Review of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel

A recent four day stint in San Francisco had me staying at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. Located on Union Square, this boutique hotel is a part of the Kimpton line, and offers a unique experience among the many possible accommodations in the Bay Area.

The Hotel can be seen behind Saks Fifth Avenue

Here are the pros and cons of my stay:

The Hotel

The building was constructed in 1928 and stands at 21 stories tall. It features a Renaissance style with Corinthian columns, a grand staircase, and an impressive lobby. Which makes this hotel highly personable and memorable for visitors. Combined with its location only a half block away from Union Square and on the Trolley line, provides guests the opportunity to reach nearby attractions, great restaurants and shopping, and access mass transit.

The Lobby

La Scala’s Bistro/ Starlight Room

There are a couple of dining options available for guests at the Sir Francis Drake. The two most notable features are La Scala Restaurant on the ground floor and the Starlight Room on the 21st floor with views of the surrounding city. Included in the cost of accommodations were three options.

While the atmosphere in this Italian/French themed restaurant was upscale and comfortable, the portion sizes were unsatisfying, the food somewhat bland, and the prices were obscene even by San Francisco standards. With so many incredible dining experiences to be had on Union Square, not to mention cheaper prices, the La Scala Restaurant’s only appeal was that its convenience and budget considerations.

The View from the Starlight Room

The Starlight Room is billed as a festive bar with live music and great drinks. There were great views and it was festively decorated, but the cocktail prices were steep and the drink unsatisfying.

The Room

In line with the highly boutique nature of the Sir Francis Drake, the room was beautiful, the beds were comfortable, and the view exceptional. But the hotel is historic, and the rooms small and the bathroom especially so. Which bordered on the uncomfortable. Though it should be noted that the room was functional, comfortable, and offered a great view of the city.

Besides obvious pitfalls such as the waits during breakfast and the small bathroom, the Sir Francis Drake Hotel provided an overall satisfactory experience. Though it isn’t necessarily right for everyone. Last year, during our San Francisco & Wine Country tour we stayed at the Grand Hyatt located a block away from the Sir Francisco Drake Hotel. The hotel rooms were spacious, the breakfast included in our tour was expansive and satisfying, and the location offered the same advantages as the Sir Francis Drake. But on the flipside, the Grand Hyatt lacked the kind of charm that accompanies the boutique hotel experience afforded by the Sir Francis Drake.

Interesting Dessert Spots

We love visiting interesting and landmark food destinations. Let’s face it, when we’re on vacation the diets take a backseat, and we let ourselves live a little. While we’ve traveled to several great places, and tried several great desserts that have made it possible to truly experience a destination. These are three of the interesting dessert destinations that we can’t wait to try.

Voodoo Doughnut – Portland, Oregon

For any foodie traveling to Portland, Oregon Voodoo Doughnuts is an absolute must see stop, having pioneered the now eponymous Bacon Maple Bar doughnut with maple frosting and bacon on top; their signature Voodoo Doll doughnut filled with raspberry jelly, topped with chocolate, and complete with a pretzel stake; and their Triple Chocolate Penetration doughnut with chocolate cake, chocolate frosting, and coco-puffs–among many other bizarre and, surprisingly, tasty creations.

Photo by Rockobilly

Voodoo Doughnuts is open 24 hours a day and 7 days a week with two locations in Portland but be sure to get there early. Lines have a tendency to go out the door.

Photo by Cliff Danger

Chocolate Lab – San Francisco, California

During our last trip to San Francisco, we had the opportunity to visit the Ferry Building and Recchiuti Chocolates: one any number of gourmet, high end chocolate shops located in the bay area. Since our visit, they’ve branched out and formed the Chocolate Lab which was created to highlight Michael Recchiuti’s background as a pastry chef, incorporating chocolate and caramel oriented desserts, pastries, and desserts. In true San Francisco fashion, when Chocolate Lab was created using locally sourced materials such as California grown, fallen elm for the walls, original oak floors, lighting sculpture by The Kettle Collection, Metal framed dessert bar and server station by metal smith Christopher Whitney of Object Assembly, fern glazed tiles from Heath Ceramics, and live greenery in gun metal grey metal planters from Flora Grubb.

