An intoxicating blend of old and new, rustic charm and modern sophistication, Madrid is a must-see destination in Europe. Situated right in the center of Spain, it is very inland and intensely hot in the summer compared to the Northern costal situation of Barcelona but it is just as cosmopolitan as its Catalan counterpart to the North, with seemingly endless amounts of art, wine and food to offer visitors. Situating yourself centrally near, for example, the Edificio Metrópolis, you can go a short distance in one direction from there and be at the Retiro Jeronimos park, the Prado museum and near upscale shopping, restaurants and cutting edge wine bars. Go in the opposite direction, you find yourself at the gloriously historic Royal Palace and gardens. Steps from there is Mercado San Miguel, a lively culinary hot spot that will take care of all your eating needs. Renovated in recent years, this market place is a historic landmark enclosed in wrought iron and glass and housing tapas, cheese and wine vendors from door to door. Tables and chairs are placed throughout and It is open from lunch through dinner, making it possible to sample the best Spanish cuisine day and night.
Spaniards love to eat, drink and socialize and that comes through any given evening, especially in the summer. Getting a customary late start, in the old town section the streets are abounding with cafes, tapas and wine bars, many of which are traditional in menu options, service and decor often made up of antique wooden bars and iconic posters on the walls. If you’ve had a long day of walking and touring, you may choose something with seating, but traditional and typical bar style for Madrid is standing while eating and drinking. The bonus here is that drinks-by-the-glass tend to be noticeably more affordable than major U.S. cities, so going bar to bar is not only do-able but encouraged. Situated on the other side of Madrid is where the more modern restaurants and wine bars are, boasting some of the best chefs in the country practicing molecular gastronomy in the tradition of Ferran Adria. Whether day or night, one direction or another, Madrid is imbued with culture and festivities. A haven for those seeking history, art, delicious food and legendary wines.
Recommendations - Hotels
Hotel Lusso Infantas
Iberostar Las Letras Gran Via
Recommendations - Restaurants/Wine Bars
#Bárbara de Braganza,
The Other New York
One of the many things New Yorkers are blessed with is being resident to the most exciting and entertaining city in the U.S., yet having relatively quick, easy access to a completely different environment as needed. One minute you can be in the middle of the vibrancy and chaos of Time Square or Grand Central Station; the captivation and beauty of various art exhibits at venues such as the Met, Guggenheim or Chelsea Galleries, and then the next be surrounded by the quiet, grandeur and awesomeness of the Catskill Mountains or the expanse and wonder of the Atlantic and its many beaches of Long Island. Of course, the afore mentioned descriptions of NYC locales are laced with flattering adjectives. Albeit true, some of that vibrancy and excitement can go hand in hand with much stress and frustration. As much we may love it, even feed on it, sometimes you want and need a break from it if you live in it 24-7. And if you’re a frequent visitor, you need to experience the other sides of NY. Think of it as likened to a simple syrup recipe of two parts to one.
If you go Upstate, which is where my weekend getaways usually take me, just driving along the truck-less, bus-less and traffic-less Taconic Parkway can be therapeutic. It’s literally just a matter of minutes before your setting is transformed and you’re getting glimpses of greenery and hills that soon give way to mountain ranges. When you get far enough along, you are ensured the towns along the way will be towns and not suburbia. Some are sad and uneventful giving the impression of having seen better, more prosperous days. But most are quaint, charming and welcomingly slow.
When most people from New York City head Upstate they usually only make it as far as Dutchess or Ulster counties, covering territory such as Woodstock, Cold Springs, Red Hook and the DIA museum in Beacon and the Storm King outdoor sculpture installation in Mountainville. As interesting and impressive as these destinations are (especially DIA and Storm King, but that’s for another article), they fall short of what lies not too much further ahead. Columbia County, NY and the Berkshires, MA. From Upper Manhattan you can hit Columbia County in exactly 1:15- 1:30. One of the first towns you would hit, and a personal favorite, is Hudson. The center of Hudson is Warren Street, which not too long ago was nothing much to speak of- neglected storefronts and dilapidated or debunked restaurants- but now that’s all changed. Warren Street, covering about a 10-block stretch, epitomizes small town charm with big city artist influences. A few years ago numerous NYC residents and/or business owners decided to forego the escalating rents of Manhattan (commercial and residential no doubt) for more reasonable rates. The results are an impressive collection of upscale antique shops, art galleries and eateries.
Despite the short pleasant drive getting to Hudson, Michael and me are always ready for lunch. In our defense, we usually sacrificed breakfast to pack and pick up the rental car and are purposely “saving our appetite” for the treat that lies before us. But before we “officially” lunch, we partake in healthy snacking at a local farm stand just 2 miles shy of the town’s center. We cannot resist the opportunity to get a few fresh picked fruits or veggies, without having to take two subway transfers to the Union Square Green Market. The Market is great, but this is us going to the source instead of the source coming to us. We’re talking corn so fresh and flavorful Michael chomps down right then and there- no boiling or grilling (as if we grill in New York) necessary. If it’s fall, we can actually pick our own apples, with two huge bagfuls for a whopping $8!
