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Friday, July 29, 2011

'Killer Seaweed' Plagues French Beaches

'Killer Seaweed' Plagues French Beaches

Travelers to France's Brittany region are being warned of toxic seaweed that is coating beaches and killing wildlife.

In the Saint Brieuc area of northern Brittany, a region in northwest France, dead wild boars have been found along local beaches. The suspected culprit? Rotting algae, reports

The poisonous blue-green algae releases toxic fumes as it decomposes. It's believed that breathing in these fumes caused the boars' deaths, and it can be the same for humans.

"This is a very toxic gas, which smells like rotten eggs," Brittany marine biologist Alain Menesguen told "It attacks the respiratory system and can kill a man or an animal in minutes."

"We are very worried for the health of visitors to beaches around here," Morieux mayor Jean-Pierre Briens said, urging travelers to use caution when going near beaches.

According to local government, the seaweed is above a health alert level, but below severe danger level.

Seaweed, a type of algae, is common along these beaches. It becomes toxic and releases hydrogen sulphide when it mixes with nitrogen waste runoff from pig and poultry farms.

"There is no doubt that farming is to blame," environmentalist Jean-Frangois Piquot told the Daily Mail. "Brittany has 5 percent of French agricultural land but 60 percent of the pigs, 45 percent of the poultry and 30 per cent of the dairy farms."

According to the paper, over the past decade, demands from local councils to control the waste produced by these intensive farming practices has fallen on deaf ears. The government's solution has consisted of hiring teams of workers to haul away the seaweed – which just comes back again.

In 2009 a member of a seaweed clearing team was poisoned by gas and taken to hospital in a coma. That same year a horseback rider passed out and his horse died after breathing the fumes.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Italy's best affordable country inns

Italy's best affordable country inns

By Valerie Waterhouse

From an ancient stone villa in Piedmont to an atelier in Florence, we reveal Italy's best affordable country inns.

Novecamere Resort, Le Marche

An unassuming cream-stone house with blue shutters in Le Marche's Conero Park, Novecamere Resort is not for those seeking high-tech amenities. Eco-conscious and organic are the aesthetic here.

Travel + Leisure: See more photos of the inns

The nine guest rooms are stylishly spare with natural oak floors, white Conero-stone walls, and handmade linens. For breakfast, owner Isabella Fabiani serves salumi, cherries, plums, peaches, and grapes straight from her farm, and she'll whip up fluffy goat-cheese omelettes on demand.

There's not much to do at Novecamere except relax, which is precisely the point.

5 Via Cave, Sirolo; 39-071/933-2127; doubles from $259, including breakfast.

Relais Cattedrale, Piedmont

Globe-trotting owner Laura Elsa Valente has transformed her family's 18th-century palazzo in the medieval town of Asti into a fashionable country retreat.

The seven rooms -- four of which have restored ceiling frescoes, discovered during the renovation -- are appointed with Turkish silk floral carpets and Moroccan wrought-iron lamps sourced from Valente's travels.

In summer, locals join guests in the Renaissance-style garden to drink Asti Spumante, the region's sparkling white wine, and hear live acoustic music.

7 Via Cattedrale, Asti; 39-0141/092-099; doubles from $168, including breakfast.

Travel + Leisure: World's best hotels 2011

Town House Street, Milan

Milan has long had the reputation of being a staid and business-minded city, but a design renaissance is helping to transform its image. Take Town House Street, an innovative B&B in the Citta Studi district, just a 10-minute walk from downtown.

Created by local architect Simone Michele, the four ground-floor suites are housed in converted shops, each with its own entrance that opens up onto café-filled Via Goldoni. Eye-popping colors (red, orange, yellow, green) and giant black-and-white paintings of Milanese street scenes punctuate the modern interiors. One caveat: You'll have to head next door to Town House 33 for breakfast.

33 Via Goldoni; 39-02/70156; doubles from $360.

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Villa Lina, Venice

Hidden behind the Nason & Moretti glass factory on the island of Murano is this secluded pink-washed manse. Surrounded by oleander and lemon trees, the contemporary inn was decorated by owner Evi Nason, wife of local glassware designer Carlo Nason.

Vintage Murano lamps and vases can be found in all the suites, along with four-poster beds and orange leather couches perfect for perusing the hotel's expansive art-book collection. What we love most? The view from the veranda across the lagoon to central Venice, just a short vaporetto ride away.

12 Calle dietro gli Orti, Murano; 39-041/527-5358; doubles from $216, including breakfast.

Casa Schlatter, Florence

Once the atelier of 19th-century Swiss painter Adolfo Schlatter, this three-suite retreat is like an antiques-filled museum dedicated to the artist. It's no wonder, given that the owner, Alessandra, is Schlatter's great-grandaughter.

She'll greet you at the door and take you on a tour of his masterpieces, including some dramatic oil paintings of Florence. The inn's greatest asset is the location -- within walking distance of downtown Florence but far enough out to have space for a private garden.

14 Viale dei Mille; 39-347/118-0215; doubles from $122.

Travel + Leisure: Outrageous hotel perks for pets

Al Cardinal Mazzarino, Piedmont

The Portofino of Piedmont -- that's what Italians call the hilltop village of Cherasco, where well-heeled families including those linked to the Agnellis, of Fiat fame, spend their holidays.