Photos by Tom Seawall Photography

Some of their unique offerings include Chocolate Lab Cake which is a devil’s food cake layered with bittersweet ganache, wrapped in a proprietary blend of 65% semisweet chocolate, topped with caramelized cacao nibs, and sitting coffee crème anglaise; Pot de Creme’s burnt Caramel blended into a milk chocolate custard, sprinkled with sugar, melted into a brittle sugar crust, and finished with topping of hazelnut crumble and butter cookies; and Strawberry Tartlette made with organic strawberries, a Gravenstein apple vinegar glaze over vanilla bean pastry cream, sitting in a flaky tart crust, and served with house-made tarragon and strawberry sorbet.

Photos by Tom Seawall Photography

Cafe Sacher – Vienna, Austria

The Sacher-Torte can be found throughout Vienna in various coffee houses and cafes, but the genuine article was first produced by Franz Sacher for Prince Wenzel von Metternich as a special dessert in 1832 and eventually found its way to the Hotel Sacher which was founded by Eduard Sacher, Franz Sacher’s son, in 1876. The Sachertorte is composed to two layers of dense chocolate sponge cake with a thin layer of apricot jam in the middle, and coated in dark chocolate icing the top and sides, and is traditionally served with sugarless whipped cream. Although the composition remains the same, the recipe used at the Cafe Sacher Wien is a closely guarded secret and is found only at one location. Their website event has a guide for identifying an authentic Sachertorte.

Photo by SimFan34

Besides the eponymous Sachertorte, the Cafe Sacher Wien and its several sister cafes located throughout Europe also offer the Sacher Melange, called the original Viennese Coffee Experience, which is hot black coffee with foamed milk and whipped cream; an Einspanner with mocha topped with whipped cream, and served in an einspanner glass, and its own original liquor.

Although visitors can travel to Vienna to visit the Cafe Sacher in Wien, there are additional shops in Salzburg, Innsbruck, and Graz.

Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona  holds a certain fascination for travelers in its modernist architecture,  interesting history, and casualness that’s absent in other Spanish cities.  Founded as a Roman Colony named Barcino at the  end of the 1st Century BC.  Barcelona has weathered Muslim  and Christian conquests, witnessed political upheavals, and emerged as a modern  destination on par with any European city.

These are some of the local highlights of Barcelona:

La Rambla

A thoroughfare that cuts right through the city for 1.2  kilometers. La Rambla is laid out along the contours of the medieval walls and  allows access to some of Barcelona’s  highlights such as the Gran Teatre del Liceu and the Boqueria Market.

© J. Trullàs/ Turisme de Barcelona

Park Guell

Park Guell was  a garden-city project commissioned by Eusebi Guell.  Gaudi was hired to design the park and chose  to integrate architecture with nature at every possible opportunity.  Initially desighed as an attempt to create a  housing estate in the natural setting of what was once the old village of Gracia, covering an area of about 15  hectares or about 40 acres.  The plan was  never realized and only two houses were constructed.  Neither were designed by Gaudi, but one of  them was his home and has been converted into a museum dedicated to his works,  featuring furniture designed by the architect and artwork created by his  contemporaries.  The numerous footpaths  throughout the path provide visitors a chance to catch glimpses of Gaudi’s  characteristic, colorful architecture and mosaics as well as brilliant views of  the city.

© MasterLu – Fotolia.com

La Boqueria

Perhaps one of the most famous markets in Barcelona the Mercat de Sant Josep de la  Boqueria is located on La Rambla not far from the Leceu.  Offering a wide selection of goods, though La  Boqueria is considered something of a tourist trap it does offer an excellent  look at a functional, Spanish market where locals and tourists mingle alike.

Photo by Dungodung

Parc del Laberint d’Horta

Beyond the well known, modernist Park Guell the lesser known  Parc del Laberint d’Horta which is situated in the Horta-Guinardo  district.  The name of the park comes  from the 750 meters of trimmed cypress trees that makes up the maze on the  lower terrace.  Throughout the garden are  pavilions, states of mythological creatures and gods, and the neoarabic and  neogothic palace of the Desvalls family.

La Barceloneta

Barcelona naturally  established as a port city on the Mediterranean.  Naturally, it offers excellent beaches  extending along the sea for about 4.5 km.   With urban redevelopment initiatives enacted in the early 90s for the  Olympics, the city is now opened to sea with restaurants, bars, and shopping  located in the streets around these beaches.

