Secret Hotels of Costa Rica
Ylang-Ylang Beach Resort
It takes a certain confidence to put up a hotel in a spot that requires a 15-minute hike on the beach to find, but Ylang-Ylang pulls it off. (You can arrange a lift for you or your bags from sister property El Sano Banano, located in town.) Shielded from the ocean by palm trees, the resort is set in a jungle clearing, and borders a wildlife reserve on one side. Ylang-Ylang's main, two-story building has six rooms, each with pale yellow walls and brightly striped blankets. The eight bungalows are more private; all but one have ocean views from their patios. Stone walkways connect the buildings and are lined with flowering plants and trees, including the fragrant ylang-ylang (naturally). The restaurant's menu was created by a French chef--he trained the kitchen staff and returns periodically to add new dishes such as grilled sea bass in a sauce of tomatoes, mushrooms, and white wine. Montezuma is the most compact and walkable of the southern Nicoya towns. During the day, street vendors sell jewelry and beaded caps from folding tables; at night, surfers and tourists barhop along the main drag. 011-506/642-0636, elbanano.com, doubles from $85, includes breakfast.
Amor de Mar
An Adirondack-style lodge houses Amor de Mar's 11 rooms, paneled in dark wood and decorated sparely, so as not to distract from the views (best from the second-floor porch). Two rooms share a bath, but the others are private. A patio restaurant serves breakfast and lunch, emphasizing simple fare like tropical smoothies and homemade breads. The wide front lawn gently slopes toward a rocky point, where there's a tide pool big enough to swim in. It's a five-minute walk to the nearest sandy beach, and thrill seekers will be happy to know that Amor de Mar is close to the famed Montezuma Canopy Tour, a zip line that whizzes through treetops and down over waterfalls ($30 for two hours). 011-506/642-0262, amordemar.com, doubles from $55.
The Swiss owners of The Place have combined the famed tidiness of their home country--a custom-built rack neatly stores guests' surfboards--with design-conscious decor. Of the eight rooms, five are bungalows. Each is themed--Ocean Breeze, Out of Africa, Spicy Colors of Mexico, and so on. Some have mosquito netting hanging from a square frame on the ceiling, which lends a bit of drama, and the en suite bathrooms are separated by saloon-style doors. The Place bills itself as a surfer hangout, but the crowd is generally more novice than veteran, and many guests sign up for lessons--$45 for two hours, including board rental. (The hotel is on the nonbeach side of the street, however, and a 10-minute walk from a good surf break.) A large pool is the focal point of an outdoor living room with lounge chairs and daybeds. On Tuesdays, a screen is hung over the pool for movie night. There's no restaurant, but Frank's Place--with tasty ham-and-cheese omelets and shrimp with rice--is two minutes down the road on foot. 011-506/640-0001, theplacemalpais.com, doubles from $80.
A massive three-headed tribal sculpture--you kind of have to see it to understand--marks the entrance to Moana, and it's only the first taste of the hotel's African theme. Wa-Kabwe Kabue-Tshibanda, a Belgian with Congolese roots, has collected angular wooden masks and shields in the Congo and Ivory Coast. They're now scattered around his property--mounted next to the reception desk, near the pool, and on the walls of the seven rooms. Five of the rooms are air-conditioned and some have leopard-print pillows on the single beds. Moana is set on a hillside and has ocean views in the distance; the beach is on the other side of the road. There isn't a restaurant, but rather a well-appointed communal kitchen and a self-serve bar. Located at the southern end of Malpais, Moana is blessedly quiet--the kind of hotel that would be fun to take over with friends. 011-506/640-0230, moanalodge.com, doubles from $60.
It's easy to see why Leonardo DiCaprio stayed here with his girlfriend--the hotel has only four rooms, which guarantees privacy. Caroline Marot and her business partner (and now ex-husband) Philippe Verquin filled each bungalow with Balinese teak furniture, such as intricately carved armoires and antique four-poster beds. At night, guests are encouraged to open all the windows--and one wall of doors that lead to a private veranda--to let in the warm breezes. In the morning, noise from howler monkeys in the trees may provide a comic wake-up call. The bathrooms are private and semi-alfresco: The toilet and sink are under the roof's eaves, but the shower is open to the sky. A seven-table restaurant looks out over the pool, past a well-trimmed lawn, and down to the beach where there's a bamboo massage hut ($55 for an hour). The American chef, James Kelly, draws from Asian influences and makes great use of local seafood. He also plays another role: Marot's fiance. 011-506/640-0023, milarepahotel.com, doubles from $145.
Luz de Vida
Opened in 2003 by a group of seven Israeli friends who wanted to escape city life, Luz de Vida has built up a loyal clientele of surfers, families, and surfing families. Footpaths lined with palm, guava, and coconut trees lead to 13 cabins, eight with air-conditioning and five without. They're decorated with chunky wood furniture; three have sleeping lofts. Each has a private patio with two rocking chairs and a hammock. The view from the pool--past the restaurant, right down to the ocean--is spectacular. In addition to massages, the on-site spa offers treatments like manicures, pedicures, and peels. Yoga classes are held in an outdoor studio. 011-506/640-0320, luzdevida-resort.com, doubles from $80, includes breakfast; children under 10 stay free.
