Movie Quest 2005
In the world's most famous desert, plausibility is but a mirage
Based on the Clive Cussler novel, Sahara follows the adventures of dashing Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey), an ex-Navy SEAL who, with his sidekick Al Giordino (Steve Zahn), heads to Africa in search of a Civil War battleship potentially filled with Confederate gold. The pair join forces with Eva Rojas (Penélope Cruz), a World Health Organization doctor investigating a mysterious plague in Mali. It's a far-fetched tale, but good popcorn fun. And the North African backdrop is breathtaking.
But forget about visiting Mali. The U.S. State Department advises against going to the country's northern regions (beyond Timbuktu) and warns travelers to exercise caution in isolated areas. Besides, the majority of Sahara was filmed in Erfoud, Morocco, a tiny desert town 340 miles east of Marrakech. "We stayed in a hotel called the Kasbah Xaluca Maadid," says director Breck Eisner. "It's made out of mud and straw. You can actually pull straw out of the wall." Doubles at the Xaluca Maadid start at $100, including breakfast and dinner (011-212/55-57-84-50, xalucamaadid.com).
Once a French military settlement, Erfoud still shows signs of its past--like the Foreign Legion fort that Dirk, Al, and Eva ride through on camelback. And aside from the town's 10,000 inhabitants, the only people it generally sees are movie crews--the recent Mummy films were shot there--and travelers eager to view the giant Merzouga dunes that straddle the nearby Algerian border. From January 1 through April 9, Adventure Center is running a two-week trip for $760 per person double (800/228-8747, adventurecenter.com); the land-only package includes hotels, breakfasts, and guided tours--aboard a bus, a four-wheel drive, and, for $24 extra, a camel--of Casablanca, Fez, Marrakech, and those big Merzouga dunes. "They're the size of a 30- or 40-story building," says Eisner. "Galloping across them on a camel is incredible."
The shoot made Eisner a Sahara convert. "If you're really adventurous, you should absolutely go to this place known as Chez Michel, where Matthew and I stayed for a couple days," he says. "It's in the middle of nowhere. It's about an hour from Erfoud on a road that's just tracks in the dirt. The hotel has 25 rooms and an amazing restaurant." Doubles at Chez Michel--its official name is Auberge Kasbah Derkaoua--start at $116, and that includes breakfast and dinner (011-212/55-57-71-40).
9. Match Point
Woody Allen crafts a love letter to a city--and it's not New York
As much as Match Point claims to be about the importance of luck, it's really about class. Then again, perhaps anyone born rich should be thankful for his luck.
The melodrama, which comes out December 25, concerns a former pro tennis player, Chris (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), who gets taken up by a posh London family--the kind of people who shop for art at a museum. He starts dating the daughter, Chloe (Emily Mortimer), and, this being a Woody Allen movie, having an affair with the son's fiancée, Nola (Scarlett Johansson).
If Match Point is any indication, Woody Allen loves London as much as he loves New York City. "He shows off London in its glory," says coproducer Nicky Kentish Barnes. The city scenes were filmed mainly in the neighborhood of Notting Hill, with forays into Belgravia and the West End. "It's like the Upper East Side of Manhattan," says Barnes.
Conveniently enough, Allen also shot at several London landmarks. There's the Tate Modern, on the South Bank of the Thames, where Chris is thrilled to spy Nola after not having seen her for a while (011-44/20-7887-8000, tate.org.uk/modern, free). The family regularly attends opera at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden (011-44/20-7304-4000, royalopera.org, standing room from $7). And London being famous for its theater, Allen can't resist sending two characters to see Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Woman in White at the Palace Theater (tickets from $26 at the box office or womaninwhitethemusical.com, or try your luck at Leicester Square's half-price TKTS booth for same-day performances).
Chris's office is in what Londoners call the Gherkin, the pickle-shaped headquarters of insurance giant Swiss Re. You can get a good look at it from the square in front of the Tower of London. Your best bet for snagging a peek inside is London Open House, held each September (londonopenhouse.org, free). The Gherkin participated in 2004 but not 2005, and at press time next year's plans were undecided. The fancy racquet club where Chris works briefly, Queen's Club, is similarly accessible to the general public just once a year, in June, for the Stella Artois Championships (stellaartoistennis.com, from $25).
"The pub where Chris and Chloe go for drinks is the Audley," says Barnes (41-43 Mount St., 011-44/20-7499-1843, pint from $4.50). "It's not particularly fun, but Woody loves it. He used to drink there when he was making Casino Royale in 1965." Barnes herself prefers the Cock and Bottle--"a fabulous old pub" in Notting Hill (17 Needham Rd., 011-44/20-7229-1550, pint from $4.75).
As for the magnificent country house owned by the family, those scenes were filmed at Englefield Estate in Barkshire, an hour from London. The gardens and the 1,800 acres of woodland are open to the public--though it's best not to roll around in the field like Chris and Nola (englefieldestate.co.uk, $5.25; open Mondays year-round and Tuesdays-Thursdays from April through October). But you're not allowed to set foot inside the house. Unless, of course, you're fortunate enough to know the right person.
8. Grizzly Man
The most fascinating animal on-screen isn't a bear
Grizzly Man is a love story: Timothy Treadwell spent 13 summers camping in Alaska, obsessively documenting bears and his life among them. It's also a tragedy: Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were eaten by a bear in 2003. The documentary is a mix of Treadwell's video diaries and director Werner Herzog's interviews with Treadwell's friends and acquaintances. "It's certainly not a film about wild nature," Herzog told NPR. Just the same, anyone who watches Treadwell's footage will be sure to want to see bears in person--if from a safe distance.
Alaska is home to 98 percent of the U.S. brown bear population (out of hibernation from April to October). Though technically the same species, there are three types of brown bears within the state. Kodiaks, named for the archipelago they inhabit, are the world's largest bears; grizzlies have bristly, silver-tipped coats and live inland; coastal brown bears are larger and darker, due in great part to their high-protein salmon diet.
The latter can sometimes be seen from the comfort of a ship's deck (and with help from binoculars), particularly along Glacier Bay. Cruise West does three-night sailings of Glacier Bay from $1,350 (888/851-8133, cruisewest.com). Other small cruise ships travel the Katmai Coast (along Katmai National Park, where Treadwell and Huguenard died), which has the world's highest concentration of brown bears.
In Denali National Park, you can see bears from the windows of the buses on the Tundra Wilderness tour (800/622-7275, reservedenali.com). Buses run from May to September, and the tour is four to five hours ($50) or six to eight hours ($74).
Those who prefer to explore on foot should check out Brooks Camp, in Katmai National Park (907/246-3305, nps.gov/katm) and accessible by air taxi from King Salmon, for about $156 round trip. After a free orientation, you walk to platforms over waterfalls where the bears hunt for fish. During the hike, you'll be on level ground with them--prepare to get off the trail so they can pass.
Whenever you're in bear country, be noisy; it makes your presence known. Should you encounter a bear, wave your arms above your head and speak in a strong, even tone, backing away slowly. If one approaches, stay still. When it stops moving, continue to back away. In the event that you're actually attacked, pull your knees to your chin and stay as quiet as you possibly can.
7. Everything Is Illuminated
Looking into the past can be both fraught and deeply fulfilling
One reason director Liev Schreiber's film works as well as it does is that it pares down Jonathan Safran Foer's ambitious 2002 novel to a single narrative thread: A young New Yorker (Elijah Wood) goes to Ukraine to investigate his ancestry. His guides provide both comic relief and emotional resonance.
Everything Is Illuminated was shot in the Czech Republic rather than in Ukraine, and the locations aren't so alluring--except for two. One is Rybárna, an hour's train ride from Prague, where the Trachimbrod scenes were set. Producer Peter Saraf says the area is as beautiful as it appears: "The river, the incredible rock formations above us..." The other location is the sunflower field--which the filmmakers planted. "We built that house in the middle of an empty field and prayed," says Saraf. "Sunflowers only peak for about two days, but the morning we got there, it was like magic. Thousands of six-foot-high sunflowers all looking toward the sun."
