Secret Hotels of Greece's Ionian Islands

By Eleni Gage
April 3, 2010
Amanda Marsalis
A welcome contrast to the glitzy, white-walled resorts of the Aegean, the intimate, family-run hotels of Greece's western islands offer something significantly more appealing: authentic Mediterranean heritage in homespun settings.

Sgombou, Corfu

With five brightly painted cottages and two studios clustered around a paisley-shaped swimming pool, Casa Lucia forms a self-contained community in the hills seven and a half miles northwest of Corfu Town, the largest city in the Ionian Islands. English expat Val Androutsopoulos and her now-deceased husband opened the complex 30 years ago; these days she—along with her daughter Zoe, son-in-law Marcello, and their two children—focuses on providing all the homey touches. Each cottage has its own private balcony, patio, or garden, and English-language paperbacks in the rooms offer a compelling reason to call off the day's excursion in favor of a quiet afternoon at the compound. There isn't much that area experts can't deliver right to your doorstep, anyway. Holistic healers and aromatherapists commonly cater to guests' needs on-site, and weekly tai chi, qigong, yoga, and Pilates classes are offered for about $7 per session. (Zoe leads the tai chi classes.) There's no restaurant or breakfast buffet, but the kitchen of each cottage is stocked with yogurt, bread, and homemade orange preserves, and there's a sign-up sheet near the front desk for organic vegetable delivery. Those who opt not to cook can enlist Jo's Catering to supply Mediterranean dinners for $38 per person, including everything from olives to almond cake. Val dispenses advice for outings both nearby (the rustic islet of Vidos just off Corfu Town) and farther afield (the impressive ruins of Butrint in neighboring Albania). There's one caveat Val might issue before directing you to the narrow, picturesque lanes of Corfu Town, however: "It's a 15-minute drive, but allow yourself half an hour to find parking," she says. Sgombou, Corfu,, from $84.

Paleokastritsa, Corfu

If there's any doubt whether Spyros Spathas values his heritage, just look at the reception area of his Fundana Villas, where a 200-plus-year-old stone olive press serves as a reminder of the Spathas family's six generations of local history. It's been 29 years since Spathas converted his farm's stables and outbuildings into 12 guest bungalows, but the accommodations have been updated with flat-screen TVs and modern kitchenettes. And the views from the rooms are as glorious as ever: Number 10 has two wrought-iron balconies that look out on the Ropa Valley, and Number 12 takes in the green slopes of Mount Pantokrator to the northeast. A guide for the Greek National Tourism Organization for more than 35 years, Spathas maintains a half-mile hiking path to the 18th-century Monastery of St. Onoufrios, open every other Sunday, and leads weekly botanical walks through the area. His 26-year-old son, Foivos, just opened a traditional Corfiote restaurant on the grounds, serving dishes such as veal with garlic sauce and pan-fried artichokes from Fundana's gardens. If you feel inspired to venture off-property for dinner, stop in at Elisavet's taverna in the nearby village of Doukades. There, the grandmotherly proprietress sits in front of her establishment encouraging visitors to try the kokoros pastitsada—rooster over macaroni—a local specialty she's been making for 20 years. Km 15 on the road to Paleokastritsa,, doubles from $63, breakfast $8.

Pelekas, Corfu

The Doukakis family can't take credit for discovering the stellar vantage point at the top of the 935-foot-high Pelekas hill where, in 1990, they built the 25-room Levant Hotel. Kaiser Wilhelm, who summered in this part of Corfu 110 years ago, used to picnic on the rocky observatory (now known as the Kaiser's Throne) just in front of the building site. What the Doukakis clan can claim: the good sense to put down roots in a spot that has ocean views in every direction. Still, the family didn't neglect their hotel's interiors. Its sitting areas are filled with heirlooms—wooden chaise longues, antique china, and portraits of the Kaiser—and stately, wrought-iron bed frames anchor the guest rooms. (To get a sea view, ask for an odd-numbered room on the first floor, or an even-numbered room on the second.) Most days, Mr. Doukakis sits at the bar, teaching guests Greek phrases. As for Mrs. Doukakis, she's everywhere at once: sweeping leaves from the geraniums, shooing away cats that wander up from the village, and managing the kitchen of their restaurant, Sunset. "I have two cooks, but I oversee them all the time," she says, adding, "I'm old-fashioned." With that kind of dedication, it's no wonder the dining room draws such a regular crowd. The wide terrace invites guests to linger over dishes like pastitsada (spicy pasta) and bourdeto (fish stew) until the sky turns from blue to gold over the ocean each evening. Any of the family members can give you directions to three spectacular beaches, all within a 10-minute drive: Kontogialos and Glyfada have deck chairs for rent and tavernas right on the sand; and for those looking to leave without tan lines, Myrtiotissa is frequented by nudists who camp out scandalously close to the whitewashed chapel next to the shore. Pelekas, Corfu,, from $105 including breakfast.

