Seth Kugel of the New York Times is posing a challenge to his readers: Plan a fun-filled, smartly-themed, low-budget 5-day trip to somewhere on the Italian coast. This challenge is part of his larger The Mediterranean on a Budget, his 10 week sojourn at the height of tourist season.
While he admits there really are no 'prizes', he offers the winner: "your name in the column and lunch on me whenever our geographic paths next cross".
Basically, whether or not you've ever been to Italy, live there or have just dreamed of it, he's looking for an itinerary that is replicable by other travelers and you can use any tools at your disposal, including the vast wealth of the Internet.
Here are his guidelines:
I'm not going to set an exact limit, but needless to say, the cheaper the better. Meals over 15 euros ($21) and lodging over 70 euros ($100) a night are strongly discouraged; anything much, much cheaper is strongly encouraged. A rental car is acceptable only if getting around by bus or train or bike or foot is utterly unfeasible.
The trip must start in Naples on a Wednesday, run through Sunday and end somewhere with public transportation. The format is flexible, but should have an introduction, and a day-by-day outline with details on transportation, meals, lodging and activities/attractions whenever possible. Please give pricing details wherever you can, and include Web links and/or phone numbers wherever possible. Also, estimate the total cost of the trip.
Your itinerary can be sent in the body of an e-mail or as a Word attachment -- with links to relevant Web sites wherever possible but NO PHOTOS -- to firstname.lastname@example.org by noon eastern time on Friday, June 3, 2011. Please include "Frugal Italy" in the subject line.
If you have a commercial or financial interest in any of the places you are recommending, let me know.
1) I eat anything and sleep anywhere, as long as it is not hazardous to my short-term health. (Occasional dangers to long-term health, like eating fried food and incurring a sleep deficit by being awakened by roosters at 5 a.m., are permissible.) Like any sane person over the age of 25, however, I prefer private rooms to shared dorms, when possible.
2) Not all specifics need to be spelled out for each day. For example "choose one of the low-budget restaurants around xxxx church" is just fine.
3) Off the beaten path is great, but alternative ways to experience mainstream destinations on a limited budget can be just as good.
4) Have fun, and have me have fun.
To read the whole piece, check out Seth's May 17 column.
So you're going to Prince William and Kate Middleton's royal wedding in England. How very exciting for you! Got a "plus one" I can snag? If not please pick me up one of these quickie souvenirs (preferably one of the thimbles).
With news bursting forth out of England about the engagement of Prince William to his longtime girlfriend Kate Middleton, who among us isn't fantasizing about a quick trip across the pond (as we say here in New York) to the zig-zagging streets of London where, I assume, the happy event will take place as announced in the Spring or Summer of 2011? Rooms will no doubt be disappearing quickly so go ahead and book that suite at the Ritz for the whole season RIGHT NOW.
Even if you aren't on the guest list, here's a list of suggestions for any royal-watcher looking to live it up in high-style London, England.
Where to Stay: The Dorchester
The Dorchester opened in 1931 from its position on Park Lane overlooking Hyde Park. When last I was there everyone was wearing tuxedos for no discernible reason other than it was devastatingly fashionable and I must applaud that. Lots of celebrities stay there. Great restaurants. Great bars. I haven't seen the rooms but I can only advise that you should probably get a suite. And some more jewels. If you must, another reasonable option is the Savoy if only because the American Bar is really appealing.
Where to Eat: Kai
I spoke to a veteran of the London scene (though chav-chasing may not quite qualify him for knighthood anytime soon) and he suggests Kai, an upscale Chinese joint. What to order? He recommends "Peking Duck (57 GBP starter...not bad), the "Seaweed", whole Sea Bass, and 'The Phoenix and the Rising Sun' (£21)" which is chicken slices with organic Honshimeji. So says the insider "I LOVE THIS DISH--but we always did it along with the starters." He also brings our attention to "Buddha Jumps Over the Wall" (£108) but be aware that it requires 5 days notice and it apparently has actual gold in it. So, ooh, that's exciting - and they do have a Michelin star in case you were wondering.
