The Quadrilatero – Bologna, Emilia-Romagna, Italy

Where Food Is a Magnificent Obsession

Being the preeminent culinary center of a food-conscious country is an imposing position that Bologna la Grassa (Bologna the Fat One) has shoul­dered proudly and insouciantly for centuries. Most trips to this handsome medieval city are devoted to the pursuit of gas­tronomic pleasures.

Head straight for the Quadrilatero. The well-known food district lies within a medieval labyrinth whose narrow streets and porticoed arcades of family-run shops make up the city’s oldest and best-preserved quarter.

Bologna is the birthplace of mortadella sausage (the distant and infinitely more tasty granddaddy of American bologna), meat-stuffed tortellini pasta, and the exquisitely chunky ragu alia bolognese. The popular preoccupation with eating is happily played out amid some of Italy’s most historically important architecture.

The hungry and the plain curious will be in paradise in Tamburini, Italy’s most lavish food empo­rium, an amazing display of artistically pack­aged and prepared foods, pastas, meats, and salads. A visit here is more about cultural enhancement than shopping, but no one with a sense of sight or smell or taste leaves the store empty-handed. The recent addition of a self- service bistrolike corner is a godsend.

The Best of Sorrento – Campania, Italy

A Grand Hotel and Unsurpassed Restaurant

The hazy outline of Mount Vesuvius dominates the view from the terraces of the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria. With mosaic floors, marble stair­cases, dwarf palm trees, hand-painted cherubs, and elaborate Art Nouveau frescoes decorating the hotel’s lofty interiors, guests feel as bathed in luxury here as the ancient Romans who once played in ancient Sorrentum. (Remains of the villa of Caesar Augustus are believed to have been found beneath the hotel.)

The Belle Epoque spirit of bygone luxury lives on in this grandest of Sorrento’s 19th-century hotels. Five acres of lemon-scented gardens and white-gloved service create a refuge from the clamor of the day-trippers who descend from cruise ships and buses on their way to Pompeii.

Its old- world, aging drama recalls the British travelers for whom the hotel was built atop the dramatic 150-foot cliff when Sorrento was still a small, genteel resort favored for its mild winters.

If Luciano Pavarotti never failed to put heart and soul into his signature rendition of “Return to Sorrento,” it’s because he often stayed here. Book the Caruso Suite for that same inspira­tion; opera’s greatest tenor, Enrico Caruso, vacationed here in 1921, just before his death.

In a food-enthralled country where cau­tious critics sing high praises only with great reluctance, Don Alfonso 1890 has long gar­nered recognition as possibly the finest restaurant in southern Italy. Its location aug­ments the experience, gorgeously poised between earth and the sparkling gulfs of Naples and Salerno.

The loyal clientele think nothing of driving in from Naples or Bari just for lunch. Alfonso Iaccarino and his wife, Livia, who have known each other since child­hood, are fanatic in their commitment to quality local ingredients and herbs.

Much of the seasonal menu is selected and produced at their nearby 10-acre farm overlooking Capri, and their olive oil has been ranked as some of the best in the world. But the cuisine at Don Alfonso is far from simple country cooking: Mediterranean at heart, it surprises with unusual and delicious, vaguely Asian influences, served in a cool and elegant atmosphere.

The restaurant’s noted wine cellar—a three-tiered cavern carved into the volcanic rock in Roman times—contains more than 30,000 bottles.

Paestum – Salerno, Campania, Italy

Some of the World’s Oldest and Best-Preserved Temples

Discovered by accident in the 18th century, Paestum was inhabited for 700 years before falling along with the ancient Roman Empire in its final days. On a flat coastal plain that Percy Bysshe Shelley called “inexpressibly grand” are some of the ancient oldest.

Of the two sun-bleached limestone world’s most glorious ruins, and possibly the pieces de resistance here, the Basilica is one of Western civilization’s earliest standing edi­fices. A temple dedicated to Hera, the wife of Zeus, it dates from the 6th century B.C and is one of Europe’s best preserved.

Next to it stands the famous Temple of Neptune, consid­ered one of the ancient world’s largest and most beautiful temples. Built around 450 B.C., it is one of the Mediterranean s most complete structures, with only its roof and parts of its inner walls missing and thirty-six Doric columns still vertical.

See Paestum in the late afternoon, when a less harsh Neopolitan light warms their golden stone. Then head to the nearby agriturismo farm and inn of the Baronessa Cecilia Bellelli Baratta, whose 400 water buffalo supply Italy with some of its best mozzarella di bufala.

Guests of her family-run Tenuta Seliano can feast on fresh mozzarella and ricotta daily, as well as a whole cornu­copia of products directly from the farm, prepared to perfection by the baroness herself and served family-style in the garden. This must be why Pliny the Elder referred to the region as Campania Felix—Happy Campania indeed.