Corfu Town

Bella Venezia's prime location one block from the grassy waterfront Spianada, or esplanade, places it right at the center of Corfiote life. Before the Ziniatis family bought this neoclassical mansion and converted it into a hotel in 1988, the 19th-century landmark was a girls' school. To this day, the owners still follow a popular Corfiote tradition and hang a floral wreath over the door every year on May 1; the following month, neighborhood children come by to collect the wreath for a midsummer-night bonfire. Although the inn's 31 rooms (all with pale-rose-colored walls and voluminous window dressings) were renovated in 2006, the common areas retain many of their original architectural elements, including pink-and-white-checked Ionian-marble floors and 13-foot-high carved-wood ceilings. It's worth spending about $20 more for one of the two honeymoon rooms, an upgrade that buys private balconies and floor-to-ceiling windowed doors. (Avoid rooms 106, 206, and 306, which face a narrow alley.) A simple meal of pastries and yogurt with honey and nuts is laid out each morning in the breakfast pavilion behind the hotel, but for dinner, guests are left to explore on their own in town. The most romantic option is the Corfu Sailing Club, at the foot of the 11th-century Old Fortress; wooden tables in the open-air dining room are just feet away from sailboats knocking against each other in the bay. 4 N. Zambeli St., Corfu Town,, from $149 including breakfast.

Lourdas, Cephalonia

Cephalonia is the largest of the Ionian Islands, with an area of 288 square miles and about 45 miles of beaches and coastline, making it a prime destination for package tours. Many of the island's hotels dedicate their rooms to big groups, but the Garbis Villas are the exception. George and Irene Garbis built these four seaside maisonettes—one for each of their children—in 1998, and a sense of family permeates the entire complex, down to the photos of the late George Garbis in the small shrine out front. Inside each room is a detailed booklet written by two Garbis brothers. It gives the history of the island and insider takes on key sites, including the underground lake of Melissani, once home to a cult of the god Pan, and the Drogarati Cave, a limestone chamber so large it hosted a Maria Callas concert. They even offer tips for negotiating vegetarian meals in the traditional restaurants ("explain that eating meat is like going against your religion"). The apartments straddle the line between cozy and utilitarian, with kitchenettes, tiled floors, soft couches, and decor that mixes generic accents (framed pictures of sunsets) with the family's treasures (an antique icon of the Virgin Mary). Best of all, on any given morning, you can find Irene greeting guests until 11 a.m., tossing the lucky ones fresh apricots from the garden. Lourdas, Cephalonia,, from $70, breakfast not included.

Tragaki, Zákinthos

Talk about underselling your appeal; paliokaliva means "old hut" in Greek. But that's far from what you'll find at Paliokaliva Village, a collection of 18 stone cottages that Anastasia Tembonera built in the center of her family's olive grove on the island of Zákinthos, just south of Cephalonia. "I wanted something more traditional and closer to nature," Tembonera says of her decision to leave her job at a pharmacy in 2002 to open the resort, where bougainvillea climbs the stone walls of the cottages and jasmine twines through trees hung with lanterns. By all accounts, the hotel is sleepy: It's located about half a mile up a winding road from the somewhat tacky tourist town of Tsilivi, and the only sounds heard on the grounds are the laughter of kids splashing in the swimming pool and the calls of the occasional vegetable peddler driving through town in his open-bed truck, touting his wares on a loudspeaker. Excitement comes in the form of day trips—to Gerakas, on the island's southeastern tip, where loggerhead sea turtles nest, or to Cape Skinari, to the northwest, to see Shipwreck Beach and swim in the Blue Caves. Each of the cottages has different details, but most have gently distressed furniture (think wooden chairs with artfully peeling paint), lace-curtained dine-in kitchenettes, and desks stocked with handmade pencils designed to look like twigs. Small weather vanes with painted-metal motifs are posted near the doors, so guests can remember they belong in the building with the smiling duck or the little church, rather than something so prosaic as a room number. Still, it's worth noting cottage numbers when making a reservation, and ask for the highest one. Tembonera explains, "As we built each one, we improved on the one we'd done before." Tragaki, Zákinthos,, from $126, breakfast not included.