Where to Shop: Harrods
Duh, it's Harrods. OK, it might be a bit too much like an English Macy's but it's the only department store (to my knowledge) that has a shrine to Princess Diana (see below). You should probably go to Harvey Nichols, too. They have a hipper selection of merchandise and a sushi bar on the 7th floor.
What to Visit: National Theatre
Formerly the Royal National Theatre, the National has three theaters (the Olivier, Lyttelton and Cottesloe) and runs shows in repertory meaning there are usually several options for what to see. The theater is very highbrow and since Buckingham Palace will no doubt be overrun with riffraff, this will make for a much finer entertainment.
WestLicht, a nonprofit photo gallery in Vienna, along with the Impossible Project, have combined resources to purchase, and keep intact, a collection of 4,500 Polaroids that were to have been auctioned off individually as a way to pay down the defunct camera company's debts.
In its early days, Polaroid's founder Edwin H. Land would provide free cameras and film to artists as means of publicizing his products' potential for artistic uses. Eventually his collection swelled to over 16,000 prints by luminaries such as Ansel Adams, Robert Frank, Chuck Close and Robert Rauschenberg. Most of these were stored in the United States and a Minnesota bankruptcy court ordered them sold off, which they were during a 2010 Sotheby's auction which raised $12.4 million.
However, a portion of the collection, known as the International Collection, was stored at the Musée de l'Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland. It was this 4,500 piece trove, including photos by Walker Evans, Ansel Adams, and Andy Warhol which was acquired by the Vienna gallery. Terms for the acquisition of the archive were not disclosed.
WestLicht has been in existence for about ten years and collects photographs and antique cameras. It also hosts rare camera and photography auctions. The Impossible Project was founded by aficionados of Polaroid who rallied together to save the defunct company's last manufacturing plant in the Netherlands in order to continue producing the film stock.
So, in the immortal words of Billy Joel, "when will you realize, Vienna waits for you?" Hope to see you there this summer!Walker Evans, United States, 1976
Via Arts Beat.
I've traveled across and throughout the United States extensively and deeply appreciate the roadside rest stop. Always a familiar mixture of watered-down mid-century architectural flourishes framed by scattered, lonely picnic tables (and perhaps, if you are near a state line or a notable attraction, brochures advertising the wonders of America), a rest stop is rarely somewhere you are happy to be. It's neither your home nor your destination, but it's always a little bit better than your beef jerky-strewn seat in the car or truck. (Ed. Note: It is probably not better the the back of a motorcycle which is generally acknowledged as one of the best places to ever be.)
Photographer Lizzy Oppenheimer is memorializing these roadside respits as they become cross-country tombstones from another era of travel. As state funding gets cut, more and more of these bathroom beacons, most built in the 1960s, are being closed. She is attempting to document them all. She's even asking for help on Kickstarter. She describes the project below:
Many more of these lovely, wistfully formal pictures at her website. Have a good weekend!
Via Picture Show.
This past weekend I stopped by the annual New York Times Travel Show to see what was happening in the wide world of travel. It's quite a big event and there were lots of interesting and weird things to see. Here are 7 things (destinations, bargains, oddball programs, etc.) that caught my eye:
1) Rick Steves! Anyone who has spent a Sunday afternoon nursing a hangover has surely seen the Rick Steves travelogue program on PBS. So it was quite magical to see this nerdy traveler in the flesh! His company offers tours of Europe that appeal to the middle-aged set. The folks at the table seemed friendly and well-informed and if you're looking for a tour I think this is a good place to start. His top tours include "Villages and Vineyards of Eastern France in 14 Days," "Best of Turkey in 13 Days," and "Best of Europe in 14 Days" which has stops in "Italy's top cities" plus Munich, the Swiss Alps, Burgundy and Paris. Information on Rick Steves tours is here. All tour guides are trained by Steves himself and the groups tend to top out at about two dozen people.
