Climbing Cape Town
"This bush is called the Climber's Friend," said the guide, pointing at a plant on Cape Town's Table Mountain. The prickly bush certainly didn't look amicable. "Grab onto it if you think you're going to fall," he continued. "It might save your life." The scenario seemed awfully dire, but as a Cape Town local, I've read several articles about hikers in peril. So I took a close look at the bush, and hoped our relationship would remain a long-distance one.
I generally love seeing nature up close, but I'm a reluctant hiker. Cape Town's new Hoerikwaggo Table Mountain Trail was a good compromise. Introduced last December by Table Mountain National Park, the three-day, 16-mile hike lets visitors sleep over, for the first time, on Cape Town's flat-topped mountain. The hike begins near the Mount Nelson Hotel, on the the northern side, traverses the top, and ends with a descent down the southeastern side into Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.
"The goal is to connect all kinds of people to the mountain," says Hoerikwaggo Trails Project Manager Stephen Lamb--nature lovers, dedicated gearheads, even me. Part of the appeal is that hikers aren't exactly roughing it. Tour literature touts the hike as "unabashedly geared for comfort," with "mouth-watering catered meals."
There were five others in my group: two Americans studying international relations at South Africa's Rhodes University and three French landscape-architecture students who were working as interns at Table Mountain National Park and Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. We were led by two South African guides, Mxolisi Magwaxaza and Lulama Mzonyane, and their mentor, Ivan Goetz. The national park recruits guides from poor communities, then trains them in first aid and educates them about plant and animal life. Goetz, a grizzled mountaineer, is overseeing Magwaxaza and Mzonyane until they're formally licensed.
I was raring to go, but we spent the entire day touring around the city itself. Table Mountain loomed above us like a tease. The plan was to spend the night at the base of the slope and then take the cable car to the top of the mountain, where we'd begin hiking the next morning. On the second day, however, the cable car was out of commission due to high winds. As ready as I was to hike, I wasn't exactly prepared to scale the mountain.
We started the ascent, a mile-long staircase of stones and boulders. "When you're hiking, you can really feel the mountain," said Juliette Perez, one of the French students. I definitely felt it--in my thighs. It took 90 minutes to reach the peak. The reward was a short rest and a spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean from 3,500 feet up. The landscape architects broke out into a spontaneous chorus of mon dieus. After only a minute, the blue sea disappeared under the "tablecloth," the white cloud that frequently hovers over the mountain. From below, I've always found the tablecloth beautiful. Once in it, however, I found it more ominous, like a mist moving at turbo speed.
For the next two days, we hiked across wetlands and through thickets of reeds. There are over 1,500 plant species on Table Mountain, and our guides frequently stopped to point out some of the more unusual ones. We passed heathery shrubs dotted with bright pink blossoms, and towering king proteas, South Africa's national flower, which resembles something out of a sci-fi flick.
The park has strict water regulations; the workers aren't allowed even to wash a dish. I was oblivious to any obstacles. In fact, the buffets exceeded my expectations. The highlight was a traditional Cape Malay dinner, with spiced Javanese chicken and carrot achar, a wickedly hot relish.
The first night, we slept at the Wash House, where city servants did their masters' laundry over 100 years ago. It's since received a significant modern African update: Simple concrete floors are decorated with ethnic rugs, and sleek wire chairs have pink, red, and black felt cushions. We spent the second night in the Overseer's Cottage, a renovated stone house that, ironically, is more monastic than the Wash House. The bedrooms are small but charming, with luxuriously thick duvets.
The most satisfying part of a long hike for me is usually what follows: a hot shower, a night in my own bed, real food. At the end of this tour, however, I wasn't craving a single thing.
How to book
Trips are scheduled year-round, depending on demand; a minimum of 8 people must sign up before a departure is confirmed. Contact booking officer Patricia Metsing by e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) or phone (011-27/21-465-8515). You may book provisionally for any date, then wait to hear if other people sign up. This is most likely to happen during high season, November through April. Hoerikwaggotrails.co.za, three-day trip $318, double occupancy, includes meals, guides, cable-car tickets, accommodations, and conservation fee.