Your Guide to Getting Around the Ionian Islands
Corfu is the most densely populated of the Ionians and a good launchpad for a tour of the area. Olympic Airlines flies daily from Athens to Corfu, which may be listed as Kérkyra, its Greek name (, from $26 each way). To get from Corfu to Cephalonia, take one of several daily car ferries to the mainland port of Igoumenítsa (from $6 per person, about $41 per car). Then drive to Levkás and take a ferry to Cephalonia (or Kefallinía; from $6 per person, about $41 per car). Two daily car ferries go from Cephalonia to Zákinthos (from $6 per person, about $41 per car). Smaller interisland ferries and hydrofoil companies also link the islands. Visit for schedules, and purchase tickets at the ferry terminals.

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50 Top Tips From the World's Smartest Cruisers

TOP TIPS 1. "Traveling with a large family or a group of friends? Bring along walkie-talkies (such as Motorola's Talkabouts) to keep everyone connected without cell phone roaming charges." —Sherry Brooks, Westlake Village, Calif. 2. "You're almost always charged extra for soft drinks, beer, wine, and cocktails at meals. But if you stick to juice, you can drink for free (on most ships)." —Kathy Pagliei, Swarthmore, Pa. (of Accessible Journeys) 3. "On every cruise we've taken, my wife tapes a balloon to our cabin door. That way, our stateroom stands out in the long hallway." —Eli Rose, Tampa, Fla. 4. "Many major cruise lines provide free passage to guests qualified to lecture on board. Call the line's entertainment office to see if you have the necessary skills." —Uvonne McCarty, Sparks, Nev. 5. "Nearly every cruise line will toss in one free cabin if you travel in a group of 15 or more." —Carolyn Spencer Brown, Pennington, N.J. (of 6. "If you book while you're aboard, some lines offer a discount of $175 and up on the deposit for future trips. More good news: You can usually get a refund on your deposit if you decide to cancel later." —Jeff Pugel, New York, N.Y. 7. "Before booking, check deck plans online to confirm your cabin isn't beneath a well-traveled area. Many ships have a lido deck buffet, where diners eat poolside. When they drag around chairs, it can make quite the ruckus in rooms right below." —N.W. Pope, Scottsdale, Ariz. 8. "When cruising with our two toddlers, we book a single cabin with twin beds. Pushing them together allows us to sleep sideways, with one parent at the bottom as a guardrail. This only works if you aren't tall!" —Jimmy Kung, Brooklyn, N.Y. 9. "To avoid the check-out bottleneck, ask for a printout of your bill the day before disembarking. If there are any discrepancies, you can resolve them early and totally relax on your last day at sea." —Jack Sigano, Nutley, N.J. BOOKING TIPS 10. "Spring for last-minute deals. For those with a flexible schedule, it's hard to beat short-lead, online sales. Check out consolidators and discount sites as well as the lines' own e-mail offers." —Susan Murphy, Loa, Utah 11. "Make a bid online. Websites that auction cruises have some of the best bargains out there. At, you can search by line, destination, and date." —Jennifer Dickey, Toronto, Canada 12. "Be an early bird. If you're planning a trip on a popular route (like the Mediterranean in the summer), you won't find many last-minute discounts. The early-bird deals—six to nine months out, generally—tend to have the lowest rates." —Editors' Advice 13. "Hire an agent. Even if you normally book trips on your own, a cruise is a wise moment to call in the experts. Each line employs specialists who can offer discounted fares and provide advice on cabin configurations and buffet selections. Also, agents with membership in a group like Virtuoso can sweeten deals with onboard credits, including everything from free meals at the specialty restaurants to spa credits." —Editor's Advice 14. "Prices often fluctuate based on kids' availability. Spring break, for example, is a popular (and pricey) time of year, but the last week in August, when most children return to school, is a bargain." —Michele Captain, Tampa, Fla. 15. "Sign up for frequent-cruiser programs (similar to frequent-flier programs). On our last cruise, we received chocolate-dipped strawberries in our room just for being members!" —Steve Maglich, Rolling Meadows, Ill. 16. "On the last day, you're supposed to leave by 9 a.m.—no exceptions. I've knocked on people's doors at 11 a.m. and found them still in the cabin because they overslept! Cabins don't have alarm clocks, so make sure you pack one. You don't want to find yourself rushing to gather your things. Once in a while, people forget their jewelry, credit cards, or watches in the safe."—Marta Ortiz Castro, Cruise Housekeeping Staff, Panama 17. "Find out if your cruise line offers benefits for signing up for its credit card. With Carnival Cruise Lines, for example, you earn points that you can redeem when booking cruises, resort nights, and flights." —Paula Prindle, Orient, Ohio 18. "Don't miss the boat! I like to fly into the port city a day or two before the cruise begins, especially in winter, to make sure that flight delays and cancellations don't wreak havoc." —Anne Schweisguth, Swiftwater, Pa. 19. "Comparison shop. Cruise lines try to make things easy by packaging airfare and pre-embarkation hotel stays. But you'll generally get better rates if you do your own research and arrange your flights and rooms. At the very least, it's a good idea to comparison shop online." —Editors' Advice MONEY-SAVING TIPS 20. "Go with the flow. Sometimes you can use the spa's shower and steam rooms even if you don't get a treatment. After I work out, I forgo the tiny cabin shower for the far more spacious spa experience." —April Icsman, Medina, Ohio 21. "Skip the spa on sea days. I've been on many cruises on various lines, and one thing they all have in common is that they offer spa discounts when the ship is in port." —Rhonda Grabov, Philadelphia, Pa. 22. "Book your own excursions. You can usually get the best deal on a day trip if you arrange it directly with a tour operator rather than through the cruise line." —Cindy Rucker, Cary, N.C. 23. "BYO wine. Carnival allows you to bring one bottle per person per cruise, so choose well. We recently carried on our favorite bottle of wine, which cost $110 at our local shop. We paid a $10 corkage fee in the restaurant and ultimately saved $180 since they had the same bottle listed for $300." —Cheri Flores, Fort Worth, Tex. 24. "A rum and Coke made with house rum is the cheapest alcoholic drink we serve ($4.75). The daily drink specials will cost you $6, and something like a piña colada will set you back $6.75."