Illuminated is more inspiring in general terms, and seeing where your family is from is often the best way to find out its secrets. How you go about it obviously depends on your ancestry.
The town where your ancestors came from may not be on the tourist grid--remember that boundaries and place names change. A village that was in Hungary in 1910 might be in Ukraine today, and called something totally different. Census, marriage, and death records usually list the country of birth--but ship passenger lists, naturalization records, and newspaper obituaries are more likely to give the name of the exact town. To learn how to use these sources--and many others online--pick up a how-to book such as Genealogy Online for Dummies by Matthew and April Leigh Helm. A good roundup of websites is at cyndislist.com.
Specialized travel agencies and even some operators can arrange family history tours. JewishGen ShtetlSchleppers, for one, leads trips to explore Jewish roots in Eastern Europe (jewishgen.org). Or plan your own trip and ask the local tourist office to recommend a guide, at least for your first day. Many European countries--including Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland--have emigration museums. They'll help put your ancestors' lives in historical context, and their research-library staffs are experienced in working with Americans. For a list, see aemi.dk; click on Addresses.
Allow for as much time in your ancestral hometown as you can. You may find the locals are as curious about you as you are about your roots, and it'll be impolite not to accept an invitation for a snack or a drink.
There's one thing, however, that you can't prepare for: how powerfully you'll be moved. During the shoot, producer Safar took his mother to Vienna. "We saw the house she lived in until she was 4, when the Nazis threw them out, and the corner where my grandfather was picked up and taken to Dachau. It was very emotional," he says. "My father came to visit, but we didn't have time to go to Lodz, Poland, where he lived until he was 7, when his family escaped the Nazis and went to Palestine. That is a trip I will make with him."
A boy and his cheetah explore the true meaning of friendship
After raising an orphaned cheetah named Duma on his parents' farm in South Africa, 12-year-old Xan (Alex Michaeletos) sets off on his own to fulfill a promise he made to his father to return the animal to the wild. Along the way, he meets Ripkuna (Eamonn Walker), who befriends the boy and his unusual pet. The threesome travel deep into the wilds of Africa, exploring deserts, jungles, and plains.
Director Carroll Ballard, who also was at the helm of The Black Stallion, Never Cry Wolf, and Fly Away Home, has made a name for himself exploring the relationships between animals, humans, and the great outdoors. He continues mining those themes in Duma--which is based on a true story, believe it or not--using backdrops such as the Kalahari Desert, the Okavango Delta, and South Africa's Northern Cape. Some 75 locations were involved, so the crew was able to see much of the continent's landscapes. "If you go deep into the Kalahari you'll find bushmen and the fabulous salt flats that seem to go on forever," says Stacy Cohen, one of the film's producers.
Operator 2Afrika is now selling a nine-day Duma tour that includes three nights in a tent on safari in the sprawling 24,000-acre Entabeni Game Reserve, home to the Big Five: lions, elephants, rhinos, leopards, and buffalo. (Cheetah sightings are rare.) The package, available January-March, comes with round-trip air to Johannesburg from Washington, D.C., or Atlanta, and a stay in Entabeni, with six game drives and a visit to an indigenous Pedi village. On day five, you fly to Cape Town for three nights. The package costs $2,995, kids under 12, $2,195 (866/462-2374, 2afrika.com).
Lion World Tours' nine-day family safari, also available January-March, begins with a flight to Cape Town from New York or Atlanta. During the four nights in the city, there are several excursions, including a visit to Spier, a wine-country estate that houses the Cheetah Outreach Program, and where kids can view a farm-raised cheetah. On day six you fly to Johannesburg and then to Hoedspruit--an hour north--for three nights at the Ngala Chalet. It's outside Kruger National Park (800/387-2706, lionworldtravel.com, $3,299, kids under 12, $2,099; all meals, transfers, and tours included).
5. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
If only getting there were as simple as opening a door . . .
To avoid the London air raids of World War II, four young siblings are dispatched to the country estate of an eccentric old professor. One discovers that a dusty wardrobe is actually the entryway to Narnia, a magical land inhabited by minotaurs, centaurs, and fauns, as well as Jadis, an evil witch (Tilda Swinton), and Aslan, a wise lion (voice by Liam Neeson). Jadis rules over Narnia, which she has cursed with eternal winter, while Aslan waits for a chance to bring back sunny days to his former domain.
Based on the first of the famous series of children's novels by C.S. Lewis, The Lion (in theaters December 9) hopes to replicate the eye-popping success of Lord of the Rings, and it's following literally in the hobbits' footsteps. Both were directed by Kiwis--Peter Jackson did LOTR, Andrew Adamson of Shrek is behind The Lion--who filmed most scenes in their native New Zealand.
Canterbury Sightseeing started taking advance reservations for its new Through the Wardrobe Tour months ago, and has exclusive rights to bring visitors in four-wheel-drive vehicles to many of the film's high-country locations. That includes a privately owned area on the South Island called Flock Hill. "It's the size of 10 football fields, on top of a mountain with stunning panoramas in every direction," says producer Mark Johnson. "It's where we shot the final battle, which is a huge part of the movie." Canterbury's full-day tours depart out of Christchurch beginning in January (011-64/3338-0982, lionwitchwardrobetours.co.nz, tour with lunch, $195).
But you don't need to book a guide to view much of the amazing scenery in the movie. Tourism New Zealand lists many of The Lion's locations on its website, newzealand.com (click on Media, then search "Narnia"), and touring by car or RV is a popular way to explore the country; look into a package with airfare from Sunspots International (800/334-5623, sunspotsintl.com) or ATS Tours (800/423-2880, atstours.com). For mountain vistas as pretty as any in the movie, drive from Christchurch up Hwy. 73 toward Arthur's Pass National Park. There are turnoffs for the Cave Stream Scenic Reserve, which has a 1,188-foot-long cave and landscapes typical of Narnia, and the Flock Hill Lodge, which housed some of the film's crew (011-64/3318-8196, flockhill.co.nz, doubles from $84).
Further south, near Duntroon, is the Vanished World (vanishedworld.co.nz). Millions of years ago, the area was underwater. When the sea receded, it left behind limestone hulks on the sandy ground. One of the more peculiar sights is Elephant Rocks--huge, rounded gray monoliths on flat, dark earth. It's where filmmakers set up Aslan's Camp.
About 20 percent of the movie was filmed outside New Zealand. Los Angeles's Griffith Park was doused in fake snow for a handful of wintry scenes (323/913-4688, laparks.org), and the finger-like rocks shown in The Lion are found in the Czech Republic, a popular location of late. From the village of Adrspach, near the Polish border, you can take a three-mile walk amid rock formations shown in the movie, such as one called the Lovers, which juts 300 feet from the forest floor (011-420/491-586-012, skalyadrspach.cz).
4. Brokeback Mountain
A pair of men find themselves in the Canadian Rockies
"Brokeback called and said they wanted to match Wyoming," says Tina Alford of the Alberta Film Commission. "I said, 'Perfect, done.' Clint Eastwood, who shot Unforgiven here, said it best: You can get five different looks in Alberta--badlands, prairie, rolling hills, mountains, and grasslands."
Then again, Clint Eastwood never made a movie quite like this. Released December 9, director Ang Lee's moving film concerns lovers Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhall), who discover their feelings while tending sheep on "Brokeback Mountain." When they return to their small-town lives, the mountain becomes a metaphor for a better world, one where they can be themselves--and be together.
It's certainly one of the most physically beautiful metaphors you'll ever see. The Brokeback Mountain scenes were filmed in Kananaskis Country, provincial parkland in the Rockies (search "Kananaskis Country" at travelalberta.com). Location manager Darryl Solly says his team chose the Upper Kananaskis Lakes campground and day-use areas such as Mud Lake and King Creek. As the movie proves, it's an area perfect for exploring via horse. To find a stable that leads rides, check out ranchcanadianrockies.com.
