"First hand information on some of the most comfortable and luxurious destinations, accommodations, voyages, products, restaurants, spas, ecotourism and attractions for the discriminating traveler."

Luxury Travel Review header image 1

Rich history, boutique wineries and vibrant cultural life made Charlottesville enjoyable destination

September 8th, 2014 · No Comments

Article and photos by Josette King

The rear of Monticello overlooks vast expanses of lawns and flower borders

The rear of Monticello overlooked vast expanses of lawns and flower borders

This was my first visit to Charlottesville, Virginia, a small historic city with a big reputation. I admit I approached it with a degree of skepticism. Everyone I knew who had ever visited had come back smitten and daydreaming about settling there. Surely, no place could be that idyllic? Charlottesville was.

Montpelier offered stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains

Montpelier offered stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains

Although a mere 115 miles (185 kilometers) from Washington, D.C. and 70 miles (110 kilometers) from Richmond, this small Central Virginia city nestled in the picturesque rural foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains had, in spite of its popularity, retained the charm and tranquil pace of earlier times. Its once Main Street was now the Downtown Mall, an eight block tree shaded pedestrian walkway lined with restored historic buildings. There, antique shops, art galleries and all manner of fashion boutiques mingled with café terraces, restaurants, pubs and several movie and live performance theaters. A favorite spot for tourists as well as local people had a Freedom of Expression Wall where passersby could pen (in chalk) what was on their mind, which I was told included the occasional marriage proposal. The wall was erased each night to give others an opportunity to have their say.

Passers by were welcome to scroll their thoughts on the Freedom of Expression Wall

Passersby were welcome to scroll their thoughts on the Freedom of Expression Wall

Charlottesville has conserved to this day the enduring mark imparted upon it two centuries ago by its most illustrious citizen, Thomas Jefferson. In addition to his Monticello home, he founded and designed the University of Virginia. Both of the neoclassical (or Jeffersonian style) masterpieces are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Today, Monticello attracts half a million visitors annually and the University of Virginia, with its yearly enrollment of over 23,000 students, contributes significantly to the cultural vitality of the area. Jefferson also made a significant impact on the landscape of the area, albeit posthumously, when he attempted to establish vineyards on land adjoining Monticello, only to have his efforts thwarted by the start of the Revolutionary War in 1774. In the latter part of the 20 century, a handful of determined growers were inspired to revisit his vision to develop the Central Virginia vineyards.

The tasting room at Jefferson Vineyards Winery

The tasting room at Jefferson Vineyards Winery

Today, Virginia has over 2,000 acres (810 hectares) of vineyards, half of them around Charlottesville. Almost 30 of the wineries form the Monticello Wine Trail and welcome visitors in their tasting rooms. A well mapped itinerary took me along some of the loveliest back roads of the greater Charlottesville area. One of the oldest, Jefferson Vineyards, was within a stone's throw of Monticello, on the very land where Jefferson made his own wine growing attempt.

In addition to Thomas Jefferson, the Charlottesville area was also home to two more of America’s Founding Fathers, James Monroe and James Madison. All three became President of the United States and their respective homes Monticello, Ash Lawn Highland and Montpelier were open to tourists. I combined their visit, in an itinerary known as the Presidents Trail, with that of nearby wineries. Along the way, I soon discovered that the bucolic setting had drawn a large number of talented artists and craftspeople, whose studios and galleries made for an enjoyable visit as well.

Glass artist Cara DiMassimo with some of her recent creations

Glass artist Cara DiMassimo with some of her recent creations

With its charming rural environment, rich history, vibrant artistic life, inviting vintage downtown, wineries and more than a few notable restaurants to boot, I could see how Charlottesville could be an enjoyable place to live. It was an exceptional place to visit.