—Steve Martin, Cruise Bartender, Jamaica TIME-SAVING TIPS 25. "Pack for every port. Before I leave home, I make labeled packets for each port. They contain excursion-specific items: maps, sunscreen, insect repellent, disposable cameras, confirmations...even shampoo to use after swimming." —Deborah Plumb, St. Petersburg, Fla. 26. "Avoid a midnight lock-out. Once you're aboard, have the gift shop make a hole in your plastic room-key card (where it won't interfere with the magnetic strip), and wear it on a lanyard around your neck. You won't have to waste time waiting in line for a new card if you lose it." —Sallie Clinard, Las Vegas, Nev. 27. "Baby-proof your cabin. Companies such as Disney Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, and Royal Caribbean are making things easier for families. A sampling of their most useful services: pureeing fruit for custom baby food, and lending toys or Pack 'n Plays, which can double as cribs." —Editors' Advice TIPS FOR CONQUERING SEASICKNESS 28. "Apples. When I told a fellow passenger that I was feeling seasick, she suggested I eat a green apple. It was like magic! Now I bring some along whenever I sail." —Angie Evans, Bremerton, Wash. 29. "Ginger. Candied ginger is such a good remedy that some ships offer it with after-dinner mints. We always pack a supply in a plastic bag." —Weyman Lew, San Francisco, Calif. 30. "Oranges. If you're feeling nauseous, peel an orange, hold the rind to your nose, and inhale. A waiter taught me this aboard a ship, and I was soon able to eat again." —Rita McGuigan, Monroe, N.C. 31. "Acupressure. I keep Sea-Bands (bracelets that apply pressure to the inside of the wrist) in my purse at all times. They take up such little space and are surprisingly effective." —Lisa Lowe Stauffer, Roswell, Ga. DINING TIPS 32. "Have breakfast in bed. The night before an early-morning excursion, order room service. You won't get stuck in a long buffet line and risk missing your departure." —Mirvet Sidhom, Quebec, Canada 33. "Dine in, eat better. In destinations not known for their food, I'll arrange for room service to arrive in my cabin as I reboard the ship from any outings. I end up saving money and avoiding a potentially bad meal in port." —Deanna Chappell, Downingtown, Pa. 34. "Snag a top table. Forgot to request that coveted table for two? You'd be surprised how easy it is to nab it. Just show up at the dining room before service starts on the first night, and be especially nice to the maître d'." —Christopher Wershoven, Brooklyn, N.Y. 35. "Score prime reservations. Some cruise lines—such as Carnival, Celebrity Cruises, and Royal Caribbean—have started allowing guests to secure table assignments when they book their cabins. In fact, Celebrity and Royal Caribbean even permit you to make the request online, and Carnival lets repeat customers ask for their favorite servers." —Editors' Advice 36. "If you feel seasick, try these three tricks: Stay midship and as close to the waterline as possible (that area doesn't rock as much as the front); lie down where you can see the horizon (this places your head in a fixed position); and eat pineapple. Why the last one? It tastes the same going up as it does going down."—Eilif Dahl, Cruise Doctor, Norway 37. "Reward good service. I bring thank-you cards. If a staff member is particularly helpful, I leave behind a card. Being positive encourages good service in the days to come." —Jen Keivel, Beavercreek, Ohio TECH TIPS 38. "Go farther ashore. In Ketchikan, Alaska, I grabbed a seat at an Internet café right next to the ship only to find out that another place a few blocks farther away was half the price." —Tina Arnoldi, Mount Pleasant, S.C. 39. "Outsmart onboard Internet. To limit my use of onboard Internet—anywhere from 35¢ to $1 per minute—I type e-mails to friends and family on my laptop in advance. When I'm ready to send them, I log on and simply paste in the completed text."  —Jon Faulkner, Chula Vista, Calif. 40. "Roam on your terms. Before boarding, check with your cell provider to learn about the roaming charges you'll be responsible for. Your plan may already include calls and e-mails throughout the U.S., Caribbean, and even farther afield. We were delighted to find that our flat-rate plan worked on several Caribbean islands—for no extra fee." —Jana Riess, Winchester, Ky. 41. "Access your e-mail at the library. During a recent Alaska cruise, we found a city library with free Internet service for up to 30 minutes!" —Gail G. Jenkins, Kuna, Idaho FUN WAYS TO DECK OUT YOUR CABIN 42. "Tension rod. Staterooms are notoriously short on closet space. A tension rod provides just the trick for hanging extra clothes, and it takes up very little room in your suitcase." —Lisa Palumbo, West Orange, N.J. 43. "Shoe organizers. I hang these on the bathroom door to prevent clutter in a tiny cabin. The compartments are perfect for stashing toiletries, documents, keys, and, of course, shoes." —Jane Tague, Westerville, Ohio 44. "Portable radio. You would be amazed at the stations you can tune in to from your balcony, especially in Caribbean ports. Reggae, salsa, merengue...what comes on is always a surprise, and the news and commercials can be entertaining, too." —Tom Roche, Tucker, Ga. 45. "Fragrance beads. A safe alternative to candles or incense, these pack neatly in a sealed container. Once you open the lid, the fragrance wafts through the whole room." —Julie Nyhus, Eugene, Ore. 46. "Sticky notes. I'm probably known as the Post-it lady on most ships. I leave notes on the cabin mirror asking the steward for more ice, tissues, towels—everything. It works!" —Eleanor L. Benedict, Herndon, Va. 47. "Light sticks. I used to pack a night-light but couldn't always find a convenient outlet. Now I hook a plastic light stick over the bathroom doorknob, where it provides a gentle glow through the night." —Carol Attar, Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich. 48. "Gift bags. Before my trip, I put together a bag of regional specialties from my hometown. Once I'm aboard, I give the present to our attendant, who is usually delighted and rewards us with great service." —Nyal R. Cammack, Las Cruces, N.M. 49. "Tabletop mirror. If you'd rather sit to apply makeup and style your hair, as I do, you'll find this a good use of suitcase space." —Joanie Martin, Fox Island, Wash. 50. "Power strip. Many cabins have only one outlet, which is hardly enough if you plan to charge your laptop, cell phone, and iPod—and to blow-dry your hair." —Jay Van Vechten, Boca Raton, Fla.