The crew stayed in the ski town of Canmore. "You fly into Calgary," says Solly, "and then it's only a 45-minute drive." Canmore has the services you'd expect--though it's still wild. "The Marriott is a good place to stay," Solly advises. "It's the most remote from the town but closest to the park." Summer rates for the Residence Inn by Marriott start at $129 (800/331-3131, marriott.com). Solly also recommends the Delta Lodge at Kananaskis. "You wake up and there are deer and elk and moose outside minding their own business. People always ask how the animals are kept so tame." The Delta Lodge's bed-and-breakfast packages start at $145 (403/591-7711, deltahotels.com).
The town scenes were a challenge for Solly: "There's an economic disparity between Alberta now"--where oil has brought a fair amount of prosperity to small towns--"and Wyoming in the '60s and '70s." So the production cherry-picked from among eight different locations. One they featured quite a bit was Fort Macleod, 90 minutes south of Calgary. "It's a gorgeous place," says Tina Alford. "A stereotypical prairie town with two streets, sandstone buildings, and a great old-time hotel called the Queens Hotel." Rates at the Queens Hotel start at just $38 (403/553-4343).
3. Memoirs of a Geisha
Inside the secretive city of Kyoto, there's an even more secretive society
The geisha in question is Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang). As a young girl, she's abruptly removed from her fishing village in Hokkaido and sold to a geisha house in Kyoto. The crux of the story is her training in, and mastering of, the arts of the geisha, under the tutelage of Mameha (Michelle Yeoh).
Shooting in Japan is expensive, so the producers of the long-awaited adaptation (due out December 9) of Arthur Golden's best-selling 1997 novel spent three months scouting locations around the world. Director Rob Marshall certainly had experience making one place sub for another; he shot Chicago in Toronto.
Much of the action in Memoirs of a Geisha takes place at studio soundstages and sets that the crew built outside Los Angeles. For garden scenes, they used the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, near Pasadena. "We did a scene from the baron's cherry blossom viewing party there," says Patty Whitcher, unit production manager (626/405-2100, huntington.org, $15, $6 kids; closed Mondays). The end of the film was shot at the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park (415/752-4227, $3.50). The Hokkaido scenes were filmed south of San Francisco in Moss Beach, at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. It has a harbor seal rookery and extensive tide pools (650/728-3584, fitzgeraldreserve.org, free).
The Memoirs crew did go to Japan, packing as much as they could into two weeks. The emphasis was on exteriors, particuarly at temples, which have remained more or less unchanged for centuries. "We spent a magical day at Kiyomizu-dera, a temple on stilts," says Whitcher. All the shots of "epic sunrises" were done there. "What was really neat was seeing all of the elderly people starting their day with sunrise yoga." The temple is open daily from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. (011-81/75-551-1234, $2.60).
After Sayuri meets the Chairman (Ken Watanabe) and he gives her some coins as a gift, she offers them to the Buddha as thanks. Those scenes were shot at the Yoshimine-dera temple (011-81/75-331-0020). Whitcher learned that people go to specific temples depending on what they want to pray for or whom they'd like to honor. "This temple, at the very top of the Kyoto mountains, was probably the most calming place I've ever been," she says. "So I asked one of the monks what is special about the temple. He said it's where people come to heal their broken hearts."
As readers of Golden's novel learned, Kyoto's most famous geisha neighborhood is Gion. It's one of the prettiest parts of the city, and it still holds its secrets very close. Meeting a geisha is costly and difficult to arrange, but if you walk around Gion early in the evening you may spot them hurrying to their appointments. Gion Corner is a touristy production displaying seven types of traditional Japanese arts, including a dance performed by maiko, or apprentice geisha (011-81/75-561-1119, kyotoguide.com/gion_corner, $24.50). Meanwhile, the International Hotel Kyoto, across from Nijo Castle, hosts free maiko performances in its lounge every evening (011-81/75-222-1111).
Anticipating interest in Kyoto as a result of the movie, Kintetsu International has created a package covering airfare from New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles on American Airlines, five nights at the New Miyako Hotel, transfers, and tours of various landmarks, including Kiyomizu temple. Rates start at $1,229 (800/422-3481, japanforyou.com).
2. Pride & Prejudice
With apologies to Keira Knightley, the real estate steals the show
A ridiculously reductive plot summary: Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley), whose family could use some good fortune, takes what seems like forever to get over her negative first impressions of the very wealthy Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen). The pleasure of watching Lizzie and Darcy realize they're right for each other is mitigated only by the nagging awareness that you'll never marry so well.
Of the eight historic buildings used in Pride & Prejudice, two make a deeper impression. "We were in the most beautiful houses in England," says location manager Adam Richards, sighing. "Chatsworth and Burghley."
Chatsworth stands in for Pemberley, Darcy's palatial estate--and in fact, the 16th-century Chatsworth was rumored to be Austen's inspiration for Pemberley. It's the seat of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, and a three-hour drive from London (two hours by rail; a one-way ticket to Chesterfield, 11 miles from Chatsworth, starts at $11). Chatsworth's size is staggering: There are 297 rooms in the main house (one-third are accessible; you wander at your own pace), 105 acres of formal gardens (including a hedge maze made with 1,200 yew trees), and 1,000 acres of parkland (011-44/1246-565300, chatsworth-house.co.uk, $17 for house and garden). Note: Chatsworth is closed December 21-March 15.
While Lizzie was unfazed by her first encounter with Darcy's snobby aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Judi Dench), anyone else would be cowed simply by laying eyes on Burghley ("Rosings" in P&P). The house was constructed between 1555 and 1587 by Sir William Cecil, Lord Treasurer for Queen Elizabeth I. Subsequent members of the Cecil family filled the house with objets d'art from their travels. "The paintings are just stunning," reports Richards. Particularly notable are the Heaven Room and the Hell Staircase, painted by Antonio Verrio. "The Heaven Room is where the drawing room scene was shot, and the Hell Staircase leads off that room. It's a big double staircase painted with images of hell." Burghley is a mile from the village of Stamford (see below). The house is open April 1-- October 29 (011-44/1780-752451, burghley.co.uk; $16, kids $7).
The Lincolnshire town of Stamford, a two-hour drive from London, subbed for Austen's village of Meryton. "We chose Stamford because there were no trees," says producer Paul Webster. "When you look at any drawings of market towns"--back in the time when Austen's novel is set--"there's no greenery." Webster recommends a pair of establishments in Stamford: a hotel called the George (011-44/1780-750700, georgehotelofstamford.com, doubles from $204, includes breakfast) and the Crown Inn, a pub (011-44/ 1780-763362). "They're funky but not stuffy," he says.
Visit Britain, the British tourism organization, is distributing a map of the locations (from the film version and the much-loved 1995 BBC adaptation), and has loaded visitbritain.com with film-related information. Likewise, the East Midlands region, which is home to Lincolnshire, Derbyshire, and the Peak District, where most of P&P was shot, created its own website, visitprideandprejudice.com.
Finally, Austen aficionados won't want to leave England without stopping at two attractions: the Jane Austen Centre, in Bath (011-44/1225-443000, janeausten.co.uk, $10.50), and Jane Austen's House and Museum, in the village of Chawton, a mile from Alton, which is only a half-hour train ride from London (011-44/1420-83262, jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk, $8). The former explores Austen's time in Bath; the latter is the house where she lived from 1809 to 1817--and where she finished Pride & Prejudice.
1. March of the Penguins
It's the year's big success story--and there's a new star on the adventure travel circuit
There was no such thing as a blockbuster documentary before Fahrenheit 9/11 came out in 2004. Now there's another, and it couldn't be more different. French director Luc Jacquet and his crew spent 13 months deep within Antarctica filming March of the Penguins. It has grossed $73 million, and forever anthropomorphized everyone's favorite formally dressed bird.