Made in Uruguay
1. Las Marias Sisters Maria Gisella and Maria Dinnella Pignatta sell only handmade merchandise in their year-old boutique. "People tend to value things more when they're made by hand," reasons Maria Gisella. Coolest item: Maria Gisella's photo coasters: images of azulejos (blue-and-white tiles commonly found in Uruguay) mounted onto cork ($17 for six). Alzaibar 1362, 011-598/2-915-06-34 2. Insolito Analia Toscanini, Lucia Gastelumendi, and Carla Liguori met selling their wares at a cooperative. They opened the home-decor shop Insolito (Spanish for "unusual") two years ago. "We like modern products, anything with plastic and glass," says Liguori. Coolest item: Liguori's bathroom organizers--test tubes (to hold toothbrushes and combs) glued onto plastic envelopes that suction onto a mirror ($8). 25 de Mayo 245, 011-598/2-916-25-48 3. Srta. Peel Lingerie designer Loreley Turielle had an unlikely muse. She met a man whose mother was a glove designer; he had piles of 1940s fabrics in his attic. Turielle bought the lot to use as accents. "I like to take the old and mix it up," she says. Coolest item: Boy shorts in naughtily translucent fabrics (bra and panty sets from $25). 18 de Julio 1038, Loc. 5, 011-598/2-900-51-82 4. Guipil Mercedes Lalanne was born, raised, and trained in Montevideo, but the influences for her Mayan-inspired line come from trips to Bolivia, Peru, Mexico, and Guatemala. "After being there, I found it impossible to work without color," says Lalanne. Even her storefront is pink. Coolest item: Pleated cotton skirts with polka-dot and floral fabrics ($30). Alzaibar 1337, 011-598/2-915-86-82
Why Haven't You Heard of the Lavezzi Islands?
There are no hotels on the Lavezzi Islands. No cafes, either. Not even a single toilet. And that's precisely why people come. Classified as a Natural Reserve by France in 1982, the islands, in the strait between Sardinia and Corsica, have been protected from development. But there hasn't been any shelter from the wind. Without buildings to break them, gusts have whipped the islands' granite into fantastic shapes. In the coves between the rocks are protected spots of empty, sandy white beach. The clear water is teeming with anemones and fish, particularly grouper (merou in French), which explains why divers know the islands as Merouville. The winds also caused one of the Mediterranean's worst shipwrecks. On the 160-acre main island (the only one that's more than a pile of rocks), a hiking path leads to a 46-foot-tall pyramid-shaped memorial for the sinking of the Semillante in 1855. The disaster took the lives of 700 sailors and soldiers. Between late May and the end of September, three main ferry companies make the 30-minute trip from Bonifacio, the southernmost town on Corsica: Rocca Croisieres (rocca-croisieres.com), Vedettes Thalassa (vedettesthalassa.com), and Vedettes Christina (bonifacio.com.fr/christina). Expect to pay about $35 per person round trip. Keep your ticket stub for the return, and watch the time. The last boat back departs at 6:30 P.M. Pack everything you'll want--water, food, and sunscreen, of course, but also garbage bags, toilet paper, and snorkeling gear. There are three supermarkets by the Bonifacio marina: Coccimarket, Vival, and Spar. Reserve employees meet you at the dock when you arrive, then read off a list of instructions. Chief among them: Bring trash back to Bonifacio. Enforcement relies on the honor system--and the utter absence of anywhere to hide.
Squint and You Can Pretend You're at the W
Four Points by Sheraton Opened March '04.60 W. 25th St., 212/627-1888, fourpoints.com, from $215 Characteristics: Rooms are plush, with dark curtains and soft upholstery. The lobby is sleek--stainless steel accents, brown and white canvas furniture. At the attached U and Mei restaurant, the scene is zen, with water cascading over gray pebbles. Perks: In-room high-speed Internet access, Wi-Fi in the lounge, and a fitness center In the area: Sunday brunch at Cookshop. 156 Tenth Ave., 212/924-4440 Hampton Inn Opened March '06. 320 Pearl St., 212/571-4400, hamptoninn.com, from $199 Characteristics: Decor includes soothing blue and charcoal color scheme, with leather headboards. Three rooms have backyard terraces, and five have balconies with views of the Brooklyn Bridge. An exercise room and coin-operated laundry machines are in the basement. Perks: In-room high-speed Internet access, local calls, USA Today, and lobby breakfast bar with French toast and scrambled eggs In the area: The modern lounge at the new Exchange Hotel. 129 Front St., 212/742-0003 Hilton Garden Inn Opened October '05. 790 Eighth Ave., 212/581-7000, timessquare.stayhgi.com, from $189 Characteristics: Rooms are over 300 square feet, with 27-inch flat-panel HDTVs, microwaves, minifridges, ergonomic Herman Miller desk chairs, and clock radios with hookups for MP3 players. There's an in-house 24-hour convenience store in the lobby. Perks: In-room high-speed Internet access, efficient gym with "Stay Fit" loaner kits (Pilates band, yoga mat, hand weights) In the area: Take-out sandwiches from 'Wichcraft kiosks in Bryant Park. wichcraftnyc.com Holiday Inn Express Opened October '05. 