An Utterly Transcendent Food + Wine Tour of New Zealand’s North Island, Part II

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On our recent epicurean visit to New Zealand, we ate and drank our way across the North Island landscape to rapturous effect. Truly, the level of excellence we encountered could hardly be conveyed.

Part I of the story detailed our time in Auckland and Waiheke Island. The second half of the trip took us to Wellington and Hawkes Bay.

 

Wellington

If, as we exclaimed within our first hours of arriving in Auckland, Seattle is the American city that most comes to mind when taking in the curved harbor and overcast skies of NZ’s largest town, then Wellington, the country’s capital, is its Portland. Also situated on the banks of an expansive body of water – in this case Wellington Harbour – it exudes a more streetwise and bohemian vibe than its cosmopolitan northern sister; and as such, the food and wine offerings took us down a more adventurous road.
Our digs for the night were the hip QT Museum Wellington, and on our first evening there we took shelter from the rain and wind – the town has actually been dubbed the windiest city on Earth – at their opulent Hippopotamus bar and restaurant. Situated on an upper floor with views of the harbor, the dazzling space, with its mirrored bar, gold chandeliers, stuffed peacock, and Louis-the-something style armchairs sort of transported us to the Ancien Regime era; we may or may not have ordered absinthe. While the dinner menu leaned traditionally French, with escargots, lamb rump, braised Wakanui beef cheeks, and gratin dauphinois dominating, we were excited to see they had vegan options, and opted for the simple and delicious salade végétalienne of quinoa, pinenuts, goji berries & baby spinach – along with an impressive bottle of NZ Pinot.

 

QT Museum Wellington
The following morning we set out to explore downtown, and were met with further evidence of the city’s mind-meld with the Pacific Northwest: its obsession with coffee. Our meeting with John, the manager and bean specialist of Mojo Coffee, had us inundated with more information on the various ways one can make, drink, and basically live a caffeinated existence than we would ever have thought existed. That the company has over 30 outlets in a city of 400K (two thirds the size of Portland) was testament to the populations’ serious caffeine jones.
A charming development in downtown Wellington has been the refurbishment of various alleyways into colorful and art infused ‘laneways.’ As traversing these walkways between streets is a great way to navigate the city, having them splashed with color and street art has brought the crowds; bars and restaurants have naturally flourished.

 

 

It was in one such vestibule that we found the perfect lunch spot in Egmont St Eatery, a light-filled modern café packed with well-dressed millennials and hipsters on laptops; as does Brooklyn and Portland, so does Wellington, apparently. The menu was a delight and we tried the fried fish tortilla with avocado mousse, cabbage, and horopito sauce, and braised paua with dirty rice, shiitake, and crispy shallots.
That evening, following an afternoon exploring the downtown shops, and then a drive into the hills to the very cool Zealandia bird sanctuary, we hit another hip laneway for dinner at the excellent Shepherd – which had us wondering if we were ever to have a questionable dining experience in NZ. Our feast of fried rice with kale, ginger, kimchi, sesame, peanuts, and fried egg and sous vide fish with miso glaze, carrot, ginger, turmeric, and saffron aioli left us in genuine epicurean contentment.

 

 

 

Hawkes Bay

For our final stop on our week-long tour, we took a 55-minute flight northeast of Wellington to the serene vineyard-and-animal-sanctuary-studded region of Hawkes Bay. Distinctly Mediterranean in look and feel, and with the best weather we encountered on our trip, HB was where the enormity of NZ’s Tolkien-like terrain was most apparent.
Lunch at Elephant Hill Winery was our first order of business, and after a delightful tour of the place with CEO Andreas Weiss, we settled in to an elegant repast of oysters and grilled game fish, squid, nam jim, bok choy, fried shallots, and pineapple, accompanied by an 2016 Elephant Hill rosé; Hawkes Bay was quick to show us its sophisticated side.

 

 

The history of HB and its largest city Napier is punctuated by a devastating event; in 1931 a cataclysmic earthquake not only leveled much of the town, but raised the land as much as eight feet, adding close to ten thousand acres of newly dry land to the area. Napier was rebuilt in the style of the time, namely art deco; and while many buildings have been subsequently remodeled, the place remains one of the most intact deco towns in the world.
It was along this quaint pastel backdrop that we strolled on our first evening, eventually alighting for dinner at the thoroughly 21st Century restaurant Bistronomy. Chef James Beck guided us through the menu, which verged on the molecular, without being too ionospherey (Parks & Recreation reference). Sections named Protein, Raw, and Minerals sounded more daunting than they were – our grilled flounder with beetroot & horseradish hollandaise was pretty much as advertised, and wonderful, while the chocolate brownie with lavender, sour mousse, and condensed milk sorbet, while equally amazing, did actually verge on the surreal.

