March 26, 2015

London Calling!

With nearly twenty million visitors making their way through the British capital last year, London’s reputation as the world’s most visited city - and one of the hippest - is as solid as ever!  

For a Toronto native, a visit to London, England, is like taking a trip to your colonial motherland to finally meet your extended family. Undeniably, the spirit of London is closely interwoven into Toronto’s architectural and historical DNA. A walk down Toronto’s neighbourhoods will reveal Georgian, Edwardian and Victorian architecture with street names such as Bathurst, King and Queen. With such a di­verse repertoire of cultures, food, history and our connection as a commonwealth nation under its monarchy, London has the charm and character to delight any Canadian.

The city is immersed in history. Home to the British monarchy, London’s atmospheric streets reveal celebrated landmarks such as Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Tower of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Kensington Palace, Westminster Abbey, Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square which can be admired atop the city’s iconic red double-decker bus.

However, London is much more than its past. Ever evolving, it is a city with cutting edge creativity and striking modern architecture that continue to transform its skyline - think London Eye, Gherkin, Heron Tower and the Shard. This contrast of old and new has resulted in a spectacular skyline that should be admired from Tower 42’s Vertigo 42 Champagne Bar, or cruising along the River Thames past the city’s famed bridges and sites.

Since the time of Shakespeare, London has been a prominent city for theatre, and with a dazzling spectrum of shows, theatre lovers are spoiled for choice. Take in a show in the lively West End, an Elizabethan drama at The Globe, or a summer performance under the stars at Regent’s Park open-air theatre.

The center of London is filled with museums and galleries, among them the Victoria & Albert Museum, the National Gallery, Tate Modern, Saatchi Gallery and the British Museum whose collections are as diverse as they are magnificent. Visit as many as you wish, admission is free!

Londoners have been enjoying Afternoon Tea for centuries. Today, this highlight of London society has been elevated to an art form with renowned establishments offering premium teas served alongside decadent works of art and gourmet finger sandwiches accompanied by Champagne. Warm scones with Devonshire cream and sweet preserves are still a welcome staple. A wonderful place to partake in this traditional affair is at the iconic Langham Hotel in London’s Marylebone. Here, afternoon tea is served on elegant china in the grand Palm Court, as live piano plays in the background and the hotel’s tea sommelier assists you in selecting the perfect tea.  It is an unforgettable experience and one that should not be missed!

This fashionable British city has always had a unique sense of style. Shop the posh boutiques on Mount Street and Bruton Street in London's Mayfair, the Luxury Quarter of Bond Street and Regent Street, or the trendy brands along Oxford Street. Stop by Fortnum and Mason on Piccadilly, a favorite among royalty. In Kensington you’ll find the city’s legendary Harrods and Harvey Nicols where Princess Diana loved to shop.

Home to 300 languages, London’s cosmopolitan landscape provides for a dynamic dining experience. Whether you want to dine on the quintessential British meal of ‘fish and chips’ in a century’s old pub or in a trendy restaurant in one of the city’s charming neighborhoods like Notting Hill, Mayfair, Soho and Chelsea, London’s restaurants are some of the world’s best. If you’re looking for an affordable way to try the creations of a celebrity chef, head to Jaime Oliver’s Diner in Piccadilly Circus. For contemporary British cuisine, Notting Hill’s three-story West Thirty Six is perfect and features a bar and lounges.

The English are known for loving their gardens and green outdoor spaces, and London is no exception, as the city is dotted with tranquil gardens throughout. On a grander scale, visit Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, and Hampstead Heath where you’re sure to find the perfect spot to relax, picnic or enjoy a stroll.

London is a fusion of art and culture, history and architecture. It is the world’s most international city and whatever tickles your fancy, London has something to suit.



