Author: Lisa

whale watching baja mexico

Whale Watching in Baja – San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja, Mexico

Who’s Watching Whom?

At San Ignacio Lagoon, a magical place halfway down the Pacific Coast of the Baja Peninsula, whales regularly rise out of the sea to touch and be touched by humans. In one of the most remarkable annual migrations nature offers, Pacific gray whales make the 5,000-mile trip from the chilly feeding grounds of the Arctic to the safety of the warm, shallow waters of the Baja Peninsula for their breeding and calving season (the calves are about 15 feet long and weigh 1,500 pounds at birth).

Several thousand whales may visit San Ignacio every winter, and there are sometimes up to 400 in the lagoon at one time. Las amistosas (the friendly ones) is the local nickname of the whales, which regularly approach the small panga fishing boats to be stroked and touched by awed whale-watchers, in a genial gesture that has stumped scientists for more than twenty years, since it was first recorded.

Nearly driven into extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries, the gray whales now return in greater numbers every year and were removed from the endangered species list in 1994. Baja’s Pacific lagoons and fifty unin­habited islands, often referred to as Mexico’s Galapagos, are renowned for their exceptional marine and bird life. Hundreds of dolphins accompany the gray whales, while hump­backs, finbacks, and Brydes whales make regular appear­ances along with blue whales, the largest animals on the planet.

Las Ventanas al Paraiso mexico

Las Ventanas al Paraiso – Los Cabos, Baja, Mexico

Windows to Paradise

Located at the tip of the 1,000-mile long Baja Peninsula, near where the Pacific Ocean meets the Sea of Cortez, Las Ventanas al Paraiso evokes an ends-of-the-earth solitude, cushioned between sea and desert sands, with the rough-hewn mountains beyond.

Once geographically isolated, Los Cabos—a 25-mile corridor that joins the two desert towns of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose6 del Cabo—has undergone rapid devel­opment in the past decade, with Cabo San Lucas in particular becoming known for wild, cerveza-drenched spring breaks (check out the town’s Cabo Wabo, where every night is tequila night) and hippie-happy social dropouts.

Las Ventanas, opened in 1997 on 12 acres along the much calmer corridor, has brought the ultimate note of refinement to this scene, from the breezy luxury suites (the largest in Mexico) to the seaside drop-edged pool, the championship 18-hole Robert Trent Jones Jr. golf course, and an indoor-outdoor spa that offers everything from a torchlit couples’ massage and cactus-cleansing wraps to—no kidding—a stress-reducing rubdown for your poodle.

The smiling and eager staff second-guesses every whim, and guests who venture off the property can take advantage of the area’s ruggedly beautiful scenery and world-class diving and big game fishing. Sunsets are completely intoxicating, even if you didn’t attend the afternoon’s tequila tasting.

le sirenuse hotel positano italy

Positano’s Hotels – Campania, Italy

Bastions of Elegance and Luxury

In 1953, John Steinbeck described the Hotel le Sirenuse as “a dream place . . . not quite real”—and so it remains, perched above the terraced homes of Positano and draped in fuchsia, bougainvillea, and honeysuckle.

Vines insinuate themselves everywhere, the floors are paved in cool, hand-painted tiles, and a min­gling of precious antiques enhances the hotel’s elegant but comfortable personality. Run by a family whose summer villa this once was, a special feeling of welcome sets Le Sirenuse apart.

So does a narrow lap pool-with-a-view and a small but exquisite spa and gym designed by the famous Milanese architect Gae Aulenti. The Pompeiian red 18th-century building was named for the sirens of Homer’s Odyssey, those alluring demi-women said to have inhabited the small Li Galli islands, which you can see from your terrace.

Slightly east of town, a tiny 17th-century chapel alongside the fabled coastal drive dis­creetly signals the presence of the Hotel le Sirenuse’s longtime friendly rival, the multisto­ried San Pietro, carved into the precipitous cliff below and one of the world’s most dramatically situated hotels, a triumph of human ingenuity and sheer extravagance.

An elevator cut into solid rock whisks guests down to the airy lobby, terraced guest rooms, and, ultimately, the vest- pocket-size cove where guests can swim and sunbathe, even play tennis.

Nonguests can idle away an afternoon at the bougainvillea-covered restaurant, 300 feet above the Tyrrhenian Sea, open to the breeze but protected from the sun. At sunset, have a leisurely drink on the tiled terrace: the view up and down the coastline is heart-stopping.

amalfi coast italy

The Amalfi Coast – Campania, Italy

Italy’s Dream Drive

It’s hard to keep your eyes on the road while zipping along the dazzling landscape of the vertiginous Amalfi Drive, an improbable 30-mile stretch of hairpin curves south of Naples. After visiting the Amalfi coast, a giddy Andre Gide wrote in The Immoralist that “nothing more beautiful can be seen on this earth.”

Vertical cliffs plunge into an impos­sibly blue Mediterranean, as a coastline of seaside towns unfolds among terraced olive and lemon groves, oaks, and umbrella pines. No longer as remote as when arrival was pos­sible only by sea or pack animal, the cliff-hanging town of Positano is still the ulti­mate refuge.