Guests may not live like the Italian aristocracy at Al Cardinal Mazzarino, but they'll find calm in abundance: the 19th-century former convent has only three modest but elegant suites with botanical prints on the walls and striped silk Bellora bedspreads. Linger over a breakfast of house-made almond cake and croissants in the rose-filled courtyard.

48 Via San Pietro, Cherasco; 39-0172/488-364; doubles from $230, including breakfast.

Casa San Ruffino, Le Marche

When British transplants Ray and Claire Gorman got fed up working in banking, they moved to Le Marche and opened the honey-hued Casa San Ruffino. With the views of lush farmland and the blue-tinted Sibillini Mountains from each of the four airy suites, it's easy to understand why.

A few highlights: vintage terra-cotta floors, exposed wooden beams, and (unusual for an Italian B&B) a fully stocked and fairly priced mini-bar.

13 Contrada Montese, Montegiorgio; 39-0734/962-753; doubles from $187, including breakfast.

Villa Urbani, Rome

Music is the raison d'être at this early 1900's mansion on the avenue that leads from the hip Trastevere neighborhood to Gianicolo Hill.

Two Italian set designers are the brains behind the contemporary interiors, which are filled with Art Deco furnishings and black-and-white photographs of international musicians.

In the high-ceilinged dining room, classical and jazz melodies can be heard around the clock, and, if you're lucky, owner Laura Urbani will invite you to a private concert in the villa's patio garden.

2 Via Trenta Aprile; 39-333/481-7313; doubles from $146, including breakfast.

Casa Baladin, Piedmont

If you're a beer aficionado, you may have heard of Teo Musso, the maverick behind the Italian craft-beer movement, whose Casa Baladin is across the road from Le Baladin pub, in the village of Piozzo.

The five rooms have themes related to travel destinations, from China, with an antique, black-and-red-lacquer bed and vintage floral fabrics, to Africa, with walls covered in traditional tribal paintings. Book a tasting at Musso's pub to sample his artisan-made ales, including our favorite, the Isaac, flavored with coriander and orange peel.

34 Piazza 5 Luglio, Piozzo; 39-0173/795-239; doubles from $175, including breakfast.

Le Tre Stanze, Florence

Just steps from the Duomo, the bohemian-chic Le Tre Stanze is a favorite haunt of artists, writers, and musicians. Decadent glamour is the theme here, from the worn tile floors and handmade wooden beds to the objéts d'art (antique porcelain bowls; terra-cotta sculptures).

Book the Mansarda Room with its own terrace overlooking the city's centuries-old palazzi.

43 Via dell'Oriuolo; 39-329/212-8756; doubles from $173.

Relais Villa Antea, Florence

A friendly dog named Marta welcomes you to Relais Villa Antea, an ocher-colored villa owned by sisters Diletta and Serena Lenzi.

Inside, a Renaissance-style staircase framed by three archways gives way to six well-appointed suites with pastel-colored curtains, Empire-style armoires, and plush armchairs covered in vintage fabrics. The Lenzis treat guests like family and are more than happy to offer the inside scoop on the city's best restaurants and boutiques.

46 Via Puccinotti; 39-055/484-106; doubles from $157, including breakfast.

Masseria Cimino, Puglia

If you're searching for a romantic getaway in the Pugliese countryside, look no further than Masseria Cimino, an 18th-century farmhouse surrounded by centuries-old olive groves.

White-stone sconces illuminate the 15 whitewashed rooms, some with stone fireplaces and private balconies that look out onto the crystal-blue Adriatic. Bring an appetite: the hotel's stylish restaurant will have you feasting on authentic Puglian specialties and the region's renowned Primitivo wines.

Contrada Masciola, Brindisi; 39-080/482-7886; doubles from $497, including breakfast and dinner.

Le Case Della Saracca, Piedmont

One of the four ancient houses that make up Le Case della Saracca was previously home to a quirky farmer named Camiot who kept a donkey on his third-floor balcony.

Today, his former residence has been turned into an edgy B&B and osteria. A stone candlelit passageway leads to a mazelike interior, where glass walkways connect six rustic-chic rooms (washbasins carved from tree trunks; exposed wood-beamed ceilings; flagstone floors).

After a day of exploring the nearby vineyards and truffle farms, head to the inn's restaurant for such regional specialties as risotto with artichokes and bacon, and local goat cheese au gratin.

3-5 Via Cavour, Monteforte d'Alba; 39-0173/789-222; doubles from $190.

Il Resentin, Milan

Italian pop star Eros Ramazzotti is trying his hand at the hospitality business. In the artsy Brera zone, his Il Resentin draws a sophisticated crowd looking for an intimate alternative to the city's top hotels.

The four understated rooms are set above a bustling restaurant and bar (also owned by Ramazzotti) with plush white bedding and gray-and-taupe-striped walls. But it's the small details that make this place stand out: fresh flower arrangements everywhere, Linea Comfort Zone bath products, and free bicycles for exploring the city.