© Espai d’Imatge/ Turisme de Barcelona

Things to Keep in Mind

Lunch and Dinner are usually eaten latter than the rest of Europe with most restaurants opening between 1pm to 4pm  for lunch and between 8pm and 11pm for dinner.

Shops typically open between 10am to 2pm and from 4:30 to 8  or 8:30pm.  Though in the Barcelona city center,  most shops don’t close for lunchtime with large shopping areas remaining open  until 10pm in the Summer.

American Castles: Castello di Amorosa

For regular readers of our blog, the name Castello di Amorosa might ring a bell from the series we did on Trafalgar Tours’ San Francisco  & California Wine Country.  This  medieval style castle has 107 rooms, 4 levels above ground and 4 below, and 121,000  square feet.

Located in Calistoga, at the north end of the Napa Valley, this castle might look old but it only opened its doors six years ago.  Its story is rather unique, having started life as the pet project of fourth generation vintner and owner of V. Sattui  Winery Dario Sattui.  The winery’s land was first purchased by Sattui about twenty years ago with the intention of building a new home for himself and growing some grapes for his own personal use.  With a lifelong love of castles and an interest in medieval architecture, he began planning what would eventually become the Castello di Amorosa.  Sattui sought help from  Lars Nimskov, Fritz Gruber, and later Paolo Ardito who had the knowledge of designing the authentic recreation of a medieval castle and the understanding of the traditional building materials used.  Construction began in January 1995 with the underground caves being completed in five and a half  months. Ten years passed on the complex, and in 2004, work finally begun on the above ground sections.  Many of the construction materials were sourced from torn down castles in Europe, and when they couldn’t find a particular period piece, traditional methods were employed to recreate them that included wrought iron elements, leaded stained glass windows, hand carved stone decorations, and chiseled stone quarried from nearby.  Construction was completed three years later, and Castello di Amorosa was opened in  2007.

Although this is a working winery with all the accoutrements  expected of one (fermentation rooms, tasting rooms, and even a gift shop), Dario Sattui was emphatic that the castle create an authentic experience for guests which extends to many of the rooms that serve no other function than to  recreate staples of the middle ages.

Above ground, visitors enter from a drawbridge to a stone  courtyard that provides access to a chapel and grand hall that features 22 foot high ceilings, an expansive Italian fresco, and a five hundred year old  fireplace.  The wine cellars and aging  rooms below ground  aren’t like those of  every other winery dotting the landscape having instead been barrel vaulted  with stone and weaving a maze that eventually takes visitors to a torture chamber replete with a 300 year old iron maiden from Italy and an armory with period weapons and armor.

For those who are actually interested in the vintages produced  by this winery, Sattui opted to create high quality wines on par with those of the nearby winery of V. Sattui.  Produced on site are Carnet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Pinot  Grigio, Pinot Biano, Muscato, Gioia-Rosato di Sangiovese, Merlot, La Fantasia,  and their famous Il Barone Reserve Carnet Sauvignon.

Since Napa Valley is located conveniently near San Francisco, a day trip to Castello di Amorosa and the surrounding areas is an absolute must see for anyone traveling to the Bay Area.

American Castles: Hearst Castle

The United States doesn’t have the history of our neighbors  in Europe.  And for that reason, we don’t have the kind of  architecture that is available in droves.   Still, you don’t have to go oversees to find places of history and truly  remarkable architectural design.

Hearst Castle
Photo by Heydrienne/ Flickr

Hearst   Castle

In  1915, newspaper magnate William Rudolph Hearst of the Hearst Corporation decided  to build a comfortable retreat on land purchased by his father in 1865.  He approached architect Julia Morgan with the  intent of building a simple retreat which quickly took on grander designs.  After toying with a number of different  styles, he settled on the Renaissance and Baroque styles of southern Spain.  For the next twenty-eight years, construction  resulted in an enormous house, grounds, a private zoo, and even an airfield.

Though  it’s easily possible to spend an entire day exploring the nooks and crannies,  there are some attractions of note.