Chicago's Top 5 from '95

The Cruise If the newer architectural tours are too froufrou for you, Wendella offers this: the timeless two-hour sunset cruise. You'll take in all the sights (Magnificent Mile, Chicago Harbor Lock) as the sun goes down, and then pull into Monroe Harbor to watch the Buckingham Fountain water-and-light show (, $26). The Diner "Cheezborger! Cheezborger! No Pepsi, Coke!" Even if the 1970s John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd parody of the Billy Goat Tavern doesn't ring a bell, you'll be entertained while ordering your double cheeseburger at this dingy Greek burger joint (430 N. Michigan Ave., Lower Level,, double cheeseburger $4.75). The Landmarks Little-known fact: Many of Chicago's most famous sights date back to '95: 1895, that is. If you've read Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, you'll want to visit landmarks from the 1893 World's Fair, including the Art Institute (, $18) and the Museum of Science and Industry (, $15). The Market Yes, Oak Park, Ill., which is a quick El-train ride from the Loop, is both Hemingway's birthplace and the center of Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie School movement. Be sure to start your cultural tour there on a summer Saturday, with a trip to the Oak Park Farmers' Market Donut Stand (460 Lake St.,, May 21–Oct.). The Cultural Events In 1995, Lollapalooza was an alt-rock music festival that toured nationwide. Today, the event calls Chicago its sole home (Aug. 6–8). Which isn't surprising: The city has long been a great festival town, with everything from the Chicago Blues Festival (July 11–13) to the Taste of Chicago (June 25–July 4).

