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These Spots Win the "Travel Oscars"

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello
February 27, 2018
A view of Atlanta's skyline
Sean Pavone/Dreamstime
Whether you go for drama, comedy, or action, this year’s Oscar-nominated films have one thing in common: Cool locations worth traveling to.

Film location scouts spend a lot of their time on the road zeroing in on the most drop-dead gorgeous, or creepy, or sophisticated places for film crews to work their magic. Each year, devoted travelers play "location scout" themselves by evaluating some of the top Oscar-nominated films for vacation-worthy destinations. Here, three of this year's winners.

ASHEVILLE & SYLVA, NC

The title Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri might suggest to you that the film was not shot anywhere near North Carolina. But the town of Sylva, NC, near Asheville, stood in for the fictional Missouri town in Martin McDonagh’s compelling movie, with local buildings given new facades bearing signs such as “The Ebbing Herald” and “Ebbing Police Department.” And those “three billboards” were shot east of Asheville, near Black Mountain. Local lodging is reliable and affordable, including the Cambria Hotel & Suites Downtown Asheville, which represents what we love about the Cambria brand: its’ devotion to distinctive contemporary design and great service.

NEW YORK CITY & WHITE PLAINS, NY

Another dose of cognitive dissonance: The Post, Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed film about the Washington Post newspaper was shot, in part, in New York. The old AT&T building in White Plains stood in for the old Post headquarters in DC (which was demolished), and Washington’s streets were re-created, complete with vintage automobiles, on a street in Brooklyn. While the NYC area is notoriously pricey for hotels, good deals are available, and we like The Look Hotel, Red Hook, an Ascend Hotel Collection member (the Ascend brand always delivers freshly designed yet homey properties), and the Cambria Hotel & Suites White Plains Downtown.

ATLANTA, GA

Baby Driver was shot in the streets of downtown Atlanta, including a car chase on the Buford Highway Connector southbound, and the historic Pullman Yard. Atlanta lodging includes  Inn at the Peachtrees, an Ascend Hotel Collection member, a good base of operations for exploring the city’s historic sites.

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Inspiration

George Washington, Whiskey Maker

When you visit Mount Vernon, the estate that George Washington retired to after what you might say was a rich career in politics and the military, you learn many things about his life in retirement, to say nothing of life in Colonial-era Virginia in general. You learn he chose bold color paints for the walls, particularly greens and blues, because it signified his wealth. (As if the sheer size of the place—11,028 square-feet—didn’t signify it enough.) You learn how the staff cooked and smoked meat, how tradesmen like blacksmiths and coopers worked, and the rhyme and reason for the naturalistic landscape design. But you learn most of this from plaques and tour guides.   VISIT WASHINGTON'S DISTILLERY AND GRISTMILL But things are a bit more hands-on and, let’s call it multi-sensory, three miles from Mount Vernon at the George Washington Distillery and Gristmill. Lest you think there's not be much left for a victorious Revolutionary War general and founder and leader of these United States to achieve, this is where he reinvented himself yet again. Under the watch of James Anderson, his farm manager who’d distilled grain in his native Scotland, George Washington became the nation’s first commercial distiller. As the story goes, the General was hesitant, calling liquor-making “a business I am entirely unacquainted with,” but he was encouraged by Anderson’s credentials and, of course, his financial forecast, noting that considering “the knowledge of [distilling] and the confidence you have in the profit to be derived from the establishment, I am disposed to enter upon one.”    A CAREFUL RESTORATION The building, a recreation of the original that burned down in 1814, clocks in at 75 by 30 feet. That’s tiny for a working distillery by today’s standards but in the 18th century, it was the biggest of its kind. There were five stills and he produced 11,000 gallons of spirit—mostly rye, sometimes brandy—in a good year. This undertaking established the Founding Father as a savvy entrepreneur and businessman, a nice addition to the resume of a political and military trailblazer. The reconstruction, directed by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade group, carried a $2.1 million price tag and involved years of archaeological research. The ground was broken in 2001 and the project was completed and opened to the public in 2007, complete with handmade copper pot stills modeled on the 18th-century originals.  A WORKING DISTILLERY And yes, they do make whiskey on the equipment—rye and fruit brandies, just like George Washington made. Re-creating the original recipe was also part of the grand plan. Dave Pickerell, former Master Distiller at Maker’s Mark and longtime consultant to the country's ever-evolving crafts spirits industry, did some sleuthing, digging up historical ledgers and distilling manuals to determine the recipe, or as close as an approximation as one can hope to get. The functional distillery is a time capsule and tribute to old-world engineering. There was, of course, no electricity to power the machines. Everything is powered by open flame and muscle. In a separate building, the mighty working gristmill grinds the grains as they come in from the farm, just like it did hundreds of years ago. It's a mesmerizing Rube Goldberg-esque contraption and in a neat twist, it's the same milling equipment that received the third patent in the nation. George Washington signed the patent document during his tenure as president.   TAKE A TOUR Actual distilling only takes place a few times a year, but on any given day, you’ll see men and women in colonial garb strolling the grounds. They offer tours that explain every bit of the distillation process. Tours are included in the price of a Mount Vernon admission ticket. 