24 Via Mercato; 39-02/875-923; doubles from $418, including breakfast.

JetBlue introduces new flight passes

JetBlue introduces new flight passes

By Marnie Hunter

JetBlue Airways is courting business travelers with three new flight passes announced Thursday.

The BluePass offers unlimited travel on flights between August 22 and November 22 from two airports, Boston's Logan International and Long Beach Airport near Los Angeles.

"We are the largest carrier in both Boston and Long Beach, and we have built a solid network of key destinations and high frequencies in these markets," Dennis Corrigan, JetBlue's vice president of sales and revenue management, said in a statement.

For $1,299, travelers can fly between Long Beach and nine markets in the West, Texas and Illinois. Two options are available originating in Boston; a $1,499 pass to 13 Northeast markets or a $1,999 pass for travel from Boston to 32 cities with nonstop service and 22 connecting cities.

Bookings must be made online starting August 15. Travelers may book any available seat up to 90 minutes before departure with no blackout dates.

The pass is a more targeted take on the airline's "all-you-can-jet" pass, an offer introduced in 2009 for unlimited flights for one month between all JetBlue destinations.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Congress to airlines: Pass along savings to passengers or trust fund

Congress to airlines: Pass along savings to passengers or trust fund
By Mike M. Ahlers

Airlines benefiting from a unplanned federal tax holiday should save the money for the government or pass it along to the passengers, but should not pocket the money themselves, key congressional leaders said Tuesday.

At issue is millions of dollars in passenger taxes -- taxes ordinarily collected by the airlines. But since Saturday, the airlines have not collected the taxes because of Congress's inability to pass a bill to fund the Federal Aviation Administration.

The airlines could have passed along the savings to air travelers. But instead, most airlines raised their base ticket prices at amounts equal to, or similar to, the expired tax.

That has prompted outrage from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, who see eye-to-eye about little else.

Two Democratic lawmakers said the airlines' actions belied the industry's frequent lament that government taxes and fees hurt air travel.

"As we have heard from airlines for many years, these fees, all of which are passed on to the consumer, depress the demand for air travel, hurting the industry's bottom line. We are left to conclude that your previous assertions were incorrect about the impact of taxes and fees on the industry," Sens. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-West Virginia; and Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, wrote in a letter to Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson, chairman of the board of the Air Transport Association, an industry group.

Rockefeller and Cantwell urged the airlines to "put all of the profits that they are making" from the tax lapse into an escrow account so they can transfer it to the Airport and Airway Trust Fund (AATF) when Congress reinstates the taxes.

"If the industry is unwilling to protect the integrity of the AATF, at a minimum, it should pass the savings onto the consumers," the senators said.

In an interview with CNN on Monday, Rep. John Mica, R-Florida, made a similar suggestion, saying the airlines should act responsibly, "either holding the money for the trust fund or not ripping off the consumer."

"I expect airlines across the country to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars. Either voluntarily or through statute or through our next (FAA budget) extension, we'll make certain that the money does go into the trust fund and it isn't pocketed by the big airlines," Mica said.

The tax holiday could save passengers $25 to $50 on a typical flight. Collectively, the taxes amount to about $200 million a week, the government says.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood also bashed the airlines for increasing fees when the tax expired.

"I think that's unfair to the flying public," LaHood said Monday. "What I've said to the airline association is you need to start thinking about the customer. And the fact that you're not collecting the tax should not be a burden on the customer, on the flying customer."

The Air Transport Association said it is preparing a response to Sens. Rockefeller and Cantwell.

"Customers are not impacted and are paying the same ticket prices they were last week," ATA spokesman Steve Lott said. "As we have done for months, we strongly urge members from both chambers of Congress to meet together and resolve their differences in order to enact a long-term FAA reauthorization bill."

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Vacation Remedies: Best Solution for a Jellyfish Sting

Expert: Put Vinegar, Not Urine, On Jellyfish Stings

Despite what you may have heard, the head of the British Red Cross would like you to know that peeing on a jellyfish sting doesn't work very well at making the pain go away.
"Urine just doesn’t have the right chemical make-up to solve the problem," Joe Mulligan, the head of the British Red Cross, told The Telegraph.
Instead, people should first get out of the water, so that the jellyfish won't sting them again, he said.Pouring vinegar over the sting is the best solution to relieve the pain, but seawater also works if there is no vinegar handy, The Telegraph reported.
Dr. Ryan Stanton, medical director at UK HealthCare Good Samaritan Hospital in Lexington, Ky., told MSNBC that vinegar, isopropyl alcohol and ocean water are the top three things that work to relieve jellyfish sting pain. Only after those three is urine considered an effective option.
That's because vinegar, alcohol and seawater all contain acidic chemicals that can neutralize the stinging sensation by deactivating the stinging cells in the venom, called nematocysts, Stanton told MSNBC. If urine is extremely concentrated it might work, but if the person drank too much water then it wouldn't work very well, he said.
While it may not be an oft-used remedy at American beaches, lifeguard stations at Australian beaches all have vinegar in case of jellyfish stings, ABC News reported.
Travel medicine specialist Dr. Suzanne Shepherd told ABC News that soaking a paper towel or cloth with vinegar and putting it over the sting for 30 minutes can help relieve the pain, or pouring thevinegar right on the sting.
It is important not to rub the sting, though, because that will make the pain worse, Dr. Paul Auerbach, an emergency physician at Stanford University Hospital, told ABC News.
Other remedies for relieving pain from a jellyfish sting include meat tenderizer, household ammonia, baking soda and lemon or lime juice, according to ABC News.
However, it's a good idea to avoid freshwater because it could cause the nematocysts to fire and cause a stinging sensation, Auerbach told ABC News.
Jellyfish swarms are common all over the world, with swarms often occurring in the Gulf Coast region, near Hawaii and near Chesapeake Bay in the United States, according to the National Science Foundation. Jellyfish swarms aren't an uncommon phenomenon -- they have been happening for millions for years, and occur whether or not there is human-caused environmental damage. They tend to happen when the environmental and weather conditions are optimal for jellyfish survival, according to the NSF.
For example, just this Memorial Day weekend, 400 people were stung by jellyfish that had invaded central Florida beaches, causing two to be hospitalized. The large number of sting injuries was likely due to the unusually crowded beach that weekend because of the holiday.