 

Ravello – Campania, Italy

Where Poets Go to Die

Perched 1,100 feet above the tiny coastal town of Amalfi, Ravello has been described as closer to heaven than to the sea. Two irresistibly romantic gardens—the Villa Rufolo and the Villa Cimbrone—justify its reputation as “the place where poets go to die.”

Hotel guests can hope to experience breathtaking views of the cerulean sea from the Moorish-inspired Palazzo Sasso. Constructed in the 12th century, now a deluxe hotel, Sasso is all about the view.

Richard Wagner found inspi­ration on this site in 1880, penning a part of Parsifal during a stay here. (Every summer an internationally renowned classical Wagner music festival takes place in the gardens of the Villa Rufolo.)

This clifftop aerie looks east along the dramatic Lattari Mountains and their wild, contoured coastline toward Salerno, filling guest rooms and guests’ hearts with warm sun and high romance. Its recent transformation into a modern-day hideaway left the spirit of the medieval structure unspoiled. Nine terraced acres of bougainvillea, roses, and mimosas fan out below the pink palazzo (sometimes overlooked by those hypnotized by the blending of the clear cobalt sky and sea beyond).

Follow the aroma of simmering tomato sauce and roast lamb that lead you to Cumpa Cosimo, the town’s best trattoria. When most foreigners think of good, full-flavored Italian food, they think of Neapolitan cuisine, and that is what you’ll find here.

Ingredients grown in the rich volcanic soil around Naples, honest wines, and the deft hands of Netta Bottone (daughter of the original founder, Cosimo) make any meal here delicious. There is usually a marathon sampling of seven dif­ferent pastas.

Day-trippers don’t often hang around Ravello for dinner, leaving the hare-bones Cosimo’s to the local folk, who enjoy the excellent pizza and inexpensive conviviality.

The Tiwi Islands: Bathurst and Melville – Northern Territory, Australia

Over the Top: Hunting and Gathering

All but unknown to the outside world, Bathurst and its sister island, Melville, are the ancestral home of Australia’s Tiwi Aborigines and provide the most fascinating cultural experience Australia has to offer.

Tiwi means “chosen people,” and for 40,000 years this culture developed separately from other Aboriginal groups, escaping the coloniza­tion suffered by those on the continent just 50 miles away—even the early Catholic mission­aries were culturally lenient, allowing many Tiwi beliefs to coexist with the newly imposed religion.

Today, non-Tiwi can visit the islands only as part of Tiwi-owned and-operated tours. Local guides assist in total immersion: four-wheel-drive forays into Bathurst bushland in search of traditional “tucker” for lunch may turn up bandicoot, wallaby, some nice carpet snake, or—why not?—mangrove worms.

After a rib-rattling jeep ride to the very edge of Australia, pull up on a mag­nificent beach facing the Timor Sea and Indonesia. The nearby Indonesian archipel­ago is reflected in the local textile crafts, with batik patterns still being created by local cooperatives.

Kakadu National Park – Northern Territory, Australia

Over the Top Down Under

On the world radar of superior wilderness areas, the 8,000-square-mile Kakadu National Park is a small but significant blip, still remote and little known despite its use as the outback location for Crocodile Dundee.

For now, its frontier freshness remains intact, and the resident population of 15-foot “saltie” and “freshie” crocodiles (the latter unique to these parts) still laze undisturbed in the shal­lows of the pristine river and marshland ecosystem.

In 1981 Kakadu received the rare double honor of being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its natural wonders as well as for the 5,000 rock paintings that grace its sandstone caves—“the greatest body of rock art in the world,” according to the local museum.

The paintings can be classified into three distinct periods of Aboriginal history, and date back from 30 to more than 25,000 years. Ubirr, 27 miles north of park headquar­ters, is one of the most visited outcrops; in its cavelike “galleries,” images record life from the Stone Age to the 20th century.

Seven Spirit Bay – Cobourg Peninsula, Northern Territory, Australia

A Top-End Juxtaposition of Wilderness and Luxury

With thousands of acres of untouched bush, mangrove, and jungle behind it and gorgeous waters and deserted beaches in front, this exceptional wilderness habitat is located in northern Australia’s “lop End” within the 50,000-year-old homeland of some of the last Aboriginal tribes still leading a tradi­tional life.

Vast tracts of their land have been leased to the state to be managed as Gurig National Park, except for this resort and the land that surrounds it on the tip of the Coburg Peninsula, a finger of land pointing north toward Indonesia.

Accessible only by air, this remote pocket of comfort and civilization demon­strates an environmental sensitivity everywhere—the simple buildings, for example, are made of natural materials. Resident guides take guests fishing, and on bush walks and coastal tours. Or take a predawn hike to celebrate something as simple and magical as a sunrise.

Seven Spirit Bay takes its name from the cycle of seven seasons in northern Australian Aboriginal tra­dition: lightning, thundering, rainmaking, greening, wind storming, fire raging, and cloudless blue. If you’re lucky, every day will be cloudless blue.

