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Troy Hightower
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Sunday
Mar222009

The Birds of Las Mananitas

There’s a pink flamingo at my door!

The plastered stone halls echoed with a curious gentle double-honk that sounds a bit like Harpo Marx. I peeked out the door to our room to see a 3 foot high pink flamingo delicately treading up the shallow stone steps, cock his head and fix me with a baleful unblinking eye, and then edge toward the half–open door, clearly seeking entry. Not knowing the etiquette of allowing large avians in the rooms at 5 star Relais & Chateau resorts, I gently denied him entry by slowly closing the door, and he soon honk-honked off down the hall, out to the entrance and back into his garden domain.

Las Mananitas is a lovely and tranquil resort set in an old mansion in Cuernavaca, Mexico, nestled under the ring of the Sierra de Morelos Mountains an hour south of Mexico City. The hotel/restaurant is renowned for its cuisine, its gardens, and as a home to many exotic birds since shortly after it’s opening in the late 1950’s. Las Mananitas’ signature is its African crested cranes, of which there are currently two and a half pair. Gorgeous, stately birds, they have dark charcoal bodies, stark black and white patterned wings, white cheeks with a rouge patch, and fine golden crests. Two spend most of their time at the pond at the very bottom of the pool garden, along with the single resident flamingo, who indolently wanders the gardens (and, apparently, sometimes the hallways), stretching and dipping his 2 foot neck, shaking his hooked-beak head, and occasionally spreading his broad, black-tipped pink wings.

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Saturday
Aug232008

Two Great Days in Buenos Aires

For years we’ve written “3 days in ____” accounts of our travels in places ranging from Paris to Istanbul to Mexico City—well before United’s inflight magazine Hemispheres started their ‘3 perfect days in ----“ series (and, pilfered the title). Three days is always cramming a lot in, so when we had just two days in Buenos Aires, on the way to Patagonia and far southern Chile, the challenge seemed even larger. But we felt up to it.

A cardinal rule for us is—short stay, great hotel. The Four Seasons BA overlooks the edge of the city and the sea to the rear, a jewel of a private garden and their Mansion extension, a (pink baroque, wedding-cake architectural confection). We were whisked directly to our room for a very early in-room check in, after 19 hours of traveling, once again pointing up the impeccable service in Four Seasons properties.

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Friday
Apr182008

Guatemalan haggling at Chichicastenango Mercado

A two-hour ride roughly north from Lake Atitlan, the town of Chichicastenango sits in a river valley surrounded by mountain peaks oft wreathed in mists and clouds, which it certainly is the Thursday morning we awake for the town-filling weekly market. It had been partly cloudy when we arrived the previous afternoon, and the overcast turned to a noisy thunderstorm and downpour the night before. About 4 blocks square, Chichi, as it’s known locally, is a blend of multi-hued whitewashed walls, rumpled red tiled roofs and cobbled streets. The main plaza—ground zero for the market—contains two churches, a museum and small, slightly decrepit park. Chichicastenango's best known artifact is the manuscript of the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Maya-Quiché. The manuscript, written by an unknown Maya author in the 16th century, was discovered by Father Francisco Ximénez when he served as priest in Chichicastenango in 1701 and contains the legends and history of the Maya-Quiché people who inhabit the area around Chichicastenango.

Certainly Chichi’s biggest draw is the twice-weekly market, which is said to be the largest in Central America. Sellers arrive noon Wednesday (and Saturday, for the Sunday market) and commence to erect pole and twine armatures—roofed in plastic against the frequent rain—on which to display their wares: carved and painted masks, woven and embroidered textiles, worked leather goods, clothing of all types, as well as all sorts of household goods, antiques, fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, meats and poultry. By Thursday morning the market spills two blocks or more deep off the plaza, eclipsing and engulfing the town’s shops, restaurants and streets. Busloads of villagers from miles around begin to arrive early, and by 9 am the market is lively and chaotic. The streets are filled with village women in their various colorful skirt and huipile combinations, gnarled and wizened old fellows in scuffed boots and battered straw hats, toddlers and kids of all sizes and ages, and punkish teenagers in baggy trousers and t-shirts with reversed baseball caps. Walking around as an average-height westerner is like being a Norse giant in normal crowds, as we tower over the altitude–challenged locals. Tourists, a few of which like us come in the night before, intersperse with the native crowd, but do not overpower the market—there is very much a feeling of locals buying and selling to locals for daily needs. It is a vibrant and authentic scene.

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Wednesday
Oct172007

Iconic London Dining

Le Caprice

Le Caprice Restaurant is in my opinion the best place in London, and one of the best in the world, to dine at the bar--alone, if you are, or with someone special. It's an intimate two-person venue--not suited to more, as the linear seating makes conversation somewhat awkward. It is, however, very usual to strike up a conversation with someone on either side of the two of you, and it might be anything from a barrister out of a tough courtroom, to a (perhaps) Italian count, or a fellow countryman.