Monday, July 25, 2011

10 trips to soothe your soul

10 trips to soothe your soul
visit a shaman or drink from a healing waterfall -- alternative vacations can be life-changing

If it’s inner peace, rejuvenation and enlightenment you’re after –- together with a new passport stamp -– take to the road for these spiritually uplifting experiences.
They promise to bear fruit long after you return home.

1. Amarnath Cave Trek: Kashmir, India 

Kashmir hike
A group of soul-seekers hike up the mountains of Kashmir.

This annual pilgrimage takes place every summer -- depending on the political situation -- high in the mountains of Kashmir.
Thousands of devotees walk to the Amarnath Cave to see the Shiva-lingam, a miraculous phallic-shaped manifestation of the Hindu God Lord Shiva (formed by an ice stalagmite). As legend has it, Shiva came here to share the secret of eternity with his bride Parvati.
The trek is a challenge -– mostly vertical, up mountain slopes, and at an altitude of around 4,000 meters. But while the going can be tough, the camaraderie and kindness you’ll experience en route are manna for the soul.
Rates: Tailored to your trip
Indus Discoveries; +91 11 4166 4082;
(NB: Please check travel advisories before traveling to Kashmir)

2. Meditation retreat: Bali, Indonesia

Yoga in Bali
Rejuvenate your body and mind in Bali.

The sacred island, known for its magical energy, is a magnet for spiritual seekers.
It’s the ideal setting for a nurturing yoga and meditation retreat. Every morning you rise with the sun, meditate and explore postures to develop flexibility, self-love and inner calm.
However the last quality may be tested on a trip to the Bat Cave temple -– where a mythical giant snake Naga Basuki is said to reside.
With massages, cookery classes, visits to holy waters and village walks, you will return with mind and body restored.
Rates: A 10-night trip for two people costs from US$3,898
Spirit Tours;  +1 866 566

3. Fasting and feasting: Sinai Desert, Egypt

Sinai Desert
Spend some time in silent contemplation in the pristine Sinai Desert.

If you have hermit-like tendencies, or are simply craving solitude, embark on a cleansing, fasting retreat in the pristine Sinai Desert.
You’ll be following in the footsteps of the saints and seekers who, over the centuries, have holed up among the sand dunes and caves here in silent contemplation.
For three days and three nights your tummy may be empty –- but you won’t be starved for inspiration -– you’ll feast on the scenery: wind-sculpted mountains and a night sky brimming with constellations.
And at a distance, your Bedouin carers will keep a caring, watchful eye over you. 
Rates: An eight-day trip costs from US$1,265
The Makhad Trust; +44 (0)1242 544 546;

4. Drink Ayahuasca and detoxify: Sussex, England

Ayahuasca healer
The Rain Queen Mother personalizes every detoxification.

A potent healing medicine, made from the Ayahuasca vine and the leaf of the Chacruna plant, and collected from the jungles of the Amazon, is at the centre of this retreat. It causes purging as a means of removing toxins.
Ayamama Rain Queen, a gifted shaman who orchestrates the safe, highly personalized, one-to-one healing retreats at the Wellbeing and Cermonial Sanctuary in England, believes Ayahuasca can enable anyone who drinks it to access higher levels of emotional intelligence and foster a deeper connection with nature.
Not for the faint-hearted, but mind-blowing and truly transformative.
Rates: A three-night retreat costs from US$890
Wellbeing and Ceremonial Sanctuary; +44 (0)75 8146 2905;

5. Walk the Way of St. James: Spain

Follow the Camino to experience cosmic revelations.

This network of hiking routes to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain -– also known as The Camino –- has been traversed for thousands of years by pilgrims looking for a retreat from daily life, or as a spiritual discipline.
Some say The Camino lies directly under the Milky Way and follows ley lines.
Featured in "The Way", starring Martin Sheen, and in "The Camino", a book by actress Shirley MacLaine recording her mystical experiences en route, the landscapes vary from rugged alpine scenery to coastline, fishing villages and hills.
It’s the perfect opportunity for an inner journey –- and recalling Ms MacLaine –- to experience cosmic revelations.
Rates: A seven-night hike costs from US$1,600

6. Commune with the oracle and Sufi poet Hafez: Shiraz, Iran

Sufi poet Hafez
It's a popular custom to recite the 14th century Sufi poet Hafez.