 

 

The following day had us up and out of our rooms at the charming art deco (natch) Masonic Hotel, for a tour of the town, which culminated in lunch at Mister D. To say that this writer is a Rolling Stones fan would be to dredge up that annoying trope about the Pope and Catholicism; we were thusly thrilled that the restaurant was named for their song “Dancing With Mister D” – they even throw annual Stones-themed dining events. Having thus decided this was the best restaurant on Earth, we almost forgot about the food. But we were delighted with their novel takes on the basics: rocket salad, roast fish, poached eggs and the like were all treated with reverence and a touch of whimsy – and their signature doughnuts were a huge hit.

 

 

On our last evening on the island we were treated to the most opulent epicurean experience of the trip, in the form of a progressive dinner. For the uninitiated a “progressive” is where you go to a different restaurant for each course, which may sound like a bit of work; but when the places you go are all highly-regarded wineries – and you’re ferried around in an SUV by a bloke named Gareth who keeps filling your champagne glass – you easily rise to the challenge.
We started with bubbly at the top of a mountain range and progressed through antipasto at Vidal, entrees of Te Mata mushroom and Comté pithivier with wild weed salad and Hohepa haloumi, vine roasted beetroot and burnt honey at Craggy Range’s Terroir restaurant, all accompanied by signature selections of vino, before succumbing to dessert at NZ’s oldest winery, Mission Estate. Established in 1851 by French missionaries, the estate is in the grand tradition of mansion wineries, with a plantation style great house with wraparound terrace, where we took our crème brulee and port, for a final look at the cascading mountains in the distance. It was not the first time we’d thought of postponing our flight home.

 

 

 

Astonishing Caribbean Winter Getaway: Guadeloupe

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When packing for new adventures, the one thing we’ve learned to leave at home is expectations. Certainly there are generalizations that can be made about most destinations: you probably don’t need an overcoat in Cartagena, you will probably blow through your fashion budget in Milan…and Caribbean islands will readily rescue you from your urban winter blues.

But some of those islands will also surprise you – namely Guadeloupe, one of the, shall we say, more furtive island paradises in the Caribbean. Having logged many idle hours in Saint Martin, Jamaica, St. Lucia, the DR and Puerto Rico/Vieques, we might have readily prepped for lazy days there; but wonderfully, that was not to be.

 

 

For starters there’s the French influence, which is profound – especially for such committed Francophiles as are we. The island group (there are five which make up the region) is literally a part of France – bring your leftover euros – and every aspect of life on there has (if you will excuse the cliche) a certain je ne sais quoi. French is obviously the dominant language; but natives also speak a quite lyrical Antillean Creole.

Now first, let us tout the hook of all hooks: Norwegian Air, the game-changing, low-cost Nordic airline has winter flights from JFK at just $59 each way! No, seriously. You can ditch the lugubrious NYC subways and congested LA freeways for just $118 round trip.

 

 

Our hotel for the stay was the perfectly unpretentiously inviting Le Creole Beach Hotel & Spa, in the town of Le Gosier. There, European tourists outnumbered us yanks by a pretty wide margin – which is great, especially if you’ve been itching to flirt with a cute Belgian or Dane.

The main destination is the twin island butterfly of Basse-Terre and Grand-Terre. Our first excursion was to the former and more mountainous of the two, for a hike up the stunning Soufriere. While a few locals lounged in the hot sulfur baths at the volcano’s base, we took the sign ‘Beware of Brain Eating Amoebas’ to heart, and skipped that part of the tour (we later regretted not Instagramming it), heading instead to the historic Fort Delgres to indulge our wildest pirate fantasies. Remaining on Basse-Terre, we lunched on local seafood at the cozy Le Rivage restaurant on Les Bananiers Beach; it’s also a popular spot to surf, and, thusly, to watch the surfers.

 

 

Culture and history were on the agenda for the following day, and we spent time dodging the sun’s murderous rays at the outdoor markets in Point-a-Pitre, pretty much the New Orleans of the Caribbean. We then had a more somber moment at the Memorial ACTe museum, which is given over entirely to the history of slavery. Luckily, we’d picked up a couple of bottles of flavored rum at the market, which we used to numb ourselves a bit to the dispiriting reality of the crimes of humanity.

We did manage to chill out and cool off at the lovely and accessible Cascade aux Ecrevisses waterfall back in Basse-Terre, before an indulgent tour of the decadent House of Cocoa in the middle of the island. We absconded with no small amount of samples.

 

 

That evening’s dinner was at the impossibly charming An Chodye La restaurant in Point-a-Pitre. Fitted into what was once someone’s apartment – the loo was past the bathtub behind a curtain – we helped the waiter with our order by actually writing it down. The joint’s name is Guadeloupean Creole for “The Boiler” and the spécialité de la maison is…soup – which is ordered in varying sizes and amounts, all Creole influenced and made with local ingredients. What a find.