Around the corner from The Ritz and at the end of an elegant cul de sac, the restaurant is an understated symphony in black and white--floor tiles, wall photos, seating. The bowler-hatted doorman whisks you out of your cab, momentarily through the frigid air and into the warm, welcoming bar, where a pianist at the side plays jazz and standards to add a note of elegance. The room buzzes with glamorous decked-out women and well-dressed men (for the most part). A tie is not required, but even in my modern casual mode, I'd never go without a black sports coat.

The food at Caprice is perfectly suited to sharing, one course at a time, along with samplings of wine. On a recent visit we started with the Dressed Dorset crab with celeriac Rémoulade--a menu icon, impecably fresh and tasting of the sea. Next we shared sauted field mushrooms topped with a poached egg and crispy cured ham--deep and earthy. Wood pidgeon on toast was rich and gamey as a seasonal special. Another Caprice icon is the Steak Tartare--perfectly spiced knife-cut steak which still retains its beefiness below the spices. For something sweet we couldn't resist the honeycomb ice cream with warm chocolate sauce--a perfect ending. While we rarely take them, main courses include seasonal duck, roast pork belly, traditional calves liver with bacon and onions, and whatever fish the market brings. If you want the ultimately in simplicity, you can order the battered haddock and chips, or eggs Benedict with hash browns.

Whatever your taste buds feel like, you'll likely be able to compose a menu to suit, and you'll be made to feel like a regular by the friendly and attentive staff. And if you're one, or two--do dine at the bar.

Caprice WILL take advance reservations for seats at the bar, and they're recommended, due to its popularity. Dinner with wine around $100 per person.

Le Caprice, Arlington Street, London SW1
Tel (02076292239)
http://www.le-caprice.co.uk/

 

Greens Restaurant & Oyster Bar

Another London classic for us, worthy of a visit every trip, is Greens in St James. We always order the same things (save perhaps dessert). The freshest channel oysters for one, quails egg's with mayonnaise for the other--accompanied by glasses of Champagne--perhaps the Widow, perhaps Le Mesnil, perhaps Billecart-Salmon Rose. Then grilled Dover sole, on the bone, with beurre blanc, and whatever vegetables and potatoes are seasonal accompanied by a bottle of white burgundy--nothing over the top, but perhaps a Saint-Véran Domaine de la Croix Senaillet or Rully Blanc Domaine Dureuil-Janthial. An ethereal combination--no better fish in the world and one of the best settings in which to have it.


Green's Restaurant & Oyster Bar
36 Duke Street St. James's
London SW1Y 6DF

Tel: 020 7930 4566
http://www.greens.org.uk

Wednesday
Sep272006

Gourmet Salt Spring Island

A SALTY ISLAND BIRTHDAY

We are standing in golden, waving knee-high grain-stalks at the top of a swath of meadow-grasses and wildflowers, transfixed by a giant. Under the brow of Mount Maxwell, the highest point on Salt Spring Island, tucked in the lee of Vancouver Island off the west coast of Canada, Michael Ableman—a colossus of the sustainable organic agriculture movement—describes the transformation he plans to bring to the 26 acre meadow before us: how it will become a patchwork of organic produce plots—table grapes at the top, several parcels of alternative grains, like amaranth, kamut and millet in the middle, and rotating plots of seasonal vegetables down the gentle slope. A youngish and fit 53, Ableman, an author and photographer as well as visionary organic farmer, engages his listeners with dark eyes set in deep in sun crinkles and is mesmerizing with both his travel and farming tales, and his heart-felt passion for changing and improving the world’s farming practices. One of our troupe of hikers is Mary Risley, who is, as you will see, the instigator of this whole expedition. Roughly a dozen years ago, Ableman met Risley, the founder of Tante Marie’s cooking school in San Francisco, when she contacted him to be the keynote speaker at a culinary conference in the bay area, and they have been friends and admirers of each other’s work ever since.

In addition to owning and running one of the most successful cooking schools in the country and authoring the “Tante Marie’s” cook book, Mary Risley was the winner of the James Beard Foundation “Humanitarian of the Year” award in 1999 for her work in feeding the hungry through the non-profit Food Runners, which she founded in 1987. An old and dear friend of ours, she is a wonderful and crazy person, with a large group of friends and contacts in the food world across the nation. Every five years, she throws a party in honor of her birthday at some exotic or interesting place in the world, and invites dozens of her friends and foodies nationwide for several days of exploring, foraging, cooking and camaraderie—and, on this occasion, an up-close exploration of sustainable organic farming. In addition to chefs, food professionals and culinary lights, the group includes friends from all walks of life—pediatrician, lawyer, accountant, printer, writer, teacher, hairdresser and several retired executives and business people. All are talented cooks, interested in food, and bound by their friendship and love for Mary.