Each year, thousands of emperor penguins abandon the ocean waters and waddle hundreds of miles inland. Once at their breeding ground, they find a partner to monogamously mate with. When the female lays an egg, it's passed to the father, who cares for it (amid 100-mph winds and in temperatures 70 degrees below zero) while the mother makes the brutal walk home, returning two months later with food stored in her belly for her chick. The father, by then starving and cold, heads back to the water and waits to be reunited with the mother and their baby, who follow soon after.
Spotting emperor penguins in person is wildly expensive, since the majority live inside the Antarctic Circle, far from the peninsula where the bulk of tour operators go. "Mating occurs in the most remote and inaccessible place on earth," says Denise Landau, executive director of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. "Plus it happens at the beginning of the Antarctic winter, thereby assuring the penguins' privacy." TravelWild Expeditions' 15-day tour goes to where the emperors are, but it starts at $12,000 per person.
Catching a glimpse of other penguin species is much easier. Canadian outfitter G.A.P Adventures runs a 19-day cruise of the Antarctic Peninsula, South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands, for $6,470 per person (it departs from Ushuaia, Argentina, and the price does not include airfare; 800/708-7761, gapadventures.com). You get a shared triple cabin aboard the 108-passenger Explorer, all meals, visits to scientific research stations, shore excursions, and stunning views of king, chinstrap, and gentoo penguins (as well as seals and orcas and other whales). The next two departures are December 11, 2006, and January 16, 2007.
To see penguins without the bitter cold--and the expense--visit Australia's Phillip Island Nature Park, 75 miles south of Melbourne. The two-hour, ranger-led Ultimate Penguin Tour leaves at sunset with no more than 15 visitors in a group (011-61-3/5951-2800, penguins.org.au, $45). You go to protected Summerland Beach, where the aptly named "little" penguins--at 13 inches tall, they're the smallest of all 17 species (adult emperors are more than four feet tall)--pass in front of you en route to their burrows. Once the sun sets, you watch them with infrared binoculars. You must not touch them, of course, and photography is forbidden. But the photos in the gift shop benefit penguin conservation--and unlike the March of the Penguins crew, you don't have to worry about frostbite.
Driving the Florida Panhandle
Day 1: Tallahassee to Wakulla Springs Minutes after leaving the Tallahassee airport, my boyfriend, Ted, and I realize we're about to experience a side of Florida quite different from hard-partying Miami and built-up Orlando. This is the South: The airport abuts the Apalachicola National Forest, and the road out is lined by thick pines. The forests are so dense, in fact, that Ted makes uncomfortable jokes about expecting to hear "Dueling Banjos." Wakulla Springs State Park, 15 miles from the airport, has a freshwater spring that's 70 degrees year-round. Over the years, divers have explored the depths--at 185 feet, it's one of the world's deepest--and come back up with, among other things, the skeleton of a mastodon, a prehistoric elephant-like animal, which was found in the 1930s. Meanwhile, fishermen found Old Joe, a 650-pound alligator (shot between the eyes in 1966 and now in a vitrine in the lobby of the Wakulla Springs Lodge). We arrive at 10:30 a.m., just in time for a 40-minute boat tour on the Wakulla River, which runs through the park. Our guide is J.J., a young, handsome guy who loses points when he instructs us to call him Captain Crash. "Don't touch the alligators, because they'll touch back," warns the Captain. Beady eyes blink at us from the water, and touching what's attached to them couldn't be less appealing. On the shore, an anhinga, a black-and-white-feathered waterbird, is standing still, its large wings spread out to dry. Somehow it seems foreboding; the fact that the 1954 horror flick Creature From the Black Lagoon was filmed at Wakulla Springs comes as no surprise. Back onshore, I see a sign reading alligators--swim with caution. A more appropriate sign would say swim elsewhere. We move on to meet some friendlier animals at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. The 68,000-acre refuge is a protected winter stopover for migratory birds. We pick up a driving guide to the seven-mile Lighthouse Road, and dutifully veer off at each of the seven pullouts to admire marshes and man-made freshwater pools. From start to finish, ours is the only car on the narrow road; the action is confined to cabbage palms swaying on the shoulder. Signs along the road and walking trails list bird species to look out for, as well as relevant historical facts. Among other interesting tidbits, we learn that Native Americans and colonists used the bark of prickly ash trees to soothe tooth-aches, and made tea from wax myrtle as a stomachache remedy. Spring Creek is a small fishing community 13 miles south of Wakulla Springs. Spring Creek Restaurant, owned by the Lovel family, has an attached gallery that displays drawings of flounder and other fish by the son, Clay Lovel. The fried oyster sandwich is plump and delicious, and while eating, Ted and I flip through Spring Creek Chronicles, a two-volume paperback collection of short stories by the father, Leo, describing his "mullet catching, turkey shooting, offshore fishing, and law evading" activities. We're suitably intrigued and ask Leo, who's behind the counter, to elaborate. He tells us it was nothing serious: "Just fishin' with an outlawed net, but I'm still in court for it." The exchange somehow raises more questions than it answers. We join Old Joe, the monstrous gator, at Wakulla Springs Lodge, built in 1937. A family is playing checkers at one of the marble-topped tables in the lobby, which has hand-painted beams on the ceiling. Our room, which faces the springs, is furnished with a comfortable chaise and a four-poster bed. Ted falls asleep within seconds. Not me. I'm haunted by thoughts of what might be lurking outside. Alligators? Creatures from the Black Lagoon? Leo Lovel with an outlawed net? Lodging Wakulla Springs Lodge550 Wakulla Park Dr., Wakulla Springs, 850/926-0700, floridastateparks.org/wakullasprings, from $85 Food Spring Creek Restaurant33 Ben Willis Rd., Crawfordville, 850/926-3751, fried oyster sandwich $7 Activities Wakulla Springs State Park550 Wakulla Park Dr., Wakulla Springs, 850/926-0700, floridastateparks.org/wakullasprings, car fee $4 St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge1255 Lighthouse Rd., St. Marks, 850/925-6121, fws.gov/saintmarks, car fee $4 Day 2: Wakulla Springs to Apalachicola From Wakulla, we head over a five-mile causeway to St. George Island. At first, I'm disappointed--the Panhandle is famous for its 220 miles of sugar-white beaches, but all I see are masses of vacation homes on stilts. On the less-developed east end, there's more of what I'm looking for. The white sand at St. George Island State Park is dazzling, marked only with the tracks of blue herons. A nature trail winds through a pine forest to the bay side of the island. We're spending the night six miles farther west on the mainland in Apalachicola, which has a long history as a hub for