The New Chicago

I was 14 when I made my maiden voyage sailing Chicago's not-so-high seas. Sure, my first job aboard the Wendella Sightseeing boats wasn't exactly manning the capstan—it was actually manning the "pop stand," working 12-hour weekend shifts slinging orange soda and potato chips to the likes of sock-and-sandaled Japanese and German tourists. But I was seeing Chicago from a totally new perspective: drifting up the Chicago River past the Merchandise Mart and the Sears Tower, back through the Chicago Harbor Lock, and out onto Lake Michigan, where I'd take in the entire city skyline as a real-life postcard, the frenzied din fading into a calm hum as we cruised toward the horizon. And it sure as hell beat the pounding I took during the week at my three-a-day freshman football practices. Over the next few summers, my role with Wendella would grow, and my duties varied from handing out brochures to crowd control, so I was alternately hawking rides to Michigan Avenue's passersby and making orderly passengers out of them. Graduation from high school marked my graduation to deckhand and took me from part-time to full-time to all-the-time. My days and nights were spent displaying my lasso-like rope-handling skills tying up in the lock, offering wry asides and keen insights on various points of interest, and loading young couples, grandmas, and school groups onto the double-deck Wendella and the single-deck Sunliner. (If you've ever seen The Break-Up, Vince Vaughn does a pretty good turn as me aboard a Sunliner-esque boat near the movie's end.) When I moved away from Chicago in 1995, I'd become something of an expert on the Windy City. Over time, however, Chicago and I grew apart. A few short months after I moved to San Francisco, my mom was diagnosed with, then soon died from, cancer. I came to resent my hometown for what it was and what it represented to me: a constant reminder that I'd never again have a mother to return to. In many ways, I became a stubborn ex to Chicago. I doubted that it could grow beyond our deep and loving, but nevertheless youthful and immature relationship. I was convinced I was the only one of us who was really evolving. After a certain point, though, I realized I was being not only unfair, but silly. I thought it was time I got to know Chicago as it really is today. Clean start. Fair shake. New beginning. I decided to take a trip back there not as its spurned son, but as a hopeful tourist. Standing on Upper Wacker Drive, the wide downtown thoroughfare that winds along the south side of the Chicago River, I felt as if I were seeing some futuristic version of the city. The river walks, once largely forgotten, teemed with restaurants. Across the way, where the Sun-Times building (a low-slung mid-century monstrosity) once stood, now ascended the gleaming new Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago—a 92-story sparkling rocket ship that redefines the upward limits of the Magnificent Mile's skyline. And at a nearby dock, a fleet of snazzy yellow Checker Cab–style water taxis and a couple of shiny new double-decker tour boats zipped in and out, a far cry from the more modest Wendella boats I'd left behind years ago. As I headed south on Michigan Avenue, blending in with the other summer tourists, Chicago's most recent transformation hit me in the form of T-shirts, buttons, and bumper stickers: change has come, they told me. The city that for years prided itself on the accomplishments of Mike Ditka and Michael Jordan had a lot more to be proud of these days, namely our first African-American president. The area that is now Millennium Park had always been a curious eyesore, a place we were led through carefully on Cub Scout field trips. The mishmash of parking lots and railroad tracks didn't blend easily with the more manicured Grant Park along the lakefront nor with the classical beauty of The Art Institute of Chicago, the northernmost of the remaining world-class buildings created for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. These days, however, the park is completely transformed. To find my way around, I first called the Office of Tourism Visitor Information Center on Randolph Street to arrange a free 60-minute tour with official Chicago Greeter Janice Rosenberg. Our first stop was the Frank Gehry–designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion, a sleek new outdoor performing arts addition to the older and larger Petrillo Band Shell in nearby Grant Park. Millennium Park, Janice told me, has been deemed an art park, and in proof of her point, she led me across the BP Bridge and over to Cloud Gate, a kooky metallic outdoor installation by British-Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor that is known locally as "the Bean." I might have been the tour guide once, but given all the new sights, I clearly had a lot to learn. We then strolled through the meticulously laid out Lurie Garden, reminiscent of New York's new High Line park in its use of wood and native perennial plants, and past the downright Blade Runner-esque Crown Fountain, where kids were beating the heat as the 50-foot-high interactive video installation of changing faces spit water on them. We continued on to the slim, tailored span of the Nichols Bridgeway, which extends beyond Millennium Park over to the new Renzo Piano–designed Modern Wing of the Art Institute. After my time with Janice was up, I wound my way up to the second story of the Modern Wing, where the view of the northern skyline from the window was like a perfectly framed living photo, showcasing the new Trump Tower, the Prudential Building, the John Hancock