Troy Hightower


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.


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.


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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Ousteau de Baumanier 

Tucked into a cliff-hollow below the village of Les Baux is the Relais & Chateau hotel restaurant Ousteau de Baumanier. We had last dined there perhaps 15 years ago. Six of us sat in the welcome shade (on a 95+ day) of the ancient spreading plane trees and umbrellas on the restaurant terrace, overlooking the stunning Alpilles rock formations. Champagne cocktail maison comes with ameuse bouche and menus, and we proceeded to meander through a three-plus hour feast.

A trio of tiny cups of mushroom soup, seafood ceviche and mousse de foie opened the meal. Terrine de foie de canard maison, ravioli with black truffles & cream, and a “salad” of caramelized leeks, eggplant & artichauts with chard were all delicious entrée’s, accompanied by the epitome of rose—Domaine Tempier.

The winelist, as with all starred restaurants, is outrageously expensive, but gave up some “value gems” to study. A Macon De la Forge was substantial, minerally, fruity and balanced. The Aloxe Corton from Tollot Beaut (one of our favorite Burgundy houses) was a € 85 standout bottle swimming in a sea of €150-200 fish. Perfumed, still with body, and delicious!

Crispy, pan-roasted sweetbreads in a reduction sauce delighted the three ladies. Croustillant de Pied de Porc with foie gras (boned pig’s feet meat formed into disks) enticed a fourth of our party (known for eating “parts”) and two of us shared one of the house specialties—Gigot d’ agneau lait en crout—an entire, tiny boned leg of suckling lamb, roasted in a lacey pastry crust just to pink and served with both a jus and a mustard cream sauce—absolutely sublime!

The cheese charriot here is superb, but we couldn’t possibly do it, and succumbed to share just two desserts—crepes soufflé with crème anglaise, and a warm soufflé fruits rouge—raspberries, blackberries and frais du bois—tiny wild strawberries. A truly memorable luncheon, and, as Michelin says “worth a detour”.


3 Kings in Segovia

The frigid Spanish night air is filled with giants and angels. Tall, stilt-walking fire-breathers and jugglers spider in and out of medieval-costumed drummers and robed torchbearers. Angelically dressed children and turbaned pipers dance and weave as torches flare and drums thrum deeply. The crowd cheers wildly as three huge catafalques snake through the twisting medieval streets bearing the trio of costumed nativity Kings—Gaspar,  Melchior and Balthasar—showering trinkets and candies outward in the Procession de los Reyes on the eve of epiphany in Segovia.

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