15 W. 45th St., 212/302-9088, express5thavenue.com, from $189 Characteristics: Inviting touches include cherry furniture and headboards, geometric print upholstery, goose-down comforters, rainshower heads, and flat-screen TVs. Perks: Nine premium movie channels, local calls, USA Today, and $10 off day passes to the New York Sports Club In the area: Tapas and wine at Tintol. 155 W. 46th St., 212/354-3838 Courtyard by Marriott Opening July '06. 410 E. 92nd St., 212/410-6777, marriott.com, from $209 Characteristics: Rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows, and the eastern-facing ones above the 11th floor have river views. The color scheme is funky--yellow and purple, calmed down with headboards finished in mahogany. A rooftop bar opens later this year. Perks: A 50-foot indoor pool, large gym with steam rooms, detergent for the coin-op laundry machines, and high-speed Internet access In the area: Casual Italian at Spigolo. 1561 Second Ave., 212/744-1100
New Hotels in New York City
Choosing a hotel in New York City has long meant deciding between two less-than-winning options: splurging beyond your financial comfort zone, or resigning yourself to what could be a fleabag. Not anymore--and the middle ground is far more stylish than you might expect. Name a national hotel chain in America, and chances are good it's making inroads in Manhattan. Over 1,500 midpriced rooms will open in New York City this year: Among the new entries are Holiday Inn Express, Hilton Garden Inn, Courtyard by Marriott, Hampton Inn, Comfort Inn, and Four Points by Sheraton. "All of these companies have wanted to be in New York for a long time, but they weren't able to do a deal," says John Fox, a senior vice president at PKF Consulting, a firm that advises hotel operators on expansion plans. "Now they're all coming at the same time." One factor making the boom possible is that chains are exploring areas outside pricey Times Square and paring back features like in-house restaurants. This is a bonus for guests who'd rather be based in neighborhoods where locals actually live. (And who needs a hotel restaurant when you're in Manhattan?) One of the first to inject some style into the midrange in Manhattan was Embassy Suites, which reopened its World Financial Center location after an extensive renovation in 2002. A soaring 15-story atrium--with a massive mural by Sol LeWitt--lends theatricality to the lobby, and all of the suites have microwaves and 250-thread-count cotton sheets. This year, however, finds many more brands coming to town. With any hotel, particularly affordable ones, new construction is always a serious plus. Hampton Inn recently debuted a hotel downtown, at the South Street Seaport. (The departure of the Fulton Fish Market is leading to a quick gentrification of the area.) A Courtyard by Marriott opens on the Upper East Side in July, and the company also has plans for a Harlem property. Later this year, Hilton Garden Inn will unveil a property in Tribeca. "New York is the hottest market in the U.S.," says John Wolf, Marriott's senior director of media relations. The new hotels are borrowing from the boutique-hotel aesthetic, a Restoration Hardware take on minimalism that costs less to refurbish than more intricate styles. "Going into New York, we needed to be more New Yorkish," says Mark Nogal, vice president for marketing and sales at Hilton Garden Inn. The year-old Times Square property has black-and-white photographs of Manhattan and a mod color scheme. The Four Points Sheraton in Chelsea, which opened two years ago, is painted in bold reds and blues and decorated with slipper chairs. The similarities to boutique hotels stop, however, when it comes to rates, which are as much as 30 percent lower than the Manhattan average of $275 a night. Most of the new hotels charge between $185 and $220. While that's higher than their national averages (Holiday Inn Express, for instance, charges $189 in New York City, compared to $89 elsewhere), it's a fair price in a city where hotel rates have never seemed reasonable. What makes them especially fair is the impressive amenities. There's an industry trend at the midrange level to avoid nickel-and-diming guests. (Fancy hotels, meanwhile, still do it like crazy.) These hotels offer free Internet access and unlimited local calls and throw in a substantial breakfast. The properties that don't have exercise rooms provide discount rates to nearby gyms. Moreover, one of the most appealing factors is that these are respected brands. In an intimidating city, it can be reassuring to count on the fact that your hotel is sure to meet certain high standards.
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