 
Transportation

bsixGroup provides a discrete, safe and secure chauffeur service for all occasions: airport transfers, a tour of London, or a night out at the Theatre! Plus, the chauffeurs are like personal tour guides. Bsixgroup.com  







Where to Stay

 

Described as staying at the home of an eccentric English aunt, the eclectic and vintage Portobello Hotel is located on a quaint street in West London’s Notting Hill. Since opening its doors in the 70’s, this boutique property has hosted a long list of media, models and musicians such as Mike Jagger, Van Morrison, and Johnny Depp who famously filled the Victorian bathtub in room 61 with Champagne for his then ladylove, Kate Moss. This little jewel is steps away from the famous Portobello Road and market, as well as lovely boutiques and restaurants. portobellohotel.com

The whimsical and stylish Ampersand Hotel is located in South Kensington. Housed in a reinvented 1888 Victorian townhouse, its modern design theme and beautifully-finished rooms are located on a posh street, minutes away from some of the city’s best museums, restaurants, boutiques (think Stella McCartney and Harrods) and bars. The hotel’s popular Apero bar and restaurant is tucked down in an underground vault and perfect for nights when you want to stay in. ampersandhotel.com

Look for my latest article in the new Spring issue of FREDI MAGAZINE.

 


February 10, 2015

Paris & the Loire Valley - The Best of France in One Parfait Getaway!

Combine a stay in chic Paris with a few days unwinding in the Loire Valley - the heart of France’s spectacular châteaux country and a picturesque haven for food and wine lovers.  

There are many alluring reasons to visit Paris. For some, it’s to marvel at post-impressionist art at Musée d’Orsay or shop at the luxurious boutiques along Avenue Montaign. For others, it’s to sit in a cosy café and enjoy the French Art of Living. Whatever your preference, France’s sultry capital has something for everyone, its iconic sites beckoning you at every turn.

The ‘City of Light’ provides boundless inspiration - romantic and otherwise. Unfurl a blanket and picnic in the enchanting Tuileries or Palais Royal gardens. Take pictures on the Pont des Arts, the famous ‘love-locking’ bridge. Climb atop the impressive Arc de Triomphe and marvel at unobstructed views of Paris. Stroll through the narrow, winding streets on the hill of Montmartre or the magical quarter of Marais with its aristocratic stone mansions. Enjoy an evening bateau-mouche ride on the Seine as you glide under bridges, past Notre Dame Cathedral and the Eiffel Tower glimmering in the night sky.  

Paris’ café culture is world renowned. Its charming streets lined with art nouveau cafés and wicker-chairs that spill onto its old-world streets. Visit the legendary establishments Café de Flore or Café Saint-Régis. In historic Place de Voyages, picturesque cafés fill the square. Sit back and take in Parisian society as the smell of fresh coffee and the chatter of patrons’ echoes throughout.

Chocolate and dessert connoisseurs can indulge at the renowned Salon de Thé and Pâtissier Angelina; their famous chocolat chaud (hot chocolate) is legendary. Taste decadent pâtisseries, chocolates and macaron at Pierre Hermé or Ladurée. If you’re in the mood for a delicious gelato or sorbet, then go to Maison Berthillon or Amarino.
With more than 170 museums, Paris is a haven for art lovers. Not to be missed is the Musée d’Orsay located in a former Beaux-Arts railway station. It houses the largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces in the world. For older works, visit the massive centuries-old palace known as the Musée du Louvre. The Centre Pompidou is the place to go for 20th century art while Musée Rodin is a must to see incredible sculptures.   

For shopping, head to the chic Faubourg Saint-Honoré district lined with the world’s greatest fashion houses or the grandiose Avenue des Champs-Élysées. On a cold or raining day, head to the famous department stores Galleries Lafayette and Printemps.

After a few days of shopping and taking in the magical city sites it’s time to head out to the countryside to relax and unwind.


Loire Valley


When Parisians want to unwind for a few days they look no further than the spectacular Loire Valley, an enchanting land of rolling green hills dotted with historic vineyards, mouth-watering cuisine, fairy-tale castles and storybook villages. A former playground of the kings and queens of France, what remains is a treasure trove of magnificent château, symmetrical gardens and tranquil forests that will take your breath away. 

