long with no intermission,) is every bit as good as it was on Broadway, with more dramatic special effects, and the theater itself in which it’s shown, has been designed by David Rockwell, to look like the Paris Opera House It has two tiers of red and gold boxes filled with mannequins dressed to look like Parisian opera-goers in 19th Century Paris. The effect is spectacular, and that chandelier. Wow!  It’s huge, and it does everything but sing and dance. When it falls, it falls straight down onto the audience below, stopping inches above the heads of the audience, as the theater goes dark!
After the show ended at 8:45pm, we went back to Caesars and up to Restaurant Guy Savoy, in the palatial new Augustus Tower. The restaurant is a larger version of the one in Paris (I ate there decades ago!) OK, let’s go in. When you’re dressed in suits (as we are,) and you have an attitude (as I do,) you’ll be treated with respect, deference, and even awe. This has been happening to us everywhere on this trip. Franck Savoy, Guy’s son, welcomed us back (we’d never been there!) and gave us a choice corner table. Waiters fawned over us, and were overly polite and helpful. Very nice. I ordered Potatoes and Leeks for an appetizer, and Escalope of Wild Salmon with Parsley Jus and Paris Mushroom for an entrée. I’m sorry Keith, I couldn’t resist. (My friend Keith says that I always order salmon when I eat out.) There were several amuse-bouches brought to us, including Fois Gras with Toast, and something called Tomato with Soup Water and Crouton, and a tiny Napoleon. The breads, once again as at Robuchon last night, were varied, and delicious. Our desserts came from the Dessert Trolley, where we had one of everything, (especially a delicious something called Almond Milk Sorbet!) Presentation was impeccable, as was service, and everything was delicious. Our wine was a dizzyingly strong Chateau Latour. My God…I’m stuffed
Back to the hotel by midnight. See you tomorrow. Bon nuit.  

LAS VEGAS Day #3
Reflecting on the weekend so far, it’s been a weekend of nothing but 5-star experiences…restaurants and shows. You might ask, haven’t you found anything that’s NOT good about Vegas? Funny you should ask! In the two years since I’ve been here last, this is what has happened to Las Vegas NEGATIVELY:
It’s overrun with kids! From college kids and teenagers, down to kids in strollers, and babies nursing at their mothers over ample bosoms.
It’s overrun with hordes of Japanese with their damn cameras! Isn’t there anyone home in Tokyo?
It’s overrun with traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian. The sidewalks look like Times Square on New Years Eve, and there’s gridlock on the Strip at all times.
It’s overrun with obese people, some of whom have taped-up legs, and a large brownie in one hand!
It’s overrun with incongruities. Today we saw two plainly-dressed Amish women carrying their babies out of the casino.
After a large breakfast at the Buffet, where we ate much too much food to list everything, we went shopping at the factory outlet shops, and then grabbed a few slices of pizza ( as a respite from our diet of gourmet foods.) Back to the hotel for a nap; a long night ahead of us. The heat is oppressive and it knocks us out.
Heading over to Alizé, the penthouse restaurant at The Palms. Prepared for another great 5-star French dinner. This is another one of those exceptions to the rule that rooms with a view have terrible food (as is The Top-of-the-Hub in Boston.) Once again, the food and service is excellent. My appetizer was an order of Escargots de Bourgogne in Garlic Herb Butter and Fried Parsley (served by a waiter FROM Bourgogne.) My entrée was Roquefort Cheese Risotto with Tiger Prawns and White Truffle Oil. Dessert was Homemade Graham Crackers and Toasted Marshmallow, topped with a Warm Mocha Brownie and served with Chilled Espresso Tiramisu. Our wine was a tasty Viognier. When you go to Vegas, you must go to Alizé for the best view in town…a view of the entire Strip, from one mile away, and 56 stories up! Tonight, we’re going to the late show of “Le Rêve” at the new Wynn Hotel. We’ll head over a bit earlier so as to explore the hotel; I’ve never been there.
The Wynn Hotel is magnificent…classy, tasteful, elegant and beautiful…like Bellagio. Great shops, like Brioni, Chanel, Cartier, Dior, and Jean Paul Gaultier, and a Daniel Boulud restaurant. Next time, we’ll eat there.
“Le Rêve” takes place in a giant, domed, round theater, with huge glassy screens on all sides up above the audience, surrounding an enormous round stage/pool. It’s an aquatic, gymnastic, aerial, ballet, depicting a young person’s dreams. The performers are incredibly strong athletes, who must swim, do gymnastics, fly through the air high above the audience, and be dancers as well. Their bodies are the bodies of body-builders, but they move like ballet dancers. It’s a spectacular, surrealistic, fantasy in dream-like costumes and sets. I loved it!
I collapsed into bed. It was our latest night.