Inspiration

5 Reasons Why Chinese Food in America Is Better Than Ever

No matter where you live (and eat) in the United States, chances are you’re no farther than a short drive from a spot where you can get wonton soup, scallion pancakes, and General Tso’s chicken. Chinese restaurants, it seems, are as ubiquitous as pizza parlors and Irish pubs. And while Peking duck will never fall out of fashion, a new crop of chefs are offering some pretty inventive, if not radical, twists on familiar dishes.  1. UPSCALE NOODLES You could make the case that David Chang started it all. The New York chef’s name remains synonymous with his first venue, Momofuku Noodle Bar, a lively, funky joint he opened the East Village in 2004 that famously offered modern versions of his favorite dishes from Chinatown’s gritty old-school noodle houses. Later came Momofuku KO (ko.momofuku.com), offering more polished selections, including Asian morsels enhanced with foie gras, truffles, and other global morsels. Now he’s gone on to open a veritable empire of clever Asian eateries—throughout New York but also in Sydney, Toronto, and Las Vegas. 2. A FRESH, GREENMARKET SENSIBILITY These days, though, Chang hardly has a monopoly on intriguing Chinese fare in Manhattan. A few years after Momofuku opened came RedFarm (redfarmnyc.com), a project by Joe Ng and Ed Schoenfeld, both notable figures in the New York dining scene. Today there are three outposts in the city. Billing itself as “Innovative, Inspired Chinese Cuisine with Greenmarket Sensibility,” the menu runs the gamut from dumplings that are a far cry from classic, what with they’re being shaped like Pac Man and those ghosts, to a full papaya/ginger/soy-sauce-marinated rib steak and the most New York-y eggroll you’ve ever seen: stuffed with Katz’s pastrami and served with honey-mustard and kaffir-lime sauce. 3. REGIONAL FLAVORS Chefs elsewhere around the country add their own regional accents, like Ryan Bernhardt, who opened TKO (tkotn.com) in Nashville in the fall of 2016. He brings a strong southern influence to his recipes, making creative use of pickles, porridge, buttermilk and other classic flavors. To wit: the kale salad, cruciferous veggie du jour, appears here adorned in shallots, cashews, crispy pork and chili vinegar. A buttermilk-dressing-slathered medley of broccoli, raisins, spicy peanuts and lemon. A cocktail list that leans heavy on rum- and rye-based drinks seals the deal.   In Atlanta, Chef Wendy Chang offers something not often associated with the deep south: soy beef and soy chicken. Herban Fix (herbanfix.com) is her airy and modern vegan restaurant, where she fuses traditional Asian tastes with all the wholesome elements frequently found in cafés in San Francisco and Burlington, Vermont. There’s Pan seared soy fish w. organic kale simmered in spicy curry noodle soup as well as a mushroom/quinoa/cherry tomato/kale. All the classic preparations are along for the ride, too—in vegan form, of course—like scallion pancakes and sweet and sour tofu.   4. WEST COAST INNOVATORS Regional obsessions play into the style at HRD (hrdcorp.com), a longstanding coffee-shop-style restaurant that bills itself as serving “global fusion” cuisine, but regardless of what you call it, it’s uniquely San Franciscan, as beyond the rice bowls, curry plates, and salads, the menu offers a wide range of burritos and tacos with inventive fillings, like spicy pork, organic tofu, and panko-crusted pork, each with kimchi and a few other eastern-leaning flavors. While we’re on the west coast, Portland, Oregon can always be counted on to throw some creative culinary mojo into the ring. We were particularly taken by Expatriate (expatriatepdx.com), a hip, dimly lit cocktail lounge with inventive craft drinks alongside a menu of inspired bites that fuse all sorts of global tastes and traditions. China meets the American South the Chinese sausage corn dog, a heat-fiend’s fantasy with hot mustard and “xxx death sauce.” Consider yourself warned. A tremendous nachos platter dubbed the Expatriot Nacho with a wink is a tremendous pile of fried wonton chips, thai chili cheese sauce, spicy lemongrass beef, crema, kaffir lime, and tomato salsa, and herbs. A feast for the eyes and the body.  5. DINER KITSCH MEETS ASIAN FUSION CUISINE Moving north, Joanne Chang broke the mold in Boston in 2007 when she opened Myers + Chang (myersandchang.com, pictured above), an eatery that blends American diner kitsch with a down-home Chinese style in terms of both food and décor. You can also spot Thai, Korean, and Vietnamese touches on the menu, which, in addition to a roster of noodles and familiar dishes, includes options like fish tacos with kimchee sesame salsa and fried chicken with ginger waffles, an elevated spin on the country classic. Chang told us she recommends Bao Bei (bao-bei.ca), a self-styled “Chinese Brasserie,” in Vancouver’s historic Chinatown. The small shabby-chic spot puts a premium on local, seasonal, organic ingredients and the thoughtfully designed menu blends Shanghainese, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese traditions, with a little French flare tossed in for good measure. The result: dishes like spicy noodles flat wheat noodles swimming in chili lamb mince, pork fat, sesame sauce, cucumber, and preserved yellow bean. Steelhead trout is adorned with crispy squash and cumin gnocchi, rapini, and velvety shiso butter clam sauce. A far cry from beef noodle soup, to be sure. And certainly only a hint of what's to come from this new generation of chefs.  