2) One of my favorite places in New York City, the Queens Museum of Art was promoting their "Panorama of New York City" which is a to-scale replica of every building in New York City the size of 5 tennis courts. It gets updated periodically (the last full revamp was in 1992) and they were proudly displaying the new Battery Park City section which will be added to the southern tip of Manhattan.Battery Park City in miniature.
A moose near the Canada vendors
3) Canada! Who says nothing interesting happens there? I was delighted to stumble upon the table promoting the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Impressively celebrating its 50th season, this year's program includes works by Bernard Shaw ("Heartbreak House," "On the Rocks," and "Candida") along with a bit of Shaw-lite ("My Fair Lady" which is the musical version of "Pygmalion") along with a personal favorite ("Cat on a Hot Tin Roof") and the more-modern ("Topdog/Underdog"). Shows run in repertory from April through October.
4) Those fascinated with Italy might be interested in Papavero Villa Rentals. Apartments in Rome to villas in Tuscany are all available from this rental agency that gets its name from the red wildflowers of Italy. A conversation with an agent suggested that you could rent your very own Florentine apartment for a week for somewhere in the $1600 range which seems quite the bargain. It's so nice to visit a city and really pretend that you live there. Get your "Eat, Pray, Love" on.
5) I was really digging Jamaica because they had this lady:
6) One of the things I've always wanted to do is go on safari in Africa. Rothschild Safaris seems an excellent choice. Their "Classic South Africa, Victoria Falls, & Botswana" tour is 12 days long and includes a night spent in a treehouse! If you book before March 31st its only $4,995 per person. Afterwards it's $5,435.
7) The strangest thing I came across at the travel show was the "Disney Vacation Club" which basically seems like a Disney-fied timeshare. You buy points and then use those points to rent out houses and apartments all over the world. So you can get the authentic "Disney Experience" in Venice, I guess? Though I imagine the clientele heads to Saratoga Springs more often. I suppose everything is up to high standards of old Walt himself, but if I wanted to rent a villa in Italy I'd start with something a little more localized like the Papavero outfit mentioned above. But if you're the sort of person who dreams of living in Celebration, Florida then maybe this is perfect for you. If so, enjoy! By the way, if you click on the link above, you can get a free DVD telling you all about it.
San Francisco is full of cool things (including, today, its first chance for snow in 35 years), but until now I was unaware of Pier 24 which the Wall Street Journal describes as "the largest exhibition space in the [United States] dedicated exclusively to photography."
It seems 69 year old Andy Pilara, an investment banker, has remodeled an all-but-abandoned 28,000 square foot warehouse under the Bay Bridge and turned it into a massive gallery. He bought his first Diane Arbus print in 2003 and has since amassed over 2,000 photographs taken from the 1830s onward which form the basis of the collection.
But there's a catch. Only 60 people are allowed to visit on any given day (those days being Monday through Thursday). In fact, they won't even open the sliding glass doors for you to enter until your appointment has been confirmed via intercom. It all seems very 007! Unconcerned with finances, Pilara pays for everything himself and admission is free. Once you get past their strict door policy, what will you find inside?
Visitors pretty much have the place to themselves. Mr. Pilara and his associates want viewers to have a "quiet and contemplative" encounter with the usually small, most often black-and-white, typically intimate photographs on display--the polar opposite of the mob scenes at the money-making blockbusters at other museums.
There are no wall labels, which can be off-putting if you haven't mastered the history of modern photography. A minimal catalog is available for each show. But Mr. Pilara would prefer that you "just look." Too many museum visitors, he believes, spend more time looking at labels than at art.
Currently on view is a show culled from the collection of Bob Fisher, son of The Gap founder:
There are 80 [Walker] Evans photographs (including three Vicksburg street scenes) from 1926 to 1974 in the show, in three adjacent galleries. They reach a peak with six of the 62 photos Evans published in James Agee's "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," which grew out of a Fortune magazine assignment the two were given in 1936 to document the lives of Alabama tenant farmers. Evans was always alert to the human dimension of the ordinary world around him, in Chicago, New England, New York and Havana--but nowhere more than in the American deep South.