LAS VEGAS Day #4
Got up too early!
Breakfast at the Buffet, then down to the gym to work it off. I’ve gained about 8 pounds, but I had 8 “insurance pounds,” so I should be fine when I get home.
We’re having lunch at country-singer Toby Keith’s “I Love This Bar and Grill.” I’m so health conscious, that a cheese-burger is a luxury item for me, so I ordered the All-American Cheeseburger; it was heaven. We shared an order of Jalapeno Poppers for a starter. No dessert; too damn full!
I have to start packing this afternoon, so I’ll pack everything except what I’m wearing tonight to dinner at one of Vegas’ most famous restaurants, Bradley Ogden at Caesars, and what I’m wearing on the plane tomorrow.
Toby Keith’s place was fun, with great music and excellent food. The perfect All-American place for the 4th of July!
Did my packing this afternoon
Before the “army” of internationally renowned chefs ( Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse, Todd English, Sirio Maccioni, Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, Joel Robuchon, Guy Savoy, Andre Rochat, etc.) came to Vegas, Bradley Ogden was the only big name chef in town. He’s still one of the best among the best! Bradley Ogden at Caesars is old school Las Vegas. It’s a must for lovers of gourmet dining. The décor is simple, but elegant, and the food is superb. After an amuse-bouche of sweet corn dumpling, my appetizer was Maytag Blue Cheese Souffle with Beets, Hickory Nuts and Jicama Port Reduction. My entrée was Herb Gnocchi with Porcini Mushrooms, Poached Egg, Broccolini, and Garlic Foam. Dessert consisted of complimentary Petits Fours. Our wine was a hearty Cabernet Sauvignon.
Now, it’s up to the roof for the fireworks. As far as fireworks go, this display was no big deal . If you’ve seen the fireworks in Boston on the 4th, or DisneyWorld any night, or Amalfi last summer, then you’ve seen the best of what a fireworks display should be. The only thing different about this display, is that it took place all over town…on the Strip, downtown, and as far out as Lake Mead. I got to bed a little earlier than expected. Talk to you tomorrow when we’re at the airport.
 

LAS VEGAS Day #5
We’re at the airport ready to board our flight back to Boston (via Minneapolis…don’t ask!) For those of you at the gym, I’ll see you tomorrow at lunch-time. It’s been a truly memorable trip, filled with great dining experiences, and only-in-Vegas spectacular shows. There’s no place like Las Vegas, anywhere on this Earth, so if you haven’t been here yet, it’s time to plan a trip. I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading this daily journal. Later.
~Nick Back to Top


