Luxury Travel Review

Meteora, where monasteries have stood guard for half a millennium

Article and photos by Josette King


Meteora Monasteries – from left to right, Rousanou, Saint Nicholas, Varlaam and Great Meteoron

I first heard of the monasteries of Meteora (Greek for suspended in the air) some 40 years ago and immediately resolved that I must visit, someday. The year was 1975. The military dictatorship that had cast a pall upon Greece for seven years had finally ended and adventurous tourists had begun to return. A friend was telling me of her summer of wandering to the far reaches of the Thessalian Plain and coming upon a surreal landscape of sandstone pinnacles thousands of feet in height topped by fortified medieval monasteries. Built from the 14th to 16th centuries, they were one of the largest monastic complexes in Greece. Of the original 24, only six monasteries remained and were still home to small religious communities. There were no roads or other visible means of access, but she and her traveling companion had managed to visit. Area villagers had suggested they approached the monks who came down for supplies every few days. Chances were they would be allowed to go. Two days later, they were hoisted some 400 meters (1300 feet) above the plain in a basket akin to a small hot air balloon gondola attached to a sturdy rope to the Grand Meteoron Monastery (a.k.a. Monastery of the Configuration of Christ). There, a kind brother who spoke a bit of English gave them a tour of the courtyard and common areas, including a church with fascinating and remarkably well preserved post Byzantine frescoes.


The Monastery of Great Meteoron

It took four decades but the opportunity finally arose for me to keep my promise to myself, in the form of an Athens to Pindus Mountains 4 x 4 Tour with Tripology Adventures. It ended at the place where the foothills of the Pindus meet the northwestern corner of the Thessalian Plain, Meteora. Tripology is an adventure travel company that leads self-drive caravans into remote, history rich areas of the Mediterranean Basin and beyond. While the powerful 4 x 4s that had been a must to see us through the unpaved mountain trails of the Pindus were not technically necessary there, they did come in handy on the steep access road that had replaced the basket ascension of old to reach to the monasteries.


Today’s visitors access Great Meteoron via a narrow stairway

Much has changed since my friend’s visit. The Meteora complex is no longer a well-kept secret. Even before UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1988, it had already enjoyed its moment in the limelight when James Bond tracked villains to the Holly Trinity Monastery for the scenic suspense ending of his 1981 caper “For Your Eyes Only.” More recently, roads have been constructed up nearby hills with footbridges over the chasms. Visitors walk across to reach steep stone stairways that lead to entrances cut into the fortification walls. With the development of mass tourism, Meteora has become one of the most visited historic sites in Greece. And Kalambaka, the sleepy village where my friend had waited for the monks to show up, is now a thriving modern tourist town. But I enjoyed my comprehensive tour of Great Meteoron, the oldest (established around 1340) as well as the highest of the existing monasteries. With only three monks remaining in residence, most of common areas such as the original kitchen, pantry, wine cellar, refectory and the artifacts of everyday life they still hold have become museum exhibits.


The ancient wine cellar at Great Meteoron

Due to their unassailable location, these remote religious centers had become an academic and artistic safe heaven that kept Hellenic culture and traditions alive during the four centuries of Ottoman occupation of Greece from the mid 15th century to 1821. The Great Meteoron katholikon (orthodox equivalent to a conventual church in Western Christianity), the Church of the Transfiguration that was built in 1388 in the Greek square cross floor plan and topped with an unusual twelve sided dome and the nave and narthex added in 1545 are prime examples of the curatorial importance of the site. The icons adorning the sanctuary trace back to the 14th to 16th centuries. The frescoes of the katholikon, painted in the late 15th century, are in the Macedonian style. They depict the Virgin Enthroned and multiple scenes from the life of Christ, including images of Christ Pantocrator (reminiscent of early Christian mosaics in Istanbul’s Agia Sophia). The nave and narthex frescoes, painted in 1552 in the more rigid style of the Cretan school, recount the early gospels as well the gruesome martyrdom of early saints. They also include portraits of the monastery’s founders Athanasios and Ioajph. In addition to their artistic and historic documentary importance, it was a thrill to see ancient frescoes that had been so well protected by their isolated environment that they were still in their original state and in remarkable condition.


The Monastery of Varlaam

My visit ended with a quiet moment in the shaded courtyard, taking in the dramatic views of the nearby pinnacles and the valley beyond. Despite their world fame, the monasteries serenely go on standing guard, suspended in the sky as they have for over half a millennium. A breathtaking sight that alone would have made it worth my decades long wait.