The city of Shiraz is the resting place of the great 14th century Sufi poet Hafez. Mysticism and love feature in his poetry and many devotees see him as an oracle.
A popular custom is to open a page of his verse at random, read it and divine your fortune in his words. The best place to have a go is at his tomb in the exquisitely pretty flower-filled Musalla Gardens, at sunset.
Join the dozens of hopeful young women who sit here clutching their copy of Hafez. Not only will you find spiritual sustenance in his words, but you’ll be heartened by the warmth of your fellow romantics.
Rates: A 16-day trip costs from US$3,986
Wild Frontiers Adventure Travel Ltd; +44 (0)20 7736 3968;

7. Drink healing waters: Cornwall, England

Healing Waters
The magnificent waterfall splashes into a basin.

As legend has it, this sacred, healing waterfall, close to Tintagel, on England’s windswept Cornish coast was once home to St. Nectan. He was a 5th century monk, who blessed the Knights of the Round Table before they set off in search of the Holy Grail.
Getting to the falls involves a 1,600-meter walk through a wooded glen, where visitors have reported seeing visions of orbs, monks, a man in a medieval gear and a gray lady.
The waterfall tumbles into a basin and people from around the world beat a path here to bathe in its waters, said to cure physical and emotional ailments.
Post splash, you can meditate in what was once the monk’s chapel.
VisitCornwall; +44 (0)18 7232 2900;

8. Stay in a Buddhist monastery: Koyasan, Japan

koyasan monastery
Soak up the fresh air, peace and quiet in this Japanese monastery.

Mount Koyasan is the spiritual heartland of Shingon Esoteric Buddhism –- an ancient branch of the religion.
It’s also the ideal place for a stay at a temple lodging. If you’re exploring your own beliefs, want some insight into the lives the monks lead, or simply want to soak up the fresh air, peace and quiet, you’ll be in your element.
At Rengejoin Temple, sleep on a futon in rooms with wafer-thin sliding walls, wake at dawn to join the monks in meditation and once your soul has been fed, dine on Shojin Ryori, the vegetarian cuisine of the monks.
You’ll arrive gritty-eyed and leave glowing. 
Rates: A two-week Taste of Japan tour costs from US$4,344
Intrepid Travel; +1 800 970 7299; 

9. Visit a shaman: Mongolia

taiga shaman
The Tsaatan tribe is a true community of nomadic reindeer herders.

Mongolia’s forested Taiga lands are home to the teepee-dwelling Tsaatan tribe -– a community of nomadic reindeer herders.
Spiritually speaking, the Tsaatan rely on their shaman, who communicate with spirits, ancestors or nature, for advice and healing.
Join a riding expedition to the Taiga, travel through valleys, mountains and around lakes, and as the highlight of the trip, visit the home of a local shaman.
You’ll see them at work, learn about their abilities and practices –- and if you’re lucky, participate in a ritual yourself.
Rates: A 15-day trip costs from US$3,680
Panoramic Journeys; +44 (0)16 0881 1183;

10. Explore sacred temples: Khajurao, India

Indian temples
One of the exquisitely sculptured sandstone Jain temples.

Dating back to the 10th and 11th century, the erotic temples of Khajuraho in India’s northern Madhya Pradesh are a sure indication that the Kama Sutra originated in the sub-continent.
Visit the exquisitely sculptured sandstone Jain temples covered with erotica.
They celebrate love, and provide an insight into ancient Tantric practices -– more than sex, it’s an ancient route to enlightenment, which also takes in the holy city of Varanasi and the sacred Ganges river.
Rates: A five-day Sacred India package costs from US$1,203
Travel the Unknown; +44 (0)20 8823 0705;

Read more: 10 trips to soothe your soul #2 |,1#ixzz1T82EO7BC

Friday, July 22, 2011

5 lavish hotels in Venice

Five lavish hotels in Venice
By A. Pawlowski

Venice is romantic and unforgettable on any budget, but it can be dazzling if you are willing to splurge.

Open your wallet wide -- very wide -- and you'll find suites with stunning views of the Grand Canal, poshly furnished rooms fit for a royal and Murano glass chandeliers to light up your night.

No wonder some of the world's richest and most famous tourists feel right at home when they come to the City of Water.

"It's a magical place," said Joyce Falcone, owner of The Italian Concierge, who travels to Venice about twice a year -- drawn, like many people, by its unique ambiance, color and history.

We asked Falcone; Venice native Roberto Agostini of Precision Travel; and Andrea Sertoli, president of Select Italy, to pick their favorite luxury Venice hotels. Here are some of their recommendations.

Hotel Cipriani

Located on the tip of Giudecca Island, this hotel has it all, Sertoli said, calling it elegant, stylish and romantic.

Stay in the main building or the Palazzo Vendramin, a 15th-century residence near the hotel. Both offer opulent rooms and suites, including the Palladio Suite, which has a private dock and sweeping views over the Venetian lagoon through floor-to-ceiling windows.