TRAVEL: OGUNQUIT, MAINE- THE DINING ROOM OF THE "CLIFF HOUSE"
Joining the ranks of my three favorite international cliff-top resorts...El Mirador in Acapulco, Mexico; The Luna Convento in Amalfi, Italy; and Gurney's/Panoramic in Montauk, Long Island, U.S.A....is the Cliff House in Ogunquit, Maine. What these four resorts have in common, along with the great memories that I have of my time spent in each of them, is their vistas of the sea or ocean below, and the magnificent cuisine served in their dining rooms. Ogunquit, Maine is the type of charming, picturesque New England resort town, that the Disney architects have tried to emulate in their Bay hotels at DisneyWorld...The Boardwalk and The Beach and Yacht Club resorts. Perkins Cove in Ogunquit,  is an artist's dream...a series of small shops, art galleries, and restaurants on a rock-outcropping in the Atlantic Ocean, and The Marginal Way is a one-mile cliff walk with ocean vistas that rival the cliff walks of Newport, Greece, Cinque Terre, and the Riviera. Seriously! The Marginal Way meanders by tangled bayberry and bittersweet bushes, gnarled shrubs of fragrant pink and white sea roses, shaded alcoves formed by wind-twisted trees jutting out onto high granite outcroppings, and humbling views of the Atlantic far below. But, we came to the Cliff House for the dining, so let's get to that. The Dining Room of the Cliff House is a large room, with beautiful pastel-colored, beach-resort decor that subtly takes a back seat to the huge two-story-high picture windows overlooking the rocks and the Atlantic Ocean below. I know, I know...the food. From an extensive menu of international gourmet choices, emphasizing the seafood of Maine, I chose the following: for my appetizer I had Smoked Salmon on Grilled Flatbread with Greens, Pickled Onions, and Caper Cream Cheese. So delicious and filling that it could have been an entree. My entree was the Maine Haddock Florentine with Seafood Stuffing, Wilted Baby Spinach, Roasted Maine Potato, Mushroom Fricassee, and Chardonnay Butter Sauce. It came with a huge Mixed Green Salad, with Gorgonzola, Almonds, Cranberries and a Balsamic Dressing. Instead of dessert, we chose the Maine Artisan Cheese Selection...Hand-crafted Farm Cheeses, with Jam, Roasted Almonds, Grapes, and Balsamic Reduction. Our wine was a light, dry Pinot Grigio from Trentino. An incredible dining experience in a magically beautiful setting.
(5-Stars) Back to Top

THE VEGAS TRIP - TO SEE BETTE MIDLER'S OPENING AT CEASARS

Day One, Saturday, February 23, 2008
It would have appeared that “the gods” were looking favorably on us today. My friend, Omar, and I left the snow-covered streets outside my apartment at 3:30am, drove to the airport easily, checked in on time, and our Jet Blue flight pulled away from the gate only a few minutes late. After taxiing around the icy runways for awhile, we stopped and waited. Then, we were told that we were having mechanical difficulties, and had to return to the gate. Two hours later, we finally took off, had a quick flight to New York, where we connected with our Jet Blue flight to Vegas, which also left on time. This was amazing, considering that we had just had one of the worst snowstorms of the season in Boston and New York the day before. The flight to Vegas was uneventful and a relatively quick five hours. Then, as we were waiting for our bags to arrive, things turned sour for me. We arrived, but my bag didn’t! At Jet Blue’s office in the airport, we were assured that the bag would be found, and it would be at my hotel tonight, or early tomorrow. We were also told that if the bag wasn’t found, I would be reimbursed for the sum of $25! Jet Blue may be a fun airline to fly, with their TV sets and wide seats, but it would seem that they’re unbelievably cheap when it comes to reimbursing their customers! So, off we went, with the frightening thought that I had no clothes to wear! Luckily, tonight’s restaurant is an extremely casual place. This restaurant, one of the oldest in Vegas, is the “Bootlegger’s Bistro,” which was founded in 1949, long before Elvis Presley and The Rat Pack made Vegas famous. Since I’ve never eaten there before, we thought that we’d see what Vegas dining was like before the gourmet cooks and their internationally renowned restaurants came to The Strip. The place is old-school in its décor and menu selections. It’s an Italian restaurant, and all of the usual items were in place (although I did expect to see some dishes like Mozzarella in Carrozza and Spedini alla Romana on the menu. They weren’t) We both ordered Escargots in Mushroom Caps as our appetizers. They were OK, nothing more. They needed a heavier hand on the spices. We were still waiting for the bread to arrive (it never did,) when our entrees arrived. I had Fettuccini with Meatballs, in a Marinara Sauce (I felt like pasta and meatballs!) I had asked for pappardelle or tagliatelle, but they didn’t have any! The meatballs were tasteless. No, actually, they tasted like clay. For dessert, we had Bisque Tortoni. It was delicious, but it was surrounded by tons of whipped cream; totally unnecessary. Our wine was an excellent California Pinot Noir. All in all, I’d give it no more than 2-Stars. So back to the Flamingo we went, a little tipsy from the wine, and still my luggage hadn’t arrived. Keep your fingers crossed that it comes in tomorrow. Stay tuned.