the oyster, sponge, cotton, and lumber industries. Today, the warehouses and offices are mostly gone, replaced by restaurants, boutiques, and tourist shops. Despite all that, it feels more like a lovely, slow-paced village than a buzzing town. (Apalachicola got its first stoplight only weeks before we arrived.) A guy standing in front of the chamber of commerce says that if we want a lunch place with character we should head to Indian Pass Raw Bar, 18 miles west in the town of Indian Pass. From outside, the ramshackle, paint-chipped building looks abandoned. Inside, it seems like the whole town has showed up for lunch. There's hardly room at one of the long tables, which are covered with plastic checkered tablecloths. Each table has a roll of paper towels and a box of Saltines; both come in handy when sopping up the spicy seafood gumbo. It's a small bowl, but it's mighty filling. Returning to Apalachicola, we check in at the Gibson Inn. The grand Victorian was built as a hotel in 1907, and our room has an antique four-poster bed and wicker chairs. I'm glad we're not in room 309, where the ghost of a ship's captain is rumored to appear occasionally. We walk around town, looking at all the beautiful Greek Revival and Victorian buildings dating back to the 1830s. The men who made their money in the town's industries built stately homes, some of which have been turned into inns. We're happy to discover Tamara's Café Floridita. The original owner, Tamara Suarez, moved to Apalachicola in 1996 after 10 years as a TV producer in Venezuela. On a vacation, she fell in love with the town's quaintness, and thought--rightly so--that the locals could use a restaurant that served something other than fried fish. She recently sold the restaurant to her daughter and son-in-law, but the menu remains Latin fusion. Ted and I split four tapas (shrimp with garlic, mussels in wine sauce, crab cakes, and prosciutto with fruit). The crab cakes have a real kick, and we use bread to polish off the wine sauce loaded with capers, red peppers, and shallots. We're in heaven, and somehow we still find room for the perfectly tart key lime pie. Back at the Gibson Inn, we have a nightcap of mint juleps while sitting in rocking chairs on the wraparound porch. Lodging Gibson Inn51 Ave. C, Apalachicola, 850/653-2191, gibsoninn.com, from $85 Food Pass Raw Bar8391 C-30A, Indian Pass, 850/227-1670, gumbo $5.25 Tamara's Café Floridita17 Ave. E, Apalachicola, 850/653-4111, shrimp tapas $5.50 Activities St. George Island State Park1900 E. Gulf Beach Dr., St. George Island, 850/927-2111, floridastateparks.org/stgeorgeisland, car fee $5 Day 3: Apalachicola to Ft. Walton Beach Route 98 is the main road tracing the coast, and for 60 miles to the west, there isn't a whole lot to see other than stores selling spring-break souvenirs. We speed past Panama City, with its go-kart joints, video arcades, and body-piercing salons. In Seagrove Beach, we stop at Cocoon's, a deli and take-out market, to pick up tuna sandwiches and marinated artichoke salad. Then it's on to Eden Gardens State Park. Lois Maxon, a wealthy New York publisher, bought the former lumber baron's estate in the early 1960s and spent most of the decade renovating it and planting 11 acres of gardens. The Choctawhatchee River used to be the main artery for lumber barges, and we make a picnic in the park at a table beside the Tucker Bayou, an inlet of Choctawhatchee Bay, where the lumber was loaded and carted by barge up to Alabama and beyond. On a 45-minute house tour, the guide gives us the lowdown on Maxon's impressive antiques, which include the country's second-largest collection of Louis XVI furniture. The Panhandle of Florida is one of the only places in the country with coastal dune lakes. Because the lakes are filled with freshwater in addition to small amounts of salt water, migratory birds depend on them as a water source, as did Native Americans some 10,000 years ago. It begins drizzling just as we start walking down the two-and-a-half-mile Morris Lake nature trail toward one of the lakes at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park. Still, we continue on through the wet sand, and the sound of the ocean gets louder. A shimmering lake appears between the dunes; lily pads are floating on the surface, mist is rising from the water, bass are jumping and flopping. A quick look is all we can manage before we race back to the car, drenched. Later, someone tells us that alligators live there, too, but luckily we didn't cross their path. Food Cocoon's4101 E. Hwy. 30-A, Seagrove Beach, 850/ 231-4544, tuna sandwich $5 Activities Eden Gardens State ParkC.R. 395 off Rte. 98, Point Washington, 850/267-8322, floridastateparks.org/edengardens, car fee $3, mansion tour $3 Topsail Hill Preserve State Park7525 W. Scenic Highway 30A, Santa Rosa Beach, 850/267-8330, floridastateparks.org/topsailhill, car $2 Day 4: Ft. Walton Beach to Tallahassee The rain has finally stopped by the time we wake up, but it's still a cold 50 degrees, which is fairly normal for winter. Clearly, indoor activities are in order. Every region in the country seems to be gunning for the title of the Next Napa these days, and this part of Florida is no different; in fact, there are five wineries on the Panhandle. At Chautauqua Winery in De Funiak Springs, a short video presentation gives the long view on local winemaking, pointing out that the first wines in the New World were made in Florida in 1662. To our delight, the tasting is free, and the Chautauqua goes all out, serving a total of 17 varietals--in small amounts--including chardonnay, merlot, and zinfandel. My favorite happens to be one of the specialties, the wildflower honey muscadine, a dessert wine made from local muscadine grapes. Because it's a chilly day, the tasting ends with a small glass of hot mulled wine with cinnamon and cloves. With a late flight out of Tallahassee, we've got just enough time to visit Florida Caverns State Park in Marianna, about an hour from the airport. I tend to experience claustrophobia, but ranger Frank Strickland assures me there are no tight squeezes. On the 45-minute tour, Strickland explains how water dripping through the limestone ceiling eventually dissolved the calcium and produced stalactites, stalagmites, and flowstone, a cave formation that resembles a frozen waterfall coating the cavern walls. Some of the especially unusual rock formations we see include a column in the form of a wedding cake and a large blob of flowstone that looks strangely like a pipe organ. It did to me, anyway. Then again, maybe I had a bit too much of that muscadine. Activities Chautauqua Winery364 Hugh Adams Rd., De Funiak Springs, 850/ 892-5887 Florida Caverns State Park3345 Caverns Rd., Marianna, 850/ 482-9598, car fee $4, cave tour $6 Finding your way Pensacola, on the Panhandle's western edge (and served by AirTran), can also work as a starting point for this trip. Note: Hurricane Dennis did some damage to Indian Pass Raw Bar as well as St. George Island State Park. The restaurant will be fixed up by early 2006. However, it's wise to call ahead for updates before visiting the area. A couple of navigational pointers: To drive closest to the beach, take 30A, which veers off Route 98 after Sunnyside; the Chautauqua Winery is at the intersection of exit 85 on I-10 and Route 331, off Business Park Road (it can be tricky to find).