But I digress. Entering Hudson we make a straight shot for Le Gamin, an authentic, casual French café originally limited to the East Village and Brooklyn locations but now also a favorite on Warren. Although Le Gamin is a mix of regulars and city visitors, the genuine casualness and friendliness of the owners and staff make everyone feel like a local and no one is rushed out in an effort to “turn tables.” This makes for the best first stop (along with the produce stand) in our trip. Now the city stress is successfully starting it’s inevitable and welcome decline with that initial sip of coffee, kicking back in the booth and plotting out the day.
Next it’s important to exercise after a good meal so a stroll along Warren is imperative, going in and out various shops, including two fantastic bookstores (Hudson City Books, Spotty Dog Books and Ale), art galleries and an impressive wine shop (Hudson Wine Merchant). We’re not in NYC any more so a car is necessary and a nice change to explore neighboring towns (Philmont, Chatham) and beautiful country roads (71, ). Before wrapping up the day, we continue our de-stressing with a very professional, relaxing massage at Bohdi Spa also on Warren Street and across from one of our favorite restaurants. Swoon is an appropriate name cause swoon we did upon our first visit- a NYC foodie’s delight in the heart of the Catskills. The entrance to the restaurant engulfs you lovely flowers and herbs as if inviting you to nature’s delights. And so it is. The Swoon philosophy is based on serving seasonal and local, and being Upstate, local means they just got a delivery from a farmer a couple hours ago.
For a weekend getaway time is of the essence, so how we end the day is just as important as how we begin. For us in Hudson that means one of the most beautiful and best B&Bs in the area- Mount Merino Manor. Under the design and ownership of Rita and Patrick Birmingham, this newly renovated mansion offers seven luxurious guest rooms and suites (individually designed and decorated) sitting on a lush hilltop surrounded by 100 acres of woodlands, with views of the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains, along with easy access to hiking trails in Olana State Historic Site. Additionally, no matter who’s cooking breakfast when you’re there, Rita or Patrick, it will not be the bland B&B breakfast-as-usual. Their meal will appease and thrill any New York foodie.
Of course this is a getaway for residents and maybe a side trip for visitors, so there’s no need to feel you have to pack your time with endless activities. Take advantage of being in a lower gear. Benches abound throughout Upstate towns and parks. Do something or do nothing, but do avail yourself to what lies just North of that great city that never sleeps.
Where To Go & Where To Stay in Hudson, NY:
Swoon Restaurant- www.swoonkitchenbar.com
Mount Merino Manor- www.mountmerinomanor.com
Bodhi Wholistic Spa- www.bodhistudio.com
Le Gamin Restaurant- www.legamin.com
A Charming Village with Big Sur and Local Wineries Nearby
A relatively quick and easy drive from the San Francisco Bay Area is Carmel, a quintessential charming California town, with definite hints of affluence. Although Carmel is sleepy in comparison to nearby Monterey and the Bay Area, it still has much to offer in the way of a day trip or weekend getaway. If you’re in the downtown area there, you’re surrounded by independently owned boutiques, cafes, galleries and wine bars. Many of them are obviously touristy in nature, but some are just plain good, appealing to both visitors and locals and are worth checking out.
West of downtown is the dramatically beautiful coastline – great for walking, biking or driving. If you’re doing the latter, and continue a few miles south, there is the ever-stunning Big Sur. This is almost entirely natural setting where the Santa Lucia Mountains line up along the Pacific Ocean. Although Big Sur is a 90 mile coastline along highway 1, it’s defined by varying areas, such as foothills, forest, creeks and towns. You can go as short or deep along the way as you want (there is a point around San Simeon in which you’re fully committed and cannot get over to a highway with many lanes).
A few minutes east of the town is Carmel Valley and its village. Along with rolling hills and ranches, this is a designated wine area. While the actual vineyards are not close at hand, the village, which is only 20 minutes from Carmel, is a good destination. In Carmel Valley Village you’ll find a very manageable concentration of tasting rooms, shops and cafes. The whole area is undeniably laid back, rustic and charming. There also seemed to be a casual “Western” vibe going on here, without being cliche or over the top. Whether you’re doing a getaway from San Francisco, or traveling the coast, Carmel is a central coast “must see.”
Restaurants – Carmel, CA
La Bicyclette – French bistro (downtown Carmel)
Vino Napoli – wine bar and small eats (downtown Carmel)
Wine Tasting & Restaurants – Carmel Valley Village
Somewhere in Between ...
Somewhere between Boston and New York is an impressive area of beauty and tranquility, the antithesis to its urban bookends. The Berkshires, named for the hills and mountains that surround the area and easily accessed via the lovely Taconic Parkway, is officially in Massachusetts, but it straddles Western Connecticut and the Southern part of it borders New York’s Columbia County. As such, it claims many New York natives as tourists, second homebuyers and transplanted permanent residents. Michael and I fall somewhere in between as frequent tourists who toy around with the notion of becoming weekend homeowners there. “Toy around?” More like desire, dream, drool over the idea of someday getting past this wretched economic stranglehold, our mental limitations, and into the real possibility of being able to visit the area every other weekend and nesting in our own digs. In the meantime we relish every opportunity to explore the area, with all its friendly little towns, interesting, well-reviewed eateries, activities and diverse B&Bs.