The next day was given over to a visit to one of the three smaller island groups in the archipelago. We took a 20-minute ferry from the rustic coastal town of Trois-Rivieres on Basse-Terre, to the picturesque and compact islands of Les Saintes, alighting on the most welcoming one, Terre de Haut (which translates to “high ground”). Our afternoon of exploration included a visit to the imposing French Fort Napoleon, the beautiful and amazingly deserted Pain de Sucre beach, and the beachfront hotel and restaurant Kanaoa, where we had a typical lunch of grilled fish, rice, and mashed yams. A quick peruse of the shops on the island’s petite main drag kept us busy until it was time to board the ferry back.

 

 

Our final day in Guadeloupe was spent exploring Grand-Terre, the eastern side of Guadeloupe. Flat and rocky and punctuated with beaches, we started at the eastern most tip of La Pointe des Chateaux, and the neighboring town of Saint Francois, marveling at the rugged scenery and miles-long views of the Caribbean sea. Lunch was at the house of a local resident, which seems to be a thing here. We gathered on the outdoor patio at Table d’Hote Chez Francianne (alas no website, but your hotel will be able to direct you) for another typical lunch of grilled fish and veggies and lashings of rum. An afternoon nap on the beach at Saint-Anne, the quaint seaside town in the middle of the island, was the perfect post-repast activity.

For our last dinner we opted for a bit of fancy at Le Relais du Moulin, a hotel/spa/restaurant, which sports a gorgeous windmill as its signature. The menu was a mix of Italian and Caribe influences: lobster ravioli with crustacean reduction, lasagnetta Bolognese. And so reminding us of the island’s cultural ties to Europa.

The L Train seemed a million miles away.

 

An Utterly Transcendent Food + Wine Tour of New Zealand’s North Island, Part I

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There’s a tendency for those of us who have chosen to reside in cities like NYC in our ridiculously overpriced luxury shoeboxes, to possess a particular sort of snobbery about the privilege of knowing that the chef-of-the-moment has just opened the most talked about restaurant in the universe right down the street. Which only makes it all the morning humbling to be reminded that they can do it just as well elsewhere, usually without all the haughtiness.

Which is precisely what transpired on our recent visit to New Zealand, where, during a weeklong stay, we ate and drank our way across the landscape to rapturous effect. Truly, the level of excellence we encountered could hardly be conveyed. From Auckland to Wellington, Hawkes Bay to Waiheke Island, we were duly impressed at every turn…and we didn’t even make it to the South Island.

Speaking of excellence, the delightful flight on Air New Zealand also reminded us of why US airlines could use a few lessons in impeccable service. And for some reason, the day-and-a half-time difference resulted in minimal jet lag…perhaps partially thanks to the employment of the appropriate medicinals?

Here’s how our epicurean tour of Kiwi country’s ethereal North Island played out.

 

Auckland 

After a painless 13-hour flight from LA to Auckland, our first meal allowed us an intimate look at typical Aucklanders out on a Saturday night – and at Depot, across from the famous Sky Tower, they were loud, proud, and knew how to have a good time. The restaurant specializes in casual fresh and sumptuous shareable plates, from oysters and clams to the NZ meat board, which included wild rabbit rillettes, popcorn duck tongue, wild pork salami, beef bresaola and smoked pork loin with cherry relish and fig & fennel crostini. Any doubts as to N-Zed’s chefs’ ability to sit at the big boys table were immediately dashed.
On our first morning we breakfasted at the popular SKYCITY Hotel, before hopping in a rental car and heading an hour or so north (more on driving on the left in another story). Our destination was the Brick Bay Winery and Sculpture Trail, and on the way we stopped for a coffee at the unbelievably charming Puhoi General Store, where the comely young checkout girl seemed genuinely excited that we were from Brooklyn; we only had to go 8,699 miles for that to happen.

 

 

Once at Brick Bay we delighted in strolling the 2km long trail and mercilessly critiquing the 45 sculptures on display; most received raves from us, however, despite our tendency towards cultural jadedness. Then it was back to the winery for a tasting from what is one of the Matakana Wine Region’s top boutique vineyards; we were particularly partial to their crisp rosé. The beautiful Glass House Kitchen restaurant paired BB wines with simple yet delectable menu items, such as the grilled chorizo and fried egg sandwich (with free range bacon, buffalo mozzarella, and roasted garlic aioli).
Matakana also has a town of the same name; and we took a stroll amongst the quaint boutiques and shops before stopping at Sawmill Brewery for a tour and tasting of the local suds. That included an impossibly delicious and healthy lunch of miso baked gurnard with asparagus and preserved lime gremolata. Co-owner Rei Harris’ tale of kayaking to work from his house “upstream” challenged us to come up with not horrible tales of our daily L-Train commute; we failed miserably.