With Evans as his model, and his own taste and Mr. Fraenkel as his guides, Mr. Fisher generally confines his purchases to great black-and-white images by American photographers that have a documentary (rather than a primarily aesthetic) goal. This has led him--like Mr. Pilara--to collect, and display in some depth, the work of Robert Adams, Arbus, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander and Gary Winogrand. He broke his rule against color for William Eggleston, who travels around the country catching ordinary, offbeat people and places in unexpected compositions while keeping his eye out for surprising oranges and reds.
The Top 100 Chinese Restaurants in America were recently announced. (Among the outlets reporting this is what is sure to be my new favorite magazine Chinese Restaurant News.) Number one on the list is Yang Ming Restaurant in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
The New York Post is not happy about this:
What a bunch of dim sums!
In a bizarre slap at New York, which boasts more than 6,000 Chinese restaurants offering incredible food from every region of the country, a trade journal yesterday advised foodies searching for the country's best Chinese dining to make a beeline for -- of all places -- Bryn Mawr, Pa.
They also featured a man-on-the-street interview which supplied surprising information:
Visitor Philip Taggart, 48, of Plano, Texas, was not about to jump on the first bus to Bryn Mawr.
"I'm surprised. I never heard of the place. I wouldn't make a special trip out there."
But even though he was looking forward to dining in Chinatown, he stood by his home-state favorite.
"The best Chinatown is in Richardson, Texas," he said.
Wow. Richardson, Texas has the best Chinatown? Intriguing. Not sure if I'm ready to believe that but I'll make sure to remember that next time I'm passing through. Eating Tex-Mex in Texas is so passé.
Here are the other Top 10 winners:
Here's a report on the award ceremony from CBS News:
I just spent the past week in Key West, Florida and it's quite an intriguing vacation paradise if you're into that sort of thing. Before this excursion much of my knowledge of the Florida Keys was based on the Beach Boys' hit song "Kokomo" from the movie "Cocktail". What I found was quite different than what I expected.
Having traveled in the past through some of the southern East Coast's beach towns like Myrtle, Virginia and Miami Beaches I expected a sort of tacky, faux-glitzy, 1980s-style Art Deco strip of hotels along a stretch of sand. Not so. There are no beaches per se and the ones that do exist are apparently mostly man-made. Also, the town is more akin to New Orleans than to Myrtle Beach. Old Town (where tourists and other visitors play) is bisected by Duval Street which is lined with t-shirt stores, sidewalk bars, and the occasional strip joint much as you find on Bourbon Street in the Big Easy.Duval Street in Key West
Only 90 miles to Cuba!
Off the main drag, the houses and hotels have a southern gothic flair I associate more with Louisiana than the sort of stucco-monstrosity resorts of traditional beach towns. It also is eager to associate itself with its literary past. Ernest Hemingway is their literary lion the way Tennessee Williams is synonymous with New Orleans. However it much less ethnically-diverse. Save for a surprising amount of Asian tourists, visitors were primarily white with even Cuban and other Latinos scarcely spotted, at least amidst the throngs on Duval Street.
What Is There To See and Do in Key West?
Key West is the southernmost point in the continental United States. If that sort of geographical attraction excites you then there is a variety of attractions like the Southernmost House and the Southernmost Point, a concrete buoy that advertises an easy 90-mile swim to Cuba. It's pretty much the ultimate Key West photo-op.Hemingway House
You will also find a smattering of tourist traps, both legitimate and concocted. The Hemingway House is probably the most iconic and is certainly the most justifiable as a place of actual historical significance. Several of Ernest Hemingway's seminal novels and stories were written on this site. The house is lovely and the gardens lush though the tour guides are a bit odd. Having repeated their narration so many times they tend to get a bit glassy-eyed while reciting the facts of construction and biographical tidbits of the author and his family.