Mercifully closed to traffic, the town’s jumble of converted whitewashed and pastel fishermen’s homes spills down a maze of narrow alleyways to the pebbly umbrella- lined beach, the only flat strip in town.

It is here that tanned, handsome Sergio will pick you up and spirit you away to Da Adolfo in his family’s motor launch (look for the boat with the big red fish), far from Positano’s crowded beach scene and past the Hotel San Pietro so you can revel in an after­noon of sybaritic indulgence on a secluded slip of a beach.

This is the region that gives the world fresh mozzarella di bufala; imagine how heavenly it tastes when it is grilled on a fragrant lemon leaf and served under the warm Neapolitan sun. Things only get better with the exquisite simplicity of spaghetti made with a sauce of plump baby clams and mussels.

Getting to Da Adolfo is half the fun; lingering well after lunch in a sun-induced torpor prolongs this outing’s delight. Pull up a beach bed and umbrella, and order an ice-cold limoncello liqueur squeezed from the area’s uniquely sweet lemons, the size of grapefruits. It’s enough to make you ignore the next boat back into town.

Hard to believe that tiny, picturesque Amalfi was once the heart of Italy’s oldest and one of its most powerful maritime republics. As early as the 9th century, this microharbor at the mouth of a deep gorge was dominating commerce with the Orient, which helps explain both the Moorish influence and importance of the town’s duomo, the Cathedral of Sant’Andrea.

Planned and built during the peak of the republic’s independence, it stands at the top of a steep flight of steps. The Baroque interior is reached through 11th- century bronze doors cast in Constantinople. The 13th-century Chiostro del Paradiso is a lovely Byzantine and Moorish cloister whose intoxicating aura of Arabian fantasy once infused much of the city’s, and coastline’s, architecture.

Experience Amalfi or any of the neighboring towns along the marvelously scenic coast when they are not besieged by tour bus caravans and sense something of the lingering Middle Eastern influence.

spaccanapoli naples

Spaccanapoli – Naples, Campania, Italy

Joyously Chaotic Everyday Life, Neapolitan Style

Dive into the laundry-festooned back alleyways of one of Italy’s most vibrant and spirited cities for a glimpse of the histrionics and brio for which Neapolitans are known. Once an enclave of monumental palazzi and magnificent churches, the quarter called Spaccanapoli now bustles against a backdrop of time-battered tenements and workshops.

The city’s busiest neighborhood is slowly undergoing regentrification as Naples enjoys a cultural resurgence, and it is no longer dan­gerous to wander alone here. Narrow streets throb with local vendors, who hawk everything from contraband cigarettes to fried pizza and the mussels and clams brought in live from the Bay of Naples.

The city’s famous San Carlo Opera House may be one of Europe’s largest and most splendid, but Spaccanapoli delivers the spontaneity of street opera, and the curtain never comes down. Enrico Caruso was born here and kept an apartment in the historic waterfront Grand Hotel Vesuvio from 1905 until his death in 1921.

The hotel’s rooftop Ristorante Caruso and its views of the marina and the 12th-century Castel dell’Ovo may well have been the setting where someone first exclaimed, “See Naples and die!”

national archaeological museum naples

National Archaeological Museum – Naples, Campania, Italy

A Fallen Empire’s Spoils

If you wondered where all the precious sculpture and artifacts excavated from Pompeii and Herculaneum wound up, they’re here. One of the richest treasure troves of Greco-Roman antiquities in the world fills this large 16th-century cavalry barracks.

An invaluable collection of antiquities amassed by Pope Paul III of the Farnese family during the excavations of Roman ruins are exhibited on the ground floor; Heracles is here, 10 feet tall, with an anatomy that would have made Michelangelo cry.

The section dedicated to mosaics excavated from Pompeii reveals fas­cinating, intimate vignettes of life in that thriving, sophisticated city before it was extinguished forever by the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79. The museum’s Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Gallery) opened to much fan­fare in 1999. Contained in two rooms are more than 200 frescoes, mosaics, and statues whose erotic attributes explain why they were never before made available to the public.

capri italy

Capri – Campania, Italy

Glamorous Outpost of Roman Emperors and Modern-Day Sybarites

This floating rough-cut gem of an island has been a favored summer play­ground since the Roman emperor Tiberius made it his ruling seat in A.D. 26. Almost every artist, designer, movie star, diva, politician, writer, royal, and financier of consequence since then has made an appearance in the island’s stage-set Piazzetta, described by Noel Coward as “the most beautiful operetta stage in the world.”

An aphrodisiacal climate, lush Mediterranean gardens, and dramatic views from the car-free towns of Capri and Anacapri sustain the rep­utation of this 5-square-mile island Eden surrounded by emerald waters.