Ayers Rock and the Olgas – Northern Territory, Australia

Spiritual Shrines of the Aborigines

Never mind how many times it’s appeared in movies or on postcards, the great red monolith of Ayers Rock, the world’s largest, still stirs the spirits of those who visit it. Revered as a spiritual center of power by the Aborigines, whose ancestors are believed to have lived here as much as 20,000 years ago, Ayers Rock constantly changes color, and at sunrise and sunset becomes such an amazing visual experience that you’ll soon understand why a world of mythology has been woven around it.

Otherwise known by its Aboriginal name Uluru, “Giant Pebble,” the rock rises 1,142 feet above the featureless plain and has a circumference of about 5 miles. Rich deposits of iron are the source of its orange-red color—Ayers Rock actually rusts when it rains.

Climbing it is not prohibited, although because of its religious significance it is qui­etly discouraged by the Aborigines, who have managed the surrounding 511-square-mile national park since 1985. The strenuous one-hour trek up a single path is not for the faint of heart nor weak of knee. Many prefer the walk around it, at the base.

About 30 miles west of Ayers Rock are the Olgas, thirty-six gigantic rock domes, some reaching 1,800 feet, separated by chasms and valleys and spread out over an area of 15 square miles. Even more significant to today’s Aborigines than Uluru, the area’s name in their language is Kata Tjuta, or Many Heads. Public access is limited to the “Valley of the Winds” walk, a 4-mile loop best experienced in the absence of afternoon tour-bus caravans.

Arnhem Land – Northern Territory, Australia

Guests in an Ancient Land

A vast area five times the size of Great Britain, Arnhem Land is a special place of pristine bush, eucalyptus forests, coastal wilderness, and abun­dant wildlife, owned and managed by the Gummulkbun Aboriginal people, whose home it has been for 65,000 years.

It is one of Australia’s most restricted areas, only recently opened to tourism (via Aboriginal-owned and -operated tour agencies). Cultural safaris allow small groups of visitors to share the wonders of the rich indigenous heritage, and to understand the meanings and mythology behind the ancient rock art that adorns the walls and ceilings of the caves and rock shelters throughout the area.

Your hosts are Brian Rooke, an Aborigine from the Bass Strait Islands, and his wife, Phyllis. He has lived in the Arnhem Land region for twenty-five years and has an intimate knowledge of the country and culture. Home is a traditional safari-style tent deep in the Mudjeegarrdart bush, a quarter of a million acres that belongs to Phyllis’s tribal family.

The seasons and guests’ interests determine your activities, whether it’s a day trip or an extended camping tour. Identify traditional foods and medicines, visit the sites of cave paintings, explore the abundant bird life, cool off with a swim in a billibong (a natural water hole), or go fishing or crab spearing and have your catch prepared for dinner.

The operative word is “tradition,” which you will observe and appreciate in the company of local guides with a natural affinity for their ancestral homeland and its people.

Sydney Opera House and the Harbor – New South Wales, Australia

A Beloved Icon and a Luxe Hotel Overlooking the Waterfront

Sydney is Australia’s largest, oldest, liveliest and brashest city, and its Opera House—initially reviled for its startlingly modern design (resembling a cluster of billowing white “sails”)—has come to be as emblematic of the city as the Eiffel Tower is of Paris.

Chosen from more than 200 designs submitted in 1957 by the world’s most prominent architects, the project was instantly controversial. The building took fifteen years to complete, during which time its disillusioned Danish creator, Joern Utzon, removed himself from the project, never to see it finished.

Today the opera house, perfectly situated on Sydney’s busy and picturesque harbor, is the cultural heartbeat of the city. Numerous opera, sym­phony, ballet, and theater productions take place in its Opera Theater and Concert House (both of which pride themselves on perfect acoustics).

If you want the experience without the music, the Opera House’s Bennelong Restaurant, located in one of its most dra­matic spaces, offers an elegantly spare menu amid magnificent harbor views.

For a view from the outside, you can’t do better than the elegant Four Seasons Hotel, from whose upper floors you can view the Opera House to your right, the Harbour Bridge to your left, and the glistening expanse of the harbor filling out the vista all around. Its marble lobby isn’t a bad spot for other kinds of views, either: Nearly every celebrity who visits Sydney passes through at some point.

The hotel’s coveted waterside loca­tion—near the spot where Australia was born—is the nucleus of the most popular tourist attractions: Circular Quay is the spot from which hundreds of ships zigzag their way across Sydney Harbour, and the 70-acre green oasis of the Royal Botanic Gardens offers some of the finest walks in town. If you want opera tickets, the Four Season’s concierge is almost guaranteed to find you a seat.

Sydney’s historical waterfront district, The Rocks, is close by, nestled next to the Harbour Bridge. Once the haunt of braw­ling sailors and ex-convicts, it has now been gentrified and made respectable, with restau­rants, shopping, galleries, and exhibition spaces. Only the Lord Nelson, the city’s oldest continuously operating pub, evokes the area’s early days.