 

Above: Orphans Kitchen; Sawmill Brewery

 

That evening we skipped a traditional dinner and went straight for one of the most creative and decadent desert experiences we’ve ever had the pleasure of…experiencing. Inspired by couture fashion houses, science, art, and technology, Giapo Petrucci and his wife Annarosa make ‘haute ice-cream’ in the form of mind-bogglingly inventive creations like the chocolate covered giant squid, at their namesake Giapo. The couple were so passionate about their creations that we couldn’t disappoint them by not trying them all.
The following day, before saying adieu Auckland, we checked out some shopping on Ponsonby Road, and had yet another impressive lunch at Orphans Kitchen. The simple, quaint restaurant on a boutique-lined street serves food so fresh there isn’t a standard menu; but our waiter suggested wood roasted chook with kiwifruit mole, kumara tortillas, as well as a side of oysters and a cheeky glass of Pinot…and who were we to disagree?

 

Waiheke Island

 

Our next stop was Waiheke Island, a stunning, 32-square-mile rock, just a 30-minute seaplane ride east of Auckland, that is home to over 20 wineries and close to 50 hotels. During the summer its 7,000 permanent residents are inundated by 50,000 visitors (think: The Hamptons, without all the hangers-on).
Auckland Seaplanes dropped us off at 10am on a seemingly deserted beach in a stunning cove, and promptly departed. We were about to start gathering wood and laying animal traps when we were welcomed by an amiable missionary from Man O’ War Vineyards, located about 50 yards from our position, who escorted us to the tasting room (so, we were “stranded” for all of about five minutes). Named for the battleships that Captain James Cook of the British Royal Navy sailed in the 1700’s, the winery is one of the island’s finest – although that impression may have been influenced by the thrill of drinking good vino at 10 in the morning. Their Sauvignon Blanc and Tulia Blanc de Blanc were the definitive standouts.

 

Man O’ War Wine Estate

 

We spent the remainder of the afternoon being ferried around Waiheke by a wonderful guide from local tour operator Ananda Tours, who had once worked in the Auckland music biz. He regaled us with a constant geyser of information about the island between stops at various vineyards and restaurants. First up was an alcohol-free vineyard (or “orchard”), which excelled in another dinner table staple, olive oil. The Rangihoua Olive Estate is an award-winning 100% NZ owned purveyor of the extra virgin variety, which we sampled in abundance.
Stony Ridge and Mudbrick vineyards followed, both of which were in the grand tradition of opulent wineries, the former focusing on luscious reds, the latter including cottages and a lodge for when one doesn’t want to sleep too far from the next bottle. We had a late lunch of local Te Makutu Bay oysters, olives, and the vineyard’s signature Shepherds Point Merlot in the Mudbrick restaurant, overlooking the rolling hills and ocean beyond.
Our final stop for the day was our room for the night at the gorgeous Boatshed, a boutique hotel where our four-course dinner was served in the downstairs sitting room with yet another ethereal view of the baycr The crème brûlée was to die for, and a sublime cap off to our visit.
In Part 2 we travel south and east explore Wellington and Hawkes Bay.

 

The Boatshed

 

 

 

 

Au Revoir, Saint Germain! Four Days in Paris’ Trendy East

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Image by Amelie Laurin

 

New York City’s hackneyed boast of being the city that never sleeps is a trope so outdated by now as to be comical. Seriously, we’ve had more late nights in Nashville lately.

But much even to our own surprise, we recently discovered that Paris comes surprisingly close to the top of our late night list; and while our friends in Berlin and Barcelona may challenge that, a recent whirlwind of a trip through the City of Light had us very willingly staying up way past our typical NYC bedtime.

After a relatively quick and uncomplicated voyage – thanks to a lovely Air France redeye, and some well-chosen medicinals – we came to rest on the far east side of town, a place where, if a view of the Eiffel Tower or Montmartre is absolutely necessary, requires quite  a lot of squinting and neck craning. But with the perpetually hip Mama Shelter hotel as our home base, we spent the next several days discovering a multitude of new streets to stumble down, whilst steering exceedingly clear of those pesky tourist throngs.

 

Image by Amelie Laurin 

 

The snail-shell-like map of Paris’ arrondissements locates the 20th, 12th and 13th on the eastern edge of the city. We made Pere Lachaise Cemetery – final resting place of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison – our central landmark, and ventured forth to traverse the neighborhoods of Menilmontant, Bastille, Belleville and Bercy, areas more akin to where we typically roam at home in Greenpoint and Bushwick. Potentially intimidating waiters at white-cloth-tabled bistros were replaced by hip millennials offering cheap wine and organic veggies. And late nights on a floating dance club that stayed open for 50 hours straight were fueled by numerous imbibables.

Here’s how it all played out.

 

Air France offers the best in US/FR flights, for our money. Our overnight from JFK kicked off with complimentary champers in the airport lounge – what better start could one ask for?

The aforementioned Mama Shelter, the Philippe Starck designed boutique hotel that we made home, featured a cheery staff and a perpetually energized restaurant/bar off the lobby…that transformed into a lively scene come sundown each evening.