Neptune Pool
Photo by zengame/ Flickr

The  Neptune Pool & The Roman Pool

Outside,  the massive pool, fountains, and statues are crowned by a genuine, Roman temple  facade that Hearst purchased in Europe, shipped to the US, and  reassembled.   It took twelve years to be built and went  through three designs before it was deemed sufficient to Hearst’s vision.  Inside, the Roman Pool was tiled and decorated  with eight statues of gods and goddesses in the style of Roman Bathes.   The  mosaics were styled after those in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy.

Great Room
Photo by HarshLight/ Flickr

Casa  Grande

The  most notable feature of Hearst   Castle is the large, twin  towered structure that makes up the main building.  Inside, Hearst displayed his vast collection  of art and antiquities in rooms.  Though  there are some 115 rooms, a tour of the main house usually includes the  highlights of the Assembly Room where 16th century tapestries and Neoclassical  statues and served as the site of evening socializing.  The Refectory, so named for the Medieval  church-like atmosphere of the room, was the dining room.  The Gothic Suite served as Hearst’s private  rooms and sits on the entire third floor. In line with the church theme of the  entire building, the Gothic Suite has soaring arches, high windows, and  includes two bedrooms and a private sitting room.  Functionally speaking, it served as Hearst’s  private library and office.

Gothic Suite
Photo by zengame/ Flickr

Other  Sites:

Cottages:

Construction  on Hearst Castle took almost thirty years to  complete and underwent several additions and revisions.  While work was conducted on the vast estates,  Hearst continued to come to the property.   A number of cottages–the term applies quite loosely considering the opulence–were  constructed for their use.   Though considerably smaller, the Casa del  Monte, the Casa del Mar, and the Casa de Sol still contain several excellent  pieces of art.

Dining Room
Photo by heydrienne/ Flickr

Grounds:

The  grounds benefit from yearlong blooms with native species of plants growing  alongside exotics.  Like everything else  about the estate, the gardens reflect the personal aesthetics of Hearst and  were subjected to his personal approval.   Exploring the hundred plus acres of grounds are well worth a visit.

Unfortunately, Hearst  Castle sits about equal distance from Los Angeles and San    Francisco by about 250 miles.  Chances are, if you’re interested in visiting  the estate, you’ll have to make a fairly substantial detour to do so.  The nearest community of note is San  Simeon.  But, if you have the  opportunity, you might be interested in doing so. The options available for travel there can be found here.

Back from St. Maarten, Again

I just got back from a escorting a tour to the Caribbean island of St. Maarten. An island which, incidentally, has two identities: one French and one Dutch. The Sonesta Maho Resort where we were staying stands on the Dutch side not far from the village of Maho. These were the photos I collected during my stay:

Pool at the Sonesta Maho Resort
The Pool at the Sonesta Maho Resort

Maho Beach
The beach outside of our hotel.

Airport at the Princess Juliana Airport
The Princess Juliana Airport is famous for tourists Fence Surfing as planes take off.

Phillipsburg
Phillipsburg, the capital of the Dutch side of Sint Maarten.

Orient Beach
Orient Beach

Marigot
Marigot on the French side of the island.

Maho Beach
Another shot of Maho Beach outside of our hotel.

To see all of my photos, visit our facebook or Google+ pages.

St. Petersburg Must See: Part 1

St. Petersburg  holds a special significance for Russian culture and history. As a destination, it offers many points of interest that include sprawling suburban palaces, massive museums, churches, and those sites that still being discovered by travelers to this great city. Here is the first part of our St. Petersburg Must Sees.

Peterhof/ Petrodvorets   Palace

Like so many of the grand palaces throughout Europe, the Peterhof Palace  was inspired by the Palace of Versailles in Paris.  Must visits in this suburban estate include:

Peterhof Palace
Lyn Gateley/ Flickr

The Grand Palace

Although        not particularly large in size, this building offers stunning facades and        impressive staterooms throughout.         It was constructed by Peter the Great and later expanded upon by        his daughter Elizabeth in various Baroque styles.