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Monday
Sep042006

Private Ruins

The ancient Grecian ruins at Ephesus and Pergama in Turkey are fabulous, but are marred, in our view, by the hoards of bus-tourists which populate them like thousands of ants. There are literally thousands of ruins, all over Turkey, and on our private gullet cruise off the Turkish coast we luckily discover a private one all our own: As the sun begins to descend and the day’s heat abates, we hike up the hillside above our mooring cove for the night, intersect a stoney trail, and after a steep 40 minute climb come upon a ruin-covered knoll with a long mountain meadow behind, and pine forests climbing beyond.

Unnamed, unrestored, it is one of the estimated 20,000 ancient sites in Turkey—our private ruin. It’s a spectacular place—wide vista down to the sea, back across the meadow through a forested saddle to the distant crags. There are several partial structures, the highest a square structure, almost a cube. Two arched-top walls remain, with enough of the stone vaulting between arches to show its dome—Hellenistic ashlar stone construction. Fragments of friezes & pediments are scattered about, egg & dart and acanthus leaf decorated. One fragment is chisled with a greek inscription, commemorating what?—untranslatable by us.

Atonal bells clack and knock in the still evening air as small goats move up the hillside. There are low stone shepherd’s huts in the meadow. The dropping evening sun washes the ruins and knoll-top in a warm, rosy light. As its orange orb touches the western ridge, we descend the trail—hot work, the two hour round trip, and a swim back to the boat in the cool blue water is pure tonic.

As the light fades and water darkens, small fish begin to feed, slurping and plopping in the dusk. Doves call in the pines, their cries echoing back and forth across the cove. A lone cicada onshore twitches his rear legs in persistent rythmic drone. The low swoosh of tiny waves on the smooth gravel shore adds a lulling white-noise background, as we sip welcome pre-dinner cocktails on the boat's rear deck.

Friday
Jun162006

A Vancouver Island Getaway

Imagine this: a ‘v’ shaped slip of gun-metal blue water, backed by a tapering spit of land fletched in feathery green firs and cedars, with a little jagged rocky shoreline, farther behind that in the mists the craggy snow-capped peaks of Hurricane Ridge on the Olympic Peninsula across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Between you and this view is a grassy stretch sloping to underbrush of wild rose, mahonia and big-leaf maple which tumbles to the beach, framed on either side by towering shaggy-trunked yellow cedars, and Sitka spruce with bark like the top of a Dutch-crunch bun. An old ship lists on a sandbar mid-channel, small fishing boats float by silently in the distance throwing a long white wake, Canadian geese honk as they bring their vee formation in to land and paddle into the wide shale beach below.

A nicely renovated 30’s cottage provides the amenities to enjoy this view—well designed open kitchen, small stone wood-burning fireplace, deck with hot tub and gas grill, all comfortably furnished. Read a book—look up at the view. Play chess—look up at the view. Catch up on the local newspaper—look up at the view. Check your email (if you must—there’s wireless high-speed)—look up at the view. Or just get lost in that mesmerizing vista. Walk down the 30 or so rickety steps through the undergrowth to the shore, and walk the gravel-shell beach and commune with the geese. (Beware the tides here—they vary 12 feet, and are fast).

The town of Sooke Harbor has two nice markets to provide meat, and Joe’s Crab Shack fish for that grill, or if you want to eat out, a good burger place, the Fish Shack with crackling halibut and chips, haute cuisine at the Sooke Harbor Hotel, and a lovely Viennese bakery for breakfast—on Saturday mornings, there is a fabulous fruit-filled raisin bread, by reservation only. E-Fish-Ent Fish Company across the Sooke River Bridge provides smoked wild salmon. Take a drive up Vancouver Island and inland. Walk on the beach, or out Wiffen spit into Sooke Basin. Rent a kayak to explore the Sooke River or a boat to tool around the basin. Or just sit and look at that view.

Perfect for a 3-4 day getaway, Victoria, Vancouver Island, BC is an hour and 45 minute flight from SFO, and Sooke Harbor is a 45-minute drive from the airport (or an hour on wonderfully scenic back roads). Justly famed Butchart Gardens is on the way to or from, and should not be missed. Harbor Hideaway Cottage sits above the shore’s edge of Sooke Basin at Sooke Harbor—private, quiet, serene—with view.

Wednesday
May312006

Lovely Lake Lunch

The mists are hanging in shreds around the steep sides of Lake Como as we arrive at the Villa Serbollini dock for our appointment to boat out to the Isola Comacina for lunch at the iconic Locanda dell’Isola, but there’s no sign of a boat. A young boy is arduously attaching an outboard to a 12 foot Avon raft, and I experience a moment of trepidation that it might be our transport. A word to the concierge, and a resulting frantic scramble, however, turns up Alessandro with an ancient 25 foot wooden caique, with a little covered cupola cabin in the center. The view of Bellagio from the water is lovely. We motor down the coast, past the Villa Melzi, and others of various size, age and elegance.

Perched on a sheer promontory of land above the lake, sheltering the Isola is the Villa Balbianello, a stunning villa now owned by the Italian National Trust. Various buildings of terra-cotta stucco and stone, with a prominent loggia and a twin bell towered chapel, surrounded by manicured hillside gardens form a spectacular setting.

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