 

Mama Shelter 

 

First stop was the charming open-air market Marche Aligre in the Bastille, where we sampled delicacies from local restaurants Miss Lunch, Maguey, Marcelle and others as part of a city wide restaurant tour.

For us, Paris is even more of a walking city than New York – to be sure, we’re always excited to plant our feet on those ancient cobblestones. We found a wonderful street art walking tour that had us cruising the rues of the 13th, and turned us on to what’s happening beyond the pricey galleries of Saint Germain.

 

 

We know there’s no end of hallowed art museums in Paris; but we were intrigued to come across the Art Ludique, which featured an amazing DC Comics exhibit – including authentic Batman memorabilia – and got us in the mood for Paris Comic Con In October. It’s located in the modern Cite de la Mode at du Design, the roof of which hosts not one but three bars, and jaw-dropping views of the Seine.

As we were on the river, we stayed for dinner at one of many water-adjacent establishments… specifically Petit Bain, which was great for laid-back fish and chips and cocktails – sustenance we’d need for the planned late night ahead.

 

Image by Amelie Laurin

 

After being reminded that it was considered one of the greatest nightclubs in the world, we felt just a tad intimidated braving the line at Rex Club. We needn’t have, the place was the epitome of dance club chapel, with no attitude, awesome sound, and nonstop cocktails; a very late night return to Mama Shelter resulted in us missing breakfast, and lunch, the following day.

We did manage to grab an afternoon snack of pumpernickel toast with avocado, radish, red onions and deviled eggs at the hip Grand Central Restaurant and to check out the cool open space it is adjacent to, CENTQUATRE PARIS. The latter is used by budding dancers and performance artists to test their routines; it’s like the Fame school with baguettes.

We always love the Paris Metro for shuttling around between musees and bistrotheques; but when we were introduced to the option of a motorcycle sidecar tour, how could we say no? Their charming, and Gallic-sort-of-macho drivers had us yelling “tally ho Jeeves”…but in French, of course. The cycles dropped us off at one of the city sponsored creative hubs, Les Ateliers de Paris, where budding design houses are given yearly studio space in which to develop their aesthetic. We discovered stylish sneaker manufacturer Garconne & Cherubin and leatherwear designer AMPLR, whose chic backpacks would soon be slung over our shoulders.

 

 

Then it was off to Rosa sur Seine, where we met up with the director of the Paris nightlife council Frederic Hocquard. His business card reads Charge de la Nuit, and his main mission is to regulate the city’s nocturnal activities, including its 150 discos and clubs, thirteen thousand bars and venues, and six-hundred thousand nighttime workers. Sounds like fun, but we guessed he was probably pretty tired a lot of the time.

As were we on the edge – okay in the middle – of the decidedly more bourgeoisie 7th, we made a quick side trip through Invalides to visit with an artist friend at the gloriously Parisian classic bistro Le Tourville, before heading back to the 12th for a lovely dinner of salade de quinoa, et légumes du soleil, crevettes à l’ail (grilled shrimp over quinoa) at the exceedingly hip La Bellevilloise, a multi-room cultural center that includes a live music venue, restaurant, nightclub and outdoor surf bar. Director/founder Renaud Barillet has devoted years to developing the venue, and is also involved with numerous other public cultural spaces.

 

 

Our subsequent late night at Concrete could have been a lot more decadent, as the venerated riverfront club is open continuously from 8pm on Friday until Monday morning – and hosts the crème de la crème of international dance music DJs…techno/house being the vibe the night we were there. We didn’t encounter anyone planning to stay for the entire weekend, but we were pretty sure they were there.

Our final morning in Paris had us visiting the charming suburban commune of Saint Ouen, just north of the city’s boundary; it’s home to Paris’ enormous flea market, and the highest concentration of antique dealers in the world. We made a stop at the singularly cool MOB Hotel for a lunch of leek and avocado salad and squash soup, then spent time lounging around the hotel’s stylish and comfy lobby, before heading back to the Air France terminal at Charles de Gaulle…and what we hoped would be another couple of rounds of pre-flight bubbly.

 

BlackBook Exclusive: DJ Lady Kier’s Groovalicious Playlist Celebrating POP Montreal’s #Sweet16

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We’ve loved Lady Miss Kier since she grooved her way into our hearts back in 1990, as 1/3 of the super fantabulous Deee-Lite.

Now going by the honorable title DJ Lady Kier, she will be one of the many and sundry musical highlights of this year’s POP Montreal festival, #Sweet16 edition. Resolutely indie at heart, the five-day (September 13-17) extravaganza will feature the likes of RZA, Austra, The Dears, Son Little, Naomi Punk, Doe Paoro and John Maus.