Located two hours southwest of Paris, the Loire Valley can be easily reached by bus or train. With its scenic, winding roads that captivate you at every turn, the region is best explored by car or on bike. And with 500 miles of bike paths, it’s no wonder this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one the most bicycle-friendly in Europe.

The delightful towns of Tours, Blois and Amboise provide the ideal base and are brimming with historic fortresses, churches, museums, quaint shops, cafes, patisserie, and artisan markets for visitors to explore. We suggest picking up some fresh, delicious local fare from the market and enjoying a picnic chateau-side.  

The ultimate epicurean destination, the Loire Valley has a long history of incredible gastronomy and superb wines. Its bounty of local fresh ingredients used to prepare traditional French country dishes fit for royalty. Savour specialties like the region’s famed goat cheeses, white butter sauce, freshwater fish, rillettes pâté, fouace bread, charcuterie, game from acres of forest, and delicious Tarte Tatin that have long delighted palates across France.

The Loire Valley is also home to many excellent wines. Look for dégustation (tasting) signs throughout the region. Enjoy an aromatic glass of local Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé wine, arguably the best Sauvignon Blanc in the world. There are also many historic wineries. Explore the mysteries of the Wine Grower’s Brotherhood at Chinon’s Caves Painctes where former quarries were converted into wine cellars during the 15th century. In Vouvray, visit the Cave Touristique, its atmospheric cellar makes a great sparkling Vouvray and classy, dry Chenins. 

With over a thousand châteaux strung across the Loire Valley, the greatest challenge for any visitor is how to choose, so it’s good to be discerning. The romantic Château of Chenonceau with its breathtaking galerie de bal that spans the River Cher will enchant you, as will a boat ride along the Cher and a night walk through the illuminated garden accompanied to music. At the Chaumont-sur-Loire attend the annual International Garden Festival. Stand in awe at the imposing Château de Chambord; it is a masterpiece of French renaissance architecture with its elaborate rooftops. An enjoyable way to take in its splendor is by horse-drawn carriage. There’s also the gracious Villandry with its famed decorative Renaissance gardens and the Château d’Azay-le-Rideau built in the centre of a romantic park. In summer, transport yourself back in time at one of the famed château son-et-lumière (sound-and-light) show.

Lovingly referred to as “the Garden of France”, a magical way to see the beautiful Loire Valley in its entirety is via hot air balloon ride or helicopter tour. The bird’s eye view of these architectural masterpieces is postcard perfect, so pack your camera!

The best time for travellers to visit the Loire Valley is from May to October.



LOIRE

WHERE TO STAY

The turreted and ivy-covered DOMAINE DES HAUTS DE LOIRE in Onzain en Touraine is one of the finest classic French châteaux hotels in the region. Its antique-filled rooms overlook 180 acres of glorious forest between Blois and Amboise. This splendid 18th century hunting lodge (built by a publishing magnate with aristocratic pretensions) is now a hotel brimming with attributes: swimming pool, tennis courts, gardens, a pond with floating swans, and picturesque walking trails where guests can rejuvenate in the splendor of nature. Its chief glory is the two-Michelin-star restaurant under the direction of Head Chef Rémy Giraud that serves classic French cuisine with a modern twist using seasonal ingredients; the result is utterly superb. Among his signature dishes is an Aquitaine Caviar, a crunchy eel salad with shallot dressing and a Ligérienne fish soup. The wine list is impeccable, as is the service. For more information, visit domainehautsloire.com. 



WHERE TO EAT

Dine in an 18th century castle with a magnificent cellar of 20,000 bottles at Origan in Château d'Artigny. Try their hare royale stuffed with foie gras and truffles.  

In the heart of Tours you will find the La Chancelière by Michelin-star chef Olivier Arlot. His cuisine is simple yet creative using local fresh ingredients. A fine example is the veal in pistachio-oil-flavored jus.