Inspiration

#BTReads: Rick Steves’s ‘Travel as a Political Act’

When was the last time you read a travel book from cover to cover? Those of us who are guidebook fans tend to skip from chapter to chapter, site to site, neighborhood to neighborhood, comparing prices, menus, and hotel decor, in search of the ideal itinerary. But Rick Steves’s Travel as a Political Act: How to Leave Your Baggage Behind (Avalon Travel, February 2018) is not a typical travel book. You may find yourself devouring every word on every page, emerging with something much more valuable than a go-here-then-here-then-here itinerary: A transformed view of what it means to be a citizen of this world, and some common-sense tips for navigating that world. GET OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE “My goal is to inspire Americans to go beyond Orlando,” Steves told me in a phone interview last week. The PBS TV host, bestselling guidebook author, and esteemed European tour guide (he brought 20,000 travelers to Europe in 2017) has set his sights high, distilling a lifetime of world travel into a pretty basic concept: “I love the idea of travel as a way of getting out of our comfort zone.” That that philosophy remains surprising, even shocking, to some travelers, simply underscores the need for this new, fully revised third edition of Steves’s award-winning book at this moment in American history. GET TO KNOW THE LOCALS That said, however, Travel as a Political Act is an especially inviting, non-confrontational celebration of the ways in which “transformative travel” can enrich any trip for any traveler (even those who cherish their comfort zones). At the heart of Steves’s message is the notion of embracing local culture wherever you go: Connect with people, take history seriously, and overcome fear. He devotes chapters to such disparate destinations as El Salvador (where Americans can see firsthand the impact of globalization on a small, relatively poor country), Turkey and Morocco (Islamic nations that do not fit the common media narrative of religious extremism and terrorism), Israel and Palestine (where he simply urges visitors to talk to both sides), and a variety of European nations that challenge Americans’ views. UNDERSTAND YOURSELF “America is a great and innovative nation. But other nations have some pretty good ideas, too,” says Steves. In Travel as a Political Act, the author consistently invites readers to join him in opening their minds, but, as a truly open-minded writer himself, he avoids condescension and lecturing. “By bringing these ideas home, we can help our society confront its challenges more wisely.” WHERE WILL RICK STEVES GO NEXT? Because we ask everyone, "Where will you go next?" I asked Steves where 2018 may take him, and I got possibly my favorite answer I've yet received: "I'm off to Europe to make guidebooks, particularly in Sicily and Scotland, and I'm preparing a TV show about the history of Fascism in Europe and another about cruising in the Mediterranean."