Bookmark and Share

→ No CommentsTags: Attractions · Food and Wine · Luxury Travel

Gourmet teas a reminder of Paris at home

August 18th, 2014 · 2 Comments

By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox

A selection of Marriage teas

Our selection of Mariage Freres teas

Over the years we have sampled so many teas we've lost count. From plantations in India to gourmet tea shops in Paris, France and many places in between, tea has accompanied many special and memorable occasions. Recently, we decided to sample a variety of teas over a few days. The idea was to dedicate our clean palates to tasting a single tea or two at most per sitting. The time and attention were meant to allow us an opportunity to explore the tea leaves and their color, tea fragrance and taste, and lastly the finish if there was one.

Closeup of the label showing brewing instructions

A closeup of the label showing brewing instructions

To compare apples to apples as it were all the teas we sampled were from the same shop, Mariage Freres Marais in Paris, France (Mariage Freres Marais, 30 rue du Bourg-Tibourg,75004 Paris, France, www.mariagefreres.com, info@mariagefreres.com,+33 1 42 72 28 11). Some we brought home with us and others arrived by post. The shipping caused some unpleasantness with the delivery company who tacked our small order with customs processing fees even though there was no evidence that customs officials viewed our package, and without ever obtaining our approval in advance.

The Marco Polo tea came in a tin inside a box

The Marco Polo tea came in a tin inside a box

We sampled the following loose teas: Ivory Himalaya The Blanc Grand Cru, Marco Polo Mervelleux the noir gout fruite et fleury (marvelous fruity and flowery black tea), Opium Hill The Bleu du Triangle d'Or (blue tea from the Golden Triangle), and PU-ERH millesime 2000 (vintage 2000) The mur de Chine (ripe tea from China). We also tried Sables au The Marco Polo (Marco Polo flavor sable cookies).

Mariage Sables came in tea flavors

The Marco Polo Mariage Sables

The label on each bag, box or container provided instructions including the quantity of tea leaves per cup, the water temperature and the amount of brewing time. We followed the directions preparing the tea with bottled water and placing the tea leaves in individual cotton tea sleeves. We served the tea in a clear glass cup that allowed us to see the color of each tea.

Ivory Himalaya Tea

The Ivory Himalaya tea

The Ivory Himalaya white tea came in a plastic bag within a square carton which was sealed in an airtight wrapper. The tea weighed 20 grams. There was no visible expiration date on the package. The recommended serving was five grams of tea per cup brewed (one quarter of the package) for five minutes at 80 Celsius (below boiling). Sourced at a Himalayan plantation in limited quantities it was the priciest of the teas we sampled in that series.

Marco Polo Tea in the tin

The Marco Polo tea in the tin

A closer look at the Marco Polo tea

A closeup of the Marco Polo tea

The Marco Polo tea came in a pretty black tin containing 100 grams. The expiration date was January 2017. The recommended serving size was two and one half grams of tea per cup brewed for four minutes at 95 Celsius (below boiling). The tea leaves in the container had a distinctive fruity scent which was more pronounced in the brewed beverage. The tea was an appetizing rich medium brown which tasted of mild black tea with a slightly sweet fruit and flower taste. There was no finish of note. We tasted the Marco Polo cookies, made with wheat flour, sugar, concentrated butter, eggs and Mariage Freres Tea, at the same time as the eponymous tea. The buttery, crunchy and sweet cookies came in four plastic wrapped packets of five cookies each. The expiration date was August 2014.

Marco Polo Sables

The Marco Polo cookies

The Opium Hill kernels came in a foil 100 gram bag and had an expiration date of January 2016. The recommended serving size was four and one half grams of tea per cup brewed for two minutes at 90 Celsius. Per the salesman's instructions we infused it three times. He indicated up to seven infusions were possible from a single serving. The tea was pale green with a subtle green tea flavor. We couldn't be sure if the color grew paler with each infusion. The scent was mild and made us think of green tea. The first infusion had a well defined taste. The flavor became less noticeable and more nuanced with each infusion while the finish became longer lasting and more pronounced. The idea that the third infusion had no theine held particular appeal for us. The third infusion, especially the finish, was a favorite.