Visit to Indiana winery included ice wine tasting

Article and photos by Elena del Valle


Some of the Oliver wines I sampled

The water feature near the entrance to the tasting room

A water feature near the entrance to the tasting room

By the time we reached Oliver Winery and Vineyards (8024 North State Road 27, Bloomington, Indiana, 47404,  +1 812-876-5800,,, 10 miles from the heart of Bloomington, Indiana, the waning sun was way past its zenith, its rays showing off the winery gardens to their best advantage. To one side of the entrance, I caught a glimpse of a small pond surrounded by green lawns and inviting picnic tables in the cool shade.

There were many shady spots and picnic tables with a view of the pond

There were many shady spots and picnic tables with a view of the pond

Inside the tasting room there were many displays

Inside the tasting room there were many displays, chalkboards and art on the walls

As our large group scattered over the outdoor terrace to enjoy the last of the afternoon I made my way indoors to the tasting room. Standing side by side with several colleagues I sampled six wines, some because someone else was sampling them and others I chose. They were: Creekbend Valvin Muscat 2014, Creekbend Vignoles 2014, Creekbend Traminette 2014, Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Creekbend Catawba Late Harvest 2013, and Creekbend Vidal Blanc Ice Wine 2008. The last two required payment of a supplement beyond the regular tasting menu price. They were the sweetest.

Jim explained how the ice wine was notable because of the wineries geographic location

Jim explained how the ice wine was notable because of the winery's geographic location


A bottle of 2013 Catawba Late Harvest

I was surprised to discover ice wine, the ultra sweet wine made from grapes allowed to freeze naturally on the vine, on the tasting list. Since most of the ice wine I had heard of or tried in the past in North America was from Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Washington, or Canada (Germany and Austria too) I decided to sample some of their ice wine. Jim, the staff member who looked after us, was friendly and knowledgeable. He answered questions peppered from all sides with patience and interest. He offered each of us wine samples and shared tidbits about the winery and the vineyard only four miles away. Standing at the cozy tasting bar, chatting with fellow travelers about food and wine it was hard to imagine Oliver Winery employed 100 people and produced more than 320,000 cases or 3.8 million bottles of 40 wine types.

Oliver Winery and Vineyards, one of Indiana’s oldest and largest wineries founded in 1972, was under the stewardship of Bill Oliver, son of the company founder. It had two physical locations, a winery that housed the modern 2,400 square foot tasting room where I sampled several wines and the pretty adjacent gardens and grounds; and Creekbend Vineyard, a 56-acre property where they grew the grapes. The company distributed its products in 18 states and shipped nationwide.

Opera in Paris was pleasant change of pace from museum, monument activities


A scene from Hansel and Gretel  (photo credit: Opéra National de Paris/Julien Benhamou)

The historical Palais Garnier is a work of art in its own right

The historic Palais Garnier is a work of art

We found a fun alternative to the many tried and true though often crowded monuments and museums of the City of Lights at the two Paris Opera theaters. The best known of the two theaters was the Palais Garnier on the Place de l’Opera. Limited performances and a relatively small building meant finding seats required advance planning. Once inside the ornate interior was worth the effort.


Scene from La Boheme (photo credit: Opéra National de Paris/Julien Benhamou)

The Opera Bastille is located in a major traffic circle in Paris

The Opera Bastille is in a major traffic circle on the Right Bank

In the eastern side of the city near the famed Marais neighborhood, the Opera Bastille offered a large venue. The ample seating choices available meant the freedom to go to the opera on impulse. From a tourist perspective the Palais Garnier was our favorite. From a musical performance perspective we preferred the Opera Bastille.

What we liked about The Holy Donut in Portland, Maine

By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox

The front entrance to the Holy Donut

The front entrance to the Holy Donut

As soon as we heard about The Holy Donut (194 Park Ave and 7 Exchange Street, Portland, Maine, +1 207 874-7774,, from a local foodie we were intrigued. Established by co-owners Leigh Kellis and her father Allan Kellis the popular eatery in the heart of Portland, Maine made potato doughnuts from scratch.

The board shows the daily specials

The board with the daily specials

The busy shop we visited on Exchange Street sold a variety of donuts made the old fashioned way from hand-cut Maine ingredients and potatoes. They rotated 16 flavors daily. They included Maine Potato with Pure Vanilla Glaze, Maple, Pomegranate, Fresh Lemon (hand squeezed and lemon zest), Real Mojito (fresh mint and lime zest), Allen's Coffee Brandy (made with a Maine liquor), and Toasted Coconut with Coconut Milk Glaze.