For those who were never fans of "The Sun Also Rises" or "Hills Like White Elephants" to begin with, you might be more interested in their large collection of "Hemingway Cats," descendants of the author's polydactyl (six-toed) pussy. There were 45 living on the site during my visit. Not all were sporting the extra thumb, but the ones that do certainly fascinate. They also have a cat graveyard which was mildly creepy, especially if you've read or seen "Pet Semetery."Cat grave at the Hemingway House
However, beyond that, there isn't much. The Butterfly Conservatory was a delight, and certainly worth a visit, but its raison d'être other than being a great way to separate tourists from their dollars was unclear. It didn't seem that Key West was a particularly popular butterfly habitat otherwise. There's an old lighthouse and a conch train tour, but generally the island is given over to standard tourist activities.
That includes, but is not limited to, moped and bike riding, sunset booze cruises, snorkeling, poolside sunbathing, copious drinking, etc. I had the opportunity to attend a party on a private yacht but you'll have to run with the right kind of crowd (which I obviously do!) to make that happen. So there is at once both lots to do and, curiously, sort of nothing to do. But when looking for a sunny idyll, who needs "things" to do?Key West wild rooster
What's Not So Great About Key West?
Wild roosters roam the streets. I was unaware that feral chickens had made their homes in the bushes and shrubs of Key West but apparently they have. And they crow. Not just at dawn, but constantly.
There is an overabundance of bad bars and middling restaurants. These are the kinds of places called O'Finnegan's that serve concoctions called Pirate Punch and where too many drinks include blue curacao. They are places that seem spiritually related to Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. Their margaritas are too sweet. (Note: This did not prevent me from having several.) Basically that means that there is a "spring break" ambience to the island which is at times appealing in that bacchanal kind of way, but it's also off-putting when one is searching for an elegant martini in a classy hotel bar.The drag queen show drop on New Year's Eve outside Bourbon St. Pub
Is Key West Gay?
Not particularly. Frequent visitors to the Key related tales of debauchery, but mostly those dated to an era that passed 20 years ago "before the spring break crowd migrated south from Fort Lauderdale." While there are several gay guest houses (many clothing optional) and four or five gay bars, Key West is not the Provincetown or Fire Island Pines of Florida. That said, the Bourbon Street Pub and its dancers were highly rated by recent bar-goers who also enjoyed their poolside patio bar.Guests mingle on the porch of Victoria House
Where To Stay in Key West?
Guest houses are the primary lodging option in Key West. There are scores of options and most (from the outside at least) seem charming and well-kept. I would avoid ones on Duval Street as it gets a bit dirty and loud over there, but I wouldn't rule them out if a good deal came across your radar. Most seem more like small inns rather than bed-and-breakfasts so there won't be forced and stilted conversation over breakfast when you're still drunk from the night before.
For people who love a good hotel, I'd recommend the Crowne Plaza La Concha. It is located centrally on Duval Street and looks to be among the highest-end and most traditional of Key West's offerings. You can also sit on their roof sipping mai tais at The Top which has been slinging drinks since 1926 and affords great views of the setting sun.
Ideally, if your budget allows, consider renting your own cottage. Among the finest is Victoria House on Truman Ave, a major thoroughfare. With 4900 square feet over three floors, you and your friends can bunk in style with a pool, jacuzzi, porches and balconies.
When to Go to Key West?
As with most Florida vacation spots, it's best for snowbirds. The summer will bring severe heat and crippling humidity. The winter is best. New Year's Eve offers many activities including the famous drag queen shoe drop shown on CNN.
For thoughts on getting to and from Key West, please see "On Riding the Bus to Key West When Plans Go Awry."
About a year ago, maybe a little more, a dear friend of mine invited me to spend the dawn of 2011 with him and several others in Key West, Florida. Obviously, a New Year spent in the sun seemed a superb suggestion. Tickets were booked, lodgings arranged, plans planned.