As a tease for her late night set at Piccolo Little Burgundy on Sept. 14th (with Jessy Lanza and Quay Dash), Lady Kier has put together this totally fierce playlist exclusively for POP Montreal and BlackBook. So start booking those flights to Montreal, and don’t forget to bring your best headphones for the plane.

 

Cartagena Cool Part II: The Lowdown on Latin America’s Most Alluring City

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Continuing our exploration of the seductive Colombian city of Cartagena de Indias (see Part I of the story), we ventured out of the walled city to see how the locals live.

A 10-minute walk directly south of the Old City, and past the Parque del Centenario, brought us to Getsemani, the town’s once very sketchy but now colorful bohemian hub. Strolling its quiet (during the day at least), narrow, tree-lined streets we came across all manor of intriguing urban life: old men playing dominoes in dusty front rooms – front doors and windows are often wide open, presumably to encourage a little circulation – which double as industrious, home-based businesses (i.e. beauty parlors), and stray cats and dogs lounging in the sun. In the evenings the bars fill up, and enthusiastic party people take over.

 

 

It was in Getsemani, and more specifically at Demente, a hip but romantic restaurant with a soaring atrium and amazing pizza, that we first met Julian Baker of Travel Colombia Direct – our insider for all things Cartagena. While Baker still sounds like the British prep schooler that he is, nine years in Colombia have infused him with a very South American cosmopolitanism, along with an excellent grasp of Spanish. His lovely Cartagenan wife Juliana, a jewelry designer, is also an advisor to the travel company.

“It’s a unique beautiful city,” Julian enthused, “with some of the most charming people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. This place has something for everyone: typical and international gastronomy, pumping nightlife, first class hotels, fantastic shopping, history, art and culture. All wrapped up in year-round sunny days, local beaches and nearby islands – a magical place, that will take your breath away if you give her the chance to.”

Dinner and drinks at Demente gave way to a midnight stroll through the hot streets; kids were still up playing football in front of the old church and portable refreshment carts supplied unnecessary yet delicious, sugary nightcaps. We stumbled back to our hotel, the bewitching Casa Pizarro, while the street scenes played out until dawn.

 

 

For the record, another great hotel choice in the neighborhood is Monterrey, on Getsemani’s northern perimeter. It has a rooftop pool and bar with a magnificent 360-degree view of the city…for just $80 a night.

While the best shopping in Cartagena is in the Old City, we discovered the marvelous Artesanias de Colombia around the corner from our hotel, which retails beautiful, handmade local housewares and clothing. Moving farther afield we headed west to Bocagrande, Cartagena’s downtown and beach area, where new chain hotels and shopping malls are bringing modern gentrification to the area. We saved our water sports for more exotic locales, but found the charmingly ramshackle beachfront restaurant Kiosco El Bony, where we dug into a lunch of fried fish and coconut rice, all washed down with a couple of bottles of Aguila beer.

 

Artesanias de Colombia

 

Cartagena is surrounded by water and we were eager to get out on it. The best way to hit the waves is to charter a small private boat and head to the Rosario Islands (a cluster of about 30), about an hour off shore, with plenty of options for swimming, beaching, eating and drinking; a few even have hotels. Travel Colombia Direct organizes day trips and more, including yoga retreats, like this one in October. For something a little less elaborate, grab a taxi and head 30 minutes northeast of the city to the dusty town of Manzanillo Del Mar, where the beach is beautiful and quiet and you can grab lunch at one of the cheap and cheerful local restaurants.

On our last night we had a wonderful tapas dinner at the cool, international Spanish/Colombian restaurant Caffé Lunatico, on one of Getsemani’s quiet side streets. Afterwards we headed back to the Old City, joined the locals at Café del Mar, an always buzzing bar/restaurant on top of the 17th Century city wall, where we watched the sun set into the ocean.

Just as we found ourselves doing, you’ll likely spend the final hours of your trip to Cartagena planning your return.

 

Rosario Islands 

 

 

 

Boardwalk Empire: A Plush Weekend Getaway at Atlantic City’s Borgata

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There’s always been a lot of drama in Atlantic City. After all, it was once, as Steve Buscemi so diabolically demonstrated on Boardwalk Empire, a hub of nefarious activity. As we learned from that show, just building the roads in and out was a life or death enterprise. And while there have been more goings than comings (at least of the real estate variety) of late – the last of which, with the closing of the Taj Mahal casino in the summer of 2016, bore the name of our current Commander-in-Tweet – we never pass up a chance to hit one of our fave weekend getaways: the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa.

On a recent long weekend, we alighted in the plush lobby of the Water Club just in time for Friday cocktail hour (okay, it’s always sort of cocktail hour in AC.) The WC is the Borgata’s boutique-hotel-within-a-hotel, where we would be laying our heads. And for the next few days we just got lost in in the opulence of the city’s plushest resort – while reacquainting ourselves with the charms of downtown and its well-trod boardwalk.

Here were the highs, and, thanks to our lack of finesse at the craps table, one minor low.