The hotel is one of only two in Venice to offer a swimming pool, Agostini said, while the surrounding gardens can be used for weddings and receptions. And come September, the Cipriani fills up with movie stars and celebrities in town for the Venice Film Festival.

But the hotel always manages to maintain an aura of serenity.

"It's laid back because it's away from the madness of St. Mark's [Square]. ... They also have a great pool and grounds, which is pretty novel in Venice with land at a premium," Falcone said.

"A lot of people think St. Mark's Square is the spot to be. For me, it's just way too crowded. I would prefer to be away where it's quiet and just go there when you feel like it, but then be able to escape to your gorgeous, luxurious hotel that's away from all of that."

Rates for a junior suite start at about $2,450 per night.

For more information, click here.

Hotel Danieli

If you do want to stay in the center of it all, the Danieli is a stunning option. Located next to Doge's Palace and the Bridge of Sighs, it is just steps away from St. Mark's Square.

This is the hotel that Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp checked into in "The Tourist," and depending on the room you choose, the lagoon views can be as stunning as those seen in the movie.

Hotel Danieli is made up of three palazzi dating back to the 14th, 19th and 20th centuries, so expect luxurious surroundings that feature marble columns, antique carpets and gilded ceilings. Recent renovations have returned the hotel to the list of top accommodations in Venice, Sertoli said.

Because it is part of the Luxury Collection, many of Falcone's clients like it because they can use Starwood points to book their stay.

"It is an old Venetian classic, and you can't go wrong by selecting the Danieli," Falcone said.

A lagoon view suite starts at about $2,520 per night.

For more information, click here.

Hotel Gritti Palace
Commissioned by the doge of Venice in 1525, Gritti Palace was the residence of noble families for hundreds of years until it was turned into a posh hotel at the beginning of the 19th century.

Located about three blocks from St. Mark's Square, the palazzo faces the Grand Canal and offers guests views that extend from San Giorgio Island, to the church of Santa Maria della Salute, and over to the Accademia.

"It's a very classical Venetian palace," Agostini said, calling it "very luxurious."

Splurge for a Grand Canal suite, and you will be surrounded by antique furnishings, walls hung with paintings and embroidered damask drapes. (Gritti Palace may not be the best choice if you're not a fan of very ornate interiors. Some travelers find the hotel too stuffy, Agostini said.)

Most importantly, floor-to-ceiling windows and balconies allow you to make the most of the beautiful location.

Rates for Grand Canal suites start at about $4,000 per night. The hotel is also part of the Luxury Collection, so you can book your stay with Starwood points.

For more information, click here.

Ca' Sagredo Hotel

This 14th century palazzo with a pink facade is a hotel, a national monument and a museum all rolled into one.

Once home to the Sagredos, a noble Venetian family, the palace opened as a hotel in 2007 after an extensive restoration. Guests will find opulent decor and incredible stucco works, frescoes, paintings, canvas and architectural features.

The hotel is a short walk away from St. Mark's Square, between Ca' D'Oro and the Rialto Bridge.

"We like it a lot," Sertoli said, while Agostini called it a "fantastic" and "unbelievable."

The Ca' Sagredo is near the Venice Casino, so it might be a good pick for visitors who like to gamble, Falcone said.

"It's absolutely beautiful if you get one of the rooms that are on thepiano nobile -- the main floor where the family did live. Those rooms are frescoed, and they face the Grand Canal and they're huge," Falcone said.

The Grand Canal presidential suite starts at about $1,200 per night in August.

For more information, click here.

San Clemente Palace Hotel & Resort

Located on a private island on the site of a former 17th century monastery, the resort boasts views of St. Mark's Square, Giudecca Island and the Lido.

It's perfect for families, because children will enjoy the beautiful, spacious grounds, Agostini said. The island also offers lots of activities for kids, like treasure hunts and tennis lessons. For fitness-minded guests, there's golf, swimming and jogging.

"It's a beautiful hotel," Agostini said, praising its subdued elegance. He once leased the whole island for a group event, and he has recommended the resort for weddings and receptions.

But be warned: The hotel is big -- Agostini estimated its size at about three square blocks -- so be prepared to walk a bit to get to your room.

Rates for a classic suite start at about $1,075 per night in August.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Make the most of Machu Picchu

Make the most of Machu Picchu
By George Bauer

It's a hold-your-breath kind of place. Machu Picchu, one of the world's greatest treasures, this weekend marks the 100th anniversary of its rediscovery by explorer Hiram Bingham.

This majestic and mysterious ancient Inca settlement sits in splendid repose high on an Andean mountaintop. The well-preserved site is the leading tourist attraction in Peru, the third-largest country in South America.

If you are planning to experience its magic, here are some things you'll need to know:

Getting within range
Most visitors fly to Lima, Peru's capital, then fly southeast to Cusco, located in a deep Andes valley.

You'll need to spend a few days there to get acclimated to the higher elevation, nearly 11,000 feet above sea level. Cusco was once the capital of the Inca world, but today it's a city that comfortably caters to the hordes of visitors who stop over.

After catching your breath, it's time to travel to Machu Picchu. Most tourists take the train and there are different classes of service, from inexpensive to luxury. If you're taking the train, make your reservations early, particularly in the high season from May to September.