Experienced surfers, backpacking young couples, and hip parents unafraid to travel with their babies--these are the kinds of free spirits that tend to find common ground at Casa Zen. Kelly Lange, a transplant from Kansas City, Missouri, opened the hotel in December 2004. She rents nine rooms with one or two beds, and three dorm rooms. Even the six shared bathrooms could be considered part of Casa Zen's communal ethos. All rooms are spare but inviting, with batik-print bedspreads and tangerine, ochre, and yellow color schemes. But guests usually hang out either in the hotel's Thai restaurant or in the "rancho," a circular outdoor pavilion decked out with primary-color pillows and comfortable banquettes. It has games, toys, and books for guests, and hosts movie nights on Thursdays and Sundays. 011-506/640-0523, zencostarica.com, doubles from $22, cash only.
Point Break Hotel
This hotel is just off one of the best breaks on the Nicoya Peninsula. Experienced surfers will want to know that despite the property's name, it's actually a beach break, not a point break--but nonsurfers probably won't care. There are six small cabins; the roofs are topped with dried palm fronds and the "walls" are largely screens (the overall effect is like sleeping out on a porch). White cotton curtains add a degree of privacy. The floors are concrete, inlaid with log cross-sections. Each cabin is fronted by a sandy area with deck chairs for lounging. One slightly more expansive cabin has its own bathroom and a fridge. The rest share a large bathroom, whose multiple sinks are out in the open. For groups of four, there are two rooms in a wooden building that's lifted high on stilts, each with a bathroom and a kitchen. It looks like a big, fun tree house. 011-506/640-0190, surfing-malpais.com, doubles from $40, cash and traveler's checks only.
SAN FRANCISCO DE COYOTE
Atop a high bluff, Casa Caletas overlooks the bay where the Coyote River meets the Pacific. The sunsets can be magical. There's no tourist-friendly town nearby, so guests (many of them honeymooners) tend to stay put. The hotel restaurant has a terrific spa-like menu which features fresh fruits, seafood carpaccios, and green salads. It's read out loud tableside, sometimes by chef Cynthia Baltadano herself. Everything has been art-directed at Casa Caletas--even the coconuts lining the walkways have been painted the resort's signature light green--but the place doesn't come off as fussy. An infinity pool takes advantage of the incredible view. The main house is grand, with high beamed ceilings, lots of picture windows, and dark, rattan furniture. The nine rooms have private patios and striking abstract art made from reeds. A junior suite, though no bigger than the other rooms, boasts a private hot tub on its porch. Optional activities are numerous--kayaking ($10), horseback riding ($25), and waterskiing ($50)--but the nearest swimming beach is a mile away. To reach it, you can rent a golf cart for $25 a day. 011-506/289-6060, casacaletas.com, doubles from $130.
When to go, how to get there, what to pack
The best weather is in the dry season, between November and April. It's also high season, and we've listed those prices in this story. May through September is "green season," when it rains often, but in short, torrential bursts; hotel prices tend to be slightly lower. Avoid October; it's usually a washout. No matter when you go, bring an extra pair of flip-flops just for walking through town, as streets can get muddy. And in the dry season, a bandanna or other dust protection, even goggles, is advised for those who drive an ATV or ride a bike--the best ways to explore these small towns.
Driving a car in Costa Rica, meanwhile, is an adventure in itself. Plan on six hours to get from San Jose to the southern Nicoya Peninsula--heavy rain can make some roads impassable. Or fly: Nature Air (800/235-9272, natureair.com) and Sansa (011-506/221-9414, flysansa.com) run round-trip flights between San Jose and Tambor for roughly $130. From Tambor, it's a half-hour cab ride to Montezuma ($25), and an hour to Malpais or Santa Teresa ($35). For Casa Caletas, fly from San Jose to Punta Islita ($160 round trip). If your itinerary calls for an overnight in San Jose, Hotel Grano de Oro is a great choice (011-506/255-3322, hotelgranodeoro.com, doubles from $90).
Grand Canyon Skywalk
In January, a glass-bottomed, horseshoe-shaped walkway over the Grand Canyon--protruding 70 harrowing feet--will be unveiled. The Skywalk was envisioned nine years ago by David Jin, a tour operator specializing in trips to the Canyon's westernmost side, home to the Hualapai tribe. The tribe liked the idea, and Jin tapped Mark Johnson, a Las Vegas-based architect, for the design. The Skywalk has six-foot-tall glass walls, and is built to bear more than 71 million pounds, withstand winds over 100 miles per hour, and endure an 8.0-magnitude earthquake within a 50-mile radius. Still, says Johnson, "it's going to take some courage to step out there. Looking through a glass floor is intense." Views of the Colorado River, 4,000 feet below, come with a steep price. You must first book a tour of the tribe's grounds (877/716-9378, destinationgrandcanyon.com). The cheapest ($29) includes a walk through dwellings and an outdoor craft market. Only then can you test your mettle on the Skywalk, for an extra $25.
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
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