The Peterhof Park and Gardens

  • Expansive        and easily capable of filling an entire day’s worth of activities, the        grounds have been separated into two sections known as the Upper Garden        and he Lower         Garden.  Over the course of those who ruled        here, these grounds were expanded significantly and in several styles        popularized throughout Europe at the        time to include elements of English, French, and Italian garden design.
  • The        most notable feature of these gardens, however, is the Grand Cascade        running from the northern façade of the Grand        Palace to the Marine Canal        and is made up of 64 different fountains and more than 200 bronze        statues, bas-reliefs, and decorations.         At the center is a statue of Samson wrestling the jaws of a        lion.
  • Other        fountains include the Chess Cascade, the Pyramid Fountain, the Joke        Fountains, and the Oak Trick Fountain

Catherine Palace

The       original palace that occupied this area was rebuilt for Catherine I of Russia in what is referred to as Russian       Baroque by Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli who also contributed heavily to       the design of the Peterhof        Palace.  It can be viewed as a fine example of       the opulence of the Russian Tsars who, some suggest, outstripped even the       French for extravagance.

Alexander Palace
Jim G/ Flickr

The        Cameron Gallery Ensemble—Catherine’s equivalent of Marie Antoinette’s        little village at Versailles.  The Cameron Gallery Ensemble was a        structure built in the Greco-Roman style that was designed to mimic an        Ancient House.  Within it is a        series of rooms, baths, and hanging gardens.

The        grounds of the Catherine Gardens are made up of two parts: the Old or Dutch Gardens        and the English         Park.  The Old Gardens        are laid out on three terraces in the front of the Palace and include the        Mirror Ponds, the stream that feeds the Upper/Great Pond and Mill Pond,        and several others.  The English Park was built around the Great        Pond which was later expanded into a lake.  Throughout the park are grottos,        pavilions, and monuments to victories over the Turkish and the French.

State Hermitage   Museum

One of the most visited museums in  the world, the Hermitage contains a staggering 3 million items in its collections that  are housed in the official residence of the Romanov Tsars known as the Winter Palace.  Though you’ll probably want to plan your  visit, it would take an estimated 11 years to see the whole collection when  spending only one minute at each display, there are some things that you’ll  probably want to check out.

Hermitage Museum
Vasena Middelkoop/ Flickr
  • The first and most notable is the Winter Palace  itself.  The State Rooms will provide an  excellent overview to the historical significance of this palace as the  official residence of the Russian Tsars leading up to the 1917 revolution that  put an end to the Romanov Dynasty.
  • Western European Art spanning from the 13th-19th  Centuries containing works of art from all major art periods and  locations.
  • The Treasure Galleries which contain the  Hermitage’s most valuable collection of jewelry and gold.  The collection includes works dating from  ancient Scthian to those of St.    Petersburg’s Court Jewelers that include Carl  Faberge.
  • The Museum  of Porcelain contains works produced  by the Imperial Porcelain Factory now run by the State Hermitage   Museum.   The vast collection also includes many  contemporary pieces produced by various modern designers and artists.
  • The Winter Palace of Peter I was initially  thought to have been destroyed to make way for the Hermitage Theatre which was  built under Catherine the Great.   However, recent discovery indicates that the architect of the theatre,  Giacomo Quarenghi, maintained much of the original structure including several  complete rooms as well as a massive section of the old palace’s courtyard.
  • Of course, these represent only a fraction of  what’s presently available at the Hermitage   Museum.  To learn more, visit their website at www.hermitagemuseum.org.

For more information about what to see in St. Petersburg, check out the St. Petersburg Tourism site.

Loire Valley Must Sees

The Loire Valley is well known for its vineyards, quaint towns, and several chateaus that line the 280 kilometer expanse that comprises this area.  These are our selections for must sees for any traveler to the area.

Amboise

Chateau       du Clos-Luce and Leonardo Da Vinci Park

Chateau du Clos-Luce
Chateau       du Clos-Luce/ Ell Brown Flickr

Where        Leonardo da Vinci spent his final years as a guest of the French        King.  The house has been        maintained as it was during da Vinci’s time with his sketches, models,        and life size recreations of his inventions on the grounds.  The cost of admission is around 12        Euros and is open from 9:00-7:00.

Chateau       d’Amboise       

This        historic royal residence of French kings was partially designed by        Leonard da Vinci.  Incidentally,        this is where he is supposedly buried in the small chapel—though no one        knows for certain.  The admission        fee is around 8.20 Euros and is open from 9:00-6:30.

Chateau       de Chenonceau

Chateau Chenonceau
Chateau de Chenonceau/ Ell Brown Flickr

The        third most visited chateau in France,        after only Versailles and Fontainebleau.  It is most notable for the extension        that stands over the river and the many women who contributed to the        design that include King Henry II’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers, and his        wife Catherine de Medici.  As it is        one of the most visited castles in France, it is best to arrive        by 9:00 am or after 5:00 pm.  The        cost of admission is approximately 9 Euros and 2 Euros for the audio        guide.  It’s open daily 9:00-7:00.