INTERESTING FACTS
  • Renaissance writer Rabelais was born here.
  • Joan of Arc led French troops to victory in the Hundred Years’ War in the Loire.
  • The Cradle of the French Language, Loire residents speak the purest French.
  • The tombs of Richard the Lionheart and Eleanor of Aquitaine are here.
  • The 15th century manor house, Clos Lucé in Amboise is where Leonardo da Vinci spent his final years.

PARIS

WHERE TO STAY

Paris’ historic palace hotels are legendary for knowing how to roll out the red carpet and the opulent LE MEURICE is one of the city’s finest. Opposite the beautiful Tuileries gardens and close to the Louvre, the hotel offers breathtaking views of Paris’ spectacular skyline and features marble bathrooms, fine linens, antique furnishings, a Michelin-starred restaurant and a luxury spa. Within walking distance of Paris’ most iconic sites, it is the picture-perfect setting to sip champagne and watch the sun set over the most romantic city in the world.



WHERE TO EAT

For an impeccable dining experience head to anyone of the Michelin-starred restaurants housed in the city’s spectacular palace hotels; Le Meurice, Shangri-La Paris, Plaza Athenee, and Le Royal Monceau among them. If you’re a fan of Asian food, the Shangri-La’s Shang Palace is home to the only Chinese restaurant in France awarded one Michelin star.

Dine on oysters and wine at L’Auberge Dab, an elegant Parisian brasserie serving traditional French food and fresh full-flavoured shellfish in a warm and intimate setting.  

Enjoy a meal of steak frites at the ever popular Le Relais de L’Entrecôte. This 80 year old traditional Parisian restaurant serves the perfect Parisian meal. 

Read this article in the new issue of Travel Professional on newsstands now.


February 04, 2015

Sicily’s Ionian Riviera – An authentic island vacation, Italian style!

A unique melding of Mediterranean cultures, Sicily’s Ionian Riviera is a land of ancient wonders whose varied landscape, sun-soaked beaches, vibrant culinary scene and mesmerizing charm will lure you in at every turn.  
The beautiful Ionian Riviera is made up of mountains, hills and glittering sea. It extends down the east coast of Sicily, from the straits of Messina, through a series of charming seaside villages and beaches to the scenic town of Taormina, the Pearl of the Riviera. It continues on through the lively lava-stone city of Catania onto Siracusa, the most important city of Magna Graecia. The brooding Mount Etna dominates the coastline, her presence forever shaping and molding this fascinating region.  

Because of its strategic position in the Mediterranean, the island has been ruled by Arabs, Greeks, Normans, Romans and Spaniards – their collective influence evident in the region’s food, fashion, architecture and traditions, giving it a unique personality. Perhaps that is why Goethe wrote that “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything."  

This is a land of incredible colours and flavours; a place where history and culture, excitement and leisure, are in perfect balance. Every curve in the coast unveils something new and spectacular. It could be a glorious cathedral built on a Greek temple in Siracusa, the lively seaside resort of Giardini Naxos south of Messina, or one of the many festivals in celebration of patron saints; Catania’s Festa di Sant'Agata is one of the most dramatic and is accompanied by spectacular fireworks. Witness a place untainted by the hands of time and experience a taste of authentic island life - Italian style.

Gabriele Montenegro of Visit Sicily, describes the Ionian Riviera as “A mix among volcanic rocks and white sandy shorelines, showcasing the fantastic Baroque and the charming Taormina. It's where the myth becomes landscape. Where the time becomes life."  

The beautiful cities of Messina, Catania and Siracusa provide the ideal base; their old-world streets brimming with lavish Baroque cathedrals and palaces, historic wonders, colourful markets, great restaurants and local artisan shops. 
 
 
The Ionian Riviera begins at the ‘Door of Sicily’ in the ancient port city of Messina located in the northernmost point of the island. It is here that ferries make their crossing to mainland Italy. As with most trading cities, Messina is bursting with life. A series of violent earthquakes changed the cityscape, but its grand, sweeping boulevards lined with elegant turn-of-the-century buildings remain as enchanting as ever. Ancient and noble, Messina is home to magical places like the Piazza Duomo, the Church of Santissima Annunziata dei Catalani, the Quattro Fontane (Four Fountains), and the gothic-style Messina cathedral with its famous clock.