Inspiration

Hotel We Love: Windsor Boutique Hotel, Asheville, NC

With its cozy lobby arranged with old-timey furniture and antique décor and lighting, the Windsor Boutique Hotel, in Asheville, NC, does a terrific job at making you feel like you’re not actually entering a hotel at all. It feels more like the sitting room in a private home, and with the staffers helming a wide wood desk, it’s clear that all the formalities of check-in have been swapped for a laid-back personalized welcome.   THE STORY The Windsor opened as apartments in 1907, but over the years, downtown became quite unsavory, and many buildings, including this one, fell into disrepair. But an investment firm bought it and undertook an historical renovation, keeping as much of its architectural detail intact, down to the banisters on the staircases. It opened as a hotel in 2013, restored it to its former glory. And with 14 rooms set up like apartment suites, it’s a glorious accommodation indeed. THE QUARTERS Each of the 14 rooms has its own unique décor that includes playful antiques. This being an old building, that aesthetic perfectly suites the original design elements, like dark, textured wood floor panels, soaring ceilings, tall windows, and brick walls. Bed sizes vary, ranging from a king, queen, and double queen. Each suite has a rain showerhead in the spacious shower, a sleeper-sofa in the living room, a washer and dryer, and a complete modern kitchen with a full-size stove, fridge, and microwave. Most also have a dishwasher.   THE NEIGHBORHOOD  The Windsor is smack in the middle of downtown Asheville, on the same block as various cafes, a Thai restaurant, clothing boutiques, and local amenities aplenty, like a hair salon. Chocolate Gems, which offers decadent handmade chocolates and gelato, is a few storefronts away. The hotel does not have its own parking, but street parking is available and there are several city garages nearby, including a new one on the block. There are two more within two blocks. THE FOOD The Windsor does not have a restaurant of its own, but there’s a small fridge in the lobby with complimentary soda, water, and snacks as well as both a Keurig and N’Espresso machine. Asheville is a popular destination for weekend getaways because it’s within hours drive from Charleston, Raleigh, Charlotte, Atlanta, and more. With guests’ ride home in mind, on Sunday mornings the hotel offers pastries from The Rhu, a bakery/café offshoot of Rhubarb, a celebrated locally minded restaurant from James Beard nominated chef John Fleer.   One of the many benefits of its downtown location is that you’re never more than a few footsteps from a great place to eat or drink. Across the street, for instance, is Social Lounge, which is known for its rooftop dining. It’s open until midnight during the week and 2PM on weekends. Just around the corner, about a four-minute walk away, Sovereign Remedies, which serves elevated comfort food (bone marrow tater tots, anyone) and mixes some of the best cocktails in the city, is open until 2AM nightly. With a kitchen open late, expect to find plenty of industry people there after midnight. ALL THE REST The hotel lobby is connected to Desirant, a boutique that sells all manner of Southern living essentials (and a number of non-essentials) in a vintage Parisian flea market setting. Browse jewelry and accessories, books, home goods, cards, clothes, local crafts, and a few antiques that the owners handpicked in France. Hotel guests get 10% off.  In a nice touch that gives the rooms a local flavor, each is stocked with a bag of freshly ground coffee from Dynamite Roasters a few miles away in Black Mountain.  RATES & DEETS Starting at $200. The Windsor Boutique Hotel  36 Broadway Asheville, NC 28801 (844) 494-6376 / windsorasheville.com

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