The Spirit of St. Lucia
St. Lucia's most famous feature is the Pitons, two green, hulking peaks that rise from the sea in cinematic fashion. At the base of Petit Piton, the smaller of the two, sits Stonefield Estate Villa Resort, a former cocoa plantation transformed into 20 villas. With slatted walls, mosquito netting over four-poster beds, private plunge pools, and outdoor showers, the villas feel like part of a tropical summer camp--but Camp Hiawatha's dining hall never had an ocean view like this. Shuttles take guests to one of two beaches: the resort's rocky beach, five minutes away, or the ridiculously beautiful strip of white sand (imported from Guyana to cover the original volcanic black beach) at the Jalousie Plantation resort, 10 minutes away. At night, the stars spread out gauzily in the sky, and crickets and tree frogs make so much noise that even city dwellers may need to take a few deep breaths to get to sleep. The plantation has been in the Brown family for 32 years, but it's only spent the last eight as a hotel--which means proprietor Aly Brown's childhood bedroom is now a guest suite. Brown, 33, is a good-looking man who speaks about St. Lucian life and culture with a mixture of fond bemusement and even fonder pride. Returning to work for his family was the last thing he'd planned, he says over dinner at Camilla's, a small restaurant in downtown Soufrière, the southern village where Stonefield Villas is located. He had gone to Ryerson University in Toronto to earn a business degree, and was "summoned" home by his sister shortly thereafter. "I thought, Okay, I'll come down here for six months to a year, then leave," he says. That was eight years ago. Picking Brown's brain about where to go on the island is tough--he spends so much time managing the hotel that he rarely gets out anymore--but he did dig up a magical photocopied map of the area, and it quickly became indispensable. My first stop was touristy Sulphur Springs, billed as the world's only drive-through volcano (I'd encourage people to go when the wind is blowing the natural rotten-egg smell away from the viewing platforms). The Soufrière Estate and Diamond Botanical Gardens are much nicer; the former sugar plantation's hundreds of varieties of foliage include giant ficus trees that make you wonder if the plant in your office is a growth spurt away from grandeur. Brown also suggested a slightly out-of-the-way waterfall, called Spike, that crashes 350 feet into a swimmable pool. Waterfalls are ubiquitous in St. Lucia, like wedding chapels in Las Vegas, but this one really was quite stunning. Feeling ambitious, I had my guide, Nelly, take me all the way to the top. The climb (and accompanying near-cardiac arrest) killed any dreams I had of making the four-hour trek to the top of the 2,620-foot-tall Gros Piton. Finally, I followed a suggestion that would be repeated by almost everyone I met, and went for the Sunday buffet brunch at Ladera, a resort just down the road from Stonefield. The open-air dining room looks out over a broad expanse of Caribbean flanked by the Pitons, and the $20 prix fixe is a small price to pay for such a panorama, especially when one factors in the excellent coconut bread pudding. Surrounded by all this, I find it unsurprising Brown stuck around. "In Canada, I enjoyed the restaurants and libraries and universities--all kinds of culture," he says. "St. Lucia is a Third World country. You're somewhat limited in choices. But after a while you miss your beach and you miss riding horses on the beach, you know? It's a life that you grow to appreciate as you get older." He smiles. "Everybody wants to retire to an island." Nick Pinnock, owner of Ti Kaye Village Resort, e-mailed me his sightseeing suggestions ahead of time, declaring the island's best view to be from "the lighthouse on top of Moule à Chique in Vieux Fort"--a town at the southern tip of St. Lucia and an hour from Soufrière. My general inability to find anything outside of Soufrière, however, meant I never got to the lighthouse. But, hey, the power station and radio antenna one hill over are higher up anyway, and the view from there--with the entire island spreading below and so much ocean to my back that I swear I could see the curve of the earth--was a memorable last image of the south before heading north to Ti Kaye. Accessed by a typically gnarly St. Lucian road, Pinnock's resort is on a piece of property about halfway between Soufrière and the capital, Castries. Raised in the island's north, Pinnock, now 38, left St. Lucia in the '80s and moved to Brisbane, Australia, with his mother. After attending college Down Under, he returned to St. Lucia, working for an agricultural firm based in Puerto Rico; the job sent him traveling all over the Caribbean. He bought the land in St. Lucia as an investment: "I was basically gonna sit on it for a few years and then sell it to some other fool. But I fell in love with it a little bit." Drawing inspiration from Stonefield Villas (Pinnock used to be married to Aly Brown's sister--it's a small island--and Brown's father helped with Ti Kaye's design), he laid out 33 cottages: open-windowed structures with gingerbread roofs, outdoor showers, and a view from every porch. But the highlight of Ti Kaye is its beach, down 166 stairs to Anse Cochon, a bay with an excellent reef for snorkeling, a dive shop on property, and a waterfront restaurant and bar where the Piton Beer is lovingly chilled. Another of Pinnock's dining suggestions was to attend the Friday Fish Fry in Anse La Raye, 15 minutes north. More congenial than the better-publicized Mardi Gras--style "jump up" in Gros Islet, the fish fry consists of locals and tourists dining elbow to elbow at long tables in the town bazaar. With the sun setting over the pier and reggae blasting from six-foot-tall speakers, it's everything island life should be. I got there early and killed time at the Seaview Bar, a small teal building kitty-corner to the community center, where I met 84-year-old Peter Adjodha, whose parents immigrated to St. Lucia from India when he was a child. A couple of Pitons later, our conversation had covered everything from American politics to Hurricane Katrina, while baseball highlights drifted by on a TV that takes up about a third of the room. Peter invited me to come back sometime, which I took to mean the very next night. Providing experiences like that, says Pinnock, is something that small resorts such as Stonefield Villas and Ti Kaye pride themselves on. "If you're talking trickle-down economics, businesses like ours are much better for the economy [than bigger resorts]," he says. "We promote people to go outside, to spread it around a lot fairer." One of Pinnock's favorite suggestions for guests is to rent a jeep for a day, although he recognizes it can be a bit problematic. "For us, an old beat-up road to an east coast beach is normal," he says. "But you send a person who's been living in New York City all their life down there, they'll sort of freak out a little bit. Especially after they pass a country farmer wielding a machete." I tell him that I saw just such a farmer, though he was also wielding a puppy. "That was probably his dinner," Pinnock says, then laughs. "Just kidding." After the fairly rustic isolation of the south, St. Lucia's capital city of Castries and its northern neighbor, Gros Islet, are a kind of social reconditioning therapy: Buildings! Traffic! Humanity! My final destination, Coco Palm, is a candy-colored three-story building in Gros Islet's tourist-heavy Rodney Bay Village--and this being St. Lucia's relatively urban north, it's the first hotel I visited with full-on walls and windows, TV, Wi-Fi, and central air-conditioning. Co-owner and managing director Allen Chastanet, 44, has worked in pretty much every sector of the travel industry, including a three-year stint as St. Lucia's tourism director in the early '90s. He went to Bishop's University in Quebec for college and American University in Washington, D.C., for a master's degree in banking, but from the way he talks, there was no doubt he'd end up back on St. Lucia. When discussing the island's future, Chastanet lights up like a Christmas tree. Coco Palm opened in June, a sibling to the more affordable Coco Kreole. Both were founded on Chastanet's philosophy of "village tourism"--a fancy name for Pinnock's goal of "spreading it around"--and to that end, Chastanet employs a staff of hosts to find out what's up every guest's alley. "As you're making recommendations, you can watch how people react," he explains. "And then you lead them off in that direction." Suggestions might include a delicious Chinese dinner at Memories of Hong Kong, a drink at the Happy Day Bar (two-for-one all the time, which can make for an Unhappy Tomorrow Morning), or Coco Resorts' Zen Cruise, which incorporates snorkeling, lunch, and meditation. Within 15 minutes of hearing about my wanderings in the south, Chastanet threw out an idea: I should visit the La Toc military battery, an old fort on the outskirts of Castries owned by an American named Alice Bagshaw. I listened skeptically. Then he told me that, aside from running Bagshaw's Shop, where she sells silk-screened fabrics, Bagshaw also has a room filled with antique bottles she's found while diving off the coast. Chastanet found something that combined my love of history, crafts, diving, and eccentric American expats. As much as I liked stumbling around Soufrière, it was refreshing to have Chastanet