For an unforgettable experience, visit the scenic hilltop towns of Savoca and Forza d’Agrò, where scenes from the ‘The Godfather’ movies were filmed. Then continue onto the lovely Castelmola, rated as one of Italy’s most beautiful villages.


No one can resist a visit to the picturesque town of Taormina. Perched high above the sea, its panoramic views of the coastline, the ancient Teatro Greco, the enchanting bay of Isola Bella and snow-capped Mount Etna will remain etched in your memory forever.   

The island’s fiery Mount Etna is a must-see. A guided climb up this active volcano is an emotionally charged experience. A thrilling way to see this wonder in its entirety is on a helicopter ride. The bird’s eye view is spectacular. 
 

At the base of Mount Etna is the vibrant city of Catania. Chaotic and full of energy, it is a feast for the senses. Living in the constant presence of an active volcano has given residents an added thrill for life. Its beautiful UNESCO-listed historic city centre is filled with grandiose palazzi fashioned out of volcanic rock that tower over baroque piazzas such as Piazza Duomo, which houses the splendid Cattedrale di Sant' Agata and the Fontana dell'Elefante. Take a stroll through La Pescheria, the city’s famed old fish market. Catania is bustling with wonderful restaurants, lively bars and a renowned nightlife set in the most incredible surroundings. Imagine dancing the night away in a villa surrounded by orange groves or inside a botanical garden under a starlit sky.

The charming seaside villages of S.Tecla, S. Maria la Scala, Acireale, Acitrezza and Acicastello are perfect for day trips. In Acitrezza, visit the fascinating Faraglioni, spectacular lava cliffs that rise out of the marine protected waters of the Cyclopi Islands.  For one of the best seafood meals, head to the small fishing village of Capomulini. 

 
'Never a day without sun,’ said Aeschylus of his favourite city. The largest city in the ancient world, Siracusa is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to a treasure-trove of ancient Greek ruins set among lush citrus groves against a backdrop of blue sea and sky – it is postcard perfect.  Inland, visit the Neapolis Archeological Park to see the Greek theatre that dates back to the 5th Century BC, which still hosts popular theatrical productions. There is also a Roman amphitheatre and the ancient quarry of Laromia del Pardiso. The city is divided into two areas: the urban part and the beautiful island of Ortigia, Siracusa’s historic centre, booming with tourists who fill its magnificent baroque piazzas and stroll down medieval lanes that lead to its stunning seafront.

South of Siracusa, some of the best swimming awaits you in a sea of turquoise at the Cassibile's lagoons. Incredibly beautiful and inviting, the lagoons are located at the bottom of a great gorge, the deepest in Europe. It’s an experience like no other.


Not to be missed is the “Baroque City” of Noto. It’s not only a UNESCO Heritage Site, but it also boasts one of Italy’s best bars, Caffe' Sicilia, in Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Their granitas are heavenly!

The Ionian Riviera is surrounded by green olive groves, almond trees, citrus orchards and vineyards that stretch out to sea. This bounty of fresh fish and local fare has inspired a hearty array of local dishes such as fresh fish spiced up with capers and tomatoes, homemade pasta like pasta alla norma, arancini (rice balls), gelato, granita (crushed flavoured ice drinks) and creamy, ricotta stuffed cannoli that have long delighted palates across Italy.

With the sun shining 300 days a year, the Ionian Riviera is a great place to visit all year long. Each season seduces you with its unique charm, however, summer is without a doubt the most popular time to visit as thousands of travellers migrate to the east coast to relax on some of Sicily’s most spectacular beaches including S. Teresa di Riva, Mazzaro', Letojanni, S. Lorenzo and Giardini Naxos.   

Pack your camera, sense of adventure, and set off to explore ancient relics and soak in the Sicilian sun on the exciting Ionian Riviera.  

Look for this article in the latest issue of Panoram Italia Magazine on newsstands now!