Our favorite donut and a hot chocolate

Our favorite donut and a hot chocolate

There was also Dark Chocolate with Pure Vanilla Glaze, Sea Salt, Cinnamon Sugar, and Toasted Coconut and Coconut Milk Glaze (our favorite from the few we sampled). There were also Sweet Potato donuts made with roasted sweet potatoes and Maine potatoes, Vegan, Gluten Free, Filled, and Bacon-Cheddar (another favorite). We can't wait to go back to Portland to indulge in our favorites and sample new flavors.

A visit to the Whitney Museum of American Art in NYC

Photos by Aaron Lubarksy

An advertisement for the Whitney on the stairs of the New York City subway

Earlier this year, the Whitney Museum of American Art opened its new location in the Manhattan Meatpacking District. Our contributors visited the museum and liked the building, which they considered a work of art in itself, and its contemporary art collection.


A sculpture on one of the Whitney's terraces

They saw famous paintings by contemporary artists Edward Hopper, Willem De Kooning, Barbara Kruger, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. They also appreciated the surrounding neighborhood full of markets, restaurants and views, and took advantage of their visit to explore the area near the building.


A site-specific exhibit by Mary Heilmann on the largest outdoor gallery at the museum

Spa indulgence in Nevis

Article and photos by Elena del Valle

One of several outdoor areas at the Four Seasons Spa

One of several outdoor areas at the Four Seasons Spa

Heading to the tiny island of Nevis in the West Indies I was unsure what to expect in the way of spas. I was pleased to discover several options. I tried three facilities, the spa at the island's largest and best known resort, a family run spa and salon in a residential area, and a small salon in the main town of Charlestown, both locally owned.

 The Compassionate Touch Spa and Salon was in a residential area

The Compassionate Touch Spa and Salon was in a residential area

Valencia Griffin, co-owner and therapist, Compassionate Touch Spa and Salon

Valencia Griffin, co-owner and therapist, Compassionate Touch Spa and Salon

The spotlessly clean 1,848 square foot Compassionate Touch Spa (Nisbet Estate, Saint James Parish, Nevis, +1 869 469 9748, +1 718 594 1712,, in a tranquil village on the north side of the island could accommodate up to five guests at a time. Because we arrived late my Nevis Therapeutic Massage was cut short, although there was time for an owner led walk through the facility before my treatment. Established in 2001, the spa had been renovated in 2007. In addition to owners David and Valencia Griffin there were three staff. Ms. Griffin trained at the Nothern Institute of Massage of the Essex School of Beauty. There was a wet treatment room, a pedicure room, three massage or facial rooms, one manicure room and a waiting area. There were lockers, robes and slippers.

Tip Toes Nail Salon was in the main town of Nevis

Tip Toes Nail Salon was in the main town of Nevis

 Calette James, owner, Tip Toes Nail Salon

Calette James, owner, Tip Toes Nail Salon

I stopped in Charlestown for a massage by Calette James at the Tip Toes Nail Spa and Beauty Haven (Hunkins Plaza, Charlestown, Nevis, +869 762 4500,, a facility near the main road. It had a reception area and a treatment room. Guests had access to a locked and clean shared restroom behind the salon.

My smoothie and a bento box with fresh fish and the The Spa at Four Seasons Resort Nevis tasted as good as it looked

My smoothie and a bento box with fresh fish at The Spa at Four Seasons Resort Nevis tasted as good as it looked

 The Spa at Four Seasons Resort Nevis (P.O. Box 565, Pinney’s Beach, Charlestown, +869 469-1111,, was located within the resort, which in turn was on Pinney’s Beach. Open to hotel guests and the public the spa was popular, though not crowded, while I was there in the low season. A staff of 23 worked at the 12,000 square foot establishment with 12 treatment rooms, six outdoor freestanding cottages and six indoor treatment rooms.

The heated jacuzzi at The Four Seasons Spa

The heated jacuzzi at The Four Seasons Spa was popular

 The manager at the Four Seasons Spa

The manager at the Four Seasons Spa

During several hours of spa indulgence I spent time in the outdoor volcanic stone whirlpool bath, cold plunge sala style pool with viewing deck of Nevis Peak (Mount Nevis) and a golf course, had a Spa Cuisine Bento Box Lunch made fresh at the resort, and received a Nevisian Massage (no longer available) in an outdoor cottage. The spa manager, Bernadette Gonnet, was in the reception area when I arrived and made several helpful suggestions. The staff members I met were friendly and the facilities quiet and pleasant. It was one of the highlights of my Nevis trip.

"First hand information and photos of outstanding destinations, luxurious accommodations, voyages, products, restaurants, spas and attractions for the discriminating traveler. "


To receive updates, enter your email.

Follow us on Twitter