Day Two, Sunday, February 24, 2008
What a difference a day makes! My luggage was delivered to my hotel room just after I wrote yesterday’s review. I never felt so happy to unpack, and hang my unwrinkled suits in my closet. Then we went off for a huge breakfast buffet at The Garden Buffet Terrace, overlooking the 15 acre tropical gardens and lagoon pools of this beautiful hotel. The gardens are filled with flamingoes and other tropical birds…all amid the lush foliage of a tropical island. After this, we took a drive around town to see what’s new in the way of buildings. It seems that every hotel has added a new tower (e.g., the Wynn’s “Encore,” the Palms “Palms Place,” and the Venetian’s “Palazzo,”) but the highlight on the Strip is the new massive “MGM City-Center,” between the Bellagio and the Monte Carlo. It consists of five beautiful glass towers; one hotel and four time-sharing condos.  Omar has bought his second-home vacation condo in the Vdara Tower here. In the afternoon, we sat by one of the pools and relaxed. I actually fell asleep and napped there for four hours. Me, napping!!! Then, it was time to get dressed for dinner. We had reservations at the second of Vegas old school restaurants…Rosemary’s. I hope that we have better luck than last night. The restaurant on Sahara, has a plain glass front, and it’s in a strip mall, half an hour’s drive from our hotel. It didn’t look promising, Inside, however, everything changed. The décor was lovely, with modern artwork covering its stucco walls. Our waiter gave us our menu, and he was thoroughly professional, and knowledgeable in explaining the unusual menu choices. After we ordered, we were immediately presented with an amuse-bouche from the chef…Asparagus Bread Pudding with Onion Marmalade, and Roasted Onions. Our appetizer was Twice Baked Parmesan Souffle, with Hedgehog Mushrooms and a Garlic Cream Sauce. Our entrée was Pan Roasted Sea Scallops with Parsnip Potato Puree, Apple Cider Beurre Blanc, and Crispy Fried Parsnip Strips. Our dessert was Chocolate Bread Pudding with Chocolate Espresso Sauce and Vanilla Bean Ice Cream and Chocolate Shavings. Our wine was a surprisingly mild Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. We had complimentary Petits Fours after dessert. Everything was absolutely delicious…beautifully prepared by a fine chef in an open kitchen, and presented by one of the best waiters that we’ve had in a long time. This is a 5-Star find. Seek it out when you come to Vegas. It’s easily worth the drive here. We loved it!