Center, and the Aon Center. I stood there and tried to piece together what this might have looked like in 1995. Maybe not quite so pretty. This fit of nostalgia gave me a hankering for my old hot dog haunt from the Wendella days, Gold Coast Dogs, on State Street, which I was sad to discover has been taken over by a 7-Eleven. Thankfully, The Wieners Circle up on North Clark still served a perfect char dog. I asked the pleasingly grouchy woman behind the counter to "run it through the garden" to make it a proper Chicago-style hot dog: a grilled Vienna Beef dog on a poppy-seed bun with mustard, onions, relish, pickle spears, tomato slices, celery salt, and (only in Chicago) spicy little sport peppers. Sometimes tastes can never quite be recaptured, but this was better than I remembered. One of my blind spots as a former tour guide was always the quality of the local hotels. After all, if you're a native, how would you know? And with my father still living in the western suburb of Oak Park, even on visits back I never got the chance to sample Chicago's growing boutique-hotel scene. Just as important (if not more), I had completely missed the rooftop bar movement, which has hit the city with particular verve. Eager to see what was out there, I asked around. Along with the outside bar at Zed451 in River North, which has a Venice-Beach-cool-meets-Upper-Peninsula-wood-paneling vibe, the most recommended cocktail lounge was the Roof. Just my luck that it sat atop the boutique Wit hotel, which was not only convenient but very nice for the price. My CB2-like room was larger than my apartment back in New York and had a kitchenette, a rain shower, and a sleeper sofa. When I left the city, this part of State Street was, at best, an afterthought; now it's a destination in its own right. I convinced a few old friends to meet me at the Roof for a before-dinner drink, where we sat among neat and attractive urbanites and overlooked the city on all sides. If the Roof at the Wit hotel is post-work professionals, The Whistler, a newish mixology-style cocktail bar in the up-and-coming North Side neighborhood of Logan Square, is more rock and roll. I had landed there on the advice of a music publicist named Dana who is much hipper than I am. She had wanted to show me "where the locals hang" before we shot down the Kennedy Expressway to a restaurant called Nightwood in Pilsen, a historically Mexican neighborhood on the Near South Side that for years has been a burgeoning area for local artists (my little sister included). Our three-hour dinner at Nightwood, the first of what's sure to be many foodie spots in Pilsen, included biscuits with honey butter and sea salt, watermelon and arugula salad, chicken liver agnolotti, goat steak, and a smoked trout BLT. A different night, I tried out Avec, in the West Loop, which is another of Chicago's dining hotspots. The space evokes the horizontal beauty of local hero Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie School reimagined through a Dutch Modern lens. Because Avec doesn't take reservations, the wait was two hours (leaving plenty of time to make good use of the curbside bar). Once inside, however, a few friends and I went to work on plates of boar sausage, half-roasted chicken, roasted dates, and chewy trofie pasta with duck and sardines. As I sat back, letting the food coma sweep over me, it was a comfort to realize that even as I'd expanded my culinary horizons to the food-crazed cities of San Francisco and New York, Chicago had been growing its own worthy restaurant scene. We'd both changed over the years, sure, but it was nice to know that we'd changed in similar ways. Like me, Wendella has also gotten up to speed with the times: The once all-cash business now takes credit cards and has a website and a Facebook page. The little clubhouse office is gone, replaced by a slick glass ticket window and even an express ticket machine. The 10:30 a.m. sightseeing trip I led so many times now has an "architectural tour" option. As the boat pulls away from the dock at the base of the Wrigley Building, heading west down the Chicago River, old and new commingle; the facts I knew are revised. Marina City, a set of twin corncob-shaped towers featured in a stunt sequence in Steve McQueen's The Hunter, is now home to a Smith & Wollensky steak house. When I used to give tours, I'd say, "The Merchandise Mart is so large it has its own zip code: 60654," but now Sarah, our tour guide, tells me that the zip code has incorporated some of its surrounding areas. The Apparel Center, which used to be a giant, largely windowless slab of a building, had more windows punched out of its sides to become the new headquarters for the Sun-Times. The gold-leaf-topped Carbide & Carbon Building is now...a Hard Rock Hotel. And, rumor has it, the black-steel-and-glass Willis Tower, formerly known as the Sears Tower, will soon be painted silver by its new owner—all 1,450 feet of it. As we drift up the river, I realize that I am not reconnecting with Chicago. I am simply, after all these years, finally connecting with it. LODGING The Wit 201 N. State St.,, doubles from $179, drinks from $8 FOOD The Wieners Circle 2622 N. Clark St., 773/477-7444, dogs from $3.50 Nightwood 2119 S. Halsted St.,, entrées from $19 Avec 615 W. Randolph St.,, entrées from $14.50 ACTIVITIES The Art Institute of Chicago 111 S. Michigan Ave.,, $18 Office of Tourism Visitor Information Center 77 E. Randolph St.,, Chicago Greeter tours free Wendella Sightseeing Co. 400 N. Michigan Ave.,, tours from $24 NIGHTLIFE Zed451 739 N. Clark St.,, drinks from $9 The Whistler 2421 N. Milwaukee Ave.,, drinks from $8