Opium Hill Team

The Opium Hill Blue Tea

The PU-ERH came in a foil 100 gram bag which listed no expiration date. The recommended serving size was two and one half grams of tea per cup brewed for five minutes at 95 Celsius. The color was pale. While the scent of the leaves and the brewed tea were the strongest of the teas we sampled in that series the flavor was unexpectedly light. Words that came to mind were musty, smokey and dark all within a palatable range.

PU-ERH millesime 2000

A closeup of the PU-ERH millesime 2000

The blue tea, reminiscent of green tea, was a favorite for regular consumption. Given its delicate flavor the Ivory Himalaya would be appropriate for special occasions or to share with friends. The nuances of the tea taste compared to the high cost were difficult to quantify, especially given the many fine tea choices available. On the other hand, the lingering finish on the palate was unequaled in that series and worth seeking out. To read about our tea and gourmet experience at the Mariage Freres Marais Paris tea shop, see Superb gourmet lunch at Paris tea salon

Bookmark and Share

→ 2 CommentsTags: Food

History meets classic cuisine with Virginia twist in Charlottesville

August 4th, 2014 · 1 Comment

Article and photos by Josette King

The Old Mill Room restaurant was located in the historic part of the property

The Old Mill Room restaurant was located in the historic part of the property

The Old Mill Room is a restaurant with a distinguished past and a cuisine grounded in the present. Located in the historical core of the Boar’s Head in Charlottesville, Virginia, it was built from a valued piece of local history, the repurposed timber from an abandoned 1834 gristmill famous for having survived the Civil War and gone on to operate a whole six decades after it. Moved piece by pieced from is original site on the banks of the Hardware River, it was integrated in the construction of an inn’s main building in the early 1960’s.

The shaded central lawn of The Boar's Head evoked of a town common of old

The shaded central lawn of The Boar's Head evoked of a town common of old

The décor of the restaurant had been designed to showcase those striking architectural details while creating a refined environment that evoked timeless southern grace. It was an ideal setting for the elegant classic cuisine with a Virginia flair and international contemporary touches dished out by Bill Justus, executive chef, and his team. At the Old Mill Room the building was not the only custodian of a proud history. When Chef Justus joined the Boar’s Head as executive chef in 2010, he took over a restaurant with the singular distinction of being the longest holder of a AAA Four Diamonds designation in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

The historic Old Mill Room was built from the timber of an abandoned 1834 gristmill

The historic Old Mill Room was built from the timber of an abandoned 1834 gristmill

Justus maintained the award winning culinary excellence while bringing to the menu the lighter dishes, farm to table freshness of local ingredients and imaginative flavor and texture pairings I appreciated. At the time of my visit, the Old Mill Room had been awarded once again its Four Diamonds, for the 27 consecutive time.

Executive Chef Bill Justus

Executive Chef Bill Justus

From the amuse bouche of chilled watermelon with goat cheese mousse to the perfectly caramelized creme brulee, my meal was a shining example of the creativity that went on in the kitchen. My appetizer skillfully balanced the sweet tenderness of exquisitely seared scallops with a light crust of smoky ancho chili pepper and bitter cocoa. As for the sunburst trout filets of my main course, they were dusted with blue cornmeal and served with a colorful accompaniment of tiny black Peruvian potatoes and Atlantic lobster succotash, and a discrete dash of Pernod in the light lobster sauce. It was interesting and delicious.

Pan seared halibut with steamed clams in a light saffron sauce.

Pan seared halibut with steamed clams in a light saffron sauce

It stands to reason that my local friends regard the Old Mill Room as one of the greater Charlottesville area de rigueur places to celebrate special occasions. I will plan to return myself, the next time my travels take me back to Central Virginia.

Bookmark and Share

→ 1 CommentTags: New Articles · Restaurants

Panther cub, Florida wildlife draw to state park

July 21st, 2014 · 3 Comments

Article and photos by Elena del Valle

Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park

Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park

Yuma, the Florida panther cub

Yuma, the Florida panther cub (click to enlarge)

Florida’s state animal, the panther, is one the most endangered mammals on Earth. With population estimates at less than 200 they are near impossible to observe in the wild. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there are between 100 and 160 adult panthers in the wild in South Florida. These animals once ranged throughout most of the southeastern United States. By the late 1800s the Florida panther had been run off from much of its historical range because its habitat had been destroyed or by human attacks.