Day Three, Monday, February 25, 2008
After breakfast at the “Tropical Breeze Café,” we took a nice long walk over to The Palazzo, the new tower at The Venetian. It’s big and spectacular in a faux Italian kind of way…Venice on steroids, if you will…but it is beautiful. The main attractions there are the new gourmet-chefs restaurants…one from Mario Batali and Joe Bastiannich; one from Jean Morels; and one from Emeril Lagasse. All of them are steakhouses! The country seems to have gone “steakhouse crazy.” Why not just one great steakhouse in each major city? After all, how many things can (or should) a famous chef do to a steak? Then again, I like steak about as much as I like dim sum! Lunch back at the hotel, and then we took a drive out to see some of Omar’s favorite bargain shops…the Filene’s Basements of Vegas. We did some shopping there, and then went back to the hotel to lounge by one of the pools. Our dinner was at the original Andre’s restaurant. Chef Andre Rochat has three restaurants in Vegas…one at the Monte Carlo, “Alize” at the Palms, and this, the original one. Chef Andre was born in the Savoie area of France, and when he came to America, he opened this restaurant in 1980, in Las Vegas. Unfortunately it’s in a terrible neighborhood, similar to Harlem in New York, or Roxbury in Boston. Outside, “Andre’s” looks like a Spanish hacienda, but inside, it looks like a beautiful rustic inn, in the Alpine area of France, with wooden wainscoting, stucco walls, beamed ceilings, colorful print curtains, and enough rustic antiques to fill two shops on Newbury Street! Our dinner began with an amuse-bouche from the chef, of Coquille St. Jacques. My appetizer was Esgargots de Bourgogne in Garlic Butter and Herbs. The chef sent us some Sorbet to cleanse the palette, then my entrée was Imported Dover Sole Veronique, with Grapes, Fingerling Potatoes and Seasonal Vegetables. Dessert was Heated Chocolate Flourless Cake, covered with Chocolate Sauce and Vanilla Ice Cream. Our wine was a Cote du Provence. Complimentary Petits Fours followed dessert, along with a cordial of French aged Grapes in Cognac. Everything was just about perfect, from the traditional waiters-service (dishes brought under silver lids, and raised in unison, etc.,) to the excellent preparation and presentation of the perfectly-cooked food. I recommend this 5-Star restaurant, even if it means a 15-minute drive up to a “neighborhood in transition.” At the end of the meal, the Chef de Cuisine, Greg Engelhardt, met us in the lobby, and spent 10 minutes raving about his boss and mentor, Executive Chef Andre Rochat. Not a word about his own incredible culinary skills. Now, that’s class.


Day Four, Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Started the morning with my usual pre-breakfast-stroll through the gardens, to say “good morning” to the flamingoes, the ducks, the guinea fowls, the ibis and cranes, and the amazing two-foot-long koi floating regally through the ponds and lagoons. All of these birds and fish in a beautiful tropical setting remind me more of DisneyWorld than Vegas. That’s a compliment. These are the only early-morning creatures here, who aren’t drunk on booze or money! After breakfast, we crossed the street to Caesars and the Bellagio to take a long walk around their lobbies, to see what was new. Everything looked freshly-painted and elegant and classy in both places, which was a welcome change since the last time that I was at Caesars, when I remember seeing a lot of white trash, and a mother in hair-curlers, pushing a stroller around the casino! Then we made a big mistake. We decided to drive down to Laughlin, the “mini-Vegas” on the California-Nevada-Arizona border. After an endless, unbearably boring 1 ½ hour drive through the desert, where we saw nothing but road, sand, and mountains, we arrived at Laughlin. What’s there? Nothing but eight small second-rate hotels on a stream called the Colorado River! We had tuna sandwiches at the Coronado Belle, a riverboat hotel-casino, and then beat a hasty retreat from this shit-hole. We can always say that we drove 100 miles for a tuna sandwich! Came home, relaxed for a bit, and then prepared for dinner at “Mix,” Alain Ducasse’s highly-publicized restaurant at the utlra-posh non-gaming tower at Mandalay Bay, called “THE hotel.” We took the elevator to the 65th floor, where we were greeted at the maitre-d’s desk, by three interchangeable, young women. We were told that we were too early for our reservations, so we were ushered into the lounge area, where we had drinks, served by a big-breasted Asian, who would have been more at home at a strip-joint! A pattern was emerging. At our reservation time, we went back to the reservation desk, where I asked a few questions about the restaurant and its décor. “The sorority girl trio” had no answers, except “I don’t know.” The restaurant itself is a big glass block on the roof of THE hotel, with nothing but a huge glass canopy-curtain, made up of hand-blown glass bubbles hanging from the ceiling, as its only décor. “The girls” didn’t know if it was a Dale Chahulliy. Our waiter seemed to be the only competent member of the wait-staff that we met so far. His second job seemed to be rectifying the mistakes made by all of the attractive-but-dumb women, who were the first restaurant employees to greet the customers. Alain Ducasse, who usually prides himself on operating a first-class dining establishment, is being ill-served by a policy that appears to hire sluts, who would be more at home at Hooters! Now, don’t get me wrong, I grew up in the age of Playboy Clubs, and I often enjoyed eating at these clubs, where I was served “boobs with burgers.” But not at an Alain Ducasse restaurant. Now about the food, which was excellent, I had Tender Potato Gnocchi, with Wild Mushrooms as my appetizer. My entrée was King Salmon with Porcini and Potato Fricasse. Our dessert was Traditional “French Toast,” with Peanut Ice Cream and Chocolate Sauce. This place could have been a 5-Star restaurant, but because of the incompetence of the women who work there, I’m giving it 3-Stars.