 

 

The View

With a combined 2800 guest rooms the hotel complex is pretty much an empire unto itself. The fact that’s it’s not on the boardwalk, but a couple of miles inland, distances it from some of the less, you know, glamorous establishments. Our sleek room on the 27th floor of the Water Club afforded us a spectacular view of the harbor and Atlantic Ocean – a great start.

Going Japanese

Walkways lined with shops lead from both hotels and converge on the casino floor and some world class dining establishments. On our first night, we opted for sumptuous Japanese at chef Michael Schulson’s buzzy Izakaya. Edamame dumplings exploded with a broth of sake and truffles (food of the Gods, veritably) and were small enough that we didn’t feel guilty that we ordered two. An entree of salt & pepper flounder with red chili relish, nori, and shishito was equally delish. After a slightly fuzzy, sake-soaked post-dinner walk around the tables we headed back to the room, with plans for a busy day to follow.

 

 

A Bloody Sunny Start

Our fave spot for breakfast was the Water Club’s lobby level Sunroom, a lush oasis of cascading waterfalls and plentiful plant life. So, perfect for lingering rapturously over a lobster & bacon omelette and a Water Club Classic bloody mary.

Swimming, Beer

We spent the morning having a swim or three, starting at the top, literally, with the Water Club’s Immersion Spa – 32 floors above the casino. Floating in the 80-foot long infinity pool with 360-degree views of the Atlantic shore had us feeling worlds away from the New York City anxiety and stress. Back at lobby level we lounged at both the indoor pool with dual jacuzzis, and the Borgata’s outdoor pool, which is conveniently located next to its super fun Beer Garden.

 

 

Over the Boardwalk

Atlantic City itself has a windswept charm that recalls a simpler time. The fact that some of the boardwalk casinos are shuttered lends the place a distinct air of mystery, but also a curious calm. The Hamptons it is definitely not. A leisurely walk on the boardwalk, requisite sun, seagulls and funky pizza joints in place, made for a genuinely enjoyably mellow afternoon.

Meatballs and Chris Rock

That evening’s dinner was at the newly opened Angeline by Michael Symon, the James Beard and Iron Chef award winner’s ode to classic Italian food. The menu had few surprises, just perfect takes on chicken parm, Caesar salad, and our fave, “Mom’s Meatballs.” On to the main event, as we packed into the on-site, 1000 seat Music Box Theater for a set from the still provocative Chris Rock, who was touring his Total Blackout show. (N.B. The theater also hosts a weekly burlesque show.)

 

Angeline by Michael Symon

Losing With Dignity

As the word casino features prominently in the Borgata’s name, there was no chance of ever losing sight of the hotel’s hundreds of slot machines and gaming tables. We limited ourselves to a modest bankroll, with which we managed to hang on to for close to an hour, before surrendering it at a blackjack table. The loss was well worth it for the great people watching, and a couple of gratis cocktails.

The Nightcap

A final nightcap was proffered in the form of good old bottle service at the hotel’s glammy mega club Premier – an over the top DJ emporium, which is promising a rebirth of nightlife in AC. Judging by the shenanigans we witnessed, we’d say they’re on to something.

 

 

Cartagena Cool Part I: The Lowdown on Latin America’s Most Alluring City

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Cartagena de Indias, the exotic port city on Colombia’s northern Caribbean coast, has been something of an in-the-know spot for those with an adventurous streak. Indeed, Mick Jagger has been visiting since the ’90s, and Justin Bieber even bought a house here. And though the pace of new hotel, restaurant and retail openings might seem to indicate that the city has moved up the trendometer, it’s still under-the-radar enough to be…exotic.

Certainly there was a time when the words “vacation” and “Colombia” just didn’t sit well within the same sentence. In the ‘70s and ‘80s the country pretty much invented the cocaine industry, courtesy of noted narco-terrorist Pablo Escobar; and that, combined with the fifty-plus-years civil war with the Peoples Revolutionary Army (FARC), didn’t inspire visions of romantic Latin American getaways.

 

 

These days, however, it’s a much different story. In the early aughts the Colombian government launched a major get-rid-of-the-dealers initiative, resulting in a relocation of the Americas coke trade to Mexico. And effective efforts to end the civil war over the last several years has seen the remaining members of FARC assimilating into Colombian society. Colombia’s murder rate is at it lowest since the early ‘70s.

Cartagena was always the jewel of Colombia, the place where even Escobar would come to escape the, um, stress of his job. Fortress walls dating back to the 17th Century surround the central Old City – a UNESCO World Heritage site – and the main tourist area, within which you’ll find hotels and restaurants to rival those in Paris or New York. Beyond the walls are the scruffier but equally interesting enclaves of Getsemani, Bocagrande, Manga, and the quaintly residential Castilogrande. We fell in love with Cartagena and other spots along the Colombian Riviera on our first visit, and have been going back regularly since. Our eminent guides have been Travel Colombia Direct (more on them in Part II), who have helped us to feel at home in the city.