They are beautiful animals. When I found out I might be able to see a four month old cub in a wildlife sanctuary I jumped at the opportunity. The drive, several hours long, took me across the state from the southeastern corner of the Florida peninsula northwest to the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park (4150 S. Suncoast Boulevard, Homosassa, Florida 34446, www.floridastateparks.org/homosassa, +1 352 628-5343, Susan.Strawbridge@dep.state.fl.us) in Citrus County where the cub found a permanent home. I stayed at the 68-room Hampton Inn Crystal River (1103 N Suncoast Boulevard, Crystal River Florida, 34429, +1 352-564-6464, www.crystalriver.hamptoninn.com, Chris@mymaverick.net) a clean, newly built (completed in 2013) property conveniently situated a few miles north of the park.

The cub was playful and in constant motion

The cub was playful and in constant motion

When he was one week old he was rescued by wildlife personnel after his mother abandoned him or met an unknown fate herself. Having been brought up by humans, he would not be able to survive in the wild. Instead, his home will be a 80 foot by 120 foot special enclosure at the state park which was still under construction when I visited the area.

This cute fox was sleeping in the partial shade

This cute red fox was sleeping in the partial shade

homosassa-7

One of several eagle residents

Yuma, meaning son of the chief in a blend of Native American languages, was playful, energetic and mesmerizing. I could have watched him all day, racing across one side of his temporary fenced in enclosure to the other, climbing, chewing on his toys, eating, leaping against the fence or sitting in the shade.

A real pink flamingo

A pink flamingo

In typical hippo fashion, Lu spends his day submerged

In typical hippo fashion, Lu spends his day submerged and barely visible

With 300,000 annual visitors, the 210 acre Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is said to be the most visited state park in Florida. At the time I was there, it was home to fifty Florida animals such as black bears, bobcats, river otters, red wolves, Key deer, American alligators, gray fox, red fox, roseate spoonbills, eagles, herons, egrets and whooping cranes. There were several resident West Indian manatees which could at times be seen from a floating observatory that sits in the middle of Homosassa Springs. Perhaps the most famous resident of the park was Lu, a hippopotamus who was made a Florida citizen by a governor’s decree so that he could live out his days in the park when it was converted to an exclusive home of native wildlife.

Bookmark and Share

→ 3 CommentsTags: Attractions · Ecotourism

Outstanding game viewing, responsible tourism practices, superlative experience at Motswari in Timbavati Nature Reserve

July 7th, 2014 · No Comments

Article and photos by Josette King

The lounge was an eclectic mix of safari antiques, rustic furniture, local crafts

The lounge was an eclectic mix of safari antiques, rustic furniture, local crafts

On my first visit to Southern Africa a decade or so ago, my very first guide predicted: “Once the red dirt of Africa gets into you hiking boots, you will never get it out.” Now, a couple of pairs of boots later, I understand what he meant. But, the power of iron saturated clay dust notwithstanding, what keeps me going back is that every so often on those safaris, I come across an exceptional guide who can make the wonder of the natural world come alive, someone like Hearold Mgiba, the guide I had the good fortune to meet on my recent visit to Motswari Private Game Reserve in South Africa.

The library and art gallery

The library and art gallery

Wedged in the northern corner of the famed 54,000 hectare (209 square mile) Timbavati Nature Reserve, one of the oldest and most pristine in South Africa, and with an open boundary with Kruger National Park, Motswari is reputed for its density of game. The Big Five (buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhino) roam there. So I expect it would have been relatively easy for Hearold and Difference Hlophe, an excellent tracker, to ensure that I enjoyed what is considered the gold standard of African safaris: repeated Big Five sightings. And I did enjoy those, daily. But one hour into our first drive, I was beyond counting. We were driving into thicket so dense I didn’t imagine we could possibly get through it, much less see anything of note, tracking a leopard. Hearold and Difference knew their big cats and found the one they were searching for in the end, concealed in the rocks near a water hole. We followed it around its territory to the tree where it had stashed its recent impala kill.