Hardy folks will hike the Inca Trail, which can take three or four grueling days to complete and is no walk in the park. The number of people allowed on the trail each day is limited, so you'll need to book with an Inca Trail outfitter months in advance and arrange for permits.

Reaching the mountain
Trains take explorers to Aguas Calientes, a neat and tidy town at the base of the mountain where Machu Picchu rests.

You buy two important tickets in the town center: bus tickets to Machu Picchu and entrance tickets for the ruins themselves (you can't buy tickets to the ruins at the entrance).

Purchase Machu Picchu tickets at the Machu Picchu Cultural Center in Aguas Calientes. It's best to bring cash for the tickets, although there is an ATM in town. You can also buy advance tickets to Machu Picchu in Cusco at the Institute of National Culture. Tickets cost about $44.

Buy tickets for the bus before you get on at the ticket office near the departure point. The ticket office opens and the first buses head to Machu Picchu around 5 a.m. The bus ride up the mountain takes 20 minutes but seems like forever, negotiating the stomach-churning switchback road to the top.

Seeing Machu Picchu

It is also called the Citadel, imperious and fortresslike on the mountain summit.

Machu Picchu means "Old Mountain" in Quechua, the language of the Incas. This old mountain is often covered in clouds, and the sheer drop at the edges of the ruins can be unsettling.

There are two very distinct sections. The agricultural area leads to the impressive urban sector, where the religious, astronomical and residential structures still stand. The entire site is about two square miles.

The Incas worshipped what they knew and built an impressive Temple of the Sun high above the residential zone. The days of the solstice were deeply special and spiritual to them.

But there are also impressive places where the residents lived and worked, even spent time in prison for offenses committed.

What's the mystery?

The Citadel is not only enshrouded in mist but also in mystery. No one knows precisely its genesis, intended purpose, how many lived there or why they left.

It appears to date from the period of the two great Incas, Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui (1438-71) and Tupac Inca Yupanqui (1472-93), according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Bingham found Machu Picchu -- purely by accident -- on July 24, 1911, while heading a Yale University expedition to Peru. He was camping along the river near Aguas Calientes when he met a local campesino, or farmer, named Melchor Arteaga. He led Bingham up from the river to what were then jungle-covered ruins atop the Old Mountain. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Bingham was actually looking for the famed ruins of Vilcabamba, some 60 miles away, known as the last stronghold of the Incas.

The Incas were chased relentlessly by Spanish conquistadors, who began subjugating Peru in 1533. The Spanish probably never knew about Machu Picchu, either, because they pursued the Incas in the opposite direction.

The best way to experience the Citadel
Machu Picchu is too important to rush. Most tourists spend part of just one day at the site. They arrive in Aguas Calientes in midmorning by train, visit the Citadel for a few hours, then catch the late afternoon trains back to Cuzco.

I think it's worth staying over in the town known for its hot springs and cold-running rivers. Aguas Calientes offers plenty of shops, restaurants and hotels.

Begin your visit early in the day and stay late, when crowds thin and you'll feel you have Machu Picchu all to yourself. The ruins are open from dawn to dusk every day.

A stay of two days is optimal. On the first you can see every nook and cranny of the ancient settlement. Then on the second day, you can attempt to climb the mountains adjoining Machu Picchu. One is Huayna Picchu, which means "Young Mountain."

Healthy hikers can make the trip in about an hour, but the path is very steep. If you can't make that trek, there are two smaller peaks: Huchu Picchu, which is the smallest, and Wychu Picchu.

Machu Picchu is unquestionably a popular place. In fact, many scientists worry that the relentless crush of crowds is harming the ruins and could cause the Citadel to fall down the side of the mountain as soils shift

But for now the crowds still come. Every day is unique and mystical at Machu Picchu. Take your time and see it in all its glory.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Las Vegas: Viva Lost Wages!

Las Vegas: Viva Lost Wages!
By Brendan Francis Newnam

The radio was going on about the space shuttle's last mission.

I've never been a space person, but there was still something sad about it. America losing its step. No more space for us. Shuttle launches were like America's homeroom. The whole country checked in.

The whole business left me feeling wistful as my friend and I hurtled along in our own white craft drawing a line across the desert from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.

A quarter of the way there: Tyvek flapping like flags in the wind. Half-built houses mark the edge of L.A. Metro. The high-water mark of the building boom.

Halfway there: We stop in Barstow for cheeseburgers and Cokes. And then it was back into the Mojave Desert. Mountains the color of cocoa sticking up from the earth. The sun a French fry lamp on the side of my face. Guilt from leaving work early tugged on me like the air conditioner dragged on the car engine.

Escape to Las Vegas.

"Lost Wages" my father use to call it. A pun pointed at the town's gambling industry that now just as easily applies to it's entire economy. The great recession walloped Vegas harder than most places. It was a subprime boomtown that is now the foreclosure capital of America. What's Vegas like in a down economy? Are there a few more sips left in the champagne bottle? Yes. But it's flat.

When we arrived on the Las Vegas Strip, storm clouds were gathered around the Statue of Liberty replica. A double take confirmed that they were real. Rain in the desert, what were the odds? A rhetorical question in any city but this one. The Strip. America's Id.