Day Five, Wednesday, February 27, 2008
After my usual morning stroll through the grounds, to check out “my birds,” and breakfast in the Tropical Breeze Café, we took a walk over to visit our neighboring hotels. The newest of the hotels is the Planet Hollywood, which used to be The Aladdin. Where the Aladdin was an Arabian Nights fantasy, Planet Hollywood is a hodge-podge of styles, none of which makes much sense. There’s still some Arabian nights décor in the shops and streets, but mostly, it has a generic, minimalist, contemporary look. Then we headed over to The Paris, where I was surprised to see that the “Mon Ami Gaby” and the “Ah Sin” French bistros there, were now a steakhouse and a sushi place respectively. Is there nothing sacred? We walked back through the Bally’s gardens. It’s so nice to see colorful flowers blooming in February. Then, we took a drive south of The Strip to see the new South Point Hotel. It’s a huge beautiful place, about 5 miles south of the Mandalay Bay, formerly the southernmost major hotel on the Strip. The South Point is so large, that it has its own movie theaters, bowling alleys, and even an equestrienne center. Quite a place, and because it’s so far from everything, it’s very reasonable…almost cheap. We relaxed at the pool for the rest of the afternoon, and then it was time for dinner and the show. We walked across the street to Caesars for our dinner at Rao’s. On the outside, Rao’s looks like the original restaurant in Harlem, but on the inside, it’s about five times larger. The center room, where we ate, is an exact replica of the original restaurant in New York. In case you’re unfamiliar with Rao’s in New York, it’s the restaurant that’s impossible to get into, unless you’re “someone big,” or unless you know someone. I “knew someone” so I’ve eaten there, and now it was time to compare the food at both. The menu is virtually the same. On our table were the following: Mozzarella in Carrozza, Pasta e Fagioli, Uncle Vincent’s Lemon Breast of Chicken, Rao’s famous Meatballs, Cannoli alla Siciliana, and Coconut Sorbetto. We both shared all of these. Everything was delicious...as good as they are in the original place. It’s a great 5-Star addition to Caesars. Then, we walked across the lobby to the huge Colosseum, the 4000 seat plush theater at Caesar’s…formerly occupied by Celine Dion for 5 years, and now occupied by Bette Midler. We were lucky enough to be sitting in a very comfortable Mezzanine Box. The show is called “The Showgirl Must Go On,” and if you’re a Bette Midler fan, you’ll love every minute of its 90-intermissionless-minutes. As Bette Midler says in one of her monologues, there are no French Canadian acrobats in this show, just “glitz, hits and tits!” Surrounded by a chorus line (“Caesars Salad Girls,”) and The Harlettes, she goes through her entire repertoire, and then some. The scenery is mostly projected on the largest LED screen in Vegas, and her orchestra and some flying sets fill the ½-acre stage. Miss Midler is one of the few entertainers who can make you howl with laughter one minute, and then move you to tears in the next. Although she’s lost some of her high notes, she can still sell a song better than anyone half her age. She will alternate with Elton John, and Cher, who’ll fill in when she’s on her well-earned vacations. But until then, if you’re in Vegas, this is the must-see-show to see…and it is a show not a concert...a 5-Star performance by one of the great divas of all time...The Divine Miss M.