The sun, the sea, good wine, and great food come together gloriously on a sun-dappled terrace beneath the bamboo roof of La Fontelina. The view of Capri’s signature faraglioni, three needlelike rocks—the tallest is almost 400 feet high—towering just min­utes off this casual restaurant’s coveted position on the rugged coast is unparalleled

La Fontelina also serves as Capri’s most pop­ular bathing spot, where diners can sunbathe and swim, before and after a lunch likely to include many rounds of the restaurant’s signa­ture fruit-filled sangria. Lunch may be a simple insalata caprese, the island specialty of superfresh mozzarella and sweet sliced toma­toes; it won’t resemble anything you have ever tasted before.

Despite the endless roll call of glitterati, this is not a fancy island, and simplicity is valued. Pretensions are kept in check at the Hotel La Sealinatella, Capri’s hideaway in excelsis. Demure sister of the far more extrav­agant Hotel Quisisana (and owned by the same family), La Sealinatella is intentionally understated but in many ways more stylish. It has the feel of relaxed luxury of a privately owned villa.

Dine at Da Paolino, one of Capri’s most delightful restaurants: It’s set in a lush lemon grove, where lantern-size fruits drip from the branches above your table. Those lemons have been adopted as a leitmotif; stylized ver­sions appear on the plates, on the waiters’ vests—and the real things garnish the fresh fish that swam in the local waters just hours before.

Simple, good cucina caprese is served here in an ambience of festa and the celebra­tion of the departure of the day’s last boat back to Naples. Don’t head back to town for the obligatory late-night dalliance in the Piazzetta without sampling Paolino’s signature dessert—you guessed it, a scoop of home­made lemon sorbet.

alberobello town italy

Alberobello – Apulia, Italy

Welcome to Trulliland!

In the little-known but fascinating region of Apulia, the heel of the Italian “boot,” is Alberobello, a town with a charm so peculiar that it’s difficult to remember which country you’re in, or which planet you’re on. The city’s zona monumentale of conical whitewashed trulli takes visitors inside a child’s storybook: imagine Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as interpreted by Tolkien.

There are more than 1,000 of these unique beehive structures in Alberobello and the rural area immediately surrounding it (twice that, by some accounts, in the area’s Valle d’ltria). They crop up like clusters of mushrooms among the abundant olive trees.

These whimsical, rather eerie hallmarks of Italy’s southernmost region are found nowhere else in the country. Their primitive shape gives the impression that they are ancient, when in fact the oldest date to the 18th century.

Today the trulli are used as homes, stores, storage space—even the local church of St. Anthony (Sant’Antonio) is in the form of a trullo. If you fancy eating in one, look no further than II Poeta Contadino, oddly formal for a centuries-old trullo but offering one of the area’s best renditions of cucina pugliese (Apulia, or Puglia, is one of the country’s richest agricul­tural regions and home of some of Italy’s finest j olive oil production). The wine selection at Il Poeta is one of the finest around.

meteora monestary mountainview greece

The Monasteries of the Meteora – Thessaly, Greece

A Rock Forest and Its Ancient Inhabitants

Perched on seemingly inaccessible pinnacles of rock 1,000 feet above the Peneus Valley, what remains of a once-flourishing monastic community is as removed from earthly distractions as possible. The spikes, cones, and cliffs of this otherworldly landscape were created by the sea that submerged these plains 30 million years ago.

Meteora means, literally, “in the air,” and there are more than sixty pin­nacles, looking like chimney-top storks’ nests. The earliest religious community was estab­lished here in the 10th century, and by the 16th century there were twenty-four monasteries and hermitages. Four survive essentially as museum pieces, while just two others function as religious outposts, with a handful of monks.

Of those that can be visited, Megalou Meteorou is the grandest and the highest, having held sway over the area since it was built of massive rocks on the highest peak (1,360 feet) in the 14th century.

All the monas­teries open to the public are worth visiting for the religious artworks collected over the centuries, the views, and the chance to observe the life of hermits and ascetics and some of the weirdest real estate on the planet.

Until the 1920s the only way to reach them was by retractable ladders or nets. Since then steps to the monasteries have been hewn into the rocks. The adventure world has discovered Meteora’s rock forest, and rock climbers can usually be spotted in the distance, looking like flies as they inch their way up the vertical pillars.

hydra port greece

Hydra – Saronic Gulf Islands, Greece

An Isle with Style

Your first sight of Hydra will be the lovely quasi-circular harbor town and many fine sea captains’ houses fanning out and up into the rocky hills. All motor traffic (including kamikaze mopeds, thank goodness) is banned from this mountainous and barren island, where the people have always looked to the sea for their livelihood.

Donkeys and horse-drawn carriages are the primary means of transportation. Once famous as a rendezvous spot for artists, writers, and the glitterati, Hydra still retains an image as one of the country’s most stylish destinations. Tavernas are rustic but frequented by a handsome crowd.

The quietly chic Bratsera Hotel was created within the shell of an 1860 sponge fac­tory; the doors, made from old packing crates, still bear the name of Athens’s port, Piraeus. It is an unpretentiously elegant hotel, whose min­imal nautical decor and spacious layout complement the local Hydriot character and history: exposed rich stonework, wooden beams, and relics of its former incarnation.

On an island whose name mistakenly implies an abundance of water, the Bratsera’s pool is a joy, and the only one on the island.