After much hit or miss on the latter, we think we’ve finally nailed down our favorite spots, our homes away from home … that is when not booked up, which often can be the case on weekends from early July until the end of fall. And because, unlike say island vacations where staying in a hut can be satisfying as long as you have all day access to the sun, beach and a mai tai, your Berkshires visit can be a great deal about where you stay. If you’re of a certain age range and mindset, then Lenox with classical concerts at Tanglewood and quaint B&Bs drenched in antique furnishings and yellow or blue wallpaper could be just your speed. This is not to say that Lenox exclusively appeals to that set because to its credit, there are some hip, chic restaurants that attract fans of varying tastes and styles, not least of which is one of our personal favorites, Zinc and another, Fin Sushi and Sake. And the Stoneover Farm Inn in Lenox is a dream destination, with one of the greatest inn personality and proprietors, Tom Werman, at the helm. Although Tanglewood will do little to attract the rock and roll set, it is to be experienced by all at least once. This is the ultimate outdoors music setting- pull out the blanket, food and vino and relax while entrenched in the sounds of Yo Yo Ma and the sights of mountains. Just up the way from Tanglewood is Kripalu, the largest yoga center of the U.S. If you don’t necessarily want to sign up for a yoga class, still avail yourselves to the grounds’ breathtaking views and sit, read and relax.
But, as far as lodgings are concerned, if something a little newer and upscale, rustic, but not overly so, is more to your liking, may I suggest a few of our recent finds. In the east end of the historic village of New Marlborough is the Gedney Farm Inn which is made up of recently restored Normandy styled barns. One of the renovated barns features 16 rooms and suites that although impressively designed with granite fireplaces, tiled whirlpool tubs and contemporary rustic décor, manages to maintain the integrity of the original barn structure, with exposed beams. The sincerely friendly, not over-bearing service (thanks, Mike), along with its quiet, sensuous setting, could make for a sufficient getaway in and of itself, without going much past the property lines. Just a brisk hike down the way from Gedney is their sister property, Mepal Manor & Spa. If you’re lucky, the owners dogs, Winnie and Clark, will join you on the trail. Mepal is taking things up a few more notches, and the price reflects it. If Gedney Farm is the attractive, fun treat, Mepal Manor is the luxurious splurge. Although I had the chance to at least peruse the property of the Manor, checking out the exquisite rooms and amazing views, I have yet to splurge and stay over.
In between the two properties is another inn under different ownership. The Old Inn on the Green only mildly impressed us with their accommodations, but managed to live up to the hype for their restaurant. Under the creation and leadership of chef-owner, Peter Platt who worked with renowned chef Lydia Shire in Boston, the meals are elegant and traditional, yet unfussy and new. With the dining rooms lit entirely by candlelight, along with fireplaces, mahogany tables and wood floors, guests immediately feel transformed in time. That is until the seared fois gras melts in your mouth and you explore the wine menu, then you know you’re dealing with contemporary cuisine on a certain level.
For a little more action and eating you need only go a few miles back from New Marlborough to Great Barrington. Probably a bit too “active” for the locals, the main area of GB, Railroad Street, is an undeniably attractive little hot spot and a taste of what I like to call a “proper town.” You see, the die-hard city slicker in me always has to spy out such areas even when exploring the countryside. To be clear, these are not touristy areas, but by “proper town” I mean certain shops, eateries and in this case, a cute little theater with new release films can be accessed, in addition to hiking, kayaking and resting. In fact, after years of dealing with packed movie houses in NYC, part of the get away for me is taking in a movie in a small theater, with a small audience. Can you imagine, no lines, no over-priced tickets and no cell phone conversations during the screening?! Before or after the movie, I strongly recommend lunch at Rubi’s Coffee & Sandwich for the best corned beef sandwich of your life, or dinner at the nearby restaurant Allium. Although you can’t go wrong with anything on the menu, I urge you toward the Berkshire pork.
As mentioned earlier, the Berkshires season is in full swing from early July through the end of fall, with autumn having particular appeal with amazing colors on display and mild temps for hiking. This isn’t to say it’s uncomfortably packed with tourists like say the Hamptons in the summer- ugh!. This mountains and lake area is fortunately not even in the same ballpark as Long Island traffic and tourists, which is part of it’s appeal. But most of the B&Bs and inns are small and book up early during peak season on the weekends, making spontaneous excursions and securing some of the “best spots” a challenge. With a little planning (book ahead), or flexibility (playing hooky during the week) could save you money and ensure a special time had by all. Who knows, one of these years, if you can’t get a room at the Gedney or Mepal, maybe, just maybe, me and Michael might have room for you in our weekend dream house. Here’s to getaways and dreams.
Paula’s Picks- Berkshires
– Gedney Farm/Mepal Manor- www.gedneyfarm.com
– Stoneover Farm (Lenox)- www.stonoverfarm.com