and his hosts looking after me, fretting about my happiness, even chastising me for not spending enough time on Reduit Beach, a two-minute walk from Coco Palm. After I'd admired the murals at the hotel, the staff told me I should check out the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception--the artist who painted Coco Palm's murals, Luigi St. Omer, did the church's, too (with his father, Dustan). Chastanet also suggested a boat ride to Pigeon Island National Landmark, where a military outpost high up in the hills provides glorious views of Gros Islet and, if the weather is good, Martinique. I ate lunch at the Captain's Cellar Pub, enjoying a supertasty sausage sandwich (I admit that I was relieved to have something other than fish) while sitting at a simple picnic table just yards from waves crashing onto the northern beach. By the last day, I'd grown tired of being led around by the nose, and sought to reclaim my independence by visiting Cas en Bas, a popular windsurfing beach on the east coast. The directions consisted of "Take a left at the Shell petrol station"--and sure enough, my trusty jeep and I got lost for a solid hour, driving down ever-dwindling roads until we dead-ended in front of highly amused villagers. When I at last found the grotty road down to the beach, I discovered a stunning, peaceful cove where Marjorie's Beach Bar is ideal for sipping a Piton in the shade and watching honeymooners ride horses bareback into the surf. The only thing marring the experience: An enormous development is being constructed next to Marjorie's, where once there were only palm trees. Chastanet acknowledges that the tourism industry, for everything it brings to the island, isn't without its faults. "In a destination like St. Lucia, tourism can be very displacing," he says. "All of a sudden, in your backyard, you've got this resort, and there's all these people taking pictures of your kids. It can be very negative, if dealt with in the wrong way." But, he concludes, "If you're going to spend all this money to advertise for people to come to paradise, we need to make sure it's paradise." As more and more folks are attracted by the island's considerable charms, it'll be up to men like Brown, Pinnock, and Chastanet to find a way to meld the traditional and the modern--St. Lucia and the outside world--in ways that honor both. It's certainly possible: The company behind the mega-resort being built at Cas en Bas is talking to Marjorie about running the resort's water-sport rental business off of her property. Island driving: An adventure of its own St. Lucia's relationship with street signs is tenuous, the roads occasionally double as rivers, and people drive on the left. If you still want to rent a car--which I recommend--note that there's a $20 fee for the required temporary driving license (all you need is a valid U.S. license, and you pay at the car-rental agency). You may want to bring a compass and a friend who won't hesitate to ask for directions. And pack some music, unless you like R. Kelly as much as local DJs do. Hiring guides (and what to pay them) Most natural attractions in St. Lucia are run by the Forestry Department and require a small donation (usually $2--$4). Upon arrival, you'll be encouraged to hire a guide--one of the locals sitting outside--for a "suggested donation" of whatever you decide (I gave tips ranging from $2 to $5). Guides are fairly unnecessary at self-explanatory places such as Sulphur Springs, but I enjoyed seeing the Botanical Gardens with someone who knew what we were looking at. The one place a guide is indispensable is when climbing Gros Piton, but avoid paying the $100 (and up) charged by most tour services. You can drive five minutes south of Soufrière to the Gros Piton nature trail and hire a guide on the spot for $30. A final note: Hitchhiking and ride-giving is rampant in St. Lucia, and your guide might ask for a trip into town afterward. It's probably safe enough, but if you feel uncomfortable, you're allowed to politely decline. Lodging Stonefield Estate Villa Resort 758/459-7037, stonefieldvillas.com, from $140 Ti Kaye Village Resort 758/456-8101, tikaye.com, from $160 Coco Palm 758/456-2800, coco-resorts.com, from $125 Coco Kreole 758/452-0712, cocokreole.com, from $85 Food Camilla's 758/459-5379, fish dinner $17 Ladera 758/459-7323, ladera.com Friday Fish Fry Anse La Raye, dinner $8 Memories of Hong Kong 758/452-8218, crispy duck appetizer $11 Captain's Cellar Pub 758/450-0918, sausage sandwich $5.60 Marjorie's Beach Bar Cas en Bas, 758/520-0001 Activities Soufrière Estate and Diamond Botanical Gardens 758/459-7155, $4 Sulphur Springs admission $3 Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception 758/452-2271 Pigeon Island 758/452-5005, slunatrust.org Shopping Bagshaw's Shop 758/451-9249 Resources St. Lucia Tourism 758/452-4094, stlucia.org Nightlife Seaview Bar No phone, beer $1.15 Happy Day Bar 758/452-0650, two Piton beers $2.25
New York City
Sean McCarthy met Katie Hellmann in third grade, when she was the new kid at school in Newburgh, Indiana. They went to a dance together in seventh grade, but at the end of the school year Sean's family moved to North Carolina. They wrote to each other through the years, and one letter from Katie prompted Sean to drive overnight to rekindle the romance 10 years after their first go of it. "I still have that letter," says Sean. Married in 2004, the McCarthys live in Chicago, where Sean works in sales for T-Mobile and Katie runs her own event-planning business. Sean is surprising Katie for her 30th birthday with a trip to a place she's always dreamed of: New York City. Neither has ever been there. "She keeps mentioning how much she'd like to go to New York," says Sean. "I pretend that I don't hear her." But the fact is, Sean is a very good listener. And he plans to indulge Katie in every way--dining at her favorite kinds of restaurants, drinking colorful cocktails, shopping at boutiques. "This trip is about her," he says. "I just want to do what she wants to do." The first challenge is pinning down the perfect hotel. Sean knows Katie will want a place with some style. "I'd rather not be in a shady area just because it's cheaper," he says. The McCarthys will spend much of their time downtown, an area not known for a good hotel selection. Reliable favorites include the Abingdon Guest House in the West Village, the Gershwin Hotel in the Flatiron, and Park South Hotel in Gramercy. The first two are full for the November weekend Sean had picked, so he's relieved when the Park South has a room. The hotel occupies a beautiful eight-story building that dates to 1906. "Authentic New York is much more appealing than what's on TV," explains Sean. Still, he asked us to brief him on major attractions that'll be convenient, so they have the option of checking them out. Their hotel is a few blocks from the Empire State Building, and they can easily start there first thing in the morning (it opens at 8 a.m., the ride up is $14, and crowds get larger later in the day). "If it's doable, Fifth Avenue might be fun," says Sean. All they have to do is take the 6 train uptown to 51st Street for browsing at Tiffany's and other ritzy shops, before detouring into Central Park for a nice walk. But Sean knows that with only a few days in the city, they won't focus on tourist sites. "We can always come back for those," he says. They prefer to experience New York like real New Yorkers. The best way to do that is by hitting the streets and walking, eating, and (a personal favorite for Katie) shopping. "I assume she'll want to go to smaller shops that can't be found in other places," says Sean. "The more eclectic boutiques." NoLita, a hip neighborhood east of SoHo--and as the abbreviation indicates, north of Little Italy--should be the first stop. Hollywould, a little shoe store on Elizabeth Street, is a favorite for girls who can never have too many sparkly heels. Around the corner on Prince Street, INA is where New York's fashionistas put their designer bags, dresses, and jeans on consignment. As part of her business, Katie creates invitations, and in SoHo she can indulge her paper obsessions at IS, a stationery store favored by graphic designers. She'll also love Kate's Paperie, which has tons of invitations and beautiful paper products. An informal paper district, on 18th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues, includes the well-stocked Paper Presentation. No neighborhood is better suited for wandering--if only because its layout often gets people lost--than the West Village. The streets are lined with brownstones, shops, and cafés. (As a fan of Sex and the City, Katie should keep an eye out for Sarah Jessica Parker, who's often spotted on Waverly Place.) In particular, Bleecker Street, west of Seventh Avenue, has become a newer, smaller version of NoLita. The Marc Jacobs trio of stores--his, hers, and accessories--was the pioneer, and now there's a series of high-end boutiques. Sean is happy that most of the stores have chairs. "I'll just bring a magazine and nestle in," he says gamely. The McCarthys are interested in neighborhood restaurants. Two excellent possibilities in the Village: Mario Batali's informal pizzeria, Otto, which fills up fast on weekends for dinner. The restaurant just started taking reservations, but if the couple has to wait for 20 minutes or so, it isn't all that bad. They can have a drink in the bar, and a train timetable signals when tables open up. Also, the