 

 

As long as you’re prepared for the heat – the year round prevailing temperature being hot – Cartagena is an easy and affordable getaway. JetBlue now flies direct from JFK in less time than it takes to get to San Francisco; and once there, typical hotel and restaurant bills are a good 25% less than you’d find in a comparable big American city.

Starting at the top is the classically sophisticated Sofitel Santa Clara, recently voted best luxury hotel in South America (a Conde Nast Readers Poll); Jagger stayed in the royal suite, as he would. Less opulent and pricy but no less charming is the lovely Casa Quero, housed in a historic colonial mansion. Fashion designer Silvia Tcherassi’s Tcherassi Hotel + Spa adds wellness and pampering, and has a chic poolside restaurant.

 

Sofitel Santa Clara

 

While Cartagena is technically a beach town, the actual beaches in town are not on par with their Caribbean neighbors (more on the amazing beaches just off shore in Part II), leaving travelers to occupy themselves as one would in any cosmopolitan city – and that obviously includes shopping. The spider web of streets in the Old City are a walker’s paradise of bustling local boutiques, street vendors, and upscale jewelers, with security at the door and NASA-worthy air-conditioning. With trays of dazzling emeralds and sapphires, Lucy stands out for its selection and service; for fashionable local styles we love the charming St Dom, but we’re also happy to explore the outdoor markets and vendors, including Las Bovedas, where we have tried on many a Panama hat. (Yes, they sell them in Colombia.)

Time to eat, and the options are seemingly endless. Of course fresh fish is a staple, as is plenty of steak, all accompanied by platacones, salsa, and beer or fruit shakes. One of our favorites is La Mulata, a casual Caribbean joint that’s always packed, and has some of the best grilled fish. Head to La Cevicheria early as, come dinnertime, the wait is endless; it’s got the best ceviche in Cartagena. For an over the top Argentinian carnivore experience, nothing beats the kitschy Patagonia Asados del Sur. And two new hotspots on our radar include the lively (it’s more a bar/club than resto) La Movida, and the pristine Moshi, which combines Asian and Caribbean cuisines; it was the first time we saw crispy pig’s head carnitas on a menu.

 

La Movida 

Coming up in Cartagena Part II we venture outside the walls to find the city’s equivalent of Brooklyn (or Oakland), plus an offshore paradise.

Celebrating Dorothy Parker’s Legendary Wit at the New York Distilling Company

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Perhaps the most stinging ever critique of writing-as-a-career-choice, Dorothy Parker once trenchantly suggested, “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

Yet there is much about the epigrammatic American author that gets lost amidst the razor-sharp one-liners and ribald tales of boozing and, err…manizing. As one of the first female writers to flourish in the world of nineteen-twenties magazine publishing – at Vanity Fair and then as one of the initial editors of the New Yorker – she commanded legions of followers, many of her poems and short stories going on to become best-sellers.

Parker’s mid-career move to Hollywood was equally successful, earning her Academy Award nominations and the paychecks that come with them. Later blacklisted as a Communist after years of courageously championing civil liberties and liberal causes, she battled alcohol abuse and depression while protesting fascism and government abuses. DP was one tough chick.

Having passed in 1967, in 1994 she was brilliantly, incisively portrayed by Jennifer Jason Leigh in the scintillating, visceral biopic Mrs. Parker and The Vicious Circle.

 

 

In 2011 Brooklyn’s New York Distilling Company, the borough’s premiere craft distilling operation, created a gin in honor of Ms. Parker, a renowned gin lover. And this week they are organizing a pair of events in their in house venue, The Shanty, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of her death.

Members of the Dorothy Parker Society, along with some of the exalted writer’s relatives, are to be in attendance, and will be sharing stories of her life. Most importantly, as The Shanty is literally part of the distillery, there will be little chance of running out of gin.

Just take care to heed the words of Parker herself, “I like to have a martini, two at the very most. After three I’m under the table, after four I’m under my host.”

 

Memories of Aunt Dot

Friday, June 2nd, 6:30pm
Dorothy Parker’s grand-nieces Susan Cotton, Nancy Arcaro and Joan Grossman will be joined at The Shanty by the director of the Dorothy Parker Society, Kevin Fitzpatrick. Throughout the evening, The New York Distilling Company’s Dorothy Parker Gin cocktails will flow, while these intimately-knowledgeable hosts share stories and scrapbook memories of ‘Aunt Dot’.

Party Like it’s 1967

Wednesday, June 7th, 7pm
The Dorothy Parker Society will party like it’s 1967 to mark the 50th Anniversary of Dorothy Parker’s passing. This boozy literary evening will comprise live readings of Dorothy Parker poems, as well as music and a selection of Dorothy Parker Gin specialty cocktails.

 

The Shanty at New York Distilling Co.