Chateau       de Chambord

Chateau Chambord
Chateau Chambord/ David Barrena Flickr

Is        one of the largest castles in Europe with 440 rooms and 365 fireplaces        and is approximately six times the size of many of the other chateaus in        the Loire Valley.  Because of its size, Chateau Chambord        has quite a bit to interest visitors including the king’s wing, the rooms        devoted to the Count of Chambord (the last owner of the chateau as well        as the last of the French Bourbons who was in line to inherit the throne        of France until it was determined they didn’t want one anymore), and        Spiral staircase.  It’s also        recommended that you climb to the rooftop to see the vast hunting        grounds.  The cost of admission is        approximately 8.50 Euros.  It’s        open from 9:00-6:15.

Cheverny

Considered to be the most lavishly furnished of all the  Loire Valley Chateau’s, Chateau Cheverny is unique in the valley’s historical  sites in that it was spared during the French Revolution and continues to be inhabited  by the Hurault family.  Surrounding the  chateau is a small village and café.  The  cost of admission is 6.60 Euros and is open from 9:15-6:15.

Cheateau de Chaumont-sur-Loire

A castle has stood on this site since at least the 11th  century.  You’ll recall above that the  King’s mistress Diane de Poitiers was expelled from Chenonceau by his widow  Catherine de Medici.  Well, this is where  Catherine forced her to take up quarters.   Still, the castle’s history is unique and interesting as both women’s  styles can be seen in the décor, and it was host to several important  historical figures such as Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Voltaire, and Benjamin  Franklin.  The grounds of the castle are  considered a tree garden.  Trees imported  from throughout the Mediterranean have been  planted throughout, and today the area serves as the location of the Festival  of Gardens.

Chateau d’Usse

Chateau d'Usse
Chateau d’Usse/ Ell Brown Flickr

This is considered to be the most fairytale-esque of the  chateaus in the valley.  It is what  inspired Charles Perrault’s, and subsequently Disney’s, Sleeping Beauty.  It is located at the edge of the Chinon Forest  overlooking the Indre   Valley.   Admission  is 14 Euros and is open from 10-7.

Lavardin, Loir-et-Cher

Located about an hour outside of Tours,  this small village has been classified as one of the most beautiful villages of  France  due in large part to the ruins of its medieval castle, the Chateau de Lavardin,  the Gothic church and frescoes, and its houses and ancient bridge.  The beauty of this village has been captured  by painters since around 1900 including Busson and Sauvage.  It’s small size and relative distance from  major population centers has allowed it to slip under the radar of most  tourists.

If you should be interested in  more information about  this incredible region in France,  we advocate that you visit the Loire Valley Tourism site, or check out  guide books by Rick Steves, Eyewitness Travel, or Fodors for a good, well-rounded look at the many sights available to visitors.

Why Now’s a Good Time to Visit Europe

For  everyone that’s been putting off that trip to Europe  we suggest you reconsider.  Why?  Because it’s becoming more affordable than  ever to travel.

Crete
Crete, Wolfgang Staudt/ Flickr

The  Euro and the Dollar

For  the last several years, the Euro has overtaken the dollar as an international  currency causing it to be extremely impractical, especially when considering  the fact that we’re in a recession, for American travelers to visit Europe.  Although  the conversion rate still puts the Euro stronger than the dollar, it’s been  leveling out for the last several years making it remarkably practical to take  that dream vacation.

Sales  Galore

The  global recession has created a flurry of sales in every part of the travel  industry as people cut back on unnecessary items such as travel.  It’s very possible to take a tour, cruise, or  river cruise at a great price.  Although  we do advertise great specials in our Monthly Newsletter and on our  specials page, we look for the best available price and specials when  clients book through us.

Verdun
Verdun, Wolfgang Staudt

Off  Season Travel

Yes,  if you purchase a trip right now, you can lock in a really great deal even if  you’re booking a year in advance.   However, traveling during the next few months, before May-October, it’s  possible to not only avoid the throngs of tourists that descend on European  countries but also to take advantage of off season pricing.