A Place for Everyone

DUDE RANCH Our suggestion: Lazy L&B Ranch, Dubois, Wyo. Guests stay in log cabins and spend their days riding horses and communing with goats at the petting zoo. You'll love: Singing cowboy songs by the fireplace., six-night package with all meals and activities from $1,475, kids 12 and under from $1,325. SKI RESORT IN SUMMER Our suggestion: Keystone, Colo. Rafting, fly-fishing, hiking—this winter destination is teeming with summer activities. You'll love: River Run Village's one- to four-bedroom condos are just a three-minute walk from the town's shops and restaurants., one-bedrooms from $129 a night. OLD-TIMEY LAKE TOWN Our suggestion: Mackinac Island, Mich. At this car-free getaway on Lake Huron, the activities haven't changed much over the years: biking, swimming, and eating ice cream. You'll love: The suites and cottages to suit groups of any size at Harbour View Inn., doubles from $149 a night in summer. BEACH RESORT Our suggestion: Sullivan's Island, S.C. Gentle waves and the occasional dolphin offshore make this beach a favorite with kids. You'll love: The wide range of cottages and houses that you can book through local agents at Island Realty., two-bedroom cottages from $1,300 a week. THEME PARK Our suggestion: Walt Disney World. With six parks and a dizzying array of places to shop, eat, golf, and swim, Florida's mammoth complex is the ultimate crowd-pleaser. You'll love: Disney's Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa, where nine people can stay in a tree house., from $555 a night. WATER PARK Our suggestion: Wisconsin Dells. The "Waterpark Capital of the World" has 21 water parks, along with dry-land activities like mini golf and rock climbing. You'll love: With an arcade, a cinema, and a paint-your-own-pottery studio, Kalahari Resort is a hit with kids., doubles from $130 a night. CRUISE Our suggestion: Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas. The 2,706 staterooms run the gamut from twin cabins to family suites to swanky lofts. You'll love: "Central Park," an open-air atrium with more than 12,000 trees and plants., seven nights from $729 per person. ALL-INCLUSIVE RESORT Our suggestion: Occidental Grand Xcaret, Riviera Maya, Mexico. The resort has a seemingly endless number of rooms (769), restaurants (11), bars (10), and pools (15). You'll love: Guests get discounted admission to swim with dolphins., from $107 per person per night.