cozy Italian restaurant 'Ino is great for grilled panini. "There's not much we don't eat," says Sean. For lunch, Sean and Katie might test their palates at Freemans, down an unassuming alley on the Lower East Side. A hunting-lodge aesthetic carries through in the menu (wild boar terrine?), but there are more approachable dishes, like the smoked trout with hard-boiled egg ($9). The McCarthys host an annual martini party they jokingly call the Partini. "I'm a big fan of traditional martinis," says Sean. "Katie likes anything in a martini glass." There's a boom in Manhattan of classic cocktail lounges. At the Pegu Club, one of the newer entries, drinks are about $12 each, but the experience isn't one they'll find anywhere else. Each cocktail comes with a quartet of droppers, which allow patrons to perfectly calibrate their drink to taste. Katie might opt for the Pegu Club Cocktail: orange Curacao, bitters, London dry gin, and lime juice, served in a martini glass. As far as nightlife, Sean and Katie--who watch Saturday Night Live and Comedy Central regularly--will find some of the city's best comedy and wacky theater at the Upright Citizens Brigade. SNL cast-member Amy Poehler is a founder and a regular at the club, located in Chelsea. Laughs are great, but romance is what the McCarthys' getaway is about. Even jaded New Yorkers find walking across the Brooklyn Bridge magical. If the weather cooperates (a bit iffy in November), the couple will begin the dramatic 40-minute stroll at City Hall. The view of the Manhattan skyline is its own reward, but there are other reasons to make the trek. Many people say the city's best pizza is in Brooklyn, under the bridge's shadow at classic coal-oven joint Grimaldi's, and for dessert, Jacques Torres Chocolate is unforgettable. (Sean and Katie can take the A or C train back to Manhattan if they've had it with walking.) Finally, Landmarc, a rustic American restaurant in Tribeca, is the perfect spot to celebrate Katie's birthday. It's understated but special, and the wine list has an unusually low markup: While the standard at city restaurants is 300 percent, Landmarc charges the retail price for many bottles. A grill in the back of the dining room sears five cuts of steaks, which come with five options for sauces. Landmarc doesn't take reservations for parties under six, but Katie and Sean can give the host their cell phone number and head a few blocks north to the Brandy Library, which, on top of its 300 brandies and 240 single malts, has a long list of cocktails. The Perfect Manhattan comes--naturally--in a martini glass. Double surprise! The nice folks at the Broadway comedy hit The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee are giving Katie and Sean free seats to a performance. Also, thanks to Comedy Central, the couple will skip the lines with VIP tickets for a live taping of The Daily Show. Now all Sean has to worry about is his wife's crush on host Jon Stewart. "I think she finds him easy on the eyes," he says. Lodging Abingdon Guest House 13 Eighth Ave., 212/243-5384, abingdonguesthouse.com, from $149 Gershwin Hotel 7 E. 27th St., 212/545-8000, gershwinhotel.com, from $109 Park South Hotel 122 E. 28th St., 212/448-0888, parksouthhotel.com, from $199 Food Otto 1 Fifth Ave., 212/995-9559 'Ino 21 Bedford St., 212/989-5769, panini $9 Freemans Freeman Alley, 212/420-0012 Landmarc 179 W. Broadway, 212/343-3883, skirt steak $20 Grimaldi's 19 Old Fulton St., Brooklyn, 718/858-4300, pizza $14 Jacques Torres Chocolate 66 Water St., Brooklyn 718/875-9772 Brandy Library 25 N. Moore St., 212/226-5545 Pegu Club 77 W. Houston St., 2nd Fl., 212/473-7348 Activities Putnam County Spelling Bee 1633 Broadway, 212/239-6200, telecharge.com Empire State Building 350 Fifth Ave., 212/736-3100, esbnyc.com The Daily Show 733 11th Ave., 212/586-2477, comedycentral.com, free Upright Citizens Brigade 307 W. 26th St., 212/366-9176, ucbtheatre.com, free-$10 Shopping INA 21 Prince St., 212/334-9048 Hollywould 198 Elizabeth St., 212/343-8344 IS 91 Crosby St., 212/334-4447 Kate's Paperie 561 Broadway, 212/941-9816 Paper Presentation 23 W. 18th St., 212/463-7035 Marc Jacobs 403--405 Bleecker St., 212/924-0026 How was your trip? "In a word, Ireland was fantastic," says Kurtis Frank, shown here with his wife, Heather, at the Cliffs of Moher. The couple, who we coached in May, made a lot of readers jealous by scoring tickets to see U2 in Dublin. "The show was amazing from start to finish. Thanks so much."
Growing Up in San Francisco Was a Treat, But Visiting Is Better
Much to my chagrin, the neighborhood I grew up in, Glen Park, was one that nobody had ever heard of. Everyone from my classmates to taxi drivers would all ask the same question: Is that in San Francisco? At which point, I'd defensively mutter something about how there's even a BART station there! One of only eight subway stops in the city! For the record, it's just over the hill from Noe Valley and next to the Mission District. As clichéd as it sounds, my parents bought their house (which they still live in) using a beat-up GM van as the down payment in the late 1960s. Today, Glen Park is having quite a moment. In a city of impossibly quaint neighborhoods, Glen Park tops them all. The main intersection, Chenery Street and Diamond Street, claims a hipster lounge (Red Rock), a midcentury furniture store (Modernpast), and a popular restaurant called Chenery Park--where Madeleine Albright recently dined on catfish and pâté. I find this all bemusing and pretty exciting, as if a childhood friend were named host of the Today Show. I come back to town a couple of times a year to visit my family; while they grumble about the way things were, I delight in what things have become. At longtime Glen Park fixture Higher Grounds, I'll watch the conflux of skater teens, high-techies, and young families (sometimes I think my parents are the only people over 50 in San Francisco). The owner/chef, Manhal Jweinat, has run the humble little café for as long as I can recall; he juggles orders, froths milk, and delivers omelets at a frenzied clip. I always felt sort of bad for him, until I saw him peel off in a Mercedes once. For some reason, that said it all about Glen Park today. Glen Park has a couple other decent cafés--in San Francisco, killing time over coffee is a way of life--but as a teen, the whole point was to get away from my parents. I discovered Farley's, in Potrero Hill, one summer when I was living at home and interning at San Francisco magazine. It has a newsstand with a killer selection, and the staff didn't mind if I flipped through a stack without buying. When I started exploring the bar scene, I gravitated toward the Mission, favoring divey joints like the 500 Club. To the tunes of Creedence Clearwater Revival on the jukebox, my friends and I would play pool with disaffected boys. Around that time, I built up my Led Zeppelin collection at Amoeba Music. Along with the Zeppelin came used Levi's, which I'd score at thrift stores in the Haight. Buffalo Exchange was reliably well-stocked. The Mission still has dives, but it's now also buzzing with boutiques and fancy restaurants. Which all seems rather funny, when I remember getting stopped by a cop while walking down Valencia Street with a friend from grade school; he ordered us to get home safe--immediately. I suppose, in my own way, I've also gentrified--now I like to buy my clothes new. I go to Hayes Valley, which, like New York's NoLita, has become a haven for sweet little shops, something San Francisco had sorely lacked. I've yet to find a shoe store with a better selection of flirty Italian heels than Bulo. And there's always a new restaurant I'm eager to try--especially if my folks are paying. We celebrated my father's 60th birthday at Quince in Pacific Heights, over locally raised duck and fruity pink champagne. It was at once elegant and relaxed. Even the fanciest restaurants here don't try to put on too many airs. When I'm paying, I go to the taquerias. San Francisco burritos are a delight: fat, fresh, and around $5. There are so many good, no-frills joints that it's hard to choose. But the grilled chicken/black beans/salsa/sour cream combo (they're made assembly-line style) at La Cumbre, in the Mission, is my first stop. The most exciting news has been the renovation of the historic Ferry Building. It's still a working terminal, but it's also become a culinary hub. Inside, it has the look of a glass-ceilinged European train station. Dozens of stalls hold outposts of organic farms and upscale cookware stores. There's casual fare, too: take-out spots where local workers pick up lunch. Last time I was in town, my mother and I met for grapefruit-and-jicama salads at the Slanted Door, a stylish Vietnamese restaurant looking out on the Bay Bridge. There's never a table available; it's far too popular. But there always happen to be two seats at the bar. Food Farley's 1315 18th St., 415/648-1545 Higher Grounds 691 Chenery St., 415/587-2933, cheese omelet $6 Chenery Park 683 Chenery St., 415/337-8537, catfish $14 La Cumbre 515 Valencia St., 415/863-8205, burrito $5.15 Quince 1701 Octavia St., 415/775-8500, roasted duck $25 Slanted Door 1 Ferry Building No. 3, 415/861-8032, jicama salad $8 Shopping Buffalo Exchange 1555 Haight St., 415/431-7733 Bulo 418 Hayes St., 415/255-4939 Modernpast 677 Chenery St., 415/333-9007 Amoeba Music 1855 Haight St., 415/831-1200 Nightlife 500 Club 500 Guerrero St., 415/861-2500 Red Rock 699 Chenery St., 415/333-3030