A large male leopard surveys its domain

A large male leopard surveys its domain

The next morning found us among leopards again as we watched an old male go in the blink of an eye from snoozing in the high grass to snarling menacingly from the top of a 20 meter (65 foot) tree at his nonplussed pursuer. In fact, in my three days at Motswari, I was able to observe at length and at close range more leopards than I had seen in all of my previous visits to Africa. And there were also lions: a fascinating interaction between two males feeding on the carcass of a buffalo calf, and a whole pride going about its daily business; and elephants, a large breeding herd of them on the move with nursing calves; and mud encrusted rhinos crashing their way out of a water hole; and cheetahs on the prowl, and a whole supporting cast of mammals and birds. And in most instances, these weren’t mere sightings but unique opportunities to enjoy an authentic bush experience.

My bungalow was decorated in relaxing neutral tones

My Bungalow was decorated in relaxing neutral tones

The lodge itself reinforced this feeling. With its neat guest room rondavels scattered in a mature grove along the river, the homey atmosphere of its public areas and its large boma for dinners around the flames of a central fire pit, Motswari had the feel of a family country estate. I especially enjoyed the relaxed simplicity of my airy rondavel, with the creature comforts and modern amenities I could wish for in the bush, such as a king size bed under a romantic white netting canopy, mission style armchairs with thick canvas cushions, a good writing desk and chair, a sunny modern bathroom, ceiling fan and air conditioning, and round the clock electricity with plenty of outlets to recharge my electronic equipment. Returning there after long, exciting game drives, I appreciated all the more that Motswari had eschewed the edgy chic and flamboyance that has become a trend in recent years and sometimes gives me a sense of disconnection from the wilderness.

There was a large resident pride in Motswari

There was a large resident pride in Motswari

Beyond creating a welcoming haven for its guests, I also valued Motswari for its ongoing commitment to nature conservation and responsible tourism, which has been the guiding principle of the Geiger Family since it acquired the property three decades ago. From the onset, the original owner, the late Paul Geiger, focused on wildlife conservation and environmental management, and on creating employment and growth opportunities for the local communities; thus practicing the key tenets of responsible tourism and sustainable development long before they were articulated by the international community.

A rhino was caked with mud after a visit to a water hole

A rhino was caked with mud after a visit to a water hole

In recent years, Motswari has been repeatedly recognized for its achievements in that arena, such as its ongoing accreditation by the prominent Fair Trade in Tourism, South Africa (FTTSA), a distinction the property first earned in 2008. In early 2013, Motswari also achieved Gold Class status on the Heritage Environmental Certification Program (based on internationally recognized sustainability and responsible business initiatives), making it the only environmentally certified lodge in Timbavati. I especially appreciated the property's concern for its people. Over and again its policies set the stage for responsible tourism. There appeared to be no gender discrimination for any position. Individuality and initiative were encouraged and acknowledged with a wide range of recognitions from Employee of the Year to Most Valuable and Most Popular and Best Dressed (staff members were given the opportunity to design their own uniform).

Dinner was served in the boma

Dinner was served in the boma

Because the property was located deep into the reserve, it was necessary for all staff members to live on site. The family friendly staff village included accommodations for visiting spouses. I enjoyed hearing about some of the success stories, such as that of Godfrey Mathebula who grew up on the property and started out in the maintenance workshop. When he became interested in tracking and guiding, Paul Geiger sponsored his education. Mathebula went from guide to head guide to assistant general manager. In 2012, he was nominated for South Africa Guide of the Year.

Motswari also reached out to the community at large. As well as supporting local (Hoespruit) organizations with donations, the property had designated staff members to work with these organizations on issues of basic healthcare, nutrition, HIV education and testing. I left with the impression that the property's responsible tourism ethos created a tight knit community among the management and staff of Mostwari, and an all around friendly atmosphere that directly influenced the exceptional quality of my bush experience there.

Bookmark and Share

→ No CommentsTags: Accomodations · Ecotourism · New Articles