Day Six, Thursday, February 28, 2008
This is our last day in Vegas, so I decided to write my daily log now, rather than tomorrow, when I’ll probably be a zombie. After breakfast this morning, we drove out to Montelago on Lake Las Vegas, to have lunch at the Ritz Carlton. Montelago is a beautiful hilly community of magnificent homes (this is where many celebrities live,) hotels, casinos, and golf clubs…all done in the style of Tuscan villas. The architecture, the colors, and the hilly setting on the water, seem a world away from the glitz of the Strip. In fact, portions of the Ritz Carlton are built as a replica of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, spanning, not the Arno, but rather a portion of Lake Las Vegas. We had lunch at the Café Tenuta, where we ate on my last visit to Vegas. It’s still as good as it was then. When we returned to our hotel we checked out of my room, and moved into Omar’s because we’re leaving for the airport right after dinner tonight, (probably at the hotel, or next door at Margaritaville!) We have a red-eye flight to Boston at 10:40pm tonight. Me, on a red-eye flight, can you believe that? It’ll be my first red-eye, so if you see me at the gym tomorrow, I’ll probably be wearing sun glasses, and bumping into walls! If I fall off my Stairmaster, just slap me, pick me up, and put me back up on it again!!! Well, I guess that I’ll sign off now. It was a great trip, and I enjoyed every minute of it. We really didn’t do anything crazy, because you know the old saying, “What happens in Vegas, ends up on YouTube!


TRAVEL: (A DAY at the MGM GRAND at FOXWOODS)
RESTAURANT REVIEW: "ALTA STRADA" at the new MGM GRAND at FOXWOODS

I'm a strange guy who loves to go to Casino/Hotels to dine, not to gamble! Whenever a famous chef opens a new place in Vegas, or Mohegan Sun, or Foxwoods, I love to go over and check it out. One of Boston's best chefs ("Radius," "Via Matta," and "Great Bay,") Brooklyn born Michael Schlow has opened a new Italian restaurant at the towering new MGM Grand at Foxwoods. So, of course we went to check out both the new hotel and the restaurant. The hotel is indeed "grand," with all of the usual amenities...Spa, Pool, Shops, Casino, and Restaurants. There's even a "Junior's" of Brooklyn there. Yes, we had a slice of their world-famous cheesecake as a mid-afternoon snack. Yum, yum! The restaurant, "Alta Strada" returns chef Schlow to his favorite style of cooking, Italian, which he perfected in such New York restaurants as "Le Madri," "Sapporo del Mare" and other New York restaurants owned by his mentor, chef Pino Luongo. The menu at "Alta Strada" has some items that bring back memories of these other places. From the appetizer list we chose Five Small Platters of Antipasti to Share: Eggplant Caponata, Chilled Shrimp Fra Diavolo, Homemade Ricotta with Sage, Roasted Olives with Rosemary and Orange, and Sicilian Tuna with Olives. All were delicious, especially the Tuna. Our entree was Grilled Wild King Salmon with Roasted Baby Beets, Spinach, and Salsa Verde. We had Sorbetti (Lemon, Thai Basil, and Raspberry) for dessert. Our wine was  a Maso Canali Pinot Grigio...a champagne-like, fruity white. I have to say a word about the service which consisted of young servers who, in spite of their age, were self-assured, knowledgeable, and attractive. Now, that's unusual. The decor of this large restaurant was contemporary Italian, and very expensive-looking... burgundy, beiges and whites, with lots of brass and wood trim, and attractive, comfortable banquettes. "Alta Strada" gives you a reason to drive to Foxwoods, even if you're not a gambler and you're not seeing Jerry Seinfeld (who was starring there tonight!)
(5-Stars) Back to Top 




 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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