A few of us had the bright idea to save a few bucks on airfare to Key West and instead fly to Miami, rent a car, don our Wayfarers like Don Henley's Boys of Summer, and make our way south on Highway 1 across the scattershot Keys to our destination - along the way enjoying a nice, sunny driving adventure reminiscent of Jamie Lee Curtis and Arnold Schwarzenegger in "True Lies."A scene on Highway 1 from "True Lies"
Flash forward a year to the SNOWMAGEDDON of December 2010 when a blizzard hit the Northeastern United States rendering airplanes useless. My mates were stuck in New York, delayed by the blizzard for what might be days. I, however, was in Los Angeles and my red-eye to Miami was taking off as scheduled. What to do? Last-minute airline tickets started at around $508. I didn't want to drive myself from Miami to Key West after a red-eye and, besides, one-day car rentals started at around $260.
The question loomed: How does one get from Miami to the southernmost point in the continental United States, a tiny little island, sans car or plane? The Keys Shuttle would have picked me up at the airport and driven me to Key West for a tidy 90 bucks. No doubt a great option. Unfortunately, since I was booking at the last minute there was no room at the proverbial inn. Or, rather, there was one seat on the afternoon's 5:00 shuttle but I was scheduled to arrive at 9:30 in the morning and did not relish the idea of spending a perfectly good vacation day tanning under the florescent lights of Miami International Airport.The "Key West Express" goes local
And so, with options quickly running out, I chose to book a ticket on Greyhound. As a proponent of public transportation (I am a New Yorker after all) it seemed a perfectly reasonable option. And you know what? It was. My busmates were an eclectic bunch to be sure, but all were quiet and well-behaved - no crazies. Mostly my fellow travelers were foreign tourists so far as I could tell: a few Europeans, many Asians, a woman wearing a very bad wig, another woman with what seemed to be tattooed-on eyebrows, someone reading John Grisham's "The Partner," and a couple people who may or may not have been chasing the perfect tan. Or, as in my case, the perfect pirate punch.
The scenery was beautiful on a crisp winter's day - bright and clear. I saw lots of beach huts and shacks along with many island manors, that turquoise water which stretches in every direction. The bus was comfortable if not exactly elegant or state-of-the-art. Some Greyhounds offer wireless though this one did not. But for 45 bucks, it seemed like quite a steal. We even got a rest stop on Islamorada for a Burger King break.Islamorada's Burger King
The biggest drawback was that it took about four-and-a-half hours. A car ride would have been about three. Though the traffic jam through the National Key Deer Refuge didn't help matters, it's hard to say if that's a regular nightmare or a freak occurrence.
This was all a reminder that a bus is really quite an extraordinary way to see the countryside. The next time you're in Miami and looking for a cheap way to get to Key West, I'd definitely recommend the Greyhound Key West Express.Duval Street in Key West
Exciting news out of the Ukraine today. CNN is reporting that Chernobyl, the site of 1986 nuclear explosion, is open to tourists! Weirdly, this does sound rather appealing. Access is granted only with certified guides, however, so don't plan on checking into the Chernobyl Best Western and noodling about on your own.
But what about the residual radiation that sickened thousands after the initial disaster? Says CNN:
Mycio said tourists should wear "something that you wouldn't mind leaving behind in case it does get dirty." But most radioactive material has sunk into the soil, and visitors receive a dose comparable to the exposure they would receive on a trans-Atlantic flight.
What? I'm not quite sure what to make of that last statement. I was unaware that I received a dose of radioactivity by flying to London. Is it a big dose? A little dose? Great - one more thing to obsess about before getting on a plane. And, finally, this quote which is both instructive as to what the curious visitor can expect (wildlife!) but also strange for its allusion to a nuclear-themed cartoon theme park which sounds oddly compelling:
"The only concern I would have is if too many people come in and it becomes this nuclear Disneyland," Mycio said. "That would take away from a wildlife sanctuary (that has thrived) in the absence of people."