Visiting there is like stepping into mainstream television: common-denominator vulgarity that you can't keep your eyes off of. "Pleasure" pumped into elephantine proportions. Like a basket containing the world's largest gourd held by a woman with the world's largest breasts.

Don't get me wrong, I like sex, gambling and tippling, but its hyper-commercialization brings me down. Like how passing a blown-up picture of a chili dog on a semi ruins your appetite instead of whetting it.

In the belly of the MGM Grand parking lot we unload our bags. Parents walk by holding children. Slightly older children walk by holding suitcases of beer. Everyone tingles with anticipation. There is an optimism inherent in a clean hotel room at the beginning of a weekend.

This will be my headquarters. I will hang my clothes here. This will be my desk. Las Vegas hotel stays carry an additional air of mischief. We'll drink here before we go out. I will close the curtains so the sun doesn't come in tomorrow. I'll choose this bed because it's closer to the door and God knows when I'm coming back.

We decided to walk over to the recently renovated Tropicana hotel and casino. In the postmodern Epcot Center that is Las Vegas, the Tropicana is Miami's South Beach. The building's handsome white gleam and jaunty retro sign held the promise of an excellent martini, and soon I was behind one the size of an office trash can. We were the only people at the bar; 7 p.m. is a dead zone in summertime Vegas.

All day long people attend pool parties. And then late at night they attend clubs. From 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. is reserved for showers, TV and energy drinks. Our booby prize was a video screen behind the bar showing an endlessly looping video of, well, boobs, and other body parts wrapped up in bathing suits and gyrating to music. Like songs that tell you how to dance, the decorations in Las Vegas are constantly showing you how you are supposed to behave.

Later, while eating hamburgers at Hubert Keller's "Burger Bar," we are surrounded by picture of hamburgers -- hamburgers that look much juicier and more appetizing than the ones we were eating.

Hours of blackjack.

In my back pocket I had a set of tips my father sent me. Don't hit if the dealer has 3-6 and you have a bustable hand. If you're dealt two aces always split them and then pray for tens, etc.

I withdrew $300 from the ATM and watched my pile go up and down for hours. Up. Down. Up. Down. I toggled from scotch to seltzer. Scotch. Seltzer. The dealers rotated. The fast one who prefers the ladies. The deliberate one who wordlessly guides the players. The efficient, emotionless machine who just deals, deals, deals.

And then there was the ever-changing cast of players. The fat drunk tanktopper smoking a cigarette filter. Two Irish kids with gelled sea anemone hair. The chubby secretary who would scratch the table with her pink-painted fingernail every time she wanted a hit. And at one point in the night, superstar singer Michael Buble and his Argentine underwear-model wife sidle up to the table and do well until a crowd of squealing girls forms and he is forced to cash out.

It's 3:30. Walk back to the room. A fight breaks out behind me. A girl lies legs-splayed on a flower planter in the lobby. A couple ruts next to the soda machine. A man lies face down in his own vomit. Prostitutes roam the floor looking for drunk prey. A topless guy smokes a cigarette in my elevator.

As the door shuts and the elevator lifts, I can still hear the bingbinging clamor of America spending its energy-drink money on Texas hold 'em.

In the morning it's dim sum on Spring Mill Road, Vegas' version of Chinatown. Yes, the city has the skyline of New York and Paris, the canals of Venice and the pools of South Beach, but the real spin around the world happens in the neighborhoods that surround the Strip.

About 22% of Las Vegans are immigrants who were attracted by the low cost of living and the abundance of service jobs that don't require a higher education. The city's strip malls are an international food court. Eritrean and Chinese food. Mexican and Thai. We meet cabbies from Burma, Ethiopia, and the Philippines. This global village aspect of Vegas is one of the most exhilarating parts of the area and could be a draw unto itself. They could call it "American Census 2050."

From Vegas' future to its past: Downtown. The city's soul. Iconic Vegas. Neon and $9 prime rib specials. The home of old guard Vegas -- Binion's, the Gold Spike and the Golden Nugget.

There are $5 blackjack tables here and strawberry daiquiris with whipped cream. To draw some of the action back from the Strip, businesses chipped in and created the Fremont Street Experience, a barrel vault canopy 90 feet high and four blocks long. It shelters folks from the sun in the day and turns into a light show at night.

People rappel under the canopy. Buskers perform there. Concerts play. It's livened up the area, but it's what hasn't been done to the neighborhood that's going to save it: The old gambling houses in this neighborhood just feel right. An old piece of America that has hung on. A symbol that there is life after a bubble.

The next day we leave the greatest example of American excess and visit the greatest example of American restraint: Hoover Dam.

There are only 3,485 days and counting of water left in Las Vegas,literally. The canyon surrounding Hoover Dam is the evidence. Its walls are chalk white where the water line used to be. You have to move your head forward toward your belly to see where the water line is now.

I piss in one of the magnificent marble art deco restrooms that sit on top of the dam. The windows there provide a dramatic view of this modern wonder of the world. Nowhere in America today is a bathroom being built like this, nor will one be built in the near future.

Unless, maybe, someone decides to open up a resort on the strip called "America Then."

They could buy a mothballed space shuttle and hang it in the lobby.