As anyone in the travel industry can attest, things have a  tendency to change quite rapidly. So for now, it is a good time to visit Europe.  In a few  months?  Well, that’s anyone’s  guess.  If you’ve been putting off a trip  for one reason or another, reconsider and give us a call to start planning.

Destinations 2013: Tokyo

Like Dubai, Tokyo  is a city that has managed to hold on to its traditional roots and still  industrialize.  You’ll notice I wrote  “industrialize” not “westernize”.  Like  all cities in Japan,  Tokyo has its own unique identity, culture, and style.  Here’s what interests us about it:

Tokyo  is massive in size, and though it’s viewed as a massive metropolitan area, it’s  actually divided up into 23 special wards that are individually governed and offer  their own special attractions.

Roppongi is known for its shopping and dining. With notable sites such  as Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown. It’s also a great place for art with the National Art  Center, Tokyo;  the Mori Art Museum; and the Suntory Museum of  Art.  Located nearby is the Azabu Juban Shopping Street which offers  traditional street food such as Soba and Taiyaki as well as fashionable  boutiques and quirky restaurants and cafes.  It typically attracts both locals and foreigners alike. 

Roppongi Hills
Ari Helminen/ Flickr
  • Roppongi  Hills and Tokyo Midtown look more like  corporate skyscrapers than trendy malls, but they offer a wide selection of  goods such as furniture, dining wares, and clothing.   And  if you’re interested in a little quiet time, the Tokyo Midtown offers its own Midtown Gardens  within the complex or the Hinokicho   Park is located nearby.
  • Within the National  Art Center,  Tokyo is a continuous changing exhibit featuring a variety of different art styles.

Shibuya is the heart of Japanese Youth Culture.  For foreigners feeling homesick, there are  several “foreign” brands and restaurants as well as shopping  opportunities such as the Shibuya 109 with  its more than 100 shops popular among teenagers.  Anyone looking for an authentic, youthful, and  inexpensive experience will find it here.

Akihabara
Jeffery Beggerly/ Flickr

Akihabara, or Akiba, is known worldwide as a center for its  electronic goods.  An otaku’s dream come  true, this place is well know for its availability of Japanese pop culture  items.  But even if you’re not into the  Japanese pop subculture, it might well be worth a visit just for the  experience. Highlights include:

Yodobashi Akiba
OiMax/ Flickr
  • The Tokyo Anime   Center is, as the name  suggests, devoted to the Japanese animation known as Anime and provides paraphanalia  but also offers information and maps on Akihabara.
  • Gundam Cafe was so named for the popular anime by Bandai Co.  Another quirky installation filled with merchandise  and offering food and drinks inspired by the show.  Even if you’re not into Gundam, they’re well known for their coffee.
  • Yodobashi  Akiba, located not far from the mass transit system, is one of the largest  shopping malls in Japan.   What makes it different from the other  shopping centers?  It’s selection include electronic goods among other conventional items. 

Odaiba is an artificial island that has seen a  transformation from its original seaport origins.  It is now home to several sites of interests. Daikanransha,  the 115-meter ferris wheel; the Venus Fort shopping mall with its Venetian theme; and Miraikan:  Japan’s  National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation–among others.  If you’re more interested in a relaxing stop,  the Odaiba beach is literally within walking distance.

Asakua
OiMax/ Flickr

And for the tourist looking for a traditional Tokyo, Asakua,  originally called shitamachi or lower city, has several landmarks of note  including the Kaminari-mon or Thunder Gate with its huge red lantern, the Sumida  Park known for its cherry blossoms and paths lining the river, and the Nakamise-dor or Nakamise Street    covered mall filled with small  shops that sell traditional Japanese items, and the almost Kilometer long  Kappabashi Dougu Street with 170 shops dedicated to cooking utensils which can  be purchased at wholesale.

Cherry Blossom Trees
Yoshikazu TAKADA/ Flickr

Why is Tokyo One of Our Destinations 2013:

Japan  itself has never had to rely on tourism to sustain itself.  That being said, the country retains an authenticity that hasn’t  been cheapened or commercialized to attract tourists like other destinations.  As for why we selected Tokyo, the sights we’ve listed represent  only a fraction of those available and  reflects the larger combination of traditional and the